The Long View: The promise

The promise

February 21, 2010 23:35:00
Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer

TIMOTHY Garton Ash, writing in the New York Times Review of Books, contrasted violent revolution with People Power (or Velvet Revolution, in the Eastern European sense) in this way: “In old-style revolution, the angry masses on the street are stirred up by extremist revolutionary leaders – Jacobins, Bolsheviks, Mao – to support radicalization, including violence and terror, in the name of utopia; In new-style revolution, the masses on the street are there to bring the powerholders to the negotiating table. The moment of maximum mass mobilization is the moment of turn to negotiation; that is, to compromise… For also characteristic of [Velvet Revolution] is that it often takes a long time to succeed, after many failed attempts, in the course of which opposition organizers, but also some of those in power, learn from their own mistakes and failures – as, for example, in Poland, Serbia and Ukraine. Protesters ‘fail again, fail better,’ to adopt Samuel Beckett’s memorable phrasing. Both sides do it differently next time. Eventually, the moment comes when there are two to tango.”

This, as Ash puts it by way of Ernest Gellner, comes at a price –  “the price of velvet,” because revolution is negotiated; there is no such thing as a winner-take-all situation where the losers, besides losing their property, lose their lives. In turn this produces what Ash calls a “postrevolutionary pathology”: “As the years go by, there is a sense of a missing revolutionary catharsis; suspicious talk of tawdry deals concluded between old and new elites behind closed doors; and, among many, a feeling of profound historical injustice.” Ash proposes two antidotes to this: in the first place, a Truth Commission on the South African model, where responsibility and blame can be assigned, and admitted; and second, the rule of law must be put in place or restored, with the realization that corruption corrodes the rule of law.

Frederick Hayek defined the rule of law as follows in 1945: “Stripped of all technicalities, [the rule of law] means that government in all its actions is bound by rules fixed and announced beforehand – rules which make it possible to foresee with fair certainty how the authority will use its coercive powers in given circumstances and to plan one’s individual affairs on the basis of this knowledge. Though this ideal can never be perfectly achieved… the essential point, that the discretion left to the executive organs wielding coercive power should be reduced as much as possible, is clear enough.”

If you consider the times people have taken to demonstrating sustained opposition to the authorities – twice in 2001, from 2005 onwards against the present administration, and against various proposals to amend the Constitution for self-interested reasons – what they had in common was disgust over official impunity with its corresponding disregard for public opinion. In these situations, those who’d been in positions of authority during the martial law years, the most sustained period of impunity in living memory, proved the more likely to submit to public opinion, if only to buy time.

Much to Jose Almonte’s frustration, when people rallied against proposals to extend Fidel V. Ramos’ term, the plan was abandoned, although to this day Almonte is convinced they could have won a plebiscite. In 2001, President Estrada did everything by the Marcos playbook: first, in response to protests he organized a large loyalist rally; then he submitted to constitutional procedures confident he could master them; then he proposed a snap election and tried to buy time to rally support from the provinces. When he finally left the Palace, he refused to formally resign, and declined to go into exile. His arrest four months later proved just how dangerous it might have been had Marcos stayed in the country in 1986.

But what is important is the continuity of attitude of the Marcos-era veterans with the methods of the present dispensation. It has increasingly relied on the same methods: divide the clergy, divide the opposition, play off urban versus rural, maximize built-in advantages in a cowed bureaucracy and compromised judiciary, all the while using the military and police as the ultimate foil. Both in the streets and in terms of populating government with generals who’ve developed a taste for political power, blurring the lines between civilian and military authority ultimately serves to neutralize public opinion.

Which is not to say public opinion is always right or that leaders shouldn’t exercise leadership by going against public opinion: but always for a purpose larger than the tactical interests of leaders who defy their own public merely to pursue the personal profit of themselves or their friends. Leaders who believe they can do what they please, regardless if it pleases the public or not, on the certainty that they control all official forums, are precisely the kind who push people to take their grievances to the streets.

In turn it is the promise contained in peaceful non-violent protest that denies leaders the consolation of telling themselves, their people, and history, that might makes right.

It is the promise inherent in elections, too: they “are not just, so to speak, the tribute vice pays to virtue,” as Ash points out; they are beloved by dictators and democrats alike because dictators can manipulate them but they also foster “Hubris, based on past successes [that] helpfully nudges such rulers down the road to nemesis.” So it was that Marcos proclaimed he would win in 1986, and why his acolytes trumpet a similar boast in 2010. They believe that in 2010 as in 1986, they have it all figured out.

