Book chapter: The perpetual avoidance of opportunity

The perpetual avoidance of opportunity
Manuel L. Quezon III

(From In Pursuit of the Philippine Competitive Edge: An Oral History of a Continuing Journey by 50 wisdom-keepers, AIM Policy Center, 2007).

IN 1953, the Philippines Free Press published an editorial in which it observed that “The need to establish a regime above personalities, a government of law instead of men, cannot be exaggerated. In a rule of law alone lies social stability. Those who are for chaos may welcome a personal regime; those who are for order know the need for an impersonal government.” It said that while notable Filipino leaders in the past had a “private conscience drew the line beyond which it would be dishonorable for a public official to go,” the country couldn’t continue pinning its hopes on officials privately drawing “a line which only an impersonal law should draw.” The editorial writer couldn’t know how prophetic he was being.

That year, Ramon Magsaysay was elected in a landslide not seen in Philippine politics since before World War II; such was the charisma and integrity of the man that he almost single-handedly rejuvenated public confidence in government. But by 1957 Magsaysay was dead; and the country was left with the painful realization the editorial writer had expressed three years before: in the absence of a genuine rule of law, the restoration of public confidence was an impossible task.

By 1962, the Philippines had begun the decline that it continues to experience to this day.  The decline has, at times, accelerated; at other times, it has slowed to the extent that it offered up hopes, though always dashed, of reversing that decline.  And yet the decline has been inexorable: due to an inability, often bordering on an obstinate refusal, to embrace modernity. Because of that, the foundations of a cohesive, progressive, society -a sense of national solidarity arising from confidence in the law, and in government’s ability to mediate contending sectoral interests- has been absent.

Politics and government are all about competition -and competitiveness. The manner in which leaders and followers choose to compete, and the methods they adapt and permit to either foster, or stifle, competition, are reflections of the larger competitive abilities of society. The Philippine experience in the fifty years that the country has been said to be have been declining, has been that of a society’s refusal to compete.

NATIONAL solidarity, already brittle prior to World War II, fractured over the question of resistance to the Japanese and alliance with the United States. The national leadership prior to the war had been extremely attentive, and thus derived a strong legitimacy, to a limited electorate. The late 1930s had witnessed developments that had already begun to weaken the relationship between leaders and followers: the introduction of women’s suffrage in 1937; the gradual extension of suffrage from the propertied that had a monopoly on the vote prior to that point, thus increasingly injecting populism as a means of attracting the masses; an increasingly cosmopolitan, and radical, intelligentsia; and the impatience of young leaders to wrest political control from the leaders that had dominated government for forty years.

What emerged as the official response to these trends was a series of constitutional amendments approved in 1940: the restoration of a bicameral congress to replace the unicameral National Assembly, in order to forestall the radical infiltration of the legislature being foremost among them (just how inevitable this was going to be would only be demonstrated after the war, with the election of peasant leaders to represent certain districts in Central Luzon: the Roxas administration had to embark on evicting these leaders from their congressional seats). Bloc voting was introduced, both to enforce party discipline and as a means for ensuring dominant coalition control, which would also be fostered by institutionalizing a Commission on Elections, whose rules strongly favored the interests of the dominant coalition.

The carnage and virtual civil war that was the Philippine experience during the war not only laid waste to the country’s physical infrastructure, but took an enormous toll on the country’s leadership, young and old. The veneer of unity and statesmanship carefully-nurtured for forty years was stripped away by questions of collaboration with the Japanese and the struggles within the guerrilla movement.

In this book, Gerardo Sicat argues that “œwhen we began as a new republic, we were on a competitive footing with the rest of Asia and the world. We had good resources and human resources.  We had then the prospect of building a good future because we had financial resources, despite the destruction caused by the war.” But maximizing those resources required a sense of national purpose fostered by cooperation. Neither would be particularly evident in the postwar years: or to be precise, a divided national leadership made the effort; that effort, however, was hampered by developments already foreseen prior to the war, but accelerated by the trauma of the war: too many had had their faith in the leadership shaken, too many had operated in an atmosphere of lawlessness and unpredictability, to be satisfied with the restoration of the antebellum order.

