The two faces of authoritarianism

As we look back to that fateful day in September 1972 42 years ago, when Ferdinand Marcos proclaimed martial law, we need to understand how and why many Filipinos accepted one-man rule in the first instance. The threat of authoritarian rule will remain so long as we do not recognize that our inherited institutions of governance, as modern as they are, cannot function properly under conditions of mass poverty and sharp inequality.

The dictatorship decisively solved many practical problems of governance. It offered an escape from the endless political bickering and grandstanding that seemed to hobble our democratic but immature political system. In the early 1970s, we were surrounded by neighbors that had, early on, adopted the model of the strong authoritarian state as the key to rapid economic growth in a highly competitive and uncertain world. We were particularly in awe of the great economic strides achieved by a disciplined South Korea under the stern leadership of Park Chung-hee. We saw how Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia—all under authoritarian regimes—were overtaking us in everything.

Marcos offered martial law as a rational response to the crisis of political authority. He was finishing his second 4-year term as president amid a resurgence of activism. He was kept busy parrying various charges of corruption thrown at him by the opposition and the mass media. Gridlock everywhere characterized the process of decision-making. Bombs were exploding in Metro Manila. Mindanao was restive; new Moro fronts, organized in the wake of the so-called “Jabidah massacre,” were leading the push toward secession. The political class sought to address the palpable crisis of the nation-state through a Constitutional Convention, even as its own work was clouded by accusations of presidential meddling.

The picture that emerged, drawn in no small measure by Marcos himself, was that of a society on the verge of collapse and chaos. Many began to believe that the basic fault lay with the Filipinos themselves—their lack of discipline, their self-centeredness, and lack of commitment to the nation’s development. Marcos seized upon this growing despair among the people to sell the idea of a “revolution from the center” that would rescue the nation-state by dismantling the feudal base of the landed elite, restore order, bring the country into the stream of global economic growth, and uplift the poor. A whole generation of Filipinos was brought up on the mantra “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, disiplina ang kailangan.”

Indeed, as if in confirmation of the correctness of the authoritarian model for transitional societies, the centralization of political authority that Marcos achieved through martial law produced quick outcomes. The export processing zone project in Mariveles, Bataan, which had been stalled by protracted debates in Congress, was finally implemented. The drug lord Lim Seng was executed by firing squad. The crime rate went down dramatically. Government offices began to function efficiently. And when the first oil crisis hit the country, a rationing system was immediately put in place to prevent panic and hoarding.

More importantly, badly needed infrastructure and facilities were built without much discussion and fanfare. A nation that had grown weary of its squabbling politicians, vociferous media, and angry demonstrators actually began to appreciate the corporatist approach to governance that the regime seemed to exemplify.

But the consequences of silencing all dissent and criticism soon became manifest. When Marcos cronies and relatives started to seize properties and entire companies through coerced purchases, and public funds were used without accountability for the regime’s most capricious programs and projects, people saw what authoritarianism meant. The starkest reminders of the viciousness of martial law, of course, were the summary executions, disappearances, torture, and prolonged detention perpetrated by a military that had no fear of the courts.

We need to understand these two faces of martial law if we are to prevent its recurrence in our society. The temptation of centralizing political authority to solve problems brought about by the catastrophe of dysfunctional governance will always be there. Unless the roots of the dysfunction are traced back to their sources in the fundamental inequalities of our society and in the total impoverishment of the many, we will forever think that the solution to the problem lies in having willful strongmen and/or moral exemplars for leaders. To me, both types are symptomatic of the search for shortcuts to a complex task. Disinclined to be strictly bound by law, this style of governance is not sustainable in the long term. It is ultimately undermined by the blind spots created by its own self-referentiality.

Marcos might have thought that his “constitutional authoritarian” experiment could last a long time. He had been surprised at how easy it was to impose it. But, unfortunately for him, no one was bold enough to give him a different view of where the country was headed, until it was too late. The same fatal self-referentiality afflicts moral leaders who cannot understand how anyone could doubt their intentions. Indeed, even institutions are not exempted from this syndrome. That is why Pope Francis, in one of his first pronouncements as pope, urged the Church to break out of its comfort zone and learn to look at itself from the “periphery.”

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