Column: Not rule of law but caprice of power

This column, published on November 28, 2017, ran the introductory parts of my keynote at the closing rites of the second Political Management Training for Young Progressives program conducted by SocDem Asia. The full speech, “The role of the youth in fighting populist authoritarianism,” is here.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of addressing a new class of graduates of a unique political management training program: Young progressives from Southeast Asia who meet twice in a given year for a series of executive classes on both the form of politics (such as “election management and progressive campaigning”) and its substance (“climate change,” “feminism,” “migration”). The program is run under the auspices of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung and the Network of Social Democracy in Asia. Allow me to publish the introductory parts:

I read your program of training, and was impressed by its breadth (16 topics!) and by its rigor. It is a privilege for me to meet you, the political advocates and activists gifted, as your class valedictorian said, with “energy, belief, thoughts, dreams,” who will help shape our region’s future.

The world you have chosen to become politically active in is different from the era which politicized me. In some respects, it is the opposite of the 1980s. In other respects, it is the culmination of the historic shifts that started in that decade.

Let me begin in earnest by reading an extended passage from a piece of political analysis.

“A regime of continuous terrorism and anguish stirs up the minds of men, a regime worse than an era of disturbances, for the fears that the imagination creates are generally greater than the real ones. The country is poor; it is going through a great financial crisis, and everybody points with their fingers to the persons who are causing the evil, and yet no one dares to lay their hands on them!”

“… of what use are all the codes in the world if because of confidential reports, trivial motives, anonymous traitors, any respectable citizen is banished, is exiled, without any trial? Of what use is that Penal Code, of what use is life, if there are no security of the home, faith in justice, and confidence in the tranquility of conscience? Of what use are all that scaffolding of names and all that pile of articles, if the cowardly accusation of a traitor can influence the timorous ears of the supreme autocrat more than all the cries of justice?”

Those paragraphs are from “Filipinas dentro de cien años” or “The Philippines a century hence,” by the Philippine polymath and patriot Jose Rizal. He wrote the four-part analysis—much studied in academic circles as a foundation stone in the political theory of the Philippines’ national hero—in 1889 and 1890. (To put that in some context, the passage I just read was written several months before our famous San Miguel beer was first brewed.) Perhaps its language gives it away as a 19th-century polemic; or perhaps its use of current buzzwords such as terrorism and financial crisis and anonymous traitors made us think it was a contemporary analysis.

But I thought that its description of the situation then, of the Philippines as a colony of Spain ostensibly under the rule of law but in reality an entire country terrorized by the caprice of power, had something to say to the theme I was invited to speak on: The role of the youth—your role—in stemming the tide of populist authoritarianism.

It describes an authoritarian state: ruled by “a supreme autocrat,” regimented by “continuous terrorism,” wracked by “confidential reports” and “cowardly accusations” of “anonymous traitors,” ruined by the lack of “security of the home” and “tranquility of conscience.” Many of us will find these aspects of authoritarianism familiar, because we have just emerged from an authoritarian society or backsliding into one.

What is missing in Rizal’s first description is the phenomenon of populism.

Another famous letter of his from 1889, this time written not in Spanish but in Tagalog, helps explain the connection between populism and authoritarianism. He did not use those exact terms, but the reality he describes in his “Letter to the Women of Malolos” is unmistakable.

“The villainy of some lies in the cowardice and carelessness of others,” he wrote. “One is oppressed because of the lack of love for one’s self and because of excess regard for the oppressor.”

In one phrase, “labis ng pagkasilaw sa umaalipusta,” we have the motive power behind authoritarianism explained: Because enough people allow it.

I translated the phrase as “excess regard for the oppressor.” I would be interested to read other translations.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Politics, Readings in Rizal

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