What makes people power possible

We have had two now in just a span of 15 years.  Foreigners think we may be overdoing it a bit, not allowing our political institutions to mature and work properly.  They say we have been reckless and blind to the risks of direct non-institutional action in politics.  They warn that if we make a habit of it, there may be nothing to celebrate the next time around.

People Power is clearly the forbidden fruit of politics.  Its magic has not been fully grasped; its long-term implications for the life of a nation are not fully known.  What makes political theorists wary of its use is the belief that for collective life in the modern world to have any degree of security, it must develop stable institutions under a culture of law.  To fail to do so would be to invite recurrent disorder and destructive conflict.  It is difficult to argue against these notions, and it is well for us to bear them in mind even as we open ourselves to the wondrous surprises of creative interventions.

I think we have been extremely fortunate to have stumbled upon people power as a tool for resolving difficult political crises at a time when armed uprisings have become increasingly costly for nations in the modern world.  While other societies remain trapped in dysfunctional political structures and processes that impede their growth, we have been more daring in our quest for solutions, trusting only in the basic goodwill of our people.  Our experiences must be carefully distilled and incorporated into the lore of popular struggles. Doing so may help us avoid pitfalls in the future and give us greater confidence in what we do.  But more importantly, it may inspire other nations to take their destinies in their hands and create their own paths to freedom and development.

The first thing we must recognize about people power is that it is not easy to mount.  One cannot just summon it, for it has a will of its own. Cynical politicians will always try to simulate it because they have this impression that people power is nothing more than just bringing large numbers of people to a designated place, and furnishing them with slogans to shout and banners under which to march.  They think of people not as willful beings who can make decisions for themselves but as mobilizable masses that can be manipulated and ordered around.  They equate people power with crowds for hire.  Well, we have seen what happens to such crowds at the first sign of danger.

Real people power is autonomous, self-willed, and well informed.  It draws its courage and determination from the power of its convictions. It is inventive and free, and not constrained by dogma, political correctness or any party line.  It is moral protest elevated to an art.  It is not awed by power.  It stands up to power, but it disdains power.  That is why it has no leaders, only symbols.  It clothes itself in the symbols of everything that is good, decent, and responsible.

It is unarmed, non-violent, and highly disciplined.   It is militant but never sad.  Indeed it is festive and celebratory.  It is angry at times, but never aggressive.  It does not only claim the moral high ground, but it also regards itself as the force of the new, the vanguard of a hopeful future.  Oppressive, morally bankrupt, and corrupt regimes are its principal targets.  The power that installs colonels or generals in successful military coups is not people power.  That is the power of tanks and armed troops.

The crowds that are mobilized and prompted to sing praises for someone already in power do not constitute people power.   People power is never sycophantic.  While it fights tyrants and corrupt leaders, it studiously avoids being used for narrow personal ends. And herein lies its paradoxical strength: people power is a political weapon with political ends; yet it resolutely rejects political ambition.

People power became possible when Filipinos learned to think of their political institutions not as sacred structures to be revered but as practical tools to be used in the pursuit of national goals.  Our awakening to this truth, ironically, did not begin with the 1986 People Power I but with the declaration of Martial Law in 1972.  Marcos was the first to deviate from the rules of our inherited institutions when he extended his presidency beyond two terms and assumed the power to make laws.  From that point on, it was no longer possible to replace him by the usual rules of democratic succession.  He could have anointed Imelda and Bongbong as his successors.  We could have ousted him by an armed revolution or by a coup d’etat.  It would have been hard to go back to a constitutional framework.  But we discovered people power, and it made all the difference.

People power stays above ground, but it creates its own arena of political engagement and its own modes of expression.  It firmly opposes power, but it does so without attempting to match, weapon for weapon, the armed might of the state.  Its nakedness is the source of its power.  The world out there is its sole protection.  So long as the media bear witness to its struggle, no further shield is necessary.  The battle is waged not as a contest of arms but as a fight for legitimacy.  Such terrain is unfamiliar to autocrats, generals, and obsolete politicians.  People power has seldom failed in a world covered by global media.

No, the real threat to people power does not lie in its misuse.  It lies rather in the distinct possibility that citizens, from sheer frustration, might one day just give up trying and caring for their country.


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