By Failing to Transform the Philippines, Liberals Paved the Way for the Reactionary Right
Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the former dictator, won a crushing victory in this year’s Philippine presidential election. Responsibility for this disaster lies with the liberal politicians who failed to carry out the most basic social reforms while in power.
In 1986, President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines found herself facing a difficult dilemma. She had just been sworn in as head of a self-proclaimed “revolutionary” government following the success that year of the People Power Revolution, as the mass uprising which took down the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos Sr was dubbed. However, as Aquino prepared to work, she found that Marcos and his cronies had emptied the public coffers.
Worse still, banking officials from Wall Street kept calling, demanding that her government pay back the US$27 billion they had lent the Philippines. A failure to comply would mean incurring huge losses for the country’s economic elite — of which Aquino herself was a part — as their access to credit would dry up and the value of their stocks would plummet.
On the other hand, going along with the demands for payment would mean there was little left to spend on social welfare or employment generation as millions of Filipinos reeled from the deepest recession their country had experienced since World War II. Would Aquino stand up to the banks and refuse to pay — or would she cave in?
It is helpful to look back today at this and other decisive junctures in the years that followed the ouster of the former dictator in the light of debates that are still raging after the victory of his son and namesake in the country’s presidential election this year.
Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr was a candidate who refused to apologize for his father’s crimes, and who vowed to continue the brutal and vicious political agenda of his immediate predecessor Rodrigo Duterte. How did he manage to secure the largest share of the vote for any candidate since his father’s fall, taking almost 59 percent in a system that has no second-round runoff?
Disconcerted by the election results, some have explained Marcos Jr’s triumph as the upshot of a singularly effective “disinformation” drive aimed against the liberal opposition. Others have blamed their own runner-up candidate, then incumbent vice president Leni Robredo, saying she lost because of her campaign’s “elitist” messaging or a failure to listen.
These explanations have their merit, but they still leave us with bigger questions. How did a clear majority of the electorate become so inclined to believe or disregard outright lies from Bongbong Marcos and his allies? What are the circumstances under which massive advantages for one candidate or bad messaging deployed on behalf of another become decisive?
To address these issues, we need to historicize the current moment in Philippine politics and focus on a certain group of actors kept out of view by many in the mainstream commentariat. In what follows, we will look at the record of Aquino and the many other liberals who have shaped the fates of millions of Filipinos over the past decades.
The question of how to deal with the country’s debt was just one of the many dilemmas the post-dictatorship establishment confronted as they steered the state upon the restoration of what Benedict Anderson called “cacique democracy”: a system in which everyone can vote but landed families effectively determine election outcomes through their patronage networks and control of the bureaucracy. These various issues invariably touched upon a broader question that liberal reformists had long faced: How were they going to transform the Philippines into a more modern capitalist society?
Before them stood two main paths. The first was the developmentalist road that pre-dictatorship administrations had initially taken but failed to pursue effectively and eventually chose to abandon. In this perspective, those who made up the majority of the population (workers, peasants, etc.) were considered to be the main potential engines of the economy. If they were going to produce more wealth, the state needed to increase their purchasing power through a series of reforms: breaking up the country’s vast haciendas and giving them land, increasing their wages, ensuring job security, keeping the price of basic goods low, sparing them from taxes, and providing them with housing.
The national economy in this scenario would have to be strengthened from within, with the country’s industrial capacity built up by cultivating and controlling domestic capital and by nurturing the local market. The state would extract a bigger part of the social surplus from the rich and channel it toward productive investments that could trigger a virtuous cycle of higher employment, expanded consumption, and greater surplus. In line with this approach, the new government would repudiate the foreign debts that Marcos Sr had accumulated to improve levels of social provision and create more job opportunities.
The second option was the neoliberal road that Marcos Sr himself had begun to embark on during his final years in office. This framework considered the propertied classes to be the economy’s prime movers. While neoliberal ideologues often spoke about “rolling back the frontiers of the state,” in practice, the state would not withdraw so much as assume a different role. Its function would now be to help the country’s economic elites accumulate more wealth.
This would involve concentrating land in the hands of bigger firms (to achieve economies of scale) and maintaining low wages and labor “flexibility.” It would also mean handing over the provision of basic services to the private sector, shifting the burden of taxation onto the shoulders of the poor, and curtailing the expansion of social provisions.
