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Notes On The State Of Filipino Society

(By Eddie Romero)

The political, economic and ethical conditions that prevail in any community are essentially reflections of the dominant folkways and corresponding predilections of its people, for these, manifestations of primal instinct evolved out of shared experience through many generations, constitute the semantic framework with which the laws of governments and the canons of organized religion are understood and, by tacit consensus, how faithfully observed.

Formal institutions do not exist in a moral vacuum, and however impersonal they may be intended to be, can only ensure observance of their laws and rules through some degree of coercion, the mechanisms of which are wielded by people who are themselves creatures of native culture, with all its virtues and flaws. It is a condition that heavily influences the course of a nation's history, including the types of leaders who play prominent roles in them. Ambiguity, after all, is the universal human trait without which the eternal struggle between good and evil could never have spurred that endless succession of small and epochal events (and their consequences) which we call progress and civilization.

Obviously, not even the smallest community can be run on native folkways alone. From its first emergence as an indispensable social necessity, the institution of government has always attracted people entranced by the prospect of power over others, for good or ill. Available anthropological data tends to suggest that the earliest political alliances were forged between sorcerers and, for want of as more appropriate word, thugs; the former to provide rules of purportedly divine origin to live by, and the latter the muscle to enforce them. No further evidence is needed to support this than the fact that from the dawn of civilization until the latter part of the eighteenth century, there was not a single community on this planet that was not governed under one form of despotic rule or another.

Geography and climate were the pivotal factors in the rise of the first strong nations. In the cold regions of our planet, people had to work long and hard (and not shirk from brutal recourses) just to stay alive. Adversity proved to be a great catalyst not only for human inventiveness, but for social cohesion as well. Warmer climates presented far less rigorous options. Within their ambit it was no daunting challenge to be able to live off the land, and the need for communal effort, altough always present, was nowhere near so imperative. People tended to be more passive and friendlier and consequently, easier prey to exploitation and servitude.

The evolution of human society in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia through the first flowering of civilization over five thousand years ago to the present day, saw events and consequences that would eventually lead, through many a calamitous detour, to a long period of dominance by powerful nations of the northern hemisphere over the rest of the world. Civil liberty and equality before the law were pipe dreams that took a long time to take shape as vital factors in political reality, and barring a miraculous change in human nature, will never be totally invulnerable to perversion and assault. To this day, even in the freest of nations, preeminent political influence remains in the hands of people and institutions most essential to maintaining existing regimes. The masses began to acquire the means to make themselves heard in the great corridors of power only a little over two centuries ago. Before that, the feudal serfs of enlightened Europe were not much freer than the native populations of their colonies.

It was the Industrial Revolution that spawned , for the most part unwittingly, conditions that finally made popular democracy a political option to reckon with. That process was catalyzed by the social consequences of its own phenomenal growth, with the forced recruitment of thousands, and eventually millions of peasant families from isolated feudal estates, to be packed together in urban industrial sites to man the rapidly multiplying factories of the new age. Cut off from old cultural affinities, they soon became aware of new mutual concerns, common responses to which closer contact with one another made easier to formulate. With the concurrent emergence of smaller enterprises and new occupations generated by the rapid diversification of economic activity, old social systems had to make room for elements which, although still comparatively powerless, were becoming too indispensable to the perpetuation of ruling establishments to ignore. It was this slow but irreversible tide of economic expansion that made the advent of popular government not only possible but inevitable, a phenomenon that would in time spread to the remotest corners of the earth in many different forms; few of which, however, were ever run by people of any political persuasion whose sentiments on freedom and equality ever transcended their own interests.

Social evolution is a process too vast and complex, subject to too many unpredictable factors for any power on earth to steer along predetermined courses, all the more difficult to keep track of because it is never at rest. Progress has never been a basket of unmixed blessings. Every monumental change carries within itself the seeds of its own decay. Social movements are only passing manifestations of human nature, and trying to manage that can only be done through jerry-built compromises with the impossible, subject to change with little notice. Moreover, since some nations are richer, stronger and consequently more influential than others, it is mostly along the peripheries of pivotal developments within and among them that the histories of smaller, weaker countries unfold. This piece is concerned with one of them.

Liberation and independence for the former colonies of Asia and Africa shortly after the end of World War II neither changed nor diminished the influence of native culture; they only provided new environments for them to adjust to. Our country is one case in point. The irresistible urge among many of our political savants to compare the course of our history through the past century with those of our neighbors, particularly in ASEAN, is of limited relevance, because our progress (or lack of it) came out of conditions and predilections that were peculiarly our own. The pronouncements of some western soothsayers, echoed by too many of our own, that we are suffering from a damaged culture, makes even less sense. The theory can only come out of the simpleminded notion that cultural evolution can be managed, a persistent delusion that has probably killed more people and wrought more destruction than all the natural disasters that have befallen our planet. One can no more repair culture than live one's life all over again.

