Asia’s Unknown Uprisings Vol. 2 in NewBooks.Asia

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

By Niels Mulder

Asia’s Unknown Uprisings are inspired by Katsiaficas’ research on and in-depth analysis of post-war South-Korea popular movements. The latter have patterned the country’s politics and society, and revealed popular aspirations that became especially clear in the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and its follow-up of the June Uprising of 1987 that deposed of dictator Chun-Doo-hwan.[1] These events proved to be a breakthrough that decisively initiated South-Korea’s democratisation.

Whereas most political scientists focus on the ideas and exploits of political and economic leaders, Katsiaficas’ focus is with the counter-elite dynamics of student, labour, feminist, and mass movements. The scrutiny of such movements goes against the grain of conventional socio-political analysis, as it highlights deep-seated psychological drives and, according to the author, hopes for an equitable, or at least a more agreeable future.

People Power
The study and the author’s Gwangju experience naturally led to a keen interest in uprisings in nine Asian locations, to wit, the Philippines (1986), Burma (1988), Tibet (1989), China (1989), Taiwan (1990), Nepal (1990), Bangladesh (1990), Thailand (1992) and Indonesia (1998). In the five underscored cases, these People-Power Uprisings succeeded in deposing apparently well-entrenched dictators, whereas in the others the violence of the ‘forces of order’ turned the scales in favour of powers-that-be.

As the author explains, his reconstructions of civil insurgencies are driven by the aim to better understand social movements. There is more to this: his telos is to glean useful lessons for future freedom struggles, because the wasteful, profit-inspired way the world is run spells humanity’s self-destruction. Such struggles are fired by the natural drives for equality and freedom that should open the way to a truly participatory democracy in which the wisdom of the participants prevails over the corporate, capital-driven military-industrial complex that has become the dominant system on this planet (and of which Samuel Huntington is time and again unmasked as its prophet).

Accordingly, the study’s leitmotiv refers to psycho-analyst Carl Jung’s recognition that human instinct makes rebellious actions necessary on our part. It shows that “from time to time there passes as it were a wave of frenzy through the ranks of men too long constrained within the limitations of their culture” (371).[2] Replacing the idea of ‘culture’ with political-economic circumstance, i.e., with ‘the (prevailing) system’, Katsiaficas proposes to call it the ‘eros effect’. It refers to ‘humanity’s increasing awareness of our own power as manifested in sudden and simultaneous contestation of power by hundreds of thousands of people’ (ib.) that, following the example of the successful 1986 anti-Marcos demonstration, has been called People Power. It is the spontaneity of such movements that needs to be understood; it is its unconscious nature that electrifies masses when ‘ordinary people take history in their own hands’ (ib.).

Love of freedom
In the author’s vision, uprisings/rebellions become much more than protest against abuses, arbitrariness, or intolerable circumstances. They are laden with a programme for the future, for a just, egalitarian, participant-democratic society. Such a society holds the promise of the utopia that is to replace the power of a few hundred billionaires and the corporate military-industrial complex. The good sense of a naturally freedom-loving humanity will prevail as the forces that oppress it will lose their sway. We, the ordinary people, will again be our own boss such as in the times that civilisation had not yet forged the Jungian chains that constrain them within the limitations of their culture. 

I avow that I slightly simplify the author’s persuasive reasoning that is inspired by human’s instinctual need for freedom, by something we grasp intuitively, and whose collective sublimation opens up in the eros effect that tangibly manifested itself in the people power driven uprisings that provide the subject matter of the study. In this vein, cold-warrior George Kennan characterised the anti-nuclear wave of protests in the early 1980s as an “expression of a deep instinctual insistence on sheer survival” that is embedded in the natural human drive for self-preservation (372). According to Katsiaficas’ Gwangju-inspired eros effect, it showed those and other demonstrations to be manifestations of the desire for equality in which people were united by bonds of love and as members of an absolute community “in which reason was achieved by human beings who were conscious of being members of a community. Reason was the capability of the community, not that of individualism”, as competition gave way to cooperation, hierarchy to equality, and power to truth (372). 

As the author foresees it, civil insurgencies, whether successful or not, blaze the trail for future movement. In so doing, their contributions to humanity’s freedom are lasting (356). They created possibilities of a more sophisticated form of the relationship between power and freedom, of an expanding area of freedom and a lessening of the area of power. “They remind us that human beings remain capable of changing planetary structures that condemn millions of people to living hell at the periphery of the world system—and involve all of us in continual wars and destruction of the planet” (359). 

The great value of Katsiaficas’ analysis of nine people-power driven uprisings lies in their meticulous documentation and the unearthing of an impressive host of directly and indirectly supportive data. Whereas he is undeniably correct in his presentation of their spirit that temporarily prevailed, and that was interpreted à la Jung as the drive for freedom and equality. Even so, however much people desire to be free, of hunger, of patriarchy, of ignorance, of drudgery, etc., they are also possessed by der Wille zur Macht, the desire and drive for power and dominance that is at the root of inequality and un-freedom. As a result, I am not convinced that ephemeral flashes of solidarity across class-lines and its feeling of ‘absolute community’ will translate into the eros driven utopia the author proposes. Even so, it would be a grave mistake to dismiss this well-written work and not to reflect on its message.

Niels Mulder retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he concluded his swan song, Situating Filipino Civilisation in Southeast Asia; Reflections and observations. Saarbruecken: LAP LAMBERT Academic Publishing (print-to-order ed., ISBN 978-3-659-13083-0) 2012. <[email protected]>.

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