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Making Democracy Work...

Making Democracy Work... Even In The Philippines
By Clement Castigador Camposano

Culture and democracy

Since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, the question of how to make democracy work in the Philippines has been at the center of much public political discussion and debate. This debate continues to this very day, stoked no doubt by the war of attrition that goes on (and on, and on…) between a relentless political opposition and an equally tenacious President, whose survival antics many of us love to hate.

Among the more prominent strands in these discussions is the issue of culture --- it has been contended by a number of well meaning observers that Filipino culture, with its close family ties and values such as "utang na loob" (debt of gratitude, reciprocity) and "pakikisama" (smooth interpersonal relationship), is not conducive to the kind of politics demanded by the country's imported republican institutions.

The scope of political reform should therefore be broadened to include not only dismantling the authoritarian machinery but also the adoption of values more in keeping with or supportive of democratic politics.

The close attention to culture as a critical ingredient in the viability of Philippine democracy actually coincided with the revival of interest among Western scholars in the link between political culture and the proper functioning of democratic institutions.

Indeed, "[by] the 1990s, observers from Latin America to Eastern Europe to East Asia were concluding that cultural factors played an important role in the problems they were encountering with democratization." (Inglehart, in Harrison and Huntington 2000)

At around the same time, authoritarian leaders like Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore openly argued for an alternative to Western liberal democracy, claiming that distinctive "Asian values" make Asian societies unsuitable for democracy. (Ibid. p. 95) [Only Mr. Lee of course, knows how it was that Singapore's experience could be so easily extrapolated and applied to the rest of Asia.]

It therefore comes as no surprise that interest in the problem of culture, as the key to building a viable democracy in the Philippines, would receive strong support in academe, and within the scholarly community. As Marxist influence receded starting in the late 80s --- and along with it the emphasis on material structures in the understanding of political phenomena --- it became fashionable once more to talk about "culture."

Trapo politics

It is easy enough to see that in the Philippines, almost a century after the first republican institution was established [the Philippine Assembly was inaugurated in 1907] translating democracy into a meaningful way of life has not been achieved.

One may even argue that there have been serious reversals --- old-timers I have spoken to insist that our electoral exercises of recent memory have become more expensive, violent, fraudulent and, judging by the results, meaningless.

Corruption, more brazen than ever, eats up a ever larger share of our nation's resources.

Pork barrel allocations, according to the PCIJ, have reached unprecedented levels, bloating the national budget. The latter of course has been reduced into a mere instrument for achieving short-term political objectives rather than a means of achieving development goals. (Gutierrez, in Coronel 1998, p. 59)

It gets even more depressing when one realizes that this translates into heftier kickbacks. Unfortunately for all of us, nobody accepts 10% any more.

In 2000 the World Bank cited a 1998 Civil Service Commission report that estimated losses of approximately Pl.96 trillion over the past 20 years due to corruption. The amount apparently exceeded the country's foreign debt of $40.6 billion. (Phil.Daily Inquirer, June 15, 2000)

Despite our much-celebrated capacity for "people power," what we in fact have in this country is a poor imitation, indeed, a travesty of the real thing. The much vaunted "checks and balance" really mean "give and take." The word "areglo" has great currency in the halls of power: it defines the political ethos of our times.

Now, according to the most recent survey of Pulse Asia, 3 out of 10 Filipinos would consider migrating if it were possible, and so much of this sentiment is due to the belief that there is very little democratic governance in the country.

A good 41% or close to half believe the country is really run by a powerful few and ordinary citizens are powerless to do anything. Only 17% think otherwise and 41% of those surveyed are undecided. (Philippine Star, August 10, 2006)

It is convenient to blame all this on the rapacity and moral turpitude of our politicians [In politically sanctimonious circles, for instance, charming Joe de Venecia is almost the evil twin of Yoda the Wise]. But, is it not that politicians merely play by the unwritten rules of this sordid game?

