My generation came of age in the Third World fighting to oust dictatorships and bringing about democracy. One of our potent arguments against authoritarianism was that it promoted concentration of income in dictatorial cliques allied with transnational capital. We said that democracy would reverse this process of impoverishment and inequality. Yet the evidence now seems clear that what Samuel Huntington called the ‘third wave’ of the spread of democracy in the South went hand in hand with the spread and consolidation of inequality-creating structural adjustment policies. Let me illustrate the contradictions of the process by focusing on the land reform struggle in the Philippines.
One of the conclusions of Thomas Piketty’s hugely influential book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that in the twentieth century, reversals of patterns of inequality did not come about because of internal democratic processes but stemmed from what he calls ‘exogenous shocks’ like world wars and their domestic consequences like social revolutions.
As a long-time pro-democracy activist, I find Piketty’s remarks unsettling, for what he seems to be saying is that democratic regimes, which are supposed to aim at promoting equality among citizens, don’t really work when it comes to containing economic equality. They, of course, enshrine formal equality, run on the principles of one person–one vote, and institutionalise majority rule, but they are ineffective when it comes to bringing about greater economic equality. Now my generation came of age in the Third World fighting to oust dictatorships and bringing about democracy. As one who participated in the anti-dictatorship struggles of the seventies, one of our potent arguments against authoritarianism was that it promoted concentration of income in dictatorial cliques allied with transnational capital. We said that democracy would reverse this process of impoverishment and inequality. From Brazil to Chile to South Korea to the Philippines, fighting against the dictatorship was a fight for both democratic choice and greater equality. Yet the evidence now seems clear that what Samuel Huntington called the ‘third wave’ of the spread of democracy in the South went hand in hand with the spread and consolidation of inequality-creating structural adjustment policies.
Let me illustrate the contradictions of the liberal democratic process by focusing on the land reform struggle in the Philippines. At first, things appeared to be headed in the right direction. With the overthrow of the dictatorship in 1986, not only was a constitutional democracy set up, but a sweeping land reform law, the CARP~Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program was passed that was designed to give millions of peasants title to their land. Redistribution would be accomplished peacefully under democratic governance, in contrast to the coercive programs in China, Vietnam and Cuba. Over the next few years, however, the country evolved as a classical or western-style liberal democracy, where competitive elections became a mechanism whereby members of the elite fought one another for the privilege of ruling while consolidating their control of the political system as a class. One of the victims of this congealing of landed class power was CARP. With the combination of coercion, legal obstructionism and permissible conversion of land from agricultural to commercial and industrial purposes, the agrarian reform process stalled, with less than half of original 10 million hectares designated for distribution actually distributed to peasants by 2008, 20 years after the beginning of the program. Indeed, with little support in terms of social services, many peasants ended up reselling their lands informally to the landlords, while other beneficiaries lost their recently acquired lands to aggressive legal action by landowners.
It is at this juncture that I and several other parliamentarians got together to sponsor the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program Extension with Reforms Law, or CARPER. It was a hell of a time we had getting this passed, but we did it in August 2009. What made the difference were peasant strikes, marches—including a 1400 km march from the southern island of Mindanao to the presidential palace in Manila, and even efforts to disrupt congressional sessions.
CARPER plugged many of the loopholes of the original CARP, and allocated P150 billion—US$3 billion, to support land redistribution as well as support services, like subsidies for seed and fertilizer as well as agricultural extension services. Support services had been singularly lacking under the CARP. Most important of all, CARPER mandated that the distribution of all remaining land had to be done by 30 June, 2014.
My party Akbayan—or Citizens’ Action Party, joined the new Aquino administration as a coalition partner after the elections of May 2010, partly because we felt that the administration would put an emphasis on completing agrarian reform via CARPER. Despite our monitoring and constant pushing, the process of land acquisition and distribution proceeded at a snail’s pace. Landlord resistance using loopholes in the agrarian reform law and other legal mechanisms, bureaucratic inertia on the part of the Department of Agrarian Reform and nonchalance on the part of the president, who comes from one of the biggest landowning families in the country, combined to create a situation whereby, by the time the mandated period for land acquisition and distribution ended on 30 June 2014, over 700,000 hectares of land remained undistributed, with 450,000 of them being private lands, indeed the best lands in the country. Since this core of elite landholdings had not been touched and most of the private land that had been distributed had not been subject to compulsory acquisition, the Agrarian Reform Secretary was forced to admit in hearings last year that in all of the last 25 years, agrarian reform had not undergone its acid test.
With the terrible implementation law that I was one of the sponsors of, I tried one last time last November to salvage it by having the president dismiss the Secretary of Agrarian Reform. His response: ‘I should run for president in 2016 if I had another vision for the country than his vision.’ I eventually resigned from the House of Representatives seven months ago because I could no longer support the president, with whom my party is allied, and the failure of agrarian reform was one of the reasons for my departure.
Now even as the landed elite was relying on the mechanisms of liberal democracy to subvert agrarian reform, it was also through liberal democracy that foreign powers like the US, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank sought to fashion our economy along neoliberal lines. It was not a dictatorship but a democratically elected congress that passed the automatic appropriations law that allowed foreign creditors to have the first cut at the government budget. It was not a dictatorship but a democratically elected government that brought down our tariffs to less than five percent, thus wiping out most of our manufacturing capacity. It was not a dictatorship but a democratically elected leadership that brought us into the World Trade Organization and opened our agricultural market to the unrestrained entry of foreign commodities that have led to an erosion of our food security. Today, a thriving electoral politics, where elites fight it out with money and other resources, coexists with a situation where at 27.9 per cent, the rate of poverty remains unchanged since the early 1990s. Yes, the last three years has shown relatively high growth rates of 5–7.5 per cent, but all studies show that the rate of inequality remains among the highest in Asia, underlining the fact that the fruits of growth continue to be appropriated by the top strata of the population.
The experience of the Philippines, I agree, is very much like that undergone by other developing countries over the last 30 years, so that ironically, the liberal democracy we fought for also became the system for our subjugation to local elites and foreign powers. Even more than dictatorships, Washington or Westminster-type democracies are, we might conclude, the natural system of governance of neoliberal capitalism, and they promote rather than restrain the savage forces of capital accumulation that lead to ever greater and greater levels of inequality and poverty. In fact, liberal democratic systems are ideal systems for the economic elites, for they engage in periodic electoral exercises that promote the illusion of equality, thus granting the system an aura of legitimacy, while subverting equality in practice through the law and the workings of the market. The old Marxist term bourgeois democracy is still the best description for this democratic regime.
To reverse the process, in my view, requires not just an alternative economic programme based on justice, equity and ecological stability but a new democratic regime marked by greater participation of the people—a more direct democracy, to replace the representative liberal democratic or social democratic regime that has become so vulnerable to elite and foreign capture.