Picking a Side
The path that the liberal successors of Marcos Sr would take was by no means predetermined. Corazon Aquino’s big-tent coalition included some relatively progressive officials in positions of influence who pushed for her to follow the first path. They were convinced that it was only by helping those at the bottom that more wealth would be generated and eventually flow upward. On the other hand, center-right figures, including former Marcos appointees, pushed back, sticking to their “trickle-down” agenda.
Though much of the ensuing debate between these two warring liberal camps was couched in the technical language of economics, the heart of the matter was ultimately political. After all, redistributing wealth downward would have required the state to enforce its monopoly over the legitimate use of violence against the country’s dominant class. This would have been essential if the government was going to strip big landowners of their vast landholdings, compel capitalists to raise wages, or restrain big business from jacking up its prices.
Redistributing wealth upward, in contrast, would require the state to use its coercive power against the popular classes in order to carry through regressive social measures. It was ultimately a question of political choice: Whose side would the liberals take, and who would they choose to hurt?
Aquino initially tried to balance the interests of both sides, but eventually embraced the neoliberal path. She chose to service the country’s debts unconditionally and in full, including those of private borrowers. Soon after, she purged her cabinet of progressives, dropping left-wing figures from top posts and replacing them with dyed-in-the-wool free marketeers. In one representative move, Aquino fired her pro-worker labor secretary and replaced him with the lawyer who represented the country’s largest group of employers.
In the years that followed, Aquino stood aside as a landlord-dominated Congress passed a supposed “land reform” law that was so riddled with loopholes that it ended up advancing the interests of elites invested in agribusiness, including Aquino’s own family. She also kept a tight lid on wages, promoted “labor flexibility,” and used Marcos-era laws to crack down on unions.
Unwilling to increase taxes on the rich, Aquino steered the country toward a more regressive tax system. In the hope of attracting more investment and enabling Philippine companies to penetrate foreign markets, she also relaxed restrictions on capital flows and entered into free trade agreements with other countries. It is telling that, as the years wore on, the president even stopped using the words “revolution” or “people power” in her public statements altogether.
Winners and Losers
After Aquino had completed her term, her handpicked successor, Fidel Ramos, a former national police chief under Marcos, ramped up the neoliberal transformation of the Philippine economy. His government privatized and “re-regulated” the country’s biggest infrastructure, selling off such vital public services as water distribution and electricity transmission to some of the biggest conglomerates in the Philippines. Staffing his administration with more right-wing technocrats, Ramos also dramatically reduced tariffs and lifted regulatory constraints on big business.
The choices made by Aquino, Ramos, and the technocrats around them had profound effects on millions of people. By taking so many steps to restore “investor confidence,” they managed to draw in more capital and generate economic growth. As a result, a narrow segment of the population moved up the social ladder during this phase of externally driven economic expansion.
This included an emergent layer of upstart big capitalists who were making their fortunes in real estate, retail, and other growth areas. Professionals hired by these capitalists and by transnational corporations also benefitted, as did white-collar workers employed in the booming “call center” industry. The salaries of civil servants went up as the state managed to increase revenues through regressive taxes.
However, by using state violence to help capital intensify its exploitation and dispossession of the masses, liberals in power also kept a much larger section of the population down. Tens of millions of workers saw their living standards drop between 1986 to 1997. Many others lost their jobs entirely as de-industrialization set in. Hundreds of thousands of teachers, doctors, nurses, and others from the middle class found themselves worse off as their incomes stagnated and employment opportunities narrowed.
Many small farmers were impoverished as heavily subsidized goods from abroad flooded the local market. Countless shopkeepers had to shutter their businesses as chain stores sprouted across the country. Hundreds of thousands of informalized settlers were evicted from their homes, and even salaried professionals groaned as the prices of water, electricity, gas, and basic commodities soared following the privatization of these sectors.
Tide of Resentment
Economically struggling and politically disillusioned, millions of Filipinos began to look at the “People Power Revolution” in a harsher light. From the mid-1990s onward, a tide of resentment slowly emerged among the lower classes. Many became more skeptical of the version of events promoted by liberals, before eventually turning their back on them. Indeed, we can read much of Philippine history after 1997 as the story of the oppressed masses gradually turning against the post-Marcos order, with various political forces either trying to defuse and deflect their hostility, or to channel it toward their own preferred resolutions.
