Deserting the Image Factory: On the 2022 Philippine Elections


Anarchist Strategies amid the Dying Liberal Status Quo


On May 9, 2022, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. won the presidential election in the Philippines. Bongbong Marcos is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., who ruled the Philippines as a right-wing dictator from 1965 to 1986. The return of the Marcos dynasty to power has spread considerable dismay among those who remember the dictatorial reign of the senior Marcos. How could another Marcos come to power—and how does this relate to the electoral contests playing out in Colombia, France, the United States, and elsewhere around the world? Does Marcos’s victory represent a threat to democracy itself, or is there some other way we should understand the situation? How can we prepare for the challenges ahead?

Our correspondents in the Philippines weigh in.

This article is a contribution to a larger anarchist and abolitionist engagement with Philippine electoral politics that began with the “Theses on 2022 Elections” which developed anti-political perspectives on the elections, which generated the reply “Against the State and the Market, Push Back the Marcos-Duterte Axis of Evil!,” arguing for anarchists to vote. There are also two rejoinders, “To Be Libertarian During Election Season” and “A Bongbong Marcos Presidency will be Proof Democracy Works, and That’s the Problem.”

The electoral victory of Bongbong Marcos is widely perceived as a threat to democracy itself.

The Death of the EDSA Consensus and the Restoration of the Marcos Dynasty

To grasp the significance of the presidential victory of Bongbong Marcos, we need to talk about how politics works in the Philippines in general.

Since the American colonial period, the Philippines has been what political scientists today call a “cacique democracy”—a kind of elite democracy in which democratic politics is dominated by “caciques” or bosses. The American colonial regime played a fundamental role in creating this situation. To quell the persistent anti-colonial insurgency, the Americans actively empowered the local landed elites. These landed local elites date all the way back to the maritime trading tradition in the archipelago; they were extremely localist and decentralized, but their success was determined by a network of patronage ties to people that had access to resources and power.

Following the Jeffersonian school back home, American colonial policy promoted the autonomy of the landed local elites and aligned their access to the centralized resources of power within the structure of patronage politics. This is how the Americans designed the Philippine Assembly—a colonial central government with patronage ties extending through a network of local elites across the archipelago. As the political scientist Paul Hutchcroft shows in his book Booty Capitalism, the success of this colonial policy enabled local elites to continue governing their domains under American supervision. Over time, these elites developed into political dynasties, forming the oligarchy that characterizes Philippine politics. Many of the political dynasties that collaborated with American colonial rule remain in power today.

Some of these dynasties within the oligarchy diversified their holdings so that their power no longer necessarily derives from the land, but rather from patron-client relationships. In State and Society in the Philippines, Patricio N. Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso note that all politics in the Philippines boils down to local politics based around caciques. Today, these caciques are the provincial political dynasties that act as patrons securing votes from the local bosses that act as clients delivering votes.

This is the cacique democracy that has characterized Philippine politics for more than a century now.

Ferdinand Marcos Sr., the father of Bongbong Marcos, operated within this context. He did not come from a particularly established political dynasty in his native Ilocos, but—being ambitious and cunning—he married into the Romualdez dynasty that ruled Leyte. With his own able populism and the support of the Romualdez political dynasty, Marcos Sr. won the Philippine presidency. Marcos Sr. used the powers of the state, the triad of “guns, goons, and gold,” to cheat his way into a second term and later declared martial law, establishing a dictatorship. Although nominally, in his rhetoric, he opposed the system of political dynasties, he installed a new oligarchy constituted of technocrats, entrepreneurs, and political dynasties that supported him. Despite his populist politics, his dictatorship only replaced one set of political dynasties with another. This was achieved with the support of the American empire, which supported Marcos Sr. for the sake of pursuing an anti-communist strategy. Thousands were tortured, raped, imprisoned, and killed by military and constabulary during his rule. Nonetheless, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) was founded during the Marcos dictatorship and initiated an insurgency led by their armed group, the New People’s Army (NPA).

