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The conscience of another progressive: Why I stay on with Akbayan

In his widely publicized article, “The Conscience of a Progressive," that explains his resignation as Akbayan representative, Prof. Walden Bello asks, “How does a progressive party behave when it is part of a coalition in power?"

In this thought piece I seek to provide my own answers to Prof. Bello’s questions in the spirit also of the above-mentioned article where he states, “This essay is an attempt to bring together my thoughts on the matter, mainly in the hope of sparking a constructive discussion on the challenges and, yes, difficult choices that progressives confront when they cease to be in the opposition and become part of the administration. For being in administration is, for a party that cares about its principles, a hundred times more difficult than being in opposition.”

Ethical disclosures

Before I begin, however, some ethical disclosures. 

Those who follow my articles know that I am a member of Akbayan, because on the rare occasions when there is a clear conflict of interest between what I am saying as a Rappler Thought Leader and my membership in Akbayan, I disclose this fact. This is only ethical as most people who understand journalistic practice and progressive politics are aware. For this article I will add that I am part of Akbayan’s leadership, namely its Executive Committee.

Having said this, unlike Prof. Bello who was saddled with representing Akbayan’s stands, opinions and analysis when he was party representative, I am not similarly constrained to represent the opinions of the party.

Indeed, I and the Akbayan leadership, have upheld the freedom of academics and public intellectuals of the party to express their views regardless of party positions. In my case for example, when I called for the resignation of Budget Secretary Butch Abad this was not the Akbayan position.

But my decision to stay with the party leadership despite my differences is not merely because I am in a position of relative freedom. Rather I have real ideological differences with Prof. Bello about what the term “progressive” means and how progressives accomplish objectives.

What progressives fight for

In the case of the Philippines, certain objectives are commonly held by those who label themselves progressives and even many who do not. There is broad consensus among activists, technocrats and policy makers that rural development is necessary to reduce the unacceptable levels of poverty in the country. Land reform lies at the heart of this effort, along with other important measures that would ensure the economic and environmental sustainability of farms.

Progressives stand against graft and corruption. Naturally one would also be politically naive to believe in the lip service paid to anti-corruption efforts by many in government. Corruption is systemic, and as long as severe maldistribution of wealth is part of the Philippine landscape, the Philippine state is prone to capture by the wealthy. Even leaders who are personally honest cannot be relied upon to be all-knowing supermen who will put in place the right policies or find it easy to do so.

Progressives also have a critique of the current world economic order, and how this system also affects national policies that result in large inequalities of wealth. Most progressives agree that the state is the only mechanism that can control the logic of materialism and accumulation that drives markets. Such control must protect workers from severe forms of capitalist profit-making in order to ensure that workers get a just wage, proper benefits and job security.

Apart from this, progressives also agree that the state is the main mechanism of redistribution towards social justice. In the Philippines this would mean that the government must complete land reform and put in place a progressive system of taxation that would fund common goods like public education, health and social security systems. I personally would go further and include managing natural monopolies in the energy and transportation sectors.

Prof. Bello and I agree on these objectives. Prof. Bello’s article states these, too, and he also notes what actions and legislative proposals Akbayan has put forward to achieve these goals.

I agree with Prof. Bello that the Aquino administration has indeed failed to deliver significantly on land reform, equitable growth, labor protection and has shown an uneven record on graft and corruption particularly around the issues of PDAF (or the legislative pork barrel) and the bigger DAP (or, what I would call the presidential pork barrel).

The luxury of a clear conscience

As one would note, I have so far been in agreement even with Prof. Bello’s assessment of the Aquino administration. And yet I supported and continue to support Akbayan’s decision to stay in coalition with LP and President Aquino.

Perhaps it is the way we look at how we get from a dysfunctional and corrupt political system to a pro-people one that allows Prof. Bello the luxury of a conscience which he implies most of us in Akbayan have lost to compromise and the comfort of government positions.

To illustrate our differences therefore, I need to delve into Prof. Bello’s narratives of certain events.

