U.S. APOLOGISTS OF EMPIRE: Notes on Stanley Karnow, Civil Society, and the Sorry State of U.S. Knowledge-Production on the Philippines
By E. San Juan, Jr.
If truth is to be found in the synchronization of reason and experience, rectitude lies in the synchronization of theory and practice….
Let us fight to our last breath in order to defend our sovereignty, our independence…. for the salvation of our country and our national honor; let us do our duty since Providence has faith in our ability to fight and protect our country….
We do not intend to free but to subjugate the people of the Philippines. And so I am an anti-imperialist. I am opposed to having the eagle put its talons on any other land…. We have pacified some thousands of the islanders and buried them, destroyed their fields, burned their villages, and turned their widows and orphans out of doors… The White Man’s Burden has been sung. Who will sing the Brown Man’s?
[The following notes were written in the early nineties, after the publication of Stanley Karnow’s In Our Image: America’s Empire in the Philippines in 1989. Since then I have dealt with this book and other corollary issues in my After Postcolonialism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000) and US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines (2007), among other works. While the influence of Karnow’s popularized history has been substantial perhaps among lay readers, it is an honest attempt to examine the record and ultimately place the blame on the Filipino ilustrados and their successors (how these cunning natives fooled the naïve Americano officials!), the most notorious now being Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her entourage. However, its neoconservative revisionism has been outpaced by Glenn May’s quite meretricious apologetics for continuing U.S. imperialist intervention in the Philippines. Professor May has been invoked by a new generation of Filipinologists who are still laboring under the “White Man’s Burden” of justifying the “civilizing mission” of Anglo-Saxon Manifest Destineers, under the spurious cover of neutrality and scholarly objectivity. The best example of this genre is Brian McAllister Linn’s two books on the Filipino-American War, which he calls “the Philippine War.” So what else is new? Despite the appearance of Paul A. Kramer’s The Blood of Government in 2006, which tries to take account of race and empire ironically at the expense of Filipino revolutionary nationalism, the prevalent view of that period in U.S. history—if it is still noticed by the public after Max Boot and others celebrated the “savage wars of peace” (Kipling’s phrase) at the start of the infamous Iraq invasion in 2003– is still colored by the thirty-plus years of Reagan-Bush reactionary ideology and unconscionable international bullying that it might take several generations more to clear up the air and, like the owl of Minerva before it roosts, determine questions of justice and settle accounts with the conquerors. It all depends whether the neocolonized Filipinos in the Philippines and in the diaspora are able to wake up from the long dream of Americanized commodity-fetishism and realize that global capitalism is in its period of convulsive death-pangs, which may be quite prolonged, alas, if the masses of people around the world do no take action and terminate the reign of the beast tout court. Are the gravediggers of capitalism, as Marx prophesied, still carousing with the “old mole” digging underground, lost in Kafka’s labyrinth?—ESJ, 7 March 2009].
In 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to reject the agreement between President Corazon Aquino and the U.S. State Department extending the lease on the U.S. military bases. A last-ditch campaign was mounted to defer this reclaiming of compromised patrimony, including President Aquino’s mobilizing for sixty thousand pesos what Manila journalists called “hakot power,” the farcical devolution of the February 1986 “People Power Revolution.” Were it not for the persuasive impact of Mount Pinatubo–only Nature can match the “Iron Butterfly” (Imelda Marcos) in projecting the Philippines onto world media prominence, everyone seemed convinced that the U.S. government would never relinquish control over the strategically vital Clark Field Air Base, devastated by the volcanic fallout and now virtually useless, nor Subic Naval Base–not just real estate but symbolic investments and tangible prestige were at stake.
Transfixed by that momentarily “undecidable” conjuncture, I dared to predict then that once the composition of the Philippine Senate was changed after the May 1992 elections, the new administration, beset by the need for foreign exchange to ease the huge debt burden, would “sell” rental or lease rights for both Clark and Subic back to the U.S. under terms less favorable than before–after all, the elite still owed allegiance to its long-time master. No one was taken unaware. In fact, the Mutual Defense Board in November 1992 already gave the U. S. military unlimited access to Philippine ports, airfields, and military installations. This is bound to be followed by an Acquisition and Cross-Servicing Agrement (still being negotiated) that will provide repair and supply of U.S. warships, rest and recreation for U.S. troops, and the conversion of the Philippine military into a virtual subsidiary of the Pentagon (Schirmer 1997). Whatever the ambiguities of the secret protocols, the Pentagon already enjoys “pre-positioning” rights to stockpile weapons and military supplies in the Philippines, without any rental expense or responsibilities for ecological and human damages.
Almost all the commentaries written in Manila in the early 90s concurred that the United States will be the most decisive if unavowed player in the elections (as it has been, to be sure, without exception in previous elections) that will decide succession to the presidency, congressional seats, and a dozen other local government positions. Given the still ascendant politics of personalities and a habitus of clientelism, this will essentially be a change in the personnel of the central state apparatuses and provincial bureaucracies. But anyone who depended on Stanley Karnow’s popular guide In Our Image (now enshrined by Pulitzer and Establishment pundits) to almost a century of U.S.-Philippines relations would be at a loss to figure out how and why, given “America’s benevolent colonial rule” (remember McKinley’s “Benevolent Assimilation” slogan?) and its liberation of the country from the brutal Japanese occupation of World War II, and lately from the evil tyrant Marcos, Filipinos–specifically the Filipino elite–would violate the ritual rule of the compadrazgo system, think and feel outside the conventional pattern sanctioned by hiya and utang na loob, and act in a totally unpredictable and unwarranted fashion. Heaven forbid. Such recurrent fits of nationalism automatically trigger Karnow’s allusions to the inscrutable behavior of those “savage Malay tribes” whom the generals–to wit, Jacob Smith (‘howlin’ Jake of Samar fame), Shafter, Chaffee–would have quickly pacified without much scruple in the halcyon days of William McKinley and William Howard Taft.
As an index of his erudition, Karnow gives only half a page (see page 332) in his book to explaining how U.S. military forces continued to remain on Philippine soil after the grant of formal sovereignty in 1946.1 In the first chapter where he sets down his organizing framework, Karnow expounds on the alleged Filipino attitude toward the domesticators of the “Philippine insurrection”:
Traditional values have meanwhile shaded the attitudes of Filipinos toward the United States in complex and subtle ways. Many Filipinos, recalling America’s schools, liberal political tutelage and early pledge of independence, were motivated by feelings of gratitude toward the United States. And, loyal to the concept of utang na loob, they fulfilled the debt of honor by fighting alongside Americans at Bataan and Corregidor, and by joining guerilla movements to resist the Japanese during World War II. The shared agony ingrained in them the idea of a family tie between the United States and the Philippines… . The attitude [of Filipinos favoring the continued stay of the bases] has reflected their awareness of the economic value of the bases, combined with the pro-American sentiment that has long pervaded the society…. Spasms of nationalist passions directed against the United States had always served Filipinos as a convenient distraction from their internal problems…. Despite their nationalist rhetoric, an American withdrawal would symbolize a family schism for most Filipinos (1989, 23-25)
This “family” squabble demands paternal adjudication; Karnow provides it. A lesson needs to be driven home. Not only is the issue of the military bases a false and misleading one, but it’s primarily the fault of the Filipinos themselves for failing to understand the truth, as patriarchal wisdom now imparts to us, that U.S. foreign policy is “predicated on self-interest rather than sentimentality” tout court.
To parry any charge of chauvinism or bigotry, Karnow uses Benigno Aquino (as he deploys other Filipino personalities to lend credence to certain propositions about Filipinos themselves) to reinforce the idea that Filipinos are responsible for their own misfortunes. After U.S. tutelage, so the saying goes, they are no longer children but adults. Filipinos are supposed to be “without purpose and without discipline” because (Aquino declares) though they profess love of country, they “love themselves–individually–more.” This idea of anarchistic infighting among feudal-minded clans is labelled by Karnow the freight of “colonial mentality,” the ordinary Filipino’s double dependence on the native oligarchy and on a bountiful, tolerant America.
