Business World, 24 April 2017


The populist wave that has hit global politics has surprised and perplexed scholars, who in turn have produced a backwash of analyses struggling to explain the phenomenon and predict its consequences. Most analyses put down the phenomenon to heightened economic inequality owing to globalization, anemic economic recoveries, or cultural backlash and xenophobia owing to immigration. This is all very good for many Western countries. But it unfortunately does nothing to explain populism in the Philippines, or indeed the rise of President Rodrigo R. Duterte.

Common to all instances of populist resurgence, however, is the charismatic leader — which is the necessary flipside of populism. Charisma is popularly used to loosely describe some ineffable personal characteristic, an attractive je ne sais quoi exuded by certain showbiz celebrities, politicians, and business leaders. But it was Max Weber (1864-1920) — that lapsed but talented economist who invented sociology — who gave charisma a precise political significance.

In Economy and society, Weber applies the term to “a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Weber then considers how a species of political authority can be based on charisma, along with the better-known Weberian categories of political rule based on tradition (e.g., patrimonialism and feudalism) and rationality (as in the modern bureaucratic state).

Charismatic leadership is typically born from crisis — or at least the perception of one — which is what gives rise to its insistent call for measures to save the community. Hitler rose by pointing to the economic crisis that followed Germany’s humiliation after World War I, blaming the Jews (a non sequitur) as the vermin eating away at the people’s well-being. The Philistine threat to Israel paved the way for the rise of a David; a struggle for national and religious survival in the face of Roman oppression was the fertile milieu for the Maccabees, John the Baptist, and ultimately Jesus of Nazareth; the Mao Zedong cult was rationalized by the need for a cultural revolution to save the socialist project from “capitalist-roaders.” Closer to home, Marcos justified his brutal dictatorship through an alleged conspiracy between oligarchs and communists. And then of course there was that life-and-death national crisis that carried President Duterte to power — laglág-bala and traffic on EDSA (joke) — of course I meant the drug menace and criminality. (“I have to solve this problem. Drugs — it will continue. I don’t care whether there [are] a thousand hearings everywhere. I am focused on the problem.” “Do not destroy my country, the youth — I will kill you.”)

Unlike the modern bureaucratic state governed by laws and rules, and unlike patrimonial rule that harkens to tradition, the source of charismatic leadership is invariably imagined to be something greater than the body politic itself. Some divine inspiration or intervention selects the charismatic leader and raises him (or her) above the multitudes in order to fulfill a mission only s/he can accomplish. There might be a special sign (e.g., perhaps a transfiguration, an adoration by magi, or even just a 39% electoral plurality), or maybe even a miracle (e.g., raising Lazarus from the dead, slaying the enemy with a donkey’s jawbone, or OK, maybe lowering the crime rate in a third-level city). But at any rate, according to Weber, “It is recognition on the part of those subject to authority which is decisive for the validity of charisma. This recognition is freely given and guaranteed by what is held to be a proof, originally always a miracle, and consists in devotion to the corresponding revelation, hero worship, or absolute trust in the leader.”

The legitimacy of a charismatic leader is therefore a function of nothing but sheer belief in that person and his qualities.

In Weber’s words: “This basis [of legitimacy] lies rather in the conception that it is the duty of those subject to charismatic authority to recognize its genuineness and to act accordingly. Psychologically, this recognition is a matter of complete personal devotion to the possessor of the quality, arising out of enthusiasm, or of despair and hope.” The result is a curious inversion of democratic values — especially where charisma takes hold of what was formerly a democratic polity. While democratically elected leaders normally have the duty to serve the people, here it is the people who think it is their duty to serve the leader.

Hence the invariable call among true followers to “help our President Duterte” — and the vicious backlash against those who try to sound a dissenting note (sorry na lang, Leni and Leila).

It puzzles many that Duterte’s outbursts of profanity, outré announcements, and flip-flopping policy intentions fail to dent his popularity. Pundits always seek out the latest Pulse Asia (or SWS) surveys to see whether Duterte’s latest antics have finally caused a precipitous drop in his ratings — mostly only to be dismayed that the numbers have held up. But that is actually par for the course for charismatic authority and a validation of its power. Flowing from the superhuman source of charisma is leader’s ability to disregard or show contempt for rules or tradition.

