For three decades, contemporary public discourse on the Philippines has been marked by reference to a period called the “post-Marcos era.” Weeks after a high-stakes national election, that widely-accepted historical marker is suddenly obsolete.
What makes its obsolescence possible is the rehabilitation of the Marcos political dynasty to the highest position of power with Ferdinand Marcos Jr. being proclaimed as the seventeenth president of the Republic on May 25, 2022 in the fastest vote count in Philippine electoral history.
Marcos Jr. won the presidency by a landslide 31,629,783 votes–over 16 million votes ahead of second-place opposition candidate, incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo. Independent poll watchers Kontra Daya (Against Fraud) and the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) International Observer Mission (IOM), however, report, with evidence, that the 2022 polls were “marred by fraud and irregularities,” from vote buying to red tagging; from machine malfunctions to massive disinformation.1
For many progressives including BAYAN (Bagong Alyansang Makabayan/New Patriotic Alliance), the face of the Left in the Philippine legal mass movement, a Marcos win in the 2022 elections means a continuation of a failed Duterte leadership. As a semi-colony of United States imperialism and host to the plunderous and expansionist ventures of China, the Duterte ruling clique has plunged the nation into a crisis worse than its previous experience of economic decline, unbridled corruption, widespread hunger, severe unemployment, and wholesale surrender of sovereignty.
To portray the Marcos Jr. win as a “Marcos revival” is only part of a larger picture. It does not capture the permanent crisis brought about by the legacies of colonialism in its past and present forms. To see through the farce, a historical understanding of the tragedy that was the original Marcos dictatorship and a political-economic approach to the nature of oligarchic politics in its consolidated and fractured forms at different historical junctures is in order.
The fortunes of the local Philippine oligarchy and the protracted struggle against it cannot be divorced from US global imperialism in general and US militarism in particular. As evidenced by the Pacific war theatre mounted by the inter-imperialist war between Japan and the US during WWII and the current rivalry between the US and China, the Philippine oligarchy plays a crucial role in the reproduction of a Philippine economy that absorbs the crisis of unequal exchange or the drain of value from the periphery to the imperialist core.
The role of the local oligarchy in the periphery is to ensure that the political and economic structure of the transfer of wealth from the periphery to the imperialist center is stable and secure. Thus, the local oligarchy as broker of unequal exchange is obliged to embrace the modalities of US global militarism—from armament sales to military control of populations. The current iteration of this relationship is the implementation of counterinsurgency—a central governing scheme among the local ruling oligarchy.
Colonialism and the making of the local oligarchy
The Marcos-Duterte tandem represents the most recent consolidation of political dynasties comprising a powerful faction of the Philippine oligarchy. The victory of the deposed dictator’s son is largely characterized by news reports and analyses as an “overwhelming landslide win.” An exclusively quantitative and narrow definition of fraud mutes the role that elections play in a sovereign nation that is still haunted by a perennial agrarian-national question. An inquiry into political leadership can only take these crucial questions into account.
In his study of The Modern Principalia,” political scientist Dante Simbulan traces the evolution of the Philippine ruling oligarchy from Spanish colonial rule to US imperialism.2 Simbulan’s analysis locates behavioral patterns and attitudes of elites and masses within the context of a semi-colonial and semi-feudal agrarian economic organization—a manifestation of the enduring influences of feudal structures under colonialism.
The consolidation of Spanish political control was based on a colonial imposition of the encomienda system. This system allowed loyal and deserving encomenderos to own vast tracts of land and collect tribute from the indios or natives who lived within the area. Their methods of extraction and punishment were brutal with the goal of crushing any manifestation of native resistance. The official doctrine of counterinsurgency is as old as colonialism, which has no other objective other than the total subjugation of Filipinos under foreign rule.
The brutal conquest of the barangays3 on a national scale meant the recruitment of the ruling datus (chieftains) to constitute the principalia. This elite class comprised a cacique bureaucracy under Spanish rule. This privileged group became loyal agents of the Spanish colonial administration and were tasked with collecting tributes from their respective barangays. Unlike in the old dispensation, the cabeza (head) de barangay is now expected to surrender the tributes to the encomenderos. The latter imposed quotas on tributes, which drove the cabezas to collect more than they should in anticipation of shortages. 4
The current infrastructure of state repression and bureaucratic corruption is traceable to and founded on these colonial conditions.
