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Fight vs pork is fight for democracy, dignity

/ 10:54 PM October 18, 2013

At the second Million People March held in Makati City early this month, thousands converged at the same crossroad where a monument to President Aquino’s martyred father stands, prompting some to ask: What would he tell his son?

As the debate about the pork barrel issue escalates, so does the fight over what the issue really is. Politics, after all, is never just a struggle for power or resources; as sociologists have pointed out, it is also always a fight over what the fight is really all about.

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In that struggle over discourse which is never just about discourse, the President and his supporters have been deploying the full might of the state to frame the issue as simply a fight against corruption: a story of greedy, shadowy villains versus honest reformers heroically trying to fix a flawed but otherwise improvable system.

Whether unwittingly or not, others have reinforced this state perspective by dwelling on the legal-technical issues surrounding the prosecution of suspects and the pursuit of reforms.

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Like all ways of seeing, this state perspective cannot be too detached from reality: Janet Napoles and the accused lawmakers are widely seen as the villains and the President as the sincere reformer.

But, like all ways of seeing, this framing highlights selected aspects in order to downplay others. In focusing on individuals’ moral deficiencies and on the penal-technical aspects of the issue, the President either overlooks—or actively seeks to obscure—its larger political and moral dimensions.

After all, what societies do with their resources, their ways of answering the questions of who gets what, when, how and why, are never just neutral or technical procedures for allocating and distributing resources—procedures that “bad” people just happen to hijack from time to time.

On the contrary, these ways of dividing up the social pie are always deeply politicized and moralized: They always put in place historically-specific and historically-changeable structures of power and moral relations.

Take the pork barrel system. Under this system, the allocation of huge portions of that social pie gets sealed off from public deliberations, determined unilaterally by a hierarchy of elected officials. Thus, the President asserts the right to spend almost any way he wants the tens of billions of pesos flowing from our gas reserves, “savings,” and other sources of “presidential pork.” Similarly, legislators assert the right to decide on their own which projects and which NGOs to fund out of their pork barrel allocations.

With virtually untrammeled discretion over the coffers, officials thereby acquire great power over our destinies: A single person can decide which provinces or cities get to be “developed,” which student will be able to go to school, which patient will be given chemotherapy, or who among the dead will be given a decent burial.

And if a “bribe” is any amount used to induce others to act favorably in one’s favor, then this system of power relations puts in place a legalized national system of bribery that extends from Malacañang all the way down to the farthest barangays, corrupting everyone in a far more profound sense. Using his control over whether, how much, and how quickly their subordinates can get funds, the President raises what economists call the “opportunity costs” of voting against his preferences during impeachment trials or regular legislation. Down at the district level, congressmen use pork barrel funds to make it economically costly for local officials to defy them.

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Scholars have repeatedly pointed to how this system perpetuates “patronage politics,” a set of feudal relations in which officials act as “patrons” disbursing resources to “clients” in exchange for support.

But few have noted how such a system also entrenches a particular set of moral categories and hierarchies: Forced to fall in line and to return several times for the chance to prostrate themselves before politicians, the masses are morally degraded, reduced to mendicants begging for alms from their patrons—rather than as autonomous citizens with inalienable rights to education, healthcare and other services. Legislators, for their part, are elevated as beneficent lords rather than as mere representatives of their constituencies—even as they themselves are reduced to supplicants before the President.

And to the extent that people internalize these moral categories—seeing themselves and acting as mendicants rather than as citizens—the system thereby becomes a means of exacting submission. By making the masses materially and morally dependent through patronage, our ruling classes may have also gained the ability to restrain them from taking advantage of formal democracy to fight for their own interests, to vote for radical redistribution, or to alter class relations. This is how they can champion “democracy” without losing sleep. And if, because of their dependence on patronage, the masses end up electing their buffoon patrons, then the elites can also conveniently blame them for democracy’s failings.

From this broader perspective—one that refuses to conceal the political and moral repercussions of the issue—the struggle against pork cannot therefore simply be a question of how to go after the bad guys, which lesser evil to support, or how to best tinker with procedures.

On the contrary, it requires confronting the inescapably political and moral questions faced by all societies: How do we share our resources for the greater good? How do we treat each other? And, in our case, how do we break out of a system that has conditioned us into thinking of ourselves as mere beggars rather than as citizens—believing, for example, that the only way to make our President respond is by appeasing him instead of by pressuring him, as if he were the “boss” instead of us?

From this broader perspective, the alternatives that many people are now advancing—scrapping pork in all its forms and putting in place “participatory budgeting” processes in which ordinary citizens are finally empowered to decide how to use the country’s resources—is not just a struggle against “corruption” in the narrow sense, but a struggle against corruption in the larger sense, against disempowerment and moral degradation. It is a struggle for real democracy, a struggle for dignity.

And from that perspective, the President’s father—he who offered his life to keep that struggle going—would probably firmly but gently tell his son: It is a struggle you have to join rather than seek to destroy.

Herbert Docena is a doctoral student in sociology.

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TAGS: Commentary, Herbert Docena, Million People March, opinion, pork barrel, pork barrel scam
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