The role of the barangay in Marcos’ “new society”

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As the Marcoses stayed in power by maneuvering the highest levels of administration, their authoritarianism also relied on his control over the lowest rungs of Philippine politics. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Editor’s note: Michael D. Pante is an assistant professor at the Department of History at Ateneo de Manila University. He teaches Rizal and the Emergence of the Philippine Nation, Philippine History, and Philosophy of History, among others. The opinions in this piece are the author’s.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The dance might have been baduy and their organization is arguably laos, but the issues generated by Imee Marcos’s disco-infused Kabataang Barangay (KB) reunion at UP Diliman last month are certainly sizzling based on the media attention this event has gotten. This fiasco was lamentable and despicable, for sure. It was not just the case of the outdated trying hard to do a throwback; having the remnants of a Marcosian political apparatus celebrate like it was the 1970s all over again at the UP Bahay ng Alumni disrespected the university’s legacy in the anti-dictatorship movement.

Nonetheless, the controversy at least brought back to public consciousness, even for just a short while, a nearly forgotten aspect of martial law — the importance of the barangay to Ferdinand Marcos’s regime.  

People often think of dictatorship as a top–down form of governance, and for good reason. Such is the case with the Filipinos’ usual perception of the Marcos regime, especially the martial law years. However, such a perspective may prevent us from seeing other significant facets of his authoritarianism.

Of course, one cannot deny that his was a reign of plunder and murder at a national scale, made possible by his maneuvers at the highest levels of administration: padlocked Congress, neutered the Supreme Court, coopted the military top brass, and railroaded charter change.

Unfortunately, lost in this traditional narrative is how his authoritarianism also relied on his control over the lowest rungs of Philippine politics. And the KB was one of the regime’s tools to do just that — consolidate power through the lowly barangay, the most basic political unit in the country.

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Established in April 1975, the KB sought to involve Filipino citizens between 15 and 18 years of age in community affairs at the barangay level. Behind this seemingly wholesome intention, however, was the underlying objective of stifling dissent. Marcos tried to suppress the rising tide of youth activism at the grassroots through KB, which was chaired by no less than presidential daughter Imee Marcos.

But prior to KB’s founding, one of the first things he did as part of changing the government’s administrative structure under martial law was to institutionalize the barangay unit as the fundamental building block of  Philippine politics. Presidential Decree No. 86, promulgated on Dec. 31, 1972, just a few months after the declaration of martial rule, “created in each barrio in every municipality and municipal district, and in each district in every chartered city a Barangay (Citizens Assembly).”

Two years after, and on the occasion of the second anniversary of the martial law proclamation, Marcos delivered his ninth state of the nation address (SONA). In that 1974 SONA speech, titled “The Barangay and the Imperative of National Unity,” Marcos exalted the barangay, proclaimed it as a crucial institution to his trumpeted Bagong Lipunan (New Society). He then ordered the conversion of all barrios into barangays. An entire SONA dedicated to the barangay — clearly, the local is integral to anything that is dictatorial.

Despite martial law’s sham promotion of popular participation and democratization through the barangays, one should also not lose sight of the fact that anti-Marcos movements also emerged from the very communities that bore the brunt of the dictator’s assault at the grassroots level.

Two important points are worth noting with regard to Marcos’s fixation with the barangay. One is its connection to the Marcoses’ nativist nationalism, and the other is its role in the so-called “new democracy” under martial law.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos believed in a nativist type of nationalism, which was evident in how they were so preoccupied with finding and presenting the purportedly pure “Filipino soul.” In various government endeavors they constantly used indigenous, pre-colonial concepts (both real and imagined) as though these were anting-antings that could help legitimize the regime and drive away malas. In fact, the official KB logo is composed of two characters — ka and ba — from the precolonial baybayin script.

Other examples illustrate this dimension of the conjugal dictatorship: the writing of the Tadhana (Destiny) history project, which sought to connect the Marcoses to a lineage that stretches back to the precolonial times; the “discovery” of the “Stone-Age” Tasaday in Mindanao, which turned out to be a world-class hoax that drew international attention; and the proposal to rename the Philippines “Maharlika,” based on the mistaken notion that the word referred to a prehispanic noble class; and much more. They even presented themselves as personifications of the mythical Malakas and Maganda, complete with ridiculous portraits of the first couple. The use of the precolonial concept “barangay” is just another example of how the Marcoses tried to latch on to essentialized meanings of Filipino-ness to depict themselves as the rightful caretakers of national identity.

