The moral burden of civil society
Modern democracy is theoretically procedural rather than substantial. This means that democracy in itself is not a guarantee for the achievement of our desired ends. It can be argued that ultimately, democracy is not merely a question of representation. The element of discourse takes a more crucial role in terms of securing just social arrangements. In addition, the rule of the majority simply means politics is a matter of numbers, thus diluting the essence and value of democracy as the ultimate expression of human freedom. Although the right of suffrage is an equalizer, there are sectors that influence and manipulate the whole electoral process, and thus, the results of elections are no longer reflective of the will of the people.
So while it is important to reform our electoral system so that it would not be prone to the abuses of those who are in power, it is crucial to look into the role of civil society in terms of leading, designing and maintaining the discourse on legitimate social, economic and political issues. In a country where the political culture is weak and the state apparatus is helpless, the legitimacy of democratic decisions cannot be found in voting. Often members of Congress blindly obey party decisions. Moral principles and the value of the common good have become secondary.
Communicative models, in this regard, as expounded by theorists like Jürgen Habermas and Seyla Benhabib, are more comprehensive in terms of addressing difficult social issues. Civil society, or what John Rawls calls the “background culture,” plays a significant role not only in educating the masses but also, more importantly, in sustaining a more mature understanding of issues. Formal discussions in the halls of Congress, while indispensable in thwarting authoritarian state actions and the perpetuation of abuse by public officials, do not reach the ordinary folk. The informal channels that we find in schools, the parishes, and other institutions outside the halls of Congress are as important insofar as these allow for open and free discussions without the baggage of political bias.
It is important in this sense that the president of the country understands the imperative of an informed citizenry. People are taken advantage of because of their ignorance; they are also abused as a matter of fact because nobody protects them from the vultures who use the state in its machinations on the basis of propaganda.
Civil society, in this regard, is the marriage between political association and public action, notes John Dryzek. Most of our problems are a result of the fact that many things have been hidden from the public. Should the state make mistakes, it is civil society’s role to point out its failure. Why would any government be afraid of transparency if it is not hiding anything?
In the absence of a freedom of information law, people can only make conjectures about what the government is doing. Precisely, most problems like those involving the Metro Rail Transit, the power sector, and many others are a result of the lack of participation in important discussions on these concerns, which government officials insulate from the critical awareness of the people.
We can cite many political failures on the part of this administration and past administrations, but most state-centric responses are confined to legalities. More than anything else, a conscientious population and a more educated voter should have developed out of these political ills, and yet we remain the weakest in terms of political maturity. People are resigned to their fate, pessimistic of their government, and feel helpless because of powerlessness. In this regard, the communicative power of civil society must move us forward in terms of “questioning, criticizing, and publicizing,” according to Dryzek.
Where the state apparatus is nonfunctional, civil society takes the role as the final bastion of defense in protecting the weak. The protest against the planned sinking of the oil platform Brent Spar in the North Atlantic in 1995 is a case in point: It illustrates how the action of civil society is instrumental in achieving moral results where any government seems incapacitated.
Our big problem, really, is that we have created moral individualists in most of our students who do not possess a sense of nationalism. Most of them are lured by the corporate world. In addition, the harsh political environment has forced many competent public officials to set aside the ideals of social justice in favor of their patrons. The inability of government agencies to respond to the immediate needs of survivors of calamities reveals in a huge way how weak our institutions have become.
We have plenty of intelligent people who are apolitical. The reason is simple. They do not want the trouble that is politics. But all of us in the background culture must do our share in terms of realizing our moral duties to the state by participating in and contributing our time, knowledge and attention to various issues.
It is a moral burden that we have to carry.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at the Ateneo de Davao University. He holds an MA in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.