How much of this corruption is due to popular complicity? Is not the craving for pork partly driven by the electorate's own insistence that their congressmen always bring home the bacon, so to speak? [You can't have bacon without pork, can you?]

There is a seemingly benign Tagalog expression whose implications for political and public life I have only recently discerned. It goes something like this: Walang hindi nadada-an sa magandang usapan. This wonderful formula belongs to everyday life, does it not?

It is said that, "[many] a reformer who does not understand and respect popular culture has run aground on the shoals of popular resistance." (Rocamora, in Coronel 1998, p. 24) There exists, according to this view (from the non-Jurassic left, I might add), a dichotomy between the language of reform and the language of everyday politics.

An Indio intellectual of the first class during the waning years of the 19th Century put things less subtly, but more powerfully. He intoned that an immoral government is matched by a people without morals; an administration without conscience, by grasping and slavish townsmen. "The slave is the image of his master: the country, of its government." (El Filibusterismo, p. 250)

Here is how I suggest we begin defining the problem: If formal institutions are the "hardware," one might say that there seems to be significantly missing in Filipino political culture [and I use this phrase with some trepidation] the ethical or moral "software" to properly run these institutions.

Having a complete set of democratic institutions is clearly not the same thing as having a fully functioning democracy. The Philippines may have acquired the formal institutions of democracy but, Filipinos have yet to evolve a culture that will make these institutions work, at least as they were intended to.

I believe too that we have here the beginnings of an explanation as to why we have presidents who act like sultans, governors and congressmen who behave like rajahs and municipal mayors with the political antics of datus. Or indeed, why we have citizens who resemble more the timawas and alipins of old.

Implicit in this position is the belief that democracy, as a bundle of related political practices, is a moral choice. There may be a lack of fit, a serious disjunction, between the ethical demands of republican institutions and our political culture, but this is a reason to change culture, not to slide into autocratic rule --- as Mr. Lee would have us do.

Neither should we obscure the problem by pretending that democracy can and should be indigenized. Democracy is a Western invention and, while it can be localized, its essential demands (such as popular sovereignty and respect for individual rights) constitute a fixed and non-negotiable point we all have to measure up to.

Time therefore to get real.

Grappling with "culture"

Bringing about cultural change, however, requires a clear and theoretically informed understanding of "culture" --- a rather slippery word. So slippery that, at one time, British anthropologists of the structural-functionalist mold considered it useless concept preferring instead "social structures" whose immediate effects they could observe.

Culture has indeed been a nebulous concept, and while it has become a convenient explanation for most problems plaguing Philippine public life, its quick and ready use in public discourse is itself plagued by imprecision.

Opinion-makers, political leaders, reformers and academics have trafficked endlessly in this idea. Sometimes they do so tacitly, and with serious implications for the cause of reform. This happens when the idea lurks beneath the surface and forms the unstated assumption upon which is founded diagnosis after diagnosis of our present condition.

Unstated, and therefore unexamined.

Let me give you a classic example. In 1988, Prof. Patricia Licuanan and some academics from the University of the Philippines pointed to certain "weaknesses" in the Filipino character that centered on self-interest and lack of regard for the common good. Licuanan, et al then called for a "moral recovery program" as the key to a free and prosperous society.

The Senate Committee on Education, Culture and the Arts under then Senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani commissioned this study.

My issue with this study is that it attempted cultural analysis at such a grand scale, in a totalizing and sweeping manner, pointing to so-called "strengths" and "weaknesses" of Filipinos in general. It ignored the possibility of differences across social, regional or even ethnic groups.

It simply assumed that there was a single problematic Filipino culture, regardless of what seemed to be, at street level, a plurality if not an incongruous mixture of cultures and value systems.

Consequently, this kind of analysis is theoretically blind to the clash of dissonant values that go on daily in public and private life. To sidewalk vendors, for example, Bayani Fernando is no bayani at all. However, to those who need the sidewalks for purposes other than peddling a wild assortment of wares, BF is the champion of rationality and modernity.

