WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

I.

Agustin Rodriguez wrote, back in 2009, that representing the marginalized will remain problematic as long as we do not recognize that they operate on a different rationality, a reality starkly different from our dominant modes of representing social reality (especially its noticeably Western and cosmopolitan modes of representation). The context behind his observation was the aftermath of the second EDSA People Power Revolution of 2001 which caused the downfall of President Joseph Ejercito “Erap” Estrada, a president who ran on a clear populist platform, claiming his close affinity and genuine concern for the masses.[1] The downfall of President Estrada saw a wave of reactionary protests by supporters of the deposed president who, by then, was facing multiple cases of graft and corruption. Supporters flocked to Erap’s residence to stage a vigil for the deposed president and denounce the prosecution as a vindictive act of selective justice imposed by the political elite against the ally of the masses. This political drama reached its climax when the supporters of the deposed president tried to stage their own EDSA People Power Revolution (mockingly referred to as “EDSA Tres”) and their own storming of Malacañan palace, an event marked by violence when police and security forces fired on the demonstrators. For Rodriguez, the reactionary demonstration at the aftermath of the second EDSA Revolution were attempts by the marginalized to express itself according to its own terms and assert its autonomy from an elite-led dominant mode of social representation.

The political language of the time was filled with appeals to the “masses”. President Estrada is an ally and defender of the masses (despite being part of the social elite and that the only semblance of Erap being a defender of the masses was of him portraying poor people in action movies); his political supporters call themselves the “Puwersa ng Masa” (Power of the People); EDSA Tres was the “EDSA Revolution of the masses”, led by the masses for the masses. The popular appeal of Erap’s presidency owed itself to the populist appropriation of leftist rhetoric. This historical malady became significant because of the reaction from the political mainstream: liberals and social democrats event the communist left denounced the demonstrations and disowned its participants.[2] For Rodriguez, the disparity between the masses who supported Erap and the reactions of the political mainstream prove that the masses by itself have their own modes of thinking—one that is characterized by its repressed outrage against the political system and a distinctively rural conservatism where social relations are built by system of mutual reciprocity and patriarchal and filial patronage. This is a mass totally different from the organized sector of workers, farmers, and urban poor who are part of the progressive and leftist sectors of Filipino politics. I leave it to sociologists and anthropologists to better described the specific details of the ethnic character of the “masses”. My primary concern lies on Rodriguez specific point: the masses, as the wholly Other of our political discourse, operate on a rationality (which in Lacanian terms can be read as a distinct symbolic system) that is different from the one that forms the set of representations of our democratic institutions. This resulted in the masses seeing the state as an intrusive entity that oppresses its daily life with concepts that it could not understand much less participate in.[3]

Between the state and the marginalized masses is an irreconcilable gap, wherein a minimal correlation can only be established by a fragile discursive action based on mutual respect and recognition that the Other could never be fully assimilated within the dominant system. Rodriguez is clearly aware of the place of his theory’s enunciation i.e. as a university discourse trying to produce a discourse of the unknowable and inconsistent entity that stands in clear contrast to dominant forms of political representation. For that reason, he is content with a simple ethical solution that maintains the otherness of the other (that it cannot be totalized) as a political constant.

I find this both problematic and radical at the same time. Rodriguez’s theory of the masses is problematic primarily because it sees the masses as a “hyperobject”. Speculative realists define hyperobjects as objects whose magnitude and properties always exceed human cognition and its structuring abilities (Timothy Morton); objects, therefore, have their own realities and sets of relations acting independently of cognitive and epistemological structures (Graham Harman). The same can be said of the marginalized masses: “a marginalized majority comprehends the world through the optics of its various rationalities.”[4] The masses possess their own cognitive mapping and, thus, have their own object-world, containing its own inside and outside.[5] This implies that we do not merely have multiplicities of rationalities, but multiplicities of technically irreconcilable realities in perpetual contradiction with each other.

