Euphemisms We Die By:
On Epochal Anxiety and ‘Green’ Authoritarianism in the Philippines
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Carnegie Mellon University
On the seventh of November, 2013, typhoon Haiyan, or Yolanda as it was known in the Philippines, made landfall on the eastern Philippine islands of Samar and Leyte. As it traversed the densely populated Visayas region, the storm’s powerful winds and catastrophic storm surge left a trail of destruction that claimed more than seven thousand lives, displaced some four million, and disrupted the livelihoods of millions more. This was, at the time, the most powerful landfalling tropical cyclone in recorded history.1 Although its strength has since been surpassed, Haiyan lives on in the iconography of its devastating power, in the hardships faced by its survivors, and in the politics surrounding efforts to assist them.
Like Hurricane Katrina in the United States a decade earlier, Haiyan haunted the Philippines’ 2016 presidential election as a liability for the incumbent party. At a March 2016 campaign event in the northern Philippine city of Dagupan, then presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte accused his opponent, Mar Roxas, of mismanaging Haiyan relief funds. Roxas, who had served as Secretary of the Interior for President Benigno Aquino from 2012 to 2015, had overseen the government’s initial disaster response and recovery efforts. From Aquino’s naïve statements of preparedness before the storm to Roxas’ perceived lack of urgency in its aftermath, the administration’s poor handling of the disaster, Duterte alleged, stemmed from its broader corruption, incompetence, and indifference to the plight of ordinary people. Billions of pesos were unaccounted for, he declared, while thousands of survivors remained homeless. Mocking Aquino’s Daang Matuwid or Straight Path reform program, Duterte asked his audience, “Where will you find the straight path? If you ride on a motorcycle, you will fall down within one meter because the road is not properly paved. If you don’t know how to ride on a motorcycle, I think you are not a real man. If you can’t handle ‘Yolanda’ well, you are not a real man.”2
Duterte went on to win the election by relatively wide margins. Since then, he has continued to use Haiyan recovery efforts as an opening to demonstrate his executive efficacy and to delegitimize the establishment embodied by his predecessor. At an event marking the three-year anniversary of the storm’s landfall in Tacloban, the president accused officials involved in the recovery of “indolence” and ordered them to fast-track the release of housing to displaced families. (This was, characteristically, also a speech in which he made rambling, sexist comments about ogling Vice President Leni Robredo’s legs.)
Even as a brutal anti-drug campaign remains Duterte’s signature policy, his response to Haiyan reveals more than his self-styled brand of nationalist, anti-establishment populism. To be sure, it is a diagnostic for the “strong man” authoritarian impulse that has returned with a vengeance to Philippine politics – and for the role that disasters can play in the broader legitimization of such impulses. But there is, I believe, more to the story.
Beyond the sort of disaster opportunism one might expect from any aspiring autocrat, Duterte’s response to Haiyan dovetails with a broader set of rhetorical and policy interventions that I like to call ‘green authoritarianism’. The Duterte regime’s ‘green’ hue may appear anomalous or exceptional amid what is otherwise a sharp (re)turn toward right-wing authoritarianism, and perhaps this is why most attempts to account for and theorize his ascent have little to say about the matter. But in fact the environment figures quite centrally in the regime’s consolidation, with climate-change adaptation, disaster management, and environmental enforcement all key to the promise of “real change” (tunay na pagbabago). More specifically, Duterte’s engagements in ecopolitics help to defuse opposition by performing a commitment to cleaning up the environment and punishing those who despoil it. They also help to coordinate popular anxieties surrounding environmental and climatic change in service to a broader authoritarian agenda. That these sentiments, in turn, resonate with and amplify the ones that feed the increasingly nihilistic, increasingly authoritarian mood of global society suggests that perceptions of global ecological crisis may play a greater role in the current authoritarian resurgence than we typically acknowledge.
To understand green authoritarianism in the Philippines, we must first consider the societal context that brought Duterte to power and the ambivalent, on-again-off-again relationship he has had with the radical, anti-imperialist left. Although Duterte’s agenda is not primarily environmental in focus – it is also revanchist, neoliberal, demagogic, and nationalist – we will see how his performative ecopolitics has sought to consolidate his radical, anti-establishment image amid a souring of his relationship with the left, mounting civil unrest, and rising inflation. Green authoritarianism, we will see, also raises a larger question about how the (necro)political impulses that Duterte and his ilk embody are entangled with a deepening sense of epochal planetary crisis. This is a matter of global concern, but one that seems especially urgent in the current (political) climate of the Philippines, where intersecting socio-environmental disasters have helped a so-called ‘populist’ delegitimize democratic institutions and launch a brutal assault on civil rights.
(Neo)Liberalism and its discontents
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is among the current crop of ‘populist’, revanchist authoritarians to take power amid rising discontent with neoliberal policies, systemic corruption, and extreme inequality.3 He is often compared to Donald Trump for his blatant misogyny and disregard for norms. But in fact Duterte comes from a political family and served as mayor of Davao, the Philippines’ third largest city, for more than twenty years before he ran for president. In that role, he garnered notoriety—some would say infamy—for his brutal pursuit of “law and order,” including his well-documented use of paramilitary “death squads” to target alleged criminals and his admitted direct involvement in extrajudicial executions.4 Like Trump, Duterte knows the cynical power of rape jokes in the age of hyper-mediated politics-as-entertainment; he knows the power of social media to disseminate misinformation and intimidation; and he knows the power of dehumanizing marginalized populations and then scapegoating them for societal problems. Recall that his campaign promised to ‘fatten the fish’ in Manila Bay with the corpses of criminals, even if it meant killing as many people as the Nazi regime did.
