Would Rizal have chosen federalism?

THERE ARE suggestions that, recognizing the archipelagic nature of the country and the disparate cultures that thrived in it, Jose Rizal would have proposed a federal system of government for an independent Filipino nation.  Indeed, federalism might have appealed to those who, in the closing years of Spanish rule, were eager to kick out the foreigners but did not necessarily wish to come under the control of a dominant ethnic group.

Rizal was certainly aware of the persistence of strong regional identities in the country. But, instead of building a political system along the existing fault lines of ethnic segmentation, he was more concerned with “unit[ing] the whole Archipelago into one compact, vigorous, and homogenous body.” This is the first line under statement of purpose in the draft constitution he wrote for the Liga Filipina, a political organization that anticipated the broad structures of a Filipino government.

The Liga, a cross between a political party and a self-help cooperative, was overtly reformist in vision, but the organizational infrastructure it laid out could as easily have served as the vehicle for revolution. Its ultimate purpose was clearly to prepare the Filipino people for active citizenship in the modern project of self-government.

This meant, in the first instance, cultivating in the people a capacity to differentiate political roles from ethnolinguistic loyalties, and to perform duties and rights in a political organization independently of the diffused norms and obligations that bound them to a feudal social order.

Rizal was a modern thinker. The draft constitution of the Liga contained provisions that might have initially appeared strange to those to whom he presented it. The seventh paragraph on organization embodied an emphatic wish for members to rise above their ethnic or tribal identities: “Each provincial council and popular council should adopt a name different from that of the locality or region.” It was a first step toward building a homogenous nation, rather than a federation of tribes.

Rizal was quite open about the formation of the Liga. It may be assumed that he was aware that the Spaniards knew what he was up to, since he was recruiting influential people into the organization. In other words, the Liga was not supposed to be an illegal or underground association. And yet, interestingly, its activities were supposed to be kept secret. Every member was required to adopt a new name, while keeping his true name hidden and known only to the secretary of his council.

The adoption of an alias might have been rationalized as a security measure. But its latent function, it seems to me, must have been to encourage members to value their political identity and to keep this separate and autonomous from their other affiliations in everyday life.

I doubt if Rizal was a federalist. Nothing in his writings suggests that he believed in complicating the task of building a unified and strong nation by making space for the creation of autonomous regional governments.  He was wary that other big powers could easily take over the islands by exploiting internal dissensions, once Spain relinquished control over them.

However, he appeared to subscribe to the principle of subsidiarity—the notion that decisions should be made as much as possible at the level closest to the citizens, and that only those that the local level cannot meaningfully carry out on its own should be entrusted to the higher levels.

The Liga constitution provided for three such levels of authority: the popular councils, the provincial councils, and a Supreme Council.  The Supreme Council is composed of all the chiefs of the provincial councils, while the provincial council is made up of all the chiefs of the popular or town councils.

“The Supreme Council controls the whole Liga and communicates directly with the chiefs of the provincial councils and the popular councils.  The provincial council controls the chiefs of the popular councils. The popular council alone has control over its members.”

More than independence from Spain, the basic impulse that animated the establishment of the Liga had to do with the protection of the ordinary citizen from arbitrary power—i.e., from violence and injustice. Rizal would have resolutely opposed political dynasties and warlords. At the same time, he intended the organization to be a laboratory for the emancipation of Filipinos from the scourge of poverty, illiteracy, and economic stagnation. These were the values that were uppermost in his mind when he drew the constitution of the Liga.

One hundred and 24 years after Rizal envisioned the nation that would be built on the foundations of the Liga, we are nowhere near the democratic and prosperous society that he imagined our country could be. This has little to do with the form of government. It has everything to do with the feudal social structure, at the root of which is a property system that has consigned more than half of the population to a life of perpetual deprivation, dependence, and ignorance.

The unitary nation-state that arose from the dissolution of the monarchical empires was a fresh idea in Rizal’s time.  Today, it has lost much of its sheen.  In a globalized world where the levers of meaningful economic power and initiative lie outside the reach of national governments, it has become fashionable to talk of subnational states improving their lot by linking up directly with the global system.  It is an illusion.

Federalism will not solve poverty and inequality, simply because it does not touch the real center. It only redraws the periphery.

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