The Peasant Movement and Great Refusal in the Philippines (Part 2)


But why the peasant movement despite the fact that there are a great number of active social and political movements in the Philippines today, such as the student movements, the women’s movements, and the labor unions, that also struggled and continue to struggle against American-led capitalism? The privilege of any such movements located “at the margins” of the system, is that as soon as their particular struggle links the specific demands that they make and the specific forms of injustice that they denounce, to neocolonial policies and imperialist domination premised on a capitalistic logic, they immediately point to a possible “outside” of the system: first, they highlight “from the outside” the real violence and destructive potential of the system, a violence and destructive potential that has become invisible “at the canter”; and second, they also embody other ways of living and organizing society.  But this view “from the outside” is precisely what Marcuse envisioned the Great Refusal should achieve, both in critical and pragmatic terms.  “At the center”, only Art for him was able to maintain this possibility.  In countries at the margins like the Philippines by contrast, many radical movements embody this possibility much more explicitly and concretely. If we recall, an important implication of Marcuse’s model was that “the truth and the freedom of ‘negative thinking’, of the Great Refusal, have their ground and reason”[1] in those movements that stay outside the established capitalist system. This means that exception from and resistance to capitalist domination comes from those who are not completely contained within the system per se yet receive the harshest exploitation.

The student movements, for example, the National Union of Students in the Philippines, the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines, the League of Filipino Students, Kabataang Makabayan (Nationalist Youths), and ANAKBAYAN Philippines (Sons and Daughters of the People), have joined for a long time force in resisting the onslaught of imperialism against Philippine education. The women’s movements like GABRIELA (General Assembly Binding Women for Reforms, Integrity, Equality, Leadership and Action), Kababaihan (Women), the historic MAKIBAKA (Makabayang Kilusan ng Bagong Kababaihan or Nationalist Movement of New Women), and many others, struggled not only against domestic violence and other forms of injustice committed against women, but also against capitalist exploitation in the country. Much as the labor unions, such as, the Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Labor Movement), an umbrella organization of many progressive labor associations in the Philippines, fight for the rights of the workers like better working conditions and just pay, it is also one of the staunchest critics of US imperialism. Indeed, as these movements clearly fight not only for the classical goal of justice and equality, but also for national liberation, there is no doubt that these movements are also expressions of what Marcuse calls the Great Refusal.

Amongst all the movements listed, however, one in particular appears to me to be the most eminent (if unlikely) embodiment of the Great Refusal, at least in its spirit: namely, the peasant movement.  My emphasis on the peasant movement is founded first of all on the fact that they are probably the most brutalized of Filipino populations to have suffered from direct or indirect capitalist exploitation (whether imposed through the colonial powers or not).  The full impacts of trade liberalization that started with the Payne-Aldrich Act in 1909 hit the peasants the deepest and marginalized them severely. For sure, although it is true that elements of the discourse and actions of the student movements, the women’s movements, and the labor unions can be considered as expressions of the Great Refusal, in a country like the Philippines, it is in fact the peasant movement that embodies the most potent critique of and resistance to capitalist domination.

But that dimension is of course by far not sufficient to support my claim that the peasant organizations and struggles incarnate the basic principles of what is required that would lead to something like a “Great Refusal”.  The force of the peasant movement also lies in their numbers and, most importantly, in their alliance with peasant movements in other countries “at the margins”.  As Walden Bello argues, the international movement of small farmers and peasants has been one of the most dynamic sources of resistance against capitalistic domination in recent years.[2]  Against the false hope of neoliberal propaganda, if a country like the Philippines is to experience real emancipation, it will have to touch real masses in ways that are real for them.  Rather than the false hopes attached to the inclusion into industrial, consumer society, an alternative, more just and flourishing society, would have to be found in the very structures of peasant life.  And thirdly, as a matter of fact, in the past history of the Philippines, it is the peasant masses that have been the most potent agents of resistance to domination.  Here, the masses of peasant population become another argument: they represent a serious political force.

History shows that the Filipino peasants have always played a crucial role in the fight against colonialism. During the Spanish period, as we know it, most, if not all, of the more than 200 revolts against the Spanish regime were waged by the peasants themselves. The one led by Diego Silang, and later by his wife Gabriela, is a classic example. Even the 1896 Revolution was primarily composed of peasants, despite the fact that it was founded by the proletarian Andres Bonifacio. During the American period still, the forces that struggled for national liberation were predominantly peasants. The Macario Sakay revolt, the last group to fight the Americans during the Filipino-American War, was very much dependent upon the peasantry. The Hukbo ng Bayan Laban sa Hapon (People’s Army Against Japan), or simply the Huk, that valiantly fought the Japanese during the Second World War and then against the Americans during the postwar period were mostly peasants from central Luzon. And today, the New People’s Army (NPA), the fiercest group that fights against imperialism, bureaucrat capitalism and feudalism is basically peasant by composition.