Unlike Trump, however, Duterte has faced few political constraints in a context where the President of the Republic wields considerable constitutional powers, controls vital patronage networks, and has so far faced limited political opposition. As a result, his administration has delivered on its promise of mass killings while projecting an image of efficacy in matters of governance, foreign policy, and national security.5
Under Duterte’s Oplan Tokhang – Project Door Knock – the Philippine National Police have unleashed a reign of terror, primarily in impoverished slum communities, as they have confronted suspected drug users and dealers in their homes, places of work, and on the street. At the start of the campaign, so-called “Tokhang boxes” began to appear in municipal buildings. As if leaving feedback in a fast-food chain restaurant, citizens were encouraged to fill these blue fiberglass boxes with anonymous tips on suspected “drug personalities” so that they police could knock on their door.
In its first two years (2016-2018), Duterte’s violent, deeply classist war on drug users has claimed by some estimates more than 20,000 lives, including some 5,000 who have been murdered in encounters with the police.6 Thousands more have been compelled to “surrender” themselves as addicts or dealers and enroll in dubious rehabilitation programs. Jail and prison populations have swelled and, given the prominent role that those institutions are known to play in organized drug trafficking, there is reason to believe that this campaign will actually strengthen the illicit networks Duterte is so determined to destroy.
Faced with growing opposition due in large part to outrage over the violent deaths of minors like seventeen-year-old Kian delos Santos, whose sadistic murder by police was recorded on CCTV footage, the administration announced in October 2017 that the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) would take full control of narcotics investigations and enforcement from the Philippine National Police (PNP).7 Since the PDEA had reported few violent encounters with suspects, this change was supposed to stem the tide of killings and mollify so-called “bleeding hearts.”8 Less than two months later, however, the PNP resumed Operation Tokhang under the guise of better oversight by and coordination with PDEA. The steady stream of killings and lurid headlines resumed accordingly, with thousands more killed by police, vigilantes, and unidentified assailants in the months since.9
How did we come to this moment in Philippines? What of the People Power Revolution that overthrew the Marcos regime in 1986 and what of its promises of reform? To make a long story short, the so-called EDSA Republic, named for Epifano de los Santos Avenue, where the momentous but peaceful demonstrations were held in February 1986, did not result in any meaningful redistribution of wealth or power. Even as spaces opened up for critical journalism and oppositional civil society, the same oligarchic families remained in power and continued to violently suppress organized threats to their power through the use of state security forces and private paramilitaries. Extrajudicial assassination has remained a normalized strategy of their rule year after year. Amid all of this, the Philippines underwent one of the first rounds of structural adjustment in 1980 and has also remained a proving ground for a host of the fiscal, trade, and social policies that we shorthand as neoliberalism. These began under Marcos as his administration embraced the global push to attract foreign capital and liberalize trade, leading to the collapse of the few industrial sectors that remained dynamic and placing the focus on the extraction of raw materials for export.
Walden Bello, among others, has described neoliberal governance in the Philippines as the “anti-development state” in light of what often seems like an elite conspiracy to disrupt inclusive development of any kind in the interest of perpetuating social dependency. Rather than prioritizing investments in education, healthcare, or food security, successive Philippine governments have focused on debt servicing, on attracting extractive and offshore industries, and on promoting remittances through migrant labor. After ups and downs in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, growth has been more or less steady since 2000 and then quite rapid since 2010 as investors have grown increasingly confident in the Philippines’ stability. But instead of inclusive development, the predictable result of these policies has been a tremendous transfer of wealth from the bottom up, particularly but by no means exclusively in rural areas, where land consolidation and landlessness grow in tandem. Meanwhile, the middle-class is said to be ascendant but remains fundamentally insecure with respect to their income in the medium and long term. Discontent is widespread, and as without an effective way to address people’s needs through liberal institutions of the state and NGOs, the appeal of an anti-establishment “strong man” like Duterte grows.
In many ways, then, circumstances in the Philippines are a product of global political-economic shifts as they collide with the legacies of colonialism, authoritarianism, and neoliberal austerity. But this is also a political-ecological story, as popular anxieties surrounding climate change, disaster risk, and environmental degradation have fed into a broader sense of societal-cum-planetary crisis and helped to set the stage for an authoritarian resurgence that cloaks itself at least partially in a performative shade of green.
Recall how, on the third anniversary of Typhoon Haiyan’s landfall, Duterte ordered government agencies to expedite disaster recovery efforts. This order coincided with a PR push depicting Duterte as having been the first Filipino official to arrive in storm-ravaged Tacloban city after the storm, harkening back to an emotional speech he gave afterward, in which he claimed to have cried when he encountered the corpse of a dead infant, and claiming that his “order” was already having a transformative impact on storm recovery, including a giving 280 families an “early Christmas gift” of new housing. This PR campaign has persisted in the months since, many displaced survivors continue in temporary housing, disaster capitalists build resorts on the sites of their former homes, and recovery projects remain mired in bureaucracy. Not unlike Trump’s false claims of tremendous success in responding to hurricanes in Texas, Puerto Rico, and Florida, Haiyan was an opening for performing the authoritarian promise of “I alone can help you” as a mask for a larger agenda that scapegoats and brutalizes marginalized populations.
On a very basic level, then, weather-related disasters lend themselves to populist authoritarian spectacles, and this does not bode well for a world in which destructive storms and other extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe. Still, though, we are left with the question of why climate change and other environmental concerns seem to feature so prominently in the particular brand of authoritarianism that Duterte embodies.
A socialist, neoliberal, “fascist original”
For those who know Duterte largely through the international media, it may come as a surprise to learn that he is a self-identified “socialist” who once declared that he wanted to be the Philippines’ “first leftist president.” These statements are difficult to reconcile with his deeply classist assault on petty drug users and dealer. And yet, unlike most of the authoritarian nationalists currently ascendant around the world, Duterte has backed a number of progressive social policies over the course of his political career while at times enjoying considerable albeit far from unanimous support from the left.
