Specter of the Red October: A Hauntology of Philippine State Propaganda under Rodrigo Duterte

IN 2018, MORE THAN a thousand Filipinos clutching placards and flags marched to Luneta Park on September 21, the day of commemoration of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s declaration of Martial Law. Weeks before the successful protest mobilization, rumors of a plot to overthrow current President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, scheduled to erupt on the 21st, percolated the public discourse. This inspired a strengthened security force in the area but much to their dismay, the plan to oust Duterte failed to materialize (Romero, 2018). On that day as well, the Duterte administration and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) began staging the nationwide canard called “Red October.” That afternoon, Armed Forces deputy chief for operations Brig. Gen. Antonio Parlade asserted to the public that “there will still be a plan this coming October. They call it Red October. That is the month of international celebrations for communism, Marxism and IP (indigenous peoples)” (Punongbayan, 2018).

AFP chief Gen. Carlito Galvez alleged that the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) founding chair Jose Ma. Sison and the CPP Central Committee are “spearheading” the plot (Ocampo, 2018). In response to these allegations, the CPP released a statement online admitting that the “NPA [is] not yet strong enough to overthrow system” (Viray, 2018). The Party dubbed it a “fiction” penned by the government, and the Filipino public has good reason to believe this because “President Duterte and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, with puerile collaboration by the Philippine National Police, have tried to drum up as ‘real’ their conjured plot” without presenting “any credible evidence to back up their allegation” (Ocampo, 2018). Public knowledge on the issue was delimited to the extent of what the government releases to the press. Hence, since the beginning of its coverage until now that October has passed, the Red October plot had been met with criticism and speculation, with many dismissing it as government propaganda that reinforces crisis, danger, and uncertainty, toggling public attention away from more pressing (and actually palpable) concerns such as inflation, contractualization, and state violence. Inadvertently invoking fear and balefulness as motifs associated to the month of October (read: Halloween), the Red October plot sought to menace the people.

With its reliance on the press to reach civil society, the Red October plot calls attention to the pivotal role of the media in the Philippine government’s strategies of sowing fear among its people to consolidate authority. This paper aims to wrap its head around this much-discussed contingency between mass media and politics by reading the coverage of the plot through, for the lack of a better term, a fitting “ghastly” lens. I argue that, reiterated (and interrogated) by various media “teletechnologies,” the Duterte administration’s Red October propaganda haunted the public as a Derridean “specter” of Ferdinand Marcos’s populist campaign against a communist insurgency. Exhibiting Jacques Derrida’s concept of trace[1], the Red October cannot “function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present” (Lucy, 2004); it relies, in other words, on a condensation of historically woven meanings meshed with attempts to ontologize it in the present. The Red October is a blank propaganda, a floating signifier that lends itself to political (that is, power-laden) appropriation. This paper seeks to expose how a fascistic populist regime uses what I dub as “spectral propaganda” (chosen among other tactics such as news blackouts, state intimidation, and outright deceit) in order to tap the latent anxiety already existing in the public sphere, building conflict between the Filipino peoples and the demonized Other, here the Communists. By offering three insights that can be drawn from construing the plot as a haunting of a past regime, the paper also seeks to endorse the Derridean specter as a framework of understanding the contingencies between media and politics.

The concepts of propaganda, populism, and the Derridean specter can aid us in understanding Duterte’s recent political moves. I argue, before anything else, that the Red October plot is government propaganda. As the CPP points out in their statement, the Red October is a “fictional plot which clearly aims to set the stage for applying increasingly draconian measures against the Filipino people” (2018). While it is difficult to distinguish it from marketing and public relations (Rutherford, 2000), propaganda, from a rhetorical perspective, is best understood in its “deliberate, systematic attempt to shape perceptions, manipulate cognitions, and direct behaviour [sic] to achieve a response that furthers the desired intent of the propagandist” (Jowett & O’Donnell, 2006). Magnifying its potential to accrue others’ consent and trust for the propagandist, from a political economic sense, we can say that propaganda is the language of power (Rutherford, 2000). Clearly, propaganda differs from advertising and advocacy because it must be broad in scope (that is, beyond the realm of commodity fetishism) and must dominate messaging in mainstream media in order to inspire significant action—or inaction—based on the audience’s changed attitudes (Soules, 2015). Propaganda like the Red October draft media technologies to facilitate its distribution; media, then, shapes its persuasive capacity. Following this logic, Hernan and Chomsky, in their seminal work Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, (2012) points out that the propaganda machinery at work in media systems is difficult to pin down within capitalism where formal censorship is absent.[2]

