The Science of People Power: Lessons from Arabia

The 22nd anniversary of 1986 is tomorrow. It has become a buzzword as of late, but what exactly is this “new people power” they’re talking about? And will it work? A 14th century Arab historiographer holds the answer when he first deciphered the rise and fall of empires.

Our country today is under siege by two forces. First is the state, which through the mechanism of transactional politics, has ensured the loyalty of the military, the police and bolstered an economy that a critical mass in the middle class wishes to protect. The middle class is splintering however.

Another force is the growing movement for accountability, truth and to an extreme, regime change. This movement brings together civil society, student groups, interest groups, and eventually, the most militant left. But which force will prevail?

Writing in 1377, Arab historiographer Abd-ar-Rahman Abu Zaid ibn Muhammad ibn Khaldun — or Ibn Khaldun for short — holds the answer. He developed one of the earliest and most sophisticated historical theories about the rise and fall of states, and introduced a quantity, asabiya or group solidarity, to put forward the idea that groups that work well together can develop more sophisticated societies and are therefore superior to groups with lower asabiya.

This theory — an excellent example of how historical continuity is used as an analytical tool — translates very well across time and space. It delves into how tribal groups with high concentrations of asabiya coalesce into a powerful supertribe, and it also explains how well-established dynasties and empires lose their hold on power over time and eventually become vulnerable to conquest by another supertribe.

Though we have long moved away from tribalism (or have we?), the historical forces remain the same. At the center we have the government of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. At the peripheries we have small and fractured movements for accountability and truth but they are slowly coalescing to form a larger group. But what will it take for revolution to occur?

First of all, Ibn Khaldun’s theory is founded on the premise that a state is formed around a group with high asabiya. In our modern democratic state, this group would have to be our government and its capacity to mobilize its resource and people. There has to be a oneness of purpose and a unity in direction. Asabiya is protected by keeping the integrity of the different institutions that bind people together — religion, law, education, public services, the military and government itself.

Looking at how the regime of President GMA is able to consistently weather controversies and resignation calls, we can say that the government has high asabiya. This concept is not specific about how power is held onto however, and thus “executive privilege”, the suppression of dissent, and the purchase of political allies all seem to be viable means of holding on to power. But to what end? We know that corruption in the system is rife. Patronage and rent-seeking dominate Philippine politics. It is to this end that Ibn Khaldun has a suggestion to make with regards to the role of luxury in government.

He posits that the use and pursuit of “luxury” by the core group is integral in keeping high asabiya though it has its limits. While in the earlier generations of leaders luxury may be used to amplify power, later generations of leaders are more susceptible to its corruptive effects. Wealth has a corrosive effect on power. It leaves a state vulnerable to corruption and decay.

Furthermore, the concept of luxury can be taken into a wider social context; consider economic wealth and privilege. Smaller societies at the beginning of human history had simpler governments that were able to distribute wealth more equitably. Asabiya also remained high and was more easily maintained. However, after society shifts from an agrarian to an industrial economy, the distribution of wealth also begins to skew. Populations swell and the state shrinks relative to the number of its citizens. Inequality grows and wealth is centered to an elite few. Social classes emerge, and asabiya is splintered into different spheres. Society may no longer be as cohesive and it requires an efficient and responsive state machinery to keep it intact.

Therefore, when that state machinery is inept and unresponsive, the alternative sources of asabiya at the periphery begin to coalesce and threaten to take over the center. This is what’s happening now.

From the theory of Ibn Khaldun, we can derive lessons for our current situation. We must realize that the government and its opponents are locked in a war of attrition. The former struggles to keep the machine running while the latter struggles to gather steam. Some say that it will only be a matter of time before all the calls for communal action, truth and accountability and regime change coalesce into a force large enough to supplant the current regime. I don’t think it’s just a matter of time; it’s also a matter of persistence and perseverance from these groups (which I’ve talked about in an article yesterday, Truth and Consequences) since the center, though disconnected from everyone else, is firmly entrenched.

Thus some also say that it is only a matter of time before the transactional machine of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo — even Ibn Khaldun recognizes that luxury is finite — breaks down and all those loyal to her defect and damn the regime. But if it is a matter of time then it will be a long time. Government coffers apparently run deep and the administration has shown no quarter yet as to the extent it is willing to buy off (or kill off) its opponents and placate its allies. Nonetheless, that will only be self-defeating since corruption will then run abated and may ultimately provide the tipping point necessary for all the groups at the periphery to overpower the center.

Ibn Khaldun’s theory strongly suggests that any attempt to forcefully overthrow the regime at this point will be in vain. For that to happen now would require a figure or an issue that would dramatically force these disparate spheres of asabiya into one powerful core that can overcome the center.

At the moment, the calls for “a new brand of people power” that asks us to be vigilant towards the cause of truth and justice seems to be the proper response. It seems to be the battle we can win for now since — if Khaldun’s theory holds — the government has much more to lose than we do. Judgment may have yet to be passed on the administration, but history is on our side.

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