Contentions of Commonality

…unless there is widespread participation in democratic politics by a vigorous and informed citizen body moved in good part by a concern for political justice and public good, even the best-designed political institutions will eventually fall into the hands of those who hunger for power and military glory, or pursue narrow class and economic interests, to the exclusion of almost everything else. If we are to remain free and equal citizens, we cannot afford a general retreat into private life.
– John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement

Yesterday, I attended a conference, hosted by the DLSU International Studies Department and the Japan Foundation, titled “Exploring Global Commons in the Asia Pacific: Japan in a Dynamic Region,” which discussed the following topics over the course of two days (October 3-4): maritime security, digital commons, cultural commons, sustainable development, philosophical analysis, regional cooperation and China’s ascendancy, governing global commons, civil society and community, and migration. However, since I had classes and meetings on Friday, I managed to attend only the panels concerning the last three of the abovementioned topics. I found that braving days of sleep deprivation, the traffic, rain, and the possibility of getting stranded in Taft was worth it.

Commons,” as the speakers pointed out, is a contested term with varying definitions, but I took it to mean shared resources, common agenda, or a sense of belonging to one community on a local, regional, or global scale, involving elements in the cultural, political, and economic spheres of society and, of course, the natural world in which it all exists (as those who know me may observe, I tend to think about social issues using the framework of social threefolding). In this longish post, I’ll talk about the presentations that struck me the most.


One was by Dr. Mark Thompson, Director of the Southeast Asian Research Center of the City University of Hong Kong, on “Governing the ‘Electoral Commons’ in Southeast Asia.” He explained that just as predominant as electoral normality—i.e. voting as a norm in global governance—is the opinion that the “poor vote”—which forms the electoral majority in many Southeast Asian countries—is uninformed and therefore easily manipulated by populist propaganda or bought by unscrupulous politicians, resulting in the “tyranny of the majority” when unqualified or corrupt rulers are elected by the “unthinking masses.” In this context, Dr. Thompson explores questions of the efficacy and legitimacy of an electoral democracy and challenges common assumptions about the voting behavior of the masses that has led to the popular denigration of populism.

Dr. Thompson argued that the poor vote is potentially subversive, given the number of its electorate. Furthermore, in contrast to the general cynicism of the upper and middle classes, who decry the constant reelection of political clowns and the failure of the electoral process, and who often abstain from voting out of disgust, the poor see the elections as a legitimate and genuine chance to effect change, and take voting seriously, given that it is the one instance in which they are accorded equality in a stratified society: one person, one vote. Neither do the masses simply sell their votes or support politicians unthinkingly; Dr. Thompson said that their voting behavior must be analyzed in the “broader context of everyday political values”—which, for the poor, involves their immediate needs for survival as well as local communal concerns—and the development of trust between the local electorate and a political candidate. Given the inefficiency, weakness, and dubious morality of the national political infrastructure, it is important for the marginalized to feel that their needs and concerns—so often brushed aside by a government controlled by elite interests—would be heard and addressed.

Thus, if the middle and upper classes—the minority—wish for better governance, then they should strive to develop “democracy from below” by campaigning for voter education, reinforcing voter dignity, and promoting political awareness, not by griping about the electoral process and demonizing the “uneducated masses,” but by trying to understand where the poor are coming from, and helping them see how their concerns may be addressed through systemic political reform that goes beyond mere populist rhetoric.

Another presentation that struck me was by Dr. Prajak Kongkirati, Head of the Southeast Asian Studies Center of Thammasat University, who presented comparative perspectives on “The State of Democracy in Southeast Asia.” Dr. Kongkirati is from Thailand, which, like the Philippines, has an electoral democracy. And like the Philippines, its young democracy has been repeatedly shaken by unruly protests culminating in coups d’état, constitutional amendments, and new elections that, ironically, only reinstate the prevailing political party, i.e. Thaksin’s allied party, and eventually lead again to political unrest. This “vicious cycle” has resulted in the breakdown of public trust in key political institutions, and even violent campaigns against the electoral process itself—the opposition, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), for instance, urges the people: “If you love democracy, don’t go to vote.”

During the afternoon break, I asked Dr. Kongkirati about the parallels and differences between the electoral democracies of the Philippines and Thailand, the motivations of the populist uprisings that have shaken both, and how both democracies may be strengthened. The gist of his responses is that the Philippines does not have a strong party system, which has led to personality and patronage politics. Thus, unlike Thailand, our political upheavals have been targeted against individual repressive and corrupt leaders, instead of the electoral process or oppressive systems. He said that other societies have dealt with such problems in one of two ways: one, by strengthening the two-party system, with each party explicitly advancing the interests of the classes they represent, or two, by establishing a third party that advances plural interests. He added that because the “opposition” (in the Philippines, an amorphous entity) is also divided (as is the left), lobbying for changes or even rallying and organizing popular support is more difficult. Strengthening democracy, he stressed, requires widespread political awakening and popular engagement.

I then asked him about the challenges of engendering widespread political awakening, and he talked about deeply-held illusions. For instance, he said that class struggle is not often acknowledged in Thailand, though it is the root of political upheavals. Thaksin’s allied party always wins the elections because the majority of the Thai population—the rural poor—vote for it. Though the party has been shown to be corrupt, their populist policies gain them support from the marginalized classes. The party’s predominance, however, threatens the power of Thailand’s traditional elite (the royalist upper class) and offends the Thai middle classes, who demand “clean” governance. The elites want constitutional reform to maintain their hold on power, which has been declining since the country abolished absolute monarchy. The middle classes want reform to remove corruption, promote good governance, and safeguard its interests. The rising lower classes want reform for a truly representative electoral democracy that would pave the way to greater social justice and redistribute wealth instead of serving elite interests. Thus, Dr. Kongkirati explained, the political upheavals in Thailand manifest class struggle, and the repetitive military coups and constitutional reforms are primarily driven by “intransigent” elites to keep their hold on power by controlling the law after subverting the elected government through “turbulent, uncompromising, uncivil, and violent extra-parliamentary activism.” Dr. Kongkirati concluded that for this vicious cycle to stop, the middle classes should join the lower classes in campaigning for democratic rights and bring the elites to compromise.

I said I thought it strange that the issue of class is not brought up—how could it be so effaced when it’s the most salient factor in social stratification? He explained that Thais maintain a sense of commonality by a unified national and cultural identity, which is often used to justify paternalist rule. This discourse of identity and solidarity, however, is an illusion that casts a glamour on the tensions in a society that has long been divided along lines of privilege and disprivilege. However, he sees promise in the rising income of the Thai middle classes, observing that this has led to them becoming “more politically aware, active, and organized”; his hope is that widespread political awakening would erode polarization within civil society and subvert elite politics.

The presentation that moved me the most was by Dr. Wataru Kusaka of Nagoya University. Dr. Kusaka, who lived in a slum area in Diliman, Quezon City for three years and who used to sell fruits with other “illegal” vendors at Philcoa (for research and to help his host family), talked about the “Politics of Un-Civil Society: Security Practices of Urban Poor in Metro Manila.” He defined “un-civil society” as a social sphere that is morally excluded by civil society. It includes the urban poor, who struggle to make a living through informal, non-law-abiding practices (such as illegal logging, poaching, fishing, vending, gambling, prostitution, and petty crimes) because, for lack of resources, education, and state support, they would not survive otherwise.

We all just want to realize our visions of “good lives,” said Dr. Kusaka, and try to secure ourselves given inevitable contingencies like disease, aging, accidents, unemployment, and disaster, most commonly by amassing capital. The poor, however, are extremely vulnerable to risks, because “neoliberalism decreases options and time span of practices for long-term security.” Because they lack opportunities and resources, the poor are forced to sacrifice long-term security to attain everyday necessities and respond to immediate threats—for example, a child dropping out of school to work upon the death of a parent.

Given the global decline of the welfare state, the failure of the government to provide social services like housing, education, and health care, the poor have developed informal security practices or institutions (i.e. patterns of expected behavior entrenched in a community), some of which are deemed illegal. They include: Paluwagan (resource-sharing), Bulungan (dissemination of secrets and valuable information through gossip and texting), Palakasan (vertical networking), and Lagayan (bribery). The paradox of these informal institutions is that they “do not guarantee [but] hinder long-term solutions for the poor,” because they undermine formal institutions like laws and rules of conduct for businesses and government. Dr. Kusaka explained how Palakasan encourages clientelism and defies common rules and fairness, while Lagayan reinforces corruption.