Where do these purported leftist credentials originate? They begin with Duterte’s mother, Soledad Roa Duterte, who participated actively in resistance to the Marcos regime and in advocacy on behalf of women’s rights. Although Duterte himself has long expressed admiration for Marcos’ authoritarian rule, he has also made many references to his mother’s formative influence, no small part of which was her frequent recourse to corporal punishment. Second, as a university student, he studied under Jose Maria Sison, the founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and belonged to CPP-affiliated activist groups. While he has since disclaimed any affiliation with the CPP’s armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), his distinctly anti-imperialist brand of nationalism very much aligns with that of the Philippine radical left. Finally, during his tenure as a city prosecutor, he witnessed and likely participated in a bloody counterinsurgency campaign in the streets of Davao, where the Philippine Constabulary and armed vigilante squads known as the Alsa Masa pursued and summarily executed suspected members of the NPA. But then as mayor, Duterte built a reputation for deescalating tensions with the NPA by allowing the collection of “revolutionary taxes” and shifting the focus of the so-called Davao Death Squads to the pursuit of “criminals.” Some reports even claim that he helped the NPA “in its purge of urban revolutionaries who had deviated from the party’s Maoist line.”10 What is clear is that he developed some kind of a symbiotic relationship with the NPA while overseeing a number of progressive social policies, including, for example, the provision of healthcare to sex workers.
This history notwithstanding, the Philippines’ sixteen president is not by any conventional definition a leftist. So who then is he, politically speaking? It depends whom you ask. Walden Bello, a prominent Filipino public intellectual and congressional party-list representative, describes Duterte as a “counterrevolutionary” and a “fascist original.” “Duterte’s charisma,” Bello writes, “would probably be best described as cariño brutal, a Filipino-Spanish term that denotes a volatile mix of will to power, a commanding personality, and gangster charm that fulfills his followers’ deep-seated yearning for a father figure who will finally end what they see as the ‘national chaos’.”11 Herbert Docena and Gabriel Hetland have described Dutertism as “populist neoliberalism” for its recasting of standard-fare neoliberal policies, including the legalization of foreign ownership of land, in the mold of federalism and for its debt-financed “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure program.12 But historian Alfred McCoy has argued that, while Duterte shares the diplomatic adeptness and cultural charisma of past Filipino populists (Quezon and Marcos), “[his] mix of machismo and narrow nationalism seems typical of this current crop of anti-globalization populists.”13 And Adele Webb, a political scientist, puts the accent more directly on nationalism, citing the rejection of US imperialism as Duterte’s defining characteristic and as the source of his mass appeal. “[H]e embodies,” she writes, “the scrutinized Filipino ‘native’ subject of history, subordinated and looked down upon by the ‘foreign’ outsider; in standing up for ‘the people,’ he signifies a refusal to continue the indignity of the past.”14
Perhaps my favorite take on Duterte is that of cultural historian Vicente Rafael, who likens him to a pusong or folkloric trickster:
In taking on the role of the dissipator in chief, Mr. President thumbs his nose at bourgeois demands for discipline and decorum. Instead, he becomes a sort of trickster figure who entertains by veiling his aggression with jokes and obscenities. As a trickster, he plays the role of the pusong, a staple figure in traditional komedya and folktales. It is the pusong who makes fun of those in power, while managing through deceit or humor to gain power himself.15
While to some extent these varying assessments represent a sort of disciplinary Rorschach test, they also point to the complicated nature of contemporary Philippine politics and to the ongoing shift in global geopolitics. As noted above, I see Duterte and his counterparts as agents of revanchist authoritarianism, a term that centers the resoundingly vengeful if ideologically variable impulses that seem to unite them. But as Rafael suggests, there is a certain cunning if not outright duplicity to much of what Duterte and his advisors say and do, making it risky to impute any stable ideological framework onto his vision or actions. He is simultaneously a populist, a proponent of neoliberal policies, and an anti-imperialist nationalist, and in that sense all of the assessments I cited above ring true. He embodies the structural contradictions at work in Philippine society and in the world more broadly, and, as McCoy points out, he “mediate[s] the contradictions, the structural flaws if you will, in the Philippine polity” – “a recurring tension between a nominally strong central government, headed by an empowered executive, and local elites who control their provincial peripheries through economic assets, political office, and extralegal violence.”16
Most immediately, what Duterte does is offer a charismatic, ‘strongman’ alternative to the perceived corruption, criminality, and chaos that result from submitting to the hypocrisy of Western liberalism. As he said when faced with US President Barack Obama’s criticism:
You must be kidding. Who is he to confront me? America has one too many to answer for the misdeeds in this country … As a matter of fact, we inherited this problem from the United States. Why? Because they invaded this country and made us their subjugated people.17
Whatever the precise contours of Duterte’s political identity, an important part of what has made him such a deft populist is his ability to defer opposition from the left. His personal history, anti-imperialist nationalism, commitment to federalism, and performative disdain for establishment elites all read favorably from the Philippine left. More concretely, Duterte also appointed a number of prominent leftist and liberals to his initial cabinet. At the time many speculated that this might be a turning point in terms of bringing the radical left more squarely into the mainstream of Philippine politics. Perhaps predictably, this prospect has since proven dead on arrival.
Losing the red…
The first months of Duterte’s presidency brought a long-awaited resumption of peace talks with the National Democratic Front and a “wait-and-see” attitude among many on the left. Since then, however, relations have soured. Several of his leftist appointees were rejected by Congress, and several have resigned, including one who was indicted on trumped-up murder charges. In May 2017, Duterte declared martial law on the island of Mindanao after the city of Marawi was seized by an Islamist rebel group, and six months later, the aforementioned peace talks were suspended following violations of the ceasefire agreement and Duterte’s decision to declare the CPP and NPA terrorist groups. In February 2018, an array of more than six hundred activists, including the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, were included on a list of suspected CPP-NPA members and thus labeled terrorists, drawing widespread outrage and condemnation. In September of the same year, rumors began to spread about an alleged Communist coup plot known as “Red October,” stoking fears of a return to Marcos-style crackdowns on dissidents. This was accompanied by calls from the military for a stop to “partisan political activity” on college campuses, said to be “hotbeds” of recruitment for the CPP. It is unclear to what extent Duterte has been pressured into shifting his approach toward the left, but as he comes to rely more and more on former military officers and other hardliners, it is likely that the estrangement will continue.
