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Anti-fascism in the Philippines: Back to the 1980s

Daniel Rudin

Platypus Review 149 | September 2022

LIBERAL PARTY VOTERS IN the Philippines, like the Democrats in the United States, seldom admit the project with which they have long been associated — neoliberalism — is in terminal crisis.[1] Walden Bello is one of the few Filipino Leftists who recognizes both the historical character of the crisis and the extent to which the “center-Left’s” association with neoliberalism “tarnished the progressive spectrum as a whole.”[2] While the Left failed to make good on a state of affairs to which, as neoliberalism's most ardent critic, it had contributed, the same is not so for Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.[3]

Duterte took up the project of overthrowing the status quo that the Left had begun.[4] He appropriated the anti-globalization movement’s demands for protective tariffs, the labor movement’s anti-contractual campaign,[5] and even invited members of the Left associated with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) into his cabinet. The alliance quickly collapsed, leading World Socialist Web Site writer Joseph Scalice to condemn the CPP’s opportunism.[6] In response, CPP founder Joma Sison accused Scalice and other “Trotskyite wreckers” of discrediting and thus preventing it from opposing Duterte’s drug war.[7]

Bello interprets Duterte’s (short-lived) détente with the Left as proof of his “fascist originality.” Duterte is a charismatic authoritarian resting on a “heated” multiclass base allowing for the “violation of basic human, civil, and political rights” in contradiction with “liberal democracy or social democracy.”[8] Duterte’s middle-class base leads the “larger stratum” of the working class and poor in “passive consent”[9] — much like Italian fascism, where the “middle strata” waged a counterrevolution against an insurgent Italian Socialist Party.[10] Rather than repressing socialism (a politics notably absent today), Duterte represents a broader counterrevolution against the liberal democratic consensus.[11] This recalls Samuel Huntington, for whom the “third wave” democratization (1974–90) of authoritarian states like the Philippines was in danger of being reversed, as in the 1920s and 1960s.[12] Is today’s counterrevolution against the revolutionary “third wave”?

Not exactly. Bello considers neoliberalism as a crisis that is both objective — the financial recession of 2008 — and subjective, the “popular alienation from the system.”[13] The latter, subjective response was delayed in America, where disappointment and defeat under Obama consolidated neoliberalism’s mandate.[14] The Left’s hopes for a new “New Deal” were based on a perceived potential in Obama’s electoral base that “cut across class, color, gender, and generational lines.”[15] Yet the Party's identity-group constituencies (blacks-gays-women) were at variance with its labor “Left.” The Democrats had no interest in mobilizing a broad popular vote that would threaten the integration of the coalition’s component parts.[16]

In the Philippines, the ruling Liberal Party — to which Bello's own Citizen’s Action Party (Akbayan) tied its fortunes — drew only “fragile legitimacy” from its middle-class base. As Aquino's “liberal bloc” collapsed, Bello resigned from his position in Congress — and Akbayan. Bello has since urged progressives to forgo compromise with “dying neoliberalism.”[17] Yet neoliberalism is conceptually opaque, “often substituting for capitalism itself.”[18] Perhaps this explains why Bello, on the one hand, argues the “ideological scaffolding” of the “EDSA republic”[19] has imploded but, on the other hand, considers the “substance and discourse of liberal democracy” to be under attack. Yet the 1987 constitution established under Aquino is by no means defunct, and the “liberal bloc” was not liberal but rather neoliberal — which is a politics of state capitalism.

Fascism or populism?

Max Horkheimer wrote that “whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism.”[20] The Marxist vision is one in which the proletariat, by abolishing itself, abolishes capitalism.[21] Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is no longer any use for political force. The governing of people is replaced by the administration of things, and the state withers away. In contrast, advocacy for democracy and “the people” is not the latter’s abolition but rather “the abolition of aristocracy and clergy” such that the Third Estate becomes the Nation.

It is in the “Rousseauian” (rather than Marxist) vein that Filipino Leftists rally “the people,” usually through “the autopoiesis of its rebellious political culture.”[22] Bello’s first book credits the nationalist Renato Constantino and Filipino Maoist Joma Sison as inspiration. Constantino argues “the people” develop nationalism via an anti-American “counter-consciousness.” For Sison, “the people” is a popular front of four classes that is simultaneously anti-feudal in clearing away pre-modern vestiges, anti-imperialist in its attack on the comprador bourgeoisie, and anti-fascist in its struggle against the military regime.

