An Anarchist’s Viewpoint on the Akbayan/ Anakbayan Debate

by Melissa

I am struck by the ongoing (and recently very public) debate about power and the marginalized among the Left in the Philippines.

I appreciate this article that points out the need for critical thinking, for questions that disrupt complacency. I also appreciate her tone, the way she honors what she has learned and from whom. Anakbayan taught her to see power relations, to see that the marginalization of people- fisherfolk, farmers, urban poor, women, migrant workers and many others- is a persistent reality within a capitalist system. However, I think there’s a missing piece in her analysis.

We are talking about the party-list system: that is an avenue for representational politics. Thus we are not simply talking about power and power relations in our society, but questioning the complicated and important place of representation in our political movements.

Anakbayan asserts that because Akbayan members have positions in the current government (Rocamora in NAPC, Rosales in CHR) it is no longer marginalized and therefore ought to be disqualified from party-list candidacy. Akbayan does not deny its relative success in electoral politics. In that sense it is not marginal. However, it vehemently opposes that logic that suggests they are no longer representing the marginalized.

There is a slippage between two realms- marginalization in electoral politics and marginalization in everyday life. Are these the same? Of course being disenfranchised, having a marginal voice in the political process reflects and refracts the broader reality of being marginal. That is of being ‘subaltern’, defined as “unable to access lines of social mobility” (Spivak, 2005). However, the party-list system tries to rectify the fact of subalternity by providing an avenue for subaltern voices in politics. To engage in party-list politics is to agree, even momentarily, that the subaltern can be represented in the first place. And furthermore, that good representations “giving voice to the voiceless” can indeed shift power relations in everyday life.

On the surface, Anakbayan’s claim is that Akbayan as a party is no longer marginalized, and therefore cannot represent the marginalized. This is true only if the assumption is that the powerful cannot represent the marginalized.

Who is powerful? Who is marginalized?

These are important question. The debate has a lot to do with how we understand POWER. The farmer is marginalized in relation to the landowner in everyday life. As a result of this power, the privilege afforded the landowner, he is also empowered (through money, education, leisure time, social networks) in other spheres and can wield significant political power at the local, even national, level. But this power is not fixed. Secure in its truth. Rather this power is articulating across time and space. It needs to be constantly produced and legitimized. In other words, the landowner is not necessarily powerful and the farmer powerless across all spheres. If we concede that it is possible to build power, to become empowered (through money, education, leisure time, social networks), we acknowledge the possibility of disrupting the categories of powerful and marginalized. The dichotomy seems rather shallow in the complexity of our being.

Who can represent the marginalized?

Post-Colonial scholar Gayatri Spivak has a long career of thinking through this question. In her landmark “Can the Subaltern Speak” (1988) she challenges the idea that anyone (even post-colonials themselves) can represent identities and make recognizable subalternity without re-constraining the subaltern through narrow and static patterns of recognition. In this initial analysis her answer is NO ONE CAN REPRESENT ACCURATELY. IT IS NOT POSSIBLE TO REPRESENT THE MARGINALIZED IN ORDER TO INFLUENCE POWER RELATIONS. This, quite obviously, provides no way forward, no way of making claims at all. Interestingly, BAYAN’s initial position on the party-list system seemed to concur with this conclusion. However, their participation since 2001 in the party-list system signals a change in thinking, towards the idea that the marginalized can represent themselves.

In Spivak’s later work (2005) she attempts to hold onto a praxis of self-representation. The marginalized can represent themselves in particular places at particular times. She points to conditions which make possible political claims, specifically that representational politics must be accountable to a politics of participation. That is, structures of decision-making matter. Subaltern representations must engage the subaltern (the fisherfolk, farmers, women, migrant workers, etc). And moreover, representations ought to change and shift depending on self-understandings and political context. Thus, there can be no “accurate” representations. The language of “does not represent the masses” cannot be simply truth, tied to the firm knowledge of what and who are the masses (and who they are not). Rather a representational politics acknowledges that when we speak for others (whether we are one of them, or they are different from us) it remains a strategic invocation, limited by context and by the possibility of change itself.

For me, anarchist that I am, a representational politics is necessary in the struggle for change only IF the representation exists in relation to a vibrant and dynamic participatory process.

However, the question remains: which political groups (Akbayan and Anakbayan included) are truly engaging a participatory process within their respective representational politics?

(previously an FB note… but worth posting I suppose :))

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