Must we then implicate "being Filipino" in this fierce dispute? Must we engage in wholesale rendering here and cast the problem as one of national character? How justifiable is this approach? [My own personal question: Who do you think is in serious need of "moral recovery" here?]

Seeing the problem as one of national character amplifies and effectively places it beyond the reach of practical action. Why do you think expensive educational projects in this area have led nowhere?

The idea of "national character" is, to use Michel de Certeau's (1984) memorable phrase, an "imaginary totalization" that does not take its bearings from everyday life. It is the social sciences' equivalent of ether: Everywhere yet nowhere, the cause of many a pointless search.

Ironically, with this, we are here forced to view society as a person writ large, not an artefact of the historical process, not an arbitrarily assembled group of people saddled with the peculiarities of history.

Having said that, allow me to propose a new way of understanding culture. Anthropologist (and one-time cockfighting enthusiast) Clifford Geertz (1973) once defined culture by saying "that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance [or meaning] he himself has spun." (p. 5)

Taking this view but tinkering with it somewhat, I say that we really are so many spiders spinning many different sorts of webs. Against the view of culture as a coherent way of life, and possessed by a group of people with an unbroken and seamless history [the view that Licuanan uses], I contra-pose Susan Wright's (1998) idea of culture as "a contested process of meaning-making."

Culture to my mind is an ongoing struggle, a process, where historically accumulated meanings are re-worked and stretched in new directions by differently positioned actors with unpredictable inventiveness. So, how can this topsy-turvy view of culture be useful for our present purposes?

Thinking of culture in these terms liberates us from self-imposed intellectual paralysis. [Something that happens when you ingest too much ether] It is now possible to assert that the problem of a dysfunctional democracy is not rooted in the haze of so-called "Filipino character."

That it is not, and never was, a problem of national character! Why should it, when many Filipinos are such model citizens in other countries?

It is a much more practical problem. A difficult one no doubt, but it is one that is politically "actionable." We can now stop beating ourselves in the chest and begin the arduous task of making democracy work.

It should now look something like this: For historical (and yes, valid) reasons, a great number of us have come to organize life around friends and family. We have learned to live such intimate, emotionally satisfying social lives wherein abstract concepts like "society", "citizenship" or "public good" hold no real meaning. They are really just that --- abstractions devoid of evocative potency.

This easily appalls Western observers, especially those lacking in empathy. One of them said many years ago that we had a "damaged culture." [The academe's response, of course, was the nerve of this barbarian!] Niels Mulder, an anthropologist (1997), was more sophisticated but quite ferocious in his critique of Filipino society.

His is by far the most scathing indictment. In the Philippines, argued Mulder, there is a pronounced "absence of [a] localized positive ethics of the public world" and that what counts for the public sphere is morally vacuous and exhibit "no other culture…than the rhetoric of rapacious, dynastic politicians." (p. 67)

He takes a very dim view of things: Beyond the tight circle made up of family members, intimates and friends, lies a competitive and amoral world governed by political and economic expediency. In this world, one struggles to get ahead but carries no responsibility.

I do not subscribe to the entirety of Mulder's analysis. I think he is being the foreigner. But he does make sense when you think about how so many of us instinctively behave towards public spaces in this country. These spaces are treated not as "shared spaces" but more as "free-for-all spaces."

Our streets are certainly like that. Going around Metro Manila, one experiences first hand the Hobbesian quality of life. [You sometimes feel like Mad Max in a land where life is solitary, not always poor but certainly nasty, brutish and short]

Prof. Fernando Zialcita (1997) of the Ateneo, was more moderate in his analysis. He claimed that Filipinos have a "weak sense of public good" and that the idea of a larger society beyond friends and family are still proving too abstract for many.

Sociologically, this is what I think it boils down to: What we have for a state is but a thin veneer of formal rules that obscures a vast, highly "dendritic" and tangled web of personal ties --- real, imagined or fictive. These heart-felt ties are clearly incompatible with, and thus grind against, the civic habits and rational-legal rules that serve as the operating system for democratic institutions.