Eventually, a civil society alliance involving rival political dynasties, the middle class, the Catholic Church, and working people who were tired of the dictatorship succeeded in deposing the senior Ferdinand Marcos. After Ninoy Aquino, a member of the Aquino dynasty who married into the Cojuangco dynasty, was assassinated by the Marcos regime, his widow, Cory Cojuangco Aquino, ran as a presidential candidate in the 1986 snap election, presenting herself as the defiant widow of a martyr. The liberal media portrayed Cory as an ordinary housewife, but it is important to understand that she came from the powerful Cojuangco dynasty and had married into another political dynasty. Indeed, the Cojuangco family had been caciques in their native Tarlac longer than the Marcoses.

Many working-class elements defied the CPP party line of boycotting the 1986 snap election. The election produced two different results: the state’s Commission on Elections proclaimed a Marcos victory, while a parallel vote count by the civil society organization National Movement for Free Elections proclaimed a Cory victory. Mutinous soldiers attempted a failed coup and Catholic elements called for mass protests to protect the coup plotters. This mass protest became the 1986 People Power Revolution that catapulted Cory Aquino to power along with the coup plotters and the political dynasties spurned by Marcos.

The United States abandoned its support for Marcos when it became clear that Marcos could not advance their anti-communist agenda but Cory could. The exceptional brutality of the Marcos dictatorship had compromised the American anti-communist strategy in the region by rendering the communist insurgency more appealing than reformism. Those organized with the Communist Party would claim that Marcos was the best recruiter for the NPA; their unprecedented growth during the dictatorship confirmed this.

The Cory regime proved to be a more reliable anti-communist partner to the American empire, making reformism appear more viable than armed struggle. While peasants and proletarians did get more space to organize, her regime continued to suppress landless peasants and working-class activists. Cory Aquino would later resume the state’s war on the CPP-NPA after peace negotiations failed. The leftists who turned to reformism remained organizationally weak compared to their liberal and cacique rivals.

The ruling ideology of the Aquino dynasty, their liberal allies, and the People Power Revolution is called the EDSA consensus after the Epifanio de los Santos (EDSA) Avenue where the People Power Revolution took place. The Aquino dynasty continually campaigned on “good governance” while keeping the regime of political dynasties and the cacique democracy in place. The EDSA consensus produced two presidencies after Cory Aquino: her appointed successor Fidel Ramos, a coup-plotter turned neoliberal reformer, and her son Noynoy Aquino.

A young person attempts to give a flower to an officer during the EDSA People Power Revolution in 1986.

In the end, the People Power Revolution did not produce meaningful social change in the Philippines. The ousted political dynasties returned in full force and the neoliberalism of President Ramos enabled oligarchs to become the owners of former state assets. What differentiated the EDSA consensus from the way that Marcos cronies had previously plundered state-owned enterprises was that the earlier model was state appropriation, whereas the subsequent model was ordinary neoliberal market activity. Both boiled down to plunder and rent-seeking.

The recuperation of the Marcos dynasty began when they were permitted to return to the Philippines after the death of the senior Ferdinand in exile in Hawaii. The Marcos dynasty used their stolen wealth to embed themselves in their bailiwicks in Ilocos and Leyte. The Marcos dynasty and their allies won governorships and congressional and senate seats through careful use of their bailiwicks. The Marcoses were so popular in the Ilocos region that it became known as the “solid north” among media commentators—“solid” in the sense that these provinces consistently voted for the Marcos dynasty and their allies. This capability of the Marcos dynasty to consistently deliver votes ensured they were valuable allies to aspiring politicians and even presidential candidates. Additionally, in the decades since the return of the Marcos dynasty to the country, the family conducted a widespread campaign of historical revisionism to erode the legitimacy of the EDSA consensus while revising the history of the Marcos period to portray it as the golden age of the Philippines. They enlisted the assistance of Cambridge Analytica for this purpose.

In the 2016 presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte ran on a populist platform attacking the EDSA consensus. Duterte himself founded the Duterte dynasty, based in Davao city. He won the presidency with the support of his allied political dynasties and the tacit support of the National Democrats (leftists who follow the political line of the CPP). The political dynasties allied to Duterte understood themselves as rivals of the EDSA consensus; they were quite friendly to the Marcos dynasty. Duterte also benefited from an army of paid troll farms that used Facebook to drive fake news favorable to his candidacy, again with the intercession of Cambridge Analytica. Facebook trolls were particularly effective because Facebook was free to access via mobile data while news and information websites were not. This lack of net neutrality meant that Facebook was the de facto internet for the vast majority of Filipinos, allowing fake news via Facebook—and later TikTok and YouTube—to thrive.

