NBSEAS on “Chasing Freedom: The Philippines Long Journey to Democratic Ambivalence”

In conversation with Duncan McCargo about her new book Chasing Freedom: The Philippines Long Journey to Democratic Ambivalence (Sussex Academic Press, 2022), Adele Webb offers a spirited defence of what she calls ‘democratic ambivalence’: the mixed feelings many Filipinos harbour about their own hybrid political system. She argues that Philippine ambivalence towards democracy results from a particular historical experience, and should be embraced rather than deprecated.

Adele Webb is a lecturer in the School of Justice at the Queensland University of Technology and an adjunct research fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Australia. Duncan McCargo is director of the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Copenhagen.

How did Rodrigo Duterte earn the support of large segments of the Philippine middle class, despite imposing arbitrary authority and offering little tolerance for dissent? Has the Filipino middle class, heroes of the 1986 People Power Revolution, given up on democracy? Chasing Freedom retells the history of Philippine democracy, employing a genealogical approach that makes visible the forms of power that have shaped and constrained understandings of democracy. The book traces the attitudes of the Filipino middle class from the beginning of American colonization in 1898, to the present.

Chasing Freedom argues that democracy in the Philippines is lived in an ambivalent way, a result of the contradictions inherent in America’s imperial project of democratic tutelage. Humiliation of the colonial past fuels the imperative to search for more authentic self-determination; at the same time, Filipinos are haunted by self-doubt over their capacity to correctly manage the freedom that democracy provides. This simultaneous yes and no has persisted after independence in 1946 until today; it is the masterful mobilization of this democratic ambivalence by authoritarian populists like Rodrigo Duterte that helps to explain the effectiveness of their political narratives for middle-class audiences. The Philippines is a bellwether case, with lessons of global importance in an age when disenchantment with democracy is on the rise. While ambivalence may result in failure to meet a democratic ideal it may, nevertheless, be one of democracy’s safeguards. This work is at the forefront of recent debates about middle class-led democratic backsliding.

Enjoyed this podcast? You may also like Duncan’s 2021 New Books in Southeast Asian Studies conversation with Aim Sinpeng, on why so many middle-class Thais took part in anti-democratic ‘yellow shirt’ protests between 2006 and 2014.

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