The bigger crisis

Typhoon “Milenyo” came and went like an haughty star performer with a million-dollar name. Its arrival was announced just the day before, but in less than an hour of its lightning visit, it was gone.  In its wake it left a devastation the likes of which Metro Manila hasn’t seen in a decade.  In an instant, the University of the Philippines Diliman campus where I live became a wilderness.  The majestic acacias lining its avenues fell over each other, their limbs ripped from their trunks and their ancients roots pulled from the ground.  As it departed, Milenyo wove a funereal curtain out of the telephone and electricity lines and left it as a final touch to its trail of destruction.

One dreads to think how we might fare with a typhoon as fierce as “Katrina”, which on an overnight visit reduced the vibrant city of New Orleans into a lifeless swamp.  Or with an earthquake as forceful as the one that flattened the Japanese city of Kobe a few years ago.  Or with a tsunami as overwhelming as the one that recently engulfed coastal cities in Thailand and Indonesia.  I honestly think we may not survive a devastation of such scale.  It will most likely set us back by at least one generation.  It will, like war, severely scar the national psyche.

To be sure the Philippines has had its share of millennial calamities. We have survived them mainly because their impact has been local. But it seems we have hardly learned from them, judging from the disorganized way we respond to typhoons, floods, earthquakes, landslides, and oil spills.

Every calamity in Metro Manila, the heart of political authority, seems to incite fits of lawlessness among our people.  As the last gust of wind left the city the other day, half-naked inhabitants emerged from everywhere and descended upon the collapsed billboard frames and power lines.  Armed with steel and wire cutters, they started slicing off and carting away vital tissues of these fallen structures.  It was a scene that was replicated in many parts of the city.  As authority makes its absence felt, every inhabitant in the grip of deprivation becomes a scavenger.  The veneer of order is suddenly lifted, and every resident is left to fend for himself or to protect his possessions.

There was a glimpse of this inexplicable burst of anarchy even in New Orleans, and perhaps it was this, more than the scenes of thousands of displaced residents huddled in gyms, that struck terror in the hearts of ordinary Americans.

The brittleness of order in the face of calamities is a reminder that the seemingly coordinated routines of everyday life do not constitute the essence of a nation’s life.  Modern nations are held together by political authority.  The bigger they are, the less they are able to call upon the customs of community life to maintain order.  In modern societies, what takes the place of the instinctive “bayanihan” is what the German sociologist Niklas Luhmann calls “the capacity for collective action” that is formed by centers of political authority.  This is what we have had a hard time developing in the Philippines.

As the population grows in number, the spirit behind “damayan” (solidarity) and “bayanihan” (communal self-help) gradually weakens. Government authority must step in to fill up the vacuum created by the erosion of custom.  But the institutionalization of government authority is not something that can automatically be built upon a presumed instinct for collective action.  If someone tries to cut into a line, Luhmann says, “Collective grumbling may occur, perhaps even individual actions that draw on the implicit support of others.  But how far can this action go before it loses collective backing…?  There is much to suggest that from the very beginning this uncertainty suppresses every impulse to collectivizing the willingness to act. Everyone waits, and the longer nothing happens, the greater the probability that nothing will.”

This is a scary thought.  It suggests that a nation may experience prolonged moments of incapacity for collective action, if not of anarchy, because of its failure to develop a legitimate political center. Luhmann concludes: “One knows that societal systems that cannot develop the collective capacity for action cannot get beyond a low level of development.”

Nowhere is the ambiguity in our country’s legal and political life today more evident than in the anguished blame-tossing that characterizes government attitude toward billboards.  President Gloria MacapagalArroyo descended upon Edsa to view the destruction wrought by

“Milenyo.”  An Inquirer report gave this account: “An irritated President Macapagal-Arroyo yesterday ordered the Department of Public Works and Highways and the Metropolitan Manila Development Authority to address the problem created by the proliferation of billboards in the metropolis.”

MMDA Chair Bayani Fernando said “he expected the DPWH to issue the guidelines to implement the President’s order.”  DPWH Secretary Hermogenes Ebdane countered that his agency’s hands were tied because the billboard owners were protected by law.  In obvious exasperation, the secretary, a former head of the Philippine National Police, said something that graphically illustrates the growing inutility of governmental authority:  “If you like, you can hire billboard vigilantes and they will be the ones to bring them down.”

Vigilantism is a virus that spreads in societies that have no recourse to effective political authority.  This is the bigger crisis we face – our growing inability to form a government that can unite us for collective action.

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