The new formula was “guns, goons, gold, and gigabytes,” with gigabytes referring to the role of information technology in shaping public opinion. Those troll farms are quite likely the same ones that the Marcos dynasty bought and used, since Cambridge Analytica was involved. National Democrats organized in both aboveground and underground organizations shamelessly supported Duterte’s candidacy, despite many other leftists noting the fascist politics implicit in his populism—most recognizable in his eagerness for mass killings in his war on drugs.

As many in the left anticipated, Duterte’s honeymoon with his left allies did not last long. He swiftly betrayed them by breaking off peace negotiations with the CPP-NPA and expanding the police and surveillance apparatus. With the breakdown of peace negotiations, National Democrats and socialists were once again fair game for the anti-communist security apparatus. Duterte also supported the burial of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. in the cemetery for national heroes and actively continued the use of the troll farms that were to drive and sustain support for both Duterte and Marcos.

And that brings us to today. Bongbong Marcos is not particularly charismatic. Nor does he have an iota of the cunning that his father had. What he does have is stolen money, Cambridge Analytica, and an army of trolls. Bongbong’s populism is based on the bankruptcy of the EDSA consensus and a concerted campaign of historical revisionism and misinformation.

Presidential candidate and former vice president Leni Robredo, Bongbong’s most credible rival, ran yet another campaign predicated on the EDSA consensus. While Robredo herself is not an Aquino—and indeed consciously distanced herself from the Aquino house color of yellow—her campaign was merely a rehash of the values of the EDSA consensus. Her slogan “Gobyernong Tapat, Angat Buhay Lahat” is just a rewording of good governance: “With honest government, everybody’s lives will be uplifted.” Her campaign did not take into account the bankruptcy of “good governance,” which Duterte had successfully discredited in his own presidential candidacy six years prior when he beat Noynoy Aquino’s anointed successor. The National Democrats in the Makabyan Bloc, despite having hitched their wagon to Robredo, also did not believe in the EDSA consensus—how much less must the everyday Filipino! As anarchist and sociologist Erwin Rafael suggested, a vote for Bongbong Marcos is firstly a vote against the bankruptcy of the EDSA consensus, not necessarily a vote in favor of the Marcos legacy.

Of course, Leni’s defeat in the election was also the consequence of a concerted negative campaign by the fake news trolls and cheating by the Marcos camp. But we cannot dismiss the fact that far too many people supported Bongbong and voted for him, even factoring in all the cheating. We have to understand that the problem is precisely the liberal status quo embodied in the EDSA consensus. The problem is precisely that authoritarians play by the formal rules of liberal democracy.

The Triumph of Democracy

Ultimately, the kind of democracy upheld by the EDSA consensus was one that tolerated and even abetted the traditional cacique democracy. In practice, for the Filipino public, democracy has always been a game of musical chairs in which one dynasty replaces another at the helm of the republic. Despite the clear “democratic deficit” in the Philippines, the real problem is democracy itself.

As expected, the liberal and National Democratic opposition portray Marcos’s 2022 presidential victory as a failure of democracy, suggesting parallels with the Nazis who came to power via the democratic procedures of Weimar Germany. As anarchists and abolitionists opposed to the cacique democracy, we contend, rather, that the return of the Marcos dynasty to the presidency represents the triumph of democracy.

The fundamental framework of democracy is the substitution of popular agency with false images of power vested in representatives or bodies. In this sense, democratic competition is merely a contest of images. In the context of a cacique democracy, it is a competition between images of different political dynasties—the more compelling family image wins. Because people are forcibly separated from their own agency, they are made to choose between images of power. In the 2022 elections, two images competed: the image of a return to a glorious Marcos dictatorship that repudiates the EDSA consensus and the legacy of liberalism, or an image representing the continuation of the EDSA consensus and all the trapo it entails. [“Trapo” is a portmanteau of “traditional politicians,” a derogatory remark also meaning “dishrag” used by many to refer to oligarchs and political dynasties.]

