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  • Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines by Lisandro E. Claudio
  • Dominic Sy
Lisandro E. Claudio
Liberalism and the Postcolony: Thinking the State in 20th-Century Philippines
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2017. 227 pages.

In his first book, Taming People's Power: The EDSA Revolutions and their Contradictions (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2013), Lisandro Claudio examines different interpretations of the People Power Revolution to understand how their competing narratives influence contemporary Philippine politics. He concludes by criticizing both mainstream ideologies, which occlude the role of the left, and the communist movement, which often "instrumentalizes" the people. Disillusioned by both, Claudio seeks solutions to Philippine problems elsewhere. In Liberalism and the Postcolony, he proposes one such solution by exploring the political praxis of liberalism in twentieth-century Philippine history. As such, this book has two primary goals. The first is to complexify the understanding of Philippine elite discourse vis-à-vis the liberal practices of four bureaucrats: Camilo Osias, Salvador Araneta, Carlos P. Romulo, and Salvador P. Lopez. (In a highly personal afterword, he includes a fifth liberal, Rita Estrada, the author's grandmother.) Claudio devotes one chapter to each individual to show the existence of an oft-ignored Philippine liberal tradition. Meanwhile, his second goal is to argue for the contemporary value of this tradition—and how it can be a source for future political practice in postcolonial nations. [End Page 103]

The book's publication is undoubtedly timely. In recent years, the prestige of liberalism has declined in states that have been its traditional strongholds. Much of the criticism against it, however, is decades old. Liberalism has been called reactionary and duplicitous, privileging minor changes and compromise that ultimately preserve the status quo. Simultaneously, Marxists have shown the centrality of property rights—thus, capitalist accumulation—in the history of liberal policy. Meanwhile, postcolonial critics have argued that liberalism's universalizing concept of liberty has been central to justifying colonialism as benevolent.

Consequently, the Philippine left has often sidelined liberal philosophy, routinely castigating it as the ideology of neocolonial elites. However, Claudio argues that there is much to gain from understanding liberalism as a complex phenomenon. Using John Gray's classification from Two Faces of Liberalism (The New Press, 2000), Claudio distinguishes between liberalism as the execution of universal models, a teleological approach that has often been repressive, and liberalism as modus vivendi, or the pragmatic, day-by-day project to maintain peaceful coexistence among different ways of living. This second tradition of liberalism is what Claudio seeks in the works of the four bureaucrats and in formulating his "liberalism for the postcolony."

The strength of Claudio's book lies in its first goal. Claudio reveals two main features of Philippine liberalism: the adaptation of American liberal ideas and the commitment to freedom via mediation. These features manifest in the works of all four bureaucrats, although adaptation is more prominent in the first two—in Osias's Deweynian civic nationalism and Araneta's Keynesian economics—and mediation in the next—in Romulo's anticommunist Third Worldism and Lopez's negotiation between student radicals and the Marcos regime. Against homogenizing depictions of the elite, Claudio shows the complex convictions of some of its prominent members. He also contributes to the broadening of Philippine intellectual discourse through his analysis of nontraditional actors such as bureaucrats. In doing so, his project aligns with immanentist epistemologies—including, ironically, the Marxist philosophy of praxis—that seek to deconstruct rigid distinctions between political theory and action.

It is in fulfilling the second goal—proving the contemporary relevance of liberalism—that the book shows its weakness. The problem lies in Claudio's vague definition of liberalism, leading to noticeable absences and contradictions. Despite conceding the prevalence of liberalism among [End Page 104] the elite and middle classes, he makes no attempt to analyze how liberal ideas participate in the formation of these classes or their institutions. He focuses on the idea of modus vivendi, eschewing positive definitions of freedom—e.g., a definitive model for attaining freedom—in favor of the negative—i.e., freedom from intolerance and extremism. Unlike John Gray, however, Claudio does not systematically analyze...


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