Modernizing elites
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - November 10, 2018 - 12:00am

In the mid-1960s, Carlos Fernandez, CEO of the shipping company Compania Maritima, invited the English historian Arnold Toynbee, to address the Columbian Club on Taft Avenue. At the time, Toynbee’s magnum opus, A Study of History, had elicited worldwide commentary. Carling and I had a long conversation with him.

Toynbee traced the beginnings, growth, and decay of nations and civilizations, the river systems that bring life to a nation, and how these nations become strong through the development of communication systems maintained by a powerful army. The character of the leaders eventually defined the people and the nation they led.

Some of Toynbee’s ideas have been confirmed, among them the possibility of a perfect society built by imperfect men. But most of all – although I am afraid this is simplifying his main thesis – that the response of a people and their leaders to challenges shapes history. But significant decisions can go wrong in the process of change, and this can be life-threatening to nations in decay.

THE FAULT LINES IN OUR HISTORY were obvious early enough to our ilustrados, Rizal most of all. We have always been fragmented by ethnicities, clans, and most of all, by the social divide. So, we must now locate and define ourselves in history. There are several states a nation goes through in its development. Anarchy (not the political philosophy) destroys a people. A nation divided and polarized will soon succumb to civil war. Even when that war is concluded, the wounds will take a long time to heal or may not heal at all. And, finally, revolution or modernization can unite us the way EDSA I did.

And what state are we in right now?

I sense we are in the deep throes of anarchy, aggravated by institutions in dystopia. This condition may last very long, lulling us with a false sense of stability and permanence, blinded as we are to the opportunities for survival and rebirth. When the end finally comes and everything implodes, we may not even realize that we have lost a country. Applying the Toynbee thesis to our condition, we must recognize that the greatest challenge to us is poverty, and that we must act to build a just, sovereign and strong nation.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Japan’s Meiji Restoration. Before the Tokugawa shoguns united Japan in the 16th century, Japan was fragmented, with various clans fighting one another. In the more than two centuries under the Tokugawa dynasty, Japan became stable and prosperous. Tokyo in the 17th century had a population of more than a million, rivaling such capitals as London and Paris.

Then Commodore Perry and his ships sailed to Japan and demanded that the country – secluded from the West for 200 years – be open to trade. Western imperialism was at their door. Japan’s response to the challenge was to create a new strategy, modernize the military and government, transfer the Emperor from Kyoto to Tokyo.

THE MEIJI RESTORATION OR REVOLUTION was masterminded by only a hundred purposeful leaders from the samurai class, alongside teachers, professionals, and merchants. They sent teachers to Europe and the United States to study Western technology, convinced that it should be backed by the Japanese spirit. For ten years, they worked at modernizing Japan during which period the modernizers were assassinated and limited wars broke out. But in the end, Japan emerged strong and coveting a co-prosperity empire. The Meiji Restoration is perhaps the best example of a revolution that was shaped not by the masses but by the elite.

The leaders who modernized America were neither revolutionaries nor proletarians. In fact, they were – to describe them correctly – immigrants. They were not saints. The Americans themselves called them “robber barons.” They raped the land, exploited their workers. But they also built railroads, steel mills, factories, and great universities. They encouraged entrepreneurship and flung open the doors of the country to immigrants from Europe, and soon after, from Asia. It is this immigrant infusion and dynamism that powered American progress and, with it, the institutions that would make that nation endure.

The recent modernization of Taiwan, Korea, and Singapore was accomplished by middle-class leaders steeped in the Confucian tradition.

Can we modernize?

THROUGH THE YEARS, our educational system has produced thousands of professionals – the intellectual infrastructure for modernization. We now have the technology, the expertise in business and in government. Yet many in this elite force cannot find fulfillment here.

Look around us and see these magnificent condominiums, shopping malls, casinos and resorts, all surrounded by slums. Our elites that built them have the mentality of landlords, much of it acquired from our colonizers. As landlords, all they do is wait for the harvest and the rent. How wonderful if these beautiful capitalist structures were factories. How wonderful if all those rich Filipinos who sent their money abroad would bring their money back and thus encourage the return of the thousands of Filipinos building and strengthening other countries rather than ours.

The triumph of revolution signals even more and even harder work. The conspirators and heretics who ushered that revolution must now be managers and builders of the institutions that will make the gains of that revolution endure. This will take equal dedication, which must now be backed by expertise.

The final goal of revolution and modernization is freedom, the embodiment of man’s deepest aspirations. This freedom must be nurtured and shielded from apathy and neglect. It has been said that freedom lives only in the heart and if it dies there, no power on earth can ever bring it back to life.

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