Marching orders

IN AN orderly transition, a new government is expected to “hit the ground running.” This idiom became a mantra in 1992 when President Fidel V. Ramos took power on a slim electoral mandate. It conjures the image of a parachutist who, after floating in the air for sometime, not only lands solidly on his feet but hits the ground running. The phrase suggests the activation of the work mode from day one.

The Noynoy government, mercifully, did not use this metaphor. Its first day in office is perhaps best described as a “hit or miss” (i.e. “without regard to success or failure.”) The kind way to view the first-day fiasco over Memorandum Circular No. 1 is to think of it as merely a case of linguistic imprecision flowing from inexperience. The harsh way is to treat it as suggestive of ignorance or incompetence or both. In general, the public has taken a forgiving attitude toward such early mishaps. They see them as minor, as indeed they are, compared to the vicious schemes carried out by the professionals of the past government. But the new government is well-advised to avoid committing more of these, for they signify the absence of a coherent strategy of government.

It is remarkable that President Noynoy Aquino chose a different metaphor to convey his priorities: “marching orders.” I am not sure what the precise meaning of this militaristic phrase is when applied to civilian contexts. I thought it simply meant an order to leave, a dismissal. But in its current usage, there seems to be an attempt to recover the breathless movement implied in the more graphic expression “hit the ground running.” Before we get enamored with these idioms, it is perhaps worth keeping in mind that the rhetoric of motion cannot substitute for the actual painstaking study and preparation required of a government that has assigned itself the difficult task of reforming a whole society.

Indeed I am concerned about the term “marching orders.” It connotes the existence of an all-knowing figure that gives out commands, instead of a collective political leadership that, operating from a shared vision, sets priorities and crafts timely responses to contingent problems and recurrent issues. No head of state in today’s complex world can realistically be expected to personally possess the kind of comprehensive intelligence needed to effectively steer a nation’s affairs.

Because of the extreme variability of the circumstances in which decisions must be made by modern governments, coordination always looms as a big problem. Programs carried out in one area create unintended consequences in other areas. Some objectives get preferential treatment over others in order to optimize limited resources. This is true even in themost developed societies.

In our case, it helps that we are starting anew under a leader who enjoys the highest level of public trust ever given to a sitting president. That is an immeasurable boon. Yet we must not forget that he is not amessiah. By himself, President Noynoy cannot solve the problems that are basically rooted in the backward nature of our political system. Our governance problems are mostly by-products of our family-based, patronage-driven political culture.

As the world becomes more complicated, societies like ours are forced to modernize as a condition for their long-term stability. The sociologist Niklas Luhmann described the challenge of political renewal in these terms: “Therefore, politics can no longer be conducted haphazardly, by amateurs, or on the basis of a heterogeneous status-system (e.g., familial, religious, or economic). It must be organized through political parties as a form of professional work…. Complex legal orders exclude the possibility that everything can be altered at once. Every innovator, so long as he does not turn as a revolutionary against the whole order, must set aside time to learn about the legal system.”

This passage from Luhmann came tomind as I watched the first-day confusion that marked the issuance of MC#1. This situation would have been inconceivable in political systems where political parties rather than individual personalities are in charge of government. Just as we need highly qualified professionals to run the bureaucracy, so do we need highly trained and professional politicians to man the political system. Political leadership has become so crucial to a nation’s survival that it can no longer be left to the vagaries of celebrity-oriented electoral choices.

In mature political systems, leadership recruitment is never left to chance. Future politicians are chosen for training in state affairs early in their lives. They are carefully educated in the vision of the party. For such leaders, politics becomes a life-long pursuit, a vocation. By the time they assume the leadership of their party, these professional politicians will have passed through the various layers of party work, their capabilities honed and tested under the careful watch of the same people with whom they will work once they take over the reins of government.

There is no room within the modern political system for leaders recruited almost entirely through kinship, friendship groups, religious affiliation, or economic networks. Until we learn to differentiate politics from these other relationships, there is little chance of solving the persistent problems of governance that have bugged our society for a long time.