Some anarchists in the Philippines, such as Bas Umali, subscribe to the idea that the problem is the bobotante [a portmanteau that combines bobo (stupid) and botante (voter)]. The notion of a bobotante evolved as a liberal critique of working class supporters of trapos, particularly the supporters of corrupt politicians including the Marcos dynasty. The theory of the bobotante suggests that voters elect robbers simply because the voters are stupid.

But the problem is not the purported stupidity of voters, which is an ableist and classist notion. The problem is democracy itself and the passivity it engenders. Democracy makes it seem that voters can wield power through the ballot, but this is illusionary. Because people are separated from real agency, the image of agency afforded by the ballot leaves them choosing between images. Ultimately, if a political system distributes power via a popularity contest, the winners will be those who throw everything they have into becoming popular, all else be damned. Marcos, like Duterte, promised voters heaven and earth, however fantastical and impossible. By contrast, the Robredo campaign promised merely good governance and the continuation of the EDSA consensus. Filipinos are tired of meek liberalism and the liberals and National Democrats did not get the memo.

Consequently, Filipinos chose the seemingly glorious image of power embodied by the Marcos campaign. In fact, Bongbong Marcos is the first candidate to win more than 50% of the electorate since the introduction of the current Philippine Constitution in 1987. This is democracy at work embodied in the will of the majority, even if we factor in the cheating that occurs in every Philippine election.

Anarchists oppose government in all its forms, whether it is sanctified by the will of the majority or not. We do not let ourselves be ruled by majorities or minorities; we disobey the sacred will of the people. The people are not our masters—we have neither gods nor masters—and we reject the restraints that the democratic system imposes upon us. Therefore, we reject this triumph of democracy, cacique or liberal.

We will need to create a qualitatively different society in order for false images of power to cease to compel people. The abolition of capitalism and the state will never appear on the ballot; abolishing them will require doing away with ballots altogether. We will need to transcend the framework of democracy if we are to prevent another troll-backed populist from ruling this country.

The EDSA consensus is dead. The Marcos dynasty is back, supported by many other caciques and political dynasties. Before we can ask “what can we do next?” we must first engage with the lessons anarchists and abolitionists learned in the 2022 elections.

Anarchist and Abolitionist Engagements with Electoralism

There is a longstanding debate regarding whether anarchists and abolitionists should intervene in electoral struggles. As it happens, our milieu has intervened and engaged with the left populist electoral campaign of Ka Leody de Guzman in our individual capacities. Our experience working with the left was instructive; it only reaffirms our commitment to libertarian and abolitionist ideas.

The labor leader Ka Leody ran for president with the socialist theorist Ka Walden Bello running as his vice presidential candidate and other labor leaders running for senate. They ran under the banner of the left coalition Laban ng Masa (LNM, “fight of the masses”). While nobody on the LNM slate actually won any position, the campaign did win 93,000 votes, which is still less than 1% of the electorate. The Ka Leody campaign was not conducted to win the presidency but to proclaim socialism loudly and proudly. As a leftist engagement with the Philippine public, the Laban ng Masa campaign was quite successful in promoting socialist ideas.

Candidates of the left coalition Laban ng Masa: Walden Bello and Leody de Guzman at an International Women’s Day Rally, March 8, 2022.

Our individual engagements with the Laban ng Masa campaign did not reflect faith in the presidential candidacy of Ka Leody or the LNM platform. As anarchists and abolitionists, we do not believe in presidencies; as post-leftists, we are critical of the left in general. Rather, we engaged with LNM to see if we could expand spaces for our own organizing. Just as the LNM campaign engaged the Philippine public with socialist ideas, we conducted a dual engagement with both the LNM campaign volunteers and the Philippine public involving libertarian and abolitionist ideas. In this, we were successful: we believe we have expanded the political imagination of young people both inside and outside of LNM to seriously consider libertarian and abolitionist ideas from prefigurative politics to transformative justice.

Ultimately, however, our dual engagements with Laban ng Masa and the public were constrained by the very limits of the left. We saw how party cadres and cliques centralized initiative, how the volunteer corps was actively demoralized by hierarchical structures. This provided a valuable lesson: no matter how much the left internalizes prefigurative or abolitionist ideas, these mean nothing as long as hierarchical structures are reproduced. The left can talk of prefigurative politics, abolition, and transformative justice all they want, but if they continue to prefigure the state and allow sex pests to roam, this talk means nothing. Qualitatively new forms of organization will be needed to overcome the meddling of hierarchical leftists. We attempted to reach young radicals upset by this meddling, and in this we were successful. Sometimes it takes working with leftists to reveal to others the problems with leftism.

