Seeing like a nation

In our daily lives, we experience the state of our nation as a series of random events with no visible logic or coherence.  We see only what we see, and remain blissfully unaware of the partial nature of our vision.  A mother might see life as a never-ending cycle of meals to prepare or an infinite pile of dirty clothes to wash.  A nurse might see her world as a continual train of diseases on display, while a scavenger would see the world as merely a huge mountain of reusable waste.  Our pressing practical concerns tend to overpower our individual visions.

It is the promise of theory to help us see differently, if not a little more. There is, of course, no standpoint from which one can possibly observe everything.  Even if we added up all our individual ways of seeing, these would still not amount to anything close to a central commanding vision.

In my field of study, sociology — which I will simply define here as the study of society apart from the individual lives of the people that constitute it – many tools are available that enable us to imagine a society in its totality.  One of these is the theory of social systems of the American sociologist Talcott Parsons. I would use this as a guide if I were asked to prepare a report on the current state of the Filipino nation.

To view Philippine society as a social system is to imagine our nation as having to continually solve four basic problems.  First, it must adapt to its changing environment, and this essentially means finding the best sustainable means to create national wealth.  This is the economic function.  Second, it must set collective goals and priorities, use its wealth, and enlist the support of its people to attain these. This is the political function.  Third, it must weave the varied threads of human beliefs and desires into the fabric of a common social order. This is the integrative and regulatory function.  And finally, it must ensure the continuous formation of those values, identities and motivations that permit individuals to see themselves as members of the Filipino nation.  Parsons calls this the pattern-maintenance function, but I call it, more simply, the formative function.

Societies have to face the unique demands of the time and place in which they must maintain themselves, and so it is impossible to find two societies that are similar in every way.  What works well for one society may often be dysfunctional for another.  It is important for every nation to find its own solutions and develop a way of tracking its progress on the four basic problems mentioned.

Successful adaptation to its environment makes a nation wealthy. Such wealth, as much as possible, must be general and diversified rather than tied to one or two resources.  It must be made available not just to a few but to the many, and not just to the current generation but also to future generations.  When a nation is mired in persistent poverty and underdevelopment, we can safely conclude that it has failed to adapt to its environment. Chances are its dysfunctional economy is also dependent and highly vulnerable to the twists and turns of the global economy.

When a nation’s polity is working smoothly, we say the nation is powerful.  That power does not belong to a few; it belongs to the whole nation, a mark of its ability to act as one.  The nation’s priorities and what it takes to achieve them are clear to each citizen, and so everyone is prepared to make sacrifices. They trust their government and its officials; they do not just tolerate or suffer them.

Effective social integration may be measured by the amount of solidarity generated within society.  The misfortunes and pain of our fellow citizens become ours as well, just as we can rejoice and identify with their achievements.  We accept limits to our own personal quest for wealth or power, knowing that the good of the nation is higher than ours.  Weakly integrated societies tend to be rocked by rebellion and conflict.  The daily life of the individual is a narrative of defiance against established authority.  The law is felt not as an instrument for dispensing justice but as a tool to advance private interests.

And lastly, what are often called the basic institutions of a society are truly its formative structures – the family, the school, churches, and – in the modern world – the mass media.  They supply us our deepest desires, motivations, and self-understanding.  They form our consciences, develop the faculties of reason, shape our attitudes, and furnish us the foundations of our culture.  When they are functioning properly, they are a source of legitimacy. They converge to tell us what is respectable, admirable, and legitimate, allowing no confusion in values.  A well-formed society is a society with firm identities and stable value orientations.  In contrast, a failed society is likely to have a cynical, demoralized, and apathetic population.

Using this simple paradigm, we may see right away how miserably we have done as a national community, and how mindlessly we have sacrificed our sources of strength — our formative institutions – at the altar of a brainless economic model based on the export of people. Instead of harnessing their talent and creativity to develop our country and enrich our way of life, we literally drive our people away to serve other societies.  We can also see what irreparable injury our leaders commit when they routinely manipulate the law and brazenly exploit our regulatory institutions for the sake of political ambition and personal accumulation.  It is time we began seeing like a nation.


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