Meanwhile, of course, the drug war has proven bloodier and more indiscriminate than many Duterte agnostics had imagined, and it has fed a further escalation of extrajudicial killing in the realm of electoral and environmental politics. To cite but one grisly figure, forty-eight Filipino environmental activists were assassinated in 2017, according to the Global Witness.18
What is most troubling about the escalation of violence under Duterte is not its novelty, but its continuity with the past. From colonial times to the present, political power in the archipelago has relied heavily on an “informal devolution of coercive authority,” resulting in what McCoy pace Weber calls “a virtual oligopoly on armed violence.”19 And this state (of) terror, while fundamental to the maintenance of power, also works over time to undermine the legitimacy of the state and to engender popular resentment toward the elites who control it. The Duterte presidency increasingly reads as a reprise of Marcos’, and this sense of déjà vu has not been lost on Filipino activists both in the country and abroad. As a result, resistance has intensified, most notably in the massive protests outside the State of the Nation Address in July 2018 and in the reported surge of rebel activity in Mindanao, as have his efforts to suppress it.
…but keeping the green?
But even as Duterte has failed in his attempts to consolidate support on the left, he has managed to maintain a certain degree of credibility among environmentalists. In fact, I would even argue that the environment has become a central dimension of his authoritarian program. It is not just that he has promised to “Build, Build, Build” massive quantities of infrastructure, a proposition with major consequences for the politics of land, labor, and the environment. It is, rather, that environmental protection and disaster management have become two of the most important ways in which Duterte performs his commitment to impose public order and discipline. Above I described how this performance operated in the context of Typhoon Haiyan, and it worth noting that this pattern has continued with subsequent disasters, including the one precipitated by Typhoon Mangkhut (Ompong) in September 2018.
Disaster response, though, is only part of the story. To understand the broader workings of this dynamic and their implications for our understanding of resurgent authoritarianism, let us return to the matter of Duterte’s initial cabinet appointments. Among the appointees – alongside a smattering of military officers, businesspeople, neoliberal economists, and leftist activists – was a woman named Regina Lopez, a self-described “yoga missionary” and environmentalist who was tapped for Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).20 As heiress to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in the country, Lopez was no radical, but she enacted some fairly radical policies.
Building on her involvement in conservation activities and anti-mining advocacy, Lopez expedited a mining audit initiated by the outgoing Aquino administration and then ordered the closure or suspension of more than two dozen active mining operations. Building on Aquino’s Executive Order 79 (EO 79), which suspended the issuance of new mining permits pending the passage of updated legislation, Lopez’s summary suspension shocked the Philippine mining sector, provoked a backlash among those with vested interests, and led to the eventual rejection of her appointment by Congress. Lopez’s action, ostensibly taken with Duterte’s blessing, brought praise from the environmentalists around the country and around the world, even as it coincided with the bloody initial months of the drug war. Since that time, Duterte has made statements linking mining to poverty and national dispossession, but his administration has moved to reconsider both Aquino’s EO and Lopez’s order while he has claimed that his hands are tied by existing legislation. With the moratorium on mining lifted in July 2018, high-level DENR officials working to amend EO 79, and assassinations of environmental activists continuing unabated, this episode encouraged some to see Duterte as a ‘green authoritarian’ but seems unlikely to have a major impact on destructive mineral extraction in the long run.
If the status of mining remains somewhat unclear, the pollution of tourist destinations has provided a clearer read on the role of environmental politics in Duterte’s authoritarian agenda. Upon Lopez’s removal as DENR Secretary, a retired general named Roy Cimatu was appointed to the post, and he has found ways to enact a version of green authoritarianism that are less politically fraught but no less performative. For example, after referring to the country’s most popular tourist destination, Boracay, as a “cesspool,” Duterte ordered the island’s closure to tourists for a period of six months and sent Cimatu, backed by riot police, to clean it up.21 The subsequent operation was couched in the military language of “search and destroy” as illegal sewers, unpermitted structures, and other regulatory violations were pursued. Hundreds of businesses were reportedly ordered closed or fined, and many buildings were demolished. As the demolitions unfolded, many speculated that the clean-up, particularly the newly opened beach fronts and widened roads, would ultimately benefit large developers.22 These suspicions were only reinforced when Duterte proposed using agrarian-reform measures to distribute land to Boracay residents so that they could then sell it to developers.23
In addition to the closure of Boracay, a number of other popular tourist destinations have been subjected to regulatory crackdowns and threats of closure. While the long-term benefits of these operations remain to be seen, the short-term costs have been borne most acutely by the many low-wage workers who were displaced, while the short-term gains have accrued largely to Duterte’s image as a decisive law enforcer and to the contractors hired to undertake the work. As Mark Thompson noted, “the shutdown [of Boracay] played well to his fan base as another demonstration of his iron will to cleanse the country of its social ills.”24
Environments of anxiety
Like his socialism, Duterte’s performative environmentalism is highly selective and often contradicted in practice. From the highly controversial reclamation project in Manila Bay to China’s exploits in the South China Sea to the expansion of monocrop plantations in Palawan, his administration has supported or tolerated many of the same ecologically destructive practices as did its predecessors. Even so and even as his relationship with the left has collapsed, spectacles of authoritarian environmental protection have become an important part of his approach. This makes political sense in a context where people feel profound anxiety and resentment not just about social inequality, corruption, and the legacies of colonialism, but also about environmental degradation and climate change.