However, the framework of the LNM campaign was limited to democracy as a contest of images itself. While the campaign did amplify marginalized voices, their conception of power was still embodied in candidacies, rather than their own power and agency. The campaign proclaimed “Manggagawa Naman!” “Babae Naman!,” or “Kalikasan Naman!”—it is now the turn of the workers, of women, of the environment. But for workers, women, and the environment to take priority would mean to turn away from elections and contests of images altogether. We will only truly be able to prioritize them when such popularity contests are no longer the norm. No candidate can truly represent workers and women; workers and women must speak and act for themselves. No candidate can ever represent the fullness of you.

While other leftists celebrate the LNM campaign as “class struggle at the ballot box,” we have no such illusions. Class struggle is workers struggling against their workerness—struggling to become ex-workers—not workers with better wages. We engaged with Laban ng Masa fully knowing the limits and deficiencies of electoral politics. Working with leftists should occur on the basis of mutual benefit: we help you if you help platform us. What matters is that we reach people.

When it comes to engaging with the electoral left, we suggest you do so without any illusion that it could lead to popular emancipation and with full cognizance of their limits. As leftists are wont to say, elections are means to an end; use it as you see fit, but beware the logic of the state and of parties. If campaigns are less costly to use to reach people than direct action is, then perhaps they could offer a means to an end. But campaigns can also be costly in terms of resources, time, and energy, and they often leave us with little to show for it. What’s more, if the leftists win, prepare to oppose them on the streets as many have done in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Chile.

What Now?

The return of the Marcos dynasty to the highest office in the land heralds dark times. One of Bongbong’s first acts as president was to create a new office, the Presidential Adviser on Military and Police Affairs, signaling yet another expansion of the state’s apparatus of violence and suppression. But in dark times, should the stars also go out? We do not know what the future will bring or what form of organization and struggle will be required to meet it, but we do know we have to continue to shine our own starlight through the darkness.

The restoration of the Marcos dynasty is not historically unique—it has happened before. In 1848, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte of the Bonaparte dynasty became President of France and went on to proclaim the dictatorship known as the Second Empire. More recently, in 2013, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee became president of South Korea. In both these cases, the Bonaparte and Park dynasties were overthrown again. “The first time as tragedy, the second as farce,” as Marx said.

History is not destiny: there are no guarantees that the second Marcos presidency will fall. But we know the historical facts regarding how the previous farces were overthrown. The Paris Commune followed the downfall of Louis-Napoléon and Park Chung-hee was ousted after concerted protests by civil society. History is rich with lessons for us, despite the campaign of historical revisionism from the Marcos dynasty. If the Marcoses would snuff out historical memory, we must shine our starlight.

Because authoritarianism is international in scope, the struggle against authoritarianism must be similarly international. We see this in how the West enables police violence in Hong Kong or how the same Cambridge Analytica that brought Trump into power also served Duterte and Marcos. People have been resisting power and the state for generations, but sometimes these sites of struggle are disconnected from one other. As the Invisible Committee said, “It’s not up to the rebels to learn to speak anarchist; it’s up to the anarchists to become polyglot.” It is our task to speak different languages of struggle and translate these into one another. When we do so, it becomes clear how a victory against authority in one site of struggle is a victory for all who struggle against authority. The organization of anarchists and abolitionists is not in the party-form but in our struggles interlinked.

What this means for anarchists and abolitionists in the so-called Philippines is that our challenge is to connect sites of struggle to one another on both a translocal level and an international level. Our stars may shine through the dark times, but alone their light is small. We must form constellations by linking stars to one another. As abolitionists, we seek to connect with survivors, sex workers, people who use drugs, and people who are incarcerated, as well as their families and communities, in the struggle against policing and carcerality. As syndicalists, we connect gig economy workers across the Philippines with those across Asia and Europe against multinational corporations. As insurrectionaries, we form connections with other insurrectionaries from across the world and learn from one another. Our struggle against the Marcos restoration will require similar forms of interconnection.

