First Thoughts on Perceptions and Belief

Mountain HDR, by blackbodypie, with Creative Commons licenceWhen my wife was a teenager she spent her days walking through the hills of her province, a grenade in her pocket, carrying messages for the local sugar workers’ union. The man who would become her first husband was a charismatic union organiser in the years before his untimely death, a leader of men. My wife’s sisters and brothers had all joined the movement, the Communist-led rebolusyon, in the desperate hope that things would change. Their ideology was less the maxims of Marx and Lenin and more a collection of social norms. They were working against the outrage of massive unemployment, poverty, malnutrition, subsistence-only wages and political exploitation in their own way. And then everything did change.

This was the Philippines under the Marcos dictatorship, just before people power, before the EDSA revolution in 1986 showed the world that enough people with enough hope could change the way of things peacefully.

An important point to realise about that revolution, the first ever to succeed in the Philippines, is that the Communists did not participate, and neither did most of the self-identified left. They simply isolated themselves from history. As with many successful revolutions, people power gave voice to middle class anger, was led by the disaffected amongst the upper classes, and changed an old land-holder regime for another, in the form of Corazon Aquino’s new administration.

Aquino’s ilk are known as trapos – traditional politicians – and they believe in market norms rather than social norms, even though many people would argue that patronage is their prime method of maintaining power. As a way of framing my initial thoughts about ideology in this post I’m drawing the distinction between market and social norms in line with Dan Ariely’s recently published Predictably Irrational. In previous posts I’ve argued that the market is a social system, which I still believe, but I want to suggest here that market norms can be defined by price in some way or another, and that social norms are determined by obligation. They might be part of the same overall system, but they’re definably different.

10 Pesos - S3is10Pesos, by Daniel Y. Go, with Creative Commons licenceI also want to argue that market norms alone cannot form a true ideology (capitalism, here, would be a mix of social and market norms). Relating that back to landholding trapos in the Philippines, who are often mired in corruption and are clearly manipulative of the political system, the pure market basis should be obvious.

Everything has a price, even life and death.

What happens to ideology when market norms clash with social norms? You might think that price-based market norms, the absence of ideology, would prevail, because a price always offers an incentive – to sell, to buy, to change or stay the same. But as Dan Ariely – a behavioural economist – shows, social norms are far more powerful than market norms. Ariely describes social experiments in which prices were placed on tasks to be performed. Those people who were asked to undertake the tasks as a favour or in exchange for a small gift were always more productive than those who were paid to do the same.

So, in a sense, the EDSA revolution was always going to be more powerful than the Marcos regime, which relied on massive graft – payments to cronies and their many supporters – to stay in power. But that revolution was led by trapos, who toyed awhile with social norms but then reverted to their old market-based ways.

Freedom, by carf, with Creative Commons licenceSo what of my wife’s family as the crowds spilled onto EDSA, as one regime fell and another took its place? What of those people who had clearly defined the social norms by which they would live, and had accepted an ideology as their guiding light? Communism, they called it, but it was probably closely to the Filipino concept of kalayaan, or freedom with social responsibility. They waited, they watched and then they took up arms again.

Not all things change quickly.

An ideology is never of a particular moment – it might be dominant or quiet for a while, but only its expression depends on circumstance. The underlying connections remain between ideas, the ways in which conclusions are drawn and the presence of an ideal endpoint. These things work quietly in the intermissions, helping discouraged people to maintain their social connections, providing a little hope.

Slum Village, by bullish1974, with Creative Commons licenceDuring the late 1980s, as the Aquino government stalled on land reform, failed to address poverty sufficiently and ignored the many private militias in my wife’s province – or any other, for that matter – disillusionment set in. The ideology still burned brightly, but the struggle of everyday life got in the way. Ideology can fracture into its component parts at times, break down into more concrete concerns about the ills of the world and reconstitute itself in different ways.

On the one hand, that could explain why so many former Marxists are now conservatives, and why Communism in China, for instance, might have taken two small steps and become Facism. But on the other hand it might just be that new concerns, new circumstances, call for different modes of action (rather than thought), and it’s not always apparent what to do next.

My wife left the movement in 1988 when she fell pregnant with her first child, now her eldest son. Other family members drifted out, unsure that they could do anything more. One brother joined a private militia. Comrades and friends surrendered to the government and moved on, some within the Philippines and others overseas. But ask them now what those days mean and they’ll point to the poverty, to the low wages and the political manipulation still abounding. We fought against this, they’ll say, because we had a better way.

ticking away the moments, by g.originals, with Creative Commons licenceWhen my wife and I were last in the Philippines I spoke to my brother-in-law about the rebolusyon and what it meant to him. He was, not incidentally, a party apparatchik in the 1980s, a theorist for whom ideology was a vital part of every day. He looked a little tired, and he speaks English with some difficulty, but he knew exactly what to say. By the end of the decade, he remarked, the movement was an idea whose time had gone.

Yet he still uses the pseudonym he was given all those years ago, when he joined the fray. He’s not nostalgic, just aware that old ideas should live on, somehow, some way. Tonight I asked my wife if she would do the same things again if circumstances changed, if she still believed now in the ideals she held dear then.

Her answer, in her own post-Communist way, was simple: “Of course”.

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