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The Insufficiency of Filipino Nationhood

L’insuffisance de la nationalité philippine
Niels Mulder
p. 183-196


Cet essai relève de « l’histoire des mentalités » et trace l’évolution du génie spécifique liant l’état et la nation aux Philippines. Tout en étant bien présents, le nationalisme diffusé par l’état et les rituels associés sont incapables de renvoyer à un sentiment d’appartenance à un monde civil partagé. Tout se passe comme si la sphère publique de l’état et la sphère privée de la vie quotidienne n’étaient pas coordonnées, ce qui – en pratique – est renforcé par l’exclusion systématique du citoyen ordinaire d’un processus politique de type oligarchique. Comme il est souvent attendu qu’une société civile enracinée dans les classes moyennes émergentes ait le potentiel de combler l’écart et de produire le leadership culturel modelant la nation, l’évolution des idées des membres de celle-ci – d’un idéalisme militant à l’actuelle moralité nombriliste – sera mise au grand jour, à l’opposé de la dynamique de l’économie politique ainsi que d’une culture de plus en plus séparée de la vie quotidienne.

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1According to Gomperts et al., Indonesia’s pre-war nationalist leaders understood the need of historic symbols for legitimating a nation-state’s cultural and national identity. Since they were fully aware of the emotional appeal of Majapahit, they claimed it as the forerunner of a united Indonesia. Next to this, the authors even assert that no nation can survive without knowledge of its historical past (2010). If this is so, history has been most parsimonious in giving the Philippines its share, as the first state on its soil was the result of Spanish imperialism. Even so, the colonial history of the Islands must be deeply understood if we want to appreciate the present, distinctive Filipino (Pinoy) way of life, and the festering problem of nationhood.

The problem of nationhood

2The depth of American cultural imperialism is demonstrated by the listlessness of nation-building. In a country like Indonesia, the erasure of the humiliation of the colonial past was not so much a priority as a matter of course, and it is inconceivable that Indonesians would invoke Dutch imperialism to explain the history and shape of their present nation-state. In the Philippines, however, the Grant of Independence is still celebrated with the lowering of a conspicuous American flag on the current hundred-peso bill, and the names of Taft, Harrison, Lawton and the like live on. Even so, many places have been renamed after certain national heroes and many more after not-so-heroic presidents, among whom the name of Quezon leads the pack in obfuscating the history of provinces, towns, villages, and streets.

3Who cares? The very cultural imperialism that thwarts nation-building also destroyed historical continuity, and so the sense of Philippine becoming was erased. As a “modern”, American-educated nation, people should face forward and be progress-oriented, basically agreeing with Henry Ford’s dictum “history is bunk.” Even so, with or without history, certain circles recognised that the depth of the colonial impact had led to the “mis-education of the Filipino” (Constantino 1966) and a “colonial mentality” that kept inferiority feelings alive while blindly accepting the superiority of anything Stateside. As a result, in 1972 the Marcos dispensation proclaimed the Educational Development Decree that, among other things, should remedy the “problem of nationhood.”

4Subsequently, school teaching became bilingual, the soft subjects, such as social studies, history, and civics henceforward to be taught in the vernaculars and Filipino, and arithmetic, mathematics, and natural science in English. At the same time, textbooks were developed that should instil self-conscious pride in being Filipino (e.g., Mulder 2000: ch. 3). Since then, first graders must study the legal complexities of citizenship, the panoply of national symbols, and a long list of beauty spots and other geographical features of the country. The teaching of history should emphasize 19th century nationalism and the Revolution against the oppressive Spaniards, even as the American rape of the First Republic has to compete with the new coloniser’s munificence. Thanks to Mother America, Filipinos became literate, healthy, democrats, and citizens of the modern world. Upon counting these blessings follow the Freedom Missions, the Commonwealth, and the Grant of Independence in 1946, to which it is typically observed that the Grant came at a time that the country lay in ruins, was wallowing in poverty, and had no identity as a free nation.

5Under the rule of Marcos, school education apparently did not succeed in instilling a sense of nationhood, and so, in 1987, Senator Leticia Ramos-Shahani proposed to conduct research into “the weaknesses of the character of the Filipino with a view to strengthen the nation’s moral fibre.” It resulted in a report, Building a People, Building a Nation, in which a panel of prominent intellectuals, among other things, concluded that Filipinos show a deficiency of patriotism and appreciation of their own country, and are not in sympathy with their government. As a result and similar to the appeal of the Educational Development Decree, they proposed that schools be tasked to propagate such values. Subsequently, in 1989, Values Education became part of the national curriculum.