The CPP — an underground organization largely dismissive of bourgeois politics — thought it was leading the liberals. Yet its united front proved useless during the 1986 the military revolt, that triggered the “people power” uprising. The massive wins of elite politicians in the 1986 and 1987 elections were driven by “money, high media visibility, leftist ambivalence, and the continuing strong influence of patron-client relationships.”[23] Elite politicians achieved hegemony by gaining control of institutions and the mass media to secure “a strong degree of legitimacy among the ruled.”[24] Elections mobilized the masses rather than the Left.

While human-rights violations intensified during Cory Aquino’s tenure, “elite democracy” was deemed an advancement over not only Marcos but the CPP, which had trampled upon the independence and non-identity of civil society organizations to the Party. The latter’s instrumentalist view of society manifested in its idea of “class justice,” something one deserved by having the correct politics or “by virtue of their membership in the right classes.”[25] The notion of universal human rights was a panacea to the cynicism and groupthink that fueled the Party’s bloody self-immolation in a late 1980s purge. Bello, a leading figure among the Rejectionists (RAs) that bolted from the CPP, conceived of the Left as a civil-society force that would be able to “alter the exercise of state power.”[26] Mass movements would no longer be secretly steered by party cadre but affect “the formal structure of the state to make it less resistant to the attainment of the people’s interests.”[27]

As an alternative to the CPP, Bello and other RAs first created Bukluran sa Ikauunlad ng Sosyalistang Isip at Gawa (Movement for the Development of Socialist Thought and Action), then the less explicitly socialist Akbayan. According to Akbayan’s ideologue, Ronald Llamas, the organization was “something in between an electoral party and a political party”[28] without a traditional bailiwick but with a national “spread which enabled us to win.”[29] By Noynoy Aquino’s 2010 election, Llamas was appointed presidential advisor, while Bello became a congressperson.

How was Akbayan drawn into a position of opposing first elite democracy, then neoliberalism, to one of acting as its handmaiden? For Tamás, The Left’s anti-fascist resistance prevented Marxian politics by legitimating the modernization of the Third World and Fordist welfare statism.[30] The communists blessed FDR’s “progressive” Democratic Party with the aspirations of socialism in order to “fight the right.” [31] Today, it is through resistance thatthe Left opposes neoliberalism as a pressure tactic, while capitalist politics leads the Left “in identifying neoliberalism with liberalism per se.”[32]

By the logic of anti-fascism, Duterte contradicts the “values and aims of liberal democracy.” Yet Bello’s recent arrest for “cyberlibel” has occurred under a law signed into effect by the “liberal” Ninoy Aquino. While the persecution must be denounced — the alleged victim was a former aid of Sara Duterte — Bello’s failure to equally oppose the Liberals must be noted. His anti-Duterte and now, anti-Marcos demagogy reprises 1980s-style resistance while preserving the ideological contours (and Left-Liberal orientation) of the 1930s-40s anti-fascist popular front.[33]

Instead of anti-fascism, Bello's junior colleague and former Akbayan comrade, Lisandro Claudio, has argued for a 1950s–60s liberalism that is “bureaucratic, a boring pencil-pushing process” for “brokering conflict and managing bargains.”[34] Claudio correctly notes Mussolini’s fascism combined Right-wing authoritarianism with a socialist-style mass party. By contrast, Duterte belonged to the Maoist youth group Makabayan Kabataan and was secretly an anti-Marcos activist that Cory Aquino appointed as Officer in Charge (OIC) of Davao. If, as Bello claims, Noynoy Aquino’s presidency was the last gasp of the republic established under his mother Cory,[35] then Duterte was the last man, the dregs, of EDSA democracy.

Claudio considers Duterte a populist.[36] From this perspective, Duterte’s attack on the Liberals is less a rejection of liberal values than the “elite democracy” that Ferdinand Marcos had repressed. It is well known that the elite looked down their noses at Marcos and in particular his wife Imelda as tacky nouveau riche. By contrast, the Aquinos belong to alta sociedad. They descend from Chinese mestizos who established themselves during the Spanish colonial regime and “consolidated their wealth with political power under the Americans”[37] — typically as landed agricultural exporters. Following WWII, these “caciques” used the legislature to access government finance,[38] war reparations, foreign exchange allocations, and the American market. The state was weak, the oligarchy strong. Like Marcos Sr., Duterte is a provincial upstart, and who can blame him when he thumbs his nose at elite hypocrisy? Bongbong inherits Duterte’s populist appeal.

