There’s a popular French saying, “plus ça change, plus c’est pareil.” It means, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” This ironic observation is a testimony to the enduring nature of structures. Events in everyday life may suggest unending flux, but the fluidity can be superficial, masking the unshakable character of an underlying order. This realization however only comes with the passage of time. We can be so caught up in the drama of single events that we don’t notice the basic continuity of things.
There have been many milestones in our nation’s life. We fell under foreign rule at various times. The arrival of each new set of tyrants, wrote the nationalist historian Renato Constantino, was heralded as a moment of liberation. For many Filipinos, 1946 — the year we got our formal independence from the Americans — was supposed to be a real watershed, the start of our life as a sovereign nation. But, except for the changes in fortune of the small Filipino elite that took over the reins of government, and the rise of a tiny middle class, the old order was untouched. The landscape of social inequality and mass poverty was largely preserved.
This unchanged terrain has been our most enduring legacy. Over the years following independence, it has bred its own feudal bosses and followers, its own shallow economy and hybrid consciousness. To this day, it is protected against explosive change by a thick undergrowth that keeps it securely fastened to the motherboard of its former colonial master, the United States of America. It is this entire social order that has kept us from becoming a modern, democratic, and prosperous society.
Every election year, we look for new faces that can personify our people’s yearning for meaningful change. This fixation with personalities grossly exaggerates the role that individuals play in the reconstruction of society. It devalues the need for policy changes that can create the conditions for long-term shifts in the social order.
One only needs to take a look at the societies that are today being hailed as dynamic and successful in order to understand what social change entails. They share a couple of things in common. 1. Education is compulsory for everyone, rather than a function of wealth, social status, or gender. 2. The rule of law rises above the claims of wealth, power, or status, assuring justice to everyone who comes before the courts. 3. Politics is insulated from wealth, religion, and family, thus ensuring equal access to public positions. 4. Religion is a matter of individual choice. 5. The economy offers everyone open access to markets and occupations. Here, at once, we may see the principal obstacles that have constrained the full development of the Philippines into a modern society.
Access to lifelong learning and knowledge has been blocked for many of our people. This is evident not only in the way in which the State has delegated an increasing portion of the educational function to the private sector, but also in the various ways in which the government taxes the acquisition of knowledge. Every aspiring developing nation has made massive investment in basic and advanced education the spear point of its quest for modernity, except the Philippines.
Justice through the legal system has remained as elusive for the vast majority of our people as the satisfaction of their basic material needs. The corruption of our courts, the police, and the entire justice system is legendary. With no money or political connection, the poor are forced to seek justice elsewhere. The persistence of various insurgencies mirrors the failed character of our legal system.
Politics in our country is so tied up to networks and layers of patronage that our electoral campaigns are among the most expensive in the world. Instead of political parties, the prime movers of our political life are the political clans. The interests of the latter are intertwined with the business groups that control the economy. Our politicians pursue political power not to realize their vision for the nation but to protect and strengthen the position of the economic blocs that fund their political ambitions. This has resulted in the conversion of nearly every agency of the State into a tool of the ruling political-economic faction.
Thank God we are not a theocracy and the freedom to choose our religion is a reality and not just a promise. But something has to be said about the extraordinary influence that the Catholic Church still wields in the conduct of government. While we cannot fault the Church for speaking up on public issues in which it feels moral values are threatened, we expect government to be autonomous in its decision-making. Indeed, the fusion of State and ecclesiastical authority remains a problematic feature of our national order.
Finally, the economy – while it is nominally open in the sense that no one who has the means and qualification is barred from acquiring any property or entering any occupation – remains fundamentally restricted because of the highly unequal distribution of opportunity. The tight control that a few families maintain over the nation’s wealth impedes entrepreneurial growth. The money in the hands of the many is so small it casts them in the role of consumers, never as investors.
Only when we’ve seen radical changes in education, the justice system, the economy, politics and religion, can we truthfully say that things are no longer the same.
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