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A Book Review on Nathan Gilbert Quimpo’s

Contested Democracy and the Left in the Philippines After Marcos
By: Joy Aceron

I have been observing the Left for the past seven years. I hate some of them; love some of
them; and in fact, I married one of them.

In all my engagements with political forces from the Right to the Left, it is the Left that I am most
captivated and inspired. This is not only because it is among the Left that I see the intellectuals
cum activists I admire the most, but more importantly, I am enamored by the Left’s resolve that
they are capable of doing great things for the country. It is the political force that provides the
most comprehensive and idealistic attempt to change society.

But it is also its idealism that alienates me from the Left. I feel alienated from the Left for every
time I plunge myself into the real world, I realize just how difficult it is to achieve all those
idealistic dreams. Whenever I observe our society, which has become post-modern without
being able to build the needed modern political institutions, I realize that the Left’s vision of
revolution is both grand and far-fetched.

Working within the rather ill-conceived and truncated liberal democracy is the reality that we all
must face, but socialism is a dream that we all share.

I first encountered radical democracy in 2001. It came along my meeting of Francis Isaac whom
I would later on marry. Either because he wanted to impress me or to prove the supremacy of
socialism over liberal democracy or Third Way, which he was claiming to be the framework of
my group (I was at that time the NCR Chair of Aksyon Kabataan, the youth arm of the late Raul
Roco’s political party), or now at retrospect perhaps to start recruiting me to Akbayan, he shared
with me his paper that attempts to construct a post-national democracy (ND) framework. This
was an interesting piece for me because I was a student of UP who got fed up with the same
old analyses and chant of the NDs.

Let me quote a few lines from that paper that struck me:

“To a great degree, today’s generation of Leftist militants are placed in a unique situation
where the ‘old is dying and the new is yet to be born’…In the end, the ND paradigm, with
its idealized notion of an irrelevant past, can only become an oxymoron—a radicalism of
the old type—a radicalism that is wary of innovation and suspicious of ideological
reorientation…But radical democracy, with its feet set firmly in the present and its vision
oriented towards the future is a new form of radicalism…Possibly, this could be the theory
that can finally link all of society’s diverse democratic struggles and provide hope, not only
for the proletariat, but also for the outcasts, the silenced and the marginalized.”
(Unpublished document, p. 13)

Radical democracy provides a powerful tool that bridges liberalism and socialism; it unites
reform and revolution. It dissolves the notion of revolution as the “grand moment,” but look at it

as what Ricardo Reyes calls “moments,” the gradual processes of reform that lead to radical
changes. (Quoted in Quimpo, 2008: 89). As defined by its main proponents, Chantal Moufe and
Ernesto Laclau, it is “a struggle for radicalising the principles of liberty and equality for all by
extending them to more and more social relations” (Mouffe 1993: 114).

The main critique to radical democracy is its praxis. While it provides a framework, or a set of
principles, that could unite both the reform and revolutionary movements at the theoretical or
conceptual level, there seems to be a difficulty in putting this to practice. Laclau tried to address
this in an interview with Adam Lent which was published in the book Talking about Tomorrow: a
New Radical Politics, when he categorized radical democracy as a “social imaginary” that “is
made up of visions and values that mold the whole approach of a varied group of social forces”

For me though, it is still critical to delve on the question of praxis. How do we concretize the
social imaginary? How do we make it happen? Based on present behavior of the social
movements (especially those that are led by the young), results and achievable goals that build
into the achievement of a vision are as crucial as the vision itself that inspires them. Radical
democracy provides a framework for the kind of political engagement that delivers results
toward a vision. But the questions of what mechanism, what form and who will do it will have to
be addressed for radical democracy to make a difference in reality.

For example, the biggest challenge now in the Philippines is how to bring together the variety of
reform movements in civil society, the bureaucracy and in local governance towards a common
political direction that will change the power structure in Philippine society. There are so many
things happening in the country that require change. Majority of people want change. Every
week I get tons of invitations to fora, discussions, activities that are all about changing the
country, reforming the government, making a difference. Radical democracy provides a
framework to bring these together; it is a “democratic culture in which a plurality of social
struggles are perceived and lived as belonging to the same family” (Laclau 1993: 119). But the
question is through what?