State institutions continue to exist and frame political engagement, but their formal and abstract rules have been extensively reworked [mangled, if you want] in everyday life to either suit private ends or satisfy personal longings. This seems to me to be the true subtext of our electoral politics.

It explains at least why the President needs to project herself not only as the competent (if sometimes imperious) Chief Executive, but also as the warm and endearing "Ate Glo" [the political incarnation of the very native Nora] to political supporters --- making mandatory personal appearances to hand out relief goods during disasters.

No nonsense and results driven to underlings, incurably mushy to constituents.

In this she is not unique at all. All previous presidents did this. Most politicians I personally know or have observed closely in the course of my work as communications consultant [a glorified propagandist] also nurtured this fictive closeness, eager to evade the all too serious charge of being mayabang at hindi malalapitan.

Everyone, whatever their ideological leanings (if at all they had any) want to be perceived as mabuting tao na merong puso para sa malili-it at mahihirap.

I don't think Bayani Fernando will ever become President of this country.

Implications for democratic politics

For so many of us, making sense of public life merely involves the habitual extension of the ethos of intimacy to the larger society of anonymous others. When processing documents, we tend to tap into personal connections or networks. When in the big city, we are always (and eagerly) on the look out for long lost friends or hometown acquaintances.

Many of us could not stand anonymity. There appears to be this overpowering desire for personal connectedness. We are addicted to emotional and personal warmth. [Still wonder why we are the texting capital of the world?]

Our leaders are keenly aware of this. Hence, the endless assortment of mandatory nicknames politicians have to use: Eddie, Jojo, Sonny, Peewee, etc. We know what nicknames are for: They are markers of intimacy. [Your mother's non-use of your nickname is a bad sign is it not? It's can be a prelude to a tongue-lashing].

Unfortunately, this has also led to a lack of concern for the general welfare. There is, for instance, our preference for private solutions to obviously public problems. Examples abound: blinkers, sirens and exotic driving for slow traffic, walled communities and security guards for criminality, booster pumps, private wells and illegal connections for perennial water shortage.

The result of all this? More traffic, endemic insecurity, less water.

Unable to situate themselves within a larger society and thus think and act for the interest of an abstract public, it is not unusual for voters to respond to the challenge of choosing leaders mainly with their personal or familial interests and preferences in mind.

Incapable of addressing public issues as public issues, people are not likely to treat elections, or any other democratic exercise, as opportunities for discerning the common good. Thus, candidates are routinely seen in personal terms and very seldom in terms of how they might be capable of promoting public welfare, or of how they might measure up to the requirements of high office.

This way, people are either seized by the overpowering charisma of would-be saviors, seduced by the glamour of celebrities, or drawn into the patronage networks operated by cynical machine politicians and their field hands.

The idea of public interest or public good is reduced to legal fiction, ritually invoked by all and sundry but never taken seriously.

Not surprisingly, for many, there is a sense by which elections in this country have become a spectator sport, not unlike cockfighting or horse racing, with its complement of gambling terms: taya (kanino ka tataya?), manok (sino ang manok mo?), dehado, llamado, and, that strange word from the Ramos years, "winnability."

The civic culture

If there is a strong link between democracy and culture, then there is a need not only to specify this link but also to acquire a practical understanding of it. Let us therefore begin with a few questions.

If a real public sphere or a consciousness of a larger, abstract society beyond friends and family is lacking, how should Filipinos go about building it? What makes this type of "consciousness" possible? How is it possible for people to transcend the pull of personal and familial ties and mentally situate themselves within this larger community of anonymous others?

To put it differently, what makes democratic citizenship possible?

Most previous interventions in this area attempted merely to preach the virtue of citizenship from the rooftops. Not founded on a clear understanding of the nature of citizenship, nor of the kind of dynamics that attend its historical emergence, these interventions were bound to fail.

