Friday, January 17, 2014

Flawed democracy

We always hear from politicians, especially during elections in America and in Canada, about the disappearing middle class and the need to restore, rejuvenate, and reinforce it. But the American concept of middle class is really an anomaly, if not a distortion of social reality. To make it more expansive because this is obviously where the votes are, politicians even include the working class in their definition of what the middle class is. Yet this is untrue, for the middle class is not the new proletariat.
This anomalous or perhaps opportunistic description of society’s majority as somewhat middle class in economic terms is self-betraying, especially when the political and business elite attempt to promote their social agenda. It is not exactly the greater masses or the so-called middle class that members of this highly privileged upper class mobilize or appeal for sympathy to their causes. It just happens that they are the greatest in number and they count most during elections, a time which the upper class could exploit to get them elected or to obtain the necessary stamp of public approval for their agenda.

American workers rally against capitalism. Photo by eyewash design - A. Golden.
The real issue is whether the opinions of the average folks count. Or do they really count in the so-called bourgeois democratic forum, and that it is not only the elite’s voice that truly matters?
This seems to be at the heart of the lament of the chair of the Toronto Star, John Honderich, on the lack of outrage among Toronto’s elites over the scandalous and disgraceful behaviour of its mayor, Rob Ford, which was well-publicized in both the news and social media late last year.

Honderich was particularly surprised why Toronto’s elite were rather silent, as if their voice was not significant anymore. Truth to tell, to Honderich and his fellow members of the elite, the opinion of the Toronto average folks doesn’t weigh as much as theirs. This is why Honderich was deeply disturbed that the elite never spoke up to register their disgust over the mayor’s public display of shame and embarrassment.
But to his dismay after his newspaper canvassed their opinion about Mayor Ford’s behaviour, close to half of the respondents who replied declined to comment, with four sending comments that neither criticized nor defended the mayor.
Was this kind of validation exercise from the so-called elite necessary in a democratic forum?
Toronto’s mayor was already disrobed, his cocaine snorting publicly admitted, together with his association with known criminals. What did Honderich need more in order to secure public validation of the elite’s disgust over their mayor? The municipal elections are looming in a few months and they are the most effective means of rejecting a politician who is both a national embarrassment and a disgrace to public office. Or is Honderich afraid that Ford might get re-elected?
This is a dilemma that commonly afflicts bourgeois democracy. While it claims it is representative of all classes in society for they can choose their government and leaders by means of the ballot, the matter of popular representation is easily manipulated by the elite who control the economy. Free election is an important feature but the results indicate that the system is largely dominated and rigged by the powerful elite, leaving the poor and greater masses really powerless and unrepresented by people from their ranks. Thus, elections in a bourgeois democracy become no more than a cynical and systemic attempt to deceive the people by permitting them to endorse one or other of the bourgeoisie's predetermined choices of which can best represent and advocate the interests of capital.
A major Philippine newspaper, for example, reported recently that in a survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations (SWS), majority of Filipinos (about 11.8 million families) would consider themselves as poor. This is a slap on the face of the incumbent Aquino government which has been promising to achieve inclusive growth, an improvement that it claims would trickle down to the greater majority of the population.
However, the Aquino government dismisses this self-rated poverty by the population on the simple ground that the government uses a different set of benchmarks to determine poverty statistics. The government commits the most brazen form of self-denial in ignoring the people’s self-assessment of their impoverished condition. It is the same as saying the people’s true condition does not really matter to the government for as long as their parameters show otherwise.
Could there be any better indicator of poverty than the self-assessment of the people of their true condition? Wherein lies the truth: from the voice of millions who acknowledge their own impoverishment or from official government pronouncements that poverty alleviation programs are working and incidence of poverty has been significantly reduced?
If your own government does not care about your suffering, do you continue to regard the people you have elected as representing your interests and welfare? When poverty alleviation programs like the Conditional Cash Transfer (CCT) have become dole-outs that encourage mendicancy and entitlement, until when will this government admit that its policy of inclusive growth is flawed?
Filipinos protest Aquino government's anti-people policies. Photo by Marya

