*this is the copy of a talk I gave on 26 January 2012 at “The Politics of Protest” conference at the University of Toronto.

ImageAs one of the organizers of this event, wrote on her FB wall the other day (in all caps no less):  “OK SERIOUSLY, LET’S HAVE A CONVERSATION ABOUT SOCIAL MOVEMENTS AND HOW THEY NEGOTIATE POWER AND PRIVILEGE!!”

Ok.  Lets.

So let me start by saying something very bluntly: White people ARE superior to people of colour.  Men ARE more important and more valuable than women.  And greed IS far superior to “love.”

Let’s not beat around the bush about should be’s or the use of non-oppressive language.

THIS is the society we live in.  THIS is reality.  You don’t like it?  Good.  Change it.

The first step is realizing that this ‘it’ is the societal system in which we live.  The system that gives advantage to a select few and use the rest as pawns.  A system that pits one group against the other so that neither realizes the true cause of their oppression.

To end the unjust use of power, and the unfair distribution of privilege we must face this head on.  And we must realize that we will face resistance from without AND within.  And we must have the strength to make the sacrifices and tough choices to overcome it.

Today I will be speaking about the 400+ year old Philippine movement.  I will speak about the differences I have personally noticed between these two nations, as a Filipino raised in Canada and politicized in the Philippines.

As you heard in the introduction I am the Toronto spokesperson for BAYAN.  BAYAN is an alliance of progressive movements from various sectors within the Filipino community (both there and abroad).  Think of BAYAN as the umbrella organization where women’s, worker’s, peasant’s, student’s, migrant’s, and other groups sit together to coordinate the overall strategy.

This is one of the big differences I noticed between Filipino and Canadian mainstream movements:  organization, a clear hierarchical structure, and a unified mission.

Another major difference is in societal analysis.  Philippine political history has been depressing for this Canadian raised kid to study.  But it is this same sad history that has led to our movement being held up as a model by many in the developing world (for you here, you’re forgiven for not knowing much about us, the Western media doesn’t tend to report on principled organized resistance).


Image from the Filipino-American War which began US colonization in 1899.

To put it simply, the history of Philippine resistance has taught us not only the need for unity, but also the failures that result from ignoring issues of class.

There is a placard I see at a lot of rallies here that really points to the difference in our analysis, it reads “The system is broken.”

We disagree.  We think the system is working just fine, it’s doing exactly what it needs to do to survive.  And as long as the movements here remain divided and at each others throats, it will continue to thrive.

Now I don’t want you to think that we don’t support the social movements here.  Take Occupy.  While we do have serious reservations about it, we support it for what it is:  a massive symbolic display of the discontent felt by the vast majority of the Canadian population.  The very fact that the masses are awakening to their oppression, to the injustice of the current system, is a great great thing.

Our fears are simply that we’ve seen this before in our own history.  We’ve seen how unorganized, unfocused discontent can be co-opted.  We’ve seen how ignoring the interplay of interests within different sectors of society ends.  And to jump ahead: it doesn’t end well.

Let’s come back to this in a bit.

Right now let me tell you about the relationship between the Phils and Canada; then let’s talk about the current situation in the Philippines; and finally let’s talk about how all that came to be.  Through this I will share with you all some of our failures and lessons because they have parallels here and now.

The Philippines has been the number one supplier of migrants (and especially temporary workers) to Canada since 2007.  On the other hand Canada is the number one supplier of ruthless mining operations to the Philippines resulting in human and environmental rights violations, and the forced displacement of people—which of course serves Canada’s need for cheap labour here well.


photo by a.felipe

At this time 30% of the country (and 66% of the mountainous Cordillera region—home to many indigenous peoples) has been expropriated for mining.  The Toronto Stock Exchange alone trades 75% of the world’s mining stocks.  Needless to say, mining a big part of Canada’s economic ‘success’ story.  The Philippines, on the other hand survives economically only due to the remittances of it’s biggest export: people.  Everyday about 4000 people leave to find work abroad.