6Regardless of social scientists holding values to be conclusions of experience and practising teachers knowing that “values are caught, not taught”, schools are still supposed to convince their wards that they should be proud of being Filipinos, love their country, appreciate the good work of their government, and be willing to sacrifice for the common welfare. Preferably, they should be law-abiding, too. At the same time, the experience of poverty, injustice, and ineffective governance drives many people away from their native soil.


7As many columnists, educators and officials have it, the absence of vigorous nationalism is at the root of all sorts of problems, and so, over the years, the phrase, however often repeated, has got a hollow ring to it. The evocation of “nationalism” as a blame-all could be related to the fact that in native Tagalog-Filipino the idea is inherently vague. Consulting Fr. English’s Tagalog-English Dictionary, we find the equivalence of nasyonalismo and pagkamakabayan, pagkamakabansa, diwang-makabansa, pag-ibig sa bayang-tinubuan o inang-bayan. Because love for country is often thought to be love of its state, one may find the equivalency of estado and bansa, bayan, and pamahalaan, and with this hotchpotch we may have come to the source of the convenient vagueness of the term.

8Roughly translated, the aforementioned notions of nationalism may be rendered as “to be pro-country”, “to be pro-nation”, “to be pro-nation-spirited”, “to love one’s native soil” or “to love mother-land”; at the same time, state becomes people/nation, country, and regime/government. Such equivalences bedevil the subject, even as it would not take a sociology sophomore much effort to disentangle the mess. When a movement in the southern Philippines calls itself Bangsa Moro, it clearly sees itself as the spokesman for the Moro Nation, that is, a grouping of people on the basis of the idea of sharing history and identity. In brief, bangsa or bansa refers to Anderson’s felicitous term “imagined community” (1983). Naturally, the Bangsa Moro movement aspires to run its people’s own affairs in their homeland or bayan.

9It is not that Tagalog-Filipino totally ignores such shades of meaning as it refers to nationality as kabansaan or “sharing in a fellow bansa”, at the same time that pagkamamamayan refers to belonging to a certain place (bayan), and thus means citizenship. Next to these, we have the idea of “state”, that is, of a territory (bayan) under a government that holds sway over the people (bansa) living there. This very condition of lordship, however, tells us nothing about people’s loyalty to that state or about their eventual identification with it.

10Historically, nationalism as identification with the state is a recent phenomenon that was consciously fostered in 19th century Europe as a means of building the strength of the state through popular identification with its regime. Subsequently, it became possible to mobilize the populace to celebrate their state and to wage war in its name for whatever reason, because “right or wrong, my country. ” At bottom, such blind loyalty to the state has nothing “natural” to it, but is the result of the propaganda of the owners of the state. For such nationalism to arise, it needs to be propagated and taught, but if people distrust the message and do not accept it wholeheartedly, the citizens will not identify with state or regime, and their loyalty cannot be expected.

11In order to impress on first-graders their belonging to the nation-state, they have, in step with the American example, to study an array of national symbols. Whereas the flag is a powerful one among these, emblems such as the bangus (milkfish) as the national fish fail to arouse positive emotions. More amazing is it to claim the lechon (roast pig) as the national food, as it arrogantly excludes the Moslems, and the poor, to boot. Next to these identity markers, we find the endless repetition of certain ceremonies. Schooldays begin with raising the flag (that in many cases was struck half-an-hour earlier), singing the anthem (right hand on the heart), and reciting the nationalistic vow. Following in this track, all sorts of meetings, from a social of the tennis club to the deliberations of the Senate, go through this ritual, in which obligatory prayer takes the place of the nationalistic vow. Depending on their schedule, people may have to endure this rigmarole up to five times a day, and so one wonders whether its deeper meaning has not worn thin. In the place of my research, the flag was up day and night at the town hall, and so it was at the provincial high school. This apathy corresponds with the disinterest in national days, such as Bonifacio Day, Rizal Day, Heroism or Bataan Day, Independence Day, National Heroes Day, etc., that merely remind people of the closure of banks, schools and offices, and the leisure to clean the house. For all that, most are happily unaware that such days have been created to celebrate the State and evoke the spirit of nationalism.

