Almost a century ago, Russian philosopher Ivan Ilyin argued that “patriotic arbitrariness” is essential to his country’s salvation under a visionary leader. For him, the upshot is a majestic kind of “redemptive excess”, a corrective overreaction, which will unshackle a beleaguered nation from its chronic challenges.
For Ilyn, a savior-leader, with arbitrary power, is the only way to place a break on the untrammeled degradation of his country, which underwent unspeakably tortuous upheavals in the early 20th century, as the tyranny of Czardom succumbed to communist totalitarianism (See Stephen Kotkin’s excellent book, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power).
Ilyn’s near contemporary, the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt made a similar argument, whereby he argued in favor of a ‘state of exception’ under a supposedly enlightened dictatorship. “Sovereign is he who decides on the exception,” Schmitt maintained. For him, it’s the “exception” which “is more interesting than the rule,” since the rule “proves nothing; the exception proves everything. In the exception the power of real life breaks through the crust of a mechanism that has become torpid by repetition.”
Together, Schmitt and Ilyn laid down the foundation of modern dictatorship. Schmitt’s ideas served as a legal foundation for Hitler’s totalitarian rule. As for Ilyn, he was saved from complete obscurity by Vladimir Putin, who has tried to justify his 21st century populist authoritarianism, with enough tinge of macho politics, by invoking Ilyn’s call for arbitrary rule.
In today’s Russia, as Masha Gessen explains, not only is Putin’s words the law of the land, but he can also effectively ‘will his own truth’, almost regardless of facts on the ground or any legal or metaphysical coherence in his major pronouncements and policy decisions. Sounds familiar?
The upshot is what I call an “arbitrocracy”, whereby a political system is run by the arbitrary whims of an ‘imperial presidency’. An imperial president is one who is effectively above the law, though not as powerful as a Stalinist-Maoist dictator, who can literally dictate, through the coercive apparatus of the state, the coordinates of everyday collective interaction within a society, not to mention even the conscience and inner lives of subjects.
And it’s precisely within this broader context that one should understand President Rodrigo Duterte’s style of leadership, which is largely driven by excess (both material and discursive) and arbitrariness, often with complete disregard for our basic constitutional principles. Over the past three years, a certain pattern has emerged: Duterte whimsically, often following an emotional outburst in response to an outrageous report, announcing a draconian policy, which is vaguely referenced by law if not in complete contradiction to it -- and then, he leaves his flabbergasted subordinates to figure out its implementation and implications.
We saw this pattern of ‘arbitrocracy’ from his call for arrest of “tambays” (loiterers) in June 2018, affecting thousands of street children with no humane and sustainable policy to back it up; his perfunctory closure of Boracay, affecting tens of thousands of jobs and a $1 billion dollar tourist destination; the call for seizure of Ongpin’s assets to arrest of Kapa community ministers and Wellmed owner; and, perhaps most controversial of all, ‘verbal agreement’ with Beijing to allow Chinese fishermen to roam and rampage within Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea.
His latest decision to close down 5,000 Philippine Charity Sweepstake Office (PCSO) lotto outlets across the country, including 472 KENO, 2,195 Peryahan ng Bayan (PNB) and 13, 320 small town lottery (STL) outlets, should not have come as a surprise. Never mind that this affects the life of more than 300,000 agents and could undermine an industry with $1.2 billion (PHP 63.097 billion) in revenues, which regularizes gambling as well as funds various government services, including healthcare and sports.
Meanwhile, the Chinese-dominated casino industry, mostly online and increasingly ran illegally, is booming, never mind that Duterte himself said that he ‘hates gambling’ for reasons we all know: Namely, facilitating corruption and illicit activities, including drug trafficking. It’s hard to see any of these arbitrary decisions fitting into a broader reform agenda or revolutionary policy package. It’s more like quantum mechanics bleeding into everyday national politics. What kind of country are we living in? Are we still a democracy? Is this a dictatorship, or despotic anarchy?
There is a reason why Duterte calls Putin his ‘favorite hero’, who is not only a source of sentimental inspiration, but also a role model of governance. Putin effectively invented 21st century ‘illiberal democracy’. As I argued earlier, Duterte is ‘Putin of Asia’, deploying eerily similar mechanisms to isolate, intimidate and even silence the opposition.
Let’s not forget, Putin has consolidated power not through brute force alone, but also through quasi-legal measures such as tax evasion cases and forced mergers, which have eviscerated the independent media. The upshot is ‘rule by law’, where law is weaponized based on the whims and preferences of the incumbent, rather than rule of law, where no one, even those at the helm of the power hierarchy, are exempt from predictable and uniform application of the constitution. Duterte seems increasingly like the Putin of the Tropics!