pop Prospects for Transformation in the Philippines in the Next Millenium


by E. San Juan, Jr.

Copyright © 1998 E. San Juan, Jr. All rights reserved.

The Philippines is unique among 'third world' countries not for the pollution, number of OCWs, corruption, and so on, but as one of the few ex-colonized formations that continue to celebrate the sacrosanct foundation date of the former colonial master: July 4th. This is not just a neocolonial phenomenon but exactly, I think, a reflection of prevailing power relations: not just the increase of U.S. investments exceeding that of Japan, the multiple access to military installations, Ramos' nostalgia for West Point, but also the continued immigration of Filipinos to the United States, the presence of over 3 million Filipinos in the United States, and the profound penetration of U.S. media and mass consumer culture in the Philippine terrain.

Here I don't mean McDonalds, Coke, and so on, but the entire ethos of consumerism, what the great French Marxist Henri Lefebvre calls "the bureaucratic society of controlled consumption." The chief enemy of any socialist agenda here is not perhaps the oligarchy and the comprador elite. It may be the mass habitus of consumerism, mass hypnosis by the commodity fetish, the sacramentalization of the mall/megamall spectacles, in short, the acquisitive/possessive drive which, for others, can be realized by installment and credit cards; for others, by persevering work plus fantasies, hallucinations, dreams. Or by going abroad, perferably to the States.

In a Sunday Inquirer Magazine article last January 14, 1996, the British novelist James Hamilton-Paterson replied to a question that his novel Ghosts of Manila presented a grim portrait of the country that would scare tourists:

I react by saying that it's not me painting the grim portrait. The portrait is painted by Filipinos themselves everyday in the newspaper. It's priests, editors, and journalists, teachers and mayors and other people who actually reveal these appalling stories of what goes on. They're not the inventions of a foreigner at all.... But to the best of my knowledge, although I did use some novelist's license in "Ghosts of Manila," there's nothing there that's actually false. Nearly all the details come straight out of journalistic stories which I checked as well.

Indeed, Hamilton-Paterson is not malicious nor stupid, only spontaneously if not naively acting out the "white man's burden" of advising the "poor" brown natives what they already know. Except that in the global stratification of power, the white British novelist exercises power not just of mirroring what people of color say about themselves but charging this repetition with an ethical value: it's not me, the superior Western artist who's responsible for the novel, it's only yourselves speaking. So don't blame me, please.

Unfortunately, Filipinos give more attention than they merit to their victimizers whose exoticizing impressions are journalistic fare ladled without criticism. Hamilton-Paterson is fascinated by the Philippines in general--not individual Filipinos who scarcely exist for him: "It's exasperating, horrible, the country's all those things, but I like it here and I still don't know what it is and that's why." Aside from supplying raw material to this fictional machine, Filipinos provide strokes and attention. And of course any white trash, rich or poor, from the Western affluent countries occupies a niche and status higher than any person of color around. Enough compensation, surely, for all the exasperation and sycophancy the well-paid fictionist has to put up with.

Instead of the potboiler Ghosts of Manila, I recommend an alternative by another multi-awarded novelist William Boyd, his novel The Blue Afternoon. I am not aware of Boyd having lived in the Philippines or given interviews and lectures to our local literati, but his novel weaves a love-story and a detective/mystery fable around a surgeon who is half-British and haff-Filipino and an American woman married to a Yankee officer. The second and major section of the novel is set in Manila of 1902, with the reprisals of the U.S. military against the natives before and after the Balangiga massacre in Samar. While on the surface the Philippines serves only as a temporal/spatial background, in the symbolic scheme of motives and accidences, the Filipino resistance to American occupation acquires flesh-and-blood reality in the actions of the protagonists and in the unfolding of erotic-cum-gore events.

I have not read any recent novel written by a Western writer that treats seriously the brutalization of Filipinos during the Filipino-American War except for this 1993 novel. So I recommend it as an example of how the inescapable exoticizing of the Philippine historical landscape can yield a surplus of insight into the political economy of racial/ethnic conflicts.

The lesson here is obvious: exchange-relations in culture cannot be equal when political, economic, and social relations between peoples, nations, states, and groups are not equal. Who is speaking? To whom? For what reason? Racist and chauvinist practices, underpinned by corresponding ideologies, characterize the general economy of exchange of intellectual and other kinds of property around the world between North-South, between the West and "the Rest," mainly people of color.