Laclau and Moufe avoid simplifying the praxis of radical democracy in developing countries into
political party building or by identifying an “agency.” In a developing country like the Philippines,
where the modern political institutions such as political parties have not developed even before
it evolved into a post-modern society, Laclau predicts that, “it will not pass through the forms of
social and state organization which have been characteristics of modernity in the West” (1993:

They are probably correct, but for the time being, building a political party that is designed and
operates using the framework of radical democracy is still the most viable first step.
Operationally hence, this party should be an integration of the reform movements on the ground
with the liberal goals, but with a vision of applying democratic values to more and more social
relations. But aside from just having the radical democratic framework, it should also build on
two critical factors in any reform-oriented political project in the country at this point: 1. Trust and
integrity building; and 2. Leadership.

Before I discuss why the building of a mechanism such as a political party must be
complemented with these two, let me first tackle the book’s assertion that the democratic Left,
particularly Akbayan, serves as this mechanism.

The book asserts the democratic Left applies pluralist and radical democracy as a framework or
approach to its engagement and that the democratic Left, particularly Akbayan manifests the
practice of an integral view of democracy, which simply means working within the liberal
democratic framework to genuinely strengthen democratic institutions and reform them to
become participatory and equitable. The book elaborates on this by differentiating the practices
of the several Leftist organizations and rather neatly, with very little nuancing, classified
Akbayan’s engagements as consistent to radical-plural democracy and the integral view of
democracy; while those of the national democrats as an instrumentalist view of democracy,
which simply means engaging the liberal democratic institutions to use them for propaganda
purposes and to ultimately undermine them. The other groups such as Sanlakas and Partido ng
Manggagawa are classified as somewhat in between (Quimpo 2008: 54-93).

This poses some critical questions on Akbayan. How much of the political activities and
behavior of Akbayan is consistent with radical democracy? How far has it adopted the integral
view of democracy and how is this operationalized on the ground?

First, my sense is that radical democracy as a perspective adopted by Akbayan and the
democratic Left in general is not very well communicated as evidenced by the public’s seeming
lack of awareness on the difference between the democratic Left and the ND Left. Majority of
the political actors including the elite and the educated class look at the Left as one and the
same. Creating that awareness of the difference is very critical to broaden the base and reach
and enhance the capacity of the democratic Left to integrate and coordinate the reform
movements that represent varying social identities and perspectives all over the country, which I
think is a crucial goal of a national radical democracy project.

But this is not just an issue of communication. An honest-to-goodness practice that is consistent
with the perspective has to be addressed. Here, the role of leadership is key: how it deals with
the remnants of the “instrumentalist view of democracy” among its ranks and how it truly
becomes radical democratic.

Most critical as it becomes truly radical democratic is how the democratic Left, specifically
Akbayan, provides a real space for substantive representation of pluralist interests within the
party. In a context where there is an acceptance and practice of pluralistic politics within the
party, the absence of space for substantive representation of various interests and persuasions
could lead to internal hemorrhage where unaccommodated interests leave the party to pursue
their own political engagements. While this is sometimes inevitable (as the current political
condition is full of temptations to yield to patronage and clientelistic practices), at the end of the
day, the essence of a party that banners radical democracy is its capacity to accommodate and
embrace the different interests and in the context of the Philippines, its capability to avoid losing
these interests and perspectives to the tempting patronage and clientelistic approach to political

This is precisely the reason I find it critical to factor in trust and integrity building as well as
leadership as part of the formula in a national radical democracy project. Rhetorical as it may

sound, leadership by example is critical in keeping and pulling together varied pluralistic
interests. The party leadership cannot be espousing pluralistic and democratic politics, while not
being pluralistic and democratic in their ways. It cannot be fighting against traditional politics,
while being clientelistic in its dealings with the elites and being patrons in dealing with its

Trust is a factor that is just as crucial, for radical democracy as a framework of engagement
involves a whole lot of balancing act and traversing the gray area. Trust towards the process
and decisions of the collective as well as towards those that represent the collective are crucial
to avoid disintegration and disengagements. This will hopefully aid as well in encouraging each
and every member to put their stake on the party, take necessary sacrifices for the party and
vouch the party to other groups and individuals.

The analysis of Philippine democracy as a contested democracy (Quimpo 2008: 44-53) is a

critical pre-requisite for the application of radical democracy. Without Prof. Quimpo’s notion of
“democracy from below,” there will be no actors that will work within the framework of radical

Contested democracy is empowering for it recognizes the significance of the efforts of those on
the ground who are trying to make a difference and be the difference by fighting for democracy
and being democratic themselves.

