The rise in the price of oil throws the spotlight again on efforts to kick start ethanol production. Ethanol comes from sugar, and when you mention sugar, you can’t help but think of the sugar barons of old, their enormous estates, and enormous spending habits.
As for me, I’m trying to digest “Barons, Brokers, and Buyers: The Institutions and Cultures of Philippine Sugar” (Michael S. Billig). I got the book last year but it was on my to-read shelf until the other day. Here’s a striking passage from the book (Chapter 1: The Rise of Urban Elites):
...Many in the sugar industry persist in the belief that they are among the most powerful political forces in the nation. But those with real power consider that claim laughable in today’s Philippine sugar economy. More political capital can be gained from disparaging the “sugar barons” than from advancing their interests.
And yet, in their efforts to portray the Philippines as a neo-colonized, exploited, and “feudal” cog on the periphery of the global world capitalist system, many Philippine scholars have missed or understated this important trend… scholars have conveyed the impression that the old rural oligarchs have preserved their preeminence in unabated form, or at least that all Philippine elites are pretty much alike in how they relate to the state. Journalistic accounts… are even more stark in their portrayals. For them the Philippines is a “changeless land” and a “land of broken promises,” dominated by fabulously rich rural elites able to direct political life unfettered by competition from other elites with other values and unconcerned with the greater national good…
I am not claiming that those perspectives are entirely mistaken, only that today’s Philippine reality is far more complex. Where rural elite families have managed to maintain their status and power, they have done so by adapting to radically different circumstances, by making new alliances, and by using their wealth and influence to pursue different strategies of gain. Those oligarchic families who have clung to the older methods of wielding influence have largely ceded ground to the nouveau riche. Most important, urban businessmen and financial wizards have increasingly become the dominant reference groups for ambitious young people. One would be hard-pressed today -even in Negros- to find a young member of a planter family who would admit to aspiring to a life of rural leisure and inherited “success”…
Although patrimonial capitalism endures in the Philippines, I argue that the shift from landlord dominance to the dominance of urban businessmen is critically important as a harbinger of future change in politics, economy, and culture. While it may appear at first that all Philippine elites are alike, that elites from different sectors pursue different strategies of domination and advocate different sorts of policies has consequential implications.
Many on the Philippine left see signs that the next “ruling class” will consist of former peasants or proletariat. But it seems far more plausible, given current trends, that what is evolving is the more typical historical progression: replacement of an old elite class by a newer one with different interests and sources of power, even though many of the individuals and families are the same. Despite the many works decrying the static composition of Philippine elites, and the bipolarity of Philippine society, I argue that this shift is affording an unprecedented amount of upward mobility and the rapid growth of a Filipino “middle class.”
This passage reminded me of an experience I had last year with, ironically, one of the heirs of an established sugar fortune in Negros Oriental. He was proudly showing me around rather forward-thinking developments in their former sugar lands: an industrial and technological park, efforts aimed at growing other crops other than sugar, and all sorts of exciting infrastructure (a modern port, an airport in the works). One of the projects was a gated community in which some new houses had already begun to sprout. I asked him who were putting up the new homes. “Oh,” he said matter-of-factly, “there’s the home of a seaman, and here, the house of a Filipina married to a Swiss, and there, a home built by a Nanny in London…” All fairly large, solid structures pointing to definite bourgeois aspirations. I like to use that development as an example of what Billig puts forward in his book. The social consequences of a person who, as a sailor, gets to build a home in a gated community, in a province in which, up to twenty years ago, people like that sailor groveled before people like the developer’s parents, can only be profound. And it is taking place all over the country. Its true effects are only beginning to be felt, but are being felt enough to frighten those before whom our emerging middle class once groveled. Not least because the fright is caused by unfamiliarity.
The old middle class that has practically gone extinct was molded by the old upper class to share its values, culture, and learning. The new middle class is rawer, brasher, unculturated in the old ways and thus, possibly less predictable.
Anyway, a question I’m curious about: will pushing ethanol production serve as a boon to big estates? Will it serve to give haciendas a new lease on life? And is this an intended, or an unintended consequence, of pending legislation? Will ethanol production result in a temporary resuscitation of the old planter culture to which, for example, the President’s husband belongs, or will it hasten its demise?
My mind has wheels has a heartening entry on the joys of tutoring. As someone who had to undergo tutoring many times in the past, I’m all for tutoring and programs that encourage tutorials.