This government has been implementing policies and decisions that are essentially against the people. The electricity rates in the Philippines are the highest in the world today. Twelve years ago, the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (Epira) was enacted to give consumers a choice of service providers so they can take advantage of lower electricity rates. The premise behind Epira was that free market competition would flourish and it is for the benefit of the consumers.
But Epira was a big joke and privatization of electric power has failed miserably. The Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) continues to be the only utility distributor that matters, making more than 5.3 million consumers powerless to oppose ever-increasing electricity bills.
Competition among power generators has not resulted in lower power costs. The Wholesale Electricity Spot Market (WESM) is no more than a mechanism to create the illusion of competition.
Yet this government continues to trumpet the commercial success of the Malampaya natural gas project in Palawan which promises to deliver the country from dependence on importing foreign oil for power generation. The Malampaya Project is supposed to fuel three natural gas-fired power stations with a total generating capacity of 2,700 megawatts that could provide 40-45% of Luzon's power generation requirements. Apparently, the government is simply satisfied with the annual $US 1 billion royalty payments it gets from the project operators, a large sum of money that goes to the president’s social fund, otherwise known as the president’s pork barrel.
In addition to natural gas power, the Philippines since 1983 has also become the second largest producer of geothermal power in the world. The Energy Development Corporation (EDC), founded under the Philippine National Oil Company (PNOC) in 1976, has been generating electricity for Ormoc and nearby towns in Leyte. Ormoc was recently on the cross path of super Typhoon Yolanda which hit the Philippines late last year. EDC, which became a private corporation in 2007, also has three other operating power plants in the country, all designed to generate energy from indigenous sources and lessen the country’s dependence on imported fuel.
Although initially operated as public utilities, all local sources of power generation and distribution, natural gas project explorations and geothermal energy production have all been transferred in the hands of the private sector. All in the misguided belief that privatization would somehow be more efficient because of free competition in the market. The trouble with privatization is that unregulated monopolies have entrenched a regime of limited choice at the expense of consumers and taxpayers.
And if you have a government that is powerless and would rather throw its hands in capitulation to the private sector, when does this government become a genuine advocate for the interests of the people?
Liberal or bourgeois democracy under the capitalist or free enterprise system can never truly be democratic or representative of the greater population. Ultimately, politicians fight only for the interests of their class. Popular elections in a bourgeois democracy are nothing but the appearance of having the power of decision of who among the ruling classes will represent the people in running the government and enacting legislation.
Thus, a liberal newspaper like the Toronto Star would rather prefer the elite to have a voice in issues that affect the city and treat the greater masses as important only when they turn out to vote during election time. Honderich and other elitists like him don’t care about the opinions of the average folks. They keep the masses from realizing that their will is irrelevant in the political process, while at the same time maintain a conspiracy for making them restless for some political agenda
In the same manner, the democratic process in the Philippines, despite its so-called free elections and political representation, is just as flawed and as deceptive because the government that has been installed by the majority of the electorate ignores the conditions of the people when it comes to governance, and ultimately works only for the interests of the privileged few and the entrenched elite.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Pie in the sky

Confronting poverty from an inverse perception of the problem, instead of looking at its underlying roots and causes, is like offering the downtrodden masses a pie in the sky. It sounds attractive but everyone knows it is unlikely to happen.
This is exactly how Conrado de Quiros, an unabashed supporter of President Noynoy Aquino and a columnist with the Philippine Daily Inquirer (which earns him the sobriquet as a member of the President’s yellow media), sees how to solve poverty: from the point of view of those who have compassion for helping the poor, but not from the actual perspective of the problems of the poor.
Photo courtesy of flicker, a_hansv

