Politics: why it’s the only game in town

Having written a few columns on politics, I am often asked to comment on the probable course of political developments in our country in view of the 2016 presidential election. Recently, a friend asked whether I thought there was any chance Vice President Jejomar Binay might shelve his presidential ambition to ease the pressure from the avalanche of corruption charges he now faces. My quick answer is that he will not do that precisely because securing the presidency is for him, at this point, the only way to fend off these charges.

A statement given the other day by Binay’s political spokesperson, Cavite Gov. Jonvic Remulla, confirms this hunch. The Inquirer (12/3/14) reports: “Asked whether Binay had anything to worry about and whether he planned to take any legal action against Mercado (the former Makati vice mayor and Binay’s main accuser), Remulla said: ‘He’s confident of the end game toward Malacañang.’” Indeed, politics is the only game in town, and, for VP Binay, the battle for the presidency is the end game. I suppose that even if he were jailed, nothing would stop him from running his presidential campaign from prison.

Proposing scenarios like these is an exciting pastime, but it’s not my cup of tea. I have more questions to ask than answers to offer. That’s the reason I don’t work as a political consultant.

In the last 15 years or so, my preference has been to try to make theoretical sense of what’s going on in our society. The framework that has illuminated many things for me and guided my writings is Niklas Luhmann’s theory of modernity. My singular focus has been on the complex issues brought out by Philippine society’s wrenching transition to modernity.

Following Luhmann, I define modernity as the primacy of functional differentiation in society. This is manifested in the gradual emergence of autonomous functional domains like politics, law, economy, religion, science, art, the mass media, etc. These domains are autonomous not in the sense that they are oblivious to and unaffected by what happens around them, but in the sense that they can operate only by their own system-specific code and medium. When law, for example, allows its legal/illegal code to be intercepted by politics, all kinds of dysfunctions follow. The legal system is at once engulfed by a complexity from which it cannot free itself using its own mechanisms. Law’s only shield is its credibility, which it earns through consistency in its decisions.

In premodern society, the lines separating these domains from one another are blurred. Social order is stabilized primarily on the basis of class and ethnic divisions. The elites and the masses do not share a common world. There is one set of laws for the rich, and another for the poor. There are occupations reserved only for the aristocracy, from which commoners are barred. Having money does not automatically give everyone access to the market. Not every rich person, for example, can buy property in the enclaves of the elite.

While these early forms of differentiation—stratification and segmentation—continue to exist in modern society, they, however, can no longer be invoked as justifications for making distinctions in society. The change obviously does not occur overnight. The transition to a modern functionally differentiated society is a slow evolutionary process.

But, these days, elite pedigree matters little in the property market. Money carries no memory in modern society. Janet Lim Napoles had no trouble buying a house in exclusive Forbes Park and membership in its exclusive clubs so she could mingle with people whose social class she aspired to join. The billionaire boxer Manny Pacquiao also had all the money in the world to be able to purchase a home in Forbes, yet he felt constrained in the kinds of people he could receive at his residence. He believes the class barriers are still there, and it takes more than money to lower them.

A society like the Philippines may indeed possess modern institutions as part of its American colonial legacy, but there’s no guarantee that these institutions will always function as designed. Modern institutions presume the existence of a people: (1) that have conquered illiteracy through universal access to basic education, (2) that have overcome absolute poverty through equal access to economic opportunity, (3) that assert their legal rights without fear in any court of law, (4) that enjoy religious freedom, and (4) that have the power to replace the leaders who rule over them.

Indeed we have made great strides in most of these areas, but, sadly, not in the economic realm. Persistent mass poverty excludes at least half of our people from meaningful participation in the economy, and this condition also effectively blocks their access to the major circuits of politics, law and education. That is the reason we continue to be hobbled by the patron-client dynamics of a feudal society.

Perhaps, nowhere is the difficult transition to modernity more palpable than in our inability to insulate the legal system from the vagaries of politics. Binay and his men are only too keenly aware of this: Seeing that the charges against the Vice President are politically driven, they are determined to put an end to them by capturing the nation’s highest political office. In view of this, it is not difficult to imagine how the legal fortunes of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and Senators Juan Ponce Enrile, Jinggoy Estrada, and Bong Revilla—now all in detention awaiting trial for plunder—could take a 360-degree turn in 2016 with the entry of a new president.

* * *