It’s been glaringly obvious that the Philippines is a feudal society and has been ruled by dynasties since time immemorial. Dynasties, after all, are essential in a society renowned for its Heritage of Smallness. Nick Joaquin in that seminal essay observed:
However far we go back in our history it’s the small we find–the nipa hut, the barangay, the petty kingship, the slight tillage, the tingi trade. All our artifacts are miniatures and so is our folk literature, which is mostly proverbs, or dogmas in miniature. About the one big labor we can point to in our remote past are the rice terraces–and even that grandeur shrinks, on scrutiny, into numberless little separate plots into a series of layers added to previous ones, all this being the accumulation of ages of small routine efforts (like a colony of ant hills) rather than one grand labor following one grand design.
[Photo courtesy Yahoo! News.]
Indeed, without our oligarchs’ predisposition to accumulating immense wealth by mobilising the Philippines’ vast labour pool to develop and harvest the country’s rich natural resources at scales that are way beyond the reach of the smallness of the typical Filipino’s mind, aspirations, and ambition, the Philippines today will still be a subsistence hunter and gathering barter economy.
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It is common knowledge that most Philippine oligarchs, taipans, and industrialists are descended from immigrants coming from societies with long track records of success in the risky businesses of global trade, exploration, and conquest — Chinese traders, Spanish and American adventurers, and Indian money lenders. It was these people who brought in experience in the building of large scale stuff, whether they be complex organisations, production techniques, and multinational logistics, transport and supply chains. Contrast to that Joaquin’s take on native Filipinos and “our native aversion to the large venture, the big risk, the bold extensive enterprise.”
In short, the Philippines needs its dynasties and their collective ability to do big time stuff — the sorts of world-class things that native Filipinos, left to their devices, may never have gotten around to building.
So what then are we to make of this current thinking amongst the chattering classes that Philippine dynasties need to be dismantled? Well, it depends on what ordinary non-dynastic Filipinos have to offer as an alternative. Back in the 70’s and up to the mid- to late-80s, the rallying cry of the Philippine activist fiesta, for example, was that Filipinos needed to be free and democratic to prosper. So the antithesis of that aspiration was then made out to be President Ferdinand Marcos who represented the stuff about Philippine politics that needed to be dismantled. That happened in 1986 and since then, Filipinos were supposedly “free” and “democratic”. And yet the question of whether that “freedom” and “democracy” was actually achieved in the Philippines remains a debatable notion to this day what with the creative ways some people continue to apply to game the system and the hollow-headed manner with which the electorate plays ball with them every single election.
Did a transition from authoritarianism to democracy really change the Philippines at a fundamental level?
I hear nothing but head-scratching…
Now we find people like former UP president Jose Abueva asserting that dynasties are a threat to democracy. Are they, really? Even while the question of whether democracy is really delivering results where they matter to ordinary Filipinos remains unresolved, Abueva uses “democracy” to underpin the So What? test we subject the notion of dynasties to. Thus:
So what if dynasties are “a threat” to democracy?
Considering that democracy’s benefit to ordinary Filipinos is, by itself, debatable to begin with, why then should we worry if dynasties (if we are to believe our “activists” when they tell us they are baaaadddd) are a “threat” to it?
England itself as well as much of Europe (and, for that matter, much the world from which the most excellent societies emerged from today) were ruled by dynasties. They built the wondrous structures and developed the vast systems that made their countries great. The architectural wonders of Italy that millions of tourists gawk at every year, for example, were built by warlords, avaricious popes, and wealthy aristocrats all motivated by lust for power, vanity, and addiction to conquest. In England, as I mentioned a while back, the politics and power plays amongst its dynastic rulers pretty much make up the stuff of its written history with the quaint sufferings of the peasantry serving as mere footnotes.
In all ironies, it was only when the peasantry — the English masses — were wiped out by disease that their true power actually emerged. A series of epidemics known as the â€œBlack Deathâ€ that swept across Europe over the latter half of the fourteenth century decimated its human population. In England, a population of 6 million was almost halved by the pestilence. The aftermath of that devastation yielded an interesting outcome, however. Peter Ackroyd, in his book The History of England â€“ Foundation describes what happened…
Yet the pestilence had slow but permanent effects on English society. The shortage of labour [as a result of the population decline] had the immediate result of increasing both the level of wages and the chances of employment. The phenomenon of the landless or impoverished peasant wholly disappeared. But the rising demands of the working people who had survived, their worth now doubled by the epidemic, provoked a reaction from the landowners and magnates. The knights of the shires, in particular, perceived a threat to good order.
An Ordinance of Labourers was passed by a parliament in 1349, forbidding employers to pay more for labour than they had before the pestilence. The same Act deemed that it was illegal for an unemployed man to refuse work. The measures were not realistic. Many workers and their families could simply move to another district and to a more generous employer who was willing to ignore the law. Some migrated to towns, for example, where there was great demand for manual labourers such as masons and carpenters. A ploughman might become a tiler. More than enough work was available.
Many younger people now possessed their own holdings of land. And the best land did not remain vacant for long. There had once been too many farmers and labourers working too little soil, but now they were dispersed over the countryside.
Indeed, Abueva himself seems quite aware of what the real issue is in the Philippine setting today…
The rapid expansion of our electorate, consisting of more and more poor people, insecure and dependent voters, and increasing political competition have increased the cost of campaigning and incumbency for the political leaders acting as patrons of their constituents.
Our continuing semifeudal society and premodern political culture shape our dysfunctional elections, political parties, presidential form of government and unitary system of national-local government relations.
Unfortunately, like most Filipinos brought up on the notion that rich and powerful people left to their devices will necessarily do the right thing as far as the “greater good” is concerned, Abueva fails to see the wisdom in that little snippet he wrote. Instead his call is directed towards Philippine legislators to do, this “right thing” that runs counter to all their personal interests — to enact that much-vaunted “anti-dynasty” law.
Good luck with that. As English history has shown, the oligarchy will not change unless there is a clear and present threat to their personal wealth and power. Only Filipinos can provide that threat. But the power to do so comes at a cost.
benign0 is the Webmaster of GetRealPhilippines.com.