The dispossession of working-class Filipinos has not been an exclusively political-economic process – it has also been a political-ecological one. The Philippines has undergone rapacious deforestation, resource extraction, and ecological degradation over the past century, and this has come at the expense of working people and the environments that sustain them. Faced with what seems like a constant string of landslides, floods, typhoons, and other disasters, the Philippines is not just one of the most ‘disaster-prone’ countries in the world, it is also one of the most ‘vulnerable’ to the effects of climate change. Surveys have found that some 72% of Filipinos say they are “very concerned” about climate change, and some 85% report they are feeling its effects.25
Under these conditions, Duterte has channeled popular anxieties and resentments not just into a classist drug war and a nationalist assault on liberalism, but also into a performative ‘green’ authoritarianism that promises to punish polluters and squatters for subjecting the nation to environmental risk. Similarly, he has co-opted the rhetoric of the climate-justice movement, as for example when he said the following in an interview with Al Jazeera:
who's responsible for the climate? Who's responsible for Haiyan? Who's responsible for the monsters of tornado? It's industrialized countries. We had nothing to do with it.26
By directing attention to discrete, often remote places and ‘others’, these moves serve to channel popular angst away from the structural conditions that produce that angst in the first place. In typical reactionary fashion, Duterte can thus claim that he alone can avenge the people’s grievances while simultaneously embodying and amplifying the very forces that dispossess them.
Life or, well, death in the Necropocene
In his influential essay on “Necropolitics,” Achille Mbembe offers a corrective to Michel Foucault’s theory of “biopower,” which describes the sociopolitical forces that produce certain kinds of bodies in order to make them live and others in order to make or let them die. Biopower, Mbembe argues, “is insufficient to account for contemporary forms of subjugation of life to the power of death.”27 Examining enactments of indiscriminate violence, state terror, and collective punishment by (neo)colonial regimes, including the Israeli occupation of Palestine, Mbembe develops the concept of “necropower” to describe how “in our contemporary world, weapons are deployed in the interest of maximum destruction of persons and the creation of death-worlds, new and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to conditions of life conferring upon them the status of living dead.”28 In Mbembe’s account, these weapons operate as technologies of rule in the hands of late-modern colonial regimes as part of a larger “concatenation of multiple powers: disciplinary, biopolitical, and necropolitical.”29
Necropower certainly seems to be at work in the indiscriminate terror and death that Duterte has unleashed and in the violent colonial foundations on which Philippine state power is built (more on this below). But this is not the only form that necropower takes in the world today. In a haunting essay on “Haunted Geologies,” Nils Bubandt argues that the operations of necropower are shifting amid the ecological upheavals and anxieties that we associate with the Anthropocene, a proposed new geologic epoch in which humans have become a dominant geophysical force on the planetary scale. Bubandt writes that “[h]umans, animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria now live and die under conditions that may been critically shaped by human activity but that are also increasingly outside of human control. […] In the Anthropocene, necropolitics operates under the sign of a metaphysical indeterminacy rather than certainty, unintended consequences rather than control.”30
I would add that any deployment of necropower raises the possibility of metaphysical indeterminacy and a loss of control. Regardless, this sense of planetary necropolitical agency without control is, I believe, precisely what engenders our mounting epochal anxieties and helps to carve affective pathways for authoritarian consolidation, green or otherwise. But of course not everyone experiences these times of metaphysical indeterminacy and epochal anxiety in the same way. Just as human societies bear vastly uneven levels of historical responsibility for bringing about Anthropocenic conditions, countries like the Philippines bear a vastly disproportionate share of the resulting risks.
Reinforcing this disparity are narratives that foretell “apocalypse” and “genocide” as a result of climate chaos. Examples of these narratives abound, but one recent and especially clear example was David Wallace-Wells’ viral essay, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” Writing for New York Magazine, Wallace-Wells declared that “[t]he mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.”31 He goes on to regale readers with graphic imagery of starvation and perpetual war in a coming climate apocalypse. While critically acknowledging that the Anthropocene concept implies human “dominion” over the earth, in the same breath Wallace-Wells embraces the idea that humans have weaponized the earth against ourselves, suggesting that we have “[engineered] first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.” The earth, he writes, is “angry beast” or, better yet, a “war machine.”32 This to me sounds exactly like what Bubandt describes in “Haunted Geologies” – a necropoltics for the Anthropocene.
In a co-authored essay on extinction, political theorist Audra Mitchell and I critique “The Uninhabitable Earth” as an example of a growing genre of “apocalypse porn” that vividly reflects the necropolitics haunting narratives about life, death and extinction in the Anthropocene. Drawing on cultural theorist Claire Colebrook (2014), we write that
the desire of Western people to contemplate the total and irreversible destruction of the planet has become a central theme of popular culture. Exposure to these images produces complex forms of affect: the thrill of fear, the sublime sense of living in important (perhaps even ‘end’) times, and the fantasy of being amongst a small group that survives the destruction of its species – all experienced from the safe position of the voyeur. This fantasy is evident in the jarringly optimistic, almost salvational conclusion to Wallace-Well’s essay: “Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday,” he declares, “and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it.”33
Perhaps it goes without saying, but the “we” in Wallace-Wells’ account includes all of humanity only up to the point of salvation. Who, after all, would be doing all of the dying he envisions and who would have the means to engineer their survival? Paradoxically, the silences around race, class, gender, nationality, and colonial occupations speak volumes about who survives – and who does not – in the world envisioned by these narratives. It is no coincidence that the “living dead” of Duterte’s deeply classist war on drugs are drawn largely from the same marginalized communities whose anonymous annihilation is foretold in ‘climate apocalypse’ narratives and whose supposed deficits of ‘resilience’ are the subject of neoliberal climate-adaptation schemes.34
As speculative narratives of Anthropocenic apocalypse proliferate, so too do such depictions of actual climate-related disasters. In the aftermath of Haiyan, reporters from around the world descended on Tacloban, telling heart-breaking tales of survivors’ losses, of their attempts to secure food and medical care, of their psychological trauma. Many reports described survivors as “walking around like zombies,” and this was a term Duterte himself echoed in his account of what he saw there. As one widely quoted witness put it, “it’s like a movie.”35 Keep in mind here that those most affected by Haiyan—and most likely to be destitute in its wake—were poor communities living in unprotected areas along the sea shore. Although different words were used, we saw an analogical dehumanization of racialized survivors in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and, more recently, in Trump’s baldly white supremacist response to the devastation of Puerto Rico.
