The Long View: The end of social mobility

The Long View
The end of social mobility


By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 03:30:00 02/26/2009

In the same roundtable held in Singapore in December, 1971, Onofre Corpuz made some tart observations about the state of Philippine institutions. Concerning Congress, he said, “The legislative process is virtually untouched by rationality, professional craftsmanship and civic spirit.” Pointing out that political parties had neither party discipline nor party responsibility for public welfare or government management, and blithely appropriated nonexistent funding for what would turn out, as a result, to be nonexistent programs, he further pointed out that most congressmen “dedicated themselves to giving government officers a bad time, pressing to take actions in violations of laws and regulations.”

Corpuz outlined what he felt should be the basic concentration of government: “to contain revolutionaries; to cope with rising prices and steer the country towards increased production; to redistribute the national income along the lines of less inequality; to attend to all tasks while the political and governmental systems undergo reassessment and possibly some fundamental restructuring to accommodate new social attitudes and sentiments.”

There, in one sentence, was the justification and formal aspirations of the New Society; there, in that sentence, remains the national debate on what ought to be done.

It is also interesting that Sixto K. Roxas pointed out (this was in 1971, mind you) that the Philippines had reached the end of a process that had begun in the 1930s but which had reached its limits: shifting populations from relatively crowded areas like Central Luzon to homesteads and government-sponsored colonies in the hinterlands, mainly in Mindanao. But the idea of a frontier was no longer tenable and this explained why tensions had begun to erupt anew between Muslims and Christians in Mindanao.

This is an observation that, it seems to me, still isn’t forefront in the consciousness of officials, who still think there remains adequate space to defuse social tensions by simply moving the poor from one place to another.

Roxas also noticed that excess populations from rural areas had migrated to urban slums. At the time, he believed that these urban slum populations might be easily mobilized because an absence of serious efforts to ameliorate their plight would lead to social tensions. Ferdinand Marcos’ and subsequent administrations attended to this by means of resettling informal settlers on government land and legislation favorable to such settlers.

But in the end it took May 2001 for an urban insurrection to manifest itself, not with the Left as the vanguard but instead in defense of an imprisoned populist ex-president. In 2005, former President Fidel V. Ramos justified his rescue of the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration by warning of the probability of a resurgence of an urban insurrectionary spirit, resulting in mob rule and the plundering of middle class homes by the poor. The Arroyo administration deftly countered Ramos’ insistence that an immediate shift to parliamentary government and the cutting short of the President’s term was the solution by flooding urban poor areas with patronage.

These policies, however, have taken their toll on a sector of the population that long ago lost the power to elect governments, but which had the capability to bring them down: the middle class. While the very wealthy and well-connected have long figured out how to deploy their resources to delay or deflect measures meant to redistribute wealth, the middle class lacks the political, financial, and legal clout to do so. And so, every major attempt to defuse social tensions - agrarian and urban land reform, for example - hits the middle class most of all. The rhetoric of government trying to mobilize populist opinion hits them the hardest, as well.

The result is a sense of alienation and even desperation, with otherwise hardworking and responsible citizens being called upon to make sacrifices they consider their employers and employees somehow exempted from making. Seeing their fairly modest farms subjected to land reform, finding their property rights in urban areas diminished, and receiving lip service from politicians uninterested in their small numbers as voters, the middle class formed in the American and early independence eras voted with their feet: migrating abroad. Embittered and disillusioned, those who have remained are more interested in preserving their middle-class status than in political action on behalf of a political culture that has marginalized them.

When the prospects of work abroad opened up opportunities for Filipinos who had never been middle class and who, by means of working hard, themselves became middle class, society as a whole perhaps failed to notice the gutting of the old middle class and its replacement by a new one, which never went through the socialization that made the old middle class advocates of both liberal democracy and People Power. Instead, the remnants of the old and the growing new middle class are more deeply wedded to preserving property rights at all costs, and less demanding of reform but more insistent on “law and order” at all costs than ever before.

But this development ignores, too, the rise, or return, if you will, of a permanent underclass of the very poor, who are essentially unemployable domestically or abroad, unless by means of patronage by officials of the state: increasing, in turn, demands, both formal and informal, on the resources of the state, which must be derived from the middle class which has fewer options to evade obligations to the state unlike the wealthy.

Which suggests, and which is why I refer to, 1971. And why we seem poised for a restoration, and thus, the complete rehabilitation and vindication, of the New Society.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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