The oligarchy as modernizing elite

HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - March 1, 2021 - 12:00am

Elites are an ordinary fact of life. All nations, whatever their political systems, are led by them. Institutions, businesses, the arts have elites in constant flux. In the Philippines, it should be obvious now to every thinking Filipino that the Filipino elite, with its vast worth and collective intelligence, is the major obstruction to the building of a just and sovereign nation; it is also, on the other hand, the real motive power in the modernization of this country. The Filipino oligarchy is a colonial creation. When the Spaniards came here in 1521, there was no nation to speak of, but they knew instinctively that they had to work with the tribal leaders to establish a foothold in this country.

In 300 years, that foothold has become a nation created not so much by the Spaniards but by their wards whose minds were enlightened by the European renaissance, together with a politicized peasantry and revolutionary clergy. They established the first Republic patterned after the framework of European nations, particularly Spain for whom many of the leaders of that revolution had great affection.

The Spanish colonizers, as with much of Europe, made whatever profit they can make from their far-flung colony which for so many years they ruled from Mexico. There was the prosperous galleon trade, our trade with China, with Europe, which bought our cotton goods, our tobacco, our indigo.

When the Philippine revolution erupted in 1896, with the martyrdom of Jose Rizal, the Philippines was prey to the imperial powers, to Japan, to Germany and, of course, to the United States. The wealth of this country all through the years we were under Spain was basically in the land, and when the Americans arrived, they established the Torrens title system and cadastral surveys that legitimized the boundaries of lands that were titled separately from lands that were still in the public domain.

The Americans completely overhauled the economic value attributed to the land, and they also legalized the old Spanish titles as well as the estates that were owned by the religious orders. Many small farmers who cleared the land and had no knowledge of legalities were taken advantage of by the educated Filipinos, and they become tenants overnight – aggravating the landlord injustices that were already rampant all over the country.

The Americans supported the plantation economy, particularly the production of sugar, a largesse provided by the American sugar quota that assured the sugar barons greater wealth. The Philippine National Bank was established specifically for them, and with their great wealth, they were able to shape the political direction of the country. They were able to make their narrow interest into the national interest, and each Filipino ambassador to the United States worked primarily to maintain or enlarge that sugar quota granted by the American Congress.

The great power of the sugar bloc was taken over by Marcos when he declared martial law. Through the years, the nature of the land-based Filipino oligarchy slowly changed, dominated at first by Spanish mestizos who championed Manuel Quezon, the first mestizo president of this country. He divided that huge suburb named after him among his mestizo friends.

Unlike the Spaniards and the Chinese, the Americans did not stay long enough to create a distinguishable mestizo elite. Their contribution to Filipino nationhood was in the creation of a bureaucracy and an educational system that drew together the ethnic groups, particularly the Moros.

There is one thing that Marcos did which has been responsible for the change that had come upon this oligarchy. He granted citizenship to the Chinese-Filipinos whose entrepreneurial spirit was released, and within a generation, they had taken over the economic dominance of this country from what was once Spanish mestizo domain.

In the course of our development as a nation, the admixture of business and politics is unavoidable and even necessary. Why the Filipino oligarchy has not become a modernizing elite can be attributed to many reasons. The foremost among them is to modernize this country, and this requires harder work, vision and, most of all, real love for Filipinos.

The Filipino oligarchy has inherited the vices of the imperial teacher: to exploit this country and people and spur that loot abroad or to use it for their own narrow interest because they have not changed from the landlords that they were. And it is for this reason why they invest in non-productive enterprises, shopping malls, fancy condos, resorts. I bring to mind the famous novel of Giusseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard, where the character, Tancredi, tells the prince “to be where we are, we have to change.” This is basic. Elites that do not change are soon replaced by visionary heirs.

The election of Ramon Magsaysay in 1953 illustrates that it is possible for a Filipino candidate to become president of this country without relying on the wealth of the oligarchy – this is one important lesson that Magsaysay leaves us. The other is that it is possible for this country to have a good government if you have an honest and selfless ruler.

As constituted today, the Filipino oligarchy has all the opportunities to lift this nation up from its tragic poverty and all the injustices which a bad government cannot redress.

And if, by some historical fiasco, the communists will triumph, how will they rule? Dr. Salvador Puro tells a communist cadre in my story Olvidon: “You will not be different, you will rule as badly as all the rest, hostage to family, ethnicity and vaulting egos.”

We relived EDSA I last week with fondness and great expectations. Sayang! Cory could not be any one but herself – and so was her son. And Duterte, too?

We are a very young nation compared to our neighbors with their venerable histories. We are not doing badly, even with so-called fascist leaders. Look at the other countries in political and economic disarray. And come to think of it, look at America – half a million dead from the coronavirus pandemic, not because Trump had fascist tendencies, but because he was grossly incompetent. After all, like people everywhere, we want our cake and eat it, too. It cannot be.

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