Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Vol. 2 in Socialism and Democracy

Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Volume 2: People Power in the Philippines, Burma, Tibet, China, Taiwan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia, 1947—2009

By Mark Driscoll
Socialism and Democracy
March 15th, 2015

Being a leftist academic means that some days I wake up on the activist side of the bed, and some days on the academic side. Then again, after a whole day reading a breakthrough text like Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, I found myself not being able to sleep at all. For with his massive two-volume study, George Katsiaficas had accomplished that rare feat of successfully steering between the antiseptic irrelevance of academic Scylla and the agitprop of the Charybdis of activist writing. As it has done many times before, the field of cultural anthropology can provide codes to help us identify what Katsiaficas is doing: engaged research; militant ethnography; participant observation; etc. Whatever we want to call it, Katsiaficas, the prolific scholar of autonomy and liberation movements, has identified heretofore unknown (in the Anglophone world, at least) pre-Occupations of people power in the most improbable of places: the Philippines, Tibet, Taiwan, Nepal, and Thailand. By bringing the heroic narratives of People Power in these places to Anglophone readers using an accessible style, Katsiaficas has performed a valuable service—both to academics and to activists.

The book begins by placing the Asian uprisings in a global context, something that Katsiaficas is well-qualified to do and that he pulls off well. Featuring a refreshingly global analytic, the first chapter locates these uprisings as “resonating” with the New Left movements of 1968 and provides details of this resonance. Arguing that the global New Left was much closer to church-based ideas (especially black Baptism and Catholic liberation theology) than it is usually understood to be, he goes on to show how the Asian uprisings similarly were enabled and constrained by culturo-religious phenomena. This means that they all fell well outside of the standard vanguardist leaderships. As Katsiaficas puts it, “this wave of insurgencies was not characterized by armed insurrections led by centralized parties or ideological groups. Neither pacifist nor communist, these movements were generated from the grassroots, Generally not armed, they were neither called into being nor led by trained cadre; nor were they mainly productions of traditionally defined sectors of the working class. In contrast to political insurgencies led by centralized parties, these were social insurgencies produced by global civil society” (13). And he really means global civil society. Katsiaficas is one of the very few leftist writers in English who avoids a comfortable Eurocentrism.

The next chapter is, to my mind, the most important part of the book.

Here, Katsiaficas provides an excellent overview of the People Power Revolution (also known as the EDSA Revolution) in the Philippines, which was a series of popular mobilizations that began in 1983 and culminated in 1986. This largely non-violent uprising led to the ouster of the US-backed dictator Marcos after two decades of repressive, authoritarian rule. Katsiaficas details the ins-and-outs of how the coalition of students, church-based movements, organized labor and the militant left were able to work together long enough to restore democracy. However, the lack of a larger systemic critique allowed one elite family after another (Aquino; Estrada) to rule the country after Marcos. While People Power thus failed to transform the Filipino economy, writes Katsiaficas, “it inspired movements around the world. That may well be its most lasting contribution” (74).

The next 8 chapters detail the inter-Asian resonances of People Power, making Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Vol. 2 the only text of its kind to focus on Asia-specific influences/resonances to Asian social movements. Katsiaficas offers rich discussions of uprisings in Tibet, Taiwan, Nepal, Thailand, Indonesia, China, Burma and Bangladesh. Explicitly reading these movements through the new counter-globalization tendencies of leaderlessness and horizontalism, he brings new insights to movements that have been rarely discussed in an Anglophone context. Nevertheless, the limitations of the movements are foregrounded as well, which brings Katsiaficas to his three concluding chapters, the most important of which is Chapter 16, “The System is the Problem.”

It was here that I was expecting negotiation with some of the new work on post-capitalist economies: local currency systems; farmers’ markets; participatory budgeting; and even the ALBA regional grouping that Chávez attempted. Unfortunately, none of this work is discussed. Instead, we get the standard attack on the centers of global capitalism, especially the Holy Trinity of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. At a time when the BRICS countries are drawing up their own plans for a World Bank of the South, we need more acute critiques than simply a lambasting of the Holy Trinity. It appears that Katsiaficas’s analysis suffers from the same problem he decodes in the Asian People Power movements—an inability to provide a solid post-capitalist agenda. I’m not saying that this is something easy to concoct, but for a book that brilliantly writes about the strengths and weaknesses of Asian uprisings, it’s disappointing that there is not much in the way of ideas to circumvent those weaknesses. Katsiaficas argues convincingly in Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Vol. 1 that uprisings are “a form of ordinary people’s wisdom that exceeds the shortsighted decision-making powers of world corporate and political elites” (3), but he neglects to translate this political wisdom into the economic sphere.

I’m a historian of East Asia by profession and this is where my academic side muffles some of the enthusiasm my activist flipside has for Asia’s Unknown Uprisings, Vol. 2. There are two problems here, one significant one and one much less so. I don’t blame Katsiaficas for either, as it’s clear he doesn’t read any Asian languages and is thereby constrained by available Anglophone narratives about Asian politics and history. This means that he can only have a partial frame through which to analyze the huge problematic of WW II in the Asia-Pacific. In particular the issue of Japan’s attack on the white Euro-American colonial powers in Asia (the US in Hawai’i and the Philippines; England in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Burma; Holland in Indonesia; etc.) is completely absent. Almost 2 million Japanese soldiers who died in WW II really did believe they were fighting to liberate Asia and the Asia-Pacific from white imperial rule; they didn’t express this idealism as a cynical cover for naked Japanese imperial aggression. Of course, to say this is to go against almost everything that has been written in English about WW II in the Asia-Pacific, which, in my opinion, should be seen as a direct effect of a white epistemology. This is not to deny the brutality of the Japanese Army’s practices, especially in Korea and China. But the reason that a much smaller number of Japanese soldiers was able to defeat superior British (Hong Kong; Singapore; Burma) and US forces (Philippines) was because the Asian locals, for the most part, rose up against their white colonial masters. New work on the racial aspects of WW II in the Asia-Pacific by non-white scholars like Takashi Fujitani and Gerald Horne is decentering the “know the enemy” CIA narrative about evil Japanese that Katsiaficas implicitly endorses throughout the 2 volumes of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings. To be fair, he has clearly spent most of his time in Korea, and the historical truth of Japan’s brutal colonialism there would have disinclined him to look for alternative historical narratives concerning Japan, the white Euro-American powers, and historical background to WW II in the Asia-Pacific.

The final small criticism I have of Asia’s Unknown Uprisings vol. 2 is that it seems to be addressed exclusively to readers outside Asia. Not only in terms of the references, but in terms of its analytic framework, it assumes a Euro-American reader. At one level this is totally fine and understandable. But at another level English is the most widely-used language in Asia after Chinese and often is the lingua franca for intra-Asian conferences and dialogues. I’m sure Katsiaficas consciously “knows” this. However, a writerly commitment to addressing English-reading Asians in Asia would have added another layer of globality to the other rich post-Eurocentric layers featured in this book.

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