A rupture from Spanish colonialism took root in the Propaganda Movement (late nineteenth century) led by the “alienated intellectual members of the principalia”5 who had studied in Europe. Stirred by liberal currents abroad, these young elite propagandists came back to the country demanding reforms from their Spanish colonizers. But what they got was a revolution from fellow Filipinos led by the Katipunan whose working-class leaders like Andres Bonifacio were deeply inspired by the Propaganda movement.
As the first national revolution in the Asian region to defeat a western colonizing power, the 1896 Katipunan Revolution inspired the development of revolutionary anti-colonial consciousness throughout Asia.
Tracing US Counterinsurgency
Anglo-American interests already dominated local trade and agriculture in the early 1800s. By 1898, as the Spanish colonial regime began to crumble and with the ascendancy of US imperialism in the Pacific, the anti-colonial and anti-feudal revolution gained more traction even among the caciques. They became latecomers in what was a process of national consolidation. The same elites quickly changed their political standpoint once the US showed capability to crush the Philippine Republic. From the Spanish-American war to the ghastly atrocities of the American colonial war on the Filipino people, a rich history of imperialist aggression and revolutionary resistance ensued.6
The Filipino principalia that developed during Spanish colonialism easily adapted to US imperialist interests. With its professional, military and bureaucratic services fully aligned with American colonial administration and its vision for a US-dominated post-colonial era, the principalia was modernized through education and training. 7
But what truly separates American rule from its Spanish predecessor is its process of state formation through military entrenchment. From the Commonwealth to the Republic of the Philippines, state formation was administered by military figures like Douglas MacArthur and William Taft. American colonial rule placed counterinsurgency at the heart of Philippine bureaucratic governance with land-owning caciques reaping the rewards of colonial collaboration, including a whole formal and informal army protecting their feudal estates and political power. This was matched by the formation of peasant unions that clinched an alliance among organized workers and anti-imperialist intellectuals.
The sharpened conditions of class war eventually led to the founding of the Communist Party of the Philippines under Crisanto Evangelista and the Huks or the guerrillas that fought the anti-Japanese resistance in the 1940s. The Huks developed into a revolutionary anti-imperialist army that ignited revolutionary nationalism until it was crushed by US Counterinsurgency.
In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), through Air Force Colonel Edward Landsdale, partnered with Filipino CIA asset Ramon Magsaysay to crush the Huks in the name of “democracy.” Magsaysay’s rise to presidency and his title as “father of democracy” fits America’s infrastructure of war that relied on a partnership between US counterinsurgency and oligarchic bureaucrats. The brutal liquidation of the Huks through covert operations would not have been completed without the reinforcements contributed by General MacArthur, who mobilized the Filipino oligarchs who had collaborated with the Japanese to now work for the new American dispensation.8
The Philippines position as the most crucial anchor for US hegemony in Southeast Asia was first tested and proven by the success of the Landsdale-Magsaysay covert operations.
Historians have come to speak of “the long 1960s,” as the decades following WWII witnessed a radicalization that was founded on the strong global wave of Marxist-inspired national liberation struggles, which reached an apex in the 1970s. These years were marked by massive political actions—both radical and reactionary—in various parts of the world. In the Philippines, the re-establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) in 1968, followed by the founding of the New People’s Army (NPA) in 1969 in Central Luzon, and the Bangsa Moro Army-led Muslim separatist movement in Mindanao became threats to US interests and a section of the local oligarchy represented by Ferdinand Marcos, whose presidency lasted from 1965-1986.
A competing faction of the ruling elite represented by Benigno Aquino became the face of mainstream opposition that complemented the revolutionary anti-imperialist and separatist movements. On parallel grounds, these forces assailed imperialist interests and challenged the conduct of oligarchic governance in the country.
This history shows that the twenty-year Marcos rule was neither an exception nor a self-contained phenomenon. It was a logical outcome of the US Counterinsurgency State’s organizing and subsidizing a faction of the oligarchy to contain counter-hegemonic forces in the post-war period touted as Pax Americana. American peace meant the constant sabotage of any program for national liberation and self-determination from the Katipunan, the Huks, the NPAs, and the Bangsa Moro struggle through various regimes from Aguinaldo (1899) to Duterte (2022).
The evolution of the Philippine oligarchy is intertwined with the history of the continuing US military control of the Philippines. Military control in this sense is not only a set of military agreements that allowed for US bases to be located on Philippine soil, and that now allows for US arms supply to the Philippine army and US troops to train with Filipino soldiers on Philippine soil. The project of US global hegemony that reached Philippine shores in the late 19th century is intertwined with the history of capitalist accumulation from its free market to monopoly phase.9
US-led global militarism is both a partner and outcome of the capitalist system’s reliance on the military sector for the regulation of its own crisis-ridden business cycles. To accumulate profits amidst systemic economic crisis, US imperialism promotes counterinsurgency as a permanent state policy. This entails the continued recruitment of Filipino bureaucrats from oligarchic families who will ensure the stability of unequal exchange and US global militarism through the implementation of counterinsurgency.