While less credulous than claims of fascism, Claudio’s “populism” analysis misses Bello’s insights into the crisis of neoliberalism as a form of politics. For Bello, fascism contradicts liberal democracy. The contradiction corresponds to the Marxist concept of Bonapartism, which is not merely authoritarianism per se but democracy in contradiction with liberalism as a function of capitalism.


For American political theorist and Trotskyist James Burnham, Bonapartism is by no means undemocratic but instead is democracy’s historical product. The plebiscite — used following Marcos’s declaration of martial law to legitimate the 1973 constitution — is, for Burnham, the perfection of democracy: “The Bonapartist leader can regard himself, and be regarded, as the quintessential democrat; his despotism is simply the omnipotent people ruling and disciplining itself.”[39] The popular legitimacy Burnham would accord Ferdinand Marcos — first as an elected president, then through plebiscites and (poorly contested) elections — is not generally held by Filipino Leftists. For Francisco Nemenzo, another of Bello’s former comrades, the Marcos regime leveraged executive fiat to “ensure a favorable climate for foreign investments.”[40] Nemenzo argued that so long as the Philippines remained dependent on America, it would be “forever trapped in a vicious cycle of weak constitutional regimes and Bonapartist dictatorships.” The only way out of the situation was to “get out of dependency.”[41]

Bello hesitates to apply the label of fascist to Marcos Sr., for whom “there was no immediate revolutionary threat.”[42] Bello prefers instead to emphasize the Marcosian development state’s predatory character. His crucial insight into the “development debacle” focused not on Marcos’s authoritarianism but the 1980s crisis of the World Bank’s neo-Keynesianism. Bello has been one of the staunchest critics of neoliberal advocacy for the “dismantling of developmental states in much of the South.”[43] The neoliberal “Volker shock” reined in inflation but had damaging consequences during the 1980s Third World debt crisis. “People power” was a democratic rebellion against neo-Keynesian technocratic mismanagement.[44] The same concerns are hardly attributed to Duterte, whose political strategy Bello considers “the classic fascist way of balancing different class forces while projecting an image of being above class conflict.”[45]

More than fascism, Bello’s definition encapsulates Marxian Bonapartism. Marx noted that in the 1848 Revolution, the rule of the bourgeoisie failed, while the proletariat was not yet able to take power. In the vacuum, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte — Napoleon’s nephew — emerged, rising above society to balance the different and competing social forces. Bonapartism did not merely suppress “the people” but harnessed the masses' activity.

For Leon Trotsky, “every bourgeois democracy bears the features of Bonapartism,” within which the dominant class is “compelled to tolerate . . . the uncontrolled command of a military and police apparatus over it.”[46] Marxists define the state as “special bodies of armed men.” Bonaparte’s Society of December 10, the Italian fascist brigades, or the constabulary and military for Marcos, mediate class conflict and social disintegration by force or the threat thereof, with society’s consent. The crisis of bourgeois society necessitates a form of state power to manage capitalism against liberal democracy.

Paradoxically, the dependista nationalist, before pledging allegiance to his country of origin, pays homage to the American revolution. Bello has noted the fealty of Filipino nationalists to American-style liberalism, which “brought them into conflict with the American state.” Their vision derived from the American revolutionaries — “whose bond of solidarity was not shared ethnicity or the same blood but common intellectual and ethical adherence to a set of ideas called democracy.”[47] In contrast, the New Deal was a social regime underwriting a national Keynesian “economics of growth.”[48] Keynes rested on Roosevelt — the latter was, after all, not a mere policy wonk or bureaucrat but at the head of a national coalition — a “three-legged stool” of “big labor, big capital, and big government.”[49] Postwar social democracy — the Fordist welfare state — contradicted classical liberalism.

