The national pastime

The issue first dawned on me many years ago when, in response to my criticism of billboards that have engulfed the city, people from the outdoor advertising industry told me that without them, Manila would be a very dark and unsafe place. Billboards, they said, are what light up the streets and enliven the cityscape. So, did the city’s dark and unlit avenues make commercial billboards a necessity? Or, has the proliferation of billboards relieved the government of its duty to light up and take care of public space? Which one is cause, and which one is effect?

The same issue confronts us when we contemplate the role that gigantic shopping malls play in our national life. One can ask which came first: the failure of government to cultivate alternative venues for public culture and recreation, or, the extensive commercialization of private leisure instigated by capitalism. If these malls did not exist, would we find it necessary to invent them?

It cannot be denied that malls have become so integrated into the rhythm of our daily existence that it is difficult to imagine how Filipinos would use their free time if other options were made available. Would they be spending more time in museums and libraries?  Would they be visiting more historic places and heritage sites? Would they be taking more strolls in wooded parks, gardens and public promenades? Would they go to theaters and coliseums, festivals and public lectures, rather than spend a whole day at the mall gawking at people and dreaming of goods they cannot have?

Mall owners would surely say that without the malls, most Filipinos may not know what to do with their time. Their lives would be impoverished and miserable in more than an economic sense. Life in the metropolis would be so drab that, in quest of excitement and the sheer need to break routine, people might instead turn to drugs, gambling, drinking and prostitution. Worse, they could turn to militant mass politics.

Indeed, to the extent they promote the illusion of equal access to the good life, shopping malls in societies like ours have become the most effective instruments for the pacification of class conflict. Unlike the traditional promise of religious salvation in the afterlife, modern consumerist gratification is instant. The levels of fulfillment it offers are matched with one’s current purchasing power. Inside the malls, the good life is not a pie in the sky. It assumes the form of an overflowing cornucopia of material things, whose real value and connection to our lives we are not prompted to reflect upon or examine.

I thought that religion finally acceded to the colonizing power of commerce when Sunday Masses began to be held inside shopping malls.  From its pre-eminent perch as the seat of the sublime, religion in the malls became just one of the many events organized by commerce to draw in consumers. In biblical times, the temples of worship drew hordes of vendors and money lenders into their sacred space. Today, it is the other way around.

These cavernous structures we call malls now host the broadest range of activities one can imagine, attesting to the power of a consumer-driven economy. Here you find not just physicians’ clinics but mini-hospitals complete with laboratories. They operate alongside beauty salons, massage parlors (now called spas), children’s playrooms, bowling alleys, techno-game stations, bingo salons, restaurants, movie houses, fast-food joints, banks, ATM cash dispensers, and a wide array of shops selling virtually everything. The malls are the new cathedrals of the consumerist life form, not only aggregating all entrepreneurial activity within their reach, but also significantly turning every facet of social life into their component.

Be that as it may, do we have any reason to complain? Anyone who has ever stepped into these colossal markets, not explicitly to shop but to watch how modern Filipinos have shaped leisure, would be amazed by the manner in which we have constricted the horizons of our being. We have become a people that fatally equates growth with material acquisition, and fulfillment with consumption. This immediately shows in the shallowness of our sense of identity. But, we cannot talk about culture in isolation from the economy.

It is certainly not a coincidence that “malling” emerged as a national pastime at around the same time we started to deploy large numbers of Filipinos for overseas work.  Sadly, the billions in remittances that our hardworking OFWs send back have not been utilized to capitalize economic production at home. Instead, they have fueled the growth of a consumer-based economy driven by imports.  The more workers we send abroad, the more we consume at home. But, since this consumption is primarily based on imports, the more we consume, the more we need to send people to work abroad.

The foreign origin of most of the goods sold in our malls—from fruits to clothes to gadgets—betrays the gross disconnect between the nation’s productive labor and its consumption. This is not sustainable. People are formed primarily by what they produce, not by what they consume. It is work that builds their culture and makes them into what they distinctly are. All over the country, more shopping malls are being built, yet everywhere our capacity to produce and supply our needs has steadily dwindled. Surely, there is something fundamentally wrong with this kind of development.