May 10th, 2021
In an interview, activists Jong Pairez and Bas Umali discuss alternatives to social organisation that move away from the traditional – and often fragmented – Left.
This is a lightly edited excerpt from Pangayaw and Decolonizing Resistance: Anarchism in the Philippines (PM Press, 2020) by Bas Umali and edited by Gabriel Kuhn.
Interview with Jong Pairez and Bas Umali
In the last decade, a remarkably strong anarchist movement seems to have developed in the Philippines. Can you give us a short overview?
Jong Pairez: There have been many published writings recently about anarchism in the Philippines, most of which are reflections, as well as prospects toward an alternative form of struggle and organising that veers away from the traditions of the dominant Philippine Left. I can mention Bas Umali’s Archipelagic Confederation and Marco Cuevas Hewitt’s Sketches of an Archipelagic Poetics of Postcolonial Belonging. Both articles look toward the importance of diversity and decentralised horizontal politics commonly overlooked by a Left that is united with the government in the aim to build a unified nation-state. As Marco argues, “Nationalism in this sense might even be considered as a kind of ‘internal imperialism’.”
However, amazing theories are not always coherent in praxis. What I mean is that a movement capable of transmitting an anarchist mindset within various sectors of Philippine society is still in its infant stage. There are plenty of shortcomings to accept and consider. But, on the other hand, I see the shortcomings as a positive advantage for the emerging anarchist movement, because it provides us chances to creatively experiment and learn from mistakes.
Are there any historical movements in the Philippines whose politics had, from your perspective, anarchist dimensions?
Pairez: Compared to anarchist movements in Europe and East Asia, most especially in Japan, the Philippines has no history of modern anarchist traditions and struggle in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the 19th century and during the peak of the anticolonial struggle against Spain and American imperialism in the early 20th century, all revolutionary groups were preoccupied with national liberation. But according to Benedict Anderson, the author of Under Three Flags, European anarchists had a huge impact on Filipino intellectuals who were students in Madrid. One of them, José Rizal, wrote novels that were important for the history of the Philippine revolution. In El Filibusterismo (1891), the protagonist is reminiscent of Ravachol, the French anarchist known for avenging oppressed workers by bombing targets of the authorities. Rizal symbolically equated this with the desperation of the Filipino people and their desire to liberate themselves from colonialism.
But anarchist theory and praxis never did proliferate in that period as a legitimate revolutionary alternative to colonialism in the Philippines. In Japan, anarchism had sown its seeds during the Meiji and Taishō periods, when Japanese anarchists became instrumental in struggles against the war and the emperor, as well as in building militant unions. There were some such developments in the Philippines, but obviously there is a contextual difference between the Japanese and the Filipino experience. So there is a history of anti-authoritarian struggle in the Philippines, but it is weak.
Some pacified Filipino natives, especially the discontented principalia (noble) class, were imagining a nation-state independent from their colonisers, but many indigenous brothers and sisters were fighting to defend their egalitarian ways of living in the mountains and other parts of the archipelago. Quasi-religious insurrections in Philippine history can be linked to anti-authoritarian struggles due to their desire of preserving autonomy.
Bas Umali: José Rizal’s novel depicts the oppressive character of colonialism and suggests a solution to get rid of it. Where did he get the idea from that the entire colonial elite could be exterminated by igniting the nitroglycerine hidden in a lamp? Rizal’s long stay in Europe had made him aware of the anarchists’ “propaganda by the deed”. At the same time, his campaign for education as one of the key components of the freedom struggle is similar to Ferrer and Spanish anarcho-syndicalism.
In 1901, Isabelo de los Reyes returned home from a Montjuic prison cell in Spain to face the new enemy that disembarked from the modern warships in Manila Bay. De los Reyes’s frame of struggle was far different from the nationalists we know today as heroes. Firstly, his object of criticism was imperialism. He organised workers and the urban poor in Manila and attacked American corporations. He practiced what he had learned from anarchist cellmates like Ramon Sempau. The Unión Obrera Democrática (UOD), which he cofounded, was the first workers’ union in the archipelago. Direct actions through creative picket lines and strikes launched by workers and communities, particularly in Manila’s Tondo district, rocked the colonial government, its corporate partners and the local elite.
It seems that in quite a lot of your work you try to relate anarchist ideas to traditional ways of social organising on the Philippine islands. Can you tell us more about this?
Umali: In my view, since time immemorial, anarchism has been present in the archipelago; primitive communities from coastal to upland areas flourished and utilised autonomous and decentralised political patterns that facilitated the proliferation of highly diverse cultures and lifestyles.
Primitive social organisations evolved until social stratifications formed and became institutions. The archipelago has various tribes with their own self-identity, culture and sociopolitical organisation. Before authoritarianism infected the revolutionary movement of the archipelago, direct action was practiced.
One example is the “Cavite mutiny” of 20 February 1872, when seven Spanish officers were killed in a mutiny at the Cavite naval shipyard. As a consequence, the Spanish authorities ordered the arrest of creoles, mestizos, secular priests, merchants, lawyers and even some members of the colonial administration. In order to instill fear in the minds of the people, a kangaroo trial was held, and three secular priests were garroted in front of 40 000 people. Six months later, 1 200 workers went on strike, setting the first record in the history of the archipelago. Many people were arrested, but the administration failed to identify a leader and eventually everyone was released. General Izquierdo apparently concluded that “the International has spread its black wings to cast its nefarious shadow over the most remote lands”.