And the onset of independence in 1946 also marked an unrecognized but important development.

The prewar elite, from that date, actually retreated; its ranks decimated, and displaced politically, it ensured its primacy in commerce through a kind of elaborate protectionist racket: since politico and businessman now increasingly came from different worlds, the camaraderie and common affectations of gentility of prewar days was untenable. Politicians gladly alternated between outright extortion and (increasingly) indiscreetly being on retainer to financial interests to fuel their campaigns; the old elite, still firmly entrenched in business, demanded protectionist policies in turn to protect their monopolies.

STILL, from the 40s to the late 50s enough of  the pre-war political leadership survived to give the impression that pre-war solidarity had not only survived, but been rebuilt; but this was a case of old assumptions artificially supported by nostalgia and the old generation’s believing its own propaganda.

But with Magsaysay this all came clearly to an end: the old parties built on generations-old networks of leaders had been supplanted by his  strategy of barnstorming and media manipulation. His election had been as much a referendum on the old ruling class as it was a validation of the vitality of a new generation. The means for political control and continuity put in place during the Commonwealth were systematically dismantled: bloc voting abolished; the power of the president to appoint mayors taken away; celebrity politics introduced (signaled, for example, by the election of matinee idol Rogelio de la Rosa to the Senate) and with it, the unstoppable transformation of both the standards expected of candidates by the electorate, and the manner in which candidates courted voters.

The Last Hurrah of the old cozy relationship between the politicians and businessmen was the Garcia administration: its election as the first plurality, and not majority, presidency in Philippine history again served as a harbinger of the fatally-divided and unresponsive political culture familiar to Filipinos today.

The Garcia government, however, nationalist as it was, presented an increasingly clear picture of an elite stripped of actual political power, but canny enough to continue fostering and pandering to a new grasping class, the guerrilla generation with its warlord inclinations. Macapagal’s election was the final repudiation of the prewar leadership, but his attempts at modernizing the political system foundered due to a combination of his own authoritarian instincts and his inability to counter the cunning of his opponents. They marshaled a coalition of landowners antagonized by talk of land reform, financial interests hostile to liberalizing the economy, and the guerrilla generation contemptuous of the New Era’s prewar pretenses to class.

WHEN Ferdinand Marcos, exemplar of that grasping class, came to power, he knew that the ruling class’s 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’s 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.

FERDINAND 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 to 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 Two, only to discover it was fatally divided over a residual romanticism towards politics, and the adoption of the Marcosian grasping class’s attitudes towards 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 in this book, 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 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 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, 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 70s: the middle class exodus from the 90s to the present.

A new Philippines, it must be said, is being born. Together with the academic and professional elite that migrated in the 70s 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.

Bibliographic note

My thoughts on the trends in Philippine society were initially developed in two essays: “Elections are like Water,”and “Circle to Circle”, in i-Magazine (2004). The Free Press editorial, “Politics: Means and End” from August 29, 1953, has also influenced me greatly.

The relationship between Filipino politicians and businessmen is best explored in Amando Doronila’s The State, Economic Transformation, and Political Change in the Philippines, 1946-1972 and in Nick Cullather’s Illusions of Influence: The Political Economy of United States-Philippine Relations, 1942-1960. Controversial and debatable though many of his assertions are, Lew Gleeck’s President Marcos and the Philippine Political Culture also makes for informative reading.

An over-reliance on the (at the time) trailblazing ideas and scholarship of Teodoro Agoncillo and Renato Constantino is, to my mind, unhealthy. State and Society in the Philippines by Patricio Abinales and Donna J. Amoroso incorporates the tremendous advances in thinking and scholarship in the four decades since, and makes for indispensable reading, particularly in exploring the evolution of the Philippine state.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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