In his concluding chapter, Karnow pontificates that the future of the Philippines hinges not only on the actions of Filipinos but also on the Americans (not the average citizen, of course, but corporate and government interests) who can furnish investment and advice to carry them through the crisis. To denounce the United States is one of the Filipinos’ “favorite sports,” given their “bewildered” identity and “weak sense of nationhoood” (according to Stephen Bosworth); but it was a tricky game–Karnow assures us–since only the United States, the “scapegoat” in this scenario, can save the Philipines from bankruptcy.
The 1992 compromise on the bases for Karnow thus “represented an indirect admission by Filipinos that they desperately needed American assistance and would for years to come.” Also implicit in the agreement was an understanding on the part of both American and Filipino officials that, however lopsided, thorny and at times frustrating their “special relationship” might be, it reflected “a century of shared experience.” And so at the end of this putative mutual exchange, we witness a grand procession of celebrities moving down the corridor of history–Taft in the lead, MacArthur and Quezon, Lansdale and Magsaysay, Reagan and Marcos and Aquino following behind–marching together, united by the bond of past necessity, watched with awe and admiration by Karnow “along with millions of other Americans and Filipinos, and their common past had ordained both their present and their future” (1989, 432-33). With the pathos of this spectacle orienting us to the trajectory of recent developments, it is not difficult to guess why Karnow will be conducting his readers down the path of “sentimental imperialism” into the swamp of shoddy apologetics and the self-serving banalities of condescending “great power” self-righteousness.
What is the substance of this past that so powerfully ordained a linkage of dominance and subordination between the U.S. and the Philippines? This past is none other than the United States’ novel experiment of transforming Filipinos into “our image,” an American exercise in “self-duplication” through tutelage (1989, 409), “a noble dream” of social engineering. It was deemed an exception from the European colonial model of taming dark-skinned aborigines. Because the Filipino elite “welcomed the United States as a salutary force for modernization,” Karnow wants us to believe that McKinley and Root’s policy of “Benevolent Assimilation” earned the craving of Filipinos for American patronage. In effect, Filipinos “submitted voluntarily to their own exploitation” (emphasis mine). Now the full story can be told. That is the blunt message that more sophisticated academic discourse on the Philippines is now embellishing to settle accounts with the liberal conscience of the sixties and circumvent the skepticism of “third world” multitudes.
We confront here the paradox of imperial hubris. The racially-minded Taft, who along with Douglas MacArthur occupies center stage in Karnow’s narrative of America’s “civilizing mission,” followed his sacred duty to Americanize Filipinos, “to instill in them the values that had made America the greatest society on earth: integrity, civic responsibility, and respect for impersonal institutions.” No matter that the United States at the time was itself riddled with corruption, racism, and appalling economic disparities. America’s mission was to export “its virtues, not its sins.” Overall, despite recalcitrant beneficiaries, the missionary goal was accomplished. But reservations continue to haunt the ledger of debits and credits. Why then, after nine decades of domination, did the U.S. rulers fail to remold the natives into their own idealized self-image? Why and how then did this touted “showcase of democracy” degenerate into Marcos’ wily dictatorship and, more frightening, a fertile breeding ground for Communist insurgents?
Karnow’s retort is anti-climactic, to say the least: “History is responsible. … By acceding to their aspirations for sovereignty so soon after conquest, the United States spared [Filipinos] a long struggle for independence.” In the course of tutelage, it deflated their nationalist elan, leaving them confused, ambivalent, duplicitous. This supposedly followed from U.S. officials accommodating to Filipino traditions–their “customs and social life,” in Root’s words–in order to win hearts and minds. In yielding to the inertia of the Filipino penchant for opportunistic alliances and “coils of mutual loyalties,” the poor colonial functionaries unwittingly undercut their domesticating charge: “They [colonial administrators] found in the Philippines a society based on a complicated and often baffling web of real and ritual kinship ties–the antithesis of the American ideal of a nation of citizens united in their devotion to the welfare of all” (1989, 20). Note that such an ideal corresponds more to Vilfredo Pareto’s “residues” than to Alexis de Tocqueville’s epistemology and normative concerns. Particularly in judging the careers of Quezon and Magsaysay, Karnow seeks to demonstrate his thesis that Filipino culture, “its tribal texture,” explains to a large extent the country’s underdevelopment, its perennial predicaments and tragedies: Marcos’ plunder, crony corruption, perversion of justice, military terrorism against civilians, growth of the New People’s Army, chaos and mayhem all around.
Karnow’s thesis is indeed deceptively plain: the durable and seemingly impervious compadrazgo system, in which kinship network and familial dyadic ties imposed the patron-client grid on political life, frustrated any intent to duplicate the ethos and productivity of the American system. Clientelism even brought out the worst in the fallible American administrators. Thus it is not U.S. colonial subjugation but the clientelist ordering of Filipino society and its immutable constellation of values that account chiefly for the underdevelopment of the Philippines. Filipino mores and folkways are culpable. What we observe in this manner of argumentation, however, is “the insertion of colonial bodies into a metropolitan discourse [that] provides sanction for the politics of colonialism at the same time as it reproduces them” (Anderson 1995, 86). But make no mistake: the humble journalist (whose dispatches, we are told, influenced Lyndon Johnson among other mighty leaders) is not blaming anyone. In the “Preface,” he warns us that in composing this history not so much of the Philippines as of “America’s only major colonial experience,” he has “attempted to tell the story through individuals as they behaved at the time, avoiding the tendentious habit of superimposing today’s ethics on yesterday’s norms.” Today’s ethics/yesterday’s norms–was the partisan author able to apprehend the disparity and discriminate the nuances of their entanglement? Or is Karnow’s not-so-hidden agenda of reconfiguring the past to clear the air the reverse of what he claims, that is, an unconscionable reimposition of the “White Man’s Burden” on both victims and survivors? Imperial teleology as before seeks to chart the progress of both oppressor and oppressed, one at the expense of the other.
Let us consider now an alternative or revisionary appraisal. In his perceptive review of the book, Peter Tarr refutes Karnow’s claim to neutrality by showing how the journalist has resurrected myths about the destructive dynamics of U.S.-Philippines relations. He refers in particular to one myth: how the brutal conquest of the Philippines by the U.S. invading forces has been atoned for by the benefits given to the defeated: sanitation, health care, roads, schools, “honest judiciary,” and an ostensible democratic political system (what Benedict Anderson  calls “cacique democracy”)–advances that, it is implied, Filipinos would not have attained by themselves. “A model of enlightenment” is Karnow’s phrase for the Philippine Commission’s advice to Washington to use the ilustrado elite as “transmission belts” in governing the masses, to win over the mestizo principales whose precarious and threatened position was eventually normalized by the tactical ploy of Taft’s slogan “Philippines for the Filipinos” and then entrenched as the ruling bloc in the economic and political hierarchy. The fable that underpins Karnow’s notion of imperialism with a smiling face is what Tarr calls the “Immaculate Conception myth” which mystifies the origins and motivations of American foreign policy by foregrounding cautionary anecdotes. Tarr writes:
He adheres, for instance, to the outdated and specious view that the man responsible for American policy, President McKinley, was pushed into the Philippines by willful imperialists like Theodore Roosevelt and Alfred Mahan (a naval strategist), and by a populace thirsting for foreign adventure…. In attributing responsibility for American imperialism to a “cabal” of Rough Rider types, he, like many previous historians, effectively absolves an entire nation… . [Tarr points to the racism that rationalized Howlin’ Jake Smith’s carnage and the genocidal sentiments expressed by Generals Shafter and Adna Chaffee, a racism that surfaced again in Vietnam, another often-cited “aberration” in U.S. history.]
…It strikes me that Karnow, too, wants to sweep aside the worst of the imperial experience so as to make more convincingly his point about American benevolent intent. It strikes me that at several points in the narrative Karnow is trying to convince himself. This ambivalence renders his sentimental imperialism dangerous; we as Americans must come down on one side or the other, or risk cruelly perpetuating the patron-client relationship. Millions of Filipinos today are confused about what actually happened in their past and about how best to cope with their American “benefactors.” Books like Karnow’s only make things worse.