What are we to make of the resonances between the necropolitics of authoritarian state terror as enacted by tyrants like Rodrigo Duterte and the necropolitics of the Anthropocene as envisioned by authors like David Wallace-Wells? To pose this question neither equates these actors nor diminishes the tremendous gravity, scale, and pace of planetary environmental change. Rather, the point is to reflect on how a growing sense of epochal environmental rupture might both reflect and augment the affective conditions that conduce revanchist authoritarianism. When so many authoritarian regimes take root in narcissism and feed on necropolitics, I have to wonder whether similar impulses shape our anxious fascination with the power of humans-as-planetary-force—and with all the known and unknown implications this power has for diverse assemblages of beings. Do epochal narratives, even critical ones, serve to normalize the ecologically inflected brand of authoritarianism that Duterte represents?
A Time for refusal?
The title of this chapter is “Euphemisms We Die by,” a play on George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s influential book Metaphors We Live By.36 My view is that prevailing rubrics for thinking about revanchist authoritarianism—namely, populism and nationalism—and about global environmental transformations—namely, the Anthropocene—are euphemisms. In particular, these rubrics are euphemisms for the multiple, deeply entangled forms of what Audra Mitchell calls “transversal violence.”37 As euphemisms, these rubrics tend to naturalize the transversal violences that they connote and that are inherent in the imperial capitalist formations ultimately responsible both for authoritarian political currents and global ecological transformation. These rubrics likewise obscure how transversal violences carry forward and crosscut their antecedents—such as with the public executions carried out by the US colonial regime in the Philippines—and with the ecological violences associated with that period, both of which haunt and prefigure contemporary necropolitics and socio-ecological disasters.
In a NY Times commentary published after the 2016 US presidential election, Teju Cole calls upon Eugène Ionesco’s allegorical play, “Rhinoceros,” in which “an epidemic of ‘rhinoceritis’” overruns a town as the people deny, rationalize, and quarrel over what’s happening to them. What at first appears monstrous and frightening soon becomes the norm. “Evil,” Cole writes, “settles in when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it.”38
Rhinos strike me as rather unsuitable for symbolizing the evils of fascism. (No rhino is as brutish as the being who would mount its taxidermied head on the wall.) Regardless, Ionesco offers an important insight, and so does Cole: when facing the prospect of epochal change, we too readily normalize and euphemize the monstrous figures who use such moments to consolidate their power. We respond in ordinary ways to extraordinary events, and in no time that “extra-” drops off, leaving us with a new sense of ordinary. The challenge, Cole implies, is to refuse the new normal—to refuse it before we find ourselves in any way accepting it.
We should also, I submit, think about refusal in relation to the Anthropocene and to the necropolitics that haunt it. In her 2016 essay “Consent’s Revenge,” Mohawk scholar Audra Simpson asks, “How […] do those who are targeted for elimination, those who have had their land stolen from them, their bodies and their cultures worked on to be made into something else articulate their politics?”. Her answer: “They refuse to consent to the apparatuses of the state.”39 Though Simpson is referring here to specific (Indigenous) communities in specific circumstances, her insight helps us think more generally about how the need to refuse rhetorics and campaigns of elimination and dispossession, such as those associated with militarized extractivism and extrajudicial executions of the poor. I suggest that we consider what refusal might mean in relation to our growing fascination with and anxiety around the prospect of an Anthropocenic world. Just as we must refuse to normalize revanchist authoritarianism, I propose that we must also refuse to normalize the totalization of our claims to the planet.
ReferencesBubandt, Nils Ole. "Haunted Geologies: Spirits, Stones, and the Necropolitics of the Anthropocene." In Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, 121-43: University of Minnesota Press, 2017, 121-43.Chow, Lorraine. "Record Number of Americans 'Very Worried' About Climate Change." EcoWatch, 20 Nov 2017. .Cole, Teju. "A Time for Refusal." New York Times, 11 Nov 2016. .Corrales, Nestor. "Duterte Slams Roxas: Where Are Billions of ‘Yolanda’ Funds?" Philippine Inquirer, 3 Mar 2016. .Curato, Nicole. "Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power." Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35, no. 3 (2017): 91-109.Docena, Herbert, and Gabriel Hetland. "Why Duterte Is Not – and Is Unlikely to Be – a Socialist." Rappler, 29 Jun 2016. .Hutton, Mercedes. "Duterte’s ‘Cesspool’ Boracay Island Set for Closure. Or Is It?" South China Morning Post, 20 Mar 2018. .Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.Leon, Sunshine de, and Barbara Demick. "Typhoon Haiyan: Thousands Feared Dead in Philippines." Los Angeles Times, 10 Nov 2013. .Mbembé, Achille. "Necropolitics." Public culture 15, no. 1 (2003): 11-40.McBeth, John. "Duterte Always Loved Communists — except When He Was Killing Them." South China Morning Post, 19 Oct 2016. .McCoy, Alfred W. "Global Populism: A Lineage of Filipino Strongmen from Quezon to Marcos and Duterte." Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies 32, no. 1-2 (2017): 7-54.Mitchell, Audra. (Bio)Plurality: Resistance, Refusal and Resurgence against Global Extinction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, in press.