Our own folkways grew out of many generations of geographic isolation, in scattered tribes with little reason to trust one another, followed by three more centuries of harsh subjection to the most reactionary of the great European powers, whose agents nonetheless were shrewd enough to exploit our native ways to consolidate their hold over the our forebears. That was not a prohibitively difficult task; servitude in one form or another had been a fact of life for the greater number of our ancestors for many generations, and the fact that they did not have even the advantage of a common language only made them even more vulnerable. Making a nation out of so many incompatible components was the last thing our colonial masters wanted. That was the principal challenge that our first country-wide revolution had to meet, and the process it launched has been in turbulent progress for more than a century, generating as many perils as it has overcome.

It is idle to speculate on what might have happened had the Americans not dropped uninvited into the midst of our first national revolution. Recalling the foundations and composition of President Aguinaldo's administration does not offer much credible material for rosy extrapolations. Admiral Dewey's flotilla may have strangled a vital new nation in the making; or he may have spared our forefathers the agony of seeing their hopes torn into a dozen warring pieces. We will never know; and we don't need to know. The past cannot be undone, and reinventing it to conform to contemporary pretensions is a game as foolish at it is dangerous.

America's relatively brief stewardship over our country did install the mechanisms indispensable to nationhood: public health and education, public works and communications facilities, a system of popular government loosely based on their own. For all that, less than half a century of political tutelage could not make more than a dent on a body of folkways that went back to time immemorial. It is axiomatic that the first requisite of viable democracy is a population made up largely of self-reliant people. There was no way that even the most dedicated tutoring could turn us into a race of pathfinding pioneers in less than half a century, no matter how many of us may have wished for it. We took the fruit and candy of western civilization, liberty, equality, the Bill of Rights, double-breasted suits and basketball, the movies and boogie-woogie, and redesigned them to suit our own ingrained attitudes and usages. Indeed there were local uprisings and revolts every now and then, there were incidents of discrimination and injustice at the hands of our self-proclaimed liberators, and there was heroic dissent against American rule. But by an large, the populace soon became avidly pro-American, and in fact has remained pretty much so to this day, even if pro-Americanism no longer seems as blissful as it used to be.

In that context, it is both unfair and demeaning to the stature of leaders whose memories we have enshrined to tinker with historical facts merely to bring them into line with current ideological biases; that would be tantamount to rewarding them with counterfeit currency, except for that in this case it would be the bestower who deceives himself. The outstanding Filipino leaders of the American era were not guerilla fighters who stayed true to a lost republic. They were for the most part farsighted members of a generation caught in an era of epochal change who used available political means with diligence and ingenuity to prepare our people for the stern challenges of impending nationhood. When war and enemy occupation came once more to our shores they remained true to their aspirations with the means at hand, whether they had to fall under an executioner's sword like Jose Abad Santos, work in exile like Quezon and Osmena, stage hit-and-run encounters against the Japanese from the hills like Confesor, Taruc and Pendatun, or protect their compatriots in the occupied areas however they could, like Laurel and Recto. It was the quality and the consequences of thought and deed, not the scenery and the props, and certainly not the rhetoric, that made them stand out. There have never been any unambiguous saints or heroes. If Ninoy Aquino did not have to suffer agonizing doubts over the consequences of his opposition to the dictatorial rule of Marcos, and had millions of us not shared it, his martyrdom could not have ignited the firestorm of grief and civic outrage that it did, here and everywhere else.

American rule, typically, had little impact on the basic components of our social system. Our ruling establishment, better positioned to adapt themselves to change, flourished under American-style democracy. Having taken over the revolution of 1896, the contemporary counterparts of our ancient tribal chiefs had no trouble assuming leadership of Filipino resistance to the American invaders, nor in obtaining the best possible terms out of yielding to them. Mass-based social movements had failed to develop the sweeping momentum that Bonifacio needed to prevail over Aguinaldo's elitist mainstay, and they fared no better during the American era. Even an outstanding record of armed resistance to the Japanese occupying forces record during World War II by the communist-leaning Hukbalahap and its allies did not significantly expand their postwar following among the masses . On the other hand, notable members of our ruling establishment who had actively collaborated with the Japanese, although widely decried and even imprisoned with the return of the Americans, did not take too long to return to public favor, a phenomenon that was to recur following the collapse of the Marcos regime. It is easy enough to attribute these developments to diabolical conspiracies of the ruling establishment, but the fact remains that they happened and provoked no great wave of public resentment and protest.