At the same time, the barangay aids the regime in its effort to demonize political structures that initially blocked Marcos’s attempt at one-man rule, such as the national legislature and the mainstream political opposition. To make his authoritarian rule seem palatable, if not absolutely necessary, he denounced his enemies as representatives of either the oligarchic elite or totalitarian communism. He made it appear that his “new democracy” rescued the Philippines from these two extremes, as it espoused the supposed true will of the ordinary Filipino. According to Marcos, “the barangays are therefore more representative than a national legislature or the National Assembly, and they are more expressive of the popular will.”

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The problem was that the use of the barangay for Marcos’s ideological rhetoric was just, well, purely rhetoric. In a 1978 address, Marcos hailed “the development of the Barangay [as] the basic vehicle not only for the achievement of political normalization but also for the restoration of political power to its rightful owners, the people.” But rather than empower marginalized communities and individuals or advocate genuine nationalism, Macoy’s barangay reinforced the lack of democracy that had been entrenched in Filipino society since colonial times.

It was a system of administration that lacked proper consultative and democratic processes, and forced communities to surrender control over their own resources, among others. In a 1982 academic essay about political participation during the first five years of Marcos’s New Society, Mohd. A. Nawawi puts it bluntly: “It is quite obvious, then, that the New Society was committed to reducing the local governments to empty shells.”

A case that illustrated this ironic turn of events is the role played by the barangays in Marcos’s ballyhooed flood-control efforts. For decades, the national government could not pull off a flood-control program that could cover Metro Manila due to the significant level of autonomy exercised by city and municipal mayors. Martial law removed this supposed administrative impediment by neutralizing local officials and mobilizing grassroots support through the barangays.

Marcos even created “barangay disaster teams” that would be mobilized to deliver services during times of disasters. In essence, once-powerful mayors had surrendered their powers to two institutions: the Metro Manila Flood Control and Drainage Committee, which was chaired by Marcos’s public works minister; and the Metro Manila Commission, which was headed by First Lady Imelda Marcos, who also took on the title as Metro Manila Governor.

Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos believed in a nativist type of nationalism, which was evident in how they were so preoccupied with finding and presenting the purportedly pure “Filipino soul.”

From a tactical perspective, the president relied on barangay officials because they were the ones who dealt regularly with ordinary people and income-poor communities, including flood-prone estero settlements. Yet at the same time, these barangay officials, especially those in informal communities, had no power whatsoever to prevent Marcos’s de facto policy of wholescale demolition of shanties of poor households in the name of flood control and Imelda’s fetish for metropolitan beautification.

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That the long-defunct KB reared its ugly head under the current administration of Rodrigo Duterte is no mere coincidence, amid a sustained campaign to erase from our collective memory the atrocities of martial law and revise Marcos’s image from autocrat to that of a hero.

Duterte’s admiration for and actual application of Marcos’s authoritarian governance is there for everyone to see. His deployment of empty rhetoric to rouse popular support for his agenda of federalism mirrors how his predecessor mobilized the barangay as a political concept. He depicts federalism as a panacea to Philippine society hobbled by oligarchic capture and its accompanying undemocratic structures that favor those occupying positions of political and economic power at the national level.

The marginalized local must therefore prevail over the voracious national. Drowned in the bombast of his populist platitudes, however, is his administration’s inability to implement urgent pro-people measures that could have addressed these concerns even without changing the constitution; instead, labor contractualization remains the norm, agribusinesses make a mockery of agrarian reform, and foreign mining companies destroy the lives and livelihood of indigenous peoples — practically the same record of administrative negligence left by his fallen idol.  

Despite martial law’s sham promotion of popular participation and democratization through the barangays, one should also not lose sight of the fact that anti-Marcos movements also emerged from the very communities that bore the brunt of the dictator’s assault at the grassroots level. In many cases the regime’s tactics backfired, as local communities organized themselves — whether in the rural countryside, in urban poor settlements, or in IP communities — and forged alliances with other sectors of society, including those operating at the national level.

Perhaps in the present-day struggle against the farcical repetition of another Marcos-style tragedy, Filipinos might be better served looking for direction and guidance, not from populist tyrants or from traditional opposition politicians, but from grassroots and people’s organizations who truly represent the local.