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.