A future worth fighting for

Once again we find ourselves at a crossroad.  We don’t know where to turn, but we have a strong sense that we must alter course if we are to survive and grow as a nation. We are convinced that if we allow our current crop of politicians to continue governing the country, we are doomed to go around in circles.  We have a vague idea of the kind of leaders we need: they must be firm, inspiring, and trustworthy. But we are not sure who among our remaining leaders we can still trust.

The degrading poverty of the majority of our people remains our most daunting problem.  Our historic failure to solve it has meant the waste of so much human capital.  It has broken the spirit of our young people, who, increasingly, are unable to look at their nation’s heritage with pride, or to imagine investing their lives in its future.  We search our minds and hearts for any explanation for this failure.  And always we arrive at one conclusion – the lack of a visionary and selfless leadership.

This insight is basically correct, but it does not give a complete picture.  It overlooks the fact that there have been leaders of great integrity and capability in every generation.  It glosses over the system that actively co-opts or excludes the visionary rebels among them, usually portraying them as enemies or fools, and installing them as heroes when they are safely dead.

Even now, it is not difficult to find many good leaders at every level of our society.  But in their youth they are typically broken until they learn to bow to the imperatives of the system.  Subdued, they often become its cynical apologists.  So it is important, when we ask for new leaders, to remember to also ask for new structures, new values, and new practices.

The routines and forms of government are probably the easiest to change.  The change may be done by executive order, by legislation, or by constitutional revision. Far more resistant to change, however, are the basic structures that determine the distribution of wealth and power across society’s classes and groups.  The operation of these structures is carefully masked in everyday life, or explained away as an aspect of the natural order of things. Access to wealth is the most contested part of social life, the final object of all politics.

Shifting from presidential to a parliamentary system, or from a unitary to a federal government, is nothing more than cosmetic change unless there is also substantive alteration in the distribution of economic resources, and in the nature and basis of state power.  The present system, to state the obvious, remains in the hands of a small oligarchy, whose chronic inability to develop a robust economy and alleviate mass poverty is at the root of its recurrent crisis.

The economy’s weakness is visible in its almost total dependence on the remittances of overseas workers.  The country’s agricultural base where the majority of our people still work and live is a picture of stagnation and neglect.  Manufacturing has progressively contracted over the years.  The remaining vibrant sector, services, thrives mainly on the resources made available by our overseas workers.

But the most significant index of the present system’s bankruptcy is the gigantic debt burden that successive administrations have passed on to the Filipino people.  The debt service constitutes the single largest component of the national budget.  The senselessness of this burden is best exemplified by the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant, a facility that Filipinos have been paying for since 1986 even if it has not produced a single kilowatt of electricity.

Our problem clearly is not just Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. It is the whole country’s political leadership.  It is not just corruption, patronage politics, or electoral fraud; or smuggling, jueteng, and illegal logging.  It is the entire system.  It is not just the high population growth.  It is the whole way of life that the poor have been forced to invent in order to deal with the pressures of unmitigated want.

We have not been lacking in people who tell us that the system itself must change as a precondition for solving our most pressing problems.  However, it is doubtful if such people will ever be elected into office under the existing rules of the game. Yet ironically, the three extra-constitutional episodes in the nation’s recent past – Martial Law in 1972, Edsa I in 1986, and Edsa II in 2001 — have only nurtured in our people a distrust for political upheavals.  This defensive conservatism is what is propping up the dysfunctional government of Ms. Arroyo.

In the presidential elections of 2004, the upper and middle classes turned a blind eye to the massive cheating and gross misuse of public funds that attended the election of Ms. Arroyo.  They suspended their values and lowered their ideals in the belief that the alternative to her presidency would be worse. Their fear of chaos has made them politically quiescent.

I personally do not think that anyone needs to worry about a catastrophic breakdown of public order.  What I find disturbing is the corrosive mood of surrender that is spreading among our people. Many are simply giving up and moving out. How to reverse this tide of demoralization is the challenge of leadership in our time. The country awaits leaders who can still mobilize trust, and instill hope in our people by offering them a roadmap to viable social reform and a vision of a future that is worth fighting for.


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