We can find multiple examples of this process of disillusionment with the liberal establishment, first among the lowest social classes and later among the middle strata. The populist Joseph Estrada defeated the anointed successor of Fidel Ramos in 1998, and the urban poor launched a mass insurrection in 2001 to reinstate Estrada as president after his ouster earlier that year. This was followed by Rodrigo Duterte’s election victory over the preferred candidate of the liberals, Mar Roxas, in 2016. As indignation spread, other members of the liberal establishment scrambled to appease mass discontent, while various “outsiders” tried to hijack it.
Without more data on public opinion in the Philippines, it is difficult for us to reach definitive conclusions about why so many people from among the lower classes chose to rally behind yet another “outsider” in the May elections this year. However, it is impossible to imagine that the repeated use of force by liberals in power to advance the interests of capital — and the effects this had on people’s material conditions — had no bearing on that choice.
Unlike conventional reactionary populists, Marcos Jr took advantage of this tide of political sentiment by employing a seemingly anti-populist discourse of reconciliation that set him apart from his predecessor’s authoritarian-demagogue persona. His strategy deployed recycled narratives of “unity” and distortions of history. Mobilizing this rhetoric while casting himself as a victim of the post-dictatorship establishment proved to be politically expedient for Marcos Jr, as it shut down questions of accountability and made it unnecessary to run on a clear policy platform.
Bongbong’s political message focused on a call for reparations to deal with the failures of the post-dictatorship years. Although his campaign slogan was “unity,” he promised the displacement of the country’s liberal political oligarchy. This resonated with many, including those who had grown dissatisfied with Duterte but nonetheless continued to support him. Marcos Jr offered voters a choice between the birth of a vaguely defined “new society” or a reprise of the misery they had experienced under liberal rule.
In the end, Bongbong Marcos may well have been carried to victory, not only by the torrent of disinformation he unleashed or the gush of cash he disbursed, but also by a surge of popular resentment that he could not have conjured up on his own, but which he guilefully channeled toward his preferred direction.
In the face of growing repudiation of liberal politics, the only way his main opponent, Leni Robredo, could have won would have been to completely distance herself from the liberal establishment. However, instead of renouncing the neoliberal program of her political camp in favor of a more explicitly pro-worker and pro-poor platform, Robredo focused her campaign on governance reforms.
Although her camp signed “covenants” with various sectors such as labor and the urban poor, these commitments were often vague and largely marginal to her program. Like her political predecessors, Robredo equivocated on the most substantive commitments — such as abolishing all forms of labor contractualization, setting a national minimum wage, imposing a wealth tax on billionaires, or decriminalizing abortion — in order to appease her rich and conservative supporters.
Can we really blame those among the masses who saw through the decision of Robredo’s campaign to swap the traditional yellow campaign colors of the liberals for a new shade of pink, and repaid her prevarication with disdain? Voting data is scant but village-level tallies do suggest that Robredo’s loss represented a “protest vote” with an undeniable class character.
While Robredo did prevail in a number of low-income provinces, for the most part, the list of areas that she won reads like an address book of social groups that did not fare so badly after 1986: Forbes Park, Bel-Air, Corinthian Gardens, Greenhills, White Plains. Meanwhile, Marcos Jr won practically all the informalized settlements, working-class districts, and lower middle-class areas which suffered or did not benefit much from the post-dictatorship expansion of the economy.
To be sure, liberals cannot be held solely responsible for the return of the Marcoses to the seat of political power. As we have argued in an earlier essay, many progressives in the Philippines have also played a part in this outcome by choosing to join elite-dominated coalitions or by postponing all talk of forging a socialist program in the electoral sphere to some indefinite point in the future.
By doing so, they deprived people of an alternative framework to make sense of their suffering and an emancipatory horizon toward which they could march. This effectively meant abandoning them to the Dutertes and the Marcoses as their anger boiled over and they searched for alternatives. Still, the failings of the Philippine left were by no means on the same plane as the acts of the country’s liberals in power.
The shortcomings of the former stemmed from a position of weakness rather than strength, in contrast with those of the liberals. Their political resources were diminished and, as their ranks were decimated, their sectarianism heightened. Repression by liberals in government likewise intensified. In the face of these rapid developments, the Left also grappled with multiple constraints in updating their political analysis.
