The UP academic congress

In fifteen measured sessions, the University of the Philippines last week held what it billed as an “academic congress to challenge our next leaders.” The sessions dealt with a wide range of topics – Mindanao, public health, labor export, urban policy, science and technology, public debt, foreign relations, workers’ rights, disaster risk reduction, and elections – in which UP believes it can share expert knowledge.

The presentations were analytical – typically starting off with concepts, moving on to an assessment of present realities, identifying the key problems, and then proposing policy shifts and concrete programs.  The clarity of the vision is reassuring but, in a sense, also misleading.  On one hand, one can’t help imagining what politics might be like if professors were in control of government.  Rational consensus would prevail over negotiated compromise, and the force of the better argument would trump naked power.  But, on the other hand, we know only too well that in politics having the correct ideas is never sufficient in itself.

Although academe is often associated with ivory-tower thinking, UP’s professors can hardly be accused of naiveté or ignorance of the political realities that determine the actual conduct of government. Indeed, not a few of the speakers had previously served in various administrations, and many continue to provide expert advice to political leaders and government agencies.  They know how reason often loses to political accommodation.  But rather than retreat into cynicism, they retain a cautious optimism tempered by realism.

I attended a good number of the sessions.  And though the presentations were unavoidably abridged, they invariably provoked questions in the open forum that could not be answered within the frame of analysis itself.  They almost always ended up saying: “This is what we can do and what we can achieve — if we have good governance or political will.”

The notion of “political will” bothers me.  I think it hides complex realties that cannot be reduced to sheer lack of will on the part of a nation’s leaders.  Lack of political will is usually explained as an outcome of a moral deficit.  And so the solutions to the problems of governance are typically sought in moral education or reform, rather than in the sorting out of cultural constraints and structural possibilities. What I was looking for in the discussions – which was not possible given the brevity of the sessions – was a concrete analysis of the processes by which specific rational proposals and technically sound programs are thrown out or terminated for “political” reasons.  I wanted to understand exactly how and where politics intervenes.

Political reasons are the stuff of all politics.  There is nothing intrinsically wrong with politics.  Politics becomes wrong when it is invoked or applied in situations where there is no room for it in a modern society, assuming that is what we aspire to be.  There should be no space for politics, for example, in the prosecution or determination of guilt or innocence of criminal offenders, or in the release of funds for budget items approved by Congress, or in the appointment and promotion of career civil servants, or in the determination of who in particular should get tax exemptions after a universal policy has been enunciated.

The above examples show precisely how much room politics claims for itself in many areas of our everyday life.  This inappropriate use of political influence is sometimes called “politicking”, but, in fact, it is not very different from corruption.  Both arise from a failure to differentiate functions.  They lie at the very core of our governance problems. More than merely lamenting them, academics can do a lot to explain their basis, their origins, and the reasons for their persistence.

It is my view that a close examination of the dysfunctions of governance in our society will reveal that government is the way it is because of the power relations embedded in our social order.  This is not unique to us.  One finds this in highly unequal and hierarchical societies where political decisions are mainly the result of intra-elite negotiations.  Economically dependent and without political organizations of their own, the masses are in no position to shape the decisions taken in their name.  This is the reason why political will is understood solely as the will of leaders, rather than as the will of the general public.

The UP academic congress, by design, addressed itself not only to the next generation of leaders, but also to the ordinary citizen – on the premise that if knowledge is indeed empowering, the proceedings of the congress should strengthen public opinion.  This worthy initiative is consistent with UP’s self-understanding as the national university.  But there is a limit to what academe can do for governance, precisely because governance cannot be completely divorced from politics.  Academe cannot solve the problem of politics; nor can the Church, for that matter – even if both institutions may sometimes imagine themselves as instructors to the philosopher-king.

Politics is about goal-setting and decision-making by those whose lives are affected by these goals and decisions.  Our basic problem is how to broaden and institutionalize participation in the political process beyond the momentary engagement that voting offers.  The solution cannot be sought in the realm of science or of morality; it has to be created within the realm of politics itself.