A review of Joel Rocamora’s ‘Impossible is Not So Easy: A Life in Politics’

Carmel V. Abao
'The book raises important questions like: Can a reformist be considered a leftist or a revolutionary? Can good people thrive in bad governments?'

Let me start with the title – Impossible is not so easy: A life in politics. I think it’s a dead giveaway that the book’s author is Joel Rocamora.  The words are very elegantly laid out. Impossible is not so easy. Very elegant. Yet mapapaisip ang reader: Ano raw? Ano raw sabi? Impossible is not so easy? Ano ‘yun? Paano ‘yun?  

I think the title is a tight fit not just for Joel’s elegant prose (this elegance, by the way, is evident in all the pages of the book). It is also a fit for Joel’s politics, i.e a politics that is at once pessimistic and optimistic, at once realistic and idealistic. In the title alone, we can sense both frustration and determination. In the chapters, we are treated to narratives that cut across idealism and realpolitik – or should I say narratives that grapple with idealism and realpolitik.

So, what is Joel’s politics? Perhaps it is somewhere in between those two.  

But I am here to review Joel’s book, not Joel’s politics or his life in politics (although I can also do that if you want, hehe.) Perhaps now is the time for full disclosure. Joel was the Executive Director when I was in IPD, he was an Execomm member when I worked full-time for Akbayan, and we are cousins – on the Veloso side of our families. Joel’s Lola Biyay and my Lolo Ayong are siblings, so our mothers are first cousins and we are second cousins. Pareho mi na bisdak, bisayang dako. Kaya mas maayos ang Ingles namin kaysa sa Tagalog namin.    

Here are my thoughts on Joel’s book. 

  1. I think Joel should not be apologetic about this being a “non-book” (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s term) just because it is a collection of essays. I think a book is a book if it has achieved cohesion and I believe Joel’s book has achieved that. The cohesion is felt by the reader because the book talks of a “political project” at the onset. And this political project can be readily gleaned in all the articles. It is easy for the reader to see that the political project has something to do with reforming government and transforming society along the lines of good governance, local development, alternative and non-patronage based public service delivery, poverty alleviation, and institution building.  

  1. The book is cohesive also because it shows the continuation and recurrence of social and political problems across political regimes. In other words, the book points to structural issues and given this, the essays, while seemingly disparate, actually contribute to a whole.  

  1. The book clearly engages the reader to probe the historical beginnings of ongoing Philippine problems. These historical roots are explained from varying vantage points – from the Left, from civil society, and from reformers in government. Said varying points enrich the reader’s understanding of longstanding issues in Philippine politics and governance. 

    Actually, I like best that the book draws on these various perspectives: leftist, reformist, outside government, within government. These perspectives are sometimes in conflict with each other but this is precisely why the book is interesting. The book raises important questions like, “Can a reformist be considered a leftist or a revolutionary? Can good people thrive in bad governments?  Isn’t decentralization possible only with a strong national government?” And if I may add: Can Marxists remain Marxists once aligned with oligarchic forces? These tension points are revealed in Joel’s book and prod the reader to read on and on. In fact, I read the book in its entirety not just because I was asked to review it but also because I was genuinely curious about what Joel had to say about these tension points.  

  1. As a political scientist, I can appreciate the book also because it claims that political regimes matter. I agree with this claim. Structural issues have not been addressed precisely because political regimes, though varied over time, have not really transformed the structures that need changing. I think Joel drives home this point very clearly in all his chapters: the political regime matters; government matters. (READ: [OPINION] Duterte is vulnerable)

  1. The book is relevant and timely because it discusses Duterte. In fact, it starts with Duterte. I agree with Joel’s characterization of Duterte as a populist but I have yet to be convinced of Joel’s assertion that Duterte is a demobilizing populist. To quote Joel: “Digong may bring the popular medyo bastos into political discourse, but he does not bring citizens into formal processes of political participation. In contrast to populists who mobilize people, Digong like Estrada is a demobolizing populist.” (READ: Rodrigo Duterte: Yes, I’m a womanizer)