Amid the dying of the liberal status quo, we remember Dylan Thomas’s exhortation to rage, rage against the dying of the light. In defiance of the darkness, we shine our own starlight.

Afterword: Beyond the Electoral Process—from an Anarchist in the So-Called Philippines

I am not here to ask you to be loyal to anyone. I am not here to present you with an illusion of power. I am not here to promise you anything. After all, I am not a politician. I am here to tell you that you have power—actual power—power that hiding behind a ballot box cannot give you. Power that politicians will never grant you, cannot grant you.

What power am I talking about? It is none other than your power. The same power that has the potential to change everything—and no, I am not exaggerating. Unlike the “power” that electoralism promises, your power is not an illusion. You are your power—the only power that you have, that you can have. Because politics and its politicians have triumphed once again, I want to present an alternative to just waiting around for the next election or finding another politician to follow. I present to you—disobedience!

Disobedience can take many forms. It can mean defending each other—or just defending yourself—against those who claim authority. It can mean building relationships that foster disobedience and reject those who claim authority. Insurrection is the way to break free from those who wish to bind you. Compliance or obedience to authority only does the opposite: it fosters the illusion that you are bound to whatever authority claims you are bound to. You are not bound to Marcos, you do not need Marcos, you do not need the permission of the government to act—you have the power to reject his claim to rule over you and assert your own power. Of course, this may be difficult, considering the risks that it poses; however, it is the only way to end the cycle of accepting suffering caused by those who claim to have authority over you, over all of us.

Graffiti during an anarchist demonstration in the Philippines.

Because—what is the alternative? The alternative is business as usual. Marcos and Duterte are figureheads of centuries-old systems of exploitation, abuse, and violence.

Every mountain sold to a multinational mining company, every jungle sold to billionaire land developers, continues a cycle of colonization that has been happening in the archipelago for centuries.

Every offhand comment from their lips emboldens abusers to continue the cycle of generational trauma inflicted upon women and transgender people.

Their expansion of police and military funding further legitimizes the rule of law—which is to say, rule by violence.

Picture this:

A mining company from the United States buys a patch of Palawan to build an open-air strip mine. Representatives from that mining company come in and pay off the local mayor and any relevant regulatory bodies, so they can operate with minimal compliance-related overhead. Police are mobilized and the local Indigenous population is given a deadline to vacate the so-called “private property,” the same soil their ancestors have been living on for centuries. People living downstream from the mine are slowly poisoned by their drinking water, while the oil burned to excavate and process the raw materials contributes to the rising sea levels that will eventually erase not just Palawan, but the entire Philippines from the map under the rising tides.

That is business as usual.

Instead of expending your finite energy to help politicians in their campaigns to get seats in government, in their quests for authority, you could use that energy to connect with other people to build networks of support—in other words, mutual aid networks. Why wait if you and a few trusted people can do it yourselves? If you have friends, you can start with them or anyone you feel might be interested. Go around and connect with your neighbors, tell them that you want to build a support network for all of you, a non-hierarchical network that can meet the needs of the participants.

In decentralized, voluntary, and non-coercive networks, in which no one is boss and no one is obligated to anyone or anything, if an individual feels that a network they participate in does not benefit them anymore, they are free to leave it. The networks exist to support the participants, not the other way around. Individuals can participate in multiple networks. How people interact with each other in the network is up to the individuals involved; after all, the network is not a government or a centralized body. A network is only useful if individuals in that network agree that it is; if it is not, then it disappears, and it is up to the participants whether they want to make a new network.

Such support networks need not have borders. They have the potential to span all over the world. Individuals in the network can contact anyone in the network for support and vice versa, as long as there is a communication system in place that allows for that, the internet could be used to facilitate that for example.

An example of mutual aid networks in the Philippines.

Now picture this:

Indigenous clans set aside their differences and band together to stand their ground against the incoming police and hired thugs. They send people to call their fellow Palawenios in the lowlands who help with setting up blockades and fighting the eviction officers. The lowlanders send messages through encrypted channels to their comrades in the United States, who proceed to sabotage factories and warehouses operated by the mining company.

No one said it’s going to be easy. I do not guarantee you success, but if you really want change, then taking this risk is the only chance you have. Do not submit to anyone! Fight for yourselves!