The analysis of the limitations of the three analytical frameworks—patron-client, dependency

and elite democracy—is probably what makes the book a genius. Not only does it lays down the
ground for an alternative framework which gives due recognition on the efforts below, it also
sharply presents how the political context shapes and determines the analytical framework and
how the latter can be used to either further perpetuate or change reality (2008: 21-44). This is a
truly radical thought for it completely breaks the divide between analysis and advocacy, and
how analysts cannot completely diverge themselves from their politics.

Contested democracy is empowering as I said because it recognizes the significance of

democratizing movements from below. But more importantly, unlike the three analytical frames
that provide analyses that constrain political actions toward taking revolutionary means (cultural,
political or armed struggles) to change the political condition, contested democracy widens the
options for effecting change to include what is being won and can be won in the current political
set-up. As I earlier pointed out, this analysis of the current political condition in the Philippines
make the application of radical democracy possible.

The account of the book of the different democratizing efforts on the ground, however, is rather
limited. This is probably due to its focus of looking only at the Left.

However, if you look at Philippine politics now, there are a lot of movements that are not
necessarily from the Left, which can be classified as part of the democracy from below. These
“reform movements” representing varied social identities and perspectives continue to make the
most out of whatever is left in the democratic space—influencing policy-making to ensure
inclusion of the marginalized interests, to protect the so-called “general will” and to prevent
predatory interests of the elite to determine policy outcomes, making exercise of power
accountable, ensuring efficiency and transparency in government service delivery,

supplementing political institutions and processes such as elections with participatory
mechanisms that somehow check and balance the powers-that-be. These efforts are not
exclusive to Left political organizations, but this can also be seen in non-Left organizations
engaging civil society, the bureaucracy and local governance.

In fact, the contestation is not just between elite democracy on the top and democracy from
below, but instead there are also horizontal contestations. At the level of the state, particularly in
the bureaucracy and local governments, there is a continuing struggle between reform-minded
bureaucrats and local chief executives pushing for rule of law and effective governance against
capture of particularistic interests. Below, the contests between non-democratic and democratic
forces are waged among, between and within groups. None of the state and social organs are
monolithic in their struggle for democracy and their being democratic.

The limited account of the book of democracy from below is probably not only because of its
focus on the Left, but also because of its rather “unpluralistic” definition of civil society. In fact, I
wonder whether the Prof. Quimpo exclusively awards “democracy from below” to the democratic

The book presents three “civil society arguments,” namely: 1. Associational civil society based
on Touqueville and Putnam’s argument about social capital or strong civil society as a critical
element of democratization; 2. Counterweight civil society that presents a dichotomy between
society and state and civil society serving as a force that guards against tyrannical or predatory
state; and 3) hegemonic civil society which looks at civil society as a space for political
contestations (2008: chapter 3).

The book argues that the civil society argument which is consistent to radical democracy or
which is democratizing is the third argument; while the two can be threatening to democracy
and the democratization process for they spouse a “harmony” model of politics, which according
to the book, is “one that downplay the very real conflict between the country’s oligarchic elite
and the poor and marginalized classes, sectors and communities” (2008: 95). In particular,
according to the book, associational civil society as a project of “revisionist neoliberals”
disregards or neutralizes the difference in power position among social groups; while
counterweight democracy idealizes civil society as defender of freedom against state abuses.
Both views marginalize political organizations, especially parties, for they obscure attempts to
gain state power to shape relationship in civil society and conceptually conceal the ambiguous
but significant relationship between the state and society (2008: 103).

While I perfectly agree that the “correct” conceptual understanding of civil society is the
hegemonic view, I also think that the two views (associational and counterweight) do not
necessarily have to be contradicting to the third view. Gramsci’s understanding of civil society
as a space for political contestations can easily accommodate the two other views and for
practical purposes, it should. I will have to carefully explain this before I get branded with all
sorts of things. Let me first share my experience with what Prof. Quimpo would probably
categorize as an example of “warm and fuzzy” civil society (2008: 102).

