Critical Criminology Meets The 2010 Philippine Elections


For many millions of Filipinos May 10 was a historic watershed. They voted for Noynoy Aquino, and the Aquino legacy as they understood it. Believing that corruption is the major problem that needs to be tackled by their next president, they turned to Noynoy, the clean-and-good, to deliver them from the pestilence. No other candidate had such belief, such trust, of the people. The death of his mother Cory Aquino in 2009 had transformed him from a rather insignificant senator into a saviour.

Of course what we saw on election day was the now familiar electoral phenomenon in bourgeois democracies around the globe: the people “vote-and-hope”. They hoped that his simple slogans “I am not a thief”, “Where there is no corruption, there is no poverty” heralded the change that would transform their future. They were encouraged to do so by the mainstream media which plays a primary role in legitimizing such election mirages. Voters are falsely led to believe that their hopes for a better future will be fulfilled by charismatic candidates such as Aquino became in the wake of the media-fueled adoration of saint Cory.

Because the candidates and the media avoid serious analysis of the socio-economic system which is the underlying problem, only the surface effects of that system, such as pervasive government corruption and electoral manipulation, become the primary issues for discussion. But everyone opposes corruption as well as electoral violations: the candidates, the media, the Comelec and, of course, Smartmatic who were paid to install an automatic electoral system which, it claimed, would prevent cheating. Thus substantive debate on issues and policy formulations was lacking. The voters were left, for the most part, to vote-and-hope, placing their trust in Noynoy, the only candidate who appeared squeaky clean. All else receded into insignificance.

In this way, the focus of election, and post-election, public discourse was diverted from the deeper, systemic causes of the crisis in the Philippine social formation. Instead, attention was turned to such matters as corruption generally, traditional electoral violations, the inadequate performance of Comelec and the many questions concerning the quality and performance of the technology introduced by its highly suspect ally, Smartmatic.

This sleight-of-hand, the framing of the issues so as to avoid a deeper analysis, is familiar fare. As we are talking about crimes of the state and the powerful, I want to consider how criminological analysis helps us to understand the elections and electoral discourse in particular. They operate to disguise the basic problems of the Philippine social formation and thus help to legitimate the exploitative and necessarily repressive capitalist system.

First, however, we must realize that criminology itself is a site of ideological struggle. In traditional bourgeois criminological discourse, issues such as corruption, and other illegal activity such as electoral law violations, are abstracted from the basic social relations and material conditions of the society in which they flourish. Thus the focus of analysis is on immediate “positive” causes. Positivists seek the causes of crime in a)individual or even group (culture, class, community, race, ethnic) characteristics seen to be pathological; or 2) social conditions such as lack of employment, housing, family socialization, education or even poverty. But in either approach, such “positive causes” are removed, or abstracted, from the underlying conditions of the socio-economic system of capitalism which is the primary cause of the new patterns of social behavior labelled as criminal activity.

Positivist criminology developed in the 19th century to explain the criminality brought by the development of capitalism, especially to the urban centers. The source of the social problems of crime and other forms of “deviance” could certainly not be located where they truly belonged, in the momentous transition to new capitalist social relations of exploitation and repression.

A further element in Positivist thinking was noted some 40 years ago by the sociologist of deviance, Prof. David Matza. He argued that the Positivists had de-linked the state from the analysis of crime and other rule violations. Thus the study of the state’s role in social control was largely seen as irrelevant as the state was perceived to be neutral, and as having no significant involvement in the causation of crime. It too had been abstracted from the social relations within which it was embedded.

The parallel here is striking. Positivist criminology serves the state and capitalist relations by its double abstraction. Electoral discourse operates similarly. It seeks to reveal “positive causes” of corruption and rule violations. First, it speaks derisively of trapos as if they were simply pathologically greedy; and of dysfunctional state institutions such as the Comelec and its meretricious ally, Smartmatic. There is no holistic discussion of the overall role of the state-trapos and Comelec as well as other institutions such as the judiciary, Ombudsman- in protecting the system of capitalist relations. Second, over-looked entirely is the very substantial contribution of those relations in determining the kinds of illegal behavior which will be used to further the interests of dominant, wealthy elites, e.g. electoral violations.
The Positivists’ double abstraction of crime from the state and from the relations of capitalism is paralleled in the media discourse which does the same with electoral crime. In both cases a smoke-screen is provided through which public discourse does not penetrate. The public gaze remains fixed at the surface level.

It was in the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s that resistance to bourgeois Positivism arose in the West. Many disciplines and the field of Criminology were the sites of struggle. “Critical Criminology” arose, rejecting the old analysis. It brought the state back in, following the sociologists of deviancy who argued that the analysis of crime should start with an analysis of the role of the state in defining and constructing behavior as legal or illegal. Of course with regard to electoral violations this role is substantially performed by institutions of the state such as Comelec, the Electoral Review Tribunal, the judicial system. It is a function which Comelec in particular performs with a great deal of discretion, but with rather low visibility or lack of transparency.

Most importantly the “crits’” analysis descended to the realm of exploitation and repression-capitalist social relations-in order to understand the criminogenic effects of such unjust social structures. Through such a program of concretization, or de-abstraction, the critical criminologists began to analyze the social structures and forces which bring forth the laws/rules-electoral and more general-and also bring forth their violation. They also began to analyze the arbitrary enforcement or non-enforcement of the laws/rules by state agencies such as Comelec.

In thinking about the post-election discussions in the Philippines as a critical criminlogist I see the familiar emergence of an abstracted debate which provides a smoke-screen through which the fundamental problems cannot be seen. Only the surface effects are discussed. Thus the peoples’ hopes, and Aquino’s promise to wipe out corruption and thereby reduce poverty, are discussed repetitively, while the deep causes of such problems are never sighted let alone intelligently debated.

As is normal, the media have taken the initiative in framing the debate. And three issues have been prominent at the point of writing. First, and linked to the general issue of pervasive corruption, who will be the important players in Noynoy’s cabinet and advisory circle? Will he be able to mount, and maintain, his projected campaign against corruption and consequent poverty reduction? Who will he appoint to his cabinet? Second, the dismal performance of Comelec and its ally Smartmatic in providing what they promised, a fraud free election, has been widely and vociferously discussed. The “Koala bear” has grabbed the attention of viewers and commentators. Third, the “midnight appointments” by GMA, especially that of Chief Justice Corona. How Noynoy should respond has been seen in the context of a potential constitutional crisis. legal and other commentators have had a field day with the issues, nitty gritty as well as delicadeza.

In these discussions media commentators and their guests speculate on immediate political issues. Such controversies are the staple of the media presentation of politics. There is inherent drama. Everyone can follow the usual good guy/bad guy scenario. The conceptualization of the issues, for example corruption, is positivistic, relying on a pathological model. Everyone looks for the bad guys to blame: GMA; trapos; clans or dynasties; greedy businessmen; foreigners, etc. The hope remains: the good guys will do the job as promised.

An analysis from a critical criminology perspective can help us to weigh the likely success or failure of the next government (or President, as the matter is highly personalized in the minds of voters). Assuming it is Noynoy at the helm, will his “program” of change featuring corruption and poverty reduction actually lead to a more socially just society? Surely we can expect some change at a surface level. Responding to the positivist analyses being offered to him by Big Business and political advisers, media experts and others, Aquino will make some changes in order to stabilize the floundering ship of state and to protect the interests of capital. It is unlikely he will simply continue policies of the brazenly brutal and wealth- grasping Arroyos.

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