In his article Prof. Bello states that, “The Napoles scandal made it clear to me that it was time for the party not only to call for PDAF’s abolition in principle but to put its principles on the line by refusing to avail of the sums allocated for the party. To my consternation, my proposal was roundly trounced during a leadership meeting that was held a few days before the surprise presidential decision to abolish the pork barrel.”

My understanding was that the first meeting resulted in a request that the party base be consulted because some of our mass members had come to depend on the medical, educational and assistance programs funded by our PDAF. Some of these programs meant giving out small amounts of support on a monthly basis and beneficiaries needed to be told of the implication of the refusal to take PDAF. I am proud that the members in general accepted the need to give up these programs no matter how much these were needed, because my conscience would have been broken by feedback that those who needed such assistance demanded that we continue to take the PDAF. 

Whatever the decision and the reasons for hesitation, whether it was from the ones who needed the support programs most or the people whose hearts and minds became burdened by being unable to give anything to the neediest, my vote to end the PDAF, was never one taken with a clear conscience. I am still bothered to this day by the denial of the help we could have given to others. In the end, Akbayan refused to take its PDAF allotment though we had indeed lost the opportunity to appear pure by refusing it with alacrity.

I also was at a meeting where we discussed Prof. Bello’s proposal that we withdraw from the ruling coalition in light of the reasons he cogently describes in his article. I remember that there were several arguments made against our leaving. 

One of these was that there were still some hope of passing important legislation such as the Freedom of Information Bill. 

The heavier arguments came from people who had always complained about their new jobs when Akbayan had become a very small part of the patronage that is the mode of doing business in traditional politics.

These people had always complained about how Akbayan members, allies and non-members were making requests through Akbayan such that whatever power we had within government could be used so that their appointments could be confirmed or their local budgets approved or some OFW’s case be given attention, etc.

Naturally this is not the best job for people who consider themselves progressives. They are especially riled because some of the very progressives who sought facilitation were those who criticized Akbayan’s muted criticisms of the Aquino administration as proof of our cooptation.

Yet, it was these very people who believed that somehow the party was managing to use patronage and influence-peddling to get government to respond to some of its ordinary citizens or put more worthy people into office.

Our biggest sacrifice is our purity

It was in small but significant struggles like the victory for the families of Sicogon, that I saw the best of what a party could do for little people. The indigenous families of the island of Sicogon have experienced a long process of losing their homes to development. The last few families who had refused to take resettlement packages provided by a corporation meaning to develop the island into a resort where hit by typhoon Haiyan. They were not allowed to return to their homes by the security force of the developers and were also refused any move into the more undeveloped parts of the island by the government which had declared these areas as natural preserves. The struggle of these families, typical of these stories, is one that has lasted decades with the exhaustion of court procedures wherein their original claims to land had been both upheld and derogated. As a last desperate effort, the families came to Metro Manila to camp in in front of the DENR in order to protest their de facto eviction.

I visited the protest site and sat with the people there. I talked to the women and watched the children as we sweltered in the hot sun under difficult conditions.

The situation, however, was quickly resolved as Akbayan members worked with other social movement actors, its allies in government, and even the land developers, towards a settlement. Part of that settlement was an agreement that none of the parties concerned was to gain any publicity points on the issue. Unlike other political parties Akbayan has kept its promise to keep the story out of the news. (I am ready to take party censure now that I have broken this agreement.) 

I do not now whether it would have suited my conscience better to insist on the original land rights of the people of Sicogon, to make strong anti-development statements against against capitalist corporations and make it an issue against government’s continuing inability to protect the poor. I am certain this would have prolonged the conflict and kept the mothers and their children on the sidewalks of the DENR. Again, I think the compromise is a victory, though my conscience remains unclear to this day.

Still, had the negotiations come at a time when Akbayan was in the dog house with our coalition partners because of some clash with President Aquino being carried out in the papers, I doubt whether our members in government could have worked out a solution with such efficiency. 

Cooptation

Oh, but we are indeed coopted! Our silence is bought indeed by our proximity to power and our satisfaction with the small crumbs that fall from the table! Yet, an Akbayan flag flies in Sicogon and those children are back in school.

In his article Prof. Bello lists also the successes of the Aquino administration in its early years before he chronicles what he believes was a turn towards the betrayal of the people’s interests.

