KASAMA Vol. 13 No. 3 / July-August-September 1999 / Solidarity Philippines Australia Network

Yellow and Black (With Apologies to Stendhal)[1]

by Waldon Bello

So here we are, again, serving as cannon fodder for two traditions, two political groupings, as they battle for the political direction of our country.

On one side, we have the Saint and Sin, who have draped themselves with the mantle of the country's entrenched elite democratic political tradition. On the other, an immensely popular populist whose liberal credentials are under question, whose authoritarian propensities are, in the view of many, increasingly showing.

Democracy is the ideology of the Philippine elite, but it is the liberal democracy articulated by the seventeenth century Englishman, John Locke, which was made flesh in the American Republic, then replicated after the colonial conquest in the Philippine republican system by our valiant ilustrados. Liberal democracy in the Philippines was a faithful reproduction of the American blueprint - that is, the marriage of the method of political succession by majority vote to the complex of rights and freedoms that were won in the centuries-long battle against absolutism in Europe and colonialism in the New World.

Liberal Democracy and the Elite

Alone of all the elites of Southeast Asia, the Philippine elite, as Ben Anderson pointed out somewhere, took to liberal democracy as a system of governance. And they were able to do this, first, because Uncle Sam was there to act as referee and socialize them into the rules of the game over a 40-year period; and second, because it provided a framework within which they could fight for power and alternate in office without having to plunge the country periodically into destabilizing and bloody succession struggles.

But an equally important reason for its adoption by the elite was although it was politically and legally progressive, with its concept of the equality of all citizens under the law, liberal democracy was, in fact, socially conservative. After all, defense of private property was the centerpiece of the Lockean social contract. And the system of elections was embedded in a social structure that rested on vast differences in wealth, influence, and status. Certainly, the choice of the individual voter was the centerpiece of liberal democratic practice, but it was choice that was conditioned and oiled at every level of the body politic by the realities of money.

Thus the paradox of Philippine liberal democracy: Honest-to-goodness free elections in which millions now periodically participate are the lifeblood of the system; and yet, after over 80 years of being in place (minus, that is, the 14 year Marcos interregnum), the distribution of assets and wealth in this country is one of the worst in Asia - indeed, far worse than in many semi-democracies or non-democracies.

The Populist Challenge

It is the socially conservative outcomes of liberal democracy that have served to trigger periodic bouts of mass disenchantment with it. It is in such periods that the system becomes vulnerable to those that personify another tradition, the populist tradition. In the 1950's, Ramon Magsaysay, with his direct charismatic appeal to the masa, bypassed the oligarchy's screening process - though this would have been impossible without the help of the CIA and its cash. But Magsaysay, tutored by the curious hybrid of hardboiled American realpolitik and Jeffersonian idealism that was Edward Lansdale, posed his challenge within the parameters of the system.

That cannot be said of later populists. Some of these people emerged from the dynamics of Philippine democracy itself. For when it was transplanted to this country, liberal democracy brought with it the institutions of early 20th century mass politics in the US that responded to the need to integrate the vast masses of European immigrants into the American body politic. Chicago-style machine politics was built on the exchange of jobs and social security for the long-term personal loyalty of the voter to the "boss." The result was not only long-term supremacy of one political party at the local level but also, in many cases, dynastic rule by the boss and his heirs.

When machine politics was transplanted into the Philippines, it was easily absorbed into the patron-client culture of the traditional regional and local elites. But machine politics also became an avenue of political and social mobility for the lesser elites and the middle classes. Indeed, in many parts of the country, machine politics translated, as in Mayor Daley's Chicago, into virtual dictatorship periodically legitimized by votes that were mobilized, bought, or coerced by the superior organizational resources of new elites that owed their position to mastery of mass electoral politics.

As Al McCoy[2] observed, a strong undercurrent of the evolving system was the tension that developed between what he called the "patrician" elite families whose power was based more on traditional wealth and privilege like the Aquinos and the Osmeñas, and the "provincial" elites whose power lay more in their ability to master the electoral machinery. The former was more inclined to respect the rules of the game that protected their wealth and traditional privileges, the latter to modify the rules so they could translate political advantage into wealth and status.

The masses became the object of this struggle, and populist rhetoric became a staple of ambitious regional bosses like Ferdinand Marcos who sought to change the rules of the game by decrying the meager accomplishments of liberal democracy in the way of social reform. Under a consummate Machiavellian like Marcos, populism was transformed into a syncretic rhetoric and ideology that promised to soak the rich by breaking the "democratic deadlock" that was said to prevent reform; create a "constitutional authoritarian" order that would assure peace and order for the middle classes while securing the material advancement of the poor; and bring about prosperity for all in exchange for their giving up the "unruly" political liberties of Lockean democracy. Marcos, it must be noted, was popular in the first years of martial law.

But Marcos eventually lost support when it became clear that he was really an ersatz populist whose project did not go beyond that of concentrating the relatively dispersed political power of the different elite factions in his faction and transferring ownership of their vast holdings to his family and cronies. Riding on the back mainly of the disenchanted middle class and deftly guided by Washington, the traditional elites that had been disenfranchised by Marcos managed the anti-authoritarian movement that swelled after the Aquino assassination and brought back the Lockean system that was so congenial to their interests, enshrining this once and for all, they hoped, in the 1987 Constitution.

But memories are short, and massive poverty, helplessness, and the sense of having no future while the globalized Philippine rich romp around in their usual brazen, vulgar, and insensitive ways have again made people receptive to the siren song of populism.

