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The three worlds of Philippine society – and what it means for Duterte

ONE of our deepest illusions is that we live in just a single world, a delusion that derives from the time religion was invented and portrayed society as one big happy family, presided over by the Father (the King) representing the invisible Grandfather (God), with the exploiters and the exploited all brothers and sisters simply occupying their divinely appointed posts in life.

Centuries later, in our modern era today, there have been changes of course, but not really much. We can understand Philippine history and be more realistic about our society by realizing that there are really different worlds in our country.

The first world is the economic elite, the richest residents of the country. Forbes’ Magazine’s list of 50 richest business people gives us a glimpse of these immortals, among them the Sys, Gokongweis, Ayalas and Zobels, Tys, Consunjis, Gotianuns, Lucio Cos, Cojuangcos, Angs, Ongpins, Lopezes, Osmeñas. There are, however, many low-profile billionaires hardly known to the general public, many based in cities outside metropolitan Manila, who get to be known only when the Bureau of Internal Revenue publishes its list of top 500 taxpayers.

The income and wealth of these elites are inconceivable to us ordinary mortals. For instance, only because he complained that he wasn’t included in the BIR’s latest list of top taxpayers and consequently publicly disclosed his income, did we learn that Andrew Tan’s net income was P540 million in 2011. That means he earns P1.5 million a day—when 90 percent of Filipinos earn just P400 a day. Danding Cojuangco is said to have a two-storey building to park his 100 ultra-expensive cars. A banking tycoon has four mansions costing P200 million each in Forbes Park to house his mistresses, not too far from each other so it would be easier for him to move from one concubine to another.

In the rich Asian countries, the economic elites saw that their very survival as a class depended on the growth of their nation as a whole—the South Korean elite fearing the takeover of the communist-controlled North, the Japanese to reconstruct a war-ravaged country, the Kuomintang to create an economic powerhouse to fend off an invasion by Mao Zedong’s mainland, tiny Singapore separating from the bigger Malay Federation.

As a consequence, Asian elites were willing to give up much of what they could earn from their control of productive assets in order to raise wage rates, go into industries that weren’t immediately profitable but would develop their countries’ productive forces (as in Japan and Korea), or cooperate with their competitors so the industry where they are in will be globally competitive (as in Taiwan).

Not so in our unlucky country. Most of our economic elites came from Spain, the US, and China, who mostly view the country not really as their nation but merely as a place to make money in, and then live in Spain, London, and now China. The popularity of the notion even among the young that they are global citizens, is merely a reflection of the fact that our economic elite has all but discarded the sense of nationalism, of being rooted in one nation, and having the responsibility to develop it.

Little really has changed from medieval times, except the numbers: Today’s economic elite were the nobility of the medieval age, who rule the country.

We can never make our nation as developed as others unless our economic elite, as occurred in the rich Asian countries, is transformed to sacrifice for the country, to view it not just as a place of business but as a nation they are responsible for. Precisely because they control the country’s resources and assets, it is only the first world that normally can affect major changes our society, with the following two other worlds only playing a secondary, supporting roles.

The we-don’t-care majority
The second world, for lack of a better term, is the apathetic, we-don’t-care majority. This includes the well-off, even the rich, but who aren’t with the economic elite, down to the poorest who are largely unconscious of society, and don’t really care about anything except their own lives.

My notion is similar to the idea of the Silent Majority, which US President Richard Nixon popularized in the late 1960s to refer to what he claimed were the vast majority of Americans who were conservatives, who just didn’t get to have their views expressed publicly.

Most of your social circle, dear reader, belong to this second world, coming from different generations and socio-economic levels. He could be your boss, or the owner of the company you work for, obsessed with finally being able to buy a BMW. She could be your domestic help, living from month to month through loans from you, whose sole interest is to make sure her daughter finishes nursing school.

They hardly read newspapers, much less opinion pieces. They use their Facebook timelines mainly to post their selfies from their holidays, or their meals. They really don’t care who runs the country, or where it is going—either because they are so obsessed with their own families or because they have come to believe they are powerless to change society after all.

The third world is us –- readers of newspapers and columns like this, journalists, very recently, “netizens” and political bloggers, in urban poor communities and in rural areas, that guy who talks a lot about what’s happening in the country in those small gatherings at dusk seated at the stools of their popular sari-sari stores. This world is that of the politically active minority.

These are the people who have taken seriously the modern idea of a nation, that it is a community where each and every member has a role to play in choosing who its leaders are and how it should be run.

The derogatory term for this notion, used in the West, is the “chattering class,” which Wikipedia defines as a politically active, socially concerned and highly educated section of the “metropolitan middle class,” especially those with political, media, and academic connections.”

Read comments in opinion columns and posts in Facebook pages, and it is obvious that this “chattering class” is afflicted with the delusion that all their blah-blah solely will change society. They won’t, unless the first world, or a part of it, says so, and the we-don’t-care-majority acquiesces to such changes. Opinion columns like this aren’t worth the price of the newspaper they are printed on unless it convinces a faction of the elite.

What’s the use
Which brings us to the question: What’s the use of this classification of our society into the Three Worlds of the elite, the apathetic majority, and the chattering class. The answer is that it explains much of our recent political history, and points to what likely would be its course.

EDSA I involved a big faction of the elite— among them, the Ayalas, the Gotianuns, and Osmeñas—and even the supranational elite, the US, moving against the Marcos dictatorship, since the economic quagmire, which to a large extent was the result of the global debt crisis at the time, couldn’t be resolved unless Marcos was removed.

But the elite couldn’t have done this by themselves. It required the help of the anti-dictatorship chattering class that awakened a section of the silent majority to go against the dictatorship.

What is ground-breaking in the rise of President Duterte is this:

Even with only a few of the elite (mainly those based in Mindanao) behind him, and with the chattering class, represented by mainstream media, mostly against him, he was able to get the support of the silent majority by directly appealing to them. He did this through his street-language, through his comportment as a non-elite crusader, and, most surprisingly, his tight grasp of the fact, missed by many, that what Filipinos wanted was simply personal security that had been severely eroded in the last six years by the proliferation of illegal drugs.

What is also unprecedented is that the messenger that brought Duterte’s message to the silent majority was this new invention called social media, which couldn’t have emerged without technology and the economies of scale that brought down cell phone prices, because of the emergence of the vast China market. Social media weakened the hold of the economic elite, which controlled most of the newspapers whose views the chattering class in the past mostly followed and echoed.

The three-worlds map bodes well for Duterte. Except for the mining elite, he is drawing more and more supporters from the economic elite, evidenced in part by the fact that his ratings among the ABC class, according to the latest Pulse Asia survey, jumped from 69 percent in December to 86 percent in March.

The second world of the apathetic majority has been untroubled by the intense propaganda against extra-judicial killings in mainstream media. Anecdotal reports show that more and more ordinary citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods, because of the decline in the use of illegal drugs. The issue remains the concern only of the chattering class.

Social media has been dominated by pro-Duterte netizens, and the minds even of the chattering class more and more are being molded by it. It is only a go-for-broke character like Duterte who can throw caution to the winds and go against the elite-controlled mainstream media who have been against him, principally the Philippine Daily Inquirer and ABS-CBN.

Duterte is emerging as the President in our history that is the most independent of the economic elite. As a case in point, he recently threw under the bus the Mindanao magnate Antonio Floirendo, one of the biggest financiers of his electoral campaign.

The question is whether he can undertake the reforms that the elites are adverse to, but which, as proven in the history of the rich Asian countries, were critical for their growth — such things as getting them to pay more taxes, raise workers’ wages, and nationalizing the strategic telecom industries.