The middle class and the poor

Two major forces determine the political life of the country today: the poor and the middle class.  One decides the outcome of elections, the other decides the fate of administrations. Their aspirations for a better life have made them conscious of the power they can wield. United, they can change the system. Divided, they become tools of conservatism.

The dying years of the Marcos dictatorship saw the emergence of an articulate middle class committed to the ways of modern democratic governance. The vanguard of this class is what we today call “civil society.” It made its debut as a reform constituency immediately after the 1983 Aquino assassination, and demonstrated its awesome power by taking down Marcos in 1986 and Estrada in 2001.  Marcos and Erap bore the brunt of this modernist militancy.  But in fact, every president since Marcos has come under attack by the middle class.

Today, no president, regardless of how he or she comes to power, can govern this country effectively without the active support of the middle class.  The conditions for this support are straightforward and clear – firm commitment to the dismantling of trapo control of the nation’s affairs, reorganization of the economy so as to make it dynamic, equitable, and free from oligarchic manipulation, and professional and rational administration of our public and collective life.

Taking a dim view of electoral politics in the country, the middle class is typically squeamish about running for public office, but it does not hesitate to march into the streets to make its sentiments heard.  Its activism however is weakened by the lack of sustained followthrough. It folds its banners as soon as a crisis has passed, leaving the traditional politicians to mismanage the political investment they have made.

Less organized and less politicized are the poor of our society who have grown in number.  Gripped by ignorance, mesmerized by mass media, and paralyzed by poverty, they are incapable of seeing beyond their personal troubles.  They do not make a connection between their personal situations and the social structures that constrain their life chances.  They seek solutions in patronage and repose their faith in the all-encompassing power of charisma.  The relief they get from their persistent problems is short, limited, and illusory.

They want change, but their individual powerlessness keeps them timid.  They would rather wait for a messiah than seek strength in collective action.  Their occasional attempts at self-organization are often marred by personal and sectoral interests that leave them open to divide-and-rule tactics.  Yet because of their size and the urgency of their aspirations, the poor constitute the most important force for genuine social reform.

A politicized middle class could be the key to the transformation of the poor into a potent force for peaceful and meaningful change. Through popular organizing and education, and through the formation of mass-based political parties, they can help the poor recover their voices and expand their participation in the nation’s life. This is, however, not as easy as it seems.  Middle class movements are discovering how difficult it is to politicize people who are perennially hungry and desperate.  They now know that organizing does not go very far unless accompanied by concrete action to address basic needs.  Yet the latter is a task that only a few can perform because of the tremendous resources it demands.

The net result of this is that middle class advocacy has tended to be confined to governance issues – corruption, peace and order, rational administration – with little to say about the structural causes of the worsening poverty situation. Over time, the resentment of the poor ripens into animosity against modernity itself and a rejection of any rational approach to public administration.  And as the gap between the classes increases, middle class fear of the poor also rises.

This polarization came to an ugly point in the contest between the Edsa II and Edsa III forces.  Demagogues from both sides of the people power divide cynically and irresponsibly exploited the latent fears and resentments of an agitated public in their pursuit of political ambition.  In the absence of an alternative around which the middle class and the poor could unite, the traditional political operators reaped all the gains from the nation’s political upheavals and elections.

Today the same politicians are chanting the mantra of unity and reconciliation in order to accommodate shameless defectors from both sides.  This has left their respective constituencies confused about the meaning of the political values they had championed. This barefaced opportunism has exacerbated the public dislike for politicians.  But, more important, it has provoked disenchantment with electoral politics that makes the extra-constitutional road to political change attractive once more.

Surely there is an alternative to an electoral landscape dominated by entertainment personalities and traditional politicians.  However, this will not miraculously emerge from a mere shift to the parliamentary system.  It has to grow from the patient and sustained effort of middle class activists working hand in hand with organic leaders of the poor to create a solid constituency for reform.  The objective is to build a just and prosperous nation, but this cannot be achieved without an enduring political party.  Now is the time for the middle class to put its money where its mouth is.


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