There is nothing in history to indicate that any nation has ever eluded the fate of being subject, in one way or another, to the preeminence of vested interests behind one ideological pretension or another. The great popular revolutionary upheavals of the last century that were expected to liberate the poor from their chains have not proved to be exceptions to the rule. Civilization owes little to the rampaging conquests of men on hordes; it has always fared best in the uncertain times that come between them. But whether in war or peace, no ruling institution has ever belied Lord Acton's rule: power corrupts.

Our American overseers left us the blueprints for the political, and economic structures and systems on which our nation has been run for going on six decades, and the state of our culture today reflects the triumphs and failures of that experience. Perhaps the most important lesson we have learned from it is that civil rights are only as useful as the ability to make use of them. Rights bestowed gratuitously by benevolent rulers are too easily interpreted to suit their purposes. We need look no further for proof of this than to listen, even nowadays, to our own popularly elected leaders telling us how generous they have been to us with our money; and worse, the idea implicit in that claim that the greater number of our countrymen would be powerless to fend for themselves without their altruistic patronage.

A comprehensive study that would trace the interplay between our native folkways and political developments through the past century would be too vast and ambivalent to try to make sense of. Perhaps a condensed but careful review of key events and their consequences might at least provide some illustrative points. Let us begin by looking back on the course of our history to as recently as President Roxas" assumption of the the reins of a new independent nation in 1947. Resentment over the Parity amendments to our constitution and the ensuing Laurel-Langley Agreement, which gave American economic interests equal rights in many fields of economic activity, brought to the fore a new generation of nationalist intellectuals, which could have been a defining moment in our long struggle to assume control of our own national interests and a prelude to genuine democratic reforms that would stimulate self-reliance among our disadvantaged classes. But implementing a practicable economic program to sustain that objective would have been a difficult and hazardous undertaking; it proved more convenient for a young generation of leaders settle for illusion rather than substance.

Native folkways and usages change only to adapt themselves to new conditions that cannot be resisted. A transition of that kind, neither planned nor anticipated, began to take shape with the distinctively novel political campaign techniques introduced, largely on American initiative, to support Ramon Magsaysay in his run for the Presidency in 1953, and the consequences thereof. From the early days of the American regime up to the early years of our Republic, getting elected to high public office had been a relatively serene affair. Under what was in effect a single-party (Nacionalista ) system, all an anointed candidate for high elective office needed to do was obtain the nod of recognized regional leaders, landlords, proprietors, mayors and public school supervisors, who as the hereditary satraps of a dormant social system now had effective hold on the ability to deliver the vote. The rise of a second political party occasioned by Manuel Roxas" break with the Nacionalista Party and President Quezon's anointed successor Sergio Osmena had little effect on the prevailing political dispensation, since both parties, controlled by competing elements of the economic elite, were hardly distinguishable from one another.

But out of America's determination to put its own man in Malacanang, new survival rules had emerged . Staging a Madison Avenue-style propaganda blitz reaching out to the remotest barrios to sell a Presidential candidate like a brand of toothpaste or toilet soap, along with the phenomenal expansion of mass media that rose out of it, inadvertently sowed the seeds of a quiet revolution in the political orientations of our masses, the long-term consequences of which were to dominate the conduct of Filipino politics to this day.

The new approach to politicking proved to be here to stay. Diligent grass-roots campaigning made it possible for Diosdado Macapagal, a vice-president who had been arrogantly relegated to twiddling his thumbs, to defy and defeat President Carlos Garcia and the still formidable Nacionalista Party. But that was only the first gentle portent of a great social tidal wave. It took a political genius like Ferdinand Marcos not only to raise the technique to a fine art, but to set the stage for a colossal program aimed at buying an entire country. He could not have picked a more propitious time for it.

Martial law institutionalized our ancient culture of dependence, for in his untiring efforts to perpetuate his rule, Marcos not only turned the entire machinery of government into a personal rubber stamp, he also made himself into a one-man (one-tribe might be more accurate) welfare state, thereby installing conditions that would inevitably launch a slow but irresistible tsunami of corruption that would leave no one in this country untouched..

