The diversion of pork barrel funds, of which Janet Lim-Napoles and several members of Congress have been accused, could be implemented not only with the collaboration of congressmen and senators and other high level bureaucrat-capitalists. It also needed the sustained efforts of a class of individuals familiar with the way things are done in this country and its government. Their peculiar and criminal skills have enabled them to amass vast fortunes for themselves as well as their principals and co-conspirators. Those skills are well-suited to, and mesh smoothly with, government practice and the dominant values of Philippine society.
Some of these operators were or are in government themselves, usually in some middle-level post. But as has recently been demonstrated, experience in non-governmental organizations does help too. Many others are in the coercive apparatus of the Philippine neo-colonial state. Some are torturers and murderers themselves.
They’re police and military generals, medium-level bureaucrats—even judges. A large segment consists of lawyers, whose skills in navigating the labyrinth called the Philippine legal system enable them to guarantee the impunity, or exemption from punishment, of their principals, no matter how corrupt, vicious, cruel or homicidal—enabling them, in many cases, to literally get away with murder.
They’re basically technocrats in that they have neither scruples nor morality. “Good Christians” all, what solely matters to them are results in terms of how much wealth they’ve amassed for themselves and their patrons who occupy the highest levels of Philippine officialdom. They are also the buffers between the law and the latter, thus the marked involvement of judges and lawyers.
They have been described as constituting “a new class.” But they are actually part of a social category that in this neo-colonial society with pretensions to democracy has been around for centuries. In the Spanish colonial period they were the impoverished members of the principalia whose datu forebears had subsumed their power to that of the conquistadores. During formal American occupation they assumed the role of serving their more successful cohorts who had risen in the colonial order as junior partners and collaborators in the running of the government.
Excluded from direct participation in government by the handful of families the US overlords had anointed to rule, in the post “independence” period (1946 onwards) they became the minions of the former junior partners who had by then supposedly and finally become the real rulers of Philippine society.
They themselves do not belong to what has been called the “uber” (from the German word for “above,” “superior” ), or ruling, class. But some of them do eventually ascend—or descend—to that category of creatures who, in this alleged democracy, basically run the country, though consisting only of a handful of elite families and political clans.
Equally part of this sub-uber class are the semi-criminal elements who own fleets of luxury cars and veritable palaces and condominiums in the toniest places in the capital—who maintain homes in Baguio, and Tagaytay, as well as in Hong Kong, New York, and London: who spend much of their time on vacation in Europe and the Americas in-between episodes of plundering public coffers. In many instances, they’re also involved in smuggling, kidnapping, extortion, and other crimes. But unlike your penniless neighbor who’s likely to languish in prison for snatching a cellphone, they always escape punishment and continue to live obscenely luxurious lives. They and their political patrons are islands of wealth and self-indulgence in the ocean of poverty known as Philippine society.
The country has seen these creatures in action in recent times, the outstanding example being the PDAF scandal, in which a clutch of NGO bureaucrats facilitated the plunder of pork barrel funds, amassing in the process billions for themselves and their collaborators in the House of Representatives and the Senate, and defending their ill-gotten gain with whatever means are necessary including violence in the form of kidnapping and illegal detention.
Indicative of how far Philippine society has deteriorated is how much, despite what they do, these denizens of the lowest (in moral terms) rungs of Philippine society still enjoy the respect and even the admiration of their associates, the middle class, and most of their countrymen, who salute them for their cunning (in Tagalog, “katusuhan’) as a consequence of, among other factors, widespread hopes among some of the poorest and most powerless sectors of the Philippine society for relief, no matter what the source and the cost, from their desperate straits.
This same impulse explains why too many Filipinos receive with hoots of derision such rare instances of honesty (so rare they merit front page newspapert stories and lead treatment in the six o’clock TV news programs) as a taxi driver’s returning a briefcase of euros left by a fare in his cab rather than keeping it for himself—or why, despite paeans to the need for education and hard work, lying and cheating in furtherance of personal gain are accepted as necessary means for advancement.
The very existence of the sub-uber class itself as a subset of the dominant few who rule Philippine society, and mass approval, not always silent, of the former’s capacity to manipulate a system tailor-made to serve limited interests are indivisible from the reality of corruption, deceit, violence and desperation that characterize Philippine society. No matter how much that society’s supposedly positive aspects are hyped by the media and the politicians, this class is both symptom and cause of its descent into chaos.
Corruption and violence as the primary means of extending and defending the presumed entitlement of a few and their henchmen and women to access to public funds to the detriment of the majority are too deeply embedded not only in the political system but in the entirety of Philippine society as well. They cannot be eradicated overnight without overhauling the system that sustains them.
And yet eradicating corruption without structural reform is precisely what Benigno Aquino III promised during the campaign for the Presidency in 2010. Both that promise, and the Aquino claim that the public sector has been purged of corruption, are illusions that are either cluelessly naïve or deliberately misleading, the latter in furtherance of deluding the citizenry into believing, despite the daily evidence in their own lives, that everything is as well as they should be, and requires only the will of the well-intentioned to achieve.
First published in BusinessWorld.