Weber again: “…[C]harisma, in its most potent forms, disrupts rational rule as well as tradition altogether and overturns all notions of sanctity. Instead of reverence for customs that are ancient and hence sacred, it enforces the inner subjection to the unprecedented and absolutely unique and therefore Divine.” Extraordinary actions and words are justified and tolerated owing to the supposed emergency the community finds itself in, and the superhuman source of the leader’s power. (Profanity after all can be likened to speaking in tongues.) For this reason, the followers of a charismatic leader, when called to do so, will think nothing of ignoring legal tradition, insulting venerable institutions, ramrodding legislation, suspending elections, even changing the form of government itself. “Charismatic authority,” says Weber, “repudiates the past, and is in this sense a specifically revolutionary force.” But not to worry: all is good, since all is inspired by the higher goal of solving a crisis, and direction after all comes from a Higher Source.

This impression is reinforced by the fact (and this is important) that the leader is disinterested in the evident power he has been given; indeed he himself is not the wielder of that power but only the unworthy instrument of a greater cosmic actor. Indeed the leader would rather have foregone the privilege: “Let this cup pass from me; yet not my will but yours be done.” The latest Philippine version of this heroic fatalism is this: “This is my last hurrah. After this, 77. I am not sure if I will still be around by the end of my term.” “I do not need the presidency at my age.” Nonetheless, “in this quest, I will put at stake my honor, my life, and the presidency itself.” “Oust me — good; assassinate me — better.” “I do not care if I burn in hell, as long as the people I serve live in paradise.” Then finally, of course, the heartfelt appeal to the supernatural: “Tabángi ko, Ma.” That’s textbook charisma.

It goes without saying, of course, that charisma lasts only while it lasts. “Charismatic authority is naturally unstable,” warns Weber. This type of leadership is justifiable only as a response to crisis; its spell wears off once the crisis passes, or the leader’s powers are seen to fail. The first requisite for maintaining authority therefore is to sustain the belief in the idea of perennial crisis. For this reason, we are told, it is impossible to solve the drug problem in only six months, as promised — it’s far worse than we thought, so give us more like six years.

Still, the real danger to charismatic leadership is not that a leader should fail to solve his preferred crisis. It is rather that other, more everyday concerns — especially economic problems — crop up and intrude upon what the leader sees as the greater primordial battle. Instead of the cosmic struggle between good and evil, what you have is traffic congestion, tax reform, rice importation, cumbersome bidding and procurement rules, delayed PPP contract approvals, foul-ups in mass housing, trade negotiations, peace talks, labor regulations, health insurance, budget deficits, credit ratings, and so on — in short, the daily grind of poverty and unglamorous gray issues of development which are just so many inconvenient distractions from what the leader insists is the central issue and that which justifies his rule. Indeed, the quotidian and mundane (der Alltag) is the true enemy of charisma.

Again Weber: “[C]harisma is basically an extraordinary and hence necessarily non-economic power, and its vitality is immediately endangered when everyday economic interests become predominant, as it threatens to happen everywhere.”

Confronted with the many petty problems of daily existence, the leader’s repetitious speeches about the old same topic begin to sound tired, talk of crisis sounds hollow, threats and insults lose their shock value, and the leader’s audiences can only politely look at their shoes.

At that point where mundane concerns arise but are not solved, when people’s lives fail to improve, then the spell of charisma is broken and people realize the emperor has no clothes: “It may appear to [the leader’s] followers that ‘his powers have left him.’ Then his mission comes to an end, and hope expects and searches for a new bearer; his followers abandon him, for pure charisma does not recognize any legitimacy other than one which flows from personal strength proven time and again.”

“If the people withdraw their recognition, the master becomes a mere private person… and if he claims to be more, [then he becomes] a usurper deserving of punishment.”


*All quotes come from M. Weber [1978] Economy and society. G. Roth and K. Wittich, eds. University of California Press.