By Randy Nobleza
This is a review of Bas Umali’s Pangayaw and Decolonizing Resistance: Anarchism in the Philippines (Oakland: PM Press, 2020). Randy Nobleza holds a PhD in archipelagic and island studies and is currently engaged in countermapping translocal cultures. He was an online volunteer of Manila Indymedia, a transmedia researcher for Radyo Itim, and he helped co-organize the Info Shop and Autonomous Spaces Conference in San Jose del Monte, Bulakan. Since 2015, he has been the networker-curator of the Marindukanon Studies Center and Info Shop Marinduque.
It has been more than decade since the publication of Bas Umali’s “Archipelagic Confederation.” With “Pangayaw: Decolonizing Resistance in a Network of Communities in the Archipelago,” the title essay of this collection of Umali’s texts, the author offers quite a different approach. Times have changed, the context is not the same, the trickster already subverted subversion. What could be the practical response to such a grim prospect? How can one resist with a constant threat of double peril? On the one hand, there is an ongoing drug war, and on the other, there is still impunity within the system. Both situations are precarious, to the people and the community. This is the platform on which “Pangayaw” takes shape. In a way, the period from 2016 to 2022 is a dress rehearsal for federalism. The state is undertaking a deadly live experiment of suppressing the opposition. We need tools to fight back and defend ourselves and our communities. The old practice of pangayaw, commonly translated into English as “raiding,” is a call to arms. Pangayaw is a dying practice that needs revitalisation, and the activist/researcher narrates the possible outcomes of survival before it’s too late.
Bas Umali recasts his thesis from “Archipelagic Confederation” and takes it a step further. Not relying as much as on Murray Bookchin’s network of councils as a model, he elaborates on pangayaw as a means of self-determination. He opts to start with a counter-narrative of social evolution. Umali asserts that rather than hierarchy or competition, our ancestors survived through mutual cooperation. As one can observe, the path of our ancestors runs the opposite to our own. As Umali points out, contemporary society is “characterised by social injustices, poverty, political marginalisation of communities and ecological crises.” Pangayaw is no fakelore, it is rooted deeply in our psyche as a living memory of our ancestors who resisted colonialism, authority and control. Pangayaw is an antidote to the stifling effect of the post-truth era and fake news. There is a need to reclaim and appropriate resistance not through social media and mere commentary. This is not a fight from or within islands but one relying on a differentiated network of communities.
Umali lays down the main societal ills of the twenty-first century such as slavery, hunger, poverty, discrimination, war, oppression and ecological destruction. What he hopes to obtain by adopting pangayaw is an alternative to the authoritarian, hierarchical and centralised politics of today. Umali is continuing where he left off in “Archipelagic Confederation,” outlining a means to achieve a better and more autonomous world through direct democracy. Pangayaw is not an end to itself but a means to build resistance by activating ancestral and collective memory. Pangayaw has been branded evil, violent and inappropriate, but it links the diverse island communities in the archipelago. Given their limited resources, it is necessary to redistribute power and establish horizontal relationships. This enables the network of communities to resist colonisation in its many shapes and forms.
Having this in mind, Umali, the Onsite Infoshop researcher and activist, enumerates some keywords to prepare the readers of what lies ahead: “archipelago,” “anti-authoritarian,” “autonomous,” “decolonization,” “anti-Colonization,” “direct democracy,” “diversity” and “self-determination.” All of these keywords are western, orientalist, and alien to indigenous peoples. One must have a grounding to be able to appropriate them. As implied by Umali, these concepts are still evolving, contested and fluid. They can close but also open doors.
There is the lure of essentialism and “going native.” It is therefore imperative to take a few steps back before proceeding. Umali is not proposing a binary opposition and dichotomous perspective as if there was no grey area. On the contrary, his framing opens the discourse to a rhizomatic dialogue. Any of the island communities can interact, participate and practice pangayaw.
Umali points out that there still is hunger and poverty in the archipelago. It is a recurrent pattern due to multilateral and bilateral trade negotiations. Neoliberalism, representative democracy and capitalism are still pervasive despite the current cycle of crisis. In 1997, there was the Asian Financial Crisis; in 2008, there was the global financial meltdown and subprime crisis in the United States; in 2020, we are facing the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences; and there is the perennial climate crisis. In Capitalism: A Love Story, the documentary filmmaker Michael Moore regularly returns to pure democracy without consumerism, competition and alienation, while highlighting the inherent crisis of an economic system based on debt. Umali does something similar, but, unlike Moore, he is not a painful bore. Umali is deeply entrenched in the psyche of the ungoverned people living in the island communities of the archipelago. It is up to us to embrace our ancestors’ life ways.
When dealing with the ambivalence between decolonisation and anti-colonial resistance, Umali shows that history is much more than grand narratives. Rather, it is an intersection of different fields: anthropology, archeology, sociology and folklore. Umali puts forward a critique of terms like “Philippines” and “Filipino.” He does not subscribe to nationalism or patriarchy. Both concepts serve the state. Umali argues that the fragmentation of indigenous communities is not a weakness but an expression of autonomy, emancipation and freedom. Benedict Anderson already saw the thread of archipelagic thinking based on his work in Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. James Warren also sought an alternative conception of democracy and polity when exploring the fringes of Southeast Asian history. His landmark studies provide a crucial link to resistance against the state.
Umali considers pangayaw a processual means of decolonisation and anti-colonial struggle. The pioneering efforts of Isabelo de los Reyes are key to understanding pangayaw. The way he understood nationalism as well as the translocalism of autonomous, yet interconnected island communities enabled scholars such as Laura Junker, James Scott and Tatiana Seijas to locate the highs and lows of pangayaw.
In “Pangayaw: Decolonizing Resistance in a Network of Communities in the Archipelago,” Umali unpacks the colossal data compiled by the late anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. Graeber’s discussion of debt is very useful to understand the social organization of the early island community inhabitants. Thanks to the works of ethnomusicologist Jose Maceda and curator Marian Pastor-Roces on indigenous musical instruments and local weaving systems, we know about modes of exchange and sharing across the archipelago. It is far from the standard metanarrative of Adam Smith. Our ancestors interacted through various forms of craftsmanship, and they shared knowledge about the universe through music and weaving.
For better or worse, pangayaw is still a valid and potent means of decolonization and anti-colonial resistance by ungovernable island communities.