A satire in the guise of one of those economic treatises that were so popular at the time, “A Modest Proposal” was written in 1729 by the English author Jonathan Swift.
In that essay Swift proposed a “solution” to the hunger and poverty of 18th century Ireland. The problem, he said, contains its own solution, and that is, for the Irish poor, burdened as they were with so many mouths to feed, to butcher their children and to sell them as food to the English landlords who were exploiting them.
Swift was expressing his outrage over the rule of the then English (later British) Empire over Ireland, and in that piece was conveying, through what he believed was the most compelling way of awakening the public to the brutal realities of poverty, how desperate was the situation of the Irish poor, and how inhuman were the English and Irish politicians who did not care whether they lived or died.
His real proposal was the opposite of his literal one: it was a demand for humane treatment and for concrete measures to remedy the hunger and poverty that haunted Ireland under English rule. It was, indeed, a modest proposal.
Practically the same as what Swift was demanding has again and again been proposed in these isles: enough compassion from government for it to address the needs of the legions of the poor, and the adoption of such measures as authentic land reform and industrial development to release the poor farmers in the countryside from feudal bondage.
Like Ireland in the 18th century, the Philippines in the 21st is also besieged by hunger and poverty, and its own versions of the politicians and their minions then dominant in that country are as uncaring about the poor.
What the Philippine ruling dynasties, their cohorts and their minions do care about is putting a stop to the protests, social instability and even those attempts by the conscience-stricken to ameliorate the lot of the poor that hunger and poverty inevitably provoke and encourage. They fear that both the demands for change as well as citizen initiatives at self-help are exposing their corruption and incompetence, and hence endangering their rule.
In furtherance of addressing the symptoms rather than the rot that afflicts Philippine society, Ferdinand Marcos Senior, their leading agent and himself the patriarch of a rising dynasty at the time, in 1972 and the years after caused the arrest, detention, and in a number of instances the torture and summary execution of government critics including members of opposition parties; worker, farmer, student and human rights activists; journalists and media workers; and academics, lawyers, doctors, poets, artists, film makers and writers, in the process ravaging practically all those sectors vital to the existence and advancement of the Filipino nation .
But Marcos at least had a name for his far from modest program of remaking Philippine society in his own image and for his, his family’s and the ruling elite’s benefit. He proclaimed that in behalf of the making of a “New Society,” he had to impose “Constitutional Authoritarianism,” implying thereby that he was a reformist, and that while his was indeed a dictatorship, it was nevertheless well within the bounds of the Constitution.
His successors — the pretenders to the throne of tyrannical rule — have not been as courteous as to attempt some explanation or legal basis for what they have been doing. But what they lack in coherence they make up for in policies and acts that amount to the same thing as authoritarianism — without, however, claiming them to be sanctioned by the Constitution.
Those policies and their implementation have over the past six years been evident enough. Press freedom, free expression and the right to peaceable assembly may not have been as curtailed as during Marcos Senior’s martial law regime, but they have certainly been abridged, and so have the rights to life and due process.
As in the 14 years of open, declared dictatorship, during the reign of the current despotism the abridgment of those rights has been implemented through semi-legal and outrightly illegal means such as the filing of fabricated charges against dissenters, social and political activists, journalists and other perceived critics of bad governance; preventing the reporters of independent media organizations from covering public events; and even the assassination of some of those who dared exercise their Constitutional right to free expression.
Also as in the years of the Marcos dictatorship, in force still is the double standard, under the terms of which well-connected and moneyed felons and others convicted of high crimes such as graft and plunder are immune from punishment while those not similarly endowed suffer incarceration for such petty offenses as stealing a tin of corned beef to feed one’s starving children.
Citizen attempts to provide their poorer countrymen medical care and legal aid, and to assuage their hunger through “community pantries” have also been attacked as communist conspiracies, in a naked attempt to suppress such initiatives for their implicit criticism of government incompetence.
Something similar was also at work during the Marcos dictatorship. The efforts by members of non-government and religious organizations, as well as of doctors and social workers to mitigate the sufferings of the poor were then similarly condemned, and their advocates imprisoned.
There is one area in which, however, present day anti- democratization plotters are outdoing the Marcos Senior kleptocracy. It is in the planned and sustained campaign against information and knowledge. It is evident not only in the deliberate spread of disinformation and propaganda via the online troll farms and the mercenaries in print and broadcast media, but also in the attacks on independent journalists, universities, books, and book stores.
It has so far not reached the same stage as Nazi Germany’s burning of “undesirable” books. But at least two universities have yielded to police and military pressure to “cleanse” their libraries of “subversive” books, while only recently was the word “terrorist” painted on the facades of two book stores. The Marcos regime did censor the media and spied on schools, academics and their students, but it neither censored their libraries nor terrorized book store owners and patrons.
Both are in the same category of thought control and censorship that the political elite and their lackeys in the civilian and military bureaucracies favor, and both are direct threats against academic freedom, free expression, and, most critical of all, against everyone’s right to multiple sources of information that are as varied as possible as an indispensable factor in arriving at the human need for the truth that, as the Bible correctly puts it, will set us free.
What is behind all these is the unarticulated but nevertheless all-encompassing determination to once more, as during Marcos Senior’s benighted rule, make the democratization that has been long in coming to this country as difficult if not as impossible of achievement quite simply because its realization would be contrary to dynastic interests.
It is a regressive and far from modest proposal, and one that is being steadily implemented with only a precious few being the wiser. Whether it will persist, or can be stopped and the democratization of governance that has been interrupted, sabotaged and undermined for decades resumed, is what is at stake in next month’s elections. It is what makes that exercise the most pivotal in this country of uncertainty and crisis since the “snap elections” of February 1986, the results of which began the process of ending the Marcos Senior dictatorship.
First published in BusinessWorld.