Why Duterte is unlikely to pursue socialism

As Rodrigo Duterte begins his presidency, a growing number of Filipinos seem to believe—or want to believe—the claim that he is the Philippines’ first “socialist” President. Encouraged by his recent appointments to his Cabinet, some leftists have even suggested that he could be “our Hugo Chávez,” the iconic Venezuelan president who promoted a “socialism of the 21st century.”

But a review of Duterte’s early actions and the Venezuelan experience indicate that he is unlikely to wage the radical change for which many yearn. To begin with, he has made it clear that he does not intend to challenge what socialists consider the roots of oppression and inequality in society. On the contrary, he has declared that he will “continue and maintain the current macroeconomic policies” of the outgoing administration.


In fact, instead of rolling back neoliberalism, Duterte plans to remove the remaining constitutional restriction on foreign investments once and for all. He also intends to push federalism, a project that is actually meant to force the provinces to compete with one another for investments by adopting the worst labor laws or the weakest environmental regulations, as well as to prevent poorer provinces from sharing the wealth generated in the more favored ones.

He has “joked” about killing workers who will refuse to compromise with capitalists. And he did not include ending “contractualization” in his “10-point economic program.”


Instead, he has announced plans to enforce a “war on drugs” and other measures that, while presented as measures to curb crime, are actually meant to discipline the poor and turn them into more docile, productive workers.

In addition to reinforcing neoliberalism, Duterte has also made it clear that he does not intend to challenge patriarchy. With his open support for the Marcoses, he has left no doubt on where he stands on the question of authoritarianism. And he does not support ending US military basing in the Philippines.

All these make him very different from Chávez.

Though the “Bolivarian Revolution” he led was far from perfect, Chávez was a fierce critic of capitalism and imperialism and broke decisively with neoliberalism. He explicitly condemned patriarchy and homophobia.

And despite constant charges that he was a dictator, Chávez, who overcame a military coup through popular support, was reelected five times without fraud. Former US president

Jimmy Carter even famously called Venezuela’s electoral system “the best in the world.”

Of course, this is not to say that Duterte is just another run-of-the-mill neoliberal. Indeed, unlike outgoing President Aquino, he has appointed leftists to important posts and has voiced support for socialist demands.


But such acts do not necessarily make him less of a neoliberal. These only make him a different —because more populist—kind of neoliberal.

For even as he has surrounded himself with leftists, Duterte has reserved the core of the state—i.e., the finance and economic planning departments—to a businessman deeply invested in mining and an economist who has assured businessmen that he will “temper” the “enthusiasm” of the Left in the Cabinet.

They—not the leftists—will control the primary levers of state power, setting iron limits to whatever reforms the leftists may try to pursue in office. So no matter how “enthusiastic” the latter may be, they will likely end up tasked with absorbing the dissatisfaction that will likely result as Duterte throws crumbs to the poor while favoring capital on the most fundamental questions.

As for Duterte’s openness to a peace deal with the National Democratic Front, some concessions to the oppressed may potentially be “won” and must of course be welcomed. But the goal of such a deal has also long been clear: to pacify the countryside so as to open it for the deeper penetration of capital.

On this point, it is worth stressing that Duterte’s closest allies are deeply invested in extractive industries, his top campaign contributor owns vast plantations, and his core of supporters appear to be mainly relatively nouveau-riche property-owners from the periphery: those who have so far been relatively shut out of Imperial Manila’s inner circles and seek a “revolution” in intra-elite relations.

None has a necessary interest in mitigating the contradictions of capitalist penetration in such a way as to favor the oppressed. They may make concessions to the oppressed, only for them to take those concessions back as they bring “development”—i.e., more enclosures, more dispossession, and more ecological degradation—to the countryside.

Chávez was different. Despite various shortcomings, he actually sought to disrupt the logic of capitalism by (re)nationalizing the oil, steel, telecommunications and electricity sectors, by more than doubling state spending on healthcare and education, and by pushing for participatory democracy to overcome the limits a capitalist state imposes on attempts at radical change.

As a result, Venezuelans experienced vast improvements in access to healthcare, education, housing and pensions so that by 2012 Venezuela had become Latin America’s most equitable country.

Today, all those seeking to push the Bolivarian Revolution are under siege as oil prices fall, Chávez’s successor staggers under the problems of mismanagement, and prey on their weakness.

But the Chavista dream—of building a genuinely democratic socialism—lives on. Indeed, this aspiration may just be what Filipinos are actually expressing when they say Duterte could be “our Chávez.”

Unfortunately, Duterte’s words and actions give us little reason to believe he actually shares that dream.

Herbert Docena is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. Gabriel Hetland is an assistant professor of Latin American, Caribbean, and US Latino studies at University at Albany, SUNY.

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