We tend to think of change as something to achieve rather than as something to recognize.  We talk of effecting changes in our value system or in the structure of our society – little suspecting that the seeds of such changes have already been sown.  It is my contention here that the continuing crisis in our national life may be no more than the symptom of the stresses created by uncoordinated changes that have taken place over many years in various spheres of our society. We only need to read the signs.

“Culture,” says the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, “moves rather like an octopus – not all at once in a smoothly coordinated synergy of parts, a massive co-action of the whole, but by disjointed movements of this part, then that, and now the other, which somehow cumulate to directional change.”  What Geertz notes about cultures may as well apply to entire societal systems. Their various parts move in unplanned ways over time, without taking the whole mass with them as they head in one or other direction.  The impulses toward change may come from any part, and their effect on the whole system is largely unpredictable.  Some impulses are more consequential than others.

In her last State of the Nation Address, Ms Arroyo appeared to be guided by some version of this theory when she said that the nation’s political system has lagged behind its economic system.  She argued that our political problems are the outcomes of an outmoded presidential and unitary system of government.  We may change leaders, she says, but if we don’t change the system, the outcomes will be the same. She paints herself as a victim, and blames the system for the dysfunctions of her administration.  To her, the solution is simple: change the form of government to a federal parliamentary government.

This shift in perspective from persons to systems is not entirely wrong, and indeed, it is time we focused on systemic change. But Ms Arroyo’s analysis is flawed in at least two ways. First, she does not really tell us what changes have taken place in our economic life that would support the claim of an impending economic take-off.  Second, she explains the crisis of her presidency merely as the result of a stalemate between executive and legislative powers, of the gridlock between the two houses of Congress, and of the tendency to use people power to oust a president who has fallen out of favor.

These gridlocks may be real, but to project them as the causes of Ms Arroyo’s failure as a leader is to tax the imagination.  What have they got to do with the practices that have become the emblems of her presidency – the massive and organized electoral fraud, the conversion of public funds into campaign largesse, the deployment of the military and the police for partisan politics, and the distribution of choice positions in the public bureaucracy as political rewards?

Ms Arroyo may indeed be the child of a dysfunctional and obsolete political system.  But this system is dysfunctional not in the sense that it blocks governance but in the sense that it serves only the interests of those who monopolize political and economic life.  And it is obsolete not in the sense that it lags behind an imagined economic take-off, but in the sense that it cannot contain the new political consciousness that is emerging among our people.

The word “dysfunction” has a precise meaning in the social sciences. It refers to outcomes that prevent the larger system from maintaining itself.  A political system becomes dysfunctional when it can no longer set realizable goals and mobilize public effort toward their achievement.  It is the story of our political life.  Over the years, politics in our country has been a contest among rival factions of the elite.  Governmental power is prized because it is the main factor in economic accumulation.  Paul D. Hutchcroft, who studied the links between politics and banking in our country, used the term “booty capitalism” to describe this arrangement.

Something changed in our political landscape which the elites did not anticipate.  With the growth of cities and the spread of urban living, the old modes of voter management based on layers of patron-client reciprocity were eroded.  Politicians found themselves having to spend more during elections.  The two-party system that Martial Law killed could not be revived upon the return of formal democracy.  As a result, political recruitment became dependent on “winnability” and mass media exposure became a crucial factor.

But most importantly, from the mid-‘70s, something changed in our social landscape.  Overseas work became the dynamic element in the country’s economic life.  OFW remittances funded the college education of millions of young people from poor families. Consumption patterns throughout the country changed overnight. Television sets and personal computers became ordinary fixtures in many OFW homes, making way for new forms of consciousness. Returning OFWs brought home with them new values, new expectations about the role of government, and new notions about the basic entitlements of ordinary citizens.

The OFW phenomenon is an impulse that is revolutionizing our way of life beyond what we can imagine.  Its overall impact is pulling our political system toward greater democracy, more transparency in government, and more accountability in public life.  Politicians rooted in the old ways of patronage and corruption, like Ms Arroyo, are increasingly unable to take leadership roles in this emerging society. This crisis is telling us that the old is dying, and something new is about to be born.


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