In a book that purports to examine the origins of American imperialism and its effects on a subject people, this is more than a disappointment; it is a methodological smokescreen. Karnow is no more objective than are authors of the secondary accounts upon whom he leans for “facts.” Karnow’s claim of ethical neutrality is preposterous; In Our Image is full of ethical judgments, and in the main they indicate the author’s inclination to explain away the American colonial impulse (1989, 782-83)
Karnow’s claim to neutrality and balance is then rerouted to another mode of calculating gains and losses, as in a zero-sum game. Through the device of center-stage history replete with notable personalities and celebrities, their virtues and foibles, idiosyncrasies and memorable exploits, Karnow reproduces the argument that whatever “sins” might have been committed, has been more than atoned for by all the blessings inventoried, plus the last one–a timely bonanza–of ridding the country of the diabolic Marcos who has disappointed his benefactors.
Tarr’s review sharply demystifies Karnow’s claim to an impartial reading and evaluation of the imperial record. It targets Karnow’s utterly uncritical acceptance of the “self-justifying qualifications of American colonists,” even though he might entertain us with curious vignettes dramatizing the weaknesses and frailties of his characters. But what Tarr correctly points out is that the so-called “atonement” Karnow recites with great zeal did not really benefit the majority of Filipinos. On the contrary, it perpetuated oppression and injustice, sharpening class and ethnic divisions through the entrenchment of oligarchic rule, from Osmena and Quezon to Roxas, Marcos and Aquino, all of them invariably supported to one degree or another by a succession of U.S. policies and administrations. This unremitting patronage culminated in the Cold War involvement of the CIA with Magsaysay’s anti-Huk campaign. And it persisted throughout the years of intervention in Indochina, Central America, Africa, and the Middle East. For the complicity of a series of U.S. administrations with Marcos’ authoritarian rule, we have to consult other works such as Raymond Bonner’s Waltzing with a Dictator (1987), Alfred McCoy’s Priests on Trial (1984), Leonard Davis’ Revolutionary Struggle in the Philippines (1989), and the periodic reports by the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights, the Permanent People’s Tribunal, and others. And for another side of the story that shows how internal contradictions in the military, not Marcos’ “fear of the opprobrium of American opinion” (418), led to the balance of power tipping to the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) rebels, you have to read accounts like Bryan Johnson’s Four Days of Courage (1987). It goes without saying that Karnow is a shrewd popularizer, a recycler of hackneyed notions and received opinions culled from the researches of mainstream scholars like David Joel Steinberg, Peter Stanley, Theodore Friend, Glenn May, and other “gate-keepers” who enforce and guard the parameters of acceptable, safe thinking on the historical problematic of U.S.-Philippines encounters.
Not that Karnow is concealing facts; he just omits them, or subordinates them to the more plausible details of his insider tidbits conveyed a la Time magazine style. Doubling as Kilroy and privileged confidant, Karnow describes meticulously the lifestyles of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, the details of their rise to power, innumerable scenarios of their complicity with U.S. functionaries, and so on; but he never seriously investigates in detail the volume and quality of U.S. economic, political, and military assistance to Marcos when he was flagrantly committing all those heinous acts that justified his removal from power. The climactic “atonement”–instanced by the U.S. State Dept. officials’ skilfully deployed plot of convincing Reagan and outmaneuvering Marcos–is in fact for Karnow the epitome, the substantive proof, of U.S. benevolence toward their helpless “protegees.” Incidentally, as he relates Schultz’s machinations to intervene in the insurrection against Marcos, Karnow lets slip his approval of the essentially pragmatic operation of Washington officials who all subscribe to an unquestioned political dogma of intervention on the side of the propertied minority: “Even at this late stage, they were struggling to shape a firm Philippine policy–proof again that policies are often forged in the heat of crisis rather than in cool contemplation” (1989, 418). One suspects that in the heat of crafting this reconstructive narrative of the facts and circumstances behind U.S. intervention in Philippine affairs, Karnow had to arrange, cut, deflate, inflate, stylize, and manipulate his materials in order to appeal to the “commonsense” worldview of mass consumers of products like his book. In the post-Vietnam and post-Iranian-hostages era, they need to be reassured that U.S. involvement in the “third world”–whether in the Philippines, Grenada, Lebanon, Panama, Iraq, and elsewhere–is not one long nasty, brutish, and malevolent skulduggery, as people like Chomsky and other critics of orthodoxy would have it. Rather, it is patriotic duty, however ignoble the motives and outcomes may be.
Of course we don’t expect Karnow to be a sponsor of Filipino nationalism, nor even a critic of “altruistic” imperialism. Nonetheless, without much delicadeza (to use the “all-in-the-family” idiom), he flaunts his liberal credentials by registering his horror at the atrocities of both American and Filipino combatants during the Filipino-American War of 1899-1902. He boasts of his censure of MacArthur’s vanity as well as the peccadilloes and idiosyncrasies of other colonial officials, and dilates on his disgust at the Marcoses (notwithstanding his self-confessed intimacy with them) and the oligarchs surrounding Aquino. But his view is incorrigibly that of the privileged, never of the victims. Entailed by this is a reductive and simplifying view of how Filipinos as a people behave. Here is his comment on the quite complex milieu of neocolonial Philippines when MacArthur had already exonerated Roxas and other elite “quislings” in order to prevent indigenous progressive forces (not yet accused of being Chinese or Russian stooges) from transforming the political landscape:
But aside from a few ultranationalists, Filipinos generally welcomed the so-called special relationship as proof of America’s concern for their welfare….
After World War II, American negotiators did indeed force Filipino leaders to accept onerous conditions in the bases agreement as the price for freedom. But the majority of Filipinos, then yearning to be a part of America’s global strategy, would have been disappointed had the United States rejected them. So they submitted voluntarily to their own exploitation [italics mine]. Their dream, as historian Theodore Friend has put it, was to be “a favored and exemplary party within a Pax Americana, a kind of inverse Cinderella, most beloved adoptee of a benign and powerful stepmother” (1989, 330).
Who indeed is the referent of “the majority of Filipinos”? Surely it cannot be the impoverished and unlettered peasantry (about 80-90 percent of the population then) who supposedly comprehended the logic of U.S. Cold War strategy in 1946, and who dreamed of being an inverted Cinderella, as Friend conjectures. When Karnow’s text uses the terms “Americans” or “Filipinos,” we have to be aware of certain semantic and ethicopolitical maneuvers, with coercive policy implications evinced by the narrowing of focus of either term on a certain limited sector, the suppressing of distinctions (class, gender, race), the distraction from the substantive issues of power relations, the psychologistic categorizing of Filipinos as an ethnic/racial group, and the equivocation over the moral consequence of a political decision. All these constitute an updated program of recuperative discursive praxis for hegemonic articulation. Deconstructed, Karnow’s rhetoric discloses a narrative whose portrayal of Filipinos is symptomatic of a larger theoretical and ideological program subtending the apologetic efforts of scholars like May, Stanley, and others.2
In elucidating this implicit agenda of pacification, we might consider, for example, how Karnow presents one of the more serious challenges to the normative client-patron order: the Sakdal uprising. It is given a page and a quarter in chapter 10 (devoted to “MacArthur’s Mandate”) and labelled as a minor irritant. The Sakdal sympathizer Benigno Ramos is portrayed as a resentful, petty bureaucrat whose “vitriolic genius made him an instant celebrity” because “Filipinos thrive on abusive polemics.” Nothing is said about the political objectives of the Sakdals, the grievances and lived experiences of the thousands of peasants, workers, and middle stratum involved. Moreover, Ramos’ anti-Quezon and anti-American propaganda is dismissed by Karnow as “puerile stuff.” In any case, the Sakdalista agitators manipulated a peasantry “ripe to explode in revolt,” but they were effectively suppressed by Filipino collaborators like governor Juan Cailles. Nothing is mentioned of the role of the U.S.-commanded Constabulary nor how the state ideological apparatuses under American control served the wealthy landowners who, despite the admonitions of Governor Frank Murphy and the American journalist A.V. Hartendorp, formed vigilante groups and resisted even the mildest proposals for reform. We get the impression that the Filipino oligarchs, not the United States, were in command, dictating policy and supervising the coercive agencies of the state. Karnow identifies with this oligarchy and wagers all his bets in this pacification campaign. From the viewpoint of the victims of state terror, the intellectual Benigno Ramos (one of the Sakdal supporters) may not be so unsavory a character as Karnow (who claims to be impartial) represents him to be. Though the victors wrote the history texts, the dead live on in the archives of popular memory and in the daily acts of plebeian resistance.