The Marcos ouster in 1986 is a product of internal contradictions that led to the weakening of a US-backed Marcos oligarchy by the broad united front that pushed for democratization against dictatorship. This broad democratic force flowed from the national democratic movement’s organizing of the peasant-worker alliance and sectoral formations of patriotic and democratic citizens. Aimed at genuine agrarian reform and national industrialization, the national liberation struggle in the Philippines sought to fight and defeat the Marcos dictatorship because full democratization of Philippine society is the basis and condition for solving the persistent agrarian-national question.
From the perspective of taming global conflict, the US hand in the ouster of Marcos was well within the mechanics of American capitalist business cycle and global militarism. At this juncture, rivalry between the US and the former Soviet Union, defined by the threats of all-out militarism and mutual nuclear destruction had receded as the respective economies were being, for the moment, “civilianized.”10 The world was in the early phase of neoliberal globalization during which the production of information technology instead of global war was posed as a primary driver of the capitalist business cycle. The optimism about independent democratization of former colonies and the ascendancy of civil society and NGO politics temporarily prevailed, all of which sat well with the buzzwords of the post-Marcos era, “civil society, democratization, voluntarism.” However, the US war on the former Yugoslavia, the permanent US-Israel war on Palestine, the series of all-out war policy and counterinsurgency inflicted on communist and Bangsamoro forces and the US “war on terror” after 9-11 rendered liberal optimism baseless.
Counterinsurgency and the Marcos-Duterte Victory
The Marcos-Duterte electoral victory speaks of the rottenness of a political system dominated by oligarchs and the ascendancy of US Counterinsurgency in Philippine politics. In such a setting where a small number of families, borne out of colonial and imperialist impositions on Philippine society, reproduce themselves through the flagrant use of guns, goons, gold, massive disinformation, all in the name of crushing all forms of opposition through counterinsurgency, no meaningful reforms can be achieved even with the recent party-list system that was enacted to give voice to the common people.
The systematic sabotage of oppositional politics includes a systematic repression by state agencies under the direction of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). The NTF-ELCAC was formed in 2018 after Duterte scuttled the Royal Norwegian Government-assisted peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
Chaired by Duterte himself, the NTF-ELCAC is the mechanism by which the Executive Order 70 or the institutionalization of the Whole-of-Nation Approach (WNA) is implemented. The NTF-ELCAC for which a budget of 16 billion was allocated in 2021 and 28 billion in 2022 is an adoption of the US Whole-of-Nation Approach. In an article that troubleshoots the US WNA as applied in four case studies, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and Mindanao (a major island in the Philippines), it is stated that in the era of globalization, US foreign policy is dominated by “attempts to bring peace and stability in conflict-plagued areas.”11
The NTF-ELCAC, implemented under the WNA principles, systematically targets and persecutes critics of the Duterte regime through red tagging and by labeling the New People’s Army a network of citizens purportedly supporting “communist terrorist groups.” This totalizing state-led political vilification has led the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to critique practice of red-tagging” that is used to scale up state responses for “countering terrorism and conflicts” alongside “key national security laws and policy and their acute impact on civil society, including human rights organizations, lawyers, political and judicial actors, journalists, trade unionists, church groups and others.”12
The Marcos-Duterte tandem represents the worst brand of oligarchic politics and abuse of power. Their victory is a product of fraudulent elections resulting from a sustained disinformation drive to change the narrative about the Marcos dictatorship. This victory is a result of the Commission on Elections that is by no means independent and biased in favor of the Marcos-Duterte tandem. The non-transparent characteristic of the automated voting system makes it vulnerable to fraud. This victory is also enabled by the massive use of funds stolen by the Marcoses as well as the funds and resources from the incumbent Duterte regime. Support from other factions of big business and former governing elite factions like presidents Joseph Estrada (ousted in 2000) and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was abundantly showcased during the electoral campaign.
The opposition that lost in this election had to face the formidable power of political dynasties converging as one oligarchic clique— Marcos-Estrada-Macapagal Arroyo-Duterte, all of whom followed the US Counterinsurgency playbook to maintain the hegemony of unequal exchange and global militarism as they amass wealth and power domestically. Marcos Jr. is the new agent in this long history of state subservience to imperialism. But Robredo’s 15 million votes is neither a small number nor does it emerge from a narrow vote origin. The Kakampink Movement for a Robredo presidency is a breakthrough in building a broad united front against tyranny.