The Filipino way

12The lack of enthusiasm for celebrating the nation-state contrasts with the days that express Filipino-ness and exemplify Pinoy civilisation. The days in mind are Christmas, Holy Week, Flores de Mayo, All Saints’ Day, and the town fiesta, and special occasions, such as the common outpouring of grief at Corazón Aquino’s demise (2009), the massive sympathetic mourning after Flor Contemplacion’s execution in 1995 in Singapore (Rafael 2000: 212-27), or when world-class boxer Manny “Pacman” Pacquiao defends his title; then roads are deserted and everybody is glued to the box. These are the real national days that, like Pacman’s victories, evoke identification with the nation or bansa. A state that commemorates itself stages a military parade; national community, however, is expressed through pride in sporting events or the victory of a beauty queen, and the emotions sparked by popular religious observances. Then people spontaneously express their belonging to each other and their way of life.

13The problem is not, as ever so often stated, that Filipinos do not love their native land or are reluctant to identify with its people. They do, much the same as almost everybody in this world. They are willing to sacrifice themselves for its welfare as overseas’ workers in the “prison without bars” of the Middle-East. Sure, they do not do so for the Republic, however often the latter hails them as “heroes of the nation”, but in order to keep their loved ones afloat in a country that does not offer any prospects. In brief, it is not a shortage of love for the native land, but a deficit of confidence in the State and the class that runs it. So, when a regime is distrusted, schools may propagate all the national symbols they can muster, but, in the absence of credible national leadership, to no avail.

14As a result, Filipino-ness is expressed in its “little-traditional” forms, and not in symbols that stand for history and nation-state. Filipino-ness belongs to home and community. It is there that one finds the shared and distinctive representations of the Filipino ethos; these emblems belong to individual families and communities, such as the diplomas on the wall, graduation pictures, the cute Santo Niño, the serene Lady of Lourdes or the stark Mother of Perpetual Help, the plaza with its diminutive Rizal statue, the town hall and church, the basketball court, the band, the bus waiting shed, the fiesta and processions. All of these do not refer to an exemplary centre; they refer to nothing more than themselves. Up to the present, therefore, Filipino civilisation is expressed in a concrete style of life rather than in the abstract sense of an encompassing nation-state.

15Naturally, this “little-traditional” scope is reflected in the principles of social construction of the lowlanders who trace descent bilaterally and whose religious imagination mirrors their kinship organisation (Mulder 1997: ch. 2). In their view, the social arrangement is a moral edifice based on family ties, the “sacred” position of parents, hierarchy and the essential inequality of individuals who are obliged (or not) to each other through “debts of gratitude” that spell their tangible life world. In the absence of an alternative, sociological understanding, they experience their moral inequality as a matter-of-course. As a result, the social studies-curriculum is devoid of a discussion of the concepts of civil society and democratisation, other than vague statements about the equality of citizens according to the Constitution that is repeatedly invoked as the Mariang Makiling- or Godot-like saviour of the nation (Mojares 2002: 1-19).

16Experience-near existence shades off into the not-morally-obliging space that appears as the property of others, of politicians, officials, landlords and economic power-holders. Whereas this area may be seen as “public in itself”, it is not experienced as “of the public” or “for itself”. It is the vast territory where “men of prowess” (Wolters: 1999: 18-9) compete for power as the highly admired social good (King 2008: 177). For the vast majority, however, the public domain is an anarchy of impersonal and thus a-moral relationships where one ventures—if at all—to serve one’s political and economic well-being. It is the area reported about in the newspaper and other mass media that provide the ephemeral images and scandals by which it is, often deceptively, substantiated.

17In this time of mass media, with a television set in almost every home, it is the pseudo culture of simulacra à la Baudrillard (1988) that pervasively dominates the media. Even as politics hold the pride of place, it is consumed as a kind of spectator sport that offers no serious competition to the lowest-common-denominator programmes broadcast country-wide. Hence, everyday culture radiating from the centre offers little to hold on to. Through the interminable bombardment of fleeting symbols and messages, people are anaesthetized against nationalism and identification with the State, against the ideals of active citizenship, and against the hope for the rule of law. They know that politics is too much talk and little substance, so why waste one’s time through speculating about the desirable state of affairs? As a result, people feel that they had better focus on survival, the safety of their family, and the consolation of religion.

18At this point, it may be appropriate to note that religion, as a keystone of individual identity, has been patently prospering in Southeast Asia, and so in the Philippines, since the 1960s, and promises to be going strong for a long time to come (Mulder 2003: ch. 9; Willford et al. 2005: introduction). Even as this religious drive is individual-centred in confirming a person’s moral worth, such religiously driven righteousness can also exert not to be underestimated pressure on those who hold political power. It was the Church’s appeal that played an important role in the mass demonstrations against Presidents Marcos and Estrada, similar to religion being the driving force that ousted the Shah in 1978, and a key factor in President Suharto’s resignation in 1998 and the subsequent ascendancy of Moslem leader Abdurrahman Wahid. In Thailand, the neo-Buddhist Major-General Chamlong Srimuang of the Force of Righteousness Party brought down Prime Minister General Suchinda Khraprayoon in 1992, and possibly protesting Buddhist monks are more effective than Aung San Suu Kyi in undermining the Burmese junta.

