University of the Philippines Los Baños
Let’s start with DOH Sec. Duque’s comment in a media interview:
Pero sa problema kasi ng COVID-19 dahil como bago ito, wala naman tayong ma-refer na past experience kung papaano ba tutugunan itong virus na ito. Dahil 4 months old pa lang itong virus na ito, pakapa-kapa pa rin ang buong mundo, hindi lang tayo. [i]
He said on April 17, a day after 14 senators signed a resolution for Duque’s resignation. Duque’s dismissive tone was referring to the inevitable pandemic situation we are now in. Inevitablism describes an outlook that is constrained by how much we do not know about the disease, and no social or political means can prevent what is about to unfold. “Hindi inaasahan na mangyayari ito.” Such a statement from the chief of the country’s Health Department frames how people should remember this crisis. It dangerously rationalizes the apparent ineptness of the authorities and its repercussions such as the high cases of infection among health workers (16% of the 6,710 confirmed cases as of April 22 [ii]); unfairly blaming people for violating quarantine rules particularly those with no space at home for physical distancing, no access to water and food, and those who are “no work, no pay.” We all know our situation is really bad. Everyone is hurting. We want this to end as soon as possible. But we also need to understand that what is happening in the Philippines during this pandemic is an aggravated reality of pre-existing structural violence.
Structural violence is what keeps poor people poor, malnourished, illiterate, or more likely to be incarcerated. These structures are the rational institutions of the state, the legal system, and the market economy that make us perceive the working class that feeds us during a pandemic as lazy, who deserve the minimum wage that cannot adequately provide them with the most basic of needs. Structural violence is what keeps the marginalized in the margins of society despite the rhetoric of a trickle-down economy. It is the reason why the mentally challenged become homeless and more vulnerable to abuse. These structures of violence also determine who gets the opportunities for education, health care, clean environment, political representation, and freedom of speech.
Using a post-colonial reading of Georg Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic [iii], I reflect on inevitablism, structural violence, and the militarist logic in our country at the time of this crisis. The Master-Slave relation has always been there, but it is more visible and empowered during this COVID-19 pandemic. A hundred years ago, high-level misinformation from [health] authorities, military mobilization, and bureaucratic problems were some of the reasons why the 1918-1919 influenza in the Philippines was peculiar compared to the experience of the rest of the world [iv]. It is not true that a pandemic experience in the Philippines is new and inevitable, Health Secretary Duque.
My reading of Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic published originally in the 1807 Phenomenology of Spirit [v] and applying it to our country’s COVID-19 response is this: There are two kinds of consciousness of the spirit in each individual, the Master, and the Slave. The Master consciousness craves for freedom; without it, life is worthless. The Master validates itself through oppression. To oppress means to deny another their freedom. This self-contradictory purpose of what it means to be free by the Master reflects an alternate reality from that of the Slaves’. In the Slaves’ consciousness, freedom is secondary only to one’s life. A life of servitude is preferred over losing one’s life. Slaves are not free. They must learn to anticipate the needs and desires of the Master as a matter of survival (to survive this pandemic). Literally speaking, the Slaves are us on lockdown; our bodies constrained at home in fear of getting the disease outside. But more than that, all of us, Slaves, become vulnerable to structural violence, particularly because of the government’s militarist response to a public health crisis.
The Master-Slave relation is structural. In modern states, the Master can be our rational institutions that exist only to justify what is beneficial (read as profitable) to a few and not to alleviate public suffering. Rational institutions may also exist to serve a bigger Master: 1) a person or organization of authoritative power or 2) the very concept of a bureaucratic state itself as a way to govern ourselves. I will focus on the former and leave the latter for another day of reflection (probably? hopefully?).
Violence is structured. Oppression is a mastery.