Thus, when Rodriguez writes of the state, bureaucracy, and government mechanisms as being alien to the marginalized, he makes a disavowed admission of the contradiction between the marginalized and the democratic institutions that represent them. This is where we can find the radical aspect of Rodriguez’s position. He describes an uncomfortable political reality: we can no longer speak of the masses as the political agent capable of knowing its objective conditions and who can, based on such knowledge, properly express its demands and aspirations. Unfortunately, the masses exhibit a kind of masochistic jouissance that Jean-Francois Lyotard found in the English unemployed. “They enjoyed it, enjoyed the mad destruction of their organic body which was indeed imposed upon them, they enjoyed the decomposition of their personal identity, the identity that the peasant tradition had constructed for them, enjoyed the dissolution of their families and villages, and enjoyed the new monstrous anonymity of the suburbs and the pubs in morning and evening.”[6] Income inequality, precarious labor conditions, and the lack of robust systems of public services have made poverty an inescapable reality for the masses especially in the city and the provinces (intensified by feudal land ownership and primitive accumulation); faced with this grim reality the masses, limited by their cognitive mapping based on popular religiosity, traditional values, and filial patronage, see their condition as a vicious circle of temporary pleasures and constant poverty, a reality enforced by an unwavering faith in spiritual reward or with a fatal nihilism that builds up their repressed outrage against the system finding its expression in anti-social resentment.

For the above reasons, we can no longer ascribe to the masses the privileged political agency of insurrectionary and millenarian justice. The theoretical twist of the 21st century is that the much maligned populist wave gained its political legitimacy from the masses.

II.

            Poverty does not make the masses unaware of the objective conditions of their place in the capitalist economy; on the contrary, they fully know and experience the objective conditions of their situation, but they nonetheless see it as inevitable and unchanging reality that can only be altered by a power beyond themselves.

Thus what we lack is a proper conception of subjectivity. It could not be ascribed to the masses in its present condition, but in what it can be in the face of present political situations. A theory of subjectivity rejects any notion of political spontaneity from the margins. There is more to political agency that the act of intervention into the present state of things, it is a process by which agents, as a community, formulate and assert a conceptual structure for itself, one that it builds in clear contradiction from its present state.

Subjectivity as a technique of conceptual production holds that any act or a program for action, always emerges from the struggle of a community of subjects to build a conceptual notion for itself. Hence, neither an event nor the logic of the non-all can guarantee a subjective position; it is in the difficult struggle to define and maintain a communal stable conceptual notion that they become subjects. Consider the struggle of the urban poor led by members of Kadamay advocating for public housing, the struggle of the organized workers combatting precarious labor, unsafe work conditions, and low wages, or the struggle of the disenfranchised farmers demanding agrarian reform and access to agricultural technology; these struggles are not simply defined by the events that turn them to political subjects or by the mere discovery of their place as part of no part of the neoliberal economy. Their act of struggle by which the transcendental unity of capitalist ideology is destabilized, is formed by their struggle to conceptualize themselves in relation to the changes and conditions of political reality. Moments of failure and small success become points of struggle for subjects to examine and strengthen the conceptual notions of their communal identity.

Subjectivity as the constant struggle of a community to create and perceive themselves as conceptual artefacts demands more political hard work and competency among political agents. But isn’t the hard work and constant militancy the essence of emancipatory politics?

[1] This political rhetoric worked in 1998 when, during the administration of Fidel Ramos, a policy of privatization of public utilities (like water distribution, power generation and distribution) and economic deregulation led to the enrichment of the both the entrenched oligarchy and the new oligarchs (who emerged wealthy and politically absolved after the Marcos dictatorship) at the expense of the urban poor who face precarious employment and stagnant wages, made worst by weak public services.

[2] Agustin Martin Rodriguez, Governing the Other: Exploring the Discourse of Democracy in a Multiverse of Reason (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila Press, 2009), p. 200.

[3] Rodriguez 2009, 11.

[4] Rodriguez 2009, 42.

[5] Francis Wolff, Dire le Monde, pp. 11-12 quoted from Quentin Meillasoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), p. 6.

[6] Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy, trans. Iain Hamilton-Grant (London: Athlone, 1993), p. 214.

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WHEN MARGINALIZED RATIONALITIES REAR ITS UGLY HEAD: THE MASSES AS HYPEROBJECTS

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