The trouble with dictatorships

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No matter their official justification for being — whether “so the trains will run on time,” “to save the Republic and reform society,” or “to rid the country of crime and illegal drugs” — dictatorships are premised on the presumption that the dictator knows best and everyone else is ignorant and incompetent.

President Rodrigo Duterte presumes as much in admitting at one point that he’s a dictator because “nothing would happen” otherwise, and in his often declared partiality for dictatorships, most recently in his saying he prefers Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. for his successor rather than Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo.

But beneath that statement by someone who doesn’t believe in anything and anyone except himself — not in God or the Pope, the UN and the international community of nations, human rights, the Constitution, the collective wisdom of the Filipino people, and certainly not in democracy — also lurks the unstated belief that dictatorships are the most effective modes of governance.

Both are fantasies whose validity is denied by the experience and history of those countries that over the last 100 years inflicted death and suffering on their own and other peoples, and were themselves severely damaged, at times permanently, by despotic rule.

Brutal and mindless dictators and warlords still rule vast swathes of Africa that are among the most backward and most underdeveloped countries on the planet. Dictators and despots have done no better in Latin America and Asia.

The ignorance — he thought the brains of colored people smaller than those of Aryans, and believed Slavs to be subhuman — of Duterte idol Adolf Hitler was matched only by his brutality, and so was that of his ally Benito Mussolini’s. The Philippines’ own version of Hitler, Ferdinand Marcos, wasn’t so much “bright” as cunning, his reputation for intelligence having been built on his capacity to recognize and hire more capable men and women than himself as his accomplices.

Neither was the vaunted efficiency of Nazi Germany due to the brilliance of the Hitler dictatorship, but to the German people’s capacity for organization and scientific achievement that Hitler channeled to war-making and mass murder. As for making the trains run on time, during the Mussolini regime Italy wasn’t particularly successful in either the arts of governance or in the politics and science of war.

Here in the Philippines, the supposed efficiency of the Marcos dictatorship in addressing the country’s problems was equally mythical.

A crisis in the supply of rice led to endless lines for the purchase of that staple, to conserve which regime bureaucrats encouraged Filipinos to eat it with corn. In the late 1970s, an energy crisis led to rapid increases in the cost of fuel, even as the value of the peso continued to drop.

Despite its widely-publicized execution by musketry of a Chinese drug lord, the regime hardly made a dent on the drug problem, even as war raged in Mindanao and other parts of the archipelago. By the time the Marcos kleptocracy was overthrown in 1986, poverty incidence had nearly doubled and the foreign debt of $360 million in 1965 had ballooned to $28 billion.

But the most convincing and most recent indicators of how false is the promise of efficiency and achievement in a dictatorship are the Duterte regime’s own failures in curbing crime and the drug problem, and its demonstrated ineptitude in other areas of governance.

Although without the benefit of any formal declaration, the country has fallen under one-man rule. Mr. Duterte now controls not only Congress and the executive branch, but also the judiciary. In addition, he has transformed the police into his personal security force, and much of the military into his private army.

And yet, despite these advantages and martial law’s being in effect in Mindanao, there is, as in Marcos’ time, also a rice crisis that’s the worst to strike this agricultural country over the last 20 years, and in addition, a shortfall in the supply of “galunggong” or round scad, the “poor man’s fish” that the poor can no longer afford today. Both are occurring in the context of runaway, uncontrolled inflation, the fall in the exchange rate of the Philippine peso, and the flight of foreign capital.

The supposed “solution” of government to high food prices is to flood the country with imported rice and “galunggong” — which, despite the Duterte bureaucrats’ assumption otherwise, won’t bring prices down, that power being in the hands of the politically well-connected traders in both commodities.

