Nothing brings populations closer to state violence than a crisis. While there is no shortage of crises in the country, two crises stand out in terms of repression and violence-the PH drug war and COVID-19 pandemic.
The state as “butangero”
Back in 2016, I had written about the “iconography of Duterte,” or how he was [re]created as a messianic figure amidst widespread breakdown of societal institutions. (Carlos “In/Justice Symbol: The Iconography of Duterte”) He was a demagogue if there ever was one, and his initial posturing became the latent dream text of the illusion of elections and democracy in the Philippines. Duterte was the “butangero” that the “Philippines needed” to exorcise its longest-lasting demons violently. While Duterte is certainly not the entire picture, he is a central actor in the actual, physical war that took place ‘against drugs.’ In a voice that was not unlike many demagogues before him, Duterte spoke of many things, but mostly, compliance. In a land where spiritual promises rang hollow and where hunger was synonymous with being a citizen, the renewed cult of compliance, bolstered by fiery speeches and punctuated by tears and campaign bravado, promised an abundant, utopian Philippines ‘free of drugs.’ Attention was immediately shifted to the impact of micro-practices, of the impact of shabu in local communities. The “adik” became synonymous with the Devil himself, and the Devil must be stamped out at all cost. Thus became the creed and rallying cry of the online lynch mobs against drug addicts, users, pushers-the actual distinctions became meaningless as the state’s forces were out for blood. The PDEA currently recognizes 5,810 casualties of the PH drug war as of July 2020 (Conde, “Killings In Philippines Up 50 Percent During Pandemic”).
There is a need to examine the events that led to this alarming number of casualties to understand how the state mobilizes resources and its repressive state apparatuses to maintain control of people. It was clear from the outset that the current regime wasn’t going to spare any ammunition in its ‘utopic quest’ to wipe out drugs in the country. Because the truth of the matter is that the drug trade is much more expansive and more powerful than the casualties of the war. The narco state possesses capital and resources to easily infiltrate and expand in chosen territories. The narco state exists alongside the state as we know it in such a way that it can also deploy resources and it also has an army. What makes the situation terrifying for victims is that whether they are an embedded, temporary or actual agent of the narco state does not matter in a local drug war that pits state forces against civilians. The results are often similar and the fact that only a miniscule number of state agents are ever successfully prosecuted speaks of how the state has openly legitimized this violence against citizens. This is no different from interstate war scenarios, where enemy states callously hit civilians instead of armed forces. This is the origin of the euphemistic “collateral damage” a common term in PH political gloss for decades. (Chenoweth & Lawrence 23) Of particular interest here is the analysis on the relationship between political interests and the state’s measure of success: “Finally, in certain circumstances, belligerents set their sights on civilians, on purpose, targeting them as a means to achieving their military goals in the war.” (Chenoweth & Lawrence 23)
The narco state possesses capital and resources to easily infiltrate and expand in chosen territories. The narco state exists alongside the state as we know it in such a way that it can also deploy resources and it also has an army.
The PH government has exhibited an extreme preference for police-backed and militarized responses to all crises. To no one’s surprise, political violence and repression have also increased alongside newly configured methods of state violence. The continuing repression of farmers, Lumad communities, labor union organizers and human rights activists are indicative of the allowable threshold of state repression vis-à-vis the state’s current political needs. Additionally, regional and national task forces organized to ‘end local communist armed conflict’ were formed to bolster ‘nation-building’ fantasies by further demonizing legitimate protest and resistance against the states widening and worsening fascism.