Similarly, post-dictatorship liberal reformism faced severe constraints of its own. With products from other so-called newly industrializing countries saturating the world market, competition had become more intense than ever amidst a long economic downturn. Even in wealthier countries during this period, capitalists were refusing to invest unless state officials yielded to their demands. In this context, liberals had little reason to make concessions since the Left did not pose much of a threat.
Nevertheless, reformists did have choices. The post-dictatorship governments, that of Corazon Aquino and Fidel Ramos in particular, could have cultivated the support of the masses, appointed progressive officials, and banded together with other governments of the Global South to take on the power of capital. The experience of countries that chose to pursue a more redistributive route suggests that going down this path was not bound to fail.
Instead, Aquino, Ramos, and their technocrats chose the other course of action. For this reason, they are primarily responsible for setting off the chain of events and nurturing the political emotions that led to Marcos Jr’s landslide win. Bongbong is also to blame for what has happened, of course — he used stolen money to wage a deceitful campaign — but large numbers of people only become more receptive to “disinformation” under conditions of desperation and widespread suffering. Massive electoral advantages favoring the Right and bad messaging from the opposition only become decisive when the downtrodden have been driven to the edge.
To leave the liberals out of the picture and absolve them of any responsibility would be to assume that elites can hurt the masses indefinitely without receiving any backlash. But as we now see so clearly, the disenchanted masses do fight back, albeit sometimes in ways that confound our expectations or hopes.
Sometimes they do so by storming palaces or trying to establish a workers’ state. Under different historical conditions, such as when many left-wingers collaborate with elites or vacate the political stage, they respond by voting for foul-mouthed demagogues or remorseless kleptocrats who promise to keep the liberals they despise out of power.
All of this is worth underscoring today because, despite the election outcome, some on the Left still maintain that the only way to counter Marcos Jr and defeat authoritarianism in the coming years is to continue building up Robredo as the “leader of the opposition” and to keep campaigning for liberals as a possible replacement for the Marcoses and Dutertes. The Left certainly needs to unite with all those who are opposed to Marcos Jr’s project, including liberals, but this does not mean helping restore them to power.
The millions of people who voted for Marcos Jr over Robredo had reprehensible albeit partially rational reasons for doing so. The liberal aspiration of “good governance” did not and will not emancipate them from the claws of neoliberalism. Why then should they have believed that it would, and why should the Left persevere in trying to convince them of this false proposition?
Bongbong’s victory serves as a reminder of what Antonio Gramsci emphasized long ago. Neither passive dupes nor all-powerful subjects who we should romanticize, the oppressed are capable of gaining insight into their oppression and arriving at practical solutions to their problems. Yet that insight can also remain partial and contradictory, stunted by the dominant class, and harnessed toward barbaric rather than emancipatory projects. The task of the Left in the coming years will be to help elaborate this partial insight so that instead of merely turning against the liberals and supporting their elite adversaries, the oppressed can address the root causes of their suffering.
To do this, it is worth building on the limited yet groundbreaking accomplishments of the first openly socialist campaign for the country’s highest office, that of Leody de Guzman and Walden Bello. As Marcos Jr’s rule unveils its true face and a growing number of people realize that his promised path to liberation is in fact just another road to perdition, the Left must be out there, untethered from both liberal and conservative alliances, and providing the public with an alternative perspective for making sense of their plight as well as an emancipatory goal to march toward.
The central question the Left faces is what outcomes it wants to achieve electorally as well as determining, in the words of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, “what work the outcome is supposed to do.” If we want to persuade people that it is only with the Left that another world is possible, we need to put forward a socialist alternative in the here and now instead of deferring this alternative to the future and relinquishing the political stage to advance short-term gains.
This will require addressing the weaknesses that became so painfully obvious in the de Guzman/Bello campaign and confronting the mainstream left’s mistake of supporting Robredo. Organizing an autonomous machinery and strong social bases of power to run a presidential campaign is essential. But for this to happen, it is urgent and imperative to abandon opportunism and self-defeating alliances with political elites.
Otherwise, the tide of anger and resentment that is likely to reemerge in the coming years will again be channeled toward merely restoring the disgraced post-1986 liberal order — and in the next turn of the cycle, we will once more face the specter of another despot returning to power.