The American Lew Gleek once wrote this provocative summary of the political culture that, he argued in one of his books, produced Marcos –and which Marcos mastered:
The Philippine political culture is… personalistic but violent, religious but superstitious, corrupt but tolerant, hierarchical but distributionist, solicitous of form but not of content, legalistic, but careless of equity, media-obsessed and nationalistically vociferous with respect to rights but negligent to obligations.
Below, a book cover reproducing Marcos’ favorite portrait of himself: by Manansala. It was a gift to Marcos from Hans Menzi. It disappeared from the Palace during the EDSA Revolution but is said to have been recovered by the Marcoses recently. It is always instructive to see a person as they wanted to be seen.
The pre-martial law Free Press covered Marcos extensively: first, supportive, then, antagonistic, towards him. The following articles give a sampling of the coverage Marcos received –and the issues of the day– from 1965 to 1972.
Marcos wrote a diary with an eye to posterity –his version of events– and while never published in full, copies of many of his entries have been circulating for years. The Philippine Diary Project has some entries:
But that story –of phenomenal success based on boldness and cunning– was built, too, on perceptions of cleverness. In an editorial from 1986, the Free Press tackled the question of the “brilliance” of President Marcos:
He was able to terrorize and rob the Filipino people as he pleased, to the extent he wanted, and he never ceased wanting. This is intelligence? This is what those who collaborated with his regime called brilliance, turning away from those who opposed his regime. Isn’t the better part of valor prudence in the face of such a master intellect? Al Capone ruled Chicago for years and there was nothing the U.S. government could do all that time except, finally, get him for income tax evasion. Capone ruled – robbing and killing at will – so, he, like Marcos, was brilliant? Anybody could be “brilliant” – with a gun. So, Marcos was brilliant – at the start. He did not have a gun, then: martial law enforced by the Armed Forces of the Philippines with his Number 1 hood, Ver, as chief-of-staff. Then, martial law! Brilliant he was, okay, or just cunning, unprincipled, a thinking son of bitch? All right, brilliant Marcos was. But the intellect deteriorates not meeting real challenge. The gun makes all challenge ineffectual. The mind becomes dull. Absolute power does not only corrupt absolutely, it stupefies. There is no need for intelligence when the guns serves. The blade of the mind rusts. Absolute power brings absolute stupidity. Such is the lesson of all dictatorships.
On a more candid note, there are those who admired him but felt he went astray. One supporter was quoted as saying the following:
I sometimes think he became bored… he was very greedy. Yet it wasn’t ordinary greed… I think he became bored a year or two after martial law because he didn’t really have that much daily governing to do… I quite favor the idea that crony capitalism as they call began… when some of those cronies began to work out cunning schemes with him he was seduced by the intellectual challenge of it… He really wanted to know what he could get away with. It’s a Filipino trait, this constant testing to see how far we can go. He loved all that.
The late Leon Ma. Guerrero, who was a vocal supporter of martial law, arguing along these lines by way of an apologia for Martial Law:
The experience of the Filipinos had been of parties that were not parties but unprincipled coalitions of the rich, the powerful, and the unscrupulous; of elections that were essentially meaningless exercises in fraud, terrorism, bribery and demagoguery; of politicians who represented no one but themselves. The people’s capacity for self-government had been trapped in a political mechanism they had not learned to work or control, and their capacity for indignation and generosity, sacrifice and service to the country, left to wither and decay.
Taking a cue from Guerrero, and also, Lew Gleeck, if Marcos was both a phenomenon (as an individual) and an example of a political culture and its flaws, then the historian Mina Roces’s exploration of Filipino concepts of “malakas,” “mahina,” and “palakasan” are particularly illuminating:
First, on the clash, then synthesis, of cultures:
The colonial period introduced a number of Western idioms (the term Western idioms or Western institutions is used for lack of a better term to refer to non-indigenous influences introduced externally into the society from the West from the 16th century onwards) which were eventually incorporated into the cultural milieu and thus of political behavior. Some of these values were in direct conflict with the traditional elements of kinship politics. The set of Western idioms which penetrated and influenced Philippine political culture may be classified into three categories. First, a new set of ethics and morals, introduced in the Spanish period through the vehicle of Catholicism, provided a novel standard with which to conduct and judge behavior, often intruding into the established methods of comport. (This does not imply that there was no “morality” before the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century). Secondly, bureaucratic professionalism inculcated in the American colonial period emphasized a different method of participating in politics and business -that of utilizing impersonal norms, the assessment of people on the basis of achievement, and maintaining objectivity in major decisions involving personalities. Finally, the concept of loyalty to a nation-state, an entity far surpassing the specific confines of the family or village, began to emerge as nationalist ideas spread throughout the archipelago from about the second half of the 19th century to the movement for independence in the 20th century…
Second, the return, so to speak, of the disrupted home-grown track of culture, once political independence was achieved:
With independence, Filipinos assumed full political leadership and the tensions between these two opposing discursive practices surfaced. This unreconciled tension explains the peculiar behavior of postwar politics that saw the cyclical rise and fall of governments as each administration was voted out of office for graft and corruption. Families who operated in the traditional style found themselves exposed and criticized in the free press by rivals who used the rhetoric of Western values to attack those families in power. Having been shown to have neglected the national interest in favor of familial concerns, these families failed to retain their power beyond one administration. In this framework, the Marcos regime (1972-1986) represents the epitome of pure kinship politics as one family alliance alone had monopoly of political power and owning most of the country’s major corporations… This book argues that this unresolved tension was responsible for the ambivalent behavior exhibited by Filipino families who have used political power for familial ends. On the one hand, these individuals families sincerely believe the rhetoric they imbibed from their education -that corruption is bad, that the modern discourses of professionalism, ethics, and morals, and the concern for the national interest should override the familial interests in the political sphere. While these families use the modern idioms to criticize other families who in their eyes use political power to build a business empire, at the same time they remain blind to the same faults in themselves -almost oblivious to their own practice of kinship politics. In this manner they continue to apply one set of values (Western/modern) to their rival families, and one set of discourses (kinship politics) to themselves.
