Rodrigo Duterte's election as president was a shock to the Philippines' democratic system. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

A few years ago, the professor of risk management Nassim Nicholas Taleb pondered the question of what’s the opposite of “fragile.” For many readers this may seem an easy answer – perhaps “strong” or “stable,” maybe “resilient.” Interestingly enough, Taleb opted for what was staring him in the face: “anti-fragile.”  

Rather than resilience, he argued, anti-fragility means that a system or object becomes less fragile when stressed and challenged. Inversely, anti-fragile systems become more fragile when they are not challenged or shocked. Clever, but not all together novel, reasoning.

Friedrich Nietzsche once observed “that which does not kill us makes us stronger,” and even the ancient Greeks imagined Antaeus, a wrestling giant who when thrown to the ground always returned stronger.

The bones in our bodies, moreover, are among the best examples of anti-fragility. Bones often grow back stronger after being damaged, but they grow weaker when not tested or exercised.

Or there’s capitalism, which, as many have marveled over the centuries, has the inbuilt knack for reform and adaptation that makes it less fragile after every shock and crash but more fragile when there’s relative stability – the most likely reason for the cyclical repetition of economic crises.   

What about politics? The wonder of liberal democracy is that it’s instinctively anti-fragile. Because governments or presidencies change hands every few years, there are regular shocks to the system that produce reform, adaption and new thinking.

Regular elections mean there are regular stresses on the system that prevent political atrophy, the gradual decline in effectiveness or vigor due to underuse or neglect, as biologists define the word.

More than that, ruling governments in democracies face shocks and stresses almost every day, from a baiting media, from adversarial opposition politicians, from grassroots members of their own party, from independent courts, from constitutions.

From the outside, democratic systems might appear chaotic and disorderly. In fact, Taleb subtitled his 2012 book Things that Gain from Disorder. But, from the inside, it is from disorder that democracies create stability and endurance.

These stresses and shocks, however, are removed from authoritarian regimes, like those in Southeast Asia. Indeed, the sine qua non of authoritarian regimes is to prevent shocks to the system.

Back in 2017, I wrote a column about Southeast Asia’s “stabilitocracies,” as I called them, like Cambodia under Prime Minister Hun Sen. For these, ultra-stability is what drives all political decisions, yet this makes them increasingly fragile.

Because there is no “regularization of shocks,” as one might fancifully call it, authoritarian governments are rarely tested. There is no daily criticism from independent media, no opposition in parliaments, no independent inspectors, and no real challenge from within the ruling parties.

As such, authoritarian governments are never given the same opportunities as democratic governments to make constant adjustments, to impose regular reform and, most important, to be self-critical. Indeed, even the most self-assured democratic leader must be racked with self-doubt – and must be constantly questioning their own ideas and policies. It has somehow become opprobrium to criticize democratic governments for “U-turning” on policies, but far worse would be to carry on hopelessly with a faulty policy.

The authoritarian leader, however, exists within a system where self-doubt and introspection are rarely possible, since they rarely allow themselves to hear any criticism. And because they are so risk-adverse, authoritarian governments must act as though one critical comment or one protest (shocks to the system, in other words) is so dangerous to stability that they must be suppressed as immediately as possible.

As such, the authoritarian regime builds within its own structure an inherent fragility, while democracies are imbibed with anti-fragility. Put another way, democracy is a method to prevent political atrophy; authoritarianism isn’t.

None of this is to say, however, that authoritarian regimes don’t experiment with anti-fragile measures – only that these measures are fragile in themselves.

Take Vietnam. In 1975, the ruling Communist Party mandated that National Congresses must take place every five years. At the time, there hadn’t been one since 1960. This started a process that the analyst Carl Thayer called the “the regularization of politics.” 

These quinquennial National Congresses, where new leaders are elected and the government’s past performances are debated, meant that Communist Party leaders were now on a regular basis held accountable by delegates from across the country.

Since no National Congress was held between 1960 and 1976, there was little turnaround in party officials. Indeed, the same 11 Politburo members ran the Party throughout this period. However, from 1976 onward, regular National Congresses resulted in a considerable number of reshuffles. Central Committee members, who before 1976 would have rarely lost their seats, were now swapped around at regular intervals, as were members of the Politburo.

Hardly democratic, since the only leaders chosen are those belonging to the Communist Party, it does at least provide a glimmer of anti-fragility within the Party that survives until this day, by constantly replacing its hierarchy with new officials and new ways of governing. Because young politicians have a means to access elite levels, it instills competition and some fashion of technocracy within the system.   

