Mobs, crowds, and people power

It happens all the time.  A political earthquake loosens the ground on which hierarchies and institutions rest.  Suddenly, the venerable structures that have governed our daily lives are exposed for what they are – the sediments of past agreements based on fragile trust. The unspent energy from the last earthquake discharges itself in little tremors, challenging targets that cannot hold their ground in the shifting sand.

In the last few weeks following People Power II we have seen its residual force close in on its quarry.  Often, the object of the hunt is a holdover ranking official, an appointee of the previous regime, who, invoking his eligibility or right to a term, ignores signals for him to resign.  Notable examples are Administrator Felicito “Tong” Payumo of the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority, who invokes tenure, and Director-General Ramon “Ike” Seneres of the National Computer Center, who claims civil service eligibility.  But sometimes even the new appointees become suitable targets because they are perceived to be either arrogant or unqualified or simply unacceptable to their personnel or the constituencies that nominated them.  We see this at the Department of Education (DECS), the Department of Tourism (DOT), and, more recently, the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB).

In all these situations, people power cloaks itself in the legitimacy of the mother of all people power, i.e. the one at Edsa, and invokes the same values that united people in the original upheaval.  It draws its boldness from the constant reminder that if the people were able to get rid of an elected president, they should have no trouble dealing with smaller tyrants and misfits in office. This is a transitional period in the life of a society, when accountability to articulate publics becomes more pronounced than ever.  During such times, power and authority momentarily lose their untouchability, and their complacent wielders become fair game for any organized hunt.

Political transitions like the one we are presently undergoing reveal the basic fault lines of bureaucracies and institutions.  In the ideal bureaucracy, a person is appointed to an office in recognition of his expertise, and is shielded from political pressure by a fixed tenure and clear lines of authority.  In real life, however, no bureaucracy works precisely according to the ideal.  Office holders find that it is never enough to invoke their authority to keep things going.   They must also earn the respect and trust of their subordinates.  They have to win and establish their legitimacy in the eyes of the people with whom they work.  This is the unspoken rule in all organizations.

In normal times, a bureaucrat may be able to function for an indefinite period solely on the basis of his appointment papers.  The line of authority is taken for granted.  He is presumed to be the best person for the job.  But in a time of flux, the fault lines become active; what was previously accepted on trust is now questioned.  Authority must show its credentials as well as actively fortify its support from within and without.

People power may be seen as a mechanism for renewing trust in young societies like ours.  In this sense, it strengthens rather than erodes institutions in the long term.  It is a reminder to leaders and public officials that while power may be acquired by election or by appointment, its continuing effective exercise is always ultimately founded on trust.  When the people withdraw that trust, no constitution or organizational by-laws can be invoked to restore it.

Trust is the glue of societies.  In stable democracies, public officials do not have to earn it all the time.  But in transitional societies like ours, with a relatively low level of institutionalization, those who wield power must constantly work to acquire and renew the confidence of their constituencies.  The best way to earn trust and legitimacy is through competent performance as measured by results.  But all too often, many officials find an easy path in existing channels of patronage and public relations.

No amount of people power can succeed in ousting a public official who enjoys enormous confidence and support from within his own organization and from the constituencies he serves.  Any move by a disgruntled minority to oust him will almost always be met by an active manifestation of support from the key players who themselves command substantial clout within the organization or community.  It is difficult to fake such support because it has to be sustained.  The biggest of the key players, of course, is the appointing authority itself. An official beleaguered by people power who receives unqualified affirmation of confidence from the appointing power increases his chances of keeping his post compared to one who, as it were, is left alone to defend himself.

People power draws its strength from the intrinsic energy of crowds. What distinguishes it from mob rule is that after attaining its goal, it consciously reins in this energy, quietly disperses, and preserves itself in a militant public.  But the ground continues to shake for sometime, until the swell subsides. People have lost their fear and their awe of power, and so for a while, they will be seeking other targets.

“Much of the feverish excitement of such times,” said the writer Elias Canetti of revolutionary periods, “is due to the rapid succession of innumerable executions.”  The call for resignation is the closest analogue we have of an execution.


Comments to <>