Skip to main content

Marco, in your book The Patchwork City: Class, Space, and Politics in Metro Manila, you discuss how neoliberal reforms have impacted the Philippine middle class and reshaped urban social structures in Manilla. Could you tell us about your main arguments and findings?

Sure. In the book, I argue that neoliberal economic reforms have led to the transformation of urban space in Metro Manila. Residential and commercial enclaves—typically gated and guarded—have proliferated. Meanwhile, the number and not just the population size of informal settlements has increased, and these “slums” have spread all across the city—large colonies with tens of thousands of people but also settlements of a few dozen people under bridges and in the middle of highways. The proliferation of these two kinds of spaces has resulted in a form of class segregation I call interspersion. Slums and enclaves are interspersed as a general pattern across the metro. This means that their residents are generally close to one another and acutely aware of each other’s presence. They also have substantial interactions, in the context of work mainly (slum residents are often employed in enclaves as service workers, e.g., security guards) but in other contexts as well, including charity efforts, civic association, and encounters in the urban environment. Despite these interactions, slum residents are often discriminated against as dirty and potentially criminal. Walls are built to keep them out of enclaves. Their movements within enclaves are carefully regulated. These discriminations add up. Slum residents, encountering social and physical boundaries wherever they turn, develop a strong sense of class discrimination.

In the book, I argue that the populist president Joseph Estrada politicized this sensibility. It’s not just that he declared himself an advocate of the poor—lots of politicians do that—but that he conducted himself in a way that actively negated the stigma of being a squatter and being poor. He would visit slums and embrace people without the least hesitation. He would eat with his hands and express himself in informal, often vulgar ways. I argue that this behavior resonated powerfully with the urban poor. They saw it as extraordinary precisely because they were so used to being mistreated in their ordinary, everyday lives. The book traces this arc. It connects economic liberalization with the restructuring of urban space and emergence of an intensive form of class segregation, and then connects spatial interspersion to social interactions and the experience of discrimination becoming salient, and then finally connects this experience to populism.

The book traces this arc. It connects economic liberalization with the restructuring of urban space and emergence of an intensive form of class segregation, and then connects spatial interspersion to social interactions and the experience of discrimination becoming salient, and then finally connects this experience to populism.

How can we correlate this democratic but also economic disenchantment with middle class’ support for Rodrigo Duterte?

A lot of the work I’ve done after writing the book has focused on explaining support for Rodrigo Duterte, particularly among the Philippine middle class. The middle class, including college graduates, are Duterte’s leading supporters. This can seem a bit puzzling at first because we tend to associate upper-classness and education with liberal democracy. Duterte has proven himself illiberal if not anti-democratic. In addition to waging a bloody “war on drugs,” he has undermined institutional checks (coopting the Congress and Supreme Court, for instance), trampled on civil liberties, and threatened the media. So why do the middle class largely support him? The answer, I think, has to do with how they’ve experienced democracy this last thirty years and what they’ve come to want from it.

The middle class have been at the forefront of efforts to reform Philippines’ political institutions since the democratization movement, the People Power Revolution, in 1986. They led the anti-Marcos movement and then the anti-Estrada movement in 2001. They’ve been in active in anti-corruption movements since. Despite these efforts to “fix” democracy, they see the same problems persist: corruption mainly but also elite impunity (the rich and powerful getting away with murder quite literally) and the empowerment of the urban poor. They see the latter as a threat to their property rights, linking the poor with informal settlement, as well as a threat to democracy insofar as the poor, in their view, favor disruptive populist candidates like Estrada. Duterte represents a different approach to fixing democracy. He represents strength, political will, and, most importantly, order. The middle class see the elite and urban poor as sources of disorder. They associate both groups with corruption. Duterte represents the promise of “disciplining” democracy. So it’s not that the middle class don’t want democracy or yearn for a return to authoritarian rule. It’s that they’re deeply frustrated with actually existing democracy and want to see it disciplined.

Duterte represents the promise of “disciplining” democracy. So it’s not that the middle class don’t want democracy or yearn for a return to authoritarian rule. It’s that they’re deeply frustrated with actually existing democracy and want to see it disciplined.

In a recent article you explored how the Trump administration may have accelerated disenchantment with American democracy for Filipinos.  Can we say that ‘ideological affinities’ between Trump and Duterte have contributed even more to democratic erosion, as well as to securitizing both country’s narratives on their foreign policy?

It’s true that both Trump and Duterte emphasize the need for order, but Duterte is the real deal. Trump comes off as feckless in his affectations. Duterte makes good on his rhetoric with murderous consequences. In addition to their domestic travails (which should be seen as primary), two events have significantly accelerated disenchantment with American-style democracy. First, Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic and the several hundred thousand American deaths resulting. Filipinos compared this with China’s response or with Singapore’s and concluded that “liberty” was a poor excuse for incompetence. Second, the Capitol riot on January 6. Filipinos are no strangers to people mobbing the seats of government and forcefully demanding change. They’re used to people contesting election results they disagree with. (There’s an even an old joke about there being no losers in Philippine elections; just victors and the people who were cheated of their victory.)