I propose seven thesis for discussion and reflection at the threshold of a new century. Seven only - not because like Ferdinand Marcos I believe in the magic number, but as an acknowledgment that we should heed constraints - of time, human attention span, limited quanta of energy because of age, and so on.

FIRST THESIS: Like all dependent/peripheral social formations, the Philippines is a living testimony to the law of "combined and uneven development" and its complex operations.

Uneven because colonial plunder and domination, plus the barbarism of the U.S. military suppression of the Filipino revolutionaries in 1898 up to the twenties, together with the destruction inflicted by the Japanese and American liberation forces in World War II, and the neocolonial years from Roxas to the present-all these have distorted the economy, stagnated the politics, and on the whole damaged the capacities of the majority for the autonomous management and direction of their lives. Given ineluctable class divisions, and disaggregation of the various spheres of the social formation (economic, political, ex­ideological) by colonial subordination, we have a melange of such features: Makati-style computerized business, transnational styles of administration, feudal or artisanal production, precapitalist slavery of children and women, archaic superstitions and practices, and of course comprador and bureaucrat-capitalism of all kinds. In additim, we have the unprecedented distinction of being presumably the No.1 supplier of cheap labor for the world (especially the patriarchal/capitalist Arab sheikdoms) in the form of domestic help, entertainmentlhospitality workers, and so on.

Combined development because the State strives to establish equilibrium among discordant elements for profit accumulation of transnational corporations and the local bourgeoisie. And because capitalism subsumes the other modes of production to maintain extraction of maximum surplus value. Uneven also implies non-synchrony, temporal disharmony, syncopations of spatial signs and juxtapositions of all sorts - in short, a pastiche or hybrid combination of life-forms and social practices some of which have survived from the past, some dominate the present, and others foreshadow and anticipate the future.

Uneven and combined development also spells leaps, catastrophic transitions, skipping gradual stages, because signs of the future - what's emerging - are also found implicit or embedded in current processes. Contradictions and disparities on all levels of the state, economy, and civil society produce a highly overdetermined system which is always in crisis, never stable as the state-centered "weffare" capitalism of the West (now in serious devolution). Everything solid melts into air, as the Communist Manifesto proclaims, with reference to Europe of 1840s. The melting is much faster in the dependent localities, the peripheries of the world-system.

SECOND THESIS: In the disarticulated social formation of our society, "civil" society cannot be analytically separated from the state and the "national" or popular basis of this more militarized or coercive state.

Of late, Western-trained pundits inspired by the melancholy Max Weber have argued that political effort in the democratizing countries should be focused on mobilizing institutions in civil society rather than the masses gearing up for seizing state power in direct frontal assaults. Privileging the war of position over that of maneuver, civil-society ideologues go crazy over NGOs. Funding bonanzas for NGOs partly explain this; but the source is ignorance of political theory.

In the classical theorizing of "civil society" by Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, "civil society' is the site of individual and group antagonisms for private interests, assuming the state as a neutral mediating entity. Philippine "civil society," however, is not based on the premise of institutionalized individual rights and procedural review. Kinship, familial habits, and customary values predominate. Force exercises disproportionate influence over all. Religion exercises an inordinate influence on people's lives to the extent that, with the resurgence of fundamentalism and other forms of revitalization movements, reactionary and obscurantist ideologies blend and interact with technicist and instrumentalist/utilitarian programs to dictate lifestyles and institutional modus operandi. Neocolonial "civil society" in fact cannot be divorced from the state and other coercive apparatuses associated with para-state or extra-legal forces.

Exclusive focus on "civil society" guarantees that the state can function without much constraint in maintaining class division, unequal power based on asymmetrical property relations. Focus on the private life, family values, individualist concerns and corporate business leaves the state and the bureaucratic apparatus safe from critical accountability. Alienation and fragmentation are bound to intensify personal anxieties, leading to a thorough psychologizing of everything - in short, to a general mystification of life forms.

Cultural practice cannot be confined to the realm of civil society in modernity because the means of communication and cultural production are subject to state laws and bureaucratic regulation. Moreover, corporate control of media and publishing also actualizes state laws and international agreements. While uneven development allows modernizing tendencies in private life to express themselves, hence the "international style" and postcolonial "world literature in english," fetishism in mass consumption and religious fanaticism collide with such globalizing trends, with the state abetting one and suppressing the other. The fiction of a mythical "civil society" insulated from the state is one effective expression of a hegemonic neoconservatism - the argument and rhetoric of the free unregulated market, the genuine simulac rum if ever there is one.

