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Pantries

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - April 20, 2021 - 12:00am

Call it “socialism in one pantry,” if you wish.

One bright day last week, citizen Patricia Non pushed a small bamboo cart up Maginhawa Street in UP Village and filled it with food items. She called it a “community pantry.” A sign was put up, asking the public to give what they can and take what they need.

What began as a small gesture of community sharing immediately transformed into an idea that found its time. In the distressed condition this pandemic has thrown us all into, sharing has become an extremely compelling proposition, a revolutionary idea.

The “Maginhawa model” quickly caught fire, spread through social media and eventually the mainstream press.

The very next day, a similar initiative was set up in nearby Sikatuna Village. On the third day, dozens (maybe hundreds) of community pantries sprouted all over the city, in wealthy villages as well as poor neighborhoods.

On the third day, social media was posting community pantries being set up all over the archipelago. Neighbors were coming together to share what they can and take what they need. Something truly inspiring was sweeping at the grassroots.

At first, I took social media reports of “community pantries” as a curiosity – until I was contacted by my son, who lives at UP Village, asking me to collect the stuff I hoard at home and bring them to Maginhawa. I promised to do so as soon as I met my deadlines.

By the time I got around to collecting groceries I might spare, a “community pantry” sprouted in my own neighborhood. I went down to observe what was going on. What I saw was both surprising and refreshing. Ordinary people came and contributed small bags of rice, a few eggs, canned goods and vegetables. Those who might need them approached the stall, hesitantly at first, and then took small quantities that might be consumed within the day.

The first thought that crossed my mind was Albert Camus’ existentialist novel La Peste (The Plague). That novel was set in the midst of a catastrophic epidemic that put communities under severe strain. Under the severity of their shared situation, the characters transformed, stepping out of their socially assigned roles and becoming better versions of themselves, animated by empathy and driven by their basic humanity. The whole community transformed into a better version of itself.

Then I thought about new emerging concepts such as the “sharing economy” where people did not need to own things like cars but have these conveniences when they were needed (as in networked transport services). There is also the emerging concept a “circular economy” where people did not produce things to trash them eventually (in linear fashion) but passed on goods so that they might be reused or revalued or revalidated. The “circular economy” was a model for how societies might become more sustainable in an age threatened by climate change.

From network analysis in political science, there is the concept of “horizontal networks” as contrasted with the top-down “vertical networks” reliant on elites and command-control structures. In “horizontal networks” people freely come together because of common cause, they act on their own volition and volunteer to do great things together. The Edsa Revolution, for instance, that was leaderless in the main was preceded by the formation of numerous “horizontal networks.”

Then there is the sociology of the “community pantry:” it is a spontaneous but empowering arrangement.

First it requires a redeeming view of our neighbors, as people we could trust, persons who will behave with dignity and honesty when left to freely make choices. In the community pantry I observed, people did not riot or elbow others to get ahead of the line. They queued politely and returned eggs to the tray when they saw the next person needed them more.

It is empowering as well because the poor, who would not otherwise make paltry donations to a large charity, found dignity in donating what little they had. We saw farmers donating part of their harvest and fishermen offering part of their catch.

At the “community pantry,” the donors and the beneficiaries are anonymous but alike. There is no politician here working to improve his own branding or exercising patronage by giving away stuff to build his name-recall. Instead, we see the real economics of sharing between equals: bringing to the collective stock what one might not need at the moment and taking from the stock what could be of immediate value. This empowers us all.

I caught the post of one leftist talking head demeaning the “community pantry” initiative as a “repackaged” version of “an old idea.” I am not sure if his reference point was Karl Marx’s Grundrisse where he imagined communist society as one where each contributed to society what he can and received according to his needs. This is actually a restatement of the older anarcho-syndicalist utopia of some stateless society.

This leftist is probably demeaning the “community pantry” as an “old idea” because his group could not claim paternity over an initiative that has captured the imagination of our people. The leftist groups, trapped in their own agitprop tactics, are always demanding something from government or from businesses, either subsidies or higher wages. In their own patriarchal “democratic centralism,” they could not grasp the liberating dynamics of horizontal networks, of equals sharing with equals.

A number of traditional politicians, advancing their own elitist agenda, have tried to portray the mushrooming of “community pantries” as indicative of government’s failure. They do not understand empowerment.

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