Overthrowing Marcos at Edsa got rid of him, but little else. We rejoiced in the restoration of a purportedly pluralistic democracy without giving much thought to what our brand of pluralism was made of. It did not take too long to find out. Restoring civil rights to the masses got worldwide praise, but for too many of us that was like giving them computers; the best use they could get out of them was sell them in a booming sellers" market. Traditional politicians discovered that the cost of patronage had soared sky-high, but having to bear that was apparently still less onerous than trying to survive on their own merits. Winning elections in effect became a license to steal, and public approval of chosen leaders dependent on how broadly they could share the loot, with a phenomenally expanding clientele.

There are some basic qualifications that have to be taken into account. Even the more advanced democracies are not innocent of susceptibility to such perversions. Graft, petty or large-scale, has never been absent from the functioning of any government. The crucial difference lies in compatibility of governance with the primary needs of the governed. To this end, it is not so much a matter of having people of sterling competence in public office, as of the capability of a preponderant number of citizens to identify and promote their interests, to a degree that helps maintain a tolerable balance of selfish interests in the conduct of sovereignty. Where this condition exists, it is possible for social evolution to move along relatively predictable lines. Where it does not, it is an invisible hodge-podge of communal experience of highly ambiguous qualities that steers the ship of state, toward unknowable destinations.

The evolutionary tide that permitted the ascendancy of a Marcos did not ebb with his fall, for he had been only an incidental manifestation of its progress. The widespread corruption of the Marcos era did not prevent the steady growth of the Filipino middle class. The problem was that no one could keep track of how it was happening and where it was headed. An uncontrollable population growth rate and diminishing agricultural productivity were sending a deluge of poor people into our urban centers for any kind of employment they could latch on to - even garbage scavenging, begging and sleeping on sidewalks paid better than sacada or kaingin farming.

Urbanization killed some people, and brought others to life. Social evolution has no ethical biases. Our expanded middle class does not just comprise the classical components of the petit bourgeoisie; it also includes a uniquely diverse hodge-podge of returning migrant workers, entertainers, craftsmen, unregistered fabricators of all kinds of products, ambulant vendors as well as smugglers, illegal loggers, pimps, prostitutes and a vast assortment of unapprehended felons in and out of public service, to few of whom it would occur that they owed anything to wise and honest government. Our economists, wringing their hands over consistently unfavorable trade balances and our ever burgeoning foreign debt, seem to have failed to notice that all this has fallen short of wreaking a devastating effect on consumer spending. One wonders if a reliable estimate has ever been made of the size of the underground economy and the percentage of the population who engage in it. It should also be interesting to have a fairly reliable idea of how much of aggregate investment in new business and industrial projects over the last three decades have come from ill-gotten gains as venture capital. After all, it has always been the fond dream of powerful criminal syndicates all over the world to become "legitimate".

It hardly needs proof to assume that the overwhelming majority of our people have little respect for government and even less for the impartiality of our laws; recognizing that we all helped bring all this on ourselves spurs cynicism far more widely than purposeful regret. We have arrived at a stage at which public policy is losing its relevance to the actual state of the nation simply because it has become a captive of the values that make a mockery of it.. There is no need to embark on a litany of glaring disparities between fact and fiction in contemporary life because mass media, another pivotal factor in the state of our society, has made them as familiar as rice and bananas; unfortunately even they have not been spared from the miasma of self-deception that comes with great popularity in our times.

We may indeed be developing a middle class faster than NEDA's figures would indicate, but it would be dangerously misleading to conclude that we are thereby strengthening the foundations of a viable popular democracy. Prevailing values will always reflect what it takes for most people to stay alive and prosper. Nowadays all too many of our young people, at all socio-economic levels, have trouble distinguishing between liberty and license. Even if our people were on the whole better off than they used to be, their attitudes on and expectations from government remain extensions of old folkways: grab what you can and devil take the hindmost. In that respect we seem to be gaining more on the economically beleaguered Latin American states than Malaysia or Thailand.

That should come as no surprise. For although we take pride in having established the first democratic nation of southeast Asia, our national community is in fact the newest among all our neighbors. Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand can truthfully boast of older and better integrated constituencies than our own. Powerful kingdoms, even empires among them were able to achieve distinctively higher levels of social cohesion long before we did, or even thought of doing. They were not just better prepared for nationhood, they had in fact been nations, and conquest and occupation by western colonial powers could not undo cultural factors that in effect had already established the foundations of nationhood. What we have in common with many of the Latin American nations is the experience of having had democracy thrust on us before the great majority of our people were culturally prepared for it, thus accomplishing little beyond giving our ruling establishment more respectable credentials for perpetuating their political and economic preeminence.

