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A new social class?

/ 07:56 PM February 02, 2014

Let’s juxtapose these recent stories and ask if they’re all connected: the dire straits of the survivors of the earthquake and typhoon disasters; the scandalous exploitation of overseas Filipino workers by embassy officials in the Gulf states that Lila Shahani and Walden Bello have been pursuing; the violent eviction of informal settlers at North Edsa; “Binay-gate” at Dasmariñas Village; and the Vhong and Deniece show at Bonifacio Global City. What links all of them?

Three things: the unequal distribution and intensity of media attention (print, TV, radio and social media); the unequal distribution of judicial interest; and the very class-specific nature of the protagonists.

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The last two stories tend to suck most of the oxygen out of the room, while the first three will elicit moralizing outrage for one second, then be quickly forgotten the next. All of these yield a very obvious point: that stories involving those in the upper regions of society get more attention—from the media, from politicians, and from the justice system—than those involving those in the lower regions. As a friend said, “we can identify with Vhong and Deniece,” but not, presumably, with the poor victims of disasters, exploitation and eviction.

Who is “we”? It can’t all be the “rich”. The rich, as far as I know, are the ones who appear on the pages of Tatler and Town and Country. Are Vhong and Deniece in this league? They strike me as part of what, for want of a better word, we might think of as “aspirational”: not wealthy, not poor, but able to trade on their media presence to seem as if they were part of a new elite, or more precisely, a virtual elite. They are part of an “imagined community” of the wannabe rich, if you will.

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What are the characteristics of this imagined community? They are very insecure about their economic position, having just enough money to live in one of the new condos. (The fact that this is happening in BGC is important. It has been the site of all sorts of criminal activities, including serving as a beachhead for the Mexican drug cartel. Unlike in Dasmariñas and Forbes, these new condos have no gates, only fancy security systems that can easily be breached. The new condos reek of aspirational elitism, with little, if any, links to old money).

Economic insecurity comes with social and cultural insecurity. Unsure of their status, inasmuch as they don’t belong to old money, they can only dissociate themselves from their origins, or at least that of their parents. Hence, while they are not yet where they would like to be, they know one thing for sure: They do not want to be part of the poor.

To be part of this aspirational class entails cultivating an indifference to poverty. Members of this class are neither interested nor curious about it. Instead, they accept poverty as a given that can be, with luck and hard work, overcome, but only on an individual basis. They thus shun collective action in favor of individual effort. They see themselves not as laborers but as entrepreneurs, as small business enterprises in and of themselves. This is what accounts for their Philistinism and their apolitical views. They are entirely opportunistic and will side with whatever party and whatever patron or sugar daddy—or born-again church—offers them the most. One can think of Janet Napoles as part of this category. Or the embassy personnel accused of exploiting OFWs in the Middle East, the low-level bureaucrats, and the most spectacular example, the Binay family (in contrast to the old money of Roxas, Aquino, the Lopezes, the Ortigases, the Montinolas, and all the other regular denizens of Town and Country).

In short, what we have in the Vhong and Deniece show (for that is what it is, a reality show, the quintessential genre for the aspirational elite) is an example of a new social type: the neoliberal Pinoy, one whose identity is largely the product of the globalized capitalist marketplace. We can trace their genealogy to the OFWs who also seek to overcome their impoverished conditions as individual entrepreneurs rather than as part of an organized collective. But OFWs only become visible when they are killed or there are investigations into serious abuses and human trafficking. Vhong and Deniece, by contrast, readily give face to this new social type. As media figures, they are constantly visible. As with celebrities, their recognizability is what gives them an outsized claim to prominence with which to accumulate social capital. Investing in their visibility, they give face to that which is essentially faceless: money.

This is the new social class whose highly mediatized presence has permeated national attention. Its aspirations now set the new norms for social relations. My hunch is that if we understand the emergence and spread of these norms—the rejection of collective action in favor of individual entrepreneurship, the unapologetic opportunism, the apolitical and purely instrumental approach to social relations, and the morphing of social identity into money—we might be getting closer to understanding why inequality and injustice continue to be pervasive not just in the Philippines but also in many other parts of the world.

Vicente L. Rafael teaches history at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is the author of several works on the cultural and political history of the Philippines.

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