chapter  21
The Cell Phone and the Crowd: Messianic Politics in the Contemporary Philippines
Pages 17

This essay explores a set of telecommunicative fantasies among middle-class Filipinos within the context of a recent historical event: the civilian-backed coup that overthrew President Joseph Estrada in January 2001. It does so with reference to two distinct media, the cell phone and the crowd. Various accounts of what has come to be known as "People Power II" (distinguished from the populist coup that unseated Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in 1986) reveal certain pervasive beliefs of the middle classes. They believed, for example, in the power of communication technologies to transmit messages at a distance and in their own ability to possess that power. In the same vein, they believed they could master their relationship to the masses of people with whom they regularly shared Manila's crowded streets, and utilize the power of crowds to speak to the state. Thus they imagined themselves able to communicate beyond the crowd, but also with it, transcending the sheer physical density of the masses through technology while at the same time ordering its movements and using its energy to transmit middle-class demands. At its most utopian, the fetish of communication suggested the possibility of dissolving, however provisionally, existing class divisions. From this perspective communication held the messianic promise of refashioning the heterogeneous crowd into a people addressing and addressed by the promise of justice. But as we will see, these telecommunicative fantasies were predicated on the putative "voicelessness" of the masses. For once heard, the masses called attention to the fragility of bourgeois claims to shape the transmission of messages about the proper practice of politics in the nation-state. In this context, media politics (understood in both senses of the phrase: the politics of media systems but also the inescapable mediation of the political) reveal the unstable workings of Filipino middle-class sentiments. Unsettled in their relationship to social hierarchy, these sentiments at times redrew class divisions, anticipated their abolition, or called for their reinstatement and consolidation. 1

Telephones were introduced in the Philippines as early as 1885, during the last decade and a half of Spanish colonial rule.2 Like telegraphy before it, telephony provoked fantasies of direct

communication among the colonial bourgeoisie. They imagined that these new technologies would afford them access to colonial leaders, enabling them to hear and be heard directly by the colonial state. We can see this telecommunicative ideal, for example, in a satirical piece written by Filipino national hero Jose Rizal in 1889. Entitled Por Telefono, it situates the narrator as an eavesdropper. He listens intently to the sounds and voices that travel between the Spanish friars in Manila-regarded as the real power in the colony-and their superiors in Madrid.3 The nationalist writer wire-taps his way, as it were, into the walls of the clerical residences, exposing their hypocrisy and excesses. In this sense, the telephone shares the capacity of that other telecommunicative technology, print, to reveal what was once hidden, to repeat what was meant to be secret, and to pass on messages intended for a particular circle.4 It is this history of tapping into and forwarding messages-often in the form of ironic commentaries, jokes, and rumors-that figured recently in the civilian -led coup known as "People Power II:' From January 16 to 20, 2001, more than a million people assembled at one of Metro Manila's major highways, Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, commonly called Edsa, site of the original People Power revolt in 1986. A large cross-section of Philippine society gathered there to demand the resignation of President Joseph "Erap" Estrada after his impeachment trial was suddenly aborted by the eleven senators widely believed to be under his influence. The senators had refused to include key evidence that purportedly showed Estrada had amassed a fortune from illegal number games while in office. The impeachment proceedings were avidly followed on national TV and the radio. Most viewers and listeners were keenly aware of the evidence of theft and corruption on the part of Estrada and his family; once the pro-Estrada senators put an abrupt end to the hearing, however, hundreds of thousands of viewers and listeners were moved to protest in the streets.5 Television and radio had kept them in their homes and offices to follow the court proceedings, but at a critical moment, these media also drew them away from their seats. Relinquishing their position as spectators, they now became part of a crowd that had formed around a common wish: the resignation of the president.