In his legendary “Prison Notebooks,” Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci said, “[a] common error in historico-political analysis consists in an inability to find the correct relation between what is organic and what is conjunctural.”
In layman terms, he’s warning against losing sight of long-term challenges and wider societal transformation amid contemporary obsession with what sociologist François Simiand called histoire événementielle (“evental history”), namely short-term ephemeral events driven by personalities.
Imprisoned by Mussolini, Gramsci never allowed his transient personal suffering as well as bitter partisan spats blind him to the underlying socioeconomic shifts in Italian society and the broader Western world. It was precisely the perceptiveness and depth of his thinking, as reflected in his “Prison Notebooks,” which made him one of the most celebrated thinkers of the past century.
The problem, however, is that a lot of smart people, including those in the so-called “creative classes” of intellectuals and journalists, tend to ignore Gramsci’s indispensable advice.
Across the world, news cycles are largely shaped, dictated and focused on larger-than-life personalities who project an artificial sense of immortality, perfection and potency. In the world of politics, strongmen populists best capture these characteristics. They are the ultimate celebrities, enjoying both power and fame (or notoriety).
Over the past year, I have traveled half-a-dozen times between Manila and Washington. As I always joke during my talks in the United States, “the tree (our former colonial power) doesn’t fall from the leaf (former colony).” Politics in the two countries is eerily similar: polarized, ugly and demoralizingly unpredictable.
And so is the common refrain among the chattering classes, whether the Democrats in America or liberals in the Philippines. Many critics of Donald Trump and Rodrigo Duterte speak as if all the problems faced by their respective countries are solely due to the character of contemporary leaders.
According to this logic, were the incumbent president to step down, whether constitutionally or extraconstitutionally, things will somehow jolt back into “normality.” In the case of Trump, Democrats hope to unseat him through impeachment proceedings, namely over his campaign team’s alleged collusion with Russians. As for Duterte, who enjoys supermajority support in Congress, his critics, having given up on the prospect of impeachment, are increasingly obsessed about his health conditions.
There are, however, two problems with this approach (not to mention it’s more likely that Trump and Duterte will remain in power for years to come):
First of all, critics tend to overlook the very factors that catapulted outside-the-box candidates like Trump or Duterte to the presidency. Populists win mainly because they ask the right questions in the most provocatively captivating way. In the case of Duterte, he exposed the hollowness of our democracy by highlighting the grip of oligarchs and political dynasties on our national political economy.
Second, and more crucially, however, populists tend to provide horrible answers once they are in power, thanks to their simplistic solutions and often self-defeating policies, which are resonant during elections but tend to exacerbate existing problems once implemented.
The greatest price of populism is usually systematic damage to carefully built institutions. Under Joseph Estrada, for instance, corruption was so rampant that the Philippines’ tax collection rate virtually collapsed. It was only recently, after almost two decades, that we managed to match the tax effort rates achieved under the Ramos administration.
The same can be said about reversing the economic damage brought about by the martial law years under a strongman, who left the country in a state of collapse and with a whopping $26.7 billion in debt, which we will be paying until 2025.
It took decades-long macroeconomic reforms under Ramos, Arroyo and Aquino for the Philippines to discard its “sick man of Asia” reputation. That alone should remind us about the long-term challenges faced by reformists and opposition leaders once populists and strongmen step down from power.
The blatant erosion in rule of law in recent years, and the dramatic deterioration in the image of the Philippines around the world, will likely take years, if not decades, to reverse.