Democracy and the poor

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

In the 70s, it was easy for a country to choose sides between the two superpowers. One side represented a political system that relied on authoritarianism and communism as an economic system. This was led by Russia and China. The other side, led by the United States, advocated democracy as a political system and capitalism as an economic system. People began to see these economic and political systems as one.

If one criticizes capitalism, automatically he or she must be a communist. Capitalism and democracy would be the answer to mankind’s search for a more equal world and for economic prosperity and a life of human dignity for all. The right to vote gave each person the equivalent of equal rights.

I used to believe in this maxim that capitalism and democracy go together. It seemed easier and more logical to believe our economists, who kept reassuring that as the economic pie got bigger, there would be more pie to serve and everyone would be assured of a life of human dignity.

I used to advocate this orthodoxy. I would repeat the mantra that the most important economic barometer was the Gross Domestic Product or GDP. Then I started seeing books and articles that said that income inequality was worsening or the gap between the rich and poor was getting wider. Even when countries like the Philippines started increasing their GDP, the gap between the rich and poor did not lessen. In fact, businessmen, in the midst of this poverty, continued to advocate that lower wages and benefits would make the Philippines more “competitive” and increase the number of jobs. So many in the business sector opposed increases in minimum wage and protection for workers like removing contractualization and organizing labor unions.

On a global scale, democracy was on the retreat as we saw a resurgence of authoritarianism. China became the model of a country that combined capitalism and authoritarianism and lifted millions of people out of poverty. The old models had gone. The one thing clear was that the world was seeing an authoritarian resurgence and a retreat by democracy.

In my search for answers, my first conclusion was that capitalism and the resurgence of authoritarianism seem to be growing stronger. I found my answer in Pope Francis, who started writing that “trickle down does not work.”

There was too much reliance on the generosity of the rich. In one of his writings the pope wrote that workers are treated as the most expendable element while owners with their narrow interest in maximizing profits still call the shots.

In the meantime, the resurgence of authoritarianism continues even in Europe, bastion of liberal democracy. Two countries – Hungary and Poland – have right-wing governments that are threatening to leave the EU. In China, Xi Jinping has increased his dictatorial hold on China and its people.

The Philippines was once the model of democracy in Asia. Today, the strongest candidates for president are the son of the dictator who imposed a dictatorial regime in this country and the daughter of the outgoing President who has been accused of extrajudicial killings. There is a liberal democratic candidate who is trying to rally the liberal forces. Perhaps not surprisingly, the lower classes are the ones rallying to support these authoritarian forces.

What is happening in these countries like the Philippines? Even in the United States, Trump is practically advocating authoritarianism and yet his following comes mostly from the sectors that are not college graduates.

Perhaps it is true that the lower classes have not really benefited from democracy and capitalism. There must be a way of separating these two.

Pope Francis is a champion of democracy. At the same time he proposes ideas that are considered socialist. He wrote recently “ …it is time to explore concepts like the Universal Basic Income (UBI) also known as the negative income tax, an unconditional flat payment to all citizens which could be dispersed through the tax system. The UBI could reshape relations in the labor market, guaranteeing people the dignity of refusing employment terms that trap them in poverty. It would give people the basic security they need, remove the stigma of welfarism and make it easier to move between jobs…”

In the United States and Western Europe, there is still the belief that protecting democracy means protecting capitalism at the same time. Fortunately, there is a growing group of progressive politicians who now understand the differences. These are people like Bernie Sanders and AO Cortez.

Even in the party where they belong – Democratic – there is strong opposition. But I predict the progressive wing will grow.

In the Philippines, have the lower classes benefited from democracy? If they are to fight for democracy, they must be shown that, unlike in the past, democracy will improve the quality of their lives and they will finally have human dignity.

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October writing date: Oct. 23, 2-3 p.m. Young Writers’ Hangout on writing book reviews with Bebang Siy. Contact writethingsph@gmail.com.  0945.2273216

Email: elfrencruz@gmail.com

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