Mourn the Man, Question His Legacy
In 2010, Noynoy Aquino was inaugurated as the country's 15th President with more than 42% of the electorate choosing his transformative platform of hope. The expectations were high. And then he fell short of his promises.
In 2005, former Republican Party strategist Kevin Phillips wrote American Theocracy: The Peril and Politics of Radical Religion, Oil, and Borrowed Money in the 21st Century, in which he warned that America’s shortsightedness, its addiction to fundamentalist religious creeds, its decadent culture of celebrities, and its media habits will doom the country into a gradual march into decline and irrelevance. Phillips further opined that the 21st century saw that politics itself is no longer seen as a vehicle for social change within elite circles and the popular classes as well: it has become a mere entertainment product among entertainment products, or as the controversial Alex Jones remarked in one of his impassioned rants, a race of two managerial firms for the position as CEO of Corporate America. A decade later, these insights are as relevant and as terrifying as ever for they have been plastered in front of our faces.
The same case can be applied to the Philippines, which has obviously replicated many of the United States' institutions, its popular culture, and even its very definition of politics from America due to their occupation of our nation for roughly half a century. In the years since we overthrew Marcos the autocrat and his family from office, we've progressively become wearier and more disillusioned of the political process at its entirety, for the very politicians who have the levers of governance remain largely apathetic to our basic needs and aspirations, and even openly loathing the masses for their incapacity to “rule.”
As a sort of a coping mechanism, we've gradually veered away from the day to day affairs of the state, with our role in the political arena marginally diminishing: with the absence of mass organizations as they were either converted into privatized NGOs or driven underground because of state repression, what remained is the ballot box, though pinning one’s hopes on democracy on the ballot should have been seen earlier as a hallmark of our downward spiral.
Nine years of the Arroyo regime have awakened a sense of urgency. As a kid, I can still remember the numerous mobilizations, strikes, and protests, though in retrospect, we must view them as the tail-end of our collective belief in the democratic ideal, for in just a decade, through the careful use of divide and conquer, the Arroyo administration effectively scattered the central nervous system of gaining and sustaining collective dissent. In effect, those from the top have pursued an agenda with the de-politicization of the citizenry in mind.
An anti-thesis to a thesis wins the presidency, declaring the intention of filling the gaps of the Aquino administration’s failure on resolving the major dilemmas of the nation.
Then came Cory Aquino’s demise. Her funeral was attended by millions and her death was widely mourned. The fallout was so severe that it influenced then Senator Benigno Aquino III to consider running for Chief Executive, with the previous standard bearer Mar Roxas giving way to the scion of the Aquino family. Once a relatively laid-back senator from Tarlac, Aquino’s emergence in the polls was staggering, which culminated in him garnering more than 42 percent of the voters in the 2010 elections, or 15.2 million souls to be exact.
For a brief moment, large segments of the people thought that this would be our inside man to topple the rotten establishment. His platform reflected these sentiments, which guaranteed a clean government, a speedy trial for all, and an economy that works for everyone, thus attempting to deviate from what his predecessor built, at least in words.
Six years later, the populace was evidently disappointed with his administration and the numerous blunders that he committed along the way. The yearning for change however is still there, and we know what happened next. An anti-thesis to a thesis wins the presidency, declaring the intention of filling the gaps of the Aquino administration’s failure on resolving the major dilemmas of the nation. The rest, as they say, is history.
My purpose for writing this reflection is not to malign PNoy as a person. I wish to critically examine him as a political figure, and by extension, that of his movement (if he even had one). Every once in a while, we must make an attempt to separate the political from the personal, for this mantra has condemned more societies into the mire over the past 40 years or so, because of its inability to chart a way out into its own enigma. With a sober disposition and an attempt to emotionally detach myself from PNoy as a person, we can then begin the process of what the Marxists will often say within their ranks, that of criticism and self-criticism. Our assessment will thus not be complete without meshing PNoy into the circumstances and the environment of his era.
I will already set a warning to everyone: we will not be wearing any rose-tinted glasses here, for this is nothing but a diagnosis of a political actor within his sphere.
A New Dawn?
PNoy’s victory in 2010 was not that strange if a global context is to be applied. The effects of the 2007 crisis on the system was immense: fortunes of millions of people had been wiped out overnight, the housing market crashed, the commodities sector experienced a halt, and everything seemed to be on free fall.
In response, large majorities or pluralities of people across the globe decided to anchor their frustrations and what remained of their faith that change can still be accomplished from within by the new breed of reformist politicians, parties, or movements. In America, they had Obama. In Greece, PASOK swept the floor over their rivals, with the Greek people convincing themselves that its social-democratic track record was enough. In Brazil, Lula de Silva’s Workers’ Party won a re-election, thus cementing their domination of Brazilian politics for half a decade or so. In Germany as well as in Spain, their social-democratic movements gained more seats than they had a decade earlier, thus forcing the governments of both countries to enter into a coalition with the victors.
These upsets for the status quo among other places were phenomenal. Even if we were not directly affected by the global recession, I can still recall the shortages of rice, the rising prices of oil, and the general reduction of wages in the later stages of the Arroyo period. Much of the population despised the Arroyos openly, but until 2010, these voices had not taken a coherent search for an alternative. Then came PNoy, with his platform and his optimistic defense of the commoners.
“Kayo ang boss ko” quickly gained currency as the trademark of his presidency, thus endowing a revitalized appreciation for the EDSA Revolution and all its attendant concepts. We breathed a sigh of relief.
