On Ayala Avenue this week, the nation was treated to a dress rehearsal for Edsa IV. Thousands of Metro Manila’s urban poor descended upon the city’s most affluent section demanding the resignation of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and of Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide Jr. Many brought their children and cooking utensils with them, and prepared for a long siege. The police dispersed them with teargas at the height of Makati’s rush hour after they overstayed their permit to demonstrate.
We may denounce politicians who ride on the poor’s resentments and cynically exploit their despair, but there is no way we can avoid acknowledging the scandal of their growing numbers and the gravity of their persistent needs. They may, as we have seen, rent out their grievances for a few pesos and a meal, and join demonstrations without comprehending the messages they shout or the placards they carry. But this does not invalidate their despair. Their sheer presence in the face of so much private wealth is by itself a powerful and destabilizing message.
The unrelenting poverty of the vast masses of our people condemns the whole Philippine state. It mirrors the failure of our social and political institutions to give to them the opportunity to become productive citizens. Their poverty cannot be due to congenital idleness, as some of us are sometimes wont to believe. For they often do well as migrants. Nor can it be explained as the result of wrong values and vicious traits, for aren’t these also aspects of our society?
Those of us who claim to see better are quick to pin the blame on our corrupt leaders. Corruption is a huge problem in our society, but it is not the root cause of mass poverty. Inequality is.
This is a time of “vague uneasiness,” the sociologist C. Wright Mills says. We know that something is deeply wrong with our society, but we have yet to formulate this “in such ways as to permit the work of reason and the play of sensibility.” Mills explains: “Neither the values threatened nor whatever threatens them has been stated; in short they have not been carried to the point of decision.”
Which values might these be? What threatens them? I submit that the values we most cherish and feel most threatened at present are: economic security, political stability, and growth. The most urgent of these, I believe, is economic security. Too many of our people are without regular incomes that can permit them to raise families with dignity. They are made to compete in a ruthless open market without the necessary resources and skills, and without the safety nets that would allow them to survive emergencies, calamities, and wild fluctuations in the economy. We are kinder to the big players. We allow them to collect additional revenue to cover currency fluctuations. When banks get into trouble, the Bangko Sentral lends them billions to keep them going. The national budget reflects our twisted priorities; we allot more money every year for debt repayment than for social services.
Aggravating our people’s economic insecurity is the anxiety of dealing with the powerful in a constantly shifting political order. Because of their vulnerability, they are easy targets of mobilizations by the elite, who use them as cannon fodder for their political wars. They live in zones of political conflict and bear the brunt of political upheavals. They often champion the interests of their patrons long after the latter have made peace with their rivals. They have no choice but to remain under the wings of feudal patrons because, under our system, their access to services and the law has to be mediated by people of influence. Unless the powerful learn to live by the constitution, and to compete in elections without resorting to violence, vote buying and fraud, we cannot expect the poor to prefer programs to personalities.
Young Filipinos, unable to suffer the stagnation that wastes their parents, are rushing to other shores for a chance at growth. They may often end up doing the most menial tasks, but, for them, this is still better than the slow premature decay that awaits them at home. For the reality is, despite its claim to being open and mobile, our society is rigidly dynastic. Far from dismantling inherited hierarchies, our educational system only reproduces the disparities of the system.
It is not surprising that many young people from poor families are driven to find their luck in the less rigid interstices of the entertainment industry, where, perchance, a future political career might be formed.
Anyone who can still stand back from the daily vexations that erode our morale will know at once that this social order cannot be sustained in its present form. Unable to rule in the old way, the elite will soon find it necessary to tighten its grip on the nation through greater coercion. Or, accepting the necessity to share power and wealth, it may inaugurate a serious program of reform aimed at rebuilding the structure of opportunity for the masses. The alternative is an escalating war punctuated by increasingly unruly Edsa-style upheavals. Without a credible revolutionary force that can integrate the nation under a new framework, the conflict will tear our society apart indefinitely.
Seen against this background, the attempt to impeach the Chief Justice and the President’s call for reconciliation look irrelevant. Even next year’s elections seem out of place. The country faces a graver problem. We have to clarify the vague uneasiness hanging over the nation and come to a decision point. Only if we do this will elections make any sense.
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