As for the Huk rebellion, Karnow uses it to lay the groundwork for the Lansdale-Magsaysay symbiosis–an exemplum of how the U.S. will always come to the rescue of “little brown brothers” threatened this time by the specter of world communism. In chapter 12 on “Dependent Independence,” Karnow even demonstrates how the native leftists had to be tutored by their American mentors–proof that susceptibility to paternalism also vitiates the indigenous jacobins. His description of the peasant mentality and the flawed thinking of Filipino radicals betrays a stereotypical prejudice that stems from Karnow’s inveterately flawed understanding of the situation of the colonized:
Most [Huks] opposed the abuses, not the concept, of feudalism. They were willing to serve as tenants as long as landowners gave them easy credit, a fair share of the crop and protection against repression by the local authorities. Few were hostile to the United States…. By contrast, the upper echelon of the Philippine Communist party, the Partido Komunistang Pilipinas [sic], was principally composed of Manila labor leaders and bourgeois intellectuals either unfamiliar or unconcerned with rural conditions. They clung to the Marxist belief in the primacy of the urban proletariat–an inane idea in a country without industry. (1989, 336-37)
Not bothered by his own bowdlerized version of Marxism, Karnow enlarges on the career of Luis Taruc who, despite blaming the United States for failing to bring true democracy to the Philippines, was really (according to Karnow) “opposed less to the principles of colonialism than to its inadequacies.” What is striking here is not so much the denigration of peasants and radicals but Karnow’s excitement in aggrandizing Lansdale’s exploits and the CIA’s schemes in utilizing Magsaysay to advance United States counterrevolutionary policy during the Cold War. His investment in producing knowledge of CIA clandestine operations tends to suggest that his purpose here is less documentation than the self-serving reinforcement of his stature as “inside” authority, a major player in decision-making, and the chief purveyor of a pragmatic code authorized to furnish the valid explanation of the backwardness of the “third world” for a western audience.3
Questions now plague the critical observer: Are we to believe seriously that the CIA patronage of Magsaysay is a mimesis of the clientelist paradigm? Is Lansdale trying to duplicate himself in Magsaysay? Or is Magsaysay trying to get the better out of his American “adviser”? Karnow devotes exactly nine pages to the CIA-Lansdale intervention which “led to Magsaysay’s emergence” –a rather fatuous explanation of a complex period in Philippine history but one entailed by the logic of prejudgmental self-aggrandizement. Karnow states that Lansdale “knew the Philippines,” but what constitutes the validity of this judgment? Two pages later we learn that after the war Lansdale “was sent to the Philippines as a military intelligence officer, and he loved the country. He explored the boondocks, but mostly he remained in Manila among its hothouse elite. His view of the Huk threat typified cold-war logic” (1989, 349). Incredibly his anticommunist savvy enabled him to become Magsaysay’s compadre. On closer scrutiny, the relation is less symbiotic and reciprocal than manipulative and unilateral, as this passage confirms:
Lansdale’s main American military sidekick was Charles Bohannan, a lanky army major who had fought as a guerilla in the Philippines. His chief Filipino associate was Colonel Napoleon Valeriano, who commanded swashbuckling units called “skull squadrons” for their practice of beheading suspected Huks. But mostly he communed with Magsaysay, and they became compadres. Their talks rambled into the wee hours, the two of them often sharing a bedroom in Lansdale’s villa. Lansdale usually ventilated ideas in his patient, sometimes didactic style, and Magsaysay listened reverently. It was “subliminal,” speculated a contemporary observer. Lansdale went on day and night, weeks and months, so that “by the time Magsaysay stood up somewhere to speak, he knew what to say.” A Filipino nationalist once charged Lansdale with keeping Magsaysay “in custody.” Lansdale privately remarked years later that, having concluded that “Asia needed its own heroes,” he had in effect invented Magsaysay. (1989, 350)
The relation of “tutelage” here brings out the worst in the tutor and makes the subaltern pupil a risible caricature. Karnow’s game is an astute hedging to cover a shoddy performance with smoke and mirrors: while stating earlier that “Magsaysay’s niche in the Philippine pantheon is secure,” he judges his presidency in the end as “a disappointment.” He sees nothing reprehensible in Magsaysay’s complicity with the CIA Phoenix program in Vietnam: Magsaysay “allowed Lansdale to recruit Filipinos for a CIA front in Vietnam whose agents trained South Vietnam’s police” (1989, 355). But this follows from the original “compact” with Lansdale’s boss Frank Wisner who offered Magsaysay “undercover support for his political career if he would act as America’s surrogate” and “Magsaysay agreed” (1989, 346). Everything appeared so natural and proper, everything fitted. Even the CIA success in corrupting Filipinos, in exacerbating the venality of officials (as shown in the deadpan and sometimes cynical, burlesque portrayals of CIA operatives Gabriel Kaplan and David Sternberg), is taken as acceptable modus operandi for American officials. Bribery, torture, burglary, assassination–all methods are appropriate by virtue of raison d’etat (see Smith 1976).
Unbeknownst to Karnow, the parasitism in the Magsaysay-Lansdale liaison–the “destructive dynamic” Tarr is worried about–strikes us as the real underside of “U.S.-Philippine relations,” not clientelism nor the alleged “Oriental duplicity” of the ilustrado elite who were made to believe that they had really pulled the wool over their master’s eyes. We have to read between the lines where the “unsaid,” proscribed, or interdicted meanings betray the opposite of what is claimed.
At this point it becomes evident that Karnow’s text belongs to a long tradition of U.S. colonial discourse purporting to supply the veracious, objectively “scientific” knowledge of the Filipino–his thoughts, feelings, behavior–necessary to maintain permanent hegemony in the colony and justify the prophylaxis of intervention to the tax-paying public. I would like to cite here the canonical texts of the disciplinary regime that we now call “Philippine Studies,” a residual legacy of “area studies” in some universities: James A. LeRoy, Philippine Life in Town and Country (1905); Dean C. Worcester, The Philippines Past and Present (1914); and the books by W. Cameron Forbes, Joseph Hayden, and George Taylor already mentioned in Chapter 2. Aside from accumulating, tabulating, and systematizing the vast amount of empirical data, these texts (in particular the last two) are foundational reference points for a special breed called “Filipinologists.” These discourses endeavor to integrate and theorize a large body of information and ideas by using the homogenizing, Eurocentric theories of culture and society generated by mainstream social sciences, in particular anthropology and sociology. When applied by bureaucratic functionaries and instrumentalized by the ideological apparatuses of the state, this official body of knowledge, discourses, and practices serves to legitimize the parameters within which the efficacy of U.S. colonial policies operated. What is more insidious is that it has also profoundly determined the configuration of people-to-people relations in everyday life, authorizing patterns of reflection/administration that reproduced and circulated received “common sense.” It also reinforced a world-view or sensibility that tends to repress critical thinking and deny creative autonomy by circumscribing if not proscribing possibilities of change within certain fixed boundaries and precincts of the public sphere which are always under surveillance by an elaborate network of policing (internal and external) mechanisms. “Philippine Studies” is the rubric for the ideological machine that facilitated Karnow’s apologia.
