On work within and mass movements



“Working within the system” has been considered as the way forward to deepen democracy and participation in countries that were colonized by world powers such as Europe and North America, and its subsequent transition to “civilian democracy” after the brutal years of dictatorships (for example Chile’s Pinochet, the PH’s Ferdinand Marcos).

Neoliberal market reforms take center stage thereafter. This is the context in which “working within” may be read more fruitfully. It requires nothing less than principled and substantive autonomy from the interest of the ruling political elite. Unfortunately, that has not been the case in our nation’s “civil society.” Take for example the case of center-left political party Akbayan.

Akbayan has taken on the transmission function of Aquino’s neoliberal programs. It has merely functioned as a conduit, and in many critical issues, its prominent figures as apologists of the Aquino regime. Instead of democratizing the power of authority, it has merely incorporated new players who are into playing the exclusivist game of a bourgeois state apparatus.

Sadly, this mode of cooptation also plagues unions in the country since the 80s.We have heard of union leaders mobilizing their members through the politics of cooptation. They stand for the Union by means of coping with neoliberal attacks on labor, and in some cases, the public character of state institutions.

But why must we always cope? When do we fight back? Mass movements battle with and act upon these questions, and rightly so. How do we democratize governance? I do not have a definite answer. But surely not by the mechanisms being offered by power elites who want to “cultivate transparency” and “democratize governance” in “developing societies.” For these buzzwords have travelled far and wide. And globally, they have only made living so much more miserable for the laboring classes.

Neoliberal gurus, shakers, movers, and leaders have boasted of economic modernization through foreign direct investments and local economies based on exports of cheap raw materials and labor. We cannot escape the persistent nemesis of this economic model: deepening poverty and lamentable socioeconomic inequality.

This is precisely the reason why representatives from the MAKABAYAN bloc in the Philippine Congress almost always end their speeches with a proper caveat: ”We do our best to make legislation work for the majority but in the end, the collective power of an organized mass movement is decisive.” I am always disturbed by this sense of irony. But disturbed in a good way. Aren’t we all revoltingly disturbed by the murky waters that circulate around the whole project of “working within,” the kind that is unregulated by the interest and organized action of the most oppressed and exploited sectors in Philippine society?

What has been actually excluded in the “work within” formula is a sense of organization that is partial to the interest of the organized peasant-worker alliance. The “work within” formula has actually bended its radical potential by accommodating the anarchy of the market that plagues public governance.

A genuine reformer knows that reforms can only work when there is a revolutionary movement that exerts pressure from below. A true revolutionary knows that one of the ways that revolution advances is through genuine reforms. A true revolutionary and a genuine reformer will have no problem working together in advancing the noble stakes of a peasant and working class-based mass movement. Meanwhile, those who have labeled themselves liberals and/or left-of-center reformers have only paved the way for reformism that has embraced and implemented the dogmatic schemes of the neoliberal agenda.

But then again, haven’t we noticed how neoliberal schemes under the free-market model end abruptly by changing their names and introducing themselves anew? And in the course of which military power (mostly US-sponsored) is used against the people? This is largely on account of the revolutionary impulse of organized mass movements concretized in by mass actions against neoliberal schemes. Organized forces have stood the test of the most brutal conditions. But more importantly, they have led the most resolute fight against the barbarism of the elite.

This is why a thoughtful engagement with the Philippine mass movement is in order especially at a time when corporate media cannot tell us anything else other than the electoral scenario of 2016. How have we confronted and not confronted the politics of class and nation—made even more complex now by ethnic tensions spurred by the US ‘War on Terror’—in the past and how to deal with these concrete issues in the present?

Debating these issues in our heads or in the suffocating confines of our respective fields might just prove to be the most meaningless engagement of our lives. Think of the systematic exclusion of the peasant population in the “transition from dictatorship to democracy.” Imagine the marginalization of indigenous populations and their “mainstreaming” in good governance double-speak and in academic discourse. Think of the continued contractualization of labor and the export of Filipino workers around the world. Imagine the oppression of Filipinos on account of gendered roles and norms and the mainstreaming of gender in government policies and academic gender-speak.

Let not the “weight of the night” rule the day. Mass movements have shown how the masses have been empowered at different critical points in history. And in its most shining moments, proletarian mass movements have demonstrated how an empowered and organized mass of people can actually move to democratize and seize the power to govern. We must not only learn from their failures, but more importantly from the various undeniable successes of this project to construct a better world.

* ”weight of the night” is a phrase used by Chilean businessman Diego Portales to refer to the belief that passivity and tradition of the masses guarantee political order.(Portales, D. “The Authoritarian Republic” in The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics.2014.Durham:Duke University Press). (https://www.bulatlat.com)

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  1. From the German Ideology:
    “Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness, and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is, necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; this revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.” I consider this idea as a most valid way of assessing the relevance of movements, organizations, etc. My own experience in resisting unjust situations has shown that as I seek meaningful changes, in conjunction with others in a work union or anti-poverty groups, I undergo certain subtle changes in outlook. As such, “working within” to make certain reforms possible can be worthwhile only with a view of gaining knowledge and using this knowledge to assist fellow proles to gain an understanding of how this the rotten system really works. But self-deception can easily set-in, especially if financial difficulties is part of the picture. The struggle for a just, equitable world is a long process fraught with pains and joys—or as the saying goes, “Revolutionary activity changes you as you change conditions.”

  2. “Take for example the case of center-left political party Akbayan.”

    tagging akbayan as such as that is an attack to the tru sector of center left, which is mostly represented by no less than upper middile force of the so called “makabayang burgesya” which by no means is gearing only to a patriotic symbolism.And as far i am concern akbayan is no different from reactionary govt.

    salamat po! papa felix
    All UP Workers union of All UP Workers Alliance

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