Review of Moral Politics in the Philippines
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Review of Moral Politics in the Philippines

Review of Moral Politics in the Philippines

In Moral Politics in the Philippines Wataru Kusaka seeks to develop a reading of Philippine politics from the period of People Power until the present through the lens of “moral politics”. Moral politics is firstly for Kusaka opposed to interest politics, the distribution of resources, and secondly defined by the division of a given society between the good and evil, moral and immoral and between we and they, yet as will be seen throughout the book the sphere of moral politics and interest politics will continuously overlap, as the politics of distribution becomes moralized.

Implicit in Kusaka’s narrative is a wish to understand the development of popular democracy in the Philippines in reference to two other terms, populism and inequality. The problem of populism is defined perhaps more than anything by the rise of Joseph Estrada (“Erap”) on a wave of pro-poor populism which appeared to unsettle the hegemonic order ushered in by People Power, whilst the problem of inequality is defined by the structural gap between those members of civil society, the middle-class who live in gated communities and condominiums, work in office buildings and shop in malls, and the “rest”, who live in squatter settlements and slums, who work in the informal economy. This inequality was to become most evident in Philippine politics with the election and overthrow of Erap which saw the antagonism between the protestors of ESDA 2, stood against corruption, abuse of power and government impropriety and the protestors of ESDA 3, who stood with Erap and for the political empowerment of the poor. To the moral citizens of ESDA 2, these protestors who came from the provinces and the slums were nothing more than a drunk, violent and uneducated and self-interested mob, bought by political elites. As one joke was to put it “ESDA 1: free the nation from a dictator. ESDA 2: free the nation from a thief. ESDA 3: free lunch, dinner, breakfast and snacks too… let’s go!”

As Kusaka notes such moral politics has served as the basis for disciplinary politics against the poor in the aftermath of Erap, particularly in the sphere of electoral politics and urban governance. Yet implicit in Kusaka’s narrative is also the way in which moral politics has served as a means to mediate between the civil and mass sphere and to process this antagonism through the integration of pro-poor distributive policies into the moral politics of the middle-class, particularly under the rule of Aquino who ran on a campaign slogan of “Kung walang kurakot, walang mahirap”, (If there is no corruption, there will be no poverty) and through the 4P conditional cash transfer programme and the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act of 2012. In this sense Kusaka wishes to highlight the role of moral politics in contemporary neoliberal governance.

Moral Politics and its Discontents

In an addendum added to the English edition of the book shortly before its publication Kusaka addresses the election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency as a moment within the trajectory of moral politics. Noting that the moral nationalism of Acquino had put a reform agenda, aimed at both the middle-classes and the poor at the centre point of Filipino politics, he argues that Duterte has played off an impatience with Aquino’s weak reformism and mobilized the discourse of moral politics on a more radical register as a need for more thorough going social, political and economic renewal, outside of the existing system, what he will term Duterte’s “drastic medicine”.

During the election it was Jejomar Binay who assumed the position of pro-poor populism and yet Duterte was able to attain significant votes from the poor who looked past cash handouts from politicians in favour of a more fundamental change to a system they saw as corrupt, unjust and oppressive. As one interviewee of Kusaka’s would note “If you vote for Binay, it would perpetuate the corrupt system. Now we have to change the very system instead of trying to get a small share from a corrupt politician like a beggar”. In a recent piece Walden Bello has located the rise of Duterteism in a form of fascist transformation premised upon a broad class alliance which mixes social transformation with exterminism. In an article published after his monograph Kuasaka has noted the relationship between Duterte and the morality of social banditry, his ability to deliver social justice outside of the law, as well as his ability to utilise the discourse of moral politics to drive a wedge between the “good” and “moral” poor, and the “bad” and “immoral” poor, the drug users, criminals … which Marx was to refer to as the “dangerous class” or lumpenproletariat. Nicole Curato has termed this “penal populism”, a mobilization of the politics and anxiety and politics of hope towards an exceptional politics, premised upon an imaginary of danger and crisis and the mobilization and empowerment of the poor for a better future and for emancipation.

Yet what underlies this is a particular model of transformation and reformism which has as its terms the idealism of morality and the mediation of class relations by the state, and thus the maintenance of existing economic and social structures. The hypermoralism of figures such as Duterte have as their counterpoint the rejection of any attempts to reform fundamental social and economic structural relations, prefering executive power to systematic reform. They privilege then the figure of the strongman over the figure of the political movement. It is in this sense that Duterte’s “drastic medicine” matches so closely to Modi’s demonetisation programme, surrounded as it was with hypermoralism.

The question then that Wataru Kusaka returns us to is that of democracy. The moral politics of the middle-class appears to harness particularly anti-democratic tendencies, challenging as it does the rule of the many against the rule of the just and righteous. That is perhaps its central contradiction, whilst it has in the name of People Power formed an important critique of the authoritarian state, its class position has led it to associate the “lower orders” with a democratic authoritarianism which it believes it must need protecting against. What the discourse of moral politics misses then is more than anything a discourse of class. As Benedict Anderson would argue of populism,

When Thaksin launched his populist policies, ex-prime minister Anand Panyarachun criticised such policies by claiming it was wrong to give money to peasants because they would not know how to use it and would waste it on such things as mobile phones. Inherent in this language is a clear sense of distance. I am not like a peasant, they are not like me – as if the two were members of different countries.

In the first 30 years of Indonesia’s history, the people were accordated great symbolic respect - as Rakyat with a capital R – because the people were the foundation of Indonesian nationalism. But the word has since disappeared, replaced by masa. This word too used to have a positive meaning, that is, the human material for vast political mobilisations. But now it has changed to mean the unorganised, brutal, greedy, looting, burning masses – the nightmare of the middle class.

Talking about the mass of the people in a way which positions them miles away is a powerful form of distancing in the imaginary of the state, which in some ways is a response to the fear that large social distances actually create. Real oligarchs, of course, are not afraid of the people. But the urban middle class – especially the Chinese middle class – are very afraid, and that is why they do not trouble the oligarchs or police. They fear they will become the victims of subaltern rage, greed and envy.

The question is whether or not moral politics has anything to say about this distance between classes or whether or not the transition from moral politics to political economy is required. For Wataru Kusaka’s part he argues for a transition from moral politics to one based upon social solidarity and mutuality which seeks to challenge the class division implicit in the development of moral politics. Building upon the negotiation of poor communities outside of the state, recalling Partha Chatterjee’s notion of political society, Kusaka’s book argues for a greater focus and solidarity with the politics of the poor, rather than its critique through the lens of moral politics. It serves then beyond the Philippines as a challenge to the politics of neoliberalism and as a call for a return to the analysis of subaltern resistances to established power.