Jinggoy Estrada, to extricate himself from the stigma of the pork barrel case, proclaimed in the campaign kick-off, “wala kaming kasalanan sa bayan” (napagtripan lang ng dating administrasyon). Even Duterte uses it often from his campaign speeches to enforcing his drug war agenda: “I have a duty to do for my people. Do not destroy my country or I will kill you.” Noynoy Aquino also used it before: “Kayo (bayan) ang mga boss ko.”
What is seen is a passionate, sometimes violent, contest to win the right to speak about, in behalf of and for ‘the people’, in short, to be their representative.
The same discourse is found in religious-ecclesiastical fields (as in ‘popular religiosity’, ‘church of the people’, folk religion, ecclesiology from the ‘base’, religion of the masses). It is also prevalent in artistic fields (as in ‘popular art’ or ‘pop music’). Thus, the analysis which I advance here also gives some hints to the use of the term in these fields. But it is most intense in the political field where one can rhetorically play on all the ambiguities of the word for purposes of legitimizing one’s political position and programs. The whole political spectrum – from right to left – employs the term in endless variety of forms and shades of signification.
Abraham Lincoln’s now famous slogan for a “government of the people, by the people and for the people” in his Gettysburg Address signals both the ideals and ambivalence of American democratic discourse. Yet it is also this same term – ‘people’ – found in Hitler’s exaltation of the German Volk in Mein Kampf that proved crucial to the silent complicity of many to the gas chamber project. At the most radical end of the political spectrum, we also read of Chairman Mao’s trust in the ‘people’, in the rural ‘masses’ who, despite their creative enthusiasm, are also blank and malleable.
If there is any common denominator to all these divergent uses, it is the ambivalence of the term, thus, its consequent vulnerability to endless manipulation. The political field is replete with these shifting and self-serving uses and significations.
The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu may help us understand the uses of this politically elastic word - ‘the people’ - as it is extended or restricted at will to suit the struggles for the maximization of one’s symbolic capital within a specific field of production.
Politicians know that it is only in winning ‘the people’ to their cause that they succeed in the political war. The use of the ‘people’, masa, bayan thus becomes not only necessary but also profitable.
‘The people’ is vastly employed both by the discourse of the popular right and the radical left. Hitler’s volkish discourse, Chairman Mao’s masses, French Poujadism, Argentina’s Peronism and their contemporary heirs in many populist politicians of our time – from Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Donald Trump in the US or Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines.
They quite vary in their political convictions on crucial issues of the day – positions which range from outright racism of the conservative right to popular ‘workerism’ in its populist or leftist varieties. But what unites them all is their projected closeness to the sentiments of ‘the people’. Such populist discourses catch the people’s imagination in their own times and contexts.
These movements were in fact considered ‘revolutionary’ as they presented themselves to be a rebellion against the monopoly of professional politics or dominant elite dynasties. But they could also be very ‘conservative’ since the so-called ‘people’ only served as a ‘discourse’ ending up in the same elitist politics they were opposed to in the first place.
These populist moves betray the double-game Bourdieu attributes to the political field. On the one hand, it is an attempt at position-taking against their dominant competitors in the field by appealing to their imagined proximity with ‘the people’. On the other hand, it is an effort to enlist ‘the people’ in the legitimization of the politicians’ location by playing on the latter’s anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism – a move which does not at all confront but only disguises the real consequences of domination.
In reality, this appeal to ‘the people’ conceals a double break. On the one hand, it wants to break away from other professional politicians from whom these populist representatives distinguish themselves (as they claim to come from ‘the ranks of the people’ while the rest are elites). On the other hand, it separates itself from ‘the people’ themselves as these populists assume the role of their spokespersons who also divest the represented of their political capital and competence.
Parallel analysis can be given to the use of the term ‘masses’ like the ‘man of the masses’, pwersa ng masa and maka-masa. The conservative and traditional right, for instance, deplores the havoc brought about by ‘mass culture’, ‘mass production’, ‘mass society’ and ‘mass civilization’. Yet at the opposite extreme of the ideological spectrum, we also hear of Mao Tse-Tung’s rural ‘masses’ who are ironically held to be the best agents of the communist revolutionary project as they are condescendingly viewed to have “scattered and unsystematic ideas”.
But are there really ‘masses’? Who are the ‘masses’? According to Raymond Williams, a British Marxist, ‘masses’ is in fact ‘other people’, those whom we do not know and we cannot know. We will never call our relatives, family and friends ‘masses’ even if they are located in the lowest level of the socio-economic ladder.
“There are in fact no masses; there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”
“What we see, neutrally, is other people, many others, people unknown to us. In practice, we mass them, interpret them, according to some convenient formula. Within its terms, the formula will hold. Yet it is the formula, not the mass, which is our real business to examine. It may help us to do this if we remember that we ourselves are being massed by others. To the degree that we find the formula inadequate for ourselves, we can wish to extend to others the courtesy of acknowledging the unknown.” 
‘Masses’, therefore, serves a ready tool for ideological manipulation by both positions as they in fact collude in recognizing the need for an elite minority (e.g., elite cultural educators or vanguard party, etc.) to educate or lead the ‘mass’ majority.
From the perspective of Bourdieu, therefore, the so-called ‘people’ or ‘masses’ are not substantial social realities that can be counted to the last digit of the population census but a product of complex work of symbolic construction, thus, can be summoned to exist or vanish, could be extended or restricted, depending on the ‘use’ they have to the process of legitimizing the act of representation.
Thus, as politicians succeed in the exercise of symbolic power in order to legitimize their ‘political capital’ (which is also grounded on the economic, social and cultural capital), they also arrogate unto themselves the role of ‘political producers’. In the process, they consequently relegate the majority of “the people” whom they have “massified” to the status of political ‘consumers’ permanently dispossessed of political competence. All they needed to do was to elect them, empower the politicians “to represent” them in the halls of congress, hoping that things turn out well, and prepare again for the next elections. “Maghintay na lang kayo sa sunod na anim na taon,” you hear that from Duterte people.
In the process, the ‘masses’ found only in the politicians’ discourse now ultimately transforms itself into ‘masses-in-reality’, dispossessed of their political competence, becoming as it were a case of a “self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Daniel Franklin Pilario, C.M.
St Vincent SchoolofTheology - Adamson University
 R. Williams, Culture and Society: From Coleridge to Orwell (London: Hogarth Press, 1982), 300.