THIRD THESIS: Hegemony, in the original Gramscian construal of moral intellectual leadership of a social bloc in dominance, is the target of revolutionary change in Third World formations.

Instead of the formula of seizing state power by head on confrontation in armed struggle, Gramsci advocated a nuanced combination of the wars of position (institutional reforms to faµtest the limits of the system) and war of maneuver (mass strikes, guerilla warfare, street fighting) depending of course on the balance of forces, alignment of classes and groups in play, the position of organic and traditional intellectuals in the history of society, and so on. Concrete analysis of the situation is the desideratum, "concrete" meaning here the convergence of as many determinations as one can account for.

In cultural politics, hegemony can be effectively personified by organic intellectuals of the progressive forces, in this case an alliance of workers, peasantry, and middle stratum or intelligentsia. It will include also ethnic communities, women, and so on. By stressing the pedagogical and educational side of the hegemonic process, we valorize in effect a cultural revolution that would be permanent--a revolution that would erode the residual, promote the emergent, and critique the dominant oligarchical elite or power bloc which mediates imperial ascendancy.

In hegemonic politics, assuming that the state allows the national-democratic forces the means and freedom to propagate socialist ideas, the leading role of cultural organs is to remind us that revolution is a political-ideological, not simply physical, struggle for consensus. Violence plays a role chiefly in seff-defense and to protect the gains and claims of the democratic masses to exercise popular seff-determination.

Not just the sphere of civil society but its manifold linkages with the state become the site of hegemonic contestation. Hegemony is thus not just discursive, nor mere application of violence, but also institutional; it will continue even when the coercive apparatus of the state has been transferred to popular control. The goal is to release forces and human potential repressed by outmoded social relations. Its aim is the creation of a new personality, a new character, for a new dispensation.

A digression on culture and cultural studies is required here.

THESIS FOUR. Within the uneven development perspective, culture is segmented into residual, dominant, and emergent tendencies. Following Raymond Williams, each epoch manifests a "structure of feeling" that equals the variable hierarchy of those three segments, with the emergent showing either alternative and oppositional aspects (alternative, as the various nativist or ethnic communities demonstrate; oppositional, as exemplified by the New People's Army and other radical challenges to the neocolonial setup).

Culture is then not a catalogue of artifacts or tabulation of indigenous folkways. It refers to forms of antagonistic signifying practices and discourses that represent conceptions of the world associated with distinct classes, groups, sectors, or communities. In England, for example, the ethos of service characterizes bourgeois culture, whereas the ethos of solidarity distinguishes working-class culture. In the Philippines, it is not bayanihan, contrary to official dogma, that distinguishes Filipino oppositional culture but perhaps millenarian adventurism. Or personalistic loyalties symptomatic of the distrust of bureaucratic rules. What is dominant in the culture can only be the inventory of preferred values and norms of the ruling social bloc.

In reaction to Marxist orthodoxy, Western cultural studies arose via the influence at first of Gramsci and later of Althusser and semiotic/linguistic theories, plus psychoanalysis. The rise of gender, feminist, and ethnic constituencies and their specific or specialized intellectuals (Foucault) have neutralized or displaced class as criterion or focus of analysis, hence the contingent, dispersed, narrow academic interests of its practitioners.

Philippine Culture Studies, I propose, needs to attend to both the uneven/combined development of its field, and its complicity in the sharpening class war. What is at stake is the reconfiguration of the whole nation-state. To mimick Western postcolonial cultural studies and its opportunism would be to reinforce subalternity. It is death by incorporation or assimilation.

It goes without saying that culture is both structural and superstructural, one dominant over the other depending on the stage of hegemonic struggle and the weakness/strength of the transnational power blocs supporting the local ruling coalition and its space for maneuver, calculation, sublimation, and so on.

THESIS FIVE: Language and textuality, together with discursive politics, are important. But they cannot be fetishized by themselves at the expense of the education and mobilization of the collective subjects in practical politics. Agitation and mass action are fundamental in cultural politics in the South, and so the movement needs to communicate in the vernacular speech of the masses.