While this anti-fragile measure remains respected, with the 13th National Congress set to take place in January, another such measure has been upended recently.

In the early 1990s, the Communist Party agreed that the four main political offices in Vietnam would be divided among four different individuals – the so-called “four pillar” system. The motivating idea was to prevent one person from holding too much power, thereby ensuring the Party’s, not one individual’s, dominance over politics. But in 2018 the incumbent Party chief Nguyen Phu Trong was also elected as state president, which allowed one individual to hold two of the four most important posts.

Whether or not this has fundamentally changed Vietnamese politics is debated (as similar changes have done in communist Laos and China), as is whether the current “three pillar” system will be continued at the next National Congress next year. Or, maybe, as an anti-fragile measure, the “four pillar” system will return less fragile from next year onward because it has now been tested and shocked.

In Vietnam’s case, the anti-fragile measure is regular replacement of politicians. Look to Vietnam’s neighbor Cambodia, however, and there is no such “regularization of politics.” Prime Minister Hun Sen has held power since 1985; Interior Minister Sar Kheng has controlled his fiefdom since 1992. Instead, the sliver of anti-fragility installed in the Cambodian political system was what analysts call “controlled democracy.”

From the early 2000s onward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) allowed opposition parties to run against it in general elections. Of course, these elections were far from free or fair, but they provided the ruling party with an opportunity to learn what it was doing wrong and what the people wanted changed.

Put differently, they were controlled shocks to the system that allowed the ruling party to adapt. So much so, in fact, that when the main opposition party, the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), finished only 4 percentage points off the ruling CPP at the 2013 general election, the CPP immediately appropriated almost every single one of its opponent’s campaign promises.

However, this anti-fragile measure was ended when the CNRP was forcibly dissolved by the ruling party in late 2017, just months after the opposition group overturned the CPP’s near monopoly of locally elected offices. Controlled democracy, Hun Sen presumably thought at the time, had revealed a little too much about the fragility of the ruling party. Continuing with it might have led to the CPP’s demise at the 2018 general election.

Taking the country back to a one-party state (as happened at the 2018 ballot) ended Cambodia’s experiment with anti-fragility. And now, because of that, Hun Sen’s power is looking increasingly fragile as he lashes out at every protest and criticism, and as he tries to maintain stability amid an economic crisis and a handover of power to one of his sons without really knowing what the Cambodian people want.    

However, even democracies’ inherent anti-fragility can be shocked too far. The election of President Donald Trump, some say, has fundamentally changed the US political system; there was a pre-Trump way of doing politics and there will be a radically different post-Trump method of politics.

Others, though, argue that Trump will be remembered as a mere blip in America’s long political history, and once he leaves the White House the country’s political system will renew itself and make itself less fragile and less prone to electing a demagogue.

This debate, in fact, is about anti-fragility. Was Trump a shock to America’s political system needed to test just how anti-fragile it is? If it is anti-fragile, then it will grow less fragile and stronger after the Trump shock. If not, and the US becomes more fragile after Trump, then something was badly wrong with the political system’s anti-fragility long before 2016.

A similar question must be had in the Philippines. Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential victory was a major shock to the Philippine democratic system, coming after almost a decade of establishment, moderate leaders. Duterte’s rule has been anything but liberal, as we all know, and it might be so autocratic that it causes the pillars of Philippine democracy to crumble.

In one sense, the shock of Duterte’s time in office has, indeed, demonstrated that parts of the Philippines’ political system were not as anti-fragile as once thought; rather than strengthening when tested and shocked, they have weakened. How the Supreme Court has followed his command, and his ability to imprison critical politicians and journalists through less-than-legal means, are examples of this.  

Yet the radical shock that is Duterte hasn’t completely altered the political system. So far, the constitution remains unchanged and Duterte will have to step down in 2022, the time of the next presidential election. At that point (and if Duterte does step down voluntarily and allows a new president to replace him) only then can we evaluate whether the political system was anti-fragile enough.

Maybe, post-Duterte, there will have to be constitutional reforms to make certain pillars of the system less fragile, such as the independence of the judiciary or free-speech laws. Maybe, like in the US, this shock was a wake-up call for those who had grown overly confident in the durability of the Philippine democratic system.

David Hutt is a political journalist based between the Czech Republic and Britain. Between 2014 and 2019, he was based in Cambodia, covering Southeast Asian affairs. He is Southeast Asia columnist for The Diplomat and a regular contributor to Asia Times, including the column Free Thoughts. He reports on European political affairs and Europe-Asian relations. Follow him on Twitter @davidhuttjourno

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