Unrest is high in this semi-feudal, semi-colonial nation.  Since the ouster of the dictator Marcos in an unarmed peoples uprising that has a modern day reflection in the Arab Spring movements, the country has consistently been in the top 8 most dangerous countries for a journalist to work, often times it’s in the top 1, 2, or3, and in 2009 it had the single biggest killing of journalists in one day: 34.

Deathsquads are very active, with almost 1300 political assassinations since 2001.  Even the UNs Special Rapporteur Philip Alston had to admit that all evidence points to these killings being planned and coordinated by the government and it’s military.  A government and military supported by Canadian aid money, and trained by the Canadian armed forces.


In the past year since the new president was inaugurated about 60 have been killed.  And this is not due to stop soon.  For example, in December last year he made it legal for mining companies to have their own armed civilian militias.

Philippine society is and has always been divided by extreme class differences.

The vast majority of the people are peasant farmers that don’t own the land they til.  They work as serfs for semi-feudal landlords, the countries elites, including the family of current president Aquino.

The top 1% own virtually everything, and the rest fight for the scraps—or more likely, fight to get out of the country just so they can feed their children.  There are virtually no Philippine-owned industries due to trade policies controlled by Washington.

The Philippines is a microcosm of how global capitalism works.  It can also be seen as a glimpse of the global future–as capitalism is running out of foreign markets to exploit and so is forced to exploit from within.

*  *  *

I first studied Philippine history during my first trip back to the country in 2001.  It was also the year I became politicized.

I lived with my uncle and his family for four months.  They lived as squatters next to active rail tracks in Manila.  It was a simple home of scavenged cinderblocks, plywood, and corrugated iron built over a canal for sewage.  I lived there with four adults, four children, two dogs, and countless rats and roaches.

It was there that I found an old tattered history textbook.  It was there that I read about our history while every half an hour the house shook as the train rumbled by.  It was there that I learned what political change needed to accomplish if it were to be effective.

I learned that if there was one benefit that emerged from the invasion and conquest by Spain, it was unity.  It was the concept of nationhood.  During the 300+ years of Spanish rule there were non-stop rebellions, each eventually squashed for the same reason the Spanish were able to take the country in the first place:  without unity we ended up fighting ourselves.


Image by Michael Dalupo

The revolution of 1896 was the turning point.  It was then that we became a people.  It was no longer singular uprisings that could be crushed by using other segments of the population against the rebels.

This revolution resulted in the defeat of Spain.  The first Asian republic was born in the Philippines.  It was first time a Western power was defeated in the Eastern hemisphere.

But this too was crushed.

Because though we found our unity as a people—we did not yet realize that even within a people there are divisions.  We didn’t yet realize that class distinctions mattered.

The leader of the people’s revolution, Andres Bonifacio, was assassinated on the command of the leader of the elite segment of the revolution, Emilio Aguinaldo (who would become the Philippines 1st president).  The assassin was Major Lazaro Macapagal—an ancestor of two later presidents: Diosdado Makapagal (1957-61) and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (2001-2010).

And so this revolution of the people was coopted by the native elite who sold the aspirations of the many out to the Americans (they never wanted a revolution in the first place, until Spain forced their hand).  The Americans then rewarded them with titles and riches—but for the people things just got worse.

The tale of this cooption reverberates to this day.

This story alone has relevance in the West.  Today social movements are getting louder and stronger.  This is good.  This we support.  But this also causes us some worry.

Like our failed revolution, I can see the same errors being made.  In the hope for greater unity seen in the populist slogan “We are the 99%” we forget that the 99% do not share the same interests—and that these interests will cause division, these divisions exist now—and they will be worse later.

So yes.  Let’s talk about movements, power, and privilege.

Power and privilege are defined by the system that supports them.  In our society, power and privilege are borne of the needs of modern capitalism, a system that runs on class interests.  Let’s not forget this when we talk about social change.  Let’s not shy away from this fact lest we offend or divide “the 99%.”

Because the 99% IS divided.

Do we rage at the injustice of the current state of power and privilege?  Good.  We should.  But let’s not get distracted.  Let’s end this by striking at the heart of the issue.

