Of Oligarchy and Oligarchs

Diliman Way

With Homobono A. Adaza

           “The real difference between democracy and  oligarchy is poverty and wealth. Wherever men rule by reason of their wealth, whether they be  few or many, that is an oligarchy, and where the  poor rule, that is a democracy.” – Aristotle

       “When economic power became concentrated in  a few hands, then political power flowed to those  possessors and away from the citizens, ultimately resulting in an oligarchy or tyranny.” – John Adams

Aristotle is a famous classic Greek philosopher while John Adams is an American politician who became President of the USA. Adams, in the view of many, is an embodiment of Plato’s concept of the philosopher king. They are separated by several centuries but they have, more or less, a convergent definition of an oligarchy.

Oligarchy came into view with a degree of intensity due to mention by President Duterte in his last SONA. He said, an oligarchy is deleterious to the people’s interest. He is absolutely right! As they say, he hit the nail on the head with deadly accuracy. He also said, he has dismantled the Lopez oligarchs by the denial of the application for a franchise by ABS-CBN. He is absolutely mistaken. He has not dismantled the Lopez economic empire he dismantled, for the moment, the lives of eleven thousand workers of the network and the tens of thousands of their dependents.
He missed his shot by a mile.

Oligarchs: These creatures are believers and practitioners of the institution known as the oligarchy. In the Philippine context, who are the oligarchs? There are several kinds of oligarchs – national, regional and local. On the national level, you have economic, political, religious, military and professional oligarchs. On the regional and local levels, they may be different from the national oligarchs, though in most cases, they are linked to them. 

The other term used to describe oligarchy in this country is elite – the ruling class all coming from the upper class. They are visible everywhere. They are, in the words of Thorstein Veblen, the leisure class. Most of them flaunt their power and their wealth. Sometimes, they also flaunt their women or their men.  They strut around like peacocks with their Ferraris, Bentleys, Lamborghinis, Mercedes Benzes, BMWs, Mustangs, Audis and Lexus. The women display their Hermes handbags and the overpowering smell of their perfumes from Chanel to Victoria Secret.
They are also the dreams of the lower classes so one day they can also display the habits and the arrogance of the privileged.

Political oligarchs: Let us start with the political oligarchs. All Presidents, from Ferdinand Edralin Marcos to Rodrigo Roa Duterte are political oligarchs, especially during their term. They dominate the country. They are the gods of power. There are three departments of government but the powerful ones dominate the two other departments. This is true with Marcos and also with Duterte. In the case of Marcos, it was with intelligence and power. With Duterte, it is just power always exercised with the unnerving thought of violence and revenge.     
This is where we are now. As the Chinese say, these are interesting times.

All Presidents from Marcos to Duterte are also economic oligarchs. They are all filthy rich. They try to identify themselves with the poor and downtrodden but they always circulate and rub elbows with the elite as they are one of them. Their identification with the poor, as a rule, is scandalously pretentious. And it shows if you look hard enough.

There are no longer visible political oligarchs on the regional level. To my knowledge, not even the Marcoses hold sway in their region. It is true in their province but not in their region – no. 
Power has slipped away from them in the region as it has on the national level, exemplified by the failed desperate attempt of Bongbong Marcos to regain lost ground. Duterte has abandoned him, it seems, because helping Marcos runs counter to Duterte’s perceived ambition to retain his oligarchy by having a candidate of his choice become the next President or if Duterte wants to perpetuate himself in power.  And Bongbong is not his choice.

On the provincial, city and municipal levels, the oligarchs remain. They are known as the holders of political dynasties. Though many of the old political dynasties on these levels have disappeared, there are new ones who have taken over. There are leading examples. The Laurels of Batangas lost their hold of the province and cities. There is an attempt of the Rectos to take over the Laurels headed by Senator Ralph Recto, the Recto who is not Claro. But nothing is certain about their efforts, the pulling power of Representative Vilma Santos Recto notwithstanding. 
This is true in many provinces in the Philippines. In Rizal, the Rodriguezes have lost power. The Henareses took over. There is a chain of old oligarchs in many provinces, cities and municipalities giving way to new oligarchs.

Economic oligarchs: On the national level, many of the oligarchs are of foreign extraction. Most of them are Chinese – the Lucio Tans, the Henry Sys, the George Tys, the John Gokongweis, the Tan Yus, the Gaisanos, the William Gatchalians, etcetera etcetera, as Yul Brynner would have it playing King Chulalungkorn in the movie musical, The King and I. 
They are in control of vast economic empires – banks, malls, subdivisions, high rise office and residential buildings, chains of hardware stores, telecommunications, shipping, airlines, hospitals, rice and corn and copra trade, drugs and pharmacies and pharmaceutical companies, and what have you. Name it, they’ve got. 
No wonder a Fil-Chinese boasted to me that Filipinos should not quibble about the Philippines becoming a province of China, since it is, in fact, already a province of China. He could probably be right because of the control of the Philippine economy by the Chinese taipans.
But the Chinese control of the economy is not good for Filipinos. It is bad for the country. Normally whoever controls the economy of the country also controls the politics of the country. And worse, they also control lives of the citizens.

