The tragedy of people power

It is amazing how people power, a form of non-violent political action that Filipinos accidentally developed in their struggle against a dictatorship, has suddenly become an embarrassment to its inventors.  Rather than draw strength and renewed commitment from its remembrance, those who mounted it now only feel disgust.  Its prime beneficiaries – those who came to power on its wings – fear it above all.  Instead of heroism, they associate it with recklessness. Instead of the sacrifice, they only see the bid for power.  Unable to praise it, they denigrate it.  Such is the tragedy of people power.

A group of activists from Akbayan and Laban ng Masa dutifully showed up the other day at the People Power Monument with placards bearing the single message: “Spirit of Edsa betrayed by Gloria.” Implicit in that note at least is a continuing belief in some Edsa spirit, however we may understand it.  In contrast, Malacanang would rather forget all about Edsa.  Presidential Spokesman Ignacio Bunye says “the people are losing faith in people power,” dismissing it as “reckless gambles at power.”  How perspectives shift with time!

What happened?  The skepticism arises from two basic sources.  The first is the natural confusion between the action and its outcomes. The second is the amorphous and ephemeral nature of people power itself.

If we examine the events leading to Edsa I in Feb. 1986 and Edsa II in Jan. 2001, we will note that the overthrow of a regime was the culmination of a series of mass actions and media events that fed one another. A government is toppled and a new one is installed. People power is responsible only for the former. It cannot be held accountable for the kind of government that is put in place upon the exit of the old one.  The formation of a new government, even before the dust settles, is typically the outcome of complex behind-thescenes negotiations participated in by a motley group of mediators, power brokers, institutional figures (business, church, military), and politicians.  Some of these have close links with the social movements and organizations that sparked the mass actions.  But many are mere brokers – self-styled technicians of the transition — who specialize in forging instant agreements and formulating legal solutions.

There is nothing wrong with people power: it is the purest expression of the democratic dictum that sovereignty ultimately resides in the people. But, precisely because of its amorphous and ephemeral character, people power lacks the capacity to assert its own authority. Unlike the old socialist movements that were driven by organized parties with clear visions and leadership structures, the social movements that trigger today’s people power explosions are at best coalitions of the loosest kind.  They evaporate as soon as the immediate goal of toppling the government is achieved.  They play only the most marginal role in the formation of the new government, and, ironically, none at all in the institutionalization of the goals and values that they fought for.

In a sense, people can hardly be faulted for folding their banners and going back to what they were doing as soon as the crisis has passed. It is natural for them to wish to be freed of the responsibility of making daily decisions about governmental programs and policies.  No appeal to active citizenship can override their belief that the responsibility for rebuilding a nation belongs mainly to the qualified and trustworthy leaders that the people have freely chosen.

It is certainly a weakness of people power that it is impervious to institutionalization.  Yet it is also its strength.  The lack of a powerorientation enables the struggle against an oppressive and/or dishonest regime to proceed without being hampered by questions of how to allocate power in the new dispensation.  People implicitly trust in the good sense of the leaders they catapult to power.  But if the past has any lesson to teach, it can only be that trust is not enough.

It is a powerful virtue that people protest because the values they cherish are violated, and not because they seek to replace those against whom they are protesting.  But for protest to have any enduring force, it must resist the temptation of giving up its advocacy – be it human rights, good government, or social equity – when the regime it is criticizing has collapsed.  Protest must become a system of its own; it must ceaselessly recruit its own supporters, and continue the analysis and criticism of society from the standpoint of its chosen value.

Herein perhaps lies the vulnerability of the two failed Edsa governments of 1986 and 2001. In both instances, the new government that was put in place quickly tapped the leaders of the social movements for various positions.  Their recruitment was done on an individual basis, mostly as political compensation, rather than as an integral part of a plan to implement a coherent and alternative program.  This immediately disarmed and demobilized the protest movements, which had served as the driving force of people power. The momentum of reform came to a halt as soon as government operations became normalized.

It is difficult to imagine people power being pressed into a permanent organization.  It may catalyze the formation of new parties and of new governments, but it cannot be wedded to the fortunes of a party or a government.

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