Is a benevolent dictatorship possible?

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - October 30, 2015 - 10:00am

Following Rodrigo Duterte’s roller-coaster tease of a presidential (non-)campaign has been so dizzying that it’s now bordering on hypnotic. Swinging like a pendant in front of tired eyes is Duterte’s blunt idea of a benevolent dictatorship, one in which he promises to rid the country of criminals, even if it means killing them himself.

It’s an idea I tend to entertain when I’m at my weakest, most frustrated, and therefore most vulnerable, which lately, has been most of the time. It is a vulture hovering above when I’m in traffic and I want to strangle other drivers who ignore traffic rules and make things worse. It cries out in hunger whenever a suffocating ride to the MRT reminds me of all the stolen taxpayers’ money that could’ve been used to make it a less stressful experience. It flies lower and lower every time someone proven to have stolen said taxpayers’ money gets away with grand larceny.

It is in these times when I start to wonder: is a benevolent, albeit murderous, dictatorship the only viable solution left?

For me to even consider this question suggests that maybe Duterte’s passive-aggressive campaigning is working. His “will he or won’t he?” shtick has now extended way past his no-show on the last day of filing for candidacy and now manifests itself in promoted pseudo-campaign tweets and a recent brutally honest interview where he practically admitted to killing suspected criminals and promised to kill more if and when he decides to maybe, finally, probably, run for President. It’s all tedious theater, yes, but why are we still talking about it?

Every-man-for-himself chaos

The idea of a benevolent dictatorship is enticing for Filipinos who have known nothing but a world ruled by anarchy and every-man-for-himself chaos. It makes us glance longingly at a neighbor like Singapore, whipped up to shape by the late Lee Kuan Yew, he of the lasting economic legacy, outlawed chewing gum, and countless human rights violations. It is the foundation upon which a sprawling revisionism of Ferdinand Marcos’ legacy has been built, a fantasy land where The Philippines was on its way to becoming Singapore only to be ruined by revolutionaries hiding in the mountains.

These lies do not come from thin air. They come from a genuine frustration over the way things are, the country’s lack of progress, order, and direction. The intolerable mess has pushed these people into wanting something they do not know they will hate. They claim to be willing to trade some of their freedom just to get a promise of improvement. Their lies are an act of desperation.

There are times when this country makes me feel desperate and hopeless, but these are occasions that do not invite me to consider outright lies, rather, they push me to seek out the truth behind the question: is a benevolent dictatorship viable in the Philippine setting?

Whenever I contemplate the merits of a benevolent dictatorship, I do not look to the imperfect Lee Kuan Yew, who has taken too much credit for his strongman tactics (Singapore may still be an economic success had it been democratic). I think about Plato’s “Philosopher King” – a theoretical ruler so wise that he can be trusted to lead a truly just state. I imagine a ruler that is pure and incorruptible. I imagine people having full faith in a leader that remains humble and just in the face of widespread adoration. I imagine a ruler with absolute power that never corrupts. What I am essentially imagining, then, is a deity. Here is where the truth stops and where fantasy begins.

Blind eyes toward injustice

What Marcos and Duterte fanboys and fangirls have in common – apart from a comically blind eye towards injustice – is their desperate need for a savior. They are a lost flock in need of someone to guide them to a promised land. They are no longer citizens of a state comprised of a diverse set of people – they are members of a cult.

The beauty of democracy lies not just on its assurance of personal liberties, although that certainly is a large part of the appeal, but also on its proposition that citizens ought to be looking out for each other. It does not put its faith on the benevolence of one person – it puts its faith on the common sense of everyone. It does not imagine a perfect state, and so it is rooted in a reality that people, unlike deities, are prone to make mistakes and should therefore be called out for their bullshit.

This is the light I always come back to when I find myself sucked into the idea-tunnel of a benevolent dictatorship. In the clarity of sober logic, executive death threats aren’t necessary when all you need is the effective enforcement of laws that already exist. People don’t have to be killed; they just have to be held accountable. After all, righting the ship requires the choice of everyone on board, not the fear that the captain might kill you. You can obey traffic rules to avoid imprisonment or you can just obey traffic rules because that’s what non-a-holes do in a civilized society. You can refrain from stealing taxpayer’s money in fear of being executed by the ruler of the land or you can just stop doing that because people’s lives are actually at stake.

What we need is a culture of shared responsibility, not someone who will force us to do what we’re ought to be doing anyway. A dictatorship requires faith in one individual. Democracy requires faith in people. Democracy is more realistic.

* * *

Tweet the author @ColonialMental.

  • Latest
Are you sure you want to log out?

Philstar.com is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with