Although the peasant movement in the Philippines began as a struggle for just landlord-tenant relations, reasonable land rent, and land ownership, in the wake of capitalism vis-à-vis the establishment of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), it has explicitly become an anti-capitalist movement. In the course of history, the Filipino peasants were able to relate the struggle against land to the struggle against colonialism, and now to the struggle against American-led capitalism. For example, today, issues of sovereignty, such as unjust trade relations and foreign military base agreements, have been articulated mostly by the peasants themselves or by movements that draw strength from the peasants.

To show how the peasants’ struggle for land became an anti-capitalist movement as well as how the peasants were excluded in the capitalist system, thus excluding them from what Marcuse calls “one-dimensional society”, I will discuss briefly the way in which American-led capitalism in the Philippines have impoverished the peasants and made them more and more landless, thereby causing the crystallization of the latter’s resentment─to a point where they could begin to embody the principles of the Great Refusal.

It must be remembered that when the United States decided to annex the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, there was already a group of landed Filipino elites that dominated Philippine politics. These landed elites had already benefited from the export of agricultural products during the second half of the 19th century. Because the Americans were fully aware that the Filipino revolutionaries, especially the peasants, continued to resist American colonial government, and because they knew that the peasants posed as a threat to the local elite, the Americans had to form an alliance with these local elite. To do this, the Americans continued the Spanish policy on the export of agricultural products, thus reinforcing the position of the landed elite. For the rest of the 20th century, the strong alliance between the Americans and the Filipino landed elite, which later helped form what is now known as “patron-client” relationship, have left a deep imprint on the economic and political landscape of the Philippines. James Putzel, a renowned scholar on agrarian reform in the Philippines, writes: “The US built upon the economic and political legacy of Spanish rule, shaping both the economic and state structures that would characterize the Philippines for the rest of the 20th century.”[3]

To reinforce their policy toward the Philippine economy, the American colonial government enacted the Philippine Organic Act in 1902, the Torrens Titling Systems also in 1902, and the Public Land Act in 1903. The Philippine Organic Act, which served as the constitution of the American colonial government until 1916, had “limited the size of public lands that could be acquired by individuals to 16 hectares (later amended to 100 hectares) and by foreign corporations to 1, 024 hectares”.[4] The Torrens Titling System, on the other hand, beefed up the Philippine Organic Act by allowing foreign corporations to have absolute ownership over these lands. According to Putzel, the Torrens Titling System further deprived the peasants of their right to own the land they deserved because they were mostly ill-informed about the system, not to mention the fact that most of them did not have the necessary means to apply for land title.[5] Nonetheless, the American colonial government offered the Public Land Act in 1903 to enable the landless peasants to acquire their own lands. This law gave all Filipinos the right to acquire 16 hectares of public lands but with the condition that they establish homesteads and cultivate it for five consecutive years for a nominal fee. However, like the Philippine Organic Act and the Torrens Titling System, the Public Land Act was also unsuccessful in its attempt to solve the problem of landlessness in the Philippines because, as they “had no tradition of living on isolated farms, but rather live in barrios, or village neighborhoods”,[6] the Filipino peasants were unresponsive to this Act. Consequently, many peasants became more and more landless while several big corporations, local and foreign, faired well under US rule, such as, the Tabacalera and Hacienda Luisita. The Tabacalera alone had acquired about 15, 452 hectares in Cagayan Valley by 1913.

               [1] Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man, 222.  Emphasis mine.

                [2] Walden Bello, The Food Wars (Manila: Anvil, 2009), 148.

                [3] James Putzel, A Captive Land: The Politics of Agrarian Reform in the Philippines (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1992), 51. Amado Guerrero also writes: “When the United Sates in its imperialist greed seized the Philippines for itself, it was very conscious of the necessity of retaining feudalism so as to provide itself continuously with such raw materials as sugar, hemp, coconut and other agricultural products.” See Amado Guerrero, Philippine Society and Revolution (Oakland, California: International Association of Filipino, 1979), 93.

                [4] Putzel, Captive Land, 52. Emphasis added.

                [5] Ibid., 53.

                [6] Ibid.