Lost Opportunities of the Past Needn’t Represent an Eternal Regret
by Manuel L. Quezon III
When Ferdinand Marcos, exemplar of that grasping class, came to power, he knew that the ruling class’ control of politics was fiction, and that armed with the populism and anti-elitism of the Magsaysay era, he could preside over the liquidation, socially, financially, and politically, of that class. He could, in turn, appropriate the Marxism of the youth more successfully than Macapagal ever could; he could turn it, at least, into a weapon to frighten his generation into supporting him in waging war not only against the Old Society, but the New Generation rallying in the streets. There was simply no line, written or unwritten, that he would not cross.
By the Marcos years, a middle class born in the American period had matured; educated and trained in the style of the ruling class, it shared many of that class’ biases and even pretensions. Among them was the illusion that it was the successor to the old landed and industrial families. They were not; they remained employees: The managers and directors comfortable in the new suburbs designed in imitation of the suburban communities of their bosses. They had homes, their children went to college, but in those colleges their children increasingly asked impertinent questions. Their reaction to impertinent questions and demonstrations was to express solidarity with the alarmed political and business leadership: After all, even as students established the Diliman commune, solidly middle-class residents of the vicinity established vigilante groups to assist the constabulary in flushing the rebels out.
Marcos mounted a coup after efforts to buy the 1971 Constitutional Convention failed; he was pleasantly relieved to discover that the country, on the whole, welcomed his “constitutional authoritarianism.” Democracy had proven too unpredictable; dictatorship was a more palatable approach, mirroring the preferred way for handling problems of the propertied and influential. It was, in more ways than anyone could imagine at the time, a deal with the devil.
Dictatorship demands conformity and conformity kills innovation. The systematic plunder of the country by Marcos and his cronies stripped the Old Society of its finances and thus, its political means; next came the looting of everything else. The middle class discovered itself defenseless, and without a champion in government. With the disgruntled old oligarchy it rebelled but lost to the old oligarchy as it, in turn, proceeded to loot the post-EDSA democracy to compensate itself for the losses of the martial law years.
The middle class, disheartened and disillusioned, clinging as it had to the romantic notion it represented something noble together with the old oligarchy, fled the country (and is now virtually absent from the scene). What’s left of it attempted its own Last Hurrah with EDSA II, only to discover it was fatally divided over a residual romanticism towards politics, and the adoption of the Marcosian grasping class’ attitudes toward government. A society growing exponentially, and increasingly unexposed to the old institutional controls of education, religion, and civic organization, in turn has reduced the political, business, and middle classes to even more of a minority status, and thus even more fiercely dependent on the military as its protector and enforcer than even the Marcos government was.
Two gentlemen, one identified as having tried to mitigate the excesses of the Marcos years, and the other an eminent voice since the EDSA Revolution, have succinctly summarized the political call of the times. Former Prime Minister Cesar Virata said, “We need the concentration, we have to develop more other areas, we have to complete the communities.” For the Philippines has lost its sense of national unity, or feelings of solidarity, which serve to moderate the winner-take-all nature of politics and governance.
And Jesus Estanislao points to the perpetual failure of the country’s leadership to institute the real rule of law, and thus genuine modernity — and by extension, authentic competitiveness — when he asked, “The prospect depends on how many Filipinos are willing to take up the cudgels for deep genuine reforms. This is where we begin thinking: ‘Where will these reforms come from?’ Reforms always come from a set of individuals who see the future or wanting to change or committed to doing something, and I think it can be done.”
But for it to be done requires an appreciation of the past; and how each time the country has been confronted with an opportunity to institute change, it has shrunk from the task.
The Philippines since 1962 has faced several choices, each of which presented the opportunity to expand democracy, integrate the formerly marginalized into the body politic, and rejuvenate public confidence in its political institutions. Instead, protectionism, not just economic, but political, was the preferred choice. The 1971 Constitutional Convention ended up pandering to a dictatorship that sent an entire generation of Filipino professionals, stifled by the dictatorship, into exile. An entire political generation was deprived of power until it came to geriatric and greedy power in 1987, in a sense triggering a second exodus as devastating as that of the 1970s: The middle class exodus from the 1990s to the present.
A new Philippines, it must be said, is being born. Together with the academic and professional elite that migrated in the 1970s went Filipinos of modest means who have only begun to establish themselves as a new, entirely different, middle class. Their influence in politics is only beginning to be felt, not in Metro Manila, but in the provinces. The increasingly cosmopolitan and entrepreneurial nature of such Filipinos is, at present, inspiring yet another effort to hold change at bay.
It is a confusing, chaotic, even dangerous situation. But proof positive that the lost opportunities of the past needn’t represent an eternal regret, but only a means for reflection in order to more firmly, and daringly, embrace the future.