After more than five years of authoritarian rule, rent-seeking, and a kind of ‘gangster’ neoliberal economic policies, the strongman rule of Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte has begun to unravel as the Philippines gears up for the national elections in May 2022. Realignments of social and political forces are beginning to reconfigure the political landscape amidst the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. Progressive and traditional social forces are drawing their political lines as the mounting opposition against Duterte expands. This conversation with Joel Rocamora, a renowned author, political analyst, and progressive governance practitioner, seeks to examine the rise of Duterte’s authoritarian governance, the reconfiguration of the Philippine elite and other social classes, the political/ideological debates within the Philippine Left, and the political realignments towards the Philippine presidential elections in 2022.
Following the collapse of left-wing populist movements in Latin America, neoliberal and authoritarian governments have spread all over the region. Clear examples of this resurgence are Bolsonaro in Brazil, Lenin Moreno in Ecuador, and Mauricio Macri in Argentina, not to mention the authoritarian drift of Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela. This authoritarian turn at the institutional-political level has been accompanied by ideological changes in public and ‘non-public’ opinion: hate speech, anti-egalitarian discourses, authoritarian values, and an individualistic common sense. Of course, these discourses existed in the past too, but their virulence and the new constellations in which they are inscribed represent an ideological novelty in the Latin American political landscape.
The attack on science and knowledge production is known to be one of the main elements of the rise of the authoritarian right in the past decade. As one of the main global expressions of contemporary authoritarianism, Jair Bolsonaro is no exception to that. His government has been an important part of the context of difficulties for the higher education sector in Brazil, especially since research is highly dependent on public universities and funding agencies in the country. On top of that, the COVID pandemic in 2020 created difficulties for universities all around the world. If such a global crisis is expected to generate differentiated pressures across the Global North and South, the impact of authoritarian politics is surely prone to making the situation particularly delicate for universities.
Many influential voices have pointed out, with different degrees of optimism, that the COVID-19 pandemic might finally have ushered in the final days of neoliberalism. However, if we understand neoliberalism as a set of practices and institutional mechanisms that shield market relations from popular deliberation, we reach a different conclusion. In these terms, neoliberalism is not dying. If emergency measures are aimed more at safeguarding the profits of banks and large corporations than securing wages and welfare programmes, then this crisis is in fact an opportunity to increase wealth inequality, and not to address it as a problem.
In late April, the International Foundation for Freedom, headed by Peruvian Literature Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, issued a statement warning against the rise of authoritarianism in Latin America due to the coronavirus pandemic. Among the signatories were well-known defenders of neoliberal ideas in Latin America and Spain, such as Vargas Llosa himself and the former presidents Mauricio Macri (Argentina), José María Aznar (Spain), and Alvaro Uribe (Colombia). The statement expressed concern “about the measures taken in some countries that have indefinitely restricted basic freedoms and rights” in the name of the combatting the virus.