Why Oligarchs Can’t End Oligarchies

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Why Oligarchs Can’t End Oligarchies

The term “oligarchy” is often mentioned in Philippine politics.  Very recently, Representative Mike Defensor used it in Congressional hearings on the renewal of the ABS-CBN franchise, in reference to ABS-CBN owners (the Lopez family).   He claimed (roughly translated from Taglish) that “when the President mentions that we should dismantle the oligarchy in the Philippines,  he is referring to the small group that is controlling the country and the future of Filipinos”.   

Indeed, President Duterte inserted this term into the electoral discourse in  2016 when he promised to “dismantle the oligarchy”.  In his rhetoric,  the oligarchs were the business tycoons belonging to the “yellow” section of society (mga dilawan).   Just a week into his term,  he shamed and vowed to “destroy” Roberto Ongpin. Weeks later, Ongpin had to step down as Chairperson of PhilWeb, a gambling online company that he owned.   Since then,  Duterte has publicly denounced business tycoons like the Ayalas and Manny V. Pangilinan.  Very recently,  after Philippine Congress rejected to renew the franchise of the Lopezes’ ABS-CBN, Duterte claimed that he had dismantled the oligarchy. 

In view of his electoral promise and more recent pronouncements by public officials: has President Duterte really dismantled the oligarchy? 

In this piece, we argue: (1) that the definition of an oligarchy is indeed the rule of the wealthy few but that this “few” are not represented by just one section of society, (2) Duterte’s public attacks and moves against the oligarchy are selective at best and duplicitous at worse; he has, in fact, encircled himself with his oligarch-allies and friends, and (3) an oligarchy is not dismantled overnight and  no one person can take the credit for it;  only citizens, especially workers, producers and consumers, can genuinely transform the oligarchy.  As long as citizens continue to patronize whatever the oligarchs are selling — regardless of how they are producing these products and services (i.e through cheap labor) — oligarchies will never die.  The most that a government can do is to regulate these oligarchies and to put a check on their profit orientation.  But even that is not being done by President Duterte.  He is simply making some oligarchs more powerful than other oligarchs.   

What is an Oligarchy?

The simplest definition of an oligarchy is the concentration of power in a society to a wealthy few.

This view of oligarchy has long been a  persistent to reality in political societies, including ours in the Philippines.  For Aristotle, oligarchy is a perversion because while wealth accumulation is a good that can be aspired to by individuals, making this the highest value of a society so much so that it becomes the governing principle or the highest form of the common good is ultimately disastrous for everybody else.

Aristotle is instructive for us because an oligarchic system has very different priorities than other types of government: the needs and interests of the wealthy are not the same as those of ordinary citizens. The interest of keeping and consolidating wealth actually runs counter to the need of making sure that a society’s institutions are geared only towards the common good. 

A clear indication of an oligarchic system is the prevalence of political dynasties in Philippine politics. Political families are by design meant to perpetuate themselves in power. In order for this self-perpetuation to occur, they first capture political power through elections. They use their wealth and connections to buy political influence, connections, or an effective electoral machinery. Once elected or appointed, they then use the powers of their political office to stifle opposition and/or to further grow their wealth. Then, in order to ensure their long-term survival, family members capture other political offices or replace other family members when they run into limitations or problems. These family members use the same methods to gain political influence or office in the first place, this time with the backing of political office and more consolidated wealth. 

Is President Duterte (really) anti-oligarchy?

The presence of oligarchs in a very unequal society such as the Philippines is not only deep but also broad.  It is deep because the power and influence of oligarchs over public policies and public office is not a new phenomenon.  Oligarchical conditions can be seen as early as pre-colonial history, albeit not without communal balancing structures. Colonial contact with Spain, however, codified initial versions of the spoils and patronage relationships we are now familiar with — as Spanish colonizers ‘rewarded’ cooperation through favors and resources.  The Spanish colonial government (especially around the 17th-18th century) facilitated the rise of the mestizo and even full-blooded Filipino land-based elite. This elitism was further institutionalized via American electoralism that required massive spending and catch-all vote-generation during elections.  What ensued was a political system devoid of ideological discourse and where the playing field — in both economic and political terms — favored only the elite. 

This political system was reinforced by former dictator Ferdinand Marcos through his maintenance of cronies and expulsion of rival oligarchs.  When Cory Aquino came into power,  she restored the oligarchy that was displaced by Marcos.  Aquino and her successors did not attempt to break the hold of the elite on the country’s politics and economy.   Moreover,  they did not prevent the comeback of the Marcoses.   To date,  it is estimated that a significant bulk of the country’s economy and social spheres are controlled and influenced by a few hundred upper class families. President Duterte has not weakened this ‘control of the few’.  He has simply embedded himself in his preferred set of oligarch-friends.  

The breadth of influence of the oligarhy is palpable in all major spheres of our daily life, even in institutions supposed to protect the interests of the many – media, construction, retail, education, entertainment, food and beverages, transportation, agriculture, mining, banking, health care, power and utilities, telecommunications, and real estate.  From the time we wake up in the morning and check our phone for messages, to the eggs we eat for breakfast, the buses and trains we take going to work, the pavement we walk on towards our office, the building where our workplace is located, the radio station we listen to to forget about rush hour traffic going home, to the water we use to brush our teeth and the lights we switch off at night to call it a day – these are all part of the ecosystem of the Philippine oligarchy. 