Military oligarchs: The military of the country is controlled by PMAyers. They are the military oligarchs. Even President Duterte, at the mere mention of the military, trembles at his feet. So to assure his safety, he increased the salaries of the soldiers and militarized high level bureaucracy by appointing generals to the Cabinet and high office in government, not to speak of many colonels who also occupy high positions in the Duterte government.

The military oligarchs are having the time of their lives occupying positions in civilian government to which they have no known experience or expertise. In effect, they are undergoing on the job training (OJT) resulting to many failed policies and undesired implementation. So the highest political oligarch, in many of his off-the-cuff comments, addressing the military oligarchs, has this to say, more or less: “If you wish to remove me, you don’t have to pull a coup. All you have to do is ask me to resign and I will.”

Well, the military oligarchs have not asked the biggest oligarch in the country to resign. They can’t and they won’t because under a new knowledgeable intelligent leadership, they will likely be reminded of Section 3, Article II of the Constitution that “Civilian authority is at all times supreme over the military.” And they will likely be put in their proper places.

Religious oligarchs: They are in good numbers in this country operating under the Roman Catholic Church, Iglesia ni Cristo (INC), Islam, El Shaddai, Jesus Is Lord (JIL), and peripheral groups in the country like that of Pastor Quiboloy, the self-proclaimed appointed son of God. There is something peculiar about the oligarchs in these churches. A good number of their parishioners follow the dictum of the old Spanish friars – Follow what I say but do not follow what I do. You see that everywhere.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not an atheist or agnostic. I am  Roman Catholic on the same wave length as Fr. James McMahon, S. J., Janio Quadros, Fr. John P. Delaney, S.J. and Gustavo Gutierrez.

Professional oligarchs: These are the oligarchs who control professional organizations and schools. They are the lions of professional skills who betray the ethics of their professions and the objectives of their organizations. They strut around as though they are in the service of the people but by their deeds they clearly show the kind of people they are.

Word, words, and more words: The President says that oligarchies and oligarchs are deleterious to the national interests. He is absolutely right –they should be dismantled. His problem and our problem: He gives us a flood of words that amount to nothing. This is normal for President Duterte on matters of national policy. Words mean nothing if not followed by convergent action. Theory without practice is meaningless in the art of national governance.

In the course of the national campaign he came out with policy pronouncements, if elected President – he will install a revolutionary government, amend the Constitution, establish a parliamentary and federal system, improve the lives of Filipinos particularly the poor and abandoned, follow an independent foreign police, stamp out graft and corruption and illegal drugs. Four years are gone and the fulfillment of promises are nowhere in sight.

As Samuel Butler intoned in his novel – Erehwon! We are going nowhere. We are just going round and around –same hackneyed curses and imagined accomplishment. Of course President Duterte has accomplishments like free education in state colleges and universities and the unfinished build build, build, projects. But considering his giant promises, the accomplishments are drops in a huge bucket.

Dismantled or here to stay: Considering the record of President Duterte in honoring national policy promises, it would be irrational to think he can dismantle the existing oligarchies. Missing to dismantle the Lopez oligarchs, how can he dismantle more than a thousand oligarchs in this country? 
If he could not dismantle the drug syndicates and the lords of all kinds of graft and corruption, how can he dismantle the equally rooted oligarchs? In the first place, he is surrounded by all kinds of oligarchs. Can he dismantle the political oligarchs when many in his Cabinet, Senate, House of the House of Representatives, governors and mayors are known oligarchs? Most of them are his party leaders. Many of them are his friends and President Duterte has always been a sucker for friendship.
So the political oligarchs are here to stay, if President Duterte has his way. What about the economic oligarchs like Enrique Razons, the Manny and Cynthia Villars, the Dennis Uys, the Ernie Aboitizes and many others similarly situated can he dismantle them? These are his friends, can he dismantle them?  In the world of President Duterte, his friends are like precious diamonds, he cannot sacrifice them to the mob that demands for their blood.
What about the religious oligarchs? One thing certain the oligarchs of the Iglesia Ni Cristo, Pastor Quiboloy and Islam are here to stay. The Roman Catholic Church oligarchy is here to stay as it has survived dictators and kings. It certainly will survive Duterte.
What about the military oligarchy? President Duterte cannot dissolve it as the oligarchs are his friends and servants. Besides, in Duterte’s own pronouncements, the military can dismantle him and his government. 
Can President Duterte dismantle the professional oligarchs? He can but he will not? He needs them in the same manner he needs the other oligarchs for his survival.

What now: The President warned the water and telecommunication oligarchs like the Ayalas and the Pangilinans he will dismantle them if they don’t spruce up. This is not the first time President Duterte has made grand declarations. Except if you are his enemy, statements like these do not mean anything unless Duterte has learned to be President and has realized that national policies are not statements of personal hate and vengeance.

If he does not learn, what a waste!

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