And third, how this led to a “contest,” between Western values and aspirations, and the way political action and behavior is manifested, through institutions predating Western norms: the extended family.
One persistent theme in Philippine postwar political history had been the continuous charges of graft and corruption against an administration, foreshadowing its demise at the next election contest. Such fluctuations in Philippine politics have been an established pattern since independence was granted in 1946..How can one explain such “cycles” in Philippine postwar history? This book proposes a framework for such an analysis. It argues that a contest between two competing discourses -traditional social idioms embedded in kinship politics or politica de famila and Western values (here interchangeably used with the term “modern”) inculcated in the colonial period- accounts for these political oscillations. Traditional, or pre-European, political organization is seen as being based on the politica de familia or kinship politics. This concept is used here to mean political process wherein kinship groups operate for their own interests interacting with other kinship groups as rivals or allies. Politica de famila thrives in a setting where elite family groups and their supporters compete with each other for political power. Once political power is gained by one family alliance, it is used relentlessly to accumulate family wealth and prominence, pragmatically bending the rules of the law to gain access to special privileges.
Malakas highlights inequalities not along socio-economic class lines but distinguishes between those who are exempted from all laws and rules that govern the rest of society (malakas) and those who have to follow the rules (mahina)… Those that follow the rules disadvantage themselves by sublimating themselves in a lower status while those who blatantly bend or break the rules of law gain prestige because they reveal their special status (they can break the rules without punishment, or they do not have to follow the rules that everyone else has to follow). And it is usually those who are in political positions who can exercise the malakas prerogative. An interesting point is that in order to show malakas status, one has to break the rules deliberately; one has to exercise status to show status.
And how being “malakas” is not solely based on material wealth, or education:
Malakas implies special status, blatantly stressing the inequalities in the social structure between those in power and those out of power. But malakas status is not dependent on social or economic class (although one could argue it represents the current political class, a position far from being static, as family alliances constantly move in and out of political office). Since the criterion for malakas status is solely political power, a wealthy person can lose out to a relatively poor but more influential family alliance. A group of squatters in a Manila slum area may be malakas because they have close ties with the mayor and therefore feel no threat of eviction. The person who owns the land illegally occupied by the squatters though wealthy, has no hope of retrieving his/her land or of evicting the squatters as long as these squatters maintain their malakas status vis-a-vis the mayor… It is true that, generally, wealthy families have more chances of attaining malakas status: politicians are willing to receive financial assistance from a wealthy family at election time in exchange for ties of utang na loob. Wealthy families are also financially capable of employing someone who is malakas in order to speak in their favor. For example, rich families can pay influential malakas lawyers, or malakas judges to favor them in court. A poor person who is mahina would not have the financial materiel to approach a malakas person for help. But it is important to note that even families from low social classes, the poor peasants, may be malakas if they are close to the powers that be. Don Aflonso may be wealthy but he could be mahina in the municipality of Pasay City, whereas, Mang Pedro who is the bodyguard of Mayor Pablo Cuneta of Pasay City could be malakas in that municipality.
And how to be “malakas” requires “palakasan,” which requires others to be “mahina”:
Another Tagalog concept also used as in idiom in the discourse of kinship politics yet unexplored by social scientists is palakasan. The word malakas literally means “strong” and the word mahina designates the opposite -”weak.” In a political sense, a person who is malakas is one who is in a position of power and uses that power unscrupulously to benefit his/her kinship group… One who does not want to his/her position or power to help his/her kin group is “mahina.” And to be branded “mahina ka” (you are weak) is pejorative. In the cultural value system, “malakas” is a virtue. One who is malakas is looked at with awe and it would enhance once’s position to work for such a “malakas” person. Thus, one’s being malakas or mahina becomes a culturally-defined yardstick of a person’s prestige, power, or influence. If a family is malakas, many would want to work for it or desire an alliance with it. The unabashed ability to display how malakas one is by using one’s power to give one’s family special privileges and concessions in business is received with great admiration. Palakasan is a system wherein those in power compete with each other in obtaining special privileges and exemptions from regulations and beding the rules of law for their kinship group. For the palakasan system to function, there must be various groups of family rivals all attempting to exercise power in the pursuit of family wealth and privilege. Each family then tries to outdo the other in being “malakas.”…