Given the continued dominance of transnational corporate English, the need to develop a national language remains a priority. At the same time, however, we should not forget that the enemy can also speak in Filipino, or the emerging national idiom. Form and content should therefore be dialectically adjusted lest proponents of regional languages quarrel over trivial rewards and sidetrack what is significantly at stake: control of resources, ecological space, and the future.

Again, to borrow the insight of Walter Benjamin, it is imperative that progressives take control of the means of articulation and communication in its various material ramifications (including clandestine broadcasting, collectivization of private intellectual property, and so on). Such campaigns intend to educate the public and also assist specific reforms that can be tied to national issues and community projects and agendas.

In this task of nationalizing modes of expression, the goal of articulating the "national-popular" involves reconstructing histories of the people as well as communities, narratives of heroes, mass leaders, and so on. The people as nation, the producing masses, is what needs translation. Who is authorized to represent whom? The struggle for legitimacy via language and other means of representation (multimedia, Internet, performance art) is an integral and crucial part of the process of hegemonic struggle.

THESIS SIX: We need to grasp the basic principles of cultural revolution in our historically specific milieu.

Bakhtin taught us that the sign is an arena of ideological and political struggle. In any class-riven formation, it is always an arena of war. But the fight for national self-determination cannot just be waged by "purifying the language of the tribe," as the aesthetes would have it. Or, following the heroic efforts of the late Virgilio Enriquez, decolonizing colonial psychology by squeezing Pilipino phrases, words, idioms, in order to extract a Filipino essence: pakikipagkapwa, and so on. Such essentialism, however strategic or provisional, can only lead to new forms of reification. Contradictions in the historical process are erased or marginalized, in effect, evacuated by trying to recuperate d hµwhat is claimed to be authentically native, "Filipino," aboriginal.

In this hypothetical inventory, I hope that I have not forgotten the primacy of feminist principles and the importance of the struggle for gender equality. The unequal sexual division of labor lies at the heart of the uneven and combined development of our social formation, the antagonisms of worldviews and epistemes, so while we may neglect it, it will not forget us. If repressed, it will haunt us and take revenge in various horrific ways.

In any "long march" to materialize the national-popular canon, it is imperative that we do not become sectarian and exclusive--withdrawing from the terrain of mass struggles (the fight for democratic rights, individual civil liberties, specific demands of various sectors on the level of their consciousness) and choosing our own field of battle. We are free - but only under certain conditions determined by historical legacies, geography, environment, etc. Just as the English bourgeoisie fought the landed aristocrats on the same ideological level of religious beliefs (Milton versus the royalists), the Filipino socialists will have to fight on the same field where the masses are - the milieu of popular beliefs, and so on. However, the requirement of hegemony cautions us not to tail behind, to constantly provide advanced unifying ideas that would help humans take control of their social and physical environment - in short, to grasp the flow of history for emancipatory ends. We need leadership to inspire and direct the movement, not just to peacefully manage the order of the march.

Cultural revolution is the rubric we use to refer to the class struggle on the terrain of hegemonic discourse, with the aim of interrogating, discriminating, and sublating the discourse to a higher level of synthesis. Given uneven/combined development, the nature of cultural revolution in the Philipines, in the context of globalized late capitalism, involves adapting modern technology and secular modes of organization to raise the quality of life. In doing so, we are always mindful of the destructive effects of capitalist modernization on environment and resources, not to speak of the violence on women, children, and all the victims of scientific industrial progress.

Engaging in cultural revolution entails wrestling with canonical texts and standards. Because Nick Joaquin has been generally considered a paragon of English-speaking writers, I have had to conduct hemeneutic and semiotic maneuvers at the risk of appearing to be a formalist New Critic within the terrain of critical discourse on Joaquin in order to ascertain reusable utopian/subversive elements embedded in Joaquin's signifying practice. Opting out of this terrain and damning Joaquin's retrograde politics (see Lenin on Tolstoy, Marx and Engels on Balzac, Cardenal and Macdiarmid on Pound) automatically surrenders the "sign" called "Joaquin" to the enemy.

Cultural revolution also never forgets Benjamin's hard saying that every document of art or culture contains marks of both human refinement and barbarism.

THESIS SEVEN: We touch the topic of globalization and the role of people of color in the "New World Order" decreed by capital.

