Crisis and the collective conscience

President Ramos said something very disturbing at his last Ulat sa Bayan speech.  He would make more trips abroad, he said in pique, defying calls that in a time of crisis he must lead in conserving precious foreign exchange.  He tried to soften this verbal tantrum by adding that he would also travel as often at home.   But the damaging message has been given.

I happen to think that most of these trips are important, and that it is right for a head of state to make them.  But I think it is wrong for the President to sound as if he is unmindful of the gravity of the present crisis, or as if these foreign trips take precedence over other essential affairs of the state.  The message is bad and unnecessary because it strips the government of any moral right to demand personal sacrifices from ordinary citizens at this particularly distressing moment of our national life.

By now, many Filipinos will have seen images of average South Koreans exchanging whatever foreign money they have put aside for local currency, or turning in their gold jewelry so that it could be melted into gold bars and be used to pay part of the IMF’s bail-out fund for their country.  The Thais are performing the same acts of solidarity, though not in the same magnitude. In Indonesia, a country whose people have been made cynical by widespread corruption in high places, the wealthy daughter of President Suharto recently made a show of converting $50,000 into discredited rupiahs.  She will probably impress none of her compatriots, but the message is correct.

But why do we have this nagging feeling that Filipinos are incapable of collective acts of selflessness like these?  Why is it that when the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas admonished the public to part with their dollars, the response was exactly the opposite – Filipinos frantically unburdened themselves of their pesos instead?  Why is the State in our society not recognized as a moral agent?  Why do we seem to have a weak conscience collective, to borrow a term from French sociologist Emile Durkheim?

These questions are important not only in the light of the present economic crisis, but especially because this year, we are proclaiming before the world the centenary of our declaration as a free nation.  If we seem so incapable of acting as a national community in the face of a crisis, is it not hypocritical to celebrate a national centennial?  I shall not attempt to answer this question  here.

What concerns me as a sociologist, however, is the why – why the collective conscience is weak, why it seems more difficult for Filipinos than, let us say, for Koreans to subordinate personal interest to national interest, to bow to the logic of the whole rather than to act selfishly.  These questions are at the heart of the current discussion of so-called Asian values.

I believe that what is in question here is not the Filipino’s capacity for compassion.  In times of calamity, we have abundantly demonstrated our ability to come to the rescue of those in need.  Moreover, the premium we place on our obligation to our families makes us, in one sense, a very un-individualistic people.  The Filipino worker who slaves in foreign lands and gives up all personal pleasures in order to nurture a family is an abiding icon of our times.

But, possibly, herein also lies our fundamental weakness as a society. We are an “anarchy of families”, said the historian Alfred McCoy.  Our collective representations beyond the family are blurred, and we do not see the nation-state as possessing any moral authority over us. Our excessive devotion to our families makes us blind both to the rights of the individual as well as to the claims of a larger social community.  Those claims are articulated by the state as the agent of society’s moral consensus.

In traditional societies like Thailand and Korea, this moral consensus first develops in the womb of a unifying religion, and matures under a despotic ruler, who becomes, in Durkheim’s words, “the personification of the moral authority of the conscience collective.”  As the division of labor in society becomes more complex, new intermediate organizations emerge between the despotic state and the family.  The affiliations that these associations offer create the conditions for personal rights and the rise of moral individualism, the new religion of modern democracies.

Philippine society has followed an altogether  different path.  Our preSpanish moral communities were no bigger than clans; our progress to nationhood was many times intercepted by colonialism.  The first national government we had was an imposition from outside; it had no moral authority over its subjects.  The religion that tried to unify our people into a single community came as an instrument of colonial subjugation than as a self-chosen guide to a moral universe.  Our alienation from national government has a historical basis therefore. So is our inability to see national leaders as moral elders.

We are Asian, but unlike our neighbors, we have no traditional values to guide us in imagining the national community.  Yet neither are we modern in the sense of having a fully-developed concept of individual citizenship.  We remain familistic in our world view, like isolated tribes in search of a social bond.

The struggle against colonialism would have led us to nationalism and then to the modern institutions of nationhood.  But one hundred years after the declaration of independence in Kawit, the task is clearly unfinished.  Perhaps, the crisis is precisely what we need to begin to create the moral bond that, as a nation, we still lack.


Reference: Emile Durkheim, Selected Writings, edited by Anthony Giddens, Cambridge University Press, 1972.