MARTIAL LAW AND THE NEW SOCIETY
The 1960s, just like the 1930s, were years of uncertainty for a war-weary world made more turbulent by the rise and spread of counter-cultural movements against the established order.
The Philippines was not spared its share of socio-political upheavals during this time. Student unrest spread to various campuses and the communist faction under the leadership of Jose Ma. Sison formed the National Democratic Front, the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army.
These developments played right into the hands of then President Ferdinand E. Marcos by providing him the reasons he needed to impose martial law in 1972, just as his final term in office was about to expire, enabling him thus not just to remain in power but to exercise it despotically too by dismantling the Congress and imprisoning its leaders, preventing the holding of elections, controlling the judiciary, and arrogating unto himself both executive and legislative powers — all abetted by the military and police establishments.
In the face of his foregoing strikes against the democratic institutions of the State, Marcos must quickly justify his actions in order to get the people to support him, apart from just terrifying them with his military.
Hence, Marcos provided a philosophical justification for his actions, in his book, “A Revolution from the Center”, wherein he identified the two forces that allegedly posed “real and imminent” threat and danger to the life of the nation: From below, the communist insurgency, to which he ascribed the social unrests of the time; and, from above, the wealthy industrialist families he collectively labelled as “oligarchs”, whom he accused of strangling the nation’s economy and politics for their own gain.
Marcos explained that the revolution needed to save Philippine society can neither come from above nor from below the political spectrum. Revolutionary change, according to him, must emanate from the center, i.e., the government itself, which must be liberated and changed from within if it were to function effectively. In brief, he posited the view that revolutions are not just the domain of leftist and rightist elements that seek governmental change from without. Democracy is as much capable of launching a true revolution from within and unto its own self – a centrist revolution.
Although he claimed that the upheaval he led was a “democratic revolution”, Marcos’s accompanying actions were antithetical to democratic ideals. In fact, free expression, which is democracy’s bulwark, was the first victim of martial rule. Radio and TV stations were padlocked. The Manila Chronicle, the Manila Times, the Philippines Free Press, among others, were forcibly taken from the Lopez, Roces and Locsin families who owned them, without due compensation, on the pretext that these families belong to the oligarchy. Civilians were arrested without court warrants and were made to face military, instead of civilian, courts, in clear violation of their rights to liberty, personal security, and due process of law. Recorded cases of disappearances and extrajudicial killings were simply too numerous to enumerate at length.
Marcos, thus, could not stop short at merely providing intellectual explanation to his actions in the face of their clear indefensibility from the standpoint of law and democratic ideals. Just like Hitler, therefore, he addressed himself, too, to the people’s emotional support and acceptance of his martial rule by conditioning their collective psyche through strong propaganda that tended to show them the benefits that his rule could offer in exchange for the freedoms he denied them. For a time, there was respite from violent street rallies; curfew made people go home early, and violators of this and other social disciplinary rules were arrested and confined; the execution of drug dealer Lim Seng was televised to showcase the government’s anti-crime campaign; there was cultural regeneration; and cleanliness and beautification drives and infrastructural development were conspicuous.
Behind all these window-dressings, however, Marcos knew he had to build his own support structure to prop up his regime after he had dismantled the old establishment. Hence, he created his own clique of politicians under his one-party KBL, business cronies, and military and police officials. In other words, he simply destroyed the old faction and supplanted them with his own.
What, then, was new in the “New Society”? Except for its icing, the cake itself was the same society that Marcos allegedly intended to change, and even worse. In place of the usual “old society” faces, there emerged a new breed of doggedly loyal political, military and business associates with more insatiable appetites than the ones they replaced, and who were ready to do the regime’s bidding in exchange for their new-found privileges, which gave birth to a new political term: “Kleptocracy”.
The New Society collapsed in just over thirteen years; and, despite claims to the contrary, it did not bring the Philippines anywhere close to being an Asian Tiger. “The poorest 60 percent of the nation were able to contribute only 22.5 percent of the income at 1980, down from 25.0 percent in 1970, while the richest 10 percent took a larger share of the income at 41.7 percent at 1980, up from 37.1 percent at 1970”. (De Dios, 1984) From being the no. 2 Asian economy in the 1960s, the Philippines was dubbed the “Sick Man of Asia” by the time the Marcos regime became history. So, what did the Filipinos sacrifice their freedoms for?
It is evident from the Third Reich and the New Society experiments that totalitarianism is bound to fail because it carries with it the very “seed of its own destruction,” which is best captured by Lord Acton’s famous words: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Yet, four decades after our failed totalitarian experiment, it is very alarming to see Filipinos being enthralled once more by totalitarianism, which conceals behind its beguiling façade its incipient defects and false promises.
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