A nation survives not just because it is loved, but because it is needed. A working democracy does not come into being out of universal awakening to some kind of divine revelation. (Heaven spare us any more of those!) It evolves out of an aggregate of typical responses to shared experience leading, often past many a painful detour, to general recognition of the indispensability of equity. Nations have to grow into that, there is simply no other way. American tutelage and modern mass communications have made our people highly conscious of their rights; but common experience through almost a century of purported democracy has failed to stimulate among them a strong sense of their civic obligations. The shape of our future as a nation will be shaped out of how that contradiction is resolved, if at all.

Looking for people of unimpeachable erudition and integrity to save us is just another aspect of a culture of dependence. The rock-bottom price for the establishment of a stable and dynamic society is the prevalence of conditions, economic as well as cultural, that nurture self-reliance and productive individual initiative among its people, and simply adopting that as a pious mantry won't make it happen. And at this stage of our cultural life, the idea that some kind of junta of strong leaders can pull us out of civic stagnation is nothing better than a reckless, comic-strip invitation to anarchy.

Indeed this generation of Filipinos is in the midst of critical transition, with the great mass of its people chafing under the yoke of sugar-coated oppression and still groping with mounting resentment for viable courses for relief. Like it or not, we can only build a nation on the strengths and weaknesses of the culture that shaped us. But all is not, is never lost. It is not as though we were bereft of ways and means for climbing out of the great morass that we have allowed ourselves to sink into. We are not that short of people and organizations capable of waging concerted efforts directed at limited and varied objectives such as vocational training, higher public education standards, environmental protection, low cost housing, shelter and basic education for homeless children, and many others, all of which can converge in time towards preparing our poor and disenfranchised to assume the burdens of citizenship. It is such activities, narrow and drab as they often seem to be, that deserve expanding and sustained support (Movies and television should can play a pivotal part in the campaign, if they are kept free of official coercion.) Open dissent and peaceful protest are essential parts of the process, and should not be unduly discouraged. Admittedly, these are processes that need time and patience to bear fruit, and we may be running out of both. Under prevailing circumstances, we can only strive for the best while preparing for the worst, because history has proved time and again that social evolution cannot be rushed. Quick fixes on complex social problems are heady wines that almost invariably lead to monstrous hangovers. Civil strife may indeed prove to be an inescapable part of the process, but revolution even at best only clears the air at extravagant cost, and the changes that it brings about are hardly ever the ones that its instigators anticipated. Culture either accommodates or it does not, it does not issue warning bulletins. Strange as it may seem, nothing has ever worked better than muddling through, come cataclysm or bonanza; history, in fact, will have it no other way.

Winston Churchill called democracy the worst system of government besides any of the other alternatives. In truth, there never was a nation that was a universal model of rectitude. Dynamic pluralism, not mere civil order, is the true hallmark of legitimate democracy. Human nature cannot be kept out of human affairs, and occasional episodes of disorder and confusion have to come with that. However it may come to it, a nation is never so stable as when its people, on the whole, have enough confidence in themselves to bear with the otherness of others.

The way to that goal is difficult, but we have no lack of resources both here and abroad for getting there, and the failure, all too often deliberate, of our leaders to make effective use of them is one of the most shameful scandals of our time. The challenge to sovereign institutions of emerging nations is to open avenues to development that interlock all segments of the population towards imperative objectives, rather than wistfully leaving it up to the dominant sectors to carry that burden. Experience has demonstrated the folly of that notion time and again. For instance, protecting native economic interests against the inroads of foreign corporate giants makes no sense at all if all it accomplishes is giving them a captive domestic market; all economic nationalism ever produced was endless economic stagnation. Domestic industry cannot survive, let alone grow, unless it becomes more competitive in a rapidly shrinking world, and a large part of government support for that effort has to be developing a more competitive working force, as well as expanding the domestic market for home-grown products. Conditions that are not inhospitable to common hopes and give us reasonable protection from common fears are the best that we or the people of any other nation have any right to expect from government. Greatness, that wonderful catchword, has never been a product of public policy. Taken to denote exceptional capabilities and achievements, it is more appropriately applied to individuals whose achievements have transcended national borders and historic eras. Public officials of any country have no business trying to stake out that territory.

Half a century ago the great economic philosopher Gunnar Myrdahl in his classic work "Asian Drama" all but despaired over the plight of poor countries struggling to survive the increasingly omnivorous economic grasp of rich nations. But he is gone, and we are not. National hara-kiri is not an acceptable option. What our people still have in abundance is hope. It is more imperative than ever for all of us to do what we can to keep it alive.

*Published in Graphic Magazine, July 19 and 26, 2004

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