Changing middle stratum

19Whatever the changes in lifestyles and world view of the members of the educated middle classes, we should bear in mind that they are exemplary to the rest of the populace. They are the producers, disseminators, and consumers of mainstream and alternative ideas; they are the mainstay of public opinion, and their milieu is the matrix of ideas about the desirable order of society. For a while, in the 1960s and during the late-Marcos and early-Aquino years, progressive and nationalist ideas emanating from their quarters appeared to fire the public imagination. Nowadays, however, in a globalizing world, the nation seems to have been lost sight of, at the same time that primordial and professional bonds give reason to behaviour.

20If we compare with the long period of the gestation of the idea of “our nation-state” in neighbouring Indonesia—pertinently present as of 1900, then institutionalising in the 1910s and 1920s in the Budi Utomo and Sarekat Islam associations, and from the 1920s onward in political platforms—then post-colonial nationalism in the Philippines has been no more than a flash in the pan. In 1946, when “sovereignty” was granted, the country was willingly more dependent on the USofA than during pre-war days. Whereas, in the 1950s, this was emphatically protested by politicians like Claro M. Recto and Lorenzo v. Tañada, the historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo, and the social-activist author Amado v. Hernandez, their nationalism was not widely understood, even as toward the end of the decade then President Carlos P. Garcia initiated a “Filipino-First” economic policy. Altogether, these early stirrings resulted in the efflorescence of nationalistic, social-emancipatory, and anti-authoritarian movements in the 1960s that went underground after the declaration of Martial Law on the 21st of September 1972.

21Following the assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino on 23 August 1983, the ideas of the sixties resounded again throughout society. As the former students had meanwhile become professional, this was most vociferously the case in their demonstrations in the business heart of Makati City and in the ever more audacious opposition press. When Marcos’s shenanigans came to a head that catapulted Ninoy’s widow Corazon to the presidency in February 1986, it seemed as if social reconstruction was within arm’s reach. It didn’t last, and if people on the progressive side were still in doubt, the Mendiola massacre of peasant demonstrators toward the end of January 1987 made it abundantly clear that the now-restored oligarchy called the shots. Even so, the formers’ intellectual heritage lived on through the early nineties in a lively NGO scene and the alternative press, but politically the idealists had been marginalized and henceforward their ideas were irrelevant to the public agenda.

22Meanwhile, they have been replaced by a vast generation of professionals who, as Martial Law babies, went to school under the dictatorship. As this was a time of state developmentalism, it induced a career-orientation in the students that has continued into the present. Their formal education was and is precariously low on social science and humanities content; at best they are oriented to future progress, resulting in generations that tend to be socially inattentive and devoid of a sense of history. This runs parallel to the sea change in technology that has overwhelmed their experience of life. As McLuhan commented in now far-off 1964, the medium is the message, and new media, new “extensions of man», new sources of power, production, and efficiency irreversibly change the world and with it, mentality.

23If momentarily concentrating on these media, we note that, in the wake of the idealistic 1960s, television intruded into every home, and as it did, it banished books. Gradually, the calculator and, later, the bar-code expelled mental arithmetic. In the early 1980s, the computer came of age and revolutionised information and communication technology, at the same time that stereo and, later, videoke, drove out the guitar; in the 1990s, the internet and e-mail picked up, and since it has become rare to see someone lick a postage stamp. From the early 2000s on, people have become cell-phone addicts. When we reflect on the effects of these changing media on the way we live and imagine life to be, we’ll realise that it is an abyss that separates the 1960s with its belief in social constructability from the present.

24In those recent olden days of the 1960s, it appeared as if there was some integrity between the Filipino way of life and the way it was thought to be. Nowadays, however, the outside world seems to have been disconnected from experience as people have to go by industrially and foreign produced images. With television and its illusions, they entered a pseudo-reality in which it becomes increasingly problematic to separate the real from the fantastic. As a result, people stick to their identity-confirming inner circle and hold on to their career, as all of us are finally experiencing Buddha’s truth that life out there is maya, delusory, indeed.

Civil society?