Maybe they do: but only for now, and never in the long run. That’s part of the promise of People Power, too.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

12 thoughts on “The Long View: The promise

  1. “In VR, it is not just the Abbé Sieyès who survives. Louis XVI gets to keep a nice little palace in Versailles, and Marie Antoinette starts a successful line in upmarket lingerie.”

    It is such a pity Ash does not credit the Philippines for inspiring the events of ’89 since he could have drawn some parallels between the above statement re: Marie Antoinette and Imelda Marcos.

    So while VR’s provide benefits such as less bloodshed and social upheaval, they do carry costs in the form of preserving social inequities that lead to corruption based on state capture.

    I would like to believe in his prognosis for a truth commission and the rule of law, but no poor (as opposed to transitional) country has eliminated corruption or established Western rule of law without first growing their economies for extended periods of time. And while “shock therapy” applied by WB/IMF worked in the Czech republic, it failed miserably in Russia where people were worse of ten years after the so-called reforms.

  2. Sorry, just to qualify, he did partially credit the Philippines, source of the “Filipino-English term ‘people power'”, along with other movements in Chile and Portugal along with earlier learning processes in the Eastern bloc.

  3. There was catharsis, but as with all catharsis, the feeling subsides. Puro catharsis nalang nga eh. No reform.

    Yep, rule of law even children playing would understand instinctively. The problem is, the elite exploit the educational gap and their access to authority. And they don’t get punished. They don’t get penalized or thrown out of the game. They get to hang around.

    It’s better to look at our past, the source of our cultural traits. The Spanish era, the American. Intramuros still stands. Much of the country are still “indio.”

    In fact, we only had real cultural progress during the American era.

  4. I agree with Brian Brotario. At least the Czechs had culture to speak of. The Russians, like us, are more uncouth and barbaric. In the final analysis, we are condemned to repeat history because we aren’t conscious of one. In recent times our only culture is toilet humor, Willie Revillame, Boy Abunda and Kris Aquino. Our masses have been idiotized. And our elite are the first ones to exploit that.

  5. agree with Brian Brotario. At least the Czechs had culture to speak of. The Russians, like us, are more uncouth and barbaric. In the final analysis, we are condemned to repeat history because we aren’t conscious of one. In recent times our only culture is toilet humor, Willie Revillame, Boy Abunda and Kris Aquino. Our masses have been idiotized. And our elite are the first ones to exploit that.

    I totally agree, sadly. Add Pinoy Big Brother to that and the telenovela idols…too bad we look up and listen more to showbiz personalities for guidance and role models – these are not real people for heavens sakes…there must be something wrong with our educational system…

  6. I guess the thing I take from this piece is the danger of a utopian vision along with a non-violent revolution. Sure, the velvety types go down much easier. No killing fields or concentration camps, but also no utopia at the end either.
    The danger is for the fever to sputter out when the poetry of campaigning turns into the prose of governing like what happened in the Ukraine (with the Orange rev turning Blue) and in Barack O’s White House. Patience, trial and error. Mao’s famous saying two steps forward, one step back.
    Aspiring for the rule of law and clean government are both admirable goals, but we must be careful to take measured steps lest we stumble and give up in the process, which would be a tragic waste.
    The Czechs and Poles may have had more compatible institutions w/ capitalism than the Russians. Our country is market based in the cities, however, out in the countryside, things operate differently. We could speed things up by opening access to ownership of land, financial and human capital. Often local bosses get in the way. And so it goes…

  7. You don’t get it. We progressed culturally during the American era. The democratic institutions established in that time compared to what Aguinaldo et al was trying to establish–what were the remnants of the Katipunana going for inthose times anyway? During the American regime we learned a little ethics and a little organization. Look at us now.

    Not being an Amboy, but compare those times with the rise of Hing Kong and Singapore, which was related government-wise with South Korea. I think it’s called liberal autocracy. What do you think about this? You are one of those who insist Filipinos need to evolve?

    Look at what people are actually saying. Too much politics, puro laway. In an autocratic liberal society, there’s freedom from want and oppression but little of free speech or a free-for-all-politics. Isn’t this what Filipinos want?

  8. I think it’s what the ever-dependent masses also want. I think I would like it, myself. I can’t even imagine anyone objecting about it except democrats fueled by rote.

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