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Private tyrannies

Luis V. Teodoro-125

Vantage Point


Government officials in many countries today have been using State power to advance their and their collaborators’ interests, and transforming what should be the rule of the many into the rule of the few — of “private tyrannies.” The Philippines, where such a tyranny rules in the guise of democracy, is no exception, and neither is that self-proclaimed bastion of liberty, the United States of America.

In a series of speaking engagements in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra, Australia, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Emeritus Professor of Linguistics Noam Chomsky said the term “private tyrannies” describes the use by some US politicians of the powers the electorate has delegated to them to advance their private interests and those of their cronies in the business sector.

The politicians who benefit from that partnership craft policies advantageous to a handful of corporations that, as a result, decide the conditions of work and hence the very terms of existence of millions of people. These are not only structures of corruption but also of tyrannical rule by private non-elected entities and by the politicians involved who personally profit from them.

Chomsky noted that both Republicans and Democrats have been guilty of it, with the former being arguably more hypocritical. Republicans are, after all, identified with “conservatism,” which in the US is popularly assumed to mean being opposed to government intervention in the conduct of the economy as well as the political and social life of the nation. They oppose and have in fact dismantled welfare programs such as support for the unemployed, and subsidies for inexpensive meals for disadvantaged school children.

Democrats are, on the other hand, identified with “liberalism,” which in the US is usually understood to mean a preference for greater government involvement in those areas. For example, it was a Democratic Party president of the US, Lyndon B. Johnson, who, in his first State of the Union address in 1964, launched a “war on poverty” under government auspices which included a number of federal social welfare programs that were supposed to end poverty in the richest country in the world.

“Conservatives” opposed those programs on the argument that they were being imposed by “big government,” but they themselves have proposed and won tax cuts and favored federal grants and contracts for big business. A succession of both Republican and Democratic Party administrations has also enriched a handful of corporations through government contracts, purchases of the weapons the US military machine uses in its endless wars, and arms sales to mostly non-democratic regimes as well as US client-states like the Philippines.

The late US President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a five-star general. But when leaving the White House in 1961, he called attention to the threat to democracy posed by the influence and power over government and the whole of US society of the “military-industrial complex” — which is what he called the partnership between the defense establishment and the arms-making industry.

The Philippines may not have a military-industrial complex to speak of, but it has long had private tyrannies at both the local and national levels. The local variety consists of the warlords’ practice of transforming public security forces into their private armies so as to assure their continuing control over a region or province. The security forces that are usually involved are local police and military personnel, plus elements from such government-supported paramilitary groups as the Civilian Armed Force Geographical Units (CAFGUs) and Civilian Volunteer Organizations (CVOs). By harassing, terrorizing and even murdering rivals as well as voters, these private armies make a mockery of democratic rule. Rather than the popular will, what prevails in some localities are the personal, familial, and class interests of the ruling few.

In 2009, the entire country and the rest of the world witnessed how brutal the private tyranny called warlordism can be. To prevent its rival’s contesting the Maguindanao governorship, the ruling Ampatuan clan planned and carried out through its private army of hired killers and police, military and CVO personnel the massacre of 58 men and women including 32 journalists and media workers.

Private tyranny has similarly been of long standing at the national level, but not only in the form of the ruling dynasties’ use of public power to advance and defend their personal, familial, and class interests through their privatization of State funds, resources, and organization. Mostly unremarked prior to the Marcos martial law regime were the links of politicians to private business interests or their control over this or that corporation and the implications of those connections on governance. During the 14 years of military rule (1972-1986), cronyism — in which government favored only certain groups, especially those controlled by its officials, at the expense of others — dominated Philippine business. The Marcos kleptocracy made sure that those favored groups would prosper by institutionalizing such regime interventions as banning strikes, and reducing taxes.

Though still a fact of life in Philippine governance, cronyism abated in succeeding administrations, but is in resurgence in the present regime, if we are to believe the findings of both the Commission on Audit (CoA) and the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee.

What the Senate hearings found suggests that it was the Pharmally Pharmaceuticals Corp.’s closeness to those in power that enabled it to make billions through its contracts to supply the government with personal protective equipment (PPEs), face masks, face shields, and other supplies for coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. These supplies, according to a Senate source, “passed inspection” even before they had arrived in these shores. But quite apart from that anomaly is the distinct possibility that not only were these imports from China overpriced, that local manufacturers could have provided them at a lower cost. Had they been sourced from Filipino suppliers, they could have also created thousands of jobs, and helped revive the ailing economy.

These revelations imply that Pharmally was, from the very beginning, the preferred supplier of the current dispensation despite the above disadvantages. There is thus the attendant implication that something illegal had transpired. But rather than assure the public that such suspicions are unfounded, President Rodrigo Duterte, who had earlier berated CoA for doing its job, instead went on one of his usual rant rampages.

This time the targets of his tirades were the senators involved in the hearings, particularly Blue Ribbon Committee Chair Richard Gordon and Senator Panfilo Lacson. In another fit of vindictive pique, he vowed to find something onerous in their public and even private lives to criticize, and hold them responsible for. He later declared that only with his permission could the members of his Cabinet testify at the Senate hearings. His abettors in the aptly named Lower House of Congress and other apologists echoed his outbursts in what seems like an orchestrated attempt to prevent the public from getting at the truth in the Pharmally scandal.

Mr. Duterte has always looked at government as his private property to which he can do as he pleases. The police are in his view “my police,” the military “my soldiers,” and the Philippines “my country.” Neither civility, concern for the public welfare, nor statesmanship is his strong suit. Whether as mayor or president, he has seldom gone beyond the defense and advancement of his personal and political interests. In the process he has empowered himself and his cronies both in and out of government to decide who lives and who dies.

Hopefully this too will pass, as Ferdinand Marcos’ own private tyranny did.


Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).