The inscrutable presence-absence of propaganda within the current capitalist media system[3] paves a ripe condition for machinating populist politics. The concept of populism can help make sense of Duterte’s appeal to the over 16 million Filipinos who elected him into office, (Curato, 2016) a postelection adulation that bequeathed him the security to “take on the Catholic Church, the mainstream media, some figures in the business community he singles out as the rapacious oligarchy, the United States and the European Union, the UN human rights commission, and the International Criminal Court, etc. — all at the same time” (David, 2018). Populism remains a contentious term in political theory, with some scholars labeling it an ideology, while others construe it as a social base. However, there is a broad consensus that the logic underpinning populism is the realization of an antagonism between the “populace,” in this case the Filipino peoples, and a “dangerous other” (Laclau, 2005). Quimpo (2017) points out that Duterte channels Marcos’s populist rhetoric in emphasizing “law and order as a prerequisite to addressing poverty and delivering development.” Public peace can be attained by tightening the legal constraints around the dangerous other, which in this case is drugs. Indeed, the “War on Drugs” campaign, even just by its name, fashions an enemy that must be quashed (Saguin, 2018). Along with the violent Oplan Tokhang, which has a death toll of more than 20,000 as of September 2018, (KARAPATAN, 2018) the cementation of this antagonism is achieved at the level of ideology by nothing else than propaganda in media. Hernan and Chomsky (2012) asserts the internalized populist (i.e. anti-other) logic of propaganda:

A final filter [of mainstream media] is the ideology of anticommunism. Communism as the ultimate evil has always been the specter haunting property owners, as it threatens the very root of their class position and superior status […] This ideology helps mobilize the populace against an enemy, and because the concept is fuzzy it can be used against anybody advocating policies that threaten property interests […] (p. 278)

The press, television, radio, and online media mediate the communication between authority and the public sphere. Coopted by a reactionary state and the private sector, mainstream media enlists the public sphere—at least, its subscribers—as a populace threatened by the other. This smacks of nothing but the language of populism: crisis, danger, urgency. A radical shift from Duterte’s conventional populist strategy, the Red October as propaganda is an attempt to create an enemy other than drugs. To sociologist Randy David, (2018) the plot endeavors “to put an end to Mr. Duterte’s hitherto exuberant approach to dealing with the armed Left,” reminding us of the President’s socialist claims during his electoral run.

Media, as Hernan and Chomsky put forth, embodies and locates a populist propaganda system such as Duterte’s. However, I suggest that much insight can be drawn by reading the Red October as a “spectral propaganda.” The specter is Jacques Derrida’s endeavor to articulate the logic of postmodern deconstruction of the Western metaphysics of presence, a hierarchy of terms organized by the desire for ontology. The specter is a “thing” constituted by binary oppositions whose axioms anticipate each other: life and death, body and spirit, presence and absence (Derrida, 1994). Labiste (2015) bolsters the spectrality of media itself in asserting that “communication is a condition of spectral possibilities, and one possibility is enacting a promise that presupposes repetition and the chance to represent something that is absent.” Media itself is the site of the specter’s (re)apparition as “signs that include images, sounds, and objects transmuted into media forms for transmission, modification, and commodification.” By construing the Red October as a spectral presence, the complicity of media in the face of fascism and imperialism can be illuminated. As Derrida (1994) explains, media, which he dubs as “teletechnologies” in light of its capacity, “communicate and cooperate at every moment toward producing the greatest force with which to assure the hegemony or the imperialism in question.” The philosopher echoes Hernan and Chomsky’s elucidation of the propaganda model. Nevertheless, there is critical potential in media, especially with new media technologies (i.e. social media) that can function as a substitute for the public sphere, where the state can be interrogated by participative democracy (Habermas qtd. in Labiste, 2015). Three possibilities emerge out of this reading: (1) that populist propaganda is spectral due to reapparitions (reiterations) through media, (2) that the Red October is a haunting of an antedated populist campaign that taps the latent anxieties of the public, and (3) that the media can be a sphere for public “mourning.”