Erap's Populism

This is, of course, what accounts for the tremendous popularity of Joseph Estrada, who is the populist par excellence. Erap is, in many ways, both the antithesis and the offspring of Philippine liberal democracy. Of all the presidents, he owes his position least to class and money, though he has been patronized by the rich and is himself reported to be of no mean wealth. While he is no stranger to the world of machine politics, he does not really owe his position to the kingmakers like Danding Cojuangco. He owes it to his unsurpassed ability to translate into political power the star power that he accumulated in that most democratic of modern institutions, the entertainment media, which deal in rags-to-riches stories, justice-wins-out-in-the-end tales, and other escapist devices that cushion the harsh real lives of the poor and the deprived. The traditional elites may rail at the "stupid masses," but they have failed to prevent the people's confusing their role as movie audience and as citizens and projecting into Estrada their hopes and their dreams - a reaction that is only too human and one that is incomprehensible only to the insensitive rich.

In typical populist fashion and much like the Louis Bonaparte of Marx's 18th Brumaire, Estrada has assembled around him a motley crew of Marcos era buddies, anti-Marcos people, men and women of the left, and arrivistes with interesting reputations. Where the legitimate world ends and the other world begins is not exactly clear when it comes to his retinue. His style of rule, as many have pointed out, is to get people to "get along" or makisama, whatever may be their ideological propensities, which means that in practice reform turns to mush and the genuine social reformists in the gang are either emasculated or corrupted.

Erap is a "democrat," in the sense that he knows he has the numbers to push through what he wants, without the need for guns. But he has never been known to be a partisan of liberal freedoms. Certainly, to many of those prominently associated with him, liberal freedoms are simply fine words and constitutions are pieces of paper that can be rewritten to suit ambitions and dreams of permanent domination. To a large part of the masses that back him, Estrada can do no wrong, and if he wants to amend the constitution, the burden of proof is laid on those who oppose him.


In contrast, Cory is today a relic to many, somebody who is remembered in an ambivalent fashion - as one who, yes, played a key role in bringing back democracy but also one who chose to sacrifice land reform to save her family's estate, Hacienda Luisita; as the president who, by making repayment of the foreign debt the country's top economic priority, gave us zero average GDP growth during her reign.

Even more than Cory, Cardinal Sin is seen by many as an anachronism, a figure who comes across today not so much as a democratic symbol but as the resentful patriarch of the conservative faction of a beleaguered dominant religion who acts as if the war against condoms is more important than the war against poverty.

It says volumes that the two have chosen Makati, the homeground of the rich and the privileged, as the site of the anti-charter change rally, instead of more proletarian quarters at the Luneta or Liwasang Bonifacio.

If the country is where it is today, if the threat of authoritarianism and anti-liberalism has become again pronounced, the liberal elite regimes of Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos must bear a great part of the blame. Between them, they had 12 years to transform the landscape of Philippine democracy, by decisively using their office to push through the profound social and economic reforms that people wanted. Instead, Aquino put class interest and foreign banks ahead of the national interest, and Ramos promoted the panacea of globalization as the answer to all our woes. Nothing is more dangerous to democracy than a frustrated citizenry, and while revolution may not be in the air, class resentments are clearly on the rise. Even the Philippine middle class, mistakenly enshrined in EDSA mythology as the stable base of democracy, is today on the move in an illiberal direction.

Protest within a Protest

One is tempted to say, a plague on both your houses. But while we may have little respect for their narrow class politics, one must acknowledge that the main threat to the interest of the citizenry today does not stem from the yellows but from the renewed ambitions of the blacks, from the prospect of a creeping return of authoritarian populism. Thus we have no choice but to rally alongside the yellows on August 20 - not because we mystify liberal freedoms like they do, but because these freedoms are indispensable to completing and deepening the democratic revolution that they have stalemated. We will rally, but without much enthusiasm for our partners in yellow, who mouth liberty and freedom of the press, but who really have no answers for the massive problems and frustrations of those they regard, with their enormous class arrogance, as the vast unwashed masses.

The Grand Challenge

But our protest in defense of liberal freedoms will be meaningless unless we also resolve that this will be the last time that we will allow ourselves to be used as cannon fodder for the two feuding political traditions of the Philippine elite. If the nation today can only choose between elite democracy and drunken lumpen-populism, we have partly ourselves to blame. For the marriage of liberal freedoms to an agenda of redistribution of economic power and wealth, nationally directed development, and democratic cultural revolution, where people are respected for what they are, not for what they own, is the great unconsummated but utterly necessary political project of our time.

So urgent a task yet something that we have so far failed to innovatively address, derailed as many of us have been either by the paternalistic Christian Democracy of the Ateneo Jesuit crowd or by the scarlet utopia of the UP intelligentsia. Some have called this frustrated project social democracy, others popular democracy. But whatever the label, it is a venture that desperately needs to be undertaken, or our people will forever be pawns in the struggle between feuding yellows and blacks, between the failed elite politics of the Aquinos and Ramoses and the ersatz pro-people politics of the Estradas and the Zamoras.

About the Author:
Waldon Bello is a Professor of Sociology and Public Administration at the University of the Philippines and Director of Focus on the Global South (Bangkok). He is also National Chairperson of Akbayan!, the Citizens' Action Party. The views expressed here are, however, his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the party.

This article appears in the author's regular commentary, "Perspective," in Business World [Manila], August 16, 1999 and is reprinted here with Prof Bello's permission.

These endnotes have been added by the KASAMA editors.

1. (1783-1842). The French author Marie-Henri Beyle used 170 pen names during his career. The one by which he earned his enduring reputation is Stendhal. In 1830, under this name, he published Rouge et le Noir (Red and Black), a novel about the social life and customs of 19th century France.
2. Dr Al McCoy, An Anarchy of Families: State and Family in the Philippines, ed., 1993, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Centre for Southeast Asian Studies.