A consensus of acquiescence

The sad thing about the coming presidential elections is not that the leading candidates have refused to debate. The real tragedy is that concrete issues that should be debated are treated as non-negotiable and not part of the agenda of national discourse.

A consensus of acquiescence appears to define every discussion of those very conditions that constrain our every attempt at development.  As a result, hardly any serious debate at the level of the political leadership has been held on issues like the management of our foreign debt, our participation in a global free trade regime, and our role in the American-led global war on terrorism.  Given the gravity of the crisis we confront, one would have thought the ability to think boldly out of the box would be the first requirement of leadership in our time.

But it is amazing, for instance, how a term like “debt restructuring” could provoke a chorus of sanctimonious hissing from the subalterns of global capital. The word conventionally refers to a negotiated rescheduling of debts, though in some usage it may include other schemes of debt-reduction. The International Monetary Fund itself once toyed with the idea of a Sovereign Debt Restructuring Mechanism, dropping it only after some banks opposed it.  Yet, when candidate Fernando Poe Jr. uttered the word “restructuring” recently, his critics instantly endowed it with recklessness and equated it with unilateral “repudiation.”

The meticulous avoidance of forbidden words like “debt repudiation” and “debt cancellation” has been a feature of official policy since Marcos. Yet interestingly, after the United States took over Iraq, the neo-conservatives who laid the ideological warrant for the invasion of that hapless country proposed the cancellation of debts incurred under Saddam Hussein.  So why can’t a country like the Philippines, which accumulated its own share of odious debts through the collusion of a dictatorship and some greedy creditors, consider this option?

The answer lies in the fact that many crucial issues of our national life have been quietly removed from the agenda of public discussion. The servicing of the foreign debt is one of these.  Every year, the Philippine government automatically sets aside about 30 to 35 per cent of the national budget for debt service under a Marcos-crafted presidential decree.  PD 1177 provides for the automatic appropriation of funds for debt servicing, immunizing this huge chunk of money in the budget from any debate in Congress.

The same timidity may be seen in our participation in the World Trade Organization, a regulatory body controlled by the rich countries.  The reform of this world body is long overdue because it has served mainly as an instrument of a predatory form of globalization.

Gone are the days when a nation-state, using the institutions of its political democracy, could set the terms of its own growth.  That was what economic planning at the national level meant.  These days, what is called economic planning amounts to no more than the calibration of structural adjustments mandated by bodies like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

On the advice of its technocrats, our government treats these harmful adjustments as a technical matter rather than as a political decision. Vital policies with far-reaching effects on our people’s lives — like the handling of the foreign debt, trade liberalization, deregulation, and privatization — are given a pseudo-scientific spin in order to take them away from the realm of public debate.

The silent conspiracy that attends the treatment of vital economic questions may also be seen in the foreign policy sphere.  As national economic policy-making has become illusory, so also has the crafting of foreign policy.  These questions used to constitute the core of authentic presidential debates in democratic countries.  Today they have vanished from the public sphere.

Ms. Arroyo volunteered our participation in a legally and morally questionable war without bothering to consult Congress.  She sent troops and humanitarian workers to Iraq without waiting for a warrant from the United Nations.  She placed the entire country in grave peril of possible retaliation from America’s enemies without feeling obliged to explain what we were getting into and what consequences such a decision could bring upon our people.  She authorized the deployment of foreign troops to sites of actual conflict in the Philippines without considering the danger of escalation that could result from the entry of a foreign power like America into our domestic conflict zones.

That we have long learned to live with this state of affairs speaks volumes about the way we take for granted our democratic and sovereign rights as a people.  The reality is that we’ve hardly noticed that we have lost control over many vital aspects of our national life.

Our political leaders argue over everything except the things that matter to our nation’s future.  They talk about poverty and governance, unaware that they have long abdicated the right to speak on the crucial issues that determine our nation’s capacity to carry out meaningful reforms in these areas.

The real question of our time is how the Filipino people may regain effective control over their collective fate in a globalized world.  None of the presidential candidates seems interested to talk about this.


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