Our love for democracy

The most interesting development in our recent political  history, for me, is not the recovery of democracy in 1986, but the ease with which we surrendered it in 1972.  As we look back to those images of freedom-loving crowds gathered on EDSA  11 years ago today, let us not delude ourselves with the thought that, as a people, we have such a natural affiliation with democratic ideals that we will never allow any dictator to rise on this land again.

It is said that in 1972, Marcos was so sure about the public outrage that would greet the proclamation of martial law that he actually prepared for a siege that would last up to six months. Yet, instead of waging a defensive battle against an enraged public, he actually had an easy time rounding up and detaining everyone he thought to be a potential rallying figure for an imagined opposition. The absence of any meaningful resistance was simply dismaying — especially to Marcos.

The legal opposition was locked out pathetically after Marcos closed down the legislature.  Some senators literally tried to enter the padlocked building, only to be barred by soldiers.  All that the legal opposition could manage then was to file a case  before the Supreme Court challenging the legality of the proclamation of an emergency and the assumption of martial law powers by the president.

Just a few weeks before, a democratically-elected Constitutional Convention was winding down its work.  Its central preoccupation had been to stop Marcos from securing a third term as president through constitutional means.  But its heroic efforts came to nothing.  Marcos suspended its sessions, placing most of the key opposition figures in that convention under arrest.

When Marcos allowed it to reopen,  the remaining members of the convention came up with a draft of the new constitution that contained almost everything that Marcos wanted, including the right to legislate for the duration of the emergency.  Of course, the emergency lasted long enough to become the “New Society”.  Later, that same constitution was amended to enable Marcos to continue issuing presidential decrees for the general purpose of “reforming Philippine society”.

The usually vocal Catholic Church kept silent during the early years of martial law.  It was probably its way of disclaiming any association with the young priests and nuns who were joining the growing ranks of student activists in conscientization campaigns in the countryside.  It was only much later, on the prodding of some priests and bishops, that the Church hierarchy began to adopt a critical stance towards the regime.  But even then,  it sugar-coated this by calling it “critical collaboration.”

Finally, the US government, which many Filipinos have always looked upon as the ultimate guarantor of our freedoms, kept a distant silence, indicating tacit approval of what was happening.  Marcos had cleared Martial Law with his US benefactors, persuading them that he only meant it to be a tool for modernizing Philippine society.  The security of US investments in the country were not only guaranteed, but in fact,  the first economic initiatives of the new dispensation were towards greater liberalization of foreign investment policies.

Not too long after that, Marcos signaled his abiding loyalty to America when in 1974, he nullified a Supreme Court ruling that ordered the turn-over of all lands in the possession of American nationals to Filipinos upon the expiration of the Laurel-Langley agreement.

In short, Martial Law came and made itself completely at home in a society previously thought to be impermeable to authoritarianism. Today, notwithstanding its collapse in many parts of the world, authoritarianism remains very much a seductive experiment.  It draws into its orbit all kinds of adventurers: political visionaries, developmentalists, economic reformers, advocates of modernity, and egomaniacs.  Marcos was a composite of all of these.

It would be simpler to discredit authoritarianism  if it announced itself as nothing more than a naked  power-grab.  But this is never the case. What prolongs its life and confers upon it no small amount of legitimacy is the complicity, among others,  of the very prophets of reason — intellectuals and technocrats.

As the French writer Michel Foucault once warned, we must beware of the latent fascist inside  every person. It may be someone who sincerely believes in correcting the  systemic inefficiencies of society through science.  Or it may be an intellectual who believes in using power as an instrument for the  overnight cultural rebirth of a demoralized nation.  Or it may simply be a messianic  incumbent who thinks that the nation would collapse if he is no longer its leader.

We are often surprised by the ease with which dictators are able to rise to power and sustain themselves.  For we tend to have a romanticized view of democracy, forgetting the simple truth that the presumed advantages of democracy may not be obvious to — because they are not objectively felt by — the vast majority of the people.  A people besieged by extreme poverty, persistent injustice,  and lack of social mobility will always feel it has nothing to lose by betting on a forceful figure who presents himself as a social reformer.

It was so yesterday; it remains true today.


Comments to <public.lives@gmail.com>