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HORIZONS

Marcos 2.0: The Counterrevolution

/ 04:05 AM January 04, 2022

The notorious German propagandist Joseph Goebbels once proclaimed that his ultimate goal was to “erase 1789 from history.” By “1789,” he was referring to the French Revolution, which overturned an oppressive and feudalistic order under the Bourbons in favor of the republican principles of “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Over the past two-and-half-centuries, modern politics has been an arena of fierce struggle between the forces of conservation and progress. It’s certainly true that a tenuous coalition of liberals, social democrats, and communists have managed to oversee a bundle of reforms that have endowed the common folk with basic social and political rights under modern constitutions.

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The big delusion of our era, however, is to view social progress as both historically inevitable and morally self-evident. The reality is that reactionary cartels, often more well-endowed and organizationally entrenched than their progressive rivals, have repeatedly managed to clip the wings of liberal revolutions and frustrate progressive reforms. This is especially true across the postcolonial world, where vast majority of the population is yet to enjoy the fruits of democratic politics.

Decades from now, historians will likely view outgoing President Duterte as a reactionary populist who paved the way for one of the most successful counterrevolutions of the 21st century. And that distinction belongs to no less than the Marcoses, who are within striking distance of reclaiming Malacañang with the largest electoral landslide in contemporary history.

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To be fair, Mr. Duterte is a singular president who has upended the country’s domestic and foreign policy with a toxic cocktail of bravado, unabashed self-aggrandizement, and unorthodox tactics. As historian Vicente Rafael notes in his forthcoming book, “The Sovereign Trickster” (2022), Mr. Duterte is a unique populist who has at once monopolized both laughter and death.

After all, here is a man who can simultaneously boast about his bloody “drug war” while humoring his audience with salacious gossip and self-deprecating remarks. As far as I know, we have no precedence for this, either in our own political history or even in similar postcolonial nations currently in the grip of authoritarian populism.

In the greater scheme of things, however, Mr. Duterte may simply serve as a curtain-raiser for a far bigger and broader movement, namely the decades-old counterrevolution under the Marcoses. Over the past five years, the populist in Malacañang has simply exposed and accentuated the fundamental weaknesses in the post-Edsa political order and institutions.

Thanks to our nonexistent party system, adulterated media landscape, and broken institutional checks and balances, Mr. Duterte and his cronies have managed to make a mockery of the 1987 Constitution with mind-boggling impunity.

But the reality is that the incumbent populist has simply lacked the long-term vision, meticulous planning, and well-organized social base that is essential to establishing a whole new regime altogether. That task could fall on the Marcoses, who have overseen a remarkably successful counterrevolutionary project that has exploited all the hypocrisies and weaknesses of “elite democracy.”

Despite the best intentions of a few reformist presidents between 1986 and 2016, the Philippines has remained a deeply unequal society with haplessly weak state institutions, in the absence of sustained, radical reforms. Meanwhile, well-oiled and systematic campaigns of disinformation have gone on curiously unchallenged, contributing to the explosion of authoritarian nostalgia among a growing number of voters.

This has provided a perfect opening for the ancien régime to claw its way back to power, by offering both the disenfranchised masses and a disenchanted middle class a return to a supposed “golden past.” As the French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville observed centuries earlier, “Evils which are patiently endured when they seem inevitable become intolerable once the idea of escape from them is suggested.”

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Much can still change in the coming months, but the prospective return of the Marcoses to Malacañang is a reflection of the dynamism of reactionary forces in the Philippines.

The Princeton historian Arno Mayer had warned that liberal revolutions can often be completely reversed by reactionary counterrevolution, especially in the developing world where “run-away, overcrowded, and uneasy urban centers” mushroom under an “unjust and oppressive social order.” Unless progressive forces congeal into a robust coalition in the near future, the former overlords of the Philippines will soon be in a position to erase the 1986 People Power Revolution from history.

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TAGS: Bongbong Marcos, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, Horizons, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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