Contents>> Vol. 6, No. 2
Tulong: An Articulation of Politics in the Christian Philippines
Soon Chuan Yean
Manila: University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, 2015, xvii+275pp.
The dominant analytical framework of elite rule in the Philippine local politics has been the patron-client relationship and machine politics in which politicians provide tulong (help) to the poor and the poor return the debt with their votes. Criticizing the dominant view of pragmatic and functional exchange of material benefits as being too narrow, Soon Chuan Yean argues that the relationship between politicians and ordinary people entails a moral and religious dimension in which the poor have agency to negotiate with politicians from the bottom up. His methodology to support his argument is in-depth fieldwork to explore “the clients’” viewpoints based on their everyday struggle in Tanauan City, Batangas.
Chapter 1, “Layering the Level of Tulong (Help) from the Peasantry,” examines the “Janus-faced” characteristics of the patron-client relationship in Tanauan. The local political landscape is very similar to the arguments of patron-client relations and machine politics. Local politicians subordinate and manipulate the poor though material benefits, fraud, violence, and coercion. However, moral order also exists between them, in which the poor negotiate with the elites. Even though the poor receive help from the elites, they are not always subordinated to their patrons because the poor scrutinize politicians’ loob (inner being) and authenticity of tulong. Through such moral judgment, the poor determine whether they support a politician, receive benefits without supporting him/her, or cast a vote for a rival politician.
Chapter 2, “The Research Setting,” introduces the physical landscape of the main field site, Barangay Angeles, Tanauan City, and how the author collected data as a Malaysian researcher. The chapter also describes how ordinary people in the villages struggle for everyday subsistence.
Chapter 3, “Reaching the Popular,” explores the moral order between politicians and ordinary people beyond a mechanical exchange of money and votes by examining the discourse of development in local politics. For local politicians, money is not sufficient to win the hearts and support of ordinary people. They are required to project their loob as righteous and tulong as unselfish sacrifice within the framework of moral order while blurring the hierarchal gap between the rich and poor in order to capture the sentiments of the people. In other words, politicians and constituents actively negotiate within the moral order.
Chapter 4 “Locating a Language of Emotion in Popular Politics,” discusses how ordinary people scrutinize whether politicians’ help comes sincerely from their loob. Only when ordinary people believe in the righteousness of politicians, the latter’s act (gawa) is recognized as tulong. For ordinary people to have the ability to appropriately scrutinize acts of politicians, lakaran (journey) and sariling sikap (self-initiative) to discipline and purify their loob is important. The negotiation of loob between a politician and ordinary people produces different outcomes. When ordinary people feel harmonization of loob transcending the hierarchical gap, they are emancipated from utang (debt). On the contrary, if harmonization of loob is not achieved, a politician’s acts are not recognized as tulong. This is the situation of pulitilka (politics) equated with spoils and blank promises in the game of personal interests.
Chapter 5, “Religious Ideas in the Politics of Moral Order,” explores the religious background of moral politics over tulong. Ordinary people associate tulong from God with tulong from a politician. They believe that those who help the needy along a matuwid na landas (straight path) will be blessed with liwanag (light), and those who reach liwanag must circulate this liwanag though their sacrifice of giving tulong. Such mutual help represents equality of people before God and breaks down the hierarchy. In the religious framework, politicians are morally required to act as Christlike leaders who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the salvation of the weak from miseries, without any vested interests. Ordinary people’s ultimate aim in submitting themselves to a politician is not any material gain but freedom from darkness and constructