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What’s the difference?

“Corruption” is commonly understood to be the use of public funds for “personal gain.” But how do we define “personal gain”? Is it limited to enriching one’s self or one’s family? What about the use of public funds to enrich one’s class?

For this administration, you are corrupt if you directly pocket government money. Hence, from its perspective, the difference between “Pogi,” “Sexy” and “Tanda” on one hand, and the President on the other, can’t be more stark: Only the former are corrupt because they supposedly used public funds to enrich their families.

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But does someone have to directly gain from the use of public funds to be corrupt? What if the benefits are more indirect or intangible? And what if the benefits are more widely shared with members of one’s class?

Is that no longer corruption?

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Take the Disbursement Acceleration Program. When the Aquino administration gave P50 million+ to each of the senators, it did not only open up opportunities for tongpats, it also effectively used public funds to give material concessions to the other elite factions represented by the senators, thereby greasing its relations with potential adversaries, and allowing it to claim that it represents not only the interests of its own elite faction but the interests of all elite families. The DAP served as a glue to forge intraelite cohesion.

But by doling out DAP funds to their constituents, these elite families consequently succeeded in fostering interclass cohesion by providing medical services, scholarships, and other forms of patronage to voters, enabling them to back their claim that they represent not only their class’ interests but also those of the lower classes.

This ability to provide material concessions, the political theorist Antonio Gramsci long ago pointed out, is absolutely crucial for any dominant class to achieve what he called hegemony: the ability to induce some degree of obedience to one’s rule by being able to present one’s self or faction as promoting not just one’s narrow interests but the interests of all.

Or, as Machiavelli, who influenced Gramsci, would have put it: Pork is absolutely necessary for a ruler to be both feared and loved.

This, of course, is consistent with what many social scientists have repeatedly concluded about the pork barrel system, which the DAP in effect enlarged by augmenting the already huge “presidential pork”: It has functioned to oil a national system of patronage that has kept the less powerful dependent on and submissive to the more powerful, thereby perpetuating relations of domination between the classes.

Obviously, none of its effects—the securing of consent from subordinates, the reproduction of relations of dependence, the perpetuation of elite rule—cannot be stashed by the President in a secret Swiss account or used directly to buy a Beverly Hills condo.

But insofar as political power remains a precondition for the dominant classes in our country to extract profits from workers or to privatize common resources, they have provided invisible but concrete “personal gains” for the President himself, the members of his class, and also those of the lower classes who have been drawn to their cross-class bloc.

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After all, how else, if not for their command of the state, could they have managed to keep workers on starvation wages or to hold on to their haciendas?

Simply put, the political power that our elites are able to secure through the pork barrel system is what ultimately helps secure our elites’ economic power, allowing them to become ever wealthier—but in a manner that has come to be far more socially acceptable than through the schemes cooked up by the likes of Sexy, Pogi, or Tanda.

And this, in the end, is what differentiates Mr. Aquino from them: Oblivious to the people’s clamor for a clean government, the three represent the more backward, more short-sighted factions of our ruling class, using public funds to enrich only their own families and to keep only their own families in power.

Attuned to, and seeking to ride on, people’s aspiration for change, Mr. Aquino and his men, on the other hand, represent the relatively more sophisticated because more far-sighted factions of our ruling class, using public funds and subverting the democratic process not necessarily to directly enrich their already-rich families, but to enrich their entire class by keeping it in power.

For unlike Tanda et al., Mr. Aquino and his party have actually taken Gramsci’s or Machiavelli’s lessons to heart: They know that for them to stay in power, they can’t be so crass as to get caught with their hands in the cookie jar. They can’t be too selfish; they have to spread the love around. And they can’t be too myopic because to draw earnest reformers and other classes, they need to concede a few reforms here and there.

In short, they recognize what Pogi et al. cannot: that sometimes rulers have to “change” so that things can remain the same. But they are not, for all that, uninterested in personal gains. They’re just not interested in barya.

Instead of underscoring this difference—and similarity—between these two ruling factions, however, the administration has propagated its preferred moral differentiation: that Sexy et al. are soiled but the President is pure.

From this perspective, we supposedly have no choice but to rally behind the President and forget about impeaching him or calling for his resignation because to do so will only help Tanda et al. In short, we supposedly have no choice but to choose the more sophisticated faction of our ruling class over the more venal faction.

But is that really our only choice?

Herbert Docena is a PhD candidate in sociology at UC Berkeley.

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TAGS: Aquino administration, corruption, Disbursement Acceleration Program, Public Funds
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