By both Mr. Duterte’s and the police’s admission, the illegal drug problem and the high crime rate — which during the 2016 campaign for the presidency of this unlucky Republic as well as in his first months in office he promised to end within months and even weeks — have also defied solution. They’re even worse today despite the unprecedented number of extrajudicial killings (EJKs) of suspected illegal drug users or pushers estimated by international and Philippine human rights groups at some 24,000 men, women, and children.

But instead of acknowledging that the simple-minded and barbaric approach of simply killing drug users and petty drug dealers would never have worked because the only long-term solution is to prevent illegal drugs from entering the country, Mr. Duterte has brushed aside the accountability of a succession of Bureau of Customs officials in the smuggling of billions of pesos worth of the drugs he claims to hate. He has also made good on his threat to make his selective, anti-poor “war” on drugs “more chilling” by continuing to encourage police EJKs. As a consequence, Mr. Duterte is likely to go down in history as the first and only Philippine president to ever be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity.

Crimes such as rape, robbery, kidnapping and murder continue to surge, among other reasons because the police are so focused on the lucrative enterprise of arresting and killing suspected drug users and pushers, for which there are bounties and promotions to be had, that they hardly care about anything else. In Mindanao, armed groups continue to freely operate. Alleged terrorists again bombed Isulan town, Sultan Kudarat province last Sunday despite martial law.

And yet Mr. Duterte would have Filipinos believe that only authoritarian rule by another Marcos or by clones such as himself or his children can address the country’s problems, despite the demonstrated incapacity of dictatorships, in this country as well as elsewhere, to do so.

His bias is hardly surprising. The recourse to authoritarian rule is first of all an admission of failure. In 1972 Ferdinand Marcos erected a dictatorship on the ruins of the first Asian Republic because he could satisfy neither his unbridled lust for wealth and power nor his claim to achieving anything by ruling in the old ways of Philippine elite democracy. Mr. Duterte has echoed Marcos by declaring last year how difficult it is to govern this rumored democracy — and by implication, how much easier it would be to govern as a dictator.

By ease of governance, he of course meant getting his way without a free press, a political opposition, protesters, critics, dissenters, and an independent judiciary and legislature to question his acts and check his power.

Like Marcos and his ilk, Mr. Duterte assumes that he knows best. His record over the last two years demonstrates, however, that — again like Marcos, and despite his vast pretensions at God-like omniscience — he doesn’t.

Neither do his fellow conspirators in the executive, judicial, and legislative departments know any better than their boss of bosses. Their one unique characteristic is in fact their unequalled, death-dealing incompetence in this part of Planet Earth.

The trouble with dictatorships is precisely that: they are from first to last admissions of failure, models of ineptitude, and dispensers of death and illusions.

First published in BusinessWorld. Hitler photo from Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA 3.0; Marcos photo from Gov.ph; Duterte photo from PNA.

One thought on “The trouble with dictatorships

  1. deodato saipa

    With regards to Marcos, to me, he is not a dictator. He did not think that he knows best and the rest does not know. The Presidential Decrees he enunciated were made by those knowledgeable on the matter; and those PDs are still a part of the law of the land benefiting this country. If you see him as dictator like Hitler, so be it but he is wise. He used the constitutionally mandated power of the president to quell lawlessness or rebellion- Martial Law. Incidentally, he might have calculated in this way he can remain in political power; and have time to implement his vision for this country. There are abuses during martial but surely this is not a policy but an aberration arising from rogues soldiers. Even now after martial law during Cory’ time there were still abuses in government despite not having Martial law- the mendiola massacre, and those arrest, killing and disappearances recorded by Amnesty International which all happened also during Cory Aquino’s time.Marcos maybe dictator, in his way of governing the country but without restraining the people of their liberty. The court was functioning and oppositionist have filed their grievances to the court. The curtailing of media, imposing curfew,arresting oppositionist like Benigno Aquino Jr. were all part of strategical consideration on how he will handle the country to quell anarchy in the country. If you lost the political war against a wise politician who can dare to do the unthinkable then you lost and stop demonizing him.

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