Too often in progressive circles I hear the conversations on power and privilege move toward talking about non-oppressive language, or making small changes to the benefit of one group over another—but at the end of the day the system of oppression still exists.

ImageTake the Western Feminist movement.  It has had some very great successes.  In the past decades women are becoming more and more visible in the workforce, and in higher status jobs, pay is becoming more and more equitable—yet is this a success for all women?

I don’t think I’m alone in the audience in saying no.  While white women have seen growing advantages my brown and black sisters exist in varying states of feminist prehistory.

White women see more and more decent work/pay, while my Filipina sisters are forced to work 24/7 in the home of their employers for less than minimum wage.  Being in a private home, no one sees how they are treated, and if they should dare complain of abuse it’s their word against that of upstanding professionals in the community.

So yes.  Let’s talk about power and privilege.  But let’s not go at this piecemeal.  Let’s ask ourselves:

–       Who has the power?  And why?

–       How did this power come about?

–       Whose interests does it serve?  Who benefits?

–       Instead of just railing against the unfairness, let’s try to understand why this unfairness is advantageous for some, and why (in their place) you too might be reluctant to relinquish it.

–       And after this comes the big questions:  What should be done, what sacrifices will we have to make, and are we willing to make them?


For us in the Philippine movement, we understand our enemy: imperialism, the dictatorship of the elites, and the system created to support this.

In the Philippines this fight has two forms.  There is the organized legal movement led by Bayan and the allied orgs that make it up.  But there is also a second movement that complements it: the armed movement led by the Communist Party of the Philippines and their military wing the Bagong Hukbong Bayan.

We fully understand why this exists.  Our people have suffered under foreign control since the 16th century, and the continued failure of the government to work for the benefit of the people, and worse, the realization that they have absolutely no interest in doing so, has led the people to again take up arms.

What is interesting about the armed movement is that it too is organized.  It’s not a bunch of armed women and men that randomly seek out revenge, they follow the international parameters of war, and are internationally recognized as careful to avoid unnecessary casualties. They’re in the countryside politically organizing the people and consolidating areas of control were democracy finally rules and that exists outside the Philippine government.  This state of war has existed in this form since 1969 and it’s growing.

For us in the legal movement we share this frustration and anger at the state of life in our home nation, and we share the desire for a truly free, and truly democratic country.  And here in Canada we recognize that we must stand with our Canadian sisters and brothers in the working class—with one difference: we see the root causes of our struggle originating in the Philippines.  We are here because we were violently forced out of our country by imperialism, and the interests of their local puppets.

So yes, let’s talk about power and privilege.  But more than that, let’s do something about it.

ImageMany of you feel the same.  For my kababayans, we hope you’ll consider joining with us.  And for our Canadian allies we urge you support us, but to focus your fight here, in Canada, for true democracy, for true equality.

This is the best way for you to support the global struggle.

Again to our Canadian sisters and brothers:  organize yourselves, study, learn, and once you move beyond simple discontent, act.

Don’t be afraid to call out your oppressor by name.  And don’t forget that there cannot be consensus amongst the 100% or even the 99% because class differences do exist, and justice is not in everyone’s interest.

Confronting and overcoming power and privilege will be very difficult even, or let me say ESPECIALLY, for us in the movement.

Let me paraphrase George Orwell:

We all rail against [inequality,] but very few people seriously want to abolish [it].  Here you come upon the important fact that [many] revolutionary opinion[s] draws part of its strength from a secret conviction that nothing can be changed…

The fact that has got to be faced is that to abolish class distinctions means abolishing part of yourself. 

Here am I, a typical member of the middle class.  It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of [inequality,] but nearly everything I think and do is a result of [my class]…”

Are you willing to face this truth?  If not.  Then you might as well admit to yourself that your struggle will change little for the majority—that your fight is just for you and yours.

It is the time for all of us to look deep inside at what we truly believe in, in what kind of world we want, and what kind of sacrifices we are willing to smilingly endure in order to make it real.

Makibaka Huwag matakot. 

Thank you.

– – –

alex felipe

BAYAN-Canada, Toronto spokesperson / Anakbayan-Toronto organizer