25Ever since, in the 1920s, Filipinos got leeway to run their affairs, the public sphere has been the arena of traditional or money politics, presided over by, first, the colonial and, later, the neo-colonial oligarchy. The members of this class regard the country as their private preserve and exploit it to their advantage; consequently, they have and had no interest in creating a vibrant public of participating citizens. As a result, ideas about the public or common welfare miss a broad social basis, at the same time that the public realm is perceived as the field of contest of political and economic interests. For most people, therefore, it is a sphere to defend oneself against or to take advantage of, as one’s real life and identity belong elsewhere.

26This concurs with the experience of contemporary mass society in which people do not actively participate; they are simply there, much as one is in a forest without participating in nature. In contrast with the activist student generation of the 1960s, the new urban middle stratum is not eager to be involved in “public” affairs. Besides, these days such affairs are obfuscated by the permanent bombardment of messages that emphasize the importance of individual lifestyles and consumption. So, whereas the mass demonstrations that finished Presidents Marcos and Estrada evoked the image of a vigilant civil society, deeper analysis shows that it were hegemonic interests that engineered public opinion. Accordingly, occasional popular mobilisation occurs “in the name of civil society” rather than as its product (Hedman 2006).

27Apart from this, where would a vigorous civil society hail from? In the 1980s and 1990s, with the efflorescence of all sorts of cause-oriented groups and NGOs, people were easily led to believe in the vitality of civic consciousness, at the same time that the very proliferation of such groups demonstrated their basic flaw, often joked about as, “Two Filipinos is two NGOs. ” To get people to stick to a cause or a program, even when it is clearly to their advantage, is almost impossible as long as they remain leading-personality oriented and as perennial interpersonal rivalries keep them from making common cause. No need to say that this quality easily reduces them to playthings of power-holders and their divide-and-rule tactics.

28There is more to this. A vigorous civil society as a watchdog against political horse-play and economic manipulation can only flourish if it has a vast recruitment base of well-educated and critical people. Even as there are quite a few of such citizens, we should realise, as Anderson cautioned in 1988, that the educated middle stratum of Philippine society is being haemorrhaged through emigration, mostly to the USA, and so fails to develop into a significant competitor of the oligarchy (1998: 212).

29Ergo, in the absence of a significant civil opponent, the Philippine State is hostage to the political and business interests of oligarchs that have no stake in strengthening it; on the contrary, through loop holing the Constitution and a highly personalised political system, corruption has consciously been built in (Villacorte 1987). As a result, politics is held in low esteem at the same time that public life is subject to interests over and against which the citizens feel powerless.


30In view of this situation, there is little cause for wonder that most people doggedly pursue their own course irrespective of others (kanya-kanya). In a way, this agrees with the propagation of consumerism that stimulates people to acquire the status symbols that mark their individuality. In other words, where society is lost sight of, its component members come to the fore, and so the focus of public life is on outstanding, single individuals, rather than on the impersonal “generalised other” or something as intangible as the public interest.

31At present, the social life of the nation is appreciably open to the world, and has become part of a post-national global environment that is not subject to any ideology or ethical system other than the rules of political and economic expediency. Because of people’s dependence on it for survival and advancement, it intrudes into private life, which may give cause to frustration. Subsequently, they express their grumbling in newspaper columns and letters to the editor, in values education courses, in sermons and exhortatory speeches that all emphasize decency, sacrifice, and personal virtue as the well-springs of good society. This self-centred orientation leads away from legal or ideological attempts to come to grips with the public world that remains hidden in vagueness. It is there to watch, not to actively participate in. As a result, only minimal demands on the state and economy can be expected to emanate from the new urban middle stratum.

32This moral self-centeredness dovetails conveniently with the interests of the state-owning class. Its introduction of values education in order to improve the quality of public life seamlessly connected with its roots in family and person-centred morals. Later on, this thinking resounded in the repeated appeals for moral reform that emanated from then President Arroyo. Whereas suchlike social imagination necessarily fails to come to grips with society-in-the-abstract, it may be soothing to the individual soul. One may even argue that it comes timely in a borderless world that leaves the person thrown back on the comprehensible, identity confirming areas of experience, such as family and religion.

Culture of the ruling class

33In establishing their dominion, the Spaniards were successful in co-opting the former chieftains (datu) and the upper echelon of freemen (maharlika) of the disparate communities (baranggay). Through creating this privileged stratum of native principalía as their henchmen and the old wisdom of divide and rule, the separation of the political class from the common people evolved from early colonial times. Through the imperial policy of gathering the population “under the bells”, these original principalía became the kernel of urban, i.e., of pueblo society.