In the postmodern transnational restructuring of the globe after the demise of the Soviet Union, the Philippines has been compelled to experience a late-capitalist diaspora of its inhabitants. The OCWs (Overseas Contract Workers), an unprecedented sociopolitical category of 6-7 million Filipinos (mostly women as domestic help) scattered around the markets of various nation-states, in particular the Middle East, is the new arena of hegemonic contestation. Such new heroes ("mga bagong bayani," according to Cory Aquino) constitute the negativity of the Other, the alterity of capitalist supremacy. I don't mean a global or international proletarian vanguard, but simply a potentially destabilizing force situated at the core of the racist order.

What needs urgent critical attention today is the racial politics of the transnational blocs to which we have been utterly blind, obsessed as we have been with class, gender, amor propio, and so on. We have been victims of EuroAmerican racializing ideology and politics, but characteristically we ignore it and speak of our racism toward Moros, Igorots, Chinese, etc. Race and ethnicity have occupied center-stage in the politics of nationalist struggles in this postCold War era. We need to inform ourselves of the complex workings of racism and chauvinism as practiced by the industrialized states. On this hinges the crucial issue of national autonomy, whether a dependent formation like the Philippines can uncouple or delink from the world system in order to pursue a different, uniquely Filipino kind of socialist growth and a radically different kind of national project.

Perhaps the trigger for a new mass mobilization can be the awareness of racial politics as a way to restage the national-democratic struggle in the new framework of neoliberal market discourse--unless there is an oppositional systemic challenge to the corporate interests.

I end with a Western view of these seductive islands now ready for commodification twice over, a view more blatantly patronizing than Hamilton-Paterson's but no less instructive on the need for our thorough education in the dynamics of racial politics around the world which takes cognitive mapping of class, gender, race, and nationalitarian themes. This passage is by a British writer Simon Winchester published in the tourist magazine Conde Nast Traveler. Winchester visited the Amanpulo resort on Pamalican Island in Palawan and muses on the intertextuality of signs (Baudrillard's simulacra and hyper-real simulations):

The ending of island isolation has in general meant that the world's wealthiest travellers are now being set down willy-nilly among the world's poorest and most innocent people--a reality that seems likely to have a far more profound and lasting effect on the poor and innocent than on the wealthy and worldly.... I now receive regular letters from one of the girls who cleaned my room at Amanpulo. She says she wants, more than anything in the world, to find an American man, to marry him, and to come live in New York City. I write back to her: Mary-Jane, I say, you live in paradise but you just don't know it. Don't even dream of coming here. Stay in a place where there has never been a crime committed, where everyone shares everything, where everyone looks after everyone else, where the weather is perfect, the air is clean, the sea is crystal clear....

If this is true, I would have liked to have spent our two months vacation in Amanpulo, Palawan. However, the point here is that this is a white Western optic, a mercantile consciousness claiming the superior anthropological and prophylactic knowledge about our surroundings, telling us (via Mary-Jane) what we have been missing all these years.

Revolutionaries are not enemies of utopia, as Ernst Bloch has so passionately argued.

On the contrary, the drive for, and even libidinal fixation on, the utopian is one of the strongest motivating forces for radical transformation of society. But cultural politics in the Philippines behooves us also to comprehend the dynamics of class power relations, including those between races and nations as conditioned by the history of colonialism and imperialism. With such knowledge of history and the relevant cultural praxis, we begin to be suspicious of business wisdom and yearn for a dissident and recalcitrant voice with its utopian resonance. Let me then conclude by calling your attention to the prophetic passage from Rizal's great essay, "The Philippines a Century Hence," a text that ought to replace the hackneyed and rancid texts of Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, and other poststructuralist gurus in our reading program. Listen to Rizal's invocation of what we all desire:

With the new humans that will spring from their soil and with the recollection of their past, they will perhaps strive to enter freely upon the wide road of progress, and all will labor together to strengthen their fatherland, both internally and externally, with the same enthusiasm with which a youth falls again to tilling the land of his ancestors so long wasted and abandoned through the neglect of those who have withheld it from him. Then the mines will be made to give up their gold for relieving distress, iron for weapons, copper, lead and coal. Perhaps the country will revive the maritime and mercantile life for which the islanders are fitted by their nature, ability and instincts, and once more free, like the bird that leaves its cage, like the flower that unfolds to the air, will recover the pristine virtues that are gradually dying out and will again become addicted to peace-cheerful, happy, joyous, hospitable and daring.

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created: May 16, 1998
updated: August 26, 2000
APSIS Editor Johann Stockinger