With the appearance of George Taylor’s book, The Philippines and the United States: Problems of Partnership (1964), at the height of the Cold War, a discursive practice of knowledge-production about the Filipino began that applied a more systematic culturalist grid on laboratory specimens labelled “Filipino character and social practices.” The culture of one sector, the dominant landlord-merchant class, is taken as the normative consensus model for understanding the whole formation. Functionalism in its empiricist and positivist version was thoroughly mobilized for hegemonic purposes. The functionalist deployment of notions like hiya, utang na loob, and “smooth interpersonal relations” propagated by Frank Lynch, George Guthrie, John Carroll, Mary Hollnsteiner, Chester Hunt, and their disciples became the approved and exclusive paradigm for explaining any event or relationship, say, Quezon’s duplicity, Marcos’ tactics toward Benigno Aquino and the Americans, President Corazon Aquino’s incapacity to reform or discipline her kins, the psychology of disaffected members of the New People’s Army, and practically all aspects of Philippine politics and society.4 The imperative is to maintain and buttress social equilibrium. One recent example is Claude Buss’s Cory Aquino and the People of the Philippines whose refrain echoes a now predictable reflex of scapegoating: “the Filipinos found it hard to break the habit of special dependence on the United States” (1987, 143). This may be a slight improvement over the old rhetoric of conceiving the whole country as “a penal reformatory,” an enlarged Iwahig underpinning the “logic of the carcereal continuum” (Salman 1995, 122) that has structured the peculiar symbiosis between the two countries since 1898.
The discourse and practice of “American exceptionalism” as part of Cold War strategy has been criticized acutely in the sixties as an outgrowth of technocratic modernization and developmentalist thought. Commenting on U.S. scholarly trends concerning China at that time, Leigh and Richard Kagan noted the privileging of cultural values and the socio-cultural system as the key to shaping an economic-political environment “conducive to the dominance of middle-class American values…American culturalism denotes the intent to rule the world by the imposition of her values, safeguarding them when necessary by military occupation and colonization” (1971, 31). This culturalism informs the functionalist paradigm that still exercises authority in certain influential circles even though it has now been thoroughly exposed for the following inadequacies, among others: its one-sided attribution of rationality and normative equilibrium to a particular social arrangement, its dismissal of the complex intentionality of individual’s (agent’s) conduct, and its circular mode of explaining social activity as meaningful insofar as it fulfills a temporally limited normative need such as the reinforcement of a code of values required for social coherence. In sum, functionalism posits a static, ahistorical view of society removed from interdependency in a dynamic world-system.
Anthony Giddens (1984) has argued that identifying a functional need of a system has no explanatory value at all. Aside from ascribing a teleological quality to a social system whose parts perform functional roles, it gives to a given political set-up a higher degree of cohesion and stability than what the facts warrant; indeed, it occludes dissonant and disintegrative factors at work. Because it cannot really provide a comprehensive explanation for the intentional activity of agents and for the unintended consequences that result from purposive actions, functionalism of the kind employed by Karnow and his sources distorts and reifies Filipino character, society, and history. It can only prejudge the actions of the Sakdals and the Huks as factional deviations from the oligarchic norm even if it concedes to them a modicum of moral credence. It dismisses the ideas of Filipino nationalists (always labelled “extreme” or “ultra” if not demonized altogether) in general as unreasonable or inexplicable in terms of the homeostatic imperatives of the status quo, or simply the “manipulative underside of the collaborative empire,” in the words of Stanley.
We can now grasp the rationale for Karnow’s invocation of the paradigm of patron-client relations to give a semblance of intelligibility to imperial “aberrations,” as well as to his resort to Freudian pop psychology to explain MacArthur’s or the Marcos couple’s behavior. His montage of close-up scenes of action begets the illusion of valorizing personal intentions but, in actual fact, the technique subordinates agency to structural constraints dictated by the prevailing order. Trapped by the theoretical narrowness and dogmatic rigidity of his approach, Karnow cannot remedy the legitimation crisis of American foreign interventions in terms of the internal contradictions of the empire such as that cogently delineated by Gabriel Kolko in his classic study, Main Currents in Modern American History (1976). It might be useful to illustrate Kolko’s historiographic stance by quoting one synoptic passage from the second chapter entitled “The Foundations of the United States as a World Power, 1880-1919”:
In Asia the framework in which United States efforts proceeded was far more complicated and, ultimately, was to fail to preserve both peace and American power in an environment in which the balance-of-power diplomacy was eventually to become increasingly irrelevant before the tides of nationalism and revolution germinating throughout Asia. But the first American entry–and the most ignored–was the bloody acquisition of the Philippines and the long repression, eventually costing at least 200,000 Filipino lives, which was required when the Americans found that in order really to take the islands they had first to retrieve it by force and chicanery from a Filipino independence movement largely in control at the end of the war with Spain. Americans, with few exceptions, refused to reflect on the enormity of this crime, which it later repeated again in a yet more brutal form in Vietnam. But it was from this island base, held firmly in hand with terrible force, and then also co-option and cultural imperialism, that the United States was to embark on its Asian role, a role that eventually became the most demanding and troublesome in America’s long history (1976, 42).
Kolko’s integral and prophetic vision of U.S. imperialism’s genesis has no parallel in academic textbooks. It is a synthesizing outlook enabled by the civil rights insurgencies and national liberation struggles of the sixties and seventies. After that, reactionary and bureaucratic pragmatism took over.
The agenda of the present neoconservative trend in Philippine studies among U.S. scholars is geared chiefly to the task of redefining U.S.-Philippines asymmetrical “special relations” by downplaying the influence of American imperial governance. In the process, scholars enlarge the role of the Filipino elite in order to convert “empire” into a species of romantic ideology, shifting the onus of accountability to the victims. Robert Stauffer pinpoints the theoretical matrix of this trend in the inflation of the concept of patron-client dyad based on reciprocal obligations. It ignores the world-systems approach (developed and refined in the last two decades) that predicates dependency on unequal exchange. Why? Because such a powerful alternative theory would rule out the patron-client pattern of explanation since dependency excludes reciprocity. The narrow ideological framework of Karnow and company, contends Stauffer, romanticizes the relation of “collaborative elites” and colonizers; it gives “a Victorian legitimacy to past conquests and in so doing to justify–[by demonstrating how satisfactory are the relations between Filipinos and Americans, e.g. Lansdale and Magsaysay]–future imperial ventures” (1987, 103). Further, by reducing all relations to that of patron-client over and above the context of sharpening class and other sectoral divisions, the proponents of the “collaborator empire” give the impression that such relations are immutable. By focusing not just on Filipinos as equal participants but on their ability to “manipulate” their masters, Karnow and his tutors endorse the putative evangelizing mission of the colonizers and their definition of a conflict taking place on conquered soil, effectively obscuring if not erasing American responsibility for the results of empire. From this angle, one can understand Stanley’s partisanship in openly espousing a program of exoneration: “…it is a hubristic illusion for Americans to imagine that, in the colonial era, they liberalized, modernized, or, for that matter, exploited the Philippines in any large, systemic, or lasting way” (1974, 2). No more explicit whitewashing of the past and defense of the status quo can be found from an Establishment scribe than that assertion.
Imperial “exceptionalism” is clearly neither enigmatic nor irrational. For if one looks at the records, say either the reports of the Philippine Commission or statements of various generals like General J. Frankin Bell, among others, one would see that U.S. imperial power, faced by the fierce resistance of the Philippine Republic’s revolutionary army, was compelled to choose the option of constructing the colonial order on the basis of the ilustrado representation of society which matched the notion of democracy the imperial forces represented. In ignoring the Indio masses who are (according to one Commission report) controlled by “impressions of sense and the imagination” like women and children, and privileging the rich mestizo/gentry fractions of the oligarchy who were in their opinion mature and rational, American racializing power strengthened and stabilized the position of the beleaguered oligarchy. In shaping a polity according to the elite image of a hierarchical order, American military and civil governments in the Philippines created the space for a political party system that would support and sustain U.S. hegemony then and for time to come. Neither epiphenomenal nor mere false consciousness, this illusion of American self-imaging is therefore not a mirage to be easily wished away. Nor can it be mystified by Karnow’s anecdotal minstrelsy. What happened in the U.S. imperial experiment in the Philippines is the determinate result of an accumulated mass of deliberate choices by agents with substantial efficacy, both material and spiritual, invested in countless choices and decisions for which certain agents/subjects are responsible. Their identities are known and judgment awaits them. But Karnow and his patrons would rather settle accounts with their victims by assigning equal blame at best, or acquitting the responsible parties at worst.