I will not repeat that story except to add that flawed as it seems, Aquino’s appointments to the Supreme Court, the Ombudsman, the COA and the Department of Justice have proved to be the beginnings of restoring faith in some of the badly damaged institutions that bind people to the state. As I write, the admirable Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales is wielding her powers mightily, letting her ax fall on all regardless of whether they are allies of the President or not. President Aquino’s appointment of the Ombudsman will outlive his term and seems to push forward the momentum of anti-corruption efforts which Prof. Bello deemed to have been spent.

I will attest to the many meetings I have attended where Akbayan worked for appointments of those we deemed worthy whether this be to higher positions or small ones. No, this is not a claim to having wielded any real influence in the appointment of the Ombudsman! Those appointments redound to the legacy of President Aquino and the LP. Our influence in bringing about better appointments is minuscule. Crumbs.

We are indeed a small party living with the crumbs. Yet we are like the small mammal in the Mesozoic ecosystem where dinosaurs rule. Later the mammal will become the precursor of many new and wonderful things once the dinosaurs are extinguished. But it could not have seized the opportunities ushered in by new ecosystem if it could not survive within the old one. Indeed the new ecosystem, made possible by a catastrophic event, would not have arisen as such if that small mammal had not lived with the crumbs. Hegemonies are like ecosystems. There is no stepping outside them. There are only different places to be within a hegemony, such as the place where Prof. Bello finds himself and the place where I stand apart from him.  And as we both stand within it, we are all implicated in its sins though our progressive desires make us strive always to newer yet unachieved and perpetually open horizons.

Differing political philosophies

In his book, “Achieving our Country” Richard Rorty talks about the work that socialists and liberals accomplished in bootstrapping the USA from a colony to one of the most successful liberal democracies. He proposes that the current crisis in Left alternatives, the breakdown of the progressive consensus that led to progressive gains in the US, comes from socialists embracing dialectics, whether Hegelian or Marxist.

To make Rorty accessible, I would call the politics of dialectics “the politics of either/or”. Either you are with us or against us. Either you are a socialist or not. Either you have the conscience of the coopted or the conscience of a progressive. But there are other political philosophies for progressives. Rorty speaks of a return to earlier traditions of democratic philosophers like Walt Whitman and John Dewey. I would add though that this tradition continues in the politics of Michel Foucault and other postmodern political thinkers.

Again, to make this accessible, I would call these political philosophies, “the politics of and-also, plus, and by-the-way”. Unlike “the politics of either/or”, of a dialectics that demands conflict-laden syntheses or resolutions, “the politics of and-also” speaks of evolution. Foucault calls this replacing dialectical logic with strategic logic. “A strategy of logic does not stress contradictory terms within a homogeneity that promises their resolution in unity. The function of strategic logic is to establish the possible connections between between disparate terms which remain disparate.”

In practice, such a philosophy has guided early American socialists who worked with disparate individuals from intellectuals, to communists, and the elite like Eleanor Roosevelt for example, help establish an international norm of human rights. Rorty argues that the biggest gains were achieved not by people who measured their actions against some future vision of socialist utopias but by pragmatic considerations of what was merely better than what existed.

In the long weeks of the build-up of Prof. Bello’s open criticism of the party leading to his resignation as representative, I advised only that we try to give our different views hoping that at least Prof. Bello and the rest of the Philippine left would take our statements within the “politics of and also” rather than the “politics of either/or.”

But it would seem that modern political culture has a default to dialectical logic. Articles talking of a conflict between Akbayan were common in the local news. Speculations about the breaking off of an Aquino ally flew. And the party received tremendous criticism from other Left forces seeing our differences with Prof. Bello as a disavowal of him.

It is this logic that I believe will continue to trap us in games of division. Games that the decaying and corrupt political system has played to the hilt, to the detriment of solidarity.

At the time, any response to his call for discussion would have added fuel to a fire that I felt would burn down only progressive houses. This is why I have chosen this late moment of relative peace to respond. Perhaps with this lengthy explanation, people may understand that I wish him well despite our severe differences. – Rappler.com