A Master-Slave relation describes the politics between the Philippine government (Slave) and China (Master). Since the term of President Duterte, the administration has been upfront about its favorable bias towards the Chinese government, particularly their investments in the country. Hence, when the Philippines donated medical supplies to China last February [vi] while the country’s medical capacity is already compromised, the public read it as another one of the government’s prejudices. Chinese occupation of the West Philippine Sea also continues amidst the global health crisis.
In the Philippines, President Duterte acts as the Master who wants freedom for him to control individual bodies and the whole of the population. The steps he has taken in the first half of his administration has enabled him to formalize this structure by appointing military and police officials in the Cabinet. The number of retired military and police officials nearly tripled from 4 in 2016 to 11 in 2019. In a statement, Duterte said he values the “discipline, obedience, and efficiency” of the military and the police [vii]. These are virtues that he and his COVID-19 Inter-Agency Task Force (IATF), also headed by police and military men, value. Duterte’s need for control to validate his position was apparent when he was scolding the local governments when they were implementing their local strategies in the first week of the quarantine. Without clear guidelines on how to implement the lockdown, Duterte’s restrictions to local governments have become characteristically oppressive to the citizenry.
Since the beginning of this crisis, the government has confidently put their trust in the militarist logic of what “discipline, obedience, and efficiency” should look like in the implementation of the country’s pandemic response. Imagine going through the rigorous and possibly traumatic training in a military/police camp and coming out with an unbending loyalty to an ego-gratifying hierarchy regardless if there is an ethical dilemma that confronts you before gaining an understanding of what the military and the police expect from the civilians during the quarantine.
Someone with a Master consciousness would argue that these incidents may be isolated and not consistent in every place on lockdown. This is precisely what freedom means to the one with a Master consciousness: freedom is inconsistent. The efficiency of the job to be done is what they desire. In the mind of the Master, there is no other way to achieve their desire but through the oppression of the Slaves.
In order to survive, follow the law.
In a situation limited by what we do not and cannot know about the disease, ironically, to be decisive is the rational response to keep social order. The idea that social and political regulations need to keep pace with the unknowable and the uncertain dictates how we should imagine the pandemic into a set of lawful behavior. We, the Slaves, are demanded to be imaginative: to imagine how the militarist “discipline, obedience, and efficiency” are in the time of the quarantine. Those who do not follow or are against this strict imagination will be penalized, demonized, and threatened. They are called “pasaway” or “reklamador.”
There is truth to this virtue of discipline, of course. Staying at home has indeed slowed down the community transmission of the virus based on the “best available data,” according to the UP Resilience Institute [viii]. But the “pasaway” discourse framed according to the authoritarian narrative of the Master is a show of dominance by dismissing the consciousness of the Slave. It regards some people less than others. For the Slaves, the common consciousness is to follow the law and not to risk one’s life. It is the general will to survive and sacrifice freedom. The norm among the Slaves then is to avoid being “pasaway” if it means risking their lives. When our market economy crashes during this crisis, the loyalty and servitude of the poor (Slaves) to the government and the law may dissolve. The Slaves who were previously bounded by servitude to avoid quarantine violations instead go out in frustration and fear of dying of hunger. The Master-Slave relation structures the “pasaway” to cause what is perceived as chaos, disorder, and confusion.
“Tao sila. Hindi sila pasaway.”
Winston Ragos was seen not wearing a mask in a community quarantine checkpoint where the police apprehended him. He was shot dead. Is Ragos, an army veteran who experienced schizophrenia and post-traumatic disorder, “pasaway”? I browsed through a twitter comments section [ix] and the usual “Matigas ang ulo. Pasaway kasi. Sinabing wag lumabas ng bahay.” was not there. They were silent. From the “pasaway,” the justification moved to the narrative of the “standard protocol” because he was “provoking” the police. In an instance, when there is a clash between the Master and the Slave, the Master will always prevail, especially in moral standing. Because the Master’s life is intrinsic, his existence is justified by his freedom while they depend on the Slave to legitimate their privilege. It’s a parasitic relationship. The Slave’s life, on the other hand, is instrumental only to serve the desire of the Master. In a Master-Slave relation, not all are equally human.
