O Tempora! O Mores!

Niels Mulder

At the time I was a student at Amsterdam University, I considered state-guaranteed social security ‘from the cradle to the grave’ a natural right, and did not realize that it was the ideal of my parental generation that had lived through, first, the ‘crisis’ of the 1930s, then, through the devastation of World War II. My Netherlands, so to say, was a ‘welfare state’ where the bane of poverty and blatant inequality was morally unacceptable.

By the time I had started my career and could care for myself, I was hardly aware that the driving force of my elder generation to build the above utopia was exhausted and that, as of the late 1960s, a new paradigm – the neoliberalism of the Internationaal Monetair Fonds (IMF) – was in the offing. Subsequently, the generation we, in our turn, set on the world, lives through the early 21st century experience of an ever-rising retirement age, insufficient social protection, joblessness and relative poverty, and high unemployment because of the digitalization of the economy. As a result, whatever had been built at the time of the ‘welfare state’ has been nixed. And so we have come full circle, a vicious circle, it seems, into which we are trapped and from which we need to escape through a radical reconstruction of life.

On this subject, Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur of the United Nations, observed that neoliberalism unleashes violence worldwide, calling ‘the liberal vision for development’ – as propagated by the IMF for the past 40 years – a killer in the community. In the same vein, United Nations Conference on Trade and Development recommends that the world must ditch austerity and economic liberalism, and undertake a global ‘New Deal’ to rebalance the global economy and achieve prosperity for all (Neoliberalism kills, says UN critic of drug war in PH, Philippine Daily Inquirer, 20 October 2017, A6).

The book

The nastiness of neoliberalism and its market-driven economy, which enriches the privileged few while throwing the vast majority back to relying on their own devices, provide the setting of San Juan’s study and support his call to carry on and enrich the utopia of ‘true popular democracy’, such as experimented with in the Russian, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions of the last century. In this, he has been inspired by militant comrades involved in nonsectarian united-front struggles; their accumulated experiences serve as the test of the relevance and efficacy of ideas that are discussed in this book (p. xix).

This vision reverberates in the first line of the Introduction: ‘Global capitalism is entering its period of unmitigated barbarism’, which, inevitably, leads to class war on a global scale that persists with implacable fury and that is driven by profit-maximizing capitalism through neoliberal policies (p. ix). Whatever hopes for social justice ever existed were doused by the September 11 catastrophe, triggering globalization as a dialectic of cosmopolitan wisdom and local experience that quickly evolved into a ruthless ‘Manichean’ war of the ‘civilized’ technocrats against the nonwhite ‘barbarians’. In this, the former were assisted by local governments, the US recolonization of the Philippines (p. x), and the murderous regimes of Presidents Gloria Arroyo (p. xii) and Benigno Aquino III (pp. xii-xiv).

Dismal circumstances, neocolonialism, and absence of pride in nation pushed 12 million Filipinos into a world-wide diaspora – Filipinas Everywhere – with many if not most of them female  overseas Filipino workers that are exploited, resulting in the fact that ‘slavery has become redomesticated in the age of reconfigured mercantilism – the vampires of the past continue to haunt the cyberprecincts of finance capital and its futurist hallucinations’ (p. xvi).

Subsequently, this book intends to contribute to the renewal of comparative cultural studies in which new conceptualizations are needed. And so, it encompasses debates on globalization, cultural studies, indigenization, and problems in cross-cultural dialogue. It seeks to engage hermeneutics and the interface of various sign-systems (such as photography) with transformations in global capitalism.

The first substantive chapter contains a rather self-willed run through Philippine history with the purpose of highlighting the shift from mercantile to finance monopoly domination which explains the Americanization of the Filipino subject, resulting in the fateful dispersal of Filipino labor with dire consequences for future generations (pp. xvii-xviii). The second essay seeks to develop a radical critique of the vagaries of globalization based on a historical-materialist method.

The critical review of postcolonial theory in Chapter 3 unmasks it as an instrument for sanctioning and preserving pax Americana patronized by academic celebrities rehabilitating the dogmas of Nietzsche, Weber, and Heidegger. The next essay unmasks the disingenuous radical intent of Edward Said and the likes, and the ensuing revival of aestheticist formalism. This idealist apologetics have proved futile in making sense of the global collapse of finance capital and its metaphysics of possessive individualism disguised as humanitarianism. At this point, the essays move on to an engagement with the original pragmatic ideas of Charles Sanders Pierce that, in Chapter 5, develops into a democratic vision open to popular intervention. In Chapter 6 the inadequacies of post-structuralist approaches are contrasted with the promise of Pierce’s semiotics as an alternative hermeneutic tool.

The fore last chapter performs a reading of one of Kafka’s fables and its resonance with the contemporary practice of torture and its legitimation, and is meant to foreground the ineluctable linkage between theory and practice, intellectual reflection and political struggle. Upon this we are still feasting on a sociopolitical commentary on selected photographs, in which the question is raised: ‘The Interpreter as Producer: Can the Revolutionary Masses Seize the Mass Media Means of Production and Reproduction?’

The author

Reputed Epifanio ‘Sonny’ San Juan, Jr. is a Filipino-American literary academic, Tagalog writer, Filipino poet, civic intellectual, activist writer, essayist, video-film maker, editor, poet about the Filipino diaspora, writing books on race and cultural studies, and contributions to Filipino and Filipino-American studies. As jack-of-many-trades, he has been a professor of English language, comparative literature, ethnic studies, American studies, and cultural studies. He is fully aware of his concretely overdetermined self-positioning as a diasporic intellectual (p. xix).

The reader

The trouble with those who professionally engage in the esoteric art of literary criticism is that they take their readers’ erudition for granted and that they share the same literary-philosophical canon, which, in the case of this slim volume of 144 substantive pages, is complemented by 25 pages of references. Attracted by San Juan’s reputation and the delectable Filipinas Everywhere – meaning Filipino women everywhere and/or being reminded of the country in every nook and cranny of the globe – I volunteered to write a review. Subsequently, I had to confront a near-impenetrable jungle of high-flown jargon and the high-falutin of uncommon English words prompted by a surfeit of learning and ideological lumber that does not connect with the tierra firma where the ordinary readers dwell, and so it is reasonable to expect that they will not see the wood for the trees.

Engaging with this esoteric prose, reminded me of the comment of a Ghanian informant, ‘White people think too much’. So, even when our diasporic intellectual poses that his pesky torrent of jargon departs from a Filipino perspective, the Ghanian’s idea that certain people think too much fits San Juan hand and glove. Happy reading!