How did the traditional forms of social organisation relate to the independence movement?
Umali: The Propaganda Movement was basically composed of the local educated elite. They adopted the so-called Enlightenment framework from Europe. Giant names in history like those of Rizal, Emilio Aguinaldo, Emilio Jacinto, Andrés Bonifacio, Antonio Luna, Apolinario Mabini and Marcelo del Pilar were all committed to nationalism as the basis of uniting the oppressed people.
The elite successfully created the idea of an abstract large-scale community integrating highly diverse cultures. The culmination of the agitation of the Propaganda Movement was the establishment of the Katipunan organisation that later formed the first government in the archipelago patterned after the nationalist framework of the West. Centralistic, coercive and patriarchal institutions dominated social relations in the archipelago and undermined the traditional themes of mutual cooperation and diversity. Slavery existed in the form of the polo system. Poverty and marginalisation were introduced to communities that used to be prosperous and live in relative freedom.
Except for tribes and communities in the most remote areas, the entire archipelago became part of the regalian doctrine and Spanish hierarchy.
What can you tell us about the current anarchist movement in the Philippines?
Umali: Currently, broader nonhierarchical organisation is limited to indigenous groups that effectively maintain traditional practices. Anti-authoritarian activism became dormant after the disintegration of the UOD. Yet anarchy is fairly strong in many places on Luzon, the Visayas and Mindanao. The resilience of indigenous communities is related by their autonomous traditions. While they are forced to coexist with the state, they do not feel part of it.
Anarchy and anti-authoritarianism began to regain a certain momentum in the punk scene during the early 1980s. Punk’s anti-authoritarian politics initially started as a critique of the conventional character of Philippine society. Soon, the punk and hardcore scene started to display antihierarchical politics and conscious anarchist propaganda. The movement attracted an increasing number of individuals, especially after the anti-World Trade Organisation riots in Seattle ignited by the black bloc – the “propaganda by the deed” of our time.
Numerous collectives have formed since then in the National Capital Region (NCR), Davao, Cebu, Lucena and other cities. They have conducted various activities, such as Food Not Bombs, community-based workshops, picket lines, discussion forums, publications, gigs and graffiti.
Pairez: Since the turn of the 21st century, activist groups and collectives that identify themselves as anarchists have been indeed sprouting like wild mushrooms in the Philippines. But, as Bas says, their background lies in the 1980s punk phenomenon, not in 19th-century anarchism. I would like to discuss this a bit more, given its importance for the present anarchist movement in the country.
The punk subculture came to the Philippine shores as a result of the Filipino diaspora. The beginnings can be attributed to rich teenage Filipinos returning to the country from Europe and the United States in the late 1970s. They were often referred to as balikbayan; balik means to return, and bayan is the homeland. Some of them brought punk rock with them, which was popularised by the DZRJ-810 AM “Rock of Manila” radio programme. During this time, the military dictatorship of President Ferdinand Marcos was at its height. The media was controlled by the state, but a few small radio stations managed to operate outside of the state sanctions. Music by the likes of the Sex Pistols and The Clash stunned Manila listeners, and the “Pinoy punk” scene was born.
Once it had become popular, punk rock represented the dissatisfaction of the Filipino youth with conservative Philippine society. What, in the beginning, seemed like just another musical upheaval, very apolitical in nature, later developed into a radical challenge of authority. Youth into punk rock started to explore the politics of DIY and anarchism that were associated with it.
Unfortunately, the golden age of the punk rock scene in the Philippines coincided with punk’s decline in the West, which had its ripple effects. Philippine mass media started embracing punk imagery, and it became instrumental to new marketing strategies by multinational companies. Soft-drink giant Pepsi started sponsoring punk band contests on Philippine TV. This was still during the Marcos dictatorship. Several years later, after the dictatorship had been replaced by a democratic government under Corazon Aquino, Philippine mass media hyped up a satanic cult scare to discredit the punk scene, not least because it was a convenient way to cover up the Mendiola massacre.
When other musical genres, such as new wave, hip-hop and crossover, gained more influence, it created a divide between punks and others. Even within the punk scene, fragmentation became so rampant that groups would frequently clash over their musical preferences. It was a trend that echoed that of the Maoist Left.
The Left in the Philippines has often been characterised by severe infighting. Is this a problem in the anarchist movement as well?
Pairez: The early 1990s are called the period of the “Great Leftist Split” due to the failure of the Communist Party of the Philippines to lead the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. The once strong and cohesive leftist movement was weakened by infighting among party cadres. There were even killings due to unsettled ideological differences about how to lead the people’s uprising in Epifanio de los Santos Avenue [where most of the demonstrations during the People Power Revolution took place].
Unfortunately, fragmentation is among the shortcomings and mistakes of the emerging anarchist movement as well – petty claims about who is more anarchist than the other and so on. I hope that we can overcome this mistake by embracing our differences and being true to the idea of diversity. We must learn from the experiences of our indigenous brothers and sisters and leave the ghetto of punkdom.
Bas Umali is a longtime organizer living in Metro Manila. He has been involved with digital and physical infoshops, mobile education initiatives, climate crises campaigns, natural disaster relief programs, and bringing solar technology to marginalized communities. Bas has worked for an NGO concerned with rainforest rehabilitation and driven Grab and Uber vehicles. Today, he provides technical assistance to marginalized fisherfolk and dreams of settling in the countryside with his family.