But what does “standard protocol” mean? Again, we are demanded to force our self into imaginative labor [x]. I looked at the Meriam Webster Dictionary for the definition of protocol: “a code prescribing strict adherence to correct etiquette and precedence (as in diplomatic exchange and the military services).” [xi] What is etiquette? For us civilians, we often associate it with being respectful to people in a public place. In the universe of the military and the police, etiquette is prescribed by authority with precedence, that is, a priority before anything else. And this understanding is standard. You do not complicate a standard with one’s ethics, emotions, political convictions, or social circumstances. In your consciousness, you are following the standard once you limit your capacity to become human to others.
Who is the prescribing authority of this protocol? With a Cabinet and the IATF led by police and military officials, Duterte’s administration has enabled this protocol. Filipinos know that he rationalizes and prides about his killings even when he was still a sitting Mayor. During the Luzon lockdown, Duterte encouraged the military and the police in his national address on April 1: “My orders to the police and military … if there is trouble or the situation arises where your life is on the line, shoot them dead.” [xii]
A “new normal”?
The assertion of the Master-Slave relation during this crisis reinforces the structure of violence in the Philippines. Our individual agency should make us morally responsible [xiii] and know that to remain business-as-usual after the pandemic is a choice to become complicit with violence and its structures. And so, we cry for a new normal.
Recognizing that our normal is bad and that we need a new normal is an elementary step to a post-COVID future. The real challenge lies in this paradox: how could we imagine the “new” when we define what to be done based on the permissible meanings of the present structures of violence? It is a system controlled by Masters that promote militarist logic, greedy capital accumulation, and privatization of the commons, justifying austerity while dismissing our feelings of despair, anger, and anxiety as irrational, weak, and a conscious choice we subject ourselves in. Living through this system of structural violence is intrinsically brutal. Those who thrive in this horrible universe measure success based on the breadth of their abuse done on people and the environment justifying their actions through rational institutions.
The cynics were right about humanity’s self-interest. But only so if we let the narrative be filled with the language of the abusive deceiver, the one who uses power to disregard other realities and threatens those who dissent. Do not be numbed by everyday acts of violence around us. Witness it for the sake of those who have experienced violence. We should not carry over this Master-Slave relation onto our post-COVID future. The Master-Slave relation is not normal. Oppression is not normal.
Clarissa Ruzol is an assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Forestry and Natural Resources at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. She hopes to do more work on the anthropology of knowledge/power in the field of environment and development in the Philippines. firstname.lastname@example.org
[iii] My reflection is influenced by Franz Fanon’s Black Skin White Masks (1967) who translated Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic in a post-colonial context: “I hope I have shown that here the master differs basically from the master described by Hegel. For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master laughs at the consciousness of the slave. What he wants from the slave is not recognition but work. (220)”
[iv] According to Francis Gealogo in his article “The Philippines in the World of the Influenza Pandemic of 1918-1919” published in 2009 in Philippine Studies, the second wave of the influenza was deadlier in the Philippines and the admission by authorities of failure in combating the disease has yet to be written in the country’s public health history. Maybe that’s why Duque thinks we have no past experience with a pandemic.
[v] For a similar interpretation, refer to: http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2014/05/hegel-on-the-master-slave-relation/
[x] The concept was already apparent to me but this term I first encountered in David Graeber’s 2006 Malinowski Lecture “Beyond Power/Knowledge: an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity” which he later expanded in his 2012 article “Dead zones of the imagination: On violence, bureaucracy, and interpretive labor” published in the HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (https://doi.org/10.14318/hau2.2.007)
[xiii] Jean-Paul Sartre’s political philosophy believes in the Marxist reading of Hegel’s Master-Slave relation grounded on both individual agency and moral responsibility: https://www.iep.utm.edu/sartre-p/