Martial law and the middle classes

It has been thirty years since Ferdinand Marcos broke the traditional cycle of elite rule by seizing upon the martial law provisions of the 1935 constitution to install himself dictator.  However, a full assessment of the significance of that episode to our political life has still to be written. The Marcos years will continue to be revisited and their meaning debated for a long time.

By refusing to bury him among the nation’s heroes, Filipinos have, for the moment, officially decided to remember Marcos as the diabolical politician who destroyed Philippine democracy by his insatiable thirst for power and money.  The actual picture is surely more complex than that.

What is clear is that Marcos’s control of the military alone does not suffice to explain the ease with which he was able to impose and maintain martial law.  We can only suppose that there was public acquiescence in, if not active support for, a government that promised to impose national discipline, unify the nation, get rid of squabbling politicians and parasitic oligarchs, and bring the country to the door of development.  Some of the country’s brilliant minds were recruited into this venture.  One cannot say they were all naïve, or lacked patriotism, virtue and foresight.

To understand martial law, we must go beyond the simplistic theory that this was just one egomaniac’s project to perpetuate himself in power.  Certainly he was not the first president to be so motivated, nor will he be the last.  What clearly made Marcos different is that he saw the opportunity, directed an unfolding situation, and, with his advisers and close allies, wove a project that made sense to ordinary people.  Had he succeeded, he would not be the heel we despise today, but a great visionary who saved the Filipino nation from the dysfunctions of borrowed institutions.

I distinctly remember how the ideologues of the regime defended the New Society before university audiences who were critical of its human rights abuses.  They stressed the need to rebuild the national community by giving first priority to the basic needs of those excluded from national life by their extreme poverty.  Civil rights meant nothing to them because of their economic insecurity.

They were essentially right.  The Westernization that kept the upper and middle classes alienated from the vast masses was undeniable. Marcos tapped into a powerful current of Filipinism not only to defend his regime from the charge that it was a lackey of foreign powers, but also to unify a culturally and economically divided nation under a single vision.  That vision was spelled out in a document called “The Filipino Ideology.”

Under martial law, Marcos moved the Philippines closer to the model of political authority that had become the norm not only in Asia but everywhere else in the developing world.  That model emphasized the primacy of economic growth and nation-building over democracy. It assigned to the state an economic role that could not be effectively exercised by a weak domestic capitalist class.  It kept the masses quiescent by a combination of distributive programs and coercive measures.  In a society that was deemed not ready for it, democracy was seen as an invitation to anarchy.

There is a great debate on whether an authoritarian phase like this is necessary stage in the transition to modern nationhood for latedeveloping countries like ours.  Countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia seem to attest to the long-term advantages of authoritarianism not only in solving chronic poverty but also in cultivating national discipline.  But examples of failed authoritarian experiments are even more numerous.  Beyond exacerbating poverty in most instances, they have also destroyed the fabric of civil society. One obviously cannot generalize.  A country becomes a particular type of society because of its own unique history.

In attempting to explain the failure of dictatorship in the Philippines, for instance, one cannot discount the role played by a growing educated middle class.  This segment of our society is sandwiched between a backward-looking traditional elite that is fast losing its economic and political base, and a vast majority of impoverished Filipinos whose desperate situation makes them easy prey to populist rhetoric and political shortcuts.  The middle classes are concerned above all with governance issues – rule of law, honest government, and competent leadership.  In the past, their impatience over these issues drew them toward authoritarianism.

Today, only the naïve among them would entrust the country’s future again to an autocrat, no matter how impeccable his or her moral credentials.  But this does not mean we have seen the last of the authoritarian adventurers.  As long as more than half of our people are forced to accept a future without hope, there will always be a constituency for political extremism.  No constitution can stop a power grab.  But a new political practice can make it needless.

The quest for a democratic and prosperous society that can offer hope to the marginalized will not be realized without the more fortunate educated class taking an active role in reconfiguring the nation’s political life.  This cannot take the form exclusively of intermittent bursts of people power at crucial moments.  Its intervention has to be varied, inventive, and enduring.  It must embody a new sensibility.  It must not sneer at politics.  It must take it seriously.


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