Beware the Specter of Reactionism in Southeast Asia

The region is not immune from a trend we are witnessing globally.

Beware the Specter of Reactionism in Southeast Asia
Credit: Flickr/Davao Today

A spectre is haunting the world – the specter of reactionism. That is, if Mark Lilla is to be believed. In June, the professor of humanities at Columbia University published The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction, a collection of essays in which he presents a history of reactionary thinking and its apparitions today (one need only to think of Donald Trump and the European far-right as examples).

Contrary to accepted wisdom, Lilla writes that the reactionary is far from a conservative. Rather, he can be a radical, almost revolutionary figure, figuratively shipwrecked by an ever-changing present, and emboldened by an idealized concept of the past and an apocalyptic vision of the future. He is, Lilla writes, “just as radical as revolutionaries and just as firmly in the grip of historical imaginings. Millennial expectations of a redemptive new social order and rejuvenated human beings inspire the revolutionary; apocalyptic fears of entering a new dark age haunt the reactionary.”

But what does this mean for Southeast Asia? Well, the specter of reactionism is no less haunting in this part of the world. Take the Philippines, for example. The killing of drug users and dealers, whether guilty or not, is rarely out of the newspapers or off the minds of political commentators. Cannot the combination of nostalgia for a stable past (which must be attained) and premonitions of a cataclysmic future (which must be avoided, at all costs) be applicable here?

Consider this comment made by Richard Heydarian, a political science professor at Manila’s De Le Salle University: “Frustrated with the shortcomings of democratically elected governments in the past, a growing number of Filipinos are giving in to democratic fatigue and embracing autocratic nostalgia.” Heydarian’s contention is an important one, worthy of loitering around for a paragraph or two. In his book, Lillia writes: “Hopes can be disappointed… Nostalgia is irrefutable.” Thirty years of a modern, bureaucratic nation-state has done little to alleviate societal problems in the Philippines; corruption, endemic poverty and crime rates remain high, at least in the minds of a good number of Filipino voters.

As early as 2007, a paper titled Authoritarian Nostalgia in Asia noted that in the Philippines “the yearning for a ‘strong leader’ to decide everything grew substantially” in the preceding years. Indeed, according a survey quoted by the paper, “military rule was rejected… at levels exceeding 80 percent in every country [in Asia] except the Philippines.” In April, before the election results, Heydarian put it like this: “A growing number of Filipinos are running out of patience, fed up with decades of empty slogans and broken vows. No wonder then, a new set of ‘strongman’ candidates — who promise salvation in exchange for (unbending) obedience and loyalty — has managed to capture the popular imagination.”

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Of course, the Philippines’ democracy is imperfect, as are most countries’. Almost 70 percent of legislators come from political dynasties, and about 75 percent of wealth created in recent years went into the pockets of the country’s 40 richest families. But what Duterte promised was not progressive; it was reactionary. Lilla writes that the reactionary’s “profession of faith” rests in the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this), which can be simplified to mean: because Y follows X, Y must have been caused by X. For Duterte, the multitude of the problems in the present-day Philippines (X) must have been caused by 30 years of liberal democracy (Y), a view one assumes is supported by much of the Philippine electorate.

An indication of such nostalgia is found in Duterte’s emulation of Ferdinand Marcos. What was life under Marcos’ dictatorship if not traditional; everybody knew their place (or was made to learn it) and problems such as crime were kept to a minimum (in appearance at least). Indeed, it is not by coincidence that one of Duterte’s first orders as president was to allow the burial of Marcos in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila, which happened last week.

And what has Duterte done once in power? He has railed against most of the sacrosanct ideals of liberal democracy: human rights, humanism, bourgeois culture, and the proper separation of state powers. In doing so, he has also railed against the Philippine constitution, written in 1987, one of the most democratic documents in human history. Indeed, it was this constitution that led the late Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew to conclude the Philippines had too much democracy. “The exuberance of democracy leads to undisciplined and disorderly conditions,” he said. Such a premonition made in the early 1990s has come to fruition with Duterte: democracy will be curtailed, and discipline and ‘orderly’ conditions will return. At least, that’s the president’s reactionary ambition.

