The nation in flux

The problem with state-of-the-nation assessments is that they are often empty political rituals.  The government describes the institutional problems and prospects – the economic climate, jobs and investments, the budgetary picture, the peace and order situation, the state of our political life, and shows the way forward.  Critics paint a grim picture of the realities and issues – the concentration of wealth, poverty, misuse of power, and show the futility of official policy.

Such exercises seldom lead to any imaginative transformation or redirection of the ship of state because what we are debating are the routines of collective life, rather than the basic social framework underpinning these routines.  Take the wage boards as an example. Instead of arguing whether regional wage boards should be scrapped in favor of industry-wide boards, should we not be asking ourselves first what the principal role of the state should be at this time in our nation’s history?

When we borrow from other nations, we bring in institutions that were shaped by the sensibilities and contingencies of another time and place.  Unless we are conscious of their assumptions, these borrowed tools will not work for us.  And, unless we are clear about what we want for our people and what our priorities are, we may forever be shopping for solutions.

Now is the perfect time to be discussing the basic framework of our society.  For the nation is again in a state of flux.  The feudal and colonial moorings of the entire institutional order of our society have been loosened.  The old social divisions and rigid hierarchies that once defined the parameters of our national life are slowly melting before our eyes.  The old elites that have been unable to reinvent themselves are in panic.  The new middle classes are confused: they have claimed new territory but now they demand stability.  The lower classes are restive.  New opportunities are opening up but they are unable to access these.  The poorest among them recoil from the new and seek comfort in the certainties of the old system.

We are in a period of transition, and it is not easy.  But, as the Chinese might tell us, danger and opportunity come together. Instead of mutually reinforcing each other’s despair over our seeming incapacity to get our act together, can we not try looking at this moment as precisely the opening we have been waiting for in which to re-imagine our nation?  In normal times, the institutions and routines that regulate our collective life are just too strong to allow any revision or reinvention.

Now, for the third time in roughly 30 years we are afforded another chance to take a hard look at the basic rules of our society.  The first was in 1971, the year preceding Martial Law.  The second was in 1986, following the collapse of the Marcos dictatorship.  And now, the challenge is thrust upon us again in the wake of the overthrow of a corrupt and incompetent president who came to power on the crest of a populist wave.  We must seize this moment rather than flee from it. A conversation between Edsa II and Edsa III would be immensely productive.  A constitutional convention before the 2004 presidential elections would be a timely way of reaping the lessons of the last two Edsas.

We may often despair over our growing reputation in Asia as the country that has used its intelligence to subvert its own future.  But in fact few nations have been as lucky as we are in facing up to their own crises.  Despite our problems in Mindanao, we have not plunged our country in a major fratricidal war.  Neither the logic of race nor of religion divides our country in any permanent way. Even at the darkest period of Martial Law, our military bowed to civilian rule. Our major political upheavals and transitions have been models of nonviolent processes. We can reasonably claim to be a democracy. Wherever they are in the world, our people are regarded as hardworking and peaceful.  We command respect rather than terror in the community of nations.

In short, we have a record of human achievement that we can proudly build upon.  But why is our national self-esteem so low?  Why do we allow setbacks to drain our morale?  I suspect it is because we get tired finding ourselves in exactly the same place over and over as if caught in a spin of eternal recurrence.

Perhaps the trick is to extend our time frames: instead of periods of six years, we might try reckoning history in terms of fifty.  Accordingly, we can say something has really changed only if it survives the test of at least five decades.  Through this we might learn perseverance. We might also learn to establish our institutions gradually on the foundation of our own experience, instead of taking shortcuts by adopting complete systems from abroad.

In many ways, we are still in that period of drift following the abysmal failure of the New Society experiment.  The flux led us to the path of the pre-Martial Law order and produced Erap.  Edsa II was a way of telling ourselves that we can no longer rely on an obsolete political system to survive in a highly competitive world.  On the other hand, Edsa III reminded us that no nation can move forward if half of its citizens are excluded from the benefits of progress.  It has taken us 15 years to learn these things, but that is still time wisely spent.


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