State and civil society respond to un-civil society usually in two ways: civilization or criminalization. Civilization “attempts to discipline the poor and formalize their livelihoods,” while criminalization penalizes illegal acts like street vending and squatting. Dr. Kusaka argued that civilization and criminalization often fail, because they are resisted not only by un-civil society, whose short-term security they put at risk, but also by authorities who wish to maintain informal institutions like Lagayan. Furthermore, the assumed moral ascendancy that drives civilization, and the punitive authoritative stance of criminalization “inevitably construct ‘non-citizens’” as Other.

Such a conception of the poor precludes empathetic consideration of their plight, and reinforces the myth of merit and blindness to privilege (as in, the rich are rich because they work hard and thus deserve to get ahead, while the poor are poor because they’re lazy and unscrupulous, and they just leech off the taxes paid by law-abiding citizens)—as if people were born into a level-playing field and oppressive, systemic barriers to upward mobility did not exist.

Dr. Kusaka’s presentation reminded me of one of my students last year, a Japanese girl who was taking a four-year course at UP. She wrote about things she noticed in Philippine society that Filipinos often take for granted—like the existence of slums beside gated subdivisions, the near-ubiquity of household help in middle- and upper-class homes, the increasingly upscale restaurants in UP Village and the many homeless people sleeping in its streets because they can’t go on welfare—and questioned the complacency with which they are accepted as facts of our society by expressing outrage in her writings. Of course, coming from a privileged family in a developed country, she admitted that before living here, she had not been exposed to stark poverty, but still she found it difficult to comprehend how a society could let a significant sector of its population live in conditions bereft of dignity, when, as she wrote, “They’re human too.”

Though the conference revolved around the idea of “commons,” through the sessions I attended, I found myself thinking about difference, division, classification, and stratification. Though undoubtedly societies share identifiable common wealth, values, and goals, and ultimately we belong in one global community and live on one Earth, cultural and ideological differences, uneven distribution of resources, conflicts of interest, and imbalance of power do exist, and perhaps acknowledging them and seeking peaceful and just ways to resolve them, rather than hiding them under an artificial notion of commonality, would better help us see how we all share the problems of living and living meaningfully, how we are all subject to the same human condition.


2016 UPDATE:


Got to attend a related lecture, this one organized by the Asian Center, with speakers from Thailand (Prof. Raquiza couldn’t make it due to a personal emergency). The topics covered in this forum were similar to the ones discussed by Dr. Prajak Kongkirati in the Global Commons conference (above). Unfortunately, since the event at the Asian Center started late, the speakers could not elaborate much on the complexities of the political economy and deference to authority in Thailand, to allocate more time to the open forum.

I asked the speakers about the nature of social hierarchies in Thailand and its implications for public discourse and social transformation. (In the Philippines, the issues of social hierarchy are recognized as a matter of centuries of violence, oppression, and inequality—between colonizer and colonized, the elite and the masses, urban and rural, the cisgender and the LGBTQ, right and left, Christian north and Bangsamoro south, etc.—and class tensions are openly talked about, with opposing parties and personalities slinging mud at each other incessantly.) The speakers discussed the internalized sanctity of social hierarchies in Thailand, due to the traditions of Buddhism and the monarchy, and the rhetoric of unified cultural identity; according to them:

In the Philippines, the concept of equality—however illusory or politically instrumentalized—is a real ideal. In Thailand, the concept of equality has never really taken root. This manifests in the peculiar reverence of the people (including the Red Shirts, members of The United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship) for the symbols of cultural, economic, and political authority, like the king—an ingrained reverence that precludes certain things from being challenged in the public sphere. Conservative Thai culture is at odds with the ideology of neoliberal democracy (with its “aspirational” and individualist rhetoric of self-development, social mobility, limitless choice, and competition); Thailand, like many other Asian societies, are cases of alternative modernities (in this regard, the Philippines is an anomaly). That’s why they believe cultural relativism will thrive in the age of ASEAN integration: somebody just has to say, “Well, in our culture, it’s not done that way,” and the discussion’s over

One thought on “Contentions of Commonality

  1. Pingback: Retropost: On “Governing Informality” | tenant on the top floor

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