34A separate class of people that evolved in and around Manila were the Chinese who were attracted by the opportunities the colonial emporium held in store. Many of them took native Christian wives, so that by the time the Chinese were expelled from the Islands (1766), a considerable number of Chinese-Filipino mestizos could step into their fathers’ shoes. Entrepreneurially minded, they came to dominate the retail trade of the Islands and seized on the opportunities—just as exponents of the principalía did—the commercialisation of agriculture and the opening up of the country to world trade offered.

35Since a measure of political clout and money attract each other, the two classes fused and, as the 19th century proceeded, their intermixture gave birth to the identifiable ancestors of the current state-owning elite (Simbulan 2005). In the last quarter of the century, this highly successful middle class had begun to send some of its male offspring to the venues of higher education in the colony and the mother country, giving rise to a stratum of Hispanicized intellectuals, the so-called ilustrados, who matured as the vanguard of Filipino nationalism.

36If these “enlightened ones” would have had it their way, and if the Americans had not betrayed the Revolution, it could have been that their incipient cultural leadership would have created a transcendent national ideology that could unite Filipinos as a nation. What comes to mind in this respect are the works of José Rizal, the ruminations on the State of Apolinario Mabini, the ideas of Pedro Paterno, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, and Isabelo de los Reyes as “the brains of the nation” (Mojares 2006), Lope K. Santos’s dream of social justice as unfolded in his then widely-read Banaag at Sikat (“from early dawn to full brilliance”, 1906), the authors of the hugely popular nationalistic or “seditious” theatre plays, and the establishment of the schismatic Iglesia Filipina Independiente.

37It would not be. We noted the emergence of a hybrid native middle class and should be aware of the pettiness of its political position. Hence, when this bourgeoisie joined Aguinaldo’s Revolution, most of its members did so in the hope of combining their economic acumen with political influence; at the same time, the majority of them was not interested in ilustrado idealism. As the realists they were, they would soon accommodate to the new American overlord who was, in fact, generous in dispensing political opportunity. When, in the 1920s, the lease to the new master was relaxed, they stormed ahead in plundering the country’s resources, as if they had never heard of the idea of the common welfare (Anderson 1998: 202-3). If there was such an idea at all, it was the Commonwealth with the United States that beckoned.

38With the Grant of Independence in 1946, we witness the, at least for South-East Asia, curious spectacle of a privileged class that had always been subservient to its masters becoming the tutelary heir to the latter’s power. As a colonial creation, it is colonial history that legitimizes the present oligarchy that has long lost its roots among the ordinary folks. Largely mestizo and culturally oriented to the world of the West, its members do not feel to have more in common with the ordinary people than the vernacular to give orders in. As a consolidated, privileged class, whose power has been used to protect its landed and other interests, it stands in opposition to those its members refer to as the “common tao” (people).

39In other words, if there is a problem of nationhood or an absence of identification with the common weal, the problem should be pinned on the country’s oligarchy. Repeatedly, the ordinary people have expressed their desire to partake in the country’s course and destiny. Think of the efflorescence of the Katipunan that initiated the Revolution of 1896, the socialist and communist movements of the American period, the popularity of the Democratic Alliance (1945), the hope of the masa expressed in the elections of Magsaysay (1954) and Cory Aquino (1986), the landslide victory of “Erap” Estrada (1998), and his 30% of the vote in 2010, but whatever the hopes of the ordinary folk, they would persistently be betrayed by the state-owning class that is averse to their emancipation and nationalism. Let everybody in the land express their belonging through watching a glorious Pacquiao, but the humble “common tao” should stay clear of politics and the affairs of State, even as they are allowed to cast their vote.

40With the elite’s power of determining the contents of the mandatory curriculum, school teaching keeps it this way. The course outline of the subject of “History and Government” is political through and through, and should build up to having an independent state with sovereignty, three branches of government, and foreign relations. To anticipate this situation and long before contact with Spain, primordial communities are said to be ánd Filipino ánd to possess all of these, which implies that there was nothing to learn or that the continuous process of change and becoming does not apply in the Islands. People there had a high civilisation, even wrote down [some of] their laws as the baranggay chieftain (datu) lorded it over the thirty to one hundred families of his jurisdiction. So, long before Montesquieu formulated the Trias Politica (1748), the datu is said to be invested with legislative, executive and juridical power, at the same time that he is the head of the armed forces. This is very much in the image of the absolute monarch who proclaimed “l’état, c’est moi” (the state, that’s me) or of somebody like Marcos, the usurper of freedom and rights, and ordinary dictator.