Hence, it is misleading and wrong for Senator Kiko Pangilinan to say that the problem of oligarchy is a distraction and a conjured problem by the Duterte administration. Problems of poverty, ineffective governance, a weak and unorganized labor sector, among others are issues whose roots are intrinsically tied with the oligarchic capture of our political institutions.

How can oligarchies be genuinely dismantled? 

The concentration of wealth in a few seems to be an inherent flaw in late capitalist societies. As such, the “gut reaction” is to go after the concentrated wealth of these groups and to break it up. 

But this “breaking up” of their wealth, if not paired with the creation and strengthening of genuine democratic sentiments within the population, will only lead to a re-consolidation of oligarchic rule. This is because genuine democratic institutions are designed to stifle the power of oligarchs who manipulate our political systems. Human rights, fair and free elections, equality before the law, the residing of political power in the people and not the military or the police, among others, are not just lofty ideals. These are foundations of our democratic political system and if not taken care of, can severely weaken and manipulate the institutions that are supposed to protect the common good. The current efforts under the Duterte regime to weaken these are ironically the very actions that will ensure the survival and persistence of oligarchies in the Philippines for the foreseeable future.

To presume that competition would be enough to change the oligarchic setup would be to misread the history of socio-political evolution as experienced by most countries. In fact, oligarchic societies thrive on promoting competition, for it guarantees the rise of new entrants, new families and new wealth. It normalizes the rat race among the wealthy while ignoring the fundamental inequalities they breed.  

Indeed, the market is freer when viewed from the top. In 2019, fourteen of the world’s billionaires are found in the Philippines, with former Senator Manny Villar leading the list.  The unprecedented growth of Duterte-affiliated cronies from Davao, foremost among them Dennis Uy, who debuted in Forbes’ Magazine Top 50 Richest Filipino in 2019 at #22, is another example that competition does not necessarily dismantle an oligarchy. Considering that the government structures expected to regulate these actions have been long cowed to simply let favored players dominate the political and economic battlegrounds, we can only expect more of the same if nothing changes.

Envisioning a post-oligarchic Philippines 

History has shown only two instances of successful neutralization of oligarchic rule: violent overthrow or willful retreat from dominance. The character of our Philippine political elite already shows that they are not the kinds of people who will willingly give up what they earned or stole from the national wealth. But is violent overthrow indeed the only option we have? We would like to believe there are still strategic and peaceful options.

Any revolution needs the consolidation of the larger majority of society into a new national community. Sectoral and organizational action, then as now, remains among the primary backbones of any societal change. It is only when people from the working and precarious classes become united and in agreement that they would prefer to build a more sustainable and equitable society that significant change and concessions come from elites, if only to preserve their presence and relative comfort in the new political setup.

Enabling genuine social mobility and security will allow individuals and families to save and sustain their incomes without reliance on charity and elite goodwill. Supporting small and medium industries, as well as collective, cooperative and community enterprises would be a good way to jumpstart our already receding economy. It will even ensure that money will circulate back to the people who need it most right now: the precarious sectors of our society.

Many welfare states and developing countries have already taken this route. Noticeably, it is these kinds of countries who have been the most effective in maintaining social stability under the COVID-19 pandemic–the very real current crisis the highly-erratic and wilfully distracted government of Duterte has been failing to address.

The willful ignorance and ill-advised actions of the Duterte government have already affirmed the worst predictions of most Philippine political scientists: the damage to our social and political institutions will take a few more years (if not decades) to fix. That said, the current conjuncture could also be seen as an opportunity to genuinely rebuild them into independent institutions. This will include policies that genuinely end the hold of political dynasties, commit to electoral reform, protect the independence of the branches of government, redistribute public resources judiciously and curb corruption.

Aside from this, public spending should be revisited and sustained–this time with genuine focus on sustaining vulnerable communities and startup enterprises, in order to stimulate and assist our local economy in recovery. Education, small and medium entrepreneurship, as well as viable R&D efforts should be top priority.

Pursuing progressive policies, of course, will only be sustained with enough public support and with new blood in both elective, appointive and bureaucratic offices. The upcoming struggle requires that we keep the youth and young professionals seeking to enter public service on side and on target, even in direct opposition to people in their social network who have benefited from the corrupt setups the Duterte government is maintaining and transmogrifying. But with its being isolated from reality and the rest of society by the day, the opportunities are there.

Social movements and genuine institution building efforts can only be achieved through an educational system that does not propagate the ideas and values of the wealthy and powerful.  For the Filipino people to be truly free from the oligarchy, we must be able to see the realities from our daily experience and in the language we understand. Our schools, therefore, should be safe spaces for critical thinking and free speech so we can recognize and question our social realities, understand how these are connected and embedded in the present inequalities, and eventually act upon these as a critical collective.  This is the only way that we can pursue public policy making that is authentic and participatory. This is the only way we can truly recapture the institutions from the oligarchs.  

The deep entrenchment of the oligarchy makes it seem that changing the way our society is ruled requires removing, killing or driving off one person or a few groups of people. But as long as the field is corrupted and sown with the seeds of dominion, no matter the intent, these kinds of problems will continue to bear the same undemocratic fruit. It is high time we plow and slash this neglected and corrupted political field through a solidarity that remains uncompromisingly democratic.

Carmel V. Abao, Anne Lan K. Candelaria, Hansley A. Juliano, Maria Elissa J. Lao, Miguel Paolo P. Rivera, Department of Political Science, Ateneo de Manila University

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