The Spectacle of Violence in Duterte’s “War on Drugs”

Danilo Andres Reyes


This article argues that, in Duterte’s “war on drugs”, state power is exercised through the body in a spectacle of humiliation and violence. The analysis draws from the work of Foucault (1979) on the political value of a spectacle of the body to explain the distinctive character of Duterte’s violent war on drugs; of Feldman (1991) on the use of the body as an object in which violence is embodied to send political messages; of Agamben (1995) on eliminating life supposedly devoid of value; and on Mumford et al. (2007), who pointed to the popularity of “violent ideological leaders.” I argue that, under the Duterte administration, criminals are humiliated and killed in a spectacle of violence that politicises their lives, sending a message that intimidates others. In the process, law-abiding citizens are meant to feel safe, which is seen as likely to increase the newly elected president’s popularity and his power as chief executive. Duterte has thereby politicised life, not only putting criminals outside the benefit of state protection but actively targeting them. Duterte is the first mayor and president to have actively targeted criminals and, in doing so has encouraged other politicians to follow his example. The politicisation of the bodies of criminals is distinctive in Duterte’s form of violence. This article is drawn from data sets of individual killings when Duterte was either serving as or acting behind the mayor of Davao, and compared with cases of drug-related killings since he became president on 30 June 2016.

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