41The school’s approach to history and government is crammed with this type of a-historical and irresponsible statements, at the same time that it keeps the becoming of the state-owning class meticulously out of sight. Instead of presenting the cultural history of the slow evolution of a potential nation—an endeavour that would connect the past to the present—political chronology takes over. Through chopping up in seemingly unconnected episodes, such as the Spanish colonial State, the Revolution of 1896, the Philippine-American War, the blessings of American colonialism and the Commonwealth, the Japanese Occupation, Liberation, and Independence, continuity and becoming are lost sight of. As if to highlight this rape of history, the last period is presented through individual presidential reigns, Martial Law, New Republic, the EDSA demonstrations of 1986 that undid Marcos, more reigns, the EDSA demonstrations of 2001 that ousted Estrada, and President Arroyo’s administration.

42Because this periodisation highlights transient affairs, observations on the period of Independence read like a newspaper. Some texts are adamant that politics is powered by opportunism, corruption and shady deals—in which sense the picture of a rotten society is no different from that in the mandatory course of Values Education. In spite of such occasional realism, all texts must enumerate every president’s noble intentions that, alas, invariably come to naught, even as it is never explained why this is so.

43On the basis of so much “legitimate symbolic violence” (Bourdieu, Passeron 1977: 13-5, 24-5), it becomes well-nigh impossible to understand social life, let alone to identify with the nation and its past. So, if, theoretically, school should foster a sense of self that comes to include the wider community, we may safely conclude that the way it shapes this demand makes it impossible to imagine that one, as a student, is personally involved. Besides, at the same time that much attention is devoted to the birth of ilustrado and popular nationalism in the period preceding the Revolution, the present invocation of Rizal, Bonifacio, and Mabini is no better than evoking phantoms of the past that are safely on the far side of the watershed event of the American occupation. Ironically, current Indonesian school texts still refer to Rizal, the Revolution and the First Republic as exemplary for the awakening of (anti-colonial) nationalism in Asia.

National transcendence?

44In spite of all the phraseology about “nationhood”, “moral recovery”, and the underdevelopment of “nationalism”, there is nothing that reminds of a national doctrine other than silly lists of national symbols and beauty spots, and ever-repeated anthem singing and flag-raising. The contrast with Indonesia’s Panca Sila ideology and Thailand’s theory of The Three Institutions is striking, as these teachings clearly evoke an exemplary centre that lends legitimacy to the institutions of the State and that sets certain parameters within which national discourses can thrive. They also eventuated in Indonesians and Thai identifying with their nation-states as matters-of-course.

45As far as the Philippines goes, it is a could-have-been, as the institution of the State has never been held in great esteem. Colonial in its origins, its contempt for and exploitation of the populace couldn’t lend it much legitimacy. If anything, the State was something to stay away from or to take advantage of. Accordingly, its local representatives, the principalía, developed a political culture of artfulness and deceit in balancing the demands of a powerful overlord with their own interests (Corpuz 1989: xii-iii). When they were finally put to the task of organizing the State on their own, they duly wrote the foundational ideas of People’s Sovereignty, Justice, Separation of Powers, Popular Representation, and (quality) Education in its charter. However, since all or most of these are no better than figments of a foreign imagination, they were never taken seriously, and so, when Marcos’s remarkable predecessor, Commonwealth President Manuel L. Quezon, established himself as a virtual dictator, he held no scruples about editing the 1935 Constitution to his liking (McCoy 1989).

46Since then, a perennial deficit of popular endorsement, poor performance, and political manipulation prevented the institutions of the State, such as the President, Congress, and the Supreme Court, to develop into shining, transcendent centres of the nation. As a result, there is little high-cultural substance to overarch the little-traditional way of life of the general public. The only nation-wide institution that could possibly qualify is the Church, but few are those who would point to the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines as an authoritative centre, not only because it dirties its hands in politics or because of its unpopular position regarding reproductive health, but most particularly because church-life belongs to the parish and its local traditions.

47Arguably, History is the great institution of a nation-state for sanctioning its identity. It is the source of emotive symbols that lend pride and reason to the present as the presumptive continuation of a semi-mythic past. Even so, whereas the Indonesians have their Majapahit and the Thai their Sukhothai, American imperialism cheated the Philippines of the glory of being the first Asian nation to defeat, seven years ahead of Japan, a Western power—an event that inspired nationalists from Sun Yat Sen to Sukarno. Unfortunately, the Americans kept the humiliation of being a colony alive at the same time that they were over-eager to denigrate the country’s cultural past and relegate it to the dustbin of irrelevance. Through creating, in Nick Joaquin’s metaphor, a lettered generation of people without fathers and grandfathers, or, in the colonial trope, Little Brown Brothers, culture and history were aborted, and with it confidence and pride in identity and continuity. In brief, American aggression and tutelage brought about a cultural calamity.