Writing on Christmas day, de Quiros suddenly had an epiphany that there are people in our midst who have the genuine compassion for the poor. From his news desk, he wrote about a “modest proposal” of bringing together all these people under what he calls a “propoor coalition” who would be entrusted in putting the war against poverty in the national consciousness. De Quiros named the likes of Tony Meloto, founder of Gawad Kalinga, Cardinal Chito Tagle of the Catholic Church, and the current pontiff, Pope Francis, who all unquestionably have a sterling record of being devoted to uplifting the poor.
There are at least two fundamental weaknesses in this “modest proposal” proffered by no less than an avowed religious follower like de Quiros. First, the idea of a “propoor coalition” against poverty is nothing new. The masses of poor people, from the landless peasants in the countryside to the urban poor in the cities, have long been hitherto united by their social and economic circumstances in waging a war against poverty. Proposing now that the poor people can coalesce together to elevate the spectre of poverty to the national agenda is a bit too late because that has been said and done already.
Second, forging an effective coalition of the poor against poverty is never predicated on the presence of people who are genuinely passionate about this cause. The people de Quiros mentioned in his column have without doubt expressed their devotion to the poor either through action like Tony Meloto’s GK building communities or through spiritually uplifting messages by Cardinal Tagle and Pope Francis. But they should not form the foundation of a people’s struggle against poverty. This is like saying we have the leaders, all we need are followers.
The reality is that the poor and their condition determine their leaders. It is never the opposite, i.e., the leaders choose or define their own followers.
This is the same flaw inherent in the government’s war against poverty. President Aquino’s anti-poverty war is based on eradicating corruption which he believes is the primary cause of widespread poverty. “Kung walang kurap, walang mahirap” has been the face of the President’s campaign promise to help the poor. We know this is an empty shibboleth, a mere catchword to attract votes. Just like de Quiros’ “modest proposal” of a “propoor coalition.”
Why the recent Typhoon Yolanda or Haiyan has become the precursor to his concern for the poor only exposes the shallowness of the de Quiros’ “modest proposal” to bring together the poor and those he perceives as leaders who have genuine compassion for helping the poor under one umbrella. The problem of poverty has been with us since time immemorial because of the unequal distribution of wealth imposed by an economic system that has been monopolized by the elite and a few oligarchs, which includes the family of President Aquino. The policies of the government which create social and economic inequities will always be the principal cause of poverty among the people who do not have equal access to the opportunities that are controlled by the wealthy few.
Consider the impact of Typhoon Haiyan and all the other natural disasters that visited the country last year. It is the poor who are most vulnerable to these natural disasters.
When a government adheres to economic policies that put profit above the people’s welfare, it is always the poor who are hit hardest by the government’s inability to adapt to natural disasters. When you witness so much confusion and blame finger-pointing in the relief efforts during the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, this only shows the underdevelopment and backwardness that characterize the country’s state of affairs. It also confirms the feeble and late response of the country’s leadership to the woes of the poor who have suffered the most from the typhoon’s wrath.
Compared this, however, to the immediate and almost natural instinct of the nation’s top leaders in responding to an incident before Christmas when hammer-wielding robbers looted a jewellery store at a popular Manila shopping mall owned by one of the country’s powerful business oligarchs. Such is a vivid illustration of how fast and effective the government reacts when the oligarchy is threatened. It also shows how the government becomes tepid when the ordinary people’s economic and social rights are violated.
Conrado de Quiros, just like the government that he apologizes for its flaws and shortcomings, never really understands the plight of the poor. He and others in the yellow media would flaunt the government’s high credit rating from international agencies but fail to mention that this has not resulted in actual growth in the economy. The country’s gross domestic product has continued to fall and the decline in the manufacturing and agricultural sectors of the economy has deprived millions of Filipinos the opportunity for decent work, livelihood and means of subsistence.
The number of unemployed and underemployed has been growing, yet the government insists that it has stimulated job creation. Instead of generating jobs at home, the government has continued to rely on a labour export policy that puts thousands and thousands of skilled Filipino workers overseas at risk and exposed to exploitative working conditions.
When a government cannot guarantee its able-bodied and educated citizens the basic right to find employment and earn a wage sufficient to maintain a decent level of living, it is almost self-evident that hundreds of thousands of people are without unemployment benefits, their families lack protection and insurance, and opportunities to keep their young children in school are not met. Government has failed to see to it that people meet their basic nutrition requirements, and in some cases, people have no access to food. In other words, the government has failed to secure the people’s right to an adequate standard of living.

Poor Filipino family lives under a bridge in Manila. Photo courtesy of Paula
Bronstein/Getty Images.
These are the conditions of the poor that de Quiros should write about, and not about the glorious examples of men who have been successful in portraying themselves as saviours of the poor. While their examples might be worth emulating, it is the existential circumstance of poverty that counts and unifies the poor to become a large coalition of the neglected, the disadvantaged and the violated. But the coalition of the poor which de Quiros is proposing has been with us for a long time. Why it has not been winning the war on poverty only shows how much strong and powerful the economic and political forces of the oligarchy are in opposing any government initiative that would improve the situation of the poor.
Answering the need and cry of the poor does not have to wait for the government to begin the task of ending poverty. Here, Conrado de Quiros is correct, to cite the examples of Meloto, Cardinal Tagle and Pope Francis. But to flaunt the visions of these three de Quiros idols and put them in front of the people’s anti-poverty war will be a serious mistake. They can lend their support to the people’s struggle against poverty, which surely would be a welcomed gesture of solidarity.
The war against poverty must begin with a correct analysis of the conditions that have brought up poverty in the first place. This is what Conrado de Quiros doesn’t want to do because it would only expose the fundamental truth in this war against poverty – the truth that it is an uncaring government and the oligarchic elite that he shamelessly supports who are the real reasons why people continue to be poor.