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The problem of family politics

opinion / Columns
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The problem of family politics

/ 09:36 PM April 22, 2013

For better or worse, all is in the family. In politics, it is definitely for worse as it defeats the democratic idea of merit and competition. If running for political office depends on a political family, and if representatives from the same families are elected time and time again, then something is broken and needs to be fixed. But what exactly is that  something? Before we can fix it, we need to understand it. Marx might be right, that philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point, however, is to change it. But maybe many of our suggested changes failed to work because we have not spent enough time on analysis.

Analysis needs to start with a view from afar, looking at society as a whole. An outsider to Philippine society is surprised by the omnipresence and idealization of the family and the widespread distrust of the state. The discussion about the nation-state always centers on that nation, never on the state. Nation building is what’s important, but not state building. The state is predominantly discussed in negative terms, with its many shortcomings and corruptions, and there is no doubt that this reality exists. But we need also to acknowledge its role in providing the basic material and ideal infrastructure to lead our lives. Loyalties and responsibilities between family and state are strongly tilted toward the former; the family has a good reputation, the state a bad one. This creates a very uneven playing field between the human person being a family member and being a citizen, where being a family member always comes first. Without acknowledging the important function of the state for our lives, the family keeps being idealized and the state demonized.

When the notion of family is idealized and the state demonized, it makes it easy for everyone, including the ones in power, to put the family first. And when the family is huge and extends into the larger kinship structure, the impartial and egalitarian state remains weak. But isn’t the state just a very large family? Certainly not. To imagine the larger community of the nation-state in familial terms, as it is done in school books, is a serious mistake, as Niels Mulder points out. Imagining the state in familial terms confuses the different function and structure of the two social entities. The state is no family; the rule of law of the state requires impartiality and egalitarianism; it is the absence of favoritism and is the opposite of a personalized web of relations. It is the encounter with the perfect stranger that requires equal treatment under the premises of the state like a family member. A positive notion of the state is needed to anchor that insight firmly into the Philippine social organization.


There is a further twist, a psychoanalytical or psychodynamic one. If we idealize the family and demonize the state, then being a good person requires first and foremost caring for the family, not minding the requirements of the state. If that is our moral outlook, wouldn’t we somehow expect that our politicians would be good persons and would act accordingly? There are indeed conflicting expectations of our politicians; as representatives of the state at large, we expect them to work for the good of the nation-state. As family members we expect them—unconsciously—to take care of their families. The family discourse and the nationalist discourse are in constant conflict; but it is likely that the family one keeps the upper hand, as long as family and state have such different reputations.

This all does not preclude being vigilant against the corruption of the state by a self-serving group of elite politicians. It does not state that we should not push forward with an anti-dynasty law or legal regulation limiting the power of political families. But as history teaches us, there have always been ways to circumvent these laws. True change needs to go deeper, and also possibly requires some degree of self-questioning of how we view the basic social organization of our society.

Moreover, this does not preclude that the civil society plays an important role. It serves as a training ground in the transition to social networks beyond the family. It also does not mean that we disregard the family altogether. Furthermore, it does mean that we gain a more equitable account of the family and the state, these two basic social institutions that are both equally important for human flourishing. On the other hand, not only do we  owe much of our social existence to our family, but we also owe it—as Hegel points out—to the state. Neither of these social institutions is flawless. They form the way we perceive reality and deal with others; they shape our values and attitudes. We might struggle all our lives with the baggage we get from them, but we cannot just simply break away from them.

Nation-building is important. But unless it is linked with a positive and sustainable notion of the state, it tends to come second to the loyalties expected from the family. The nation becomes real in the concrete structures of the state; and a positive acknowledgement of these structures would help counteract the important role of families in politics.

Lukas Kaelin, a visiting scholar at the Europe Center at Stanford University, wrote this comment as a response to Randy David’s April 11, 2013 column. A visiting professor at the Ateneo de Manila University, Kaelin is the author of “Strong Family, Weak State: Hegel’s Political Philosophy and the Filipino Family” (Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press 2012). E-mail:

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TAGS: elections 2013, political dynasties, politics
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