There is this cynical view that nothing much distinguishes people power from mob rule: you call it people power when you sympathize with it, and mob rule when you disagree with it. Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago subscribes to a related version of this thought when she reduces people power to “a numbers game.” From her perspective, if you bring in a crowd of one million, it matters little what goal unites its participants.
Crowds like the one that has gathered at the Edsa Shrine following the arrest of deposed president Estrada can in fact accommodate a variety of motives. People may exchange their presence for nothing more meaningful than a meal or a fee. Some may come for the entertainment. Others may come out of genuine sympathy for a fallen idol. But many join a crowd like this because it provides a venue for the discharge of accumulated resentment. What they get is not catharsis however. The emotions are not purified so much as they are indulged.
This is not people power; this is its parody, its farcical version. People power is moved by hope; so-called “Edsa 3” is burdened by despair. People power imagines what life can be if people placed their destiny in their hands. This one imagines what life would have been if their patron had not been overthrown. People power desires to move on and remake the world; people resentment desires to dwell in the past and display its wounds.
The only thing they have in common is Edsa. But the place does not make the event; the event makes the place. Edsa is everywhere there are people who are moved by something bigger than themselves, who find strength in their solidarity and are determined to change the circumstances of their lives. The Edsa Shrine holds no meaning for the participants of “Edsa 3.” They cannot clothe their resentment with the venerable symbolism of the Edsa Shrine and expect to derive any strength from it. The magic is not in the place but in the energy that people are able to summon from within their hearts when the memory of greatness moves them.
They must create their own symbols, rid themselves of the weight of their bitterness, turn their backs on the patrons who have robbed them of their will to self-reliance, organize themselves and fight for their children rather than for the politicians who use them. “We want jobs, jobs, jobs, not Erap,” shouted a labor militant in reaction to the clamor of the lumpen poor at Edsa to restore Erap to the presidency. He could not have said it more eloquently. Guilt is not the effect he seeks to elicit from the public, but rather reforms in the way we live as a nation.
Yet those of us who are dismayed by what is happening today at Edsa cannot afford to be dismissive and contemptuous of those who imagine themselves to be the core of People Power III. Legitimate grievances fuel their hatred for the rich, even as they are blind to the sins of the rich who use them. They are the products of a society that has been content to leave to the vagaries of the market what should have been assumed by a responsible government – the fulfillment of basic needs, the expansion of opportunities for a better life, and the creation of an environment in which life can be accepted as a challenge rather than as punishment.
We cannot call ourselves one nation for as long as a great number of our people are forced to live sub-human lives. We cannot feed the poor dreams while expecting them to cope with brutalizing conditions. We cannot celebrate modernity while poverty remains the lot of the masses. We cannot have peace under a social structure that is designed to produce gross inequalities that breed hate and resentment among more than half of the population. Without social change, the poor’s version of people power, with all its awkwardness and anarchy, will forever haunt our nation like a ghost.
Direct action by the people is the forbidden fruit of politics. People power strikes fear in the heart of governments everywhere because it goes against the whole logic of institutionalized collective life. It is a dangerous weapon that can explode in the face of its user. It can go berserk and destroy the delicate web of relationships that holds a young nation like ours together. Filipinos have been lucky so far to handle it effectively, tempering its force with the ethic of spirituality and the culture of cheerfulness.
But in the hands of adventurers who value nothing but power, people power is a monster to be directed at will. It has no will of its own; it feeds upon its own hatred. It does not live to preserve itself for a hopeful future. It gathers force in anticipation of one dramatic discharge. “But,” as Elias Canetti, the foremost theoretician of crowds, wrote, “the moment of discharge, so desired and so happy, contains its own danger. It is based on an illusion; the people who suddenly feel equal have not really become equal…the crowd as such disintegrates. It has a presentiment of this and fears it. It can only go on existing if the process of discharge is continued with new people who join it. Only the growth of the crowd prevents those who belong to it creeping back under their private burdens.”
So-called “Edsa 3” cannot recruit more people into its ranks than it already has. Its decline has already begun. But we have seen the other face of people power, and we must take heed of the lessons it is telling us.
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