But then six years later, we were naked before the frosting winds, with little to no shelter, and resentment driving our sentiments though and through. Is it because of what the media told us as the propaganda machine of his opponents? Maybe. However, even if we are to assume that it is true, one cannot just dismiss the protests of people against PNoy concerning increases in tuition, the privatization of the health sector, the lack of any continuation of land reform, which even culminated in a massacre in Kidapawan, and many others as a machination of just a group of conspirators, to say that this is the case will be a form of self-deception. To be frank, the administration of the supposed reformer, if you look at it without any hints of nostalgia and all these charts of increased economic growth and improved credit ratings which have merely fattened the pockets of the rich and those engaged in real estate or mining, is mediocre at its best and not different from the rest at its worst.
To Be A Good Person Is Not Enough
Some commentators have focused on the successes of the PNoy admin on either foreign affairs or because of his impeccable character. I will quickly call out these successes as hollow, for the reason that they merely represent successes if you will deny the existence of the working class in the equation. PNoy’s administration broke the backs of working class organizations, discouraged strikes/negotiations with the employees, and was partially responsible for the demise of PAL’s union for workers in 2011. If you are to have a chat with a worker, what do you think will be his or her first priority? Naturally, higher wages will be on top of the list. And the PNoy admin failed the working class in this regard.
As for international relations, any inroads of the PNoy admin against China is invalidated by its Western-centric approach to alliances. Instead of fostering closer ties with Vietnam, Indonesia, or India early on as a counterbalance, we chose to approach Washington instead. Of course, some will retort that America is the only one who can strong-arm the Red Dragon.
However, this demonstrates a lack of foresight and the capacity to innovate and seek new methods. The reason is simple: we do not know the enemy and even its history to push through. The PNoy admin pretended to believe that an arbitration tribunal was enough to dissuade China. A piece of paper however is no match to the will of one’s leadership or force of arms. We could have done better, but now we are stuck with a far worse option among the options which are available.
Being a good person is not enough, especially if you are under a reformist credo.
And as for good character, what is even its relevance to governance aside from a few brownie points for the press? Being a good person is not enough, especially if you are under a reformist credo. To be decisive and bold must be the main attributes of anyone who wants to be a reformist. And PNoy’s administration is littered with instances of being indecisive and hesitant, in spite of situations which demanded strong resolve and not that of caution. Whether it was the pork barrel scam, how he handled Typhoon Yolanda, Mindanao’s energy crisis, or fixing the public transportation in Manila, the administration neither had the guts nor the vigor to push things through.
And when your adversaries, despite being crooks, are willing to get everything from the bargain even if there are obstacles along the way and demonstrating far more energy on getting ahead, then you are losing the game. To consign politics as a matter of ethics or of appearances is precisely the downfall of many leaders, however well-intentioned they may be. Scholars of ages past like Machiavelli in Europe, Chanakya in India, or Shang Yang in China argued that a leader with only morality at his disposal is a poor one: to be a leader, especially if you tout yourself as a reformer, you must have the will to succeed, to carry things forward, and in cases which necessitates it, to be ruthless and domineering to those who oppose him or her especially if the old order is concerned.
For if you want to be a good person, you should have either become a priest or not even get yourself involved in the business of governance at all.
For there are no innocents in politics.
For all the armed princes are victorious, while the unarmed princes are destroyed.
The System Dreams in Total Silence
Now, one will ask again, what is PNoy’s legacy, really? If you want to feel good, let us say his infrastructure projects. However, these legacies are nothing more but continuations of the regimes before and after him. We must therefore accept this painful realization: like Obama, who was elected on the same platform of change as PNoy, neither of these Presidents were impactful in altering anything that was not given, and their successors were quick to revert any change they managed to achieve.
If one is to be more cynical with this assertion, their very hollowness and shortcomings have paved the way for the monsters that we hate on the television every day: their lack of tactics on getting things done made possible the emergence of demagogues who know that the people are still clamoring for a change of direction. Neither changed the nation’s direction, except if one counts this dystopia as their legacy partially due to their underestimation and inaction on the problems besetting their respective populations.
Was PNoy a good person? From his interviews, his press releases, and the intimate portrayals of his friends and colleagues, he was indeed a good person. But as a leader that was needed in a moment of crisis? Absolutely not.
As a parting observation, the movement that PNoy built has eroded. His style of governance was not enough to weather the storm. Some might say that having virtue is decent enough. But this is not the time of virtuous platitudes The people have been demanding action for a decade now.
In sum, all these praises for Pnoy obscure a distressing fact: his 42 percent mandate, the highest in this Fifth Republic, might have meant nothing. In 2010, a plurality of people wanted to give the Aquinos a second chance to prove themselves and to learn if the dream of democracy is still worth believing. And then it faded until all that is left is dust at the end, thus enabling the wolves to move in for the kill.
We may as well bury the EDSA Revolution of 1986 with him, for a new vision is needed. But as of the moment, none is in sight. This new period will require such a vision to materialize.
Even if I disagree with those who refer to this current regime as fascist in a classical definition, and despite all the bluster this administration delivers to the press, how its leaders govern is not that different from their hated predecessor. Maybe these few words from Walter Benjamin to which this author has paraphrased will be fitting as a conclusion:
Behind every fascism is a failed revolution.
Quo vadis (Which way), Philippines?