The record is there for public scrutiny. What contemporary scholars who apotheosize a putative indigenous tradition (comprised of items like “dyadic linkages,” “factional alliances,” and so forth) have achieved is not a rehabilitation of structural-functional sociology applied to the experience of developing nations. Nor is it a postmodern reflexive recalculation of the valencies of their disciplines in the light of the crisis of Cartesian subjectivity and the tenability of representations that appeal to precedents. Rather, they have fabricated a mimicry of the discourse of pacification rehearsed, recapitulated, and recycled from 1898 to the first three decades of American rule until it acquired authority, often quoted as normative truth, and recirculated as constitutive of the knowledge of the Filipino psyche, culture, and society. Such a body of received knowledge and axiomatic platitudes mirrored the desires of both the early and latter-day colonizers under variable pressures and contexts; their will-to-truth/power found a ready instrument and guarantee in the vacillation of the ilustrados. The self-confidence of this “social corps” (to adapt Claude Meillassoux’s  term) was shattered by the crisis of the 1896 revolution, particularly by the grassroots initiatives of the Katipunan and other plebeian impulses (exemplified, for instance, in Sakay’s protracted resistance and subsequent millenarian movements). On the face of this massive resistance, the native elite sought to remake themselves in the image of their new patrons so as to safeguard their privileges and symbolic capital based primarily on landed property and other forms of extracting surplus value and signs of prestige.
Entrenched in the state ideological apparatuses, the ilustrado “way of life” eventually became identified with the workings of civil society and state. This project, precarious and contradictory at first but maintained and stabilized by the oligarchic intelligentsia led by Quezon and Osmena up to Roxas, Magsaysay, Marcos and Aquino, is what Karnow and company have privileged as the authentic Filipino tradition. It is the fabricated “Filipino way of life” cast in America’s image at a time (circa the seventies and the eighties) when imperial power had to justify its logic of intervention on the side of corrupt military dictatorships and against popular insurrections (in South Korea, the Philippines, El Salvador, Chile) and also rationalize if not gloss over its debacles in Vietnam and elsewhere. Such a marked change in the stature of U.S. imperial power (from the glorious days of victory in World War II and the hubris of the Cold War to defensive retreats in Vietnam and Iran) partly explains the liberal casuistry and apologetic evangelism of In Our Image. It also sheds light on Karnow’s egregious resort to scenarios of individual dramas of success and failures. The continuous narrative of empire has finally disintegrated into a montage of television docudramas, with its distortions, omissions, foreshortenings, and attacks of amnesia all symptomatic of the fateful disappearance of the once universal mission of Enlightenment philosophes (which inspired the “founding fathers,” Emerson, Thoreau, the abolitionists, William James’s pragmatism, and Twain’s anti-imperialism) to propagate the civilization of reason, freedom, and secular progress. The spectacle, the faded image, is all that’s left amid the rubble of empire.
But there is more at stake. Functionalism inhabits the same discursive terrain as evolutionary teleology. In the design of Karnow’s ethnocentric narrative, one can perhaps even glimpse an evolutionary plot unfolding in which the kinship system of Filipinos represents a primitive stage to be surpassed in the progression toward modern technocratic-bureaucratic society as theorized by Max Weber and adapted by modernizers like W.W. Rostow and Samuel Huntington. It employs an organicist mode of explanation (following Hayden White’s schema) superimposed on the functionalist model. Its unfolding generates a comedy of resolution/reconciliation: the defeat of Marcos by the martyr’s widow assisted not by millions of ordinary citizens in the streets but by the clever knights of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Senate. Consequently, the “shared experience” of a helpless subject-people and redeeming imperial power can only produce a “counterfeit” if not fraudulent image of democracy; and the convivial family becomes possible only if the dependency of Filipinos on their former masters continues under disingenuous rationalizations and shopworn euphemisms.
Whatever the long-range effect of Karnow’s text on the public sphere, its tendentious reconstruction of Filipino-American non-reciprocity is bound to influence a wide audience. Noteworthy is its pedestrian, accessible style obviously dictated by the exigencies of mass consumerism. Its appearance at a historic conjuncture of crisis in the relations between these two nation-states, with the resurgence of Filipino nationalism on top of a formidable leftwing insurgency that has endured and grown since 1969, is not happenstance.5 Karnow’s television series and book on Vietnam have made him a quotable and easily digestible mass-media authority in explaining the rationality of U.S. interventions abroad. His world view coheres with the new and more virulent racism coded in the attack on affirmative action and social welfare that has been going on now for the last decade.
From the perspective of a “new world” dispensation being installed by transnational corporate realists, not sentimentalists, Karnow’s work becomes a handy tool to refurbish the tarnished image of the empire, recover lost ground, and replicate if only in the discourse of monumental history the “noble” experiment launched around the turn of the century. It appeals to the archetypal counterrevolutionary virtues of order, hierarchy, authority, discipline, tradition, loyalty, and so on (Mayer 1971). In so doing, it mystifies the horrible truth of colonial subjugation that up to now still inflicts daily its effects on 70 million Filipinos whose lives are undergoing profound economic, political, and social transmutations. What is at stake are justice, liberty, and independence–archaic ideals for managers of postFordist, flexible capitalism. Apologetic discourses like Karnow’s can only postpone but never stop the necessary and irresistible transformations in both the periphery and core of the empire. The crisis of late capitalism rooted in the logic of exploiting labor power and oppressing the unpropertied millions cannot be resolved via the “fix” of celebrating the obsolescent world supremacy of the U.S. ruling class at the expense of the freedom and dignity of peoples of color. Is that “our image” of the future, or that of Karnow and his patrons?
In a 1996 report on the lamentable situation of human rights in the Philippines, Amnesty International called attention to what one may call elite recidivism. In the early years of the presidency of ex-General Fidel Ramos, who is known by everyone as the chief executor of Marcos’ martial law, there were 200 political prisoners in detention, rampant ill-treatment of criminal suspects by the police, and widespread extrajudicial executions of political dissenters. The “disappearances” (the Filipino term is “salvaging”) of political dissidents during the Marcos dictatorship have now been replaced by extra-judicial killings (Amnesty International 1992). Such abuses may be traced to the proliferation of government-sanctioned para-military “vigilante” groups as well as the notorious Citizen Armed Force Geographical Units instigated by Corazon Aquino’s advisers. What followed February 1986 is now recognized as standard “low-intensity” counterinsurgency pivoting around the political and ideological manipulation of “third-force” clients to thwart popular democratic initiatives (Bello 1989).
After the “national security state” of the sixties, we now confront a refurbished “electoral democracy” propping up the politically bankrupt oligarchy. One strategy utilized by the civilian functionaries of “low-intensity” warfare is the promotion of populist reformism, electoral procedures, and non-governmental organizations controlled by the pro-Western middle strata. The temporary decline of progressive activism after the failure of peace talks between the Aquino government and the National Democratic Movement in 1987 may be partly explained by this new U.S. maneuver to rescue an unstable ruling bloc consensus and rehabilitate its tarnished leaders. A historical parallel may be perceived in the fifties when Ramon Magsaysay launched civic action programs to neutralize, coopt, and defeat the Hukbalahap uprising. In retrospect, “low-intensity” warfare has its singular genealogy in the elaborate psychological and propaganda warfare of the McCarthy epoch mounted by the Pentagon and CIA in collaboration with coercive state apparatuses and assorted institutions in civil society.