The current instability in the country is by no means an event trapped in any vacuum. Models of biophysical instability have shown “PV pandemics” long before COVID-19. These pandemics arise as a result of globalization, and the further emaciation of the Global South. The world has become “a far more unstable place, facing a dramatically higher scale of PV pandemics.” (Ahmed 40) While the language of biophysical modelling is a far cry from the polemics of cultural studies or even postcolonial studies, we take what we can from the extensive data available to us. The increase in PV pandemics signify civilian unrest and increasing resistance from the people against different states that are in various modes of evolution. What is completely clear from the modelling of political violence is that agents of resistance are finding more and more reasons to put themselves and their resources at risk in the name of bringing their grievances to the state. This is a most opportune time to bring up the increasing acceptance of violence against civilians (as in the case of regime supporters who are also drug war supporters). According to Chenoweth & Lawrence: “Historians have suggested that attitudes about the use of violence changed between 1700 and the twenty-first century, with a growing antipathy toward cruelty of all kinds and attempts to limit the ubiquity of warfare in everyday life.” (2) While individual tendencies will fluctuate, the lack of widespread protest
The state & COVID-19
Slovenian Marxist and avowed “Christian atheist” Slavoj Žižek was quick to point out that there was a decidedly “un-Maoist” treatment of Chinese citizens, even at the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. That Chinese citizens expressed anger at the disappearance and death of the “Chinese Snowden,” Li Wenliang. Wenliang was the first person who discovered the epidemic. Žižek commiserates with the Chinese and declares Wenliang an “authentic hero.” (7)
Žižek continues by describing the order at which power and legal reasoning are applied at the precipice of societal collapse: “Chinese authorities ever more often resort to a particular procedure: a person (an ecological activist, a Marxist student, the chief of Interpol, a religious preacher, a Hong Kong publisher, even a popular movie actress) simply disappears for a couple of weeks before they reappear in public with specific accusations raised against them, and this protracted period of silence delivers the key message: power is exerted in an impenetrable way where nothing has to be proven. Legal reasoning comes in distant second when his basic message is delivered.” (8)
If anything, the urgency of the responses needed for the coronavirus pandemic in the PH has stripped all existing illusions of government preparedness (…) to maintain a semblance of order amidst the chaos.
Legal reasoning, for all the bluster that the state expresses in “upholding the rule of law,” loses all meaning on the ground, where all the insanity of COVID-19 is taking place. If anything, the urgency of the responses needed for the coronavirus pandemic in the PH has stripped all existing illusions of government preparedness. In response, the PR machineries kicked into even higher gear to maintain a semblance of order amidst the chaos. The lockdown of Luzon is the longest in the world, and continues to haunt communities who have been literally deprived their livelihood and mobility.
If Russia had a regular TV programme, Vremya, that propagated the general idea that the Western elites are to blame for the spread of the disease (Žižek 11), in the Philippines, the epidemiological narrative is just as ludicrous and unscientific, bordering on the insane: that the disease has kept spreading because Filipinos “lacked discipline” and “didn’t like wearing masks,” among other fallacies propagated by the state propaganda machine, despite proof that Filipinos are among the most compliant in the world when it came to basic social distancing protocols and mask-wearing guidelines. There was also a massive effort to avoid mentioning the origins of the disease and the lack of government action early this year. These laughable but no less deadly omissions and lapses are probably the worst demonstration of the “[allocative and authoritative resources] available [to the state] that depend in large degree upon the management of time-space relations” (Giddens 7)
We wait for the end of it all, whatever form that end may take.
Ahmed, Nafeez Mosaddeq. Failing States, Collapsing Systems. Springer, 2017, p. 40.
Carlos, Marius D. “In/Justice Symbol: The Iconography Of Duterte”. Medium, 2020, https://firstname.lastname@example.org/in-justice-symbol-the-iconography-of-duterte-b93808fb441b. Accessed 10 Sept 2020.
Chenoweth, Erica, and Adria Lawrence. Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict. MIT Press, 2010, pp. 2, 23.
Conde, Carlos H. “Killings In Philippines Up 50 Percent During Pandemic”. Human Rights Watch, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/08/killings-philippines-50-percent-during-pandemic.
Giddens, Anthony. A Contemporary Critique Of Historical Materialism: Volume 2 Of A Contemporary Critique Of Historical Materialism. 1st ed., Macmillan, 1995, p. 7.
Žižek, Slavoj. Pandemic! COVID-19 Shakes The World. OR Books, 2020, pp. 7, 11, 8.
Marius Carlos, Jr. is a storyteller, essayist, and journalist. He is the current editor-in-chief of Revolt Magazine and Creative Director at Vox Populi PH. He is also the English editor of Rebo Press Book Publishing. He is an independent researcher focused on transnational capitalism, neocolonialism, empire, and pop culture. Contact him for writing projects.
Originally published at http://revoltmagazineph.ink on September 11, 2020.