A corollary reaction is found in Duterte’s “war on drugs.” A politician may use such a policy simply as an excuse not to tackle the roots cause of poverty or to gain votes. One suspects this of President Joko Widodo in Indonesia. But Duterte is a politician who, one feels, genuinely means what he says and is willing to risk the image his country internationally by doing so. When he says that drugs “tear apart the fabric of our society and the basis of human dignity,” he does not simply mean drugs are a symbolic threat to the Philippines, but a very literal one “We’re on a slippery slope toward tyranny,” Senator Leila de Lima told Time magazine.

But what are drugs also representative of? One might say of a open and permissive society; or, rather, of the fissures that open in a liberal, bourgeois society. And what does widespread drug use represent? A breakdown of community values; a section of society that cannot be controlled by the strong-arm of the state. In The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World, the author Tom Feiling provides two quotes that are rather revealing. “The prohibition of popular vices creates gangsters, whose existence in turn justifies the incessant appeal for a return to order and authority,” Feiling writes, before adding chapters later: “Drug scares have lasting value for authoritarians of all stripes because they make pariahs of drug addicts, while flattering the credulous and ignorant.”

In his biographical essay of Leo Strauss, Lilla wrote that the philosopher thought “it was only a matter of time before modern thought… descended into relativism and nihilism.” However much one dislikes the philosophy of Strauss, he certainly had a point. But the “matter of time” came early for Southeast Asia with the rise of the “Asian values” debate in the 1990s.

In 1998, Kanishka Jayasuriya of Murdoch University published an insightful paper, in which he rightly identified the three facets of “Asian values”: that the individualism and human rights of “the West” were incompatible with the communitarianism of “the East”; that above all else discipline in politics, the family, and workplace was imperative; and the organic notion of the state and society, in which there is “no sharp distinction between state and society so that an attack on the political leadership is construed as a challenge to the ‘nation’.”

Of course, the “Asian values” debate has been all but discredited, despite its pesky re-occurrence, mostly from the pulpits of autocracies. Blatantly false is the supposition that only in Asia are the demands of the individual negated by the prescience of the “greater” good, be it for tribal solidarity, social cohesion, or one’s country. (Was it not London-born Jeremy Bentham who founded utilitarianism?) “Order” frequently takes precedence in the West just as often as it does in the East, and as many Westerners have the instinct for a quiet life as Easterners, with all that “quiet life” entails. Even the Romans knew that it was difficult to put justice above the “greater” good: fiat justitia ruat caelum, do justice and let the skies fall.

By definition, the Asian values theory was an evocation of reactionism. It favored a glorified past of order and stability, and political hierarchy, and opined the forces of modernity, in the form of “Western” democracy (again, as if liberal democracy is a Western concept) would be apocalyptic to national and social security. Here, however, a problem arises. Yes, from Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew to Cambodia’s Hun Sen and Vietnam’s Politburo chiefs (the most reactionary of governments in the region are to be found in those that still call themselves communist), autocrats have revered past social stability and avoided the “cataclysm” that they suppose is liberal democracy. Yet all have engaged wholeheartedly in capitalism and watched as their countries underwent irreversible social and technological change. What explains reaction in one realm and modernism in the other, the dichotomy that Slavoj Žižek calls “capitalism with Asian values”?

In 1984, the historian Jeffrey Herf gave the world a new, almost oxymoronic term: reactionary modernism. He applied it specifically to Nazism, which Trotsky noted at the time, deriding it as creating a society in which people live in the 20th century alongside the 10th or the 13th: “A hundred million people use electricity and still believe in the magic power of signs and exorcisms.” For Herf, reactionary modernism can be defined as “great enthusiasm for modern technology with a rejection of the Enlightenment and the values and institutions of liberal democracy.” In this journalist’s opinion, there are few better depictions of most Southeast Asian governments than this.