Counterinsurgency, according to Roxanne Lynn Doty, “politicizes the production of social purpose” (1996, 83). This signifies the constitution of international subjects deprived of the complex agency and decisive rationality ascribed to Western diplomatic and political actors. During the Huk “emergency,” the Filipino subject-position was represented as defective and inadequate when measured according to fixed binary oppositions such as reason/passion, good/evil, and so on. In a casuistic framework, U.S. policy discourse assigned Filipinos to a subordinate niche in the hierarchy of effective agency, with the Philippine state characterized as a “third world state” pervaded by “disorder, chaos, corruption, and general ineptitude… The themes of political maturity, chaos and internal disorder, and corruption and inefficiency in leadership all became important elements in the construction of an international identity whose ‘positive’ sovereignty was continually suspended” (Doty 1996, 94, 97). Underlying this racializing and cultural-imperialist project is the valorization of sovereignty as the monopoly of the United States and the Western world in general.
While this approach of Doty toward counterinsurgency as a disciplinary technology (which substitutes for overt violence what Foucault calls the “gentle efficiency of total surveillance”) is heuristic and provocative, I think it generally tends to exclude the concrete problems of history and reduce the social totality to discourse. What is immediately striking in its analysis is the absence of the collective resistance of the masses against colonial subjectification and self-reproduction. Focusing solely on the articulatory practice of certain discursive fields leads to evading the question of determination, accountability, and responsibility (Hunter 1988). What more crucially vitiates such an approach, notwithstanding its innovative perspicacity, is its erasure of structures and institutions (like the CIA, for example) that comprise the multiply determined political economy of relations between ex-colony and imperial power. When objective social relations are methodologically dispersed, the totality of the social system fragmented, and the narrative of events rendered susceptible to contingent and random articulation of its meanings, an opportunity for counter-revolutionary intervention opens up.
This is the moment, I submit, when the vogue of “civil society,” spontaneous “social movements,” and Non-Governmental Organizations replaces the instrumentalities of developmentalism (import substitution, Green Revolution, etc.) now made suspect by their incontrovertible failures. It coincides with the crisis in the left following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of anarchic or pettybourgeois spontaneist politics, including the resurgent fascism and racism in Europe and the United States. This conjuncture may be said to overdetermine the resuscitation of the civil-society paradigm. Instead of militant mass mobilization, voluntary private activities in the form of mutual exchange groups, self-help, and so on, become the preferred channels for citizen participation. One proponent informs us that civil society designates the “self-organization of citizens in contrast to state or government, and is rooted in western rational tradition and political culture” (Serrano 1994).
A more systematic exposition is offered by Rajesh Tandon who identifies the civil-society movement with the “third sector,” the first being the state or government and the second business. Tandon defines civil society as “the arena for organizing governance, material activities, and intellectual, moral and cultural aspects of communities” (1994, 128). While gesturing to Gramsci’s peculiar conceptualization of civil society, Tandon dichotomizes society into two compartments: the economic or material base of resources , and the ideological locus of values, norms and ideals that give legitimacy to the state: “Thus, institutions of Civil Society–family, clan, community, neighborhood associations, productive enterprises, service mechanisms–historically utilized the material resources of Civil Society in pursuit of its ideals and values” (1994, 128). What is entailed by this ersatz theory of legitimizing the status quo is the subsumption of “the politics of domination” and political parties to the State–something corrupting and to be avoided–and the “politics of consent” to civil society where harmony and classless unity prevail. Meanwhile, the operations of the market and corporate business proceed as usual, even more efficiently, thus shielded from public inquiry and criticism. At best, this new formula for piecemeal reforms can encourage grassroots initiatives in areas neglected by government services; at worst, it perpetuates and exacerbates the alienation of the citizenry from roles of effective governance and acquits the hegemonic classes and transnational corporations from culpability in the exploitation and oppression of the majority of citizens.
A brief excurses into the origin and vicissitudes of the term “civil society” may be useful here. First used by Locke and Rousseau to refer to civil government as contrasted to natural society, it was developed by Hegel (his phrase is die burgerliche Gesellschaft) to designate the arena of individuals in economic competition, a realm of divisive self-interests and egoistic needs. But the domain of particular (family) needs and interests satisfied through the contractually mediated exchange of products (market) is a precarious condition of war and other contingencies unless regulated by laws enforced by administrators of justice. Given this lack of any rationality conducive to the common good in civil society, Hegel posits the state as the site where universal good (once ascribed to the ethical life of the primordial community) can be attained. Thus the contractual realm of civil society becomes consolidated on the higher plane of the absolute idea of Right, the state as the political community (Hegel 1967).
Opposing the reification of ideas in Hegel’s metaphysics, Marx historicizes the concept and interprets civil society–the realm of property relations and the egotistic antagonisms posited in nature by Hobbes and Darwin–as the result of the decay of medieval society and the representative role of guilds and estates. The market economy predominates over all affairs. Civil society replaced those structures with the flux of atomistic individuals (evoking the Hobbesian bellum omnium contra omnes) arbitrarily tied together by law and its attendant penalties. The jurisdiction of the modern bourgeois state thus came into existence in order to remedy the conflictual and fragmented space of civil society by exercising formal regulatory functions, of course in the interest of the dominant class. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels reminds us:
The form of intercourse determined by the existing productive forces at all previous historical stages, and in its turn determining these, is civil society… Civil society embraces the whole material intercourse of individuals within a definite stage of the development of productive forces. It embraces the whole commercial and industrial life of a given stage and, insofar, transcends the State and the nation, though, on the other hand again, it must assert itself in its foreign relations as nationality, and inwardly must organize itself as State….. Civil society as such only develops with the bourgeoisie; the social organization evolving directly out of production and commerce, which in all ages forms the basis of the State and of the rest of the idealistic superstructure, has, however, always been designated by the same name (1964, 48).
While the state then gives abstract political identity to citizens (Rousseau’s antithesis between citoyen and homme or burgher) separate from their function in the productive processes, civil society serves as the theater of conflict among protagonists embodying claims mixing the registers of class, race, gender, nation, sexuality, and so on. Civil society is the “birthplace of history” as well as “the hearthstone of endless conflagration” (Axelos 1976, 89) between the forms of productive relations (organization of labor and property, political forms) and the productive forces, in particular the working masses. As Marx puts it, “Where the political state has attained to its full development, man leads, not only in thought, in consciousness, but in reality, in life, a double existence–celestial and terrestrial. He lives in the political community, where he regards himself as a communal being (Gemeinwesen), and in civil society where he acts simply as a private individual, treats other men as means, degrades himself to the role of a mere means, and becomes the playing of alien powers” (1970, lviii). From this contradiction stems the irony that the universal moral purpose embodied in the state is utilized to promote partial or sectoral interests; hence the nature of the modern state derives from the total production relations that constitute civil society, not from the perverse psyches of generals and dictators. It is therefore untenable to divorce the state from civil society, political power from public affairs, since political alienation is only the expression of economic alienation, crass materialism, and unmitigated class war saturating the domain of civil society. Civil society dominated by the rule of money and private property, which opposes the socio-political ideal of the human communal/social being (Gemeinwesen), can only be surpassed in communism realized in the abolition of private property as the basis of class division and of alienation in general. From the ruins of civil society emerges the proletariat as the universal class, “a class in civil society that is not of civil society” but stands for the dissolution of all classes and the emancipation of all (1970, 141-42).
Since recent discussions have clarified more or less the western provenance of notions such as civil society, state, and community, I would like to review Gramsci’s thought on this topic since he is often invoked to sanction the overvalorization of “civil society” vis-a-vis the state. There are at least three versions of the theory of “civil society” in Gramsci’s texts. One version holds that civil society includes not just personal needs and economic activities but also private organizations. It is the space where hegemony (moral, intellectual, and political leadership) and “spontaneous consent” are generated. The distinction between state and civil society and their interaction varies in Gramsci’s writings. On one hand, a fully developed civil society consists of a system of trenches that protects the state and withstands economic crises, while on the other, in societies like Russia of 1917 and by analogy in many “third world” formations, the state is figuratively depicted as a weak outer ditch behind which exists the sturdy defences of civil society. For Gramsci then, the state includes elements of civil society. According to Anne Sassoon, “the state narrowly conceived as government is protected by hegemony organized in civil society while the hegemony of the dominant class is fortified by the coercive state apparatus” (1983, 74). While the state performs an ethical function in terms of education and law, the forces of custom and habit “exert a collective pressure to conform in civil society without coercion or sanctions.” Consequently, the state can wither away only when civil society and its antagonisms evaporate, that is, when class divisions disappear–a time not even anticipated or dreamed of by the ideologues of NGOism.
