The Long View: Devolving nation


Devolving nation


Because we started at it a generation or two ahead of our neighbors, the level of political organization we’d achieved prior to World War II was achieved by our neighbors between the 1950s and 1960s. But what would become common—one-party rule in our neighbors—had been fractured by the war in our case, so that the unintended (because an accidental offshoot of the guerrilla versus collaborationist divide in our society) two-party system we had in the ’50s to the ’60s is something our neighbors have only begun to experience since the 1990s.

Where our entire region seemed to converge was in the experiment with dictatorship in the ’70s and ’80s, but with us being the outliers once again. It led, in our case, to the creation of an urban nation within a nation, with Metro Manila and other cities developing civil society while the rest of the country became balkanized, with armed barons controlling provincial fiefdoms. After the dictatorship fell, we rewound things to where they stood in the early ’70s, as far as trying to imagine (and institute) a more liberal-democratic setup, but without understanding the effects of abolishing the old party system and replacing it with a free-for-all, which assured neither stability nor a means for an orderly succession.

On the other hand, our neighbors, not all of whom had competent dictators, had at least managed to crush the Communist threat, while in our case we failed to do so. And so dictatorial incompetence and institutional decay were compounded with a low-intensity conflict that continues to this day.

For 30 years then, our neighbors, with varying degrees of success, have been trying to move forward, while the best we’ve been able to manage is to dog-paddle in place, or get swept backward, for a time, until we can dog-paddle again to try to inch forward against the tide of populism and dictatorial nostalgia. Then in 2016, the dog-paddling came to an end, and we have been swiftly moving backward in a sort of national fit of renouncing any further attempt at trying to cope with the discomfort (and sacrifice) of modernizing our society, politics or economy.

It is the dying gasp of an identity we’d tried to assume since the time of the Propagandists, who’d hoped for a society and government along Western, rational (Enlightenment-inspired) lines. We are thus saying goodbye, not just to the Edsa era (1986-2016), but the much longer one from 1896-2016 that kept on colliding with the precolonial datu mentality of both the leaders and the led.

In the first three years of the new-old era we now live in, we have a President who acts no differently from the calculating rajahs of old who engaged in blood compacts, and in what has been described as the “raiding, trading and feasting” that was the precolonial occupation of those who held power in their locales. Slowly at first, but increasingly swiftly, every vestige of the political and institutional culture built up in the 20th century, when this country came to be as it currently is, is being abandoned. To be sure, much of that culture was already a parody of its former self; but so long as lip service was paid to what once was, there was the slender hope that what was could be, again.

So, these days, the President raises the hands of one faction not belonging to his nominally ruling party, his daughter then raises the hands of the candidates of that supposedly ruling party, though she herself presides over a coalition of local barons that has displaced the ruling party her father had formally associated himself with. In the past, when a president could not fulfill the expected role of arbiter of contending local contests, a “free zone” would be declared, at least calling a spade a spade.

Confucius, to stray away from the West and its habits for a moment, had insisted that the first duty of orderly government was to attach the appropriate names to things. Where we are thoroughly Asian and not Western is the expectation that the primary duty of presidents is to maintain order; yet if there is a guiding principle of the current dispensation, it is to spread disorder: The very essence of premodern living was the unpredictable, and thus highly malleable, condition in which chiefdoms rose and fell. Where, since the reason for things being the way they are was not understood, omens, gestures, whims, plots, raids, superstition, division, cruelty assured tribal loyalty.

There is no discernible design for the whole; there is not even much of an effort, on the part of observers, to try to identify patterns. We watch a parade of headlines, but aren’t being told what the story is. The local is ignored, while the national has lost all meaning.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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