The ethical moment in politics

There is a view of politics that Filipino politicians have been professing lately.  “Politics is a numbers game,” they love to say.  And they say it as if that is all there is to politics.  Of course the statement is true – in a shallow sense:  If you have the numbers, you get to make the decisions.  If you have the numbers, you will not be convicted of any wrongdoing.

But this view of politics is flawed, not only in a moral sense but also in a sociological sense.  It ignores the fact that, when you live in a society, you cannot avoid having to answer ultimately for your actions. Sheer numbers will not shield you from accountability. I call this the ethical moment in politics.

One does not run in an election simply because he is confident that his wealth, political network, or popularity will carry him to office. Rather, he couches his bid in terms of a moral or professional worthiness coupled with an overflowing need to serve.  Not even the most cynical politician wants to be perceived merely as a shameless power-seeker.   He may buy votes, or cheat, or coerce his way to public office, but he cannot completely ignore the ethical dimension because he wishes his election to be seen not only as legal but, above all, as legitimate.  Even the most ruthless dictator nurtures a wish to be loved.

What is true of politicians applies to voters as well.  A voter may sell his vote, demand or accept something in return, but he will always try to rationalize this in morally acceptable terms.  He will say: “This politician may be dirty but no one is clean anyway, and so it comes down to who can best help the needy.”  The voter’s conscience may not bother him, but, if they’re not like him, his neighbors, friends, and relatives will.  Unable to account for his action, he invites contempt and derision.

This sense of accountability (answerability or responsibility) for one’s actions remains strong in communities where urbanization or migration have not “ground men into masses,” to borrow a phrase from Karl Polanyi.   But where the organs of the State and the market have completely replaced the natural fabric of the community, not even the new norms of citizenship can recreate the ethic of accountability that human beings felt toward one another in older societies.

We are at that precise point in the transition – when the old is dying and the new, still struggling to be born, is already mangled beyond recognition.  Take a look at the condition of our institutions, at the way the rule of law has been bastardized, and at the way politics itself has been used to poison every pore of our national being.  Take a look at the situation of our families and communities today, after more than three decades of being fed into the belly of overseas employment in order to satisfy a crude utilitarian thirst.  Of what use is politics if we cannot call our leaders to account for the rate at which they have allowed the social tissue to deteriorate in the pursuit of blind capital accumulation.

It is my belief that, as it stands today, institutional politics – especially its regular electoral expression – has become nothing more than a way of further assimilating our people into a diseased social system. It offers no paths to social transformation.  It deadens all instincts for balanced growth.  It offers entertainment and diversion, instead of debate and the contest of visions.  It forecloses options, rather than open new spaces for invention.

The British writer Simon Critchley thinks of politics as “the creation of such a space around a demand and then articulating it in relation to the state.” The demand, whatever it may be, acquires an unstoppable force to the extent that it can be woven into an ethical narrative. There has to be “a moment of sacralization in the constitution of any polity,” says Critchley.  From the perspective of the political subject, I believe that.  Using this simple concept of politics, let me point to remaining pockets where, I think, real politics may still be found in our society today.

I saw these the other night in Ditsi Carolino’s “Lupang Hinarang,” a powerful documentary film of the recent struggles for land by the peasants from Bukidnon and Negros Occidental.  The Sumilao farmers undertook a 1,700-kilometer journey on foot from their remote village in Mindanao to Manila, where they hoped to bring their demand before the nation’s president.  The grueling 59-day communal trek through heat and rain took on the meaning of the Biblical desert crossing of God’s chosen people, and made the whole journey sacred.  Bajekjek, the youngest marcher, stated the issue in stark ethical terms:  “Pigs do not farm, only human beings can till the land” (in reference to the planned conversion of their land into a corporate piggery farm).  They won.

In Negros, the sugar cane farmers of Hacienda Velez-Malaga, finding that the land owner would kill them before he would allow them to take over the land that had been granted them under the agrarian reform law, decided to camp out in front of the main office of the Department of Agrarian Reform. Demanding that the government install them to their lands, they went on a hunger strike that lasted 29 days.  In the cramped space they claimed for themselves beneath make-shift tents, they created a sheltering Church of the poor in which they nourished their fading hopes. They, too, won in the end.

Oscar Wilde was right: “Everything to be true must become a religion.”

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