In my opinion, Duterte is a mobilizing populist – as evidenced by his mobilization of a section of society that hitherto has not been heard: the DDSs and the Tulfos and the Mocha Usons of this country. In fact, this level of social mobilization is what differentiates Duterte from the previous dicatorship: Marcos relied heavily on “armed” forces while Duterte relies heavily on “social” forces (while continuing to “court” the armed forces, of course). Even the “supermajority” in Congress are not just rubber stamps of Duterte, they are “active supporters.” One can see this in how the Congress Representatives actively advocated for the death penalty law, for example. Or for martial law. Or for the new Department of Overseas Filipinos. So, this is where I disagree with Joel. I think Duterte has real active supporters within and outside of government and their participation in politics is consequential, not just symbolic. (READ: Paranoia drives Duterte’s politics)

That Duterte mobilizes social forces makes his populism compatible with democracy. Democracy, after all, values consent, especially massive consent. Of course, we all know that consent can be manipulated. Still, the perception that “the people” “consent” to Duterte’s governance legitimizes Duterte and this consent actually yields results – not just in terms of Duterte being able to stay in power but also in terms of public policy. Whether we like it or not, the fact of the matter is, policies that we ourselves support, like the Bangsamoro Basic Law, the subsidy for tuition fees in State Universities, the Universal Healthcare Law, the Expanded Maternity Act, pension increase, wage increase for nurses, wage increase for soldiers and police personnel – all these became laws under Duterte’s watch. Not under PNoy’s watch, or GMA’s or Estrada’s or Ramos’ or Cory’s.  (READ: Duterte calls Arroyo ‘true living icon in Philippine politics’)

Thus, in the minds of “the majority,” the DDS’s and the Tulfos and the Mocha Usons are the much needed “new voices” in Philippine politics and they indicate that Philippine democracy is alive, not dead. Same goes for all the “new entrants” in the political and business scenes: Bong Go, Bato, Dennis Uy, Ricky Razon. We may not like their faces or their language or their behavior – and never mind that they are not entirely “new” – but these “new entrants” are touted to be the new lobbyists and therefore deemed crucial participants of our democracy today. Or so the Duterte camp asserts.  

Duterte’s politics is mass-based and I think this is why he continues to be legitimate and to be popular.   If we accept that, we may have to accept as well that we need to work doubletime on building a mass-based politics that will match Duterte’s.  A mass-based politics that will convince “the people” that the dark side of Duterte’s populism far outweighs – and in fact, negates – the benefits of his populism. For sure, we, or perhaps most of us in this room, are already convinced of this cost-benefit analysis. Siguro naman, pagkatapos ng 4 na taon, kumbinsido na tayo na talagang karumaldumal ang rehimeng ito!  But are we able to convince others? Or have we just become an echo chamber? 

  1. I think Joel’s book can be divided into thinkpieces meant to provoke and those meant to convince. Although of course provoking and convincing are not mutually exclusive. The pieces on Duterte are clearly meant to provoke while the pieces on federalism are meant to convince. And this is good because I think this is the way that people learn: education, especially political education, is never just about the mind, but also about the gut and the heart. 

  1. I find it commendable that the book is written as a memoir. The fact that it was written by a political player provides a depth and tone that probably wouldn’t have been displayed if the author were just an academic. I say that not to trivialize academic work but to argue that there may be many sources of political knowledge, and as proven by Joel in this book, political engagement is a valid and crucial source. I think Joel’s memoir calls us to be both political actors and thinkers. It reminds us that the most thought-provoking political ideas come from reflection borne out of political action. 

Congratulations Joel. I think a lot of people will learn from your book. I myself learned a lot. And I will definitely recommend your book to my students. I hope you continue writing about politics.  Rappler.com

Impossible is not so easy: A life in politics is a collection of essays by Joel Rocamora, former Chairperson of the National Anti-Poverty Commission (NAPC) under the PNoy administration and former Executive Director of the Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD). This review was delivered by Carmel V. Abao at the book launch of Rocamora’s book on February 26, 2020 at the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) Bulwagang Ka Pepe Diokno. Abao is an Assistant Professor at the Ateneo de Manila University (ADMU) Department of Political Science. Joel Rocamora’s book is published by the ADMU University Press.