The dream of benevolent dictatorship
As the May 2016 elections approach, the dream of a benevolent dictatorship has reemerged. We see this not only among the younger generation, who may be ignorant of the brutal excesses of the Marcos regime, but even among older citizens who long for a leadership that is as at once decisive and compassionate—features that they think are sorely lacking in this administration. The keen interest in a Duterte candidacy is, of course, emblematic of this wishfulness.
Why this enduring fantasy that associates authoritarianism with benevolence?
This dream is not new. It lies at the foundation of the Philippine nation-state, rooted in the history of colonialism. From the Spanish era to the Revolutionary Republic to the United States and Commonwealth periods, the Philippines was ruled by a succession of dictatorial regimes, headed respectively by the Spanish king, Emilio Aguinaldo, the US president, and Manuel L. Quezon (subject to American rule). During World War II, the Japanese imposed the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” installing Jose P. Laurel as the agent of the Japanese dictatorship.
The Marcos regime occurred during the springtime of Third World dictatorships. Decolonization brought about the regimes of Duvalier, Mugabe, Yew, Pinochet, Suharto, Mao and others. In geopolitical terms, martial law was not an aberration but a part of a global trend during the Cold War that sought to counter communism with whatever means was necessary. Seeking to save Philippine society, the Marcoses and their cronies, of course, became the chief perpetrators of the very ills they claimed to cure.
What are some of the features of this discourse of benevolent dictatorship?
First, there is the notion of the sovereign as savior who comes to redeem the country and punish the evildoers. He—for the dictator is invariably a patriarchal figure—will then return the nation to a state of grace. He will restore laws and, just as important, suspend them when he thinks it necessary. His sovereignty is thus premised upon his ability to take exception to the law—especially in a coup d’etat—in the name of restoring order and preserving his rule.
Second, the actions of a benevolent dictator are seen to be unfailingly just, combining brutality and compassion. He does not hesitate to use whatever means are necessary to pursue justice, including the most unjust measures, so long as these are aimed at criminals, who, to begin with, are already considered to be enemies from within, and thus bereft of any rights.
Third, the benevolent dictator is invested with magical powers. He rules as if he knows everything about everybody, deciding without delay or hesitation. Results are instantaneous, progress is always already at hand. Furthermore, his magical powers are seen to be contagious, infusing officials and citizens alike with virtue, bringing them to dwell in a moral community.
Finally, such dreams always turn into nightmares. The fantasy of benevolent dictatorship is exactly that—a fantasy. Those who indulge in this dream often think that the solution to the nation’s problems can only come from a heroic figure willing to risk everything for them. In exchange, he asks only for their unquestioning obedience.
But it is precisely this demand for unconditional submission that threatens to dash the fantasy of benevolent dictatorship. A dictator succeeds only by extracting compliance from those he rules, brooking neither dissent nor debate.
For this reason, dictators are wholly dependent on force. Might makes right, and those who are most righteous are also those who do not hesitate to murder designated enemies. Attempts to call dictators and their henchmen to account put one in the position of the enemy, subject to the same rough justice. Steeped in violence, dictators stimulate resistance, and thus more violence, sending any semblance of benevolence crashing to the ground.
In short, benevolent dictatorships are not benevolent at all. As the violent negation of democracy, they subsist on an ethos of barbarism. What is this ethos? It says: Freedom belongs only to me and those I choose to grant it to. The measure and assurance of this freedom lies in my capacity to take away your freedom, whoever you are, whenever I want to. You have no choice but to obey. If you resist and take exception to my right to take exception, you will become my enemy and you will be brought to justice—silenced, imprisoned and killed.
Democracy, history shows us, is the better dream. It speaks not in the accents of the barbarian, but in the words of the world citizen; not as an exclusive “I” jealous of its prerogatives and privileges, but as an inclusive “we,” schooled in the difficulties of sharing and the necessity of deliberation and debate. It is ethically egalitarian, while keenly skeptical of the claims of power, benevolent or otherwise. It is a dream that one can have only by being fully awake.
Vicente L. Rafael is professor of history at the University of Washington, Seattle.