What was significant about Jan 6 was that it was happening in the US, which Filipinos have reflexively taken as the picture of the kind of democracy they’re supposed to aspire to. To many Filipinos, Jan 6 showed that American democracy was just as broken as Philippine democracy. They took this to mean that they would have to find their own way. It was no longer as simple as emulating democracy in America. They would have to create something new and particularly appropriate to their society. This means casting their eyes beyond the US to their Asian neighbors, particularly Singapore and China—although I think (and the surveys bear this out) that most Filipinos still want to retain some form of democracy. It’s just American-style democracy has lost its luster.

I am really supportive of your approach stressing perceptions of democracy as a disorder. Working on the post-Soviet space, it is something I have been encountering since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Could you develop on the contradictions at work and the moral dilemma resulting from it? Would you say it is typical for the Global South and for middle classes?

Sure. In the paper you mention I make the point that the Philippine middle class in particular has developed a perception of democracy as “disorder.” By this I mean that they routinely experience a contradiction between how things work and how they’re supposed to work—between “valued” and “disvalued” institutions. For example, they know they’re supposed to stop at red lights but observe cars regularly ignoring them. When they do stop, they’re liable to be yelled at. They know they’re supposed to pay this much taxes on their income, but then the tax officials want them to pay a smaller amount and settle the rest “under the table.” They look around and see people breaking the rules with impunity: rich people getting away with murder, as I mentioned above, and poor people occupying their property and being supported by local government.

the moral dilemma and the yearning for change in the direction of “order,” or bringing disvalued institutions (e.g., corruption or informal settlement) in line with valued ones (e.g., Weberian bureaucracy or property rights).

This experience of contradiction fuels a perception of social and political disorder. It leads the middle class to seek “discipline,” or the imposition of order from above. This sensibility is what I think is behind Duterte’s support among the middle class. Can we generalize beyond the Philippines? I think there’s ground to do so carefully. First, I’m pointing to the growth of a middle class with a particular normative sensibility. Generally, they’re committed to doing things the “right” way given their education and material interests. But then they feel forced to abide or abet practices they see as corrupt. Hence the moral dilemma and the yearning for change in the direction of “order,” or bringing disvalued institutions (e.g., corruption or informal settlement) in line with valued ones (e.g., Weberian bureaucracy or property rights). Second, I’m pointing to a experience of democracy that’s hardly particular to the Philippines. In brief, disorder comes to be associated with democracy. People point to greater corruption and clientelism and a bolder urban poor. In sum, this experience of contradiction, of democracy as disorder, may apply more generally to a set of middle-income democracies in the Global South—and perhaps also, as you suggest, to post-communist countries. More research needs to be done bringing the different experiences of these countries together under the same framework.

My last question related to conceptual issues. Our Program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. How do you interpret the term ‘illiberalism’ in the Philippine context? To come back to your book, how does it articulate with class—that you see as critical for the Global South than race in the US debate—being perceived as a social and culture experiences?

When I describe Duterte as illiberal, I mean that he’s willing to override traditionally liberal privileges, including civil liberties (habeas corpus or freedom of speech, particularly with respect to the media) but also institutional checks (in the form of an Ombudsman, for instance, or a watchdog agency), in the name of political order or expediency. We might also say that he’s practicing a strongman-type of rule, or that Duterte’s being a “strong leader.” That’s how his exponents describe him.

Importantly, the term illiberal is to be distinguished from “authoritarian.” What we’re seeing in the Philippines is not an authoritarian turn but an illiberal one. In other words, Duterte is not Marcos redux. He’s moved to restrict civil liberties and institutional checks but not to overturn the electoral system. Indeed, Duterte has taken his election and widespread popular support as a mandate for ruling in his particular way. He recently bowed out of the vice-presidential race out of respect for the people’s will (or so he claimed). My point is that he’s not challenging democracy per se or the idea of popular sovereignty; he’s drawing strength from it.

In other words, Duterte is not Marcos redux. He’s moved to restrict civil liberties and institutional checks but not to overturn the electoral system.

To the extent that Duterte is representative of a wider approach – and I think he is – then it’s clear that this political moment is different from the authoritarian turn in the 1960s and 1970s. Duterte, Modi, Bolsonaro, and maybe even Erdogan, Orbán, and others are not dictators in the traditional sense but something else. They enjoy democratic legitimacy in the sense of being elected and ruling through institutions, but they rule illiberally. My current research is fundamentally interested in why people, particularly in the “Global South,” have been receptive to these appeals. I’ve pointed to the growth of a middle class with a particular configuration of interests and expectations, and also to ordinary people’s experience of politics over these last few decades. Democracy has been disappointing, frustrations have mounted in no small part because of “globalization” or neoliberalism, and people are searching for better forms of governance. In short, it’s insufficient to just focus on leaders and their tactics. To understand why these styles of rule are resonating, we need to look at society, political subjectivity, and the visions of politics emerging from below.


Marco Garrido is Associate Professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. His work has focused on the relationship between the urban poor and middle class in Manila as located in slums and upper- and middle-class enclaves. The project has been to connect this relationship with urban structure on the one hand and political dissensus on the other. In the process, I highlight the role of class in shaping urban space, social life, and politics.

illiberalism.org

illiberalism.org

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.