In making sense of the specter, Derrida postulates that its apparition relies on the double constitution of construction and deconstruction: “one represents itself to oneself, but it is not present, itself, in flesh and blood” (1994). He explains this in his work Specters of Marx in conjunction with the specter of communism presaged in Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’s The Manifesto of the Communist Party: it is as if the specter itself, after having embodied a spectrality in legend and without becoming a reality (communism itself, communist society), came out of itself, called for an exit from the legend without entering into the reality of which it is the specter. Since it is neither real nor legendary, some “Thing” will have frightened and continues to frighten in the equivocation of this event, as in the singular spectrality of this performative utterance. (p. 104)

As a trace, the specter’s ontology is occluded by its double constitution. It is a “legend,” a text, that exits its inescapable status as text without entering the realm of materiality. Material existence is but a promise to be realized in the future, a revenant as Derrida calls it: “the ghosts’ unfinished business disturbs the present, and presages its realization in the future (Derrida & Stiegler, 2002).” Audiences of the specter anticipate: “at once impatient, anxious, and fascinated: this, the thing (“this thing”) will end up coming” (Derrida, 1994).

The Duterte regime’s hunt for Red October can be nothing more than a specter as nary a crucial or comprehensive detail had been revealed about plot from the beginning of the coverage until the end. Press releases following its “discovery” include the red-tagging[4] of filmmakers and teachers as recruiters of students to the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the CPP (Ellao, 2018). Details about the sham plot even belie each other. Upon returning from his official visit to Israel and Jordan, Duterte disclosed that his people has secured a document about the ouster plan from a foreign government he did not name. Contradictorily, on September 26, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana claimed that the alleged plot was uncovered way back in February 2017 in an encounter between AFP troops and the NPA in Bukidnon (Ocampo, 2018). The plot, marred by hardly related and sometimes even incomprehensible information, floats as an empty signifier, a present absence, a ghost.

How does a ghost function as propaganda for a populist regime? By construing it as a specter, we realize that the Red October propaganda is the best site to tap the public sphere’s latent anxiety, such as a communist insurgency. Physically absent and only accessible as a media text, the Red October plot is deployed by the government as a symbolic gesture against a public enemy in order to “prove their leadership and calm the public” (Schmidt, 2000). It is reminiscent of the Red Scare in the U.S., an outbreak of “anticommunist or anti-radical intolerance and repression” employed to tap and promote deep-seated public fears, capitulating the public to hysteria (Powers, 1983). The objective of the government is “to calm the public by fighting crime in whatever symbolic form the popular mind might imagine it,” (Powers, 1983; Schmidt, 2000) but in the case of the Philippines, among other nations, more horrendous measures were observed not only to quell hysteria but also to concentrate the administration’s power over its citizens. Ferdinand Marcos, whose populist strategies are emulated by Duterte, blazoned the same clarion call to quash the haunting potential of insurgency through the Martial Law, warranting “detentions, tortures, and killings of communists and government critics that defied the Marcos regime” (Arguelles, 2017). The hundreds of deaths resulting from this populist strategy traumatized the nation.

Like the fiction of communist insurgency during the Martial Law era, the Red October plot, construed as insurgency in itself, is a present-absent specter. In order to sever any exuberant involvement with the Reds, (David, 2018) the Duterte administration must bring back to life the same anxiety as in the Marcos regime. The Red October as propaganda is a haunting of Marcosian populism, a distant yet immanent reiteration of the populist demonization of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Three decades after the Martial Law era, Duterte with his Red October plot returns the suspension of liberal democracy to save the nation from further decay (Arguelles, 2017). In a similar fashion as Marcos’s anti-communist tactics, the Red October plot expresses the symbolic politics galvanized by the suffusion of media consumption and exploited by the Duterte administration.