History and helplessness

Like the crisis of the New Deal coalition, the crisis of neoliberalism is most legible as a political crisis. Duterte, like Trump (and Regan in the 1980s and FDR in the 1930s), was called “fascist,” as if democracy were collapsing. Stigmatizing the anti-globalization Right as “populists” or “fascists” has a specific demagogical function — delegitimizing elections — which obscures the fact that capitalism is reconstructed through democracy.[50]

Duterte can be seen as post-neoliberal in terms of political realignment[51] such that the administration of capitalism continues through the “Right” rather than the “Left.” Duterte’s outstretched fist is not a fascist gesture but a halfway Red Salute. The hysterical anti-fascist condemnation of Duterte, by which the Left merely makes recommendations to the Liberal Party on how to defeat the Right, will eventually give way — if not under the newly elected Bongbong Marcos, then his successor — to explanations for the new status quo. Abnegating responsibility to critique the present, the Left instead plays catch up.[52]

Missing in opposition to Duterte is a recognition of how the Left’s wounds were self-inflicted. Neoliberalism institutionalized “social and political demobilization,” while the privatization of state functions via NGOs has not revivified civil society but has sapped politics of “any substantial forces for reform since the 1980s.”[53] To reimagine resistance to neoliberalism as the loss of liberalism may authorize a 1930s–40s anti-fascism but will not make good on nor illuminate the defeats of the 1980s. “Doing the right thing” expresses helplessness in the face of history.[54] |P

[1] The Democratic Party is not analogous to the Liberal Party (LP) as Filipino politics are personality driven and party discipline largely absent. Nevertheless, the Liberals are closely associated with the 1986 uprising that deposed Ferdinand Marcos and swept Cory Aquino into power. Aquino was leader of the Liberal Party; the “L” or “laban” (fight) sign that was flashed by her supporters became synonymous with the LP.

[2] Walden Bello, “The Far Right: Formidable but Not Unbeatable,” Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy 9, no. 3 (2020): 390.

[3] Walden Bello, “Requiem for the EDSA Republic,” Positively Filipino, June 29, 2016, available online at <>: “Duterte’s victory was a “defiant repudiation of the EDSA regime’s corrupt electoral circus.”

[4] Spencer Leonard, on the panel “Marxism and liberalism,” hosted during the 2022 Platypus International Convention at the University of Chicago, April 1, 2022, the video of which is available online at <>.

[5] Bello, “Requiem for the EDSA Republic.”

[6] Joseph Scalice, “First as Tragedy, Second as Farce: Marcos, Duterte and the Communist Parties of the Philippines,” World Socialist Web Site, September 1, 2020, available online at <>. Duterte was supported as a paragon of intensifying (progressive and anti-people) contradictions, then opposed as fascist once the peace talks broke down. For an example of this argument, see National People’s Summit, “Duterte’s First 100 days: Significant achievements, intensifying contradictions” (October 5, 2016), available online at <>.

[7] Joma Sison, interviewed by Anghelo Godino, PRISM, September 9, 2020, available online at <>.

[8] Walden Bello, “Rodrigo Duterte: A Fascist Original,” in The Duterte Reader, ed. Nicole Curato (Quezon City: Bughaw, 2017), 78.

[9] Bello, “The Far Right,” 395.

[10] Walden Bello, “Counterrevolution in the Countryside,” The Journal of Peasant Studies 45, no. 1 (2017): 25–26.

[11] Ibid., 50.

[12] Samuel P. Huntington, “Democracy’s Third Wave,” Journal of Democracy 2, no. 2 (Spring 1991): 12. The 1820s–1920s and 1940s–1950s were the first two “waves.”

[13] Walden Bello, “The Race to Replace a Dying Neoliberalism,”, July 7, 2020, available at <>.

[14] Chris Cutrone, “The Sandernistas: The final triumph of the 1980s,” Platypus Review 82 (December 2015 – January 2016), available online at <>: “Far from a crisis for neoliberalism, neoliberalism has been further consolidated against any contenders. This is a lesson for Sanders’s supporters: when Hillary is elected by primary voters as the Democratic Party candidate for President, they will have chosen and given a mandate to neoliberalism.”

[15] Walden Bello, Capitalism’s Last Stand? Deglobalization in the Age of Austerity (London: Zed Books, 2013),83.

[16] Cutrone, “The Sandernistas.”

[17] Bello, “Dying Neoliberalism.”

[18] Chris Cutrone, on the panel “The crisis of neoliberalism,” held on February 18, 2017, during the Platypus Affiliated Society’s third European Conference at the University of Vienna, the transcript of which can be found in Platypus Review 96 (May 2017), available online at <> and <>.