———. "Revitalizing Laws,(Re)-Making Treaties, Dismantling Violence: Indigenous Resurgence against ‘the Sixth Mass Extinction’." Social & Cultural Geography (in press): online first view.Mogato, Manuel, and Neil Jerome Morales. "Philippines' Duterte Hopes Drugs War Shift Will Satisfy 'Bleeding Hearts'." Reuters, 12 Oct 2017. .Press, Agence France. "Record 207 Environmental Activists Killed in 2017." Rappler, 24 Jul 2018. .———. "Time to ‘Do the Right Thing’: Former Yoga Missionary Takes Aim at Philippine Miners." South China Morning Post, 23 Feb 2017. .Punzalan, Jamaine. "Duterte Blames Yolanda on Industrialized Nations, Belittles Us Aid." ABS-CBN News, 17 Oct 2016. .Rafael, Vicente L. "Duterte, the Authoritarian Trickster." Philippine Inquirer, 5 Sept 2018. .Ranada, Pia. "72% of Filipinos 'Very Concerned' About Climate Change – Survey." Rappler, 3 Aug 2015. .———. "Duterte: 'I Will Close Boracay'." Rappler, 10 Feb 2018. .Rauhala, Emily. "Duterte Makes Lewd Threat to Female Rebels in Philippines." Washington Post, 12 Feb 2018. .Sadongdong, Martin. "Over 400 Died in One Month of Drug War; Death Toll Now at 4,800 — Pnp." Manila Bulletin, 26 Sept 2018. .Simpson, Audra. "Consent's Revenge." Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3 (2016): 326-33.Smith, Neil. The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City. London: Routledge, 1996.Tayona, Glenda. "Grief and Anger: For Boracay’s Poor Sectors, Closure Worse Than ‘Yolanda’." Panay News, 29 Oct 2018. .Theriault, Noah, and Audra Mitchell. "Extinction." In The Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon, edited by Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian. Goleta, CA: Punctum, in press.Thompson, Mark R. "Is There More to President Rodrigo Duterte’s Boracay Closure and Drug War Than Meets the Eye?" South China Morning Post, 1 May 2018. .Walch, Colin. "Typhoon Haiyan: Pushing the Limits of Resilience? The Effect of Land Inequality on Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction Policies in the Philippines." Critical Asian Studies 50, no. 1 (2018): 122-35.Wallace-Wells, David. "The Uninhabitable Earth." New York Magazine, Jul 2017. .Webb, Adele. "Hide the Looking Glass: Duterte and the Legacy of American Imperialism." In A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency, 127-44. Quezon Citry: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017, 127-44.Yeo, Sophie. "85% of Filipinos Say They Are Feeling Effects of Climate Change." Claimte Home News, 17 Jul 2013. .
His support for reproductive healthcare and healthcare for sex workers is especially ironic given his record of sexist and misogynistic remarks, including those calling for the sexual assault of women rebels. See Emily Rauhala, "Duterte Makes Lewd Threat to Female Rebels in Philippines," Washington Post, 12 Feb 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/duterte-tells-philippine-soldiers-to-shoot-female-rebels-in-their-vaginas/2018/02/12/fd42c6ae-0fb0-11e8-827c-5150c6f3dc79_story.html.↩
Nestor Corrales, "Duterte Slams Roxas: Where Are Billions of ‘Yolanda’ Funds?," Philippine Inquirer, 3 Mar 2016. https://newsinfo.inquirer.net/770440/duterte-slams-roxas-where-are-billions-of-yolanda-funds.↩
The term “revanchism” derives from the French revanche (revenge) and from a right-wing nationalist movement known as revanchisme, which formed in the late-nineteenth-century France in reaction to the Paris Commune, the perceived decadence of the Second Republic, and the loss of territory in the Franco-German War. My use of revanchist authoritarianism refers to current political conditions around the world that favor demagogic and/or “strongman” figures – including Duterte in the Philippines, Trump in the United States, Putin in Russia, Xi in China, Erdoğan in Turkey, Modi in India, Orbán in Hungary, and Bolsonaro in Brazil, inter alia – who actively undermine democratic norms and institutions in the pursuit of power. What unites this trend, in my mind, are promises to repel, punish, and/or eliminate corrupting elements from society in order to (re)claim a lost or stolen greatness. These rhetorics and movements scale up and amplify the urban revanchism that Neil Smith and others have described in relation to the aggressive gentrification and policing of Northern inner cities beginning in the 1960s. See Neil Smith, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City (London: Routledge, 1996).↩
Nicole Curato, "Politics of Anxiety, Politics of Hope: Penal Populism and Duterte’s Rise to Power," Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 35, no. 3 (2017).↩
This image has notably begun to fray due to the administration’s apparent inability or unwillingness to confront high rates of inflation, China’s occupation of Philippine maritime territory, rampant misconduct by security forces, and basic problems with infrastructure in Manila and other cities.↩
Martin Sadongdong, "Over 400 Died in One Month of Drug War; Death Toll Now at 4,800 — Pnp," Manila Bulletin, 26 Sept 2018. https://news.mb.com.ph/2018/09/26/over-400-died-in-one-month-of-drug-war-death-toll-now-at-4800-pnp/.↩
Another important factor was the scandal over PNP officers’ abduction, murder, and posthumous ransoming of a South Korean businessman, Jee Ick-joo.↩
Manuel Mogato and Neil Jerome Morales, "Philippines' Duterte Hopes Drugs War Shift Will Satisfy 'Bleeding Hearts'," Reuters, 12 Oct 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-philippines-drugs/philippines-duterte-hopes-drugs-war-shift-will-satisfy-bleeding-hearts-idUSKBN1CH10Y.↩
What international media have largely overlooked is that this was also a test balloon for militarizing the police. Duterte has long speculated about reviving the Philippine Constabulary. As the American colonial regime’s successor to the Spanish Guardia Civil, the Philippine Constabulary was a military police force that, until 1991, violently suppressed the radical left, Muslim autonomy movements, peasant resistance, and other internal ‘threats’ to the US colonial regime and its neocolonial successor. It is worth noting that the PDEA, which has played an increasingly prominent role in the drug war despite the PNP’s dominance in street-level enforcement, is widely associated with former Constabulary officers. Reviving the Constabulary would turn what have so far been echoes of authoritarian moments in Philippine history into the deafening reverberations of a thunder clap.↩