How, then, does media figure into the circulation of anticommunist propaganda? Remember that the Red October plot is not palpable as a material phenomenon in contrast to, say, the Drug War, which leaves tangible corpses in its passing. In order to appear, it must be reiterated. Specters haunt, and the logic of haunting is repetition (Labiste, 2015). Iterability is “condition of the singularity of a thing—any thing—that the thing in itself belongs to a general form of such things which that particular thing represents” (Lucy, 2004). In this case, the location of the spectral propaganda’s reiteration is mass media. Iterability in media has “less to do with the content of a sign or its material constitution; rather, it is more about providing a space for something to appear or return” (Labiste, 2015). The Red October is manifested, simulated, transmitted, and repeated as the reiterated images, sounds, and texts reproduced in print, radio, television, and online media, overcoming the limits of space and time by constituting both presence and absence. The lack of a meaning that can be hammered down onto stability (ontology) props up an aporia, “the form of something that cannot be explained within standard rules of logic” (Lucy, 2004). To Derrida, anxiety is the affect of aporia: “How to comprehend in fact the discourse of the end or the discourse about the end” (1994).

Media teletechnologies, promising a “new speed of apparition,” articulates a promise that requires judgment (Derrida, 2004; Labiste, 2015). Judgment—the desperate placement of meanings in the face of the aporetic moment—is orchestrated by media itself in what Derrida calls the act of mourning: “It consists always in attempting to ontologize remains, to make them present, in the first place by identifying the bodily remains and by localizing the dead” (Derrida, 1994). Aporia invokes an anxiety that can only be overcome by ontologizing, an act everywhere in the mass media sphere in the form of commentaries, news articles, criticisms, and interrogations. News articles from mainstream media channels that seek to report information disclosed by the government regarding the plot only contributes to the circulation of an anticommunist anxiety described above. As mentioned earlier, however, by acting as a public sphere where discourse is relatively freer and more dialogical than real-life government-civil society relations, media has the critical potential to breach political boundaries and re-map political trajectories in society (Labiste, 2015). Satur Ocampo’s online column, for instance, ontologizes the specter as a sham, a canard to distract the people from more pressing issues. The same analysis is proposed by the CPP through the Philippine Revolutionary Web Central, an online media platform. The hashtag #ResistCrackdown—crackdown meaning the prosecution of activists and legal progressive groups—has gone viral on Twitter to counteract the spectral propaganda. Faced with a specter, ontology moves away from the metaphysics of presence—the primacy of an originary meaning—and towards a contestation of politics. The entry of the propaganda model into the fluid circuits of the digital realm—a media platform that allows for creator-audience interactionability—figures the Red October with an originary meaning (a Red Scare) that both operates a populist rhetoric and surrenders it to contestation. Consumers of Philippine media, then, are caught up in the work of hauntology: “it would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly” (Derrida, 1994).

Through the hazy lens of Derrida’s specter, media as a site of contestation among different politics and political actors becomes apparent in two ways as explained in this paper. Firstly, embodying the propaganda model, it serves as the site of circulating hegemonic state ideologies such as anticommunism. The Red October plot condenses historically constructed figurations of populist strategies such as the Red Scare. However, this figuration is only possible through its emergence in media-as-public-sphere. Secondly, and fortunately, teletechnologic media can perturb the very instigation of negative dialectics by functioning as a public sphere. The reiteration and interrogation of the absent-present Red October plot only show that ghosts are politically complicit, and that seizing media as a means of ideological reproduction can put specters back to the crypt.


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[1] Derrida ascribes trace not only to certain terms or languages, but to the entire sign system in its broadest definition.

[2] Strangelove (2005) argues that capitalism itself “operates as a form of empire, one that works not merely through the marketplace and the much maligned military-industrial complex of modern states, but also through the mind itself.”

[3] The commodification and privatization of media are also explained in Hernan and Chomsky’s political economy.

[4] “Red-tagging” is the alleging of individuals or groups as members of the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army.

Jose Monfred C. Sy teaches composition and literature at the University of the Philippines. He earned a Bachelor of Arts (Comparative Literature), summa cum laude, from the College of Arts and Letters of the same University. His research interests include protest cultures, political ecology, geohumanities, and video game studies. He is also a human rights activist.

This article is part of the Balangiga Press Manila inaugural folio on Populism, Imperialism, and Nationalism in Southeast Asia. We encouraged our readers to respond to this article for a broader discussion and debate on the themes we would like to explore for our inaugural issue. Submission guidelines is here.

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