[19] So-called for the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue on which the public converged with military rebels to overthrow the Marcos government in 1986.

[20] Max Horkheimer, “The Jews and Europe,” in Critical Theory and Society, eds. Stephen Eric Bronner and Douglas Mackay Kellner (New York: Routledge, 1989), 92.

[21] G. M. Tamás, “Telling the Truth About Class,” Socialist Register 42 (2006): 2, available online at <>.

[22] Tamás, “Telling the Truth,” 2.

[23] Walden Bello and John Gershman, “Democratization and stabilization in the Philippines,” Critical Sociology 17, no. 1 (1990): 42–43.

[24] Bello and Gershman, “Democratization,” 51.

[25] Walden Bello, “The Crisis of the Philippine Progressive Movement,” Philippine Alternatives (August–September 1992): 174.

[26] Walden Bello, “The dual crisis of the Philippine Progressive Movement,” in Reexamining and Renewing the Philippine Progressive Vision, eds. John Gershman and Walden Bello (Quezon City: Forum for Philippine Alternatives, 1993), 17–18.

[27] Ibid., 21–22.

[28] Ken Fuller, The Lost Vision: The Philippine Left 1986–2010 (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2015), 423.

[29] Fuller, The Lost Vision, 425.

[30] Tamás, “Telling the Truth,” 9–10.

[31] Leonard, “Marxism and liberalism.”

[32] Ibid.

[33] Walden Bello, “Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Is a Wildly Popular Fascist Now what?,” The Nation, January 9, 2017, available online at <>: “The only certainty members of the anti-fascist front can count on is that they are doing the right thing.”

[34] Lisandro Claudio, Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines (Quezon City: National University of Singapore Press, 2017), 7. This would appear to be a nostalgia for the New Deal, an apparent alternative to both the nationalist model as well as the Liberal Party’s austerity regime under Noynoy Aquino.

[35] Bello, “Requiem.”

[36] Lisandro Claudio, “Basagan ng Trip with Leloy Claudio: Is Duterte a dictator, a fascist, or a populist?,” Rappler, December 6, 2017, available online at <>.

[37] Benedict Anderson, “Cacique Democracy and the Philippines: Origins and Dreams," New Left Review 169 (May/June 1988): 3–31.

[38] Alfred W. McCoy, “A Tale of Two Families: Generational Succession in Filipino and American Family Firms,” TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia 3, no. 2 (2015): 185.

[39] James Burnham, The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom (Washington: Gateway Editions, 1987), 268.

[40] Francisco Nemenzo Jr., “Dependency and Liberation: Focus on the Third World,” Philippine Political Science Journal 5, no. 7 (1978): 120.

[41] Ibid., 127.

[42] Bello, “Counterrevolution in the Countryside,” 48.

[43] Walden Bello, “The capitalist conjuncture: over-accumulation, financial crises, and the retreat from globalization,” Third World Quarterly 27, no. 8 (2006): 1348.

[44] Walden Bello, The Development Debacle: The World Bank in the Philippines (San Francisco: Institute for Food and Development Policy, 1982), 206.

[45] Bello, “Counterrevolution in the Countryside,” 52.

[46] Leon Trotsky, “Again on the Question of Bonapartism,” Writings of Leon Trotsky, vol. 7, 1934–1935 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971), 206–09.

[47] Walden Bello, review of Lisandro Claudio’s Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines, Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 33, no. 3 (November 2018): 689.

[48] The Platypus Historians Group, “Friedrich Hayek and the legacy of Milton Friedman: Neo-liberalism and the question of freedom (In part, a response to Naomi Klein),” Platypus Review 8 (November 2008), available online at <>.

[49] David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (Malden: Blackwell Publishers, 1990), 142.

[50] Cutrone, “The crisis of neoliberalism.”

[51] Due to the perennial lack of political party discipline in Philippine politics, this is in some ways more obscure than in the United States. Nevertheless, the so-called “liberal bloc” most certainly collapsed soon after the 2016 election, when it deserted over into Duterte’s coalition.

[52] Cutrone, “The crisis of neoliberalism.”

[53] Chris Cutrone, “The Sandernistas.”

[54] Moishe Postone, “History and Helplessness,” Public Culture 18, no. 1 (2006): 93–110.