Before political efficacy and genuine political participation can be attained, there is a need to lay the basis for collective political action. The operational question, I believe, is this: What is it in everyday life that will allow persons without personal or dyadic ties to work together for a common cause?

How is it also possible to transcend such carryovers from the baranganic age as the ancient notion of taga-loob and taga- labas, so that in Cubao there would be fewer strangers and more friends we have not met? The answer obviously cannot be another mystical incantation like "moral recovery."

It is something more terrestrial. It is what scholars like Robert Putnam (1995) and Francis Fukuyama (1999) call "social capital." This term refers to such things as social trust, norms and networks that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit.

Social capital, according to Eva Cox (1995, online), is what makes possible social cohesion, "[it] is the social glue, the weft and warp of the social fabric which comprises a myriad of interactions that make up our public and private lives…" (p. 3/7)

An increase in social capital, or, which amounts to the same thing, an increase in experiences that generate trust and recognition of common ground, will allow people in ever larger numbers to move comfortably from the tight circle of friends and family into the larger society.

Loss of social capital, on the other hand, would mean the rise of distrust, loss of social cohesion and the pervasive pursuit of short-term self-interest, which could lead to conflict and social isolation as well as contempt for power and authority (Ibid.) [Sounds familiar, does it not?]

The only way to make democracy work is for people to acquire those capacities represented by social capital. All the same, trusting and cooperating with people who are neither your relatives nor friends is quite a challenge and can be achieved only through habit and practice. (Fukuyama 1999, online, 12/14)

Trust can never be imposed, much less legislated into existence. It cannot even be taught the usual way.

Social trust can only be engendered, that is, developed through active, collaborative relationship with others. Ultimately, it is based on the mental habit of recognizing common interests "and choosing to look for collective rather than individual benefits." (Cox 1995, online, 5/7)

Because social trust can neither be imposed nor legislated, the interactions that are bound to engender it and thus create social capital, "are most likely to occur in egalitarian communities where people voluntarily contribute time and effort and receive positive reinforcement." (Cox on Putnam, 1995, 3/7)

The accumulation of trust is therefore based on the kind of engagements that "civic" organizations make possible. These are actually familiar: non-profit organizations, local environment groups, craft groups, neighborhood associations, local sporting groups, fund raising organizations, playgroups and others which have an egalitarian and voluntaristic structure. (Ibid)

Putnam (1995) believes these organizations --- which today come under the general label of "civil society" --- are a good empirical measure of a society's stock of social capital.

Indeed, according to Tocqueville, these associations invigorate civil life because they make transparent to individuals the link between private well being and shared purposes. (Welch on Tocqueville, in Boucher and Kelly 2003, p. 295)

These bring about an "enlarged interest, a wider human sympathy, a sense of active responsibility for oneself, the skills needed to work with others toward goods that can only be obtained through collective action, and the powers of sympathetic understanding needed to build bridges of persuasive words to those with whom one must act." (Galston on Tocqueville and Mill, 2004)

Interestingly, and perhaps even ironically, one word summarizes all of these so-called "intellectual and moral capacities" in Tagalog, and it is one that signifies a concrete, historically evolved social practice: bayanihan.

Bayanihan as we have experienced it, however, is also a local phenomenon. It is about a group of people moving a house from point A to point B. Applying the idea to an imagined [perhaps, even imaginary] "national community" of 80 million, a social and ethnic mosaic speaking close to one hundred different languages, is the height of nativistic folly.

Still, bayanihan as community endeavor has something very important to teach us: It is only by building trust in the context of concrete, everyday issues --- threats to livelihood and health for instance --- rather than mobilizing people through ideological abstractions, that the basis for more democratic communities will be laid.

Lest we forget, democracy was born to city-states, not to nation-states.

In the long run, it is sustained and ever-expanding civil society activity, and the kind of civic habits and dispositions they instill in people, that will make traditional political practices untenable.

Forget about trying to fix national character.



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