What distinguishes Gramsci’s thought from Marx in this matter is the former’s insight into the efficacy of modern mass organizations (communications media, church, schools, sports networks, professional clubs, and so on) in an integral, expanded civil society. This hypothesis corresponds to the public voluntary associations of citizens classified as NGOs that CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation), among others, considers strategic for the majority of citizens to regain ascendancy over the state and private business. But this, for Gramsci at least, cannot happen without a determinate hegemonic project, that is, a historic bloc of classes materializing a collective will to transform the state and propagate a just and egalitarian conception of the world. For Gramsci and Marx, civil society includes the economic base and the terrain of individual needs and desires represented (in Hegel’s political theory) by estates and corporate bodies. For Engels, civil society (economic or production relations) is the decisive and superordinate aspect of the antithesis of society and state.
What is original in Gramsci’s thought, an aspect ignored by the ideologues of plural “social movements” (like Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe [Laclau and Mouffe 1985] and their followers), is the stress on the nuanced and complex mediations between production relations and ideology/culture. Gramsci envisages via national-popular struggle a dissolution of civil society into the superstructure, a process or site of “catharsis,” the “passage from the purely economic (egoistic-passional) to the ethico-political moment”, in short, the elaboration of the structure into the superstructure in thought and collective praxis (Bobbio 1979). Social praxis mediates and interanimates the economic and political levels. The passage from objective to subjective, from necessity to freedom, cannot occur if the state is reified as purely coercive (what happens to the bureaucracy and legal system that regulate business and personal transactions?) and civil society in turn mystified as somehow morally pure, supremely virtuous, and redeeming. In fact, the implied glorification of “citizenship” in contemporary civil-society doctrine begs the whole question of how and if civil society can ever transform politics (the state) as a separate sphere beyond democratic control, problems wrestled earlier by Marx in The Civil War in France and Lenin in State and Revolution. Moreover, the conquest of hegemony as the result of the struggle between forces in civil society embodying rival ideological principles, principles that seek to universalize themselves in a “national-popular” discourse combining dominance and directive agency (Urry 1981), is forfeited with the purely moralizing dogma that civil society must be supreme over the state. In effect, despite NGOs, the oppressive status quo is preserved and injustice/inequality revitalized as normal business routine (see Feffer 1993; Larsen 1995).
It might be instructive to mention here the “philosophy of liberation” advocated by the Argentinian theologian Enrique Dussel and his group as a contrapuntal riposte to the reformism of civil-society doctrine. Introducing the paradigm of “living corporeality”–the economic infrastructure taken in its concrete Marxist import as sensuous praxis–Dussell (1992) elaborates the theme of the person as both an agent of communicative action (in Jurgen Habermas’ construal) and part of a “community of life” (Lebensgemeinschaft). This move, I think, displaces the Hegelian notion of “civil society” rooted in private property, the premise of liberal and utilitarian individualism. I want to underscore here Dussell’s historical hermeneutic of “living labor” and communal (even class-rooted) praxis hidden by the reification of social ties due to commodity-fetishism and the cash-nexus, a fetishism exposing all the charitable intentions of the proponents of free enterprise and “third force” as nothing but tawdry embellishments of the immiseration of the masses, chiefly people of color. Living labor is the antithesis to globalized reification underwritten by the IMF/World Bank. What I would like to add here is the redeployment of certain concepts by Benedict Spinoza (1955) so that we can distinguish between repressive power (potestas) that transforms living labor into exchange value and generative power (potentia), the constitutive and appropriative power of humans in society. Often the two terms are indiscriminately confused and distorted in neoliberal as well as communitarian platforms. The latter concept points to the collective praxis of the proletariat demonstrated in the Paris Commune, the Bolshevik revolution, and wars of national liberation in IndoChina, Central America, Africa, the Philippines, and elsewhere. Analytical categories like these (supplementing Dussell’s sophisticated response to Eurocentric metaphysics and profit-centered teleology) are more capable of grasping inequities as historically differentiated modalities, interdependencies, relations of hegemony and subalternity, than the obscurantist eclecticism and opportunism of civil-society evangelists.
One recalls that in the heyday of developmentalism in the fifties the fashionable theme among experts was “the politics of civility” in which the pragmatic management of a society without conflict served as a major controlling principle. Aside from triumphalism about the end-of-ideology and the birth of the national-security state, harbinger of today’s end-of-history neoliberalism, key phrases like “civic culture,” “civil polity,” “participant citizenship,” and the theme of “tradition versus modernity” preempted any serious discussion about poverty, racism, class, and gender oppression in the international scene (Gendzier 1985). Given the exposed complicity of this phalanx of normative agencies with the Phoenix program of the CIA and other scorched-earth tactics in Vietnam, Central America, the Philippines, and elsewhere, a new generation of paradigms and vocabulary has emerged chief of which is the civil-society/NGO discourse. While it was first used as an ideological weapon against totalitarian communist states that supposedly abolished civil society and outlawed the vital practices of private life, this postCold War discourse ultimately serves to restore the sanctity of private property behind the veil of talk about human rights, solidarity, and negotiations on cultural identity. In authoritarian regimes found in many “third world” regions, the plain fact is that the term “civil society” comprising the dispossessed majority cannot be made equivalent to the interests of the propertied few, the privileges of the minority, without damaging one’s credibility; hence the internal incoherence and ambiguities of civil-society pronouncements.
Civil-society rhetoric appeals to middle strata in many countries because it connotes a positive dimension of society safeguarded from the draconian arms of the state. It resurrects an ideal Gemeinschaft of communal harmony, peace, and solidarity vis-a-vis the competitive arena of meritocracy and business. In El Salvador, it was viewed as a defense against the forced militarization of society, in the Philippines against state cronyism, in South Africa against a racist regime while in India, it acted as a shield against the arbitrary disposition of racist police power. Given the absorption of resistant cultures into the sovereign territory of the nation-state as the representative incarnation and only legitimate form of civil society, Partha Chatterjee pinpoints the appeal of the subtext of community (kinship, love, sacrifice, pleasure) in civil-society dogma: “It is not so much the state/civil society opposition but rather the capital/community opposition that seems to me to be the great unsurpassed contradiction in Western social philosophy. Both state and civil-social institutions have assigned places within the narrative of capital. Community, which ideally should have been banished from the kingdom of capital, continues to lead a subterranean, potentially subversive, life within it because it refuses to go away” (1993, 236). However, Sam Noumoff (1996) warns us against forgetting the historic usage of “civil society” as the protector of private property (Locke), the regulator of relations between humans and property (Grotius), although it was also associated with justice (St. Augustine), nature (St. Thomas Aquinas, Burke), and community of interest (Cicero). It was Rousseau who denounced civil society as a swindle intended to remove the threat to private property: “The first man who, having enclosed a piece of ground, bethought himself of saying ‘This is mine,’ and found people simple enough to believe him was the first real founder of civil society” (cited in Hacker 1961, 297).
With the worldwide condemnation of authoritarian regimes in Latin America, Africa, and elsewhere, civil-society discourse linked to protest against the violation of human rights replaced the terminology of democratic rights and depoliticized the space where mass civil disobedience and organized political mobilization once transpired. By vulgarizing Gramsci, one lends a revolutionary aura to civil-society doctrine which, mixed with slogans about traditional practices of mutual aid, pacifies the victims with local coopted enterprises that afford a semblance of freedom and momentary security. Poststructuralist theory and postmodernist politics foster what Rousseau calls a “swindle” under the guise of laissez-faire localism and “radical democracy.” This swindle can perhaps go on unopposed–until the fire next time….
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