48The history of the Philippines begins with the Spanish conquista, and if we keep our focus on this political event, history has given the Filipinos a bad deal. Political history, however, is ephemeral; it is like the events of the day in the newspaper that serves to wrap salted fish the day after. If we want history to cohere, we have to be aware of the spirit of the times, of intentions and motivations. Since these constitute the gist of history, we had better follow Febvre’s call for tracing the evolution of the ways of thinking and experiencing of the common man, the elite and other relevant groups (1973). When we follow this advice, we will find the relevance of the past to understanding current existence. What began with the introduction of the plough and new crops, the wheel and the horse, Catholicism and the printing press, and the opening of the country to Asia and the world, had its repercussions on mentality and eventually aroused the spirits of popular, ilustrado and elitist nationalisms, the idea of Filipino identity, and ideas on how to give these shape in a free country.

49It is regrettable to note that already in the days of the successful Revolution against Spain, the nationalist potential of all and sundry imagining to belong together was effectively debilitated. Firstly, through the liquidation of the popular Katipunan leader Andres Bonifacio soon after the petty bourgeois leadership of Aguinaldo had effectively taken over. Then, through the blatant self-serving nature of most members of the leading class (e.g., Guerrero 1982). Thirdly, through the explicit exclusion of the common people when the principalía set up their Malolos Republic (1898-99) that, fourthly, lorded it over the populace so abusively that many became nostalgic of the Spanish past (ib.: 175-79). No wonder that at the time the Republic was fighting the Americans, many of the ordinary citizens turned their back on it and even offered organised resistance, such as the Guardia de Honor in Pangasinan. As a result, there is no cause for wonder that, in 1902, the peasantry of Palanan, Isabela, had no scruples in delivering the Republic’s President Aguinaldo to the Americans after he had sought refuge there (Joaquin 1988: ch. 10).

50Apart from the endemic split between the haves and the have-nots, the equally endemic opportunism of most of the erstwhile republican leadership made them side with the Americans as soon as they recognised which side their bread was buttered on. Whereas popularly based pockets of resistance against the new supremacy held out until 1912, the Americans had little trouble in dousing the principalía’s nationalist impetus, firstly through opening up political and economic opportunity, then through saturating the privileged class with American-style modernity and school education.

51What remained, in spite of the American steamroller, was and is the Pinoy way of life with its multitude of distinctive features, in which we recognize and the deep past, and Spanish cuisine and Catholicism, American fast-food, coke and historical obfuscation, and the inescapable onslaught of ever new media. Even so, in spite of these vicissitudes, there is much more continuity in the epic of Philippine becoming over the last 500 years than between the heyday of Majapahit and present-day Indonesia. This continuity demonstrates a certain national transcendence and a culturally colonial past that can usefully serve to create the sense of nation, such as plausibly pioneered by Corpuz, Joaquin, and Zialcita.

52When we train our attention on the history of the political-economy, however, we’ll see that, under whatever regime, a consolidated, privileged class developed whose interests are opposed to those of the common people. As the modern day principalía, they have no interest in providing the cultural leadership an imagined community needs to refer to. In this they are supported by a social imagination that is myopically focussed on the immediate experience of life and media that almost exclusively centre on political personalities.

The insufficiency of nationhood

53The insufficiency of Filipino nationhood lies in its failure to mould the population into an organic whole or an encompassing moral order in which people imagine that they belong together. In the absence of a shared narrative of collective emancipation that ties private life to an authoritative centre of nationhood, we find two nations in the independent Philippine State, that is to say, the largely mestizo elite and the “common tao.” Since these “nations” cannot articulate, it keeps all and sundry—inclusive of the members of the new middle classes—from identifying with the whole and prevents them from developing into a nation of responsible citizens. As a result, nation building remains a task stretching way into the future.

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Niels Mulder, « The Insufficiency of Filipino Nationhood », Moussons, 20 | 2012, 183-196.

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Niels Mulder, « The Insufficiency of Filipino Nationhood », Moussons [En ligne], 20 | 2012, mis en ligne le 27 novembre 2012, consulté le 22 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/moussons.1690

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Niels Mulder

Niels Mulder has retired to the southern slope of the mystically potent Mt. Banáhaw, Philippines, where he stays in touch through

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