Institutions in the age of complexity

Not too long ago, it was typical for Filipinos to work, start a family, and die in the same town where they were born.  Today our people live and work in 192 countries in the world.  They are exposed to a diversity of social systems and cultures.  They are sources of new expectations.  This global dispersal has taken place only in the span of three decades.  It is unprecedented in its scale.

Our national crisis stems largely from our inability to recognize this growing complexity in our affairs. We tend to view this crisis as a crisis of values, rather than a crisis of systems.  In our quest for solutions, we pin our hopes in the revival of personal integrity, and seldom in the formation of appropriate institutions.  Ours are the instincts of a simple society lost in the modern world.

Sociology – the study of societies – was born in the West in a time of such growing complexity.  Then as now, its basic aim was to understand what happens to societies as they face an increasingly complex environment.  The early sociologists discovered that societies that sprang highly-differentiated internal systems tended to handle complexity better.  The key is functional differentiation.  Where traditional societies anchor social unity on similarity of values and beliefs, modern societies secure social cohesion through a division of labor based on differentiated functions.

Our inability as a people to become modern is visible in almost every sphere of our national life.  In modern democracies, for example, politics is the domain of political parties offering alternative solutions to society’s problems.  Political debates revolve around ideology and programs of government. In the Philippines, politics remains the vocation of political clans and celebrity politicians.  Political debate revolves around personalities and vested interests.  The family is the hub that connects almost every societal function, be it politics, business, or religion.

The irony is that our system of government is probably one of the most modern in the world.  Our constitution is modeled after the basic law of modern liberal democracies. Individual liberty is enshrined in a Bill of Rights.  There is clear separation of governmental powers.  A system of checks and balances is built into the whole political structure.  Constitutional offices, assured of relative autonomy from politics, make up the core of the state administration.  A system for resolving political conflicts is carefully laid out.

Yet, despite all these constitutional safeguards, we have gone through one political upheaval after another, unable to settle conflicts in an institutional way.  An era of dictatorship was inaugurated in 1972.  A popular uprising ousted the incumbent government both in 1986 and in 2001. Today we find ourselves locked in a political stalemate because of unresolved doubts about the integrity of the 2004 election.  Our institutions do not appear to be working for us. Let us try to understand the sources of this failure.

In 1972, Marcos entered into a partnership with the military in order to establish an authoritarian government.  He crafted a new constitution to provide a legal cloak to what was essentially a naked power grab. The military freely collaborated in this political adventure.  The Supreme Court failed in its duty by giving its tacit blessing to the outcomes of an illegal ratification process for a new constitution.

After 14 years as an autocrat, Marcos bowed to American pressure and agreed to hold an election in 1986.  He “won” the election, but the people rejected his claim of a fresh mandate.  A few days later, a failed coup attempt by young military officers triggered a people power uprising that culminated in his ouster.

The new government of Cory Aquino tried to rebuild the basic institutions crucial to a functioning democracy, starting with the electoral process.  By appointing credible individuals to the Commission on Elections, Cory succeeded in restoring the legitimacy of electoral contests.  But she failed to jump-start the modernization of the archaic and vulnerable electoral system.

New faces joined the Cory government, briefly boosting the drive toward reform.  Unfortunately, post-Marcos politics remained personalistic, paving the quick return of traditional politicians.  The challenge to the trapos did not come from reform-minded political parties.  It came from celebrity politicians like Joseph Estrada.  The Edsa government failed to respond to the needs of the poor.  The poor found their champion in Estrada, who won by a landslide in 1998.  Cut from the fabric of trapo politics, he was obviously not a reformer.  The middle class pounced on his lapses, halfway into his term, and sought his ouster.

The impeachment of Erap was aborted when the prosecution walked out, triggering a people power demonstration.  As if on cue, the top military commanders of the Armed Forces mounted the stage to announce their withdrawal of support for the Erap administration. This was a betrayal of their constitutional function. The Supreme Court justices compounded the problem when they agreed to swear in Vice President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo as president even before there was a clear vacancy in the presidency.  That single act, highly debatable in its wisdom, made the high court an accomplice in a partisan political event.  It compromised their role as interpreters of the law.

These lapses lie at the center of our present political crisis.  They are all traceable to our failure to uphold the separation of institutional functions.

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