On Tunisia, velvet revolutions, and the battle of political perspectives in the Philippines.

The news of continued protests in Tunisia over the appointment of cabinet ministers associated with recently-ousted autocratic President Zine al-AbidineBen Ali in the new, transitional “unity government” reminded me of an interesting thesis on velvet revolutions by Timothy Garton Ash. I came across it in 2009 through the blog of Manuel L. Quezon III, now President Benigno S Aquino III’s Undersecretary for Communications.

According to Ash, one fundamental difference between traditional revolutions– those class-oriented mass actions led by the republicans in France, the Bolsheviks in Russia and the Maoists in China– and the modern velvet revolutions– those that democratized autocracies from the Philippines to Central Asia to Eastern Europe from the late 1980s– is that the latter do not produce a winner-takes-all situation where the losers lose not just their influence and properties but also their lives. Instead, the members of the ruling elite get not the guillotine but a seat at the round table.

Ash said the reason for this is that, unlike in old-style revolutions where “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.” This I think is the case because proponents of velvet movements generally adhere to two important values: non-violence, in the Gandhian style, and democracy; hence, they adopt a non-confrontational, sometimes even embracing, attitude towards the old elite and their constituents in the name of stability, or avoiding bloodshed, and of respect for basic human rights. As a result, the members and supporters of the old regime are absorbed in the new political set-up.

In theory, this of course is good because it makes the national psyche forward-looking; unity of the people is valued with the view of building new institutions that will make the nation stable, if not stronger. “Heal the wounds of Edsa,” as Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo liked to say. But in reality, according to Ash, this produces a “post-revolution 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,” he wrote.

Strictly speaking, despite the labeling by the Western media, the uprising in Tunisia was not a revolution. It did not lead to what Dr. George Lawsondescribed as “the rapid, mass, forceful, systemic transformation of a society’s principal institutions and organizations.” The transitionary government in Tunis still operates within the political framework of the Ben Ali era. Still, the on-going transition there has the characteristics of a velvet movement– relatively peaceful mass mobilization of the civil society, called “people power” by journalists, resulting in the collapse of a corrupt, abusive regime– and all the elements Ash described: the “turn to negotiation”, which in Tunisia means letting ministers of the Ben Ali regime become part of the new government; and the subsequent “post-revolutionary pathology” which manifested itself immediately through widespread protests demanding the ouster of the Ben Ali’s ministers and the dismantlement of their political party.

But more than “the feeling of a profound historic injustice,” I think what makes the pathology more pronounced is the fact that the apologists of the old regime are allowed by the post-revolution dispensation to join the national discourse.

Antonio Gramsci, one of the most important communist thinkers of all time, once postulated that the reason worldwide socialist revolutions that orthodox Marxists called inevitable did not occur is because capitalism has become a hegemonic culture in which the values of the bourgeoisie have been adopted by the masses as common-sense values; therefore, the challenge for Marxists is to come up with an alternative culture with alternative sets of values that would topple the prevailing cultural hegemony. York University Professor Emeritus Robert W. Cox adopted this theoretical framework in analyzing international relations. Deviating from the Realist point of view, his neo-Gramscian theory argued that the battle for hegemony is not between states but between ideologies and political perspectives. I’d like to stretch this paradigm by framing it on the context of post-velvet political conditions. I believe that the relaxed attitude of the post-velvet dispensations towards the old elites enables them to present an alternative political perspective that challenges the ideologies, sometimes even the legitimacy, of the revolution and its post-revolutionary set-up. This has been the case, particularly, in post-Edsa Philippines.

We can say that there have been, among others, two political perspectives in the post-Edsa arena: that which states that the Marcosian way of governance is good for the Philippines and that the Marcos era was in fact a golden age for the country, and that which upholds the ideals of the Edsa Revolution and the legacy of the Aquino family.

While both local and foreign press have painted Ferdinand Marcos as the epitome of evil and Corazon Aquino as the saint of democracy, and this narrative has been adopted officially by the State, the alternative political perspective offered by the loyalists of the Marcos regime continues to present a major, major ideological challenge. In 1992, the Marcos votes would have handed the presidency to a Marcos loyalist had they not been split between Danding Coujangco and Imelda Marcos. In 1998, a Marcos loyalist was elected president. Joseph Estrada’s machine was, to some extent, manned by many old guards of the New Society and while he failed in his quest to give Marcos a state burial, the fact that the issue was not even a taboo already indicated that the narrative of Marcos the villain and Aquino the hero has never been a hegemonic political perspective in the Gramscian way.

Very recently, BBC Radio ran a feature on what it called the remarkable transformation of Imelda Marcos from being the other half of an abusive conjugal dictatorship to being a popular cultural icon. In July of 2009, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, famous for its anti-Marcos roots, ran front-page stories on the 80th birthday of the former first lady that Quezon saw as a sign of political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. “There seems to me no better proof that the rehabilitation of the couple is now complete: the fluffy, cooing front-page lifestyle-style story was devoid of reproach, as was Kit Tatad’s paean to Madame as a victim of the uneven application of justice. Who, then, can doubt, that their being a political issue has been laid to rest; their political restoration, at last, complete; and with it, their political and historical vindication finally achieved,” he wrote.