The militant labor federation, Kilusang Mayo Uno (KMU, May One Movement) made an unprecedented move of endorsing Robredo and Pangilinan and spearheading a broad alliance of workers under the banner of “Workers for Leni” (Robredo). The endorsement of the left-wing party-list coalition known as Makabayan for opposition presidential and vice-presidential candidates Leni Robredo and Kiko Pangilinan was met with enthusiastic engagement by activists across many social sectors. When massive crowds began to gather for the Robredo rallies across the country showing the organic support amassed by the leading opposition, Robredo and her team instantly became the target of Duterte’s red tagging. Denying malicious associations being made between himself and Robredo, NDFP Chief Political Consultant Prof. Jose Maria Sison in a post-election interview avers:
To their credit, the forces of the Robredo-Pangilinan tandem, the entire conservative opposition, the patriotic and democratic forces, the Christian and Muslim organizations and the broad masses of the people denounced the crimes of the Marcoses and Dutertes before and during the electoral campaign and gathered the largest electoral rallies that dwarfed those of the Marcos-Duterte tandem. The sheer size of the fake avalanche vote for this tandem is being used by the enemy to undermine the political strength and confidence of the masses.13
The mass organizations under the banner of BAYAN representing the militant national democratic left held a protest action on the presidential proclamation of Marcos Jr. on May 25, 2022, with “Marcos, Itakwil!” (Reject Marcos!) as the marching slogan. They were met with police violence, pushed and hit with police shields and pummeled with two water canon tanks. But they stood their ground and asserted the right to protest. The patriotic and democratic forces are determined to reject a Marcos presidency.
The broad united front against the Duterte-Marcos tandem that took shape in the Left’s melding with the Kakampink Movement is historic, broad, and unprecedented. But what is to be done now?
Asked about the practical application of creativity in political organizing, Sison responds:
“…the organized masses must be mobilized to engage the unorganized masses according to their common and specific interests. There must be a united front within every class and within every sector and there must be also a broad united front embracing all the oppressed and exploited classes and sectors and taking advantage of the contradictions among the reactionary classes in order to isolate and defeat the enemy at every given time.” 14
The Marcos revival in Philippine politics is a historic event. The passage of time and resonance of this event has made it so. During the dark years of the Marcos dictatorship, people lived and many died defending rights without the rights enshrined in the1987 Constitution to protect them. The prospect of living a better life under a Marcos Jr. presidency is dim. But the history of oligarchic politics and counterinsurgency in this country is a legacy of colonialism and a modality of imperialism that was fought and defeated albeit incompletely by past and present struggles for national liberation and social justice in different parts of the Global South. Now, more than ever, getting organized and a tighter grip on anti-imperialist and anti-fascist struggle is the strongest defense we need; and it is all we have after losing to the son of a dictator.
2 Dante Simbulan, The Modern Principalia: The Historical Evolution of the Philippine Oligarchy (Quezon City: The University of the Philippines Press, 2005).
3 A barangay is a political structure based on kinship system. Organized around a family-government structure, the barangay was made up of thirty to 100 families (Simbulan, The Modern Principalia, 14-15).
4 Simbulan, The Modern Principalia, 17-19.
5 Simbulan, The Modern Principalia, 30.
6 See Cedric J. Robinson, “The American Press and the Repairing of the Philippines” in Cedric J. Robinson: On Racial Capitalism, Black Internationalism and Cultures of Resistance, ed. H.L.T. Quan (London: Pluto Press 2019), 195-208.
7 Robinson, “The American Press and the Repairing of the Philippines,” 197.
8 Robinson, “The American Press and the Repairing of the Philippines,” 198.
9 A compelling theorization of globalized militarism in relation to value flows and profit accumulation through nuclear and military production and distribution is in Peter Custers, Questioning Globalized Militarism: Nuclear and Military Production and Critical Economic Theory. (New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2007).
10 Custers, Questioning Global Militarism, 1-2.
11 Brett Doyle, “Lessons on Collaborations from Recent Conflicts: The Whole-of-Nation and Whole-of-Government Approaches in Action in InterAgency Journal Vol. 10, No. 1, 2019 (Kansas: Arthur G.Simons Center for Interagency Cooperation) 105-122.
12 In “Situation of Human Rights in the Philippines, Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights” https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Countries/PH/Philippines-HRC44-AEV.pdf
13 Interview between the author and Jose Maria Sison, May 22, 2022