40 years
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 20, 2012 - 12:00am

Tomorrow, we commemorate four decades since martial rule was declared and a long authoritarian winter descended. Time flies, indeed.

The anniversary will not be much of a public event. Two-thirds of Filipinos, after all, were born after that event. Few remember the heady days, the temper of the times, leading up to that watershed event.

Few will bother to recall September 21, 1972. It will most likely be a convenient excuse for old, and aging, friends to get together for a few beers and swap war stories. What is more important are the personal bonds formed at the barricades during interesting times. Too many issues passed under the bridge since.

After 40 years, my friends and comrades have exhausted all the war stories they need to tell. They were stories of courage as well as folly. Those times brought out the very best and the very worst amongst us, the generation caught up in this political tempest and consumed by the passions of an age long gone. We were often too young to make the best judgments we were forced to make, too impassioned to see things in correct proportion and too brave to actually survive.

I still light a candle on anniversaries like this one, to honor friends who fell during the long night, often in great pain. It is one small candle to honor so many. It is a private ritual serving the ends of remembering instead of explanation.

I am not aware of any large reunion planned for tomorrow. There is no notice from the First Quarter Storm Foundation, a group that tried to stand above the many political fault lines to serve as a common contact point for a generation of activists that went to battle and lost so many.

If no one bothered to organize anything, that is understandable. So many disagreements happened through the years. So much bitterness accumulated. So many regretted how militant political engagement misshaped their own lives. All these, plus the advancing years, do take their toll.

If, a decade hence, no one bothers to write an essay like this one, that too will be understandable. There is not much of an audience anymore. History does move on. Our memory of the days of barricades is now more personal and less political.

UP Diliman was the hotbed for radical political ideologies through the late sixties and early seventies. Some activities were organized to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the declaration of martial rule. These include a historical forum, the screening of old movies touching on the struggle against dictatorship and a small concert featuring seventies protest music.

All that is fine, except that they all seem trapped in the theme of recollection rather than explanation. I fear that will engender revivalism instead of progressive rethinking. The scheduled events are curious as retro extravaganzas and nothing more.

Some of my colleagues at the University asked me to dress in seventies fashion through the course of this week. I dutifully went through my closet and discovered I did not have a single pair of denims. During the seventies, all we wore were denims.

Instead of commemorating the events of 1972 by wearing denims, we might do better trying to understand why our democracy proved all too vulnerable to the onset of authoritarian rule. The other, largely unexplored, side of that issue is to understand why institutional vulnerabilities made authoritarianism necessary.

That largely unexplored side of the issue raises inconvenient questions. Part of the political malaise of the late sixties and early seventies was a growing sentiment that the state was ineffectual, that the political arrangement allowed an irresponsible elite to prevent the realization of social justice, and that the instruments of rule prevented the nation from achieving progress.

Recall that the imposition of martial rule was not without some degree of public support. It represented to some a step forward towards effective government: one that might ensure public order and safety; one that might liberate us from underdevelopment albeit towards state-led economic growth; and one that might achieve more equitable progress.

It was when the new elite fostered by dictatorship began behaving like the old elite that disenchantment took hold. In the first years of martial rule, most of our people were willing to accept a stern regime so long as it followed stern rules clear to all. That was better than the condition of elastic rules that enabled irresponsible elites to oppress the greater number.

A disgusted people rose up against the dictatorship but found no option but to let back the old elite in the name of democracy. Some of the old complaints against ineffectual government resurfaced after the 1986 Uprising.

It is not quite true to say the imposition of martial rule represented an entire nation overpowered by the will of one individual. That interpretation is useful propaganda, not useful analysis.

There were many large trends creating opportunities for a competent and audacious leader like Ferdinand E. Marcos could to overhaul our entire system of government. Those trends include the accumulation of petrodollars sovereign states may access to pump-prime economic growth, the specific development orthodoxy of the early seventies favoring state-led development, the actual models of successful authoritarian governments that cast a halo of legitimacy to the experiment we had, and the Cold War alignments that a small nation might exploit.

A specific political economic configuration made martial rule a possibility here. That configuration no longer pertains. What remains is the continuing challenge to make democracy work through effectual public institutions — the malaise since the sixties.

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