Since 2004, I have been a part of a program of the Ateneo School of Government called the
Government Watch. It is a program that promotes state-civil society engagements to enhance
transparency, accountability and efficiency in the bureaucracy. It is part of several networks that

“fight corruption” through accountability that is demand-driven or through civic engagements.
We partner with all sorts of groups: faith-based, business, students, community-based such as
PTCAs, school-based such as BSPs and GSPs, NGOs etc. We “watch” procurements, service
delivery, contract implementation, etc. to avoid abuses of discretion and other forms of
corruption in government. There are minimal immediate gains and we continue to facilitate
partnerships between government and communities to ensure effective service delivery.

Using the definition of Quimpo, the program and the many other similar efforts utilize both the
associational and counter-weight views. Is this democratic? Does it perpetuate “harmonic” view
of power? Does it downplay imbalance in power relations?

In paper, G-Watch and similar efforts are silent about it. Much of these kinds of engagements in
civil society are non-ideological, but it does not mean these programs are not aware of existing
power structures or do they perpetuate the status quo. Also, it is not always “warm and fuzzy,”
but we do try to be happy. In fact, it is precisely because of their awareness of the limits of the
existing political condition, that they limit their efforts to small arenas whatever minimum gains
that can be achieved now and stay away from the grand narratives, without necessarily
negating the latter.

Instead of branding these efforts as conceptually wrong, pacifist or revisionist neo-liberal and
consequently alienating those working with this framework, it is probably much helpful to try to
engage these groups and in the process open that space for discussion on the significance of
linking their “reform efforts” in their own “warm and fuzzy” small spaces to a broader change in
power structures in society.

There are a lot of groups and individuals, including the young, who are attracted to these views
of civil society in the Philippines and a lot of reform efforts by non-Left social forces are
somehow akin to this view of societal actions, hence the objective should not be to alienate
them or isolate the Left from them, but to find a way to integrate them in a national radical
democracy project without sacrificing the “radical” character of the project.

In fact, the realization of the limits of the associational and counterweight views of civil society
has started to emerge as some societal groups are starting to recognize the necessity of
engaging the electoral arena for contestation of state power. There are also groups that are
attempting to connect their technical, networking and partnership works that build on small and
gradual changes with sudden political ruptures that are bound to happen due to the limitations
of truncated procedural democracy.

Ever since I came across radical democracy, I tried hard to somehow inform my personal and
professional choices, whenever they are available, using radical democracy. After Aksyon
Demokratiko “unofficially dissolved” in 2006, I joined Akbayan as an act of commitment to the
vision of socialism, although regrettably my organizational involvements are rather limited. At
the same time, I took the opportunity to work on anti-corruption and political reform advocacies
through Ateneo to maximize the small gains that can be achieved within the dominant political
paradigm with hope that in the process, there are bits and pieces that are built up towards our
common grand dream.

It is not easy; for like radical democracy I get to be branded with all sorts of things depending on
who is doing the branding, and there is a never-ending balancing work that tries to continuously
link the reform gains to the revolutionary dream. Sometimes you lose track. A lot of times, you
are confused. But in rare occasion such as this, you get to gather your thoughts and understand
yourself and what you do. There are also special moments that you feel the sublime.

I thank the Ateneo Press and Ms. Apple Oreta for giving me the opportunity to share my views
and ideas about this book and in the process, share a part of me to my friends in the Left.

Most importantly, I would like to commend Prof. Nathan Quimpo for his exemplary work. It is a
must-read for students and teachers of Political Science as well as for those working for reform
and revolution in the country. Like my husband, after reading the book, I became one of your
biggest fans.


Isaac, Francis. (1999). Radical Democracy: Towards the Creation of a Post-ND Paradigm.
Unpublished manuscript.

Laclau, Ernesto. (1993). “Democracy by Installments,” in Talking About Tomorrow: A New

Radical Politics. Stuart Wilks (ed.). Pluto Press: London and Boulder, Colorado.

Laclau, Ernesto and Chantal Mouffe. (2001). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a
Radical Democratic Politics. Verso: London and New York.

Mouffe, Chantal. (1993). “a Radical Left Project?” in Talking About Tomorrow: A New Radical
Politics. Stuart Wilks (ed.). Pluto Press: London and Boulder, Colorado.

Quimpo, Nathan Gilbert. (2008). Contested Democracy and the Left in the Philippines After
Marcos. Ateneo de Manila University Press: Quezon City.

Wilks, Stuart (ed.). (1993). Talking About Tomorrow: A New Radical Politics. Pluto Press:
London and Boulder, Colorado.