John McBeth, "Duterte Always Loved Communists — except When He Was Killing Them," South China Morning Post, 19 Oct 2016. https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2038320/duterte-always-loved-communists-except-when-he-was-killing.↩
Bello, Walden. "Rodrigo Duterte: A Fascist Original." Rappler, 2 Jan 2017. https://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/157166-rodrigo-duterte-fascist-original.↩
Herbert Docena and Gabriel Hetland, "Why Duterte Is Not – and Is Unlikely to Be – a Socialist," Rappler, 29 Jun 2016. https://www.rappler.com/thought-leaders/137804-duterte-not-socialist.↩
Alfred W McCoy, "Global Populism: A Lineage of Filipino Strongmen from Quezon to Marcos and Duterte," Kasarinlan: Philippine Journal of Third World Studies 32, no. 1-2 (2017).↩
Adele Webb, "Hide the Looking Glass: Duterte and the Legacy of American Imperialism," in A Duterte Reader: Critical Essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s Early Presidency (Quezon Citry: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017).↩
Vicente L. Rafael, "Duterte, the Authoritarian Trickster," Philippine Inquirer, 5 Sept 2018. https://opinion.inquirer.net/115861/duterte-authoritarian-trickster.↩
McCoy, "Global Populism: A Lineage of Filipino Strongmen from Quezon to Marcos and Duterte."↩
Quoted in Webb, "Hide the Looking Glass: Duterte and the Legacy of American Imperialism."↩
Agence France Press, "Record 207 Environmental Activists Killed in 2017," Rappler, 24 Jul 2018. https://www.rappler.com/science-nature/environment/208069-number-environmental-activists-killed-2017-global-witness-report.↩
McCoy, "Global Populism: A Lineage of Filipino Strongmen from Quezon to Marcos and Duterte."↩
Agence France Press, "Time to ‘Do the Right Thing’: Former Yoga Missionary Takes Aim at Philippine Miners," South China Morning Post, 23 Feb 2017. https://www.scmp.com/news/asia/southeast-asia/article/2073378/time-do-right-thing-former-yoga-missionary-takes-aim.↩
Pia Ranada, "Duterte: 'I Will Close Boracay'," Rappler, 10 Feb 2018. https://www.rappler.com/nation/195703-duterte-warning-close-boracay.↩
Glenda Tayona, "Grief and Anger: For Boracay’s Poor Sectors, Closure Worse Than ‘Yolanda’," Panay News, 29 Oct 2018. https://www.panaynews.net/grief-and-anger-for-boracays-poor-sectors-closure-worse-than-yolanda/.↩
Mercedes Hutton, "Duterte’s ‘Cesspool’ Boracay Island Set for Closure. Or Is It?," South China Morning Post, 20 Mar 2018. https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/travel/article/2138014/dutertes-cesspool-boracay-island-set-closure-or-it.↩
Mark R. Thompson, "Is There More to President Rodrigo Duterte’s Boracay Closure and Drug War Than Meets the Eye?," ibid., 1 May. https://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2144058/there-more-dutertes-boracay-closure-and-drug-war-meets-eye.↩
These numbers are from 2015 and 2013 respectively. It is likely they have increased in the years since. For perspective, consider that a “record number” of 22% of Americans were “very worried” about climate change in 2017. Pia Ranada, "72% of Filipinos 'Very Concerned' About Climate Change – Survey," Rappler, 3 Aug 2015. https://www.rappler.com/science-nature/environment/101366-filipinos-very-concerned-climate-change; Sophie Yeo, "85% of Filipinos Say They Are Feeling Effects of Climate Change," Claimte Home News, 17 Jul 2013. http://www.climatechangenews.com/2013/07/17/85-of-filipinos-say-they-are-feeling-effects-of-climate-change/. Lorraine Chow, "Record Number of Americans 'Very Worried' About Climate Change," EcoWatch, 20 Nov 2017. https://www.ecowatch.com/climate-change-public-opinion-2511043076.html.↩
Jamaine Punzalan, "Duterte Blames Yolanda on Industrialized Nations, Belittles Us Aid," ABS-CBN News, 17 Oct 2016. https://news.abs-cbn.com/news/10/17/16/duterte-blames-yolanda-on-industrialized-nations-belittles-us-aid.↩
Achille Mbembé, "Necropolitics," Public culture 15, no. 1 (2003).↩
Nils Ole Bubandt, "Haunted Geologies: Spirits, Stones, and the Necropolitics of the Anthropocene," in Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (University of Minnesota Press, 2017).↩
David Wallace-Wells, "The Uninhabitable Earth," New York Magazine, Jul 2017. https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html.↩
Noah Theriault and Audra Mitchell, "Extinction," in The Anthropocene Unseen: A Lexicon, ed. Cymene Howe and Anand Pandian (Goleta, CA: Punctum, in press).↩
Colin Walch, "Typhoon Haiyan: Pushing the Limits of Resilience? The Effect of Land Inequality on Resilience and Disaster Risk Reduction Policies in the Philippines," Critical Asian Studies 50, no. 1 (2018).↩
Sunshine de Leon and Barbara Demick, "Typhoon Haiyan: Thousands Feared Dead in Philippines," Los Angeles Times, 10 Nov 2013. http://articles.latimes.com/2013/nov/10/world/la-fg-wn-tyhpoon-haiyan-thousands-feared-dead-in-philippines-20131110.↩
George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).↩
Following Mitchell, I define transversal violences as forms of physical and structural violence that operate through overlapping efforts to subjugate, assimilate, or erase plural more-than-human worlds through epistemological, ontological, bodily, temporal, and sociopolitical modalities. See Audra Mitchell, (Bio)Plurality: Resistance, Refusal and Resurgence against Global Extinction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, in press); "Revitalizing Laws,(Re)-Making Treaties, Dismantling Violence: Indigenous Resurgence against ‘the Sixth Mass Extinction’," Social & Cultural Geography (in press).↩
Teju Cole, "A Time for Refusal," New York Times, 11 Nov 2016. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/11/magazine/a-time-for-refusal.html.↩
Audra Simpson, "Consent's Revenge," Cultural Anthropology 31, no. 3 (2016).↩