Writers and the state | Inquirer Opinion

Writers and the state

Force in its generic sense is strength or energy bearing motion or change. It is an important concept in social science because its legitimate use—internally through police power, and externally through military power—is frequently regarded as the ultimate instrumentality of the state.

In an autocratic government, all contrary writers are severely punished because the government is just too insecure about its legitimacy. Since the “consent of the governed” was never and cannot be obtained, sheer repressive power alone ensures the government’s survival. The tyrant cannot be everywhere but he must seem to be—hence the need to spread a psychological net of fear by deliberately committing acts of brutality on all
opponents. Not even a single critic can be allowed to prevail because that would encourage others to do likewise until a flashpoint of dangerous mass rebelliousness is reached.


As a tribute to the foolhardy courage of committed writers, repression has never succeeded in totally suppressing all written dissent. The reason is that the regime’s agents cannot be physically everywhere, and some partisan writers can slip through the net of fear to publish underground papers. Today, they circulate faxes and cassettes (as happened in Iran and China).

What repression succeeds in doing is to temper mass agitation against the regime, but agitated the people eventually are, and the vivid proof is that, although later than sooner, all repressive regimes came crashing down. The governors of mature democracies also came crashing down but usually into simple defeat such as retirement from office, while those of pseudo democracies usually end up in jail, exile, or execution.


To be a writer in a political context does not necessarily mean to be an advocate of republican democracy. In a pseudo democracy, most writers keep quiet; many are the regime’s propagandists. This, of course, is eloquent proof of what fear can do. The foolhardy few are often brutally suppressed and while the ideas of freedom they propagate are eventually realized, it is quite rare for the writers themselves to survive to see the triumph of their ideals. Their usual reward is to be remembered in some ceremony or by a few ardent readers. Too many times, even the triumph becomes a bitter disappointment, and—inevitably, it seems—the discredited elite returns, albeit in another costume.

Political obligation. Whether it is sincere or not, every government imposes obedience on its people. As a Jesuit defined it, “freedom is liberty under law.”

The problem, alas, is one of definition and application. What is freedom? Law? There is no universal dictionary for these terms; definitions are always lacking in absolute validity. What remains, then, is the convenience of the rulers in their explication.

What should governments uphold? Foster? Suppress? Writers may take sides, and they often do. But in truth, it is physical power alone that prevails. The words of writers insofar as they generate mass action do upset systems of governance, but there is no more room for anarchy in society, and so laws and their enforcers return once more.

Moreover, writers are seized by a fine conceit about their importance in social transformations. But there is also the farmer to consider, the baker, the butcher, the workers, the teachers, the clerks, the law enforcers and all the myriad individuals and institutions who carry on society’s activities and aspirations. Yet it is the writer who has made the most vociferous claim to government protection and patronage insofar as freedom of expression is concerned. This is quite natural because to express oneself is the life and the livelihood of the writer.

The government, however, is also concerned with its own life, and this involves directing the national economy, healthcare, education, justice delivery system, peace and order, insurgencies, external threats and a torrent of impossible demands stridently lobbied by individuals and groups. Whatever good government can deliver immediately breeds opposition, criticism, lawsuits and other forms of damnable ingratitude. Even the courts obstruct the government’s moves, and so almost all states have tried autocracy in one form or another to still the cacophony, to quiet all pressures, and to rule in peace even if it must praise itself and get rid of a few writers on some intolerable occasions.

In a political context, writers who propagandize have their reward. On the other hand, writers who opposed the government got what they bargained for. Perhaps they longed for
martyrdom—and should tears be shed for those who deliberately challenged the biggest gorilla in the jungle? Yes, if their foolhardiness helped us to realize our desires. Then, they are our fools, and we admire and patronize them for their sacrifices.


What is to be done? What the state should do for anyone or any cause is a never-ending predicament. This is a problem not even philosophy can settle because it is epistemological, or it goes into essences and the core of being itself, and one definition simply breeds another element for further exposition.

What works is force. This in fact is the historical record. If one should look into any constitution, for example, one will readily find that the rights or obligations stated therein were won by some form of struggle by some group or individual. Often the struggle was resolved through violent confrontation, and the victor wrote the provision. In other cases, the struggles were won by public opinion, and it, too, got its provision written.

The provision on freedom of expression exists in written documents primarily to protect writers and their writings. If writers want this provision to be so construed and enforced as to protect their every opinion in a Freedom of Information Act, then they must do what every other interest group in various societies have done: fight to the death with all the resources at hand. The initiative must come from writers, not the government. No matter what pertinent laws declare, it is not natural for the government to protect its opponents, and its friends among writers have nothing to complain about except more reward.

In general, all is in perpetual flux. The tide ebbs and flows, tyranny prevails, freedom wins, the oppressive elite returns, many are aggrieved, some are glad, most are concerned only with immediate wants—and humanity is a rancorous, Rabelaisian parade with knaves and heroes, creatures of all varieties, pursuing rainbows of all colors, and all marching off to… where?

Reynaldo V. Silvestre, former chief, Office of Strategic and Special Studies of the Armed Forces, is a retired army colonel, bemedaled officer and multiawarded writer. He belongs to Class 1968 of the UP Vanguard in Diliman, and taught political theory at UP Manila when called to active duty.

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TAGS: autocratic government, Reynaldo v. Silvestre, social science, Writers
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