Averting collapse

A building or structure collapses when its pillars and trusses fold into one another, making them unable to perform their support function. Strong societies, like strong buildings, distribute their weight efficiently among a number of differentiated support systems.  When one of these systems fails, the framework may be compromised, but chances are it will remain standing, allowing time to repair the broken part.

This is not what happens when a society’s stability is made to depend almost entirely on a single dominant system – such as the political system, in our case. The crisis of Philippine politics has spread across the whole social system, dangerously dragging down every institution in its path.

Doing business has become so politicized that even those who earned their wealth mainly by fair means feel insecure without a direct line to political power.  Every major business group today has to invest in politics by contributing to the campaign of the probable winners if it wants to survive.  Virtually no one is protected from the outcomes of politics, or immune to its seductions.  The legal system has increasingly lost its autonomy and has become little more than a weapon to use against one’s political enemies. The military has lost its professionalism and now routinely dips its fingers in civilian affairs. Church people have been enticed to enter partisan politics to restore its morality, risking their moral credibility in the process. Politics without scruples has colonized everything. This, in a nutshell, is what is wrong with Philippine society today.

Today, electoral politics appears to be the only worthwhile game in town.  Even the rich celebrity boxer Manny Pacquiao thinks he has to be a politician to be worth anything.  It has little to do with doing public service. It has everything to do with the acquisition of a convertible power that public office in our country uniquely offers its bearers.  To be in government is to have access to unlimited wealth, both public and private.  This explains why politicians spend millions of pesos to win an elective position that on paper pays a measly salary.  The travel perks and the millions in pork barrel that come with the position only partly account for the doggedness with which public office is pursued.  The real attraction lies in the generalized role political power has come to have in our society.

This is exactly the same reason why those in power cannot afford to be out of government.  To be without political power is to be at the mercy of those who have it.  It is to risk losing everything that one has accumulated while in government – money, clout, and social standing – and even liberty.  The winner can take all.

Democratic politics is not meant to be like this.  There are supposed to be checks everywhere on the exercise of public power.  This is the task of the opposition, of the courts, of the press, and finally of the sovereign people acting as a moral public.  None of these elements in the political equation is supposed to be for sale.  The restraints are built into the system itself.

In our part of the world, however, political democracy is particularly susceptible to corruption because of the unbridgeable gap in wealth and power separating the elites from the masses.  The only politics possible in such societies is that between rival factions of a predatory elite.  Changes in the world have increasingly made this kind of politics untenable over the years.  Yet, where the vast majority of the people are too poor and too disorganized to affect political life, change does not easily flow from below.  In our country, on at least two occasions, it came from the middle and educated classes who succeeded in irritating the political system and forcing it to move. Alas, their initiatives were subsequently hijacked by the elite.

Developments in neighboring Thailand show remarkable similarities as well as differences. There, the crafty Thaksin Shinawatra became so successful in exploiting the weaknesses of the country’s political system that there was virtually no way of stopping him from winning every election and installing himself permanently as Thailand’s leader.  No civilian politician before him had so mastered the rules of patronage politics.  But his success threatened Thailand’s other centers of power – the military and the monarchy.

With the King’s tacit approval, the military seized State power on Sept. 19, 2006 in the name of restoring morality in government.  Until then, the middle forces had led the fight against Thaksin’s corrupt and authoritarian ways, hoping to force him to step down.  When Thaksin showed that he would not be shamed out of office, everyone expected the military to break the stalemate.  Still, when the army actually got rid of Thaksin and appointed a provisional council, the middle forces did not know how to react. This ambivalence has recently given way to a more active criticism of the military-sponsored government.

I do not believe there is a single model of democracy that is suitable to every society.  I agree with the political theorist Chantal Mouffe that a “normative dimension” of an “ethico-political nature” is inscribed in political institutions, not as the expression of a universal morality, but as the contingent product of a society’s cultural development.  We must be sensitive to this ethical instinct and learn to build on it. It is what drives the citizens of a nation to take action when they feel the political leadership has overstepped the limit – when, in our idiom,

“Sobra na!”


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