It was a great privilege to represent Atlas Corps in the Service Unites 2018, which gathered more than 2,500 nonprofit, government, business, and civic leaders to galvanize the power of people to create change globally through learning exchanges. It was also an opportunity to connect with outstanding peers in the volunteer sector to reignite a civic passion for community-mindedness, citizen action, social responsibility and a commitment to give back. The overarching theme of the conference is “Igniting Civic Culture”.
For someone who has dedicated over 10 years working and advocating for civic education, the conference theme is interesting, and if I were to reflect on it, from the perspective of my experiences as a civic education worker in the Philippines, I would say “civic culture” strings together the concept of “civic education” and “nation-building”. This is to highlight the seemingly anomalous fact that while Philippine history is witness to the evocative power of Filipino nationalism, the Philippines itself has yet to become a nation. A nation of citizens, that is.
Certainly, the nation as “imagined community” — to use Benedict Anderson’s (1983) memorable phrase — has been with us for quite some time now. Yet, the pull of personal and familial ties seems to define our everyday lives, and so powerfully that one foreign scholar was led to conclude that beyond the tight circle of trust made up of family members, intimates and friends, lies nothing more than a competitive and amoral world governed by political and economic expediency (Mulder, 1997).
For so many Filipinos, making sense of public life merely involve the habitual extension of the ethos of intimacy into the larger society of anonymous others. Of course, state institutions continue to exist and frame political engagement, but their formal and abstract rules have been extensively reworked to either suit private ends or satisfy personal longings.
What we have for a state is really a thin layer of formal rules obscuring a vast and tangled web of personal ties. These heartfelt ties are clearly incompatible with and thus grind against, the civic habits and rational-legal rules that serve as the operating system for democratic institutions.
There is, for instance, the rather widespread preference for private solutions to obviously public problems. Examples abound but here are my favorites: blinkers and sirens to get ahead in slow traffic, walled communities and armed guards to protect against criminality, booster pumps, private wells and illegal connections to secure a regular supply of water.
Indeed, unable to situate themselves within a larger society and thus think and act for the interest of an abstract public, many Filipinos are not likely to treat elections, or any other democratic exercise for that matter, as opportunities to discern the common good. Candidates are thus quite routinely seen in personal terms and very seldom in terms of how they might measure up to the requirements of the high office.
Here are some interesting questions: If a real public sphere, a consciousness of a larger, abstract society beyond friends and family is lacking, how should we go about building it? What makes this type of “consciousness” possible? Should it even be seen as a form of consciousness? Or is it not better conceived as a system of habits and dispositions that needs to be imbibed by people?
How is it possible for people to transcend the pull of personal and familial ties in order to habitually situate themselves within this larger community of anonymous others? Put another way, what makes democratic citizenship possible? How do we make the elusive transition from Anderson’s “imagined community” to Renan’s “large-scale solidarity”?
This is the challenge that we are faced with today. It requires a collective effervescence to carry us far as we attempt to chart the final stages of a journey that began in the closing years of the 19th Century. In closing, allow me to quote the immortal words of the Great Indio and First Filipino:
An immoral government is matched by a people without morals; and administration without conscience, by greedy and servile townsmen and outlaws and robbers in the mountains. The slave is the image of his master: the country, of its government.