Just last year, in the midst of the election of the Aquino heir as President of the Philippines supposedly (according to Conrado de Quiroz) on a People Power platform, the Marcos family won big time: Imee became the Governor of Ilocos Norte, Imelda became a congresswoman and, most significantly, Ferdinand Jr. became senator of the Republic.  Quezon thinks that this is but a part of a historical transition. Still writing on Imelda’s party, he said: “So it is that every generation passes and with its passing, its memories and feelings are lost; and so it must be that we are, at long last, truly entering the post-Marcos era. In which case the fulsome coverage of Ms Marcos’ birthday celebrations was less something to be outraged about, and instead, simply something to take notice of: a signpost of how the times have changed, as they must.”

Indeed, I myself did think that Ferdinand Jr. deserved to be senator because of his superb performance as a congressman and a governor of home province. Unlike many of my friends who argued against his candidacy, I didn’t think he deserved to be penalized for the sins of his parents. I didn’t think, too, that he needed to apologize for subscribing to a alternative political perspective since, after all, that perspective is shared by a considerable number of Filipinos. But I believe that there is a need to prevent this alternative perspective from gaining the upper hand in the Gramscian battle of viewpoints. This is because allowing so would result in an opening that could be used by the proponents of this alternative viewpoint to mount a counter-revolutionary come-back.

The problem is that any attempt to hegemonize the anti-Marcos, Edsa political perspective is constrained by the democratic framework which that perspective itself upholds. After all, this framework allows, even encourages, all alternative political perspectives to exist and to compete, legally, in the arena. Ash hinted that putting up a South Africa-style Truth Commission that would identify and assign blames, and strengthening the rule of law might be the answer. But in the context of the post-Marcos and even post-Arroyo Philippines, it seems to me that these measures are paradoxical. The rule of law allows the legalistic forces of the Marcos and Arroyo machines to prevent many truths from coming out while simultaneously re-fashioning themselves as victims of a vindictive regime, which is what they have done and are doing.

For me, the real answer is competence. The political restoration of the Marcoses came about mainly because the post-Marcos dispensations were not able to perform well in terms of improving the lives of the people.

The instability of the post-Marcos democracy that stagnated the economy, for instance, makes many of those belonging to the generations that experienced Marcos look back in nostalgia to the stable and relatively better economic conditions during his rule. Indeed, one of the favorite graphic comparisons of the pre-Edsa and the post-Edsa eras is that children in the 1970-80s had free meals in school (the famous nutribun and milk) while now, there aren’t even enough classrooms. On the other hand, many of those belonging to the generation that has not experienced Marcos are captivated by the claims of the Marcos political perspective because of their cynicism of the post-Marcos conditions. In the process, they all tend to de-emphasize the dark aspects of the Marcos regime. I think this, more than the so-called forgiving nature of Filipinos, explains why many surveys show Marcos topping the list of who people perceive to be the best presidents of the Philippines.

This should serve as a lesson to the new Aquino government, coming to power as it did as an anti-thesis to the corrupt and abusive regime of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Since there wasn’t even a velvet uprising in 2010, the danger of the Arroyo viewpoint defeating the Aquino perspective in the Gramscian battle of political views is more pronounced. The fact that the President seems to be incapable of wielding power properly doesn’t help.  It is obvious that the Arroyo loyalists would use every misstep– from the biggests like the botched hostage crisis in Luneta to the smallests like the Presidential Porsche– to promote their own political perspective: mainly, that it’s better to have a leader who’s corrupt and who would circumvent laws and institutions as long as she gets things done.

The only way for President Aquino to defeat that political perspective, and to prevent the rise of another Arroyo, is to not be stupid and to show that he can get things done.

I

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3 thoughts on “On Tunisia, velvet revolutions, and the battle of political perspectives in the Philippines.”

  1. The French, Russian, and Chinese models as “old-style” revolutions? Come on… Your so-called “velvet” revolutions were not even revolutions in its strict sense.

    Its not simply a matter of a Gramscian battle for hegemony. Arroyo and Aquino come from the same class of hacenderos, big businessmen, and corrupt bureaucrats.

    In fact, the present regime offers no significant departure from the previous one’s anti-people policies and programs.

    The only difference with Aquino is the trying hard but often botched efforts at populist demagoguery.

    These false reformist slogans and measly doleouts cannot hide the fact that Aquino is no different from Arroyo in his subservience to neocolonial dictates and sticking to neoliberal dogma, in his anti-labor and anti-land reform direction, in his slashing of social services in favor of onerous debt servicing and military spending, in his coddling of a brutal human rights violating military forces…

    The resurgent mass struggles of peasants, workers, women, students, youth, professionals, urban poor, indigenous peoples, among other sectors and classes of Philippine society will fast expose the Aquino regime for what it truly is. 😉

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