Young people in an obsolete society

Running for public office in our society has become so costly that elections are losing their relevance.  Instead of serving as the means for tracking changes in the public pulse, injecting new blood, and strengthening the legitimacy of government, our elections only perpetuate feudal hierarchies and promote political instability.  The new forces of modernity are still too weak to challenge the old structures of patronage.  The old is dying but its place is being taken not by modern leaders but by new trapos.

In various parts of the country, many traditional politicians are running unopposed after agreeing among themselves to amicably divide the territory they occupy.  But in other places, where the stakes are high, no fair settlement is possible, and so the battle lines are drawn. Where this happens, what results is a free-for-all where the landed oligarchy must defend its privileges against the challenge mounted by the new rich who have made their pile from gambling, smuggling, drugs, labor recruitment, government contracts, high finance, and, of course, entertainment. This is money politics; it reserves no place for the merely bright or competent.

Only the faces of the players are different; the rules of the game remain unchanged.  They are the rules of an unequal, highly stratified society, where wealth and power are wielded by the very few, and permanent want is the lot of the many.  Where charity takes the place of social justice, and basic human rights are recognized only when they are sponsored by a patron. Where industry and talent count for nothing unless they are mediated by connections.  Where power trumps the law, and loyalty, rather than justice, is the norm.  A false moral consensus based on the obsolete unity of the powerful and the powerless reigns in such societies.

Yet the winds of change are coming from all directions and they are buffeting Philippine society.  More than ever, Filipinos are traveling extensively as migrants in search of work.  In the modern societies that host them, they come face to face with cultures of fairness, of accountability, and of responsible citizenship and governance.  They work hard, and they learn to demand good value for the money they earn.  More important, they begin to expect good value not only in the form of quality goods, but also in the form of reliable and quality public service.  They become conscious of their entitlements as taxpayers and as citizens.

Modern communication has also linked today’s young Filipinos to a world never imagined by the previous generation.  This has afforded them access not only to new knowledge but to new worlds as well. The new communication technology, as epitomized by the Internet, has placed at their disposal new modes of expression they are just beginning to discover.  All this may incline them initially to seek better lives away from their own country, independently of its unsteady growth rather than in conjunction with it.  But this is to be expected in all societies undergoing a turbulent transition.

Faced with a new global environment, Philippine society is hobbled by old structures and is unable to convert the full potential of its young population into fresh energy.  Many Filipinos cannot wait indefinitely and they are forced to leave.  But their departure is mainly physical.  From faraway, they continue to track developments in the homeland, usually with greater impatience than the compatriots they left behind.  They are a force for change, even if, as overseas voters, they may not be organized enough to make a significant difference at this point.

It is to the young people in school that we must look for hope.  Unlike their elders, they are not yet captives of the patron-client relationships that are at the center of our everyday life.  They are not concerned with preserving privilege but with breaking its structure.  If they are taught even the basics of democracy in school, everything they learn should cast doubt on the legitimacy of almost everything they see around them.

But, judging alone from the types of courses they choose (nursing being the most favored course today), we can see at once that their sights are also set on work abroad.  They seem to have little time, if any, for the issues that preoccupy the country.  In many university forums where I have spoken, I have asked how many in the audience are registered voters.  At most only about 20% raise their hands.  The rest seem dazed, unable to locate the place that politics might occupy in their lives.  But they listen, and after a while they begin to ask questions.

Quite obviously, the initiative, the trigger, the jolt that will break the spell of depoliticization, has to come from somewhere else.  Perhaps it has to come from the young professionals who have stayed, the ones currently occupying the bottom rungs of the shrinking middle class.  They would have first-hand experience with all the habits of a dysfunctional society.  Even if they may be set on leaving the country eventually, they cannot help but feel violated by the cyclical rule of the corrupt and the unfit.  That feeling was the same force that fuelled Edsa I and Edsa II.

Young professionals have a natural constituency in the youth who are in school.  But they have to recover from the despair brought about by the failed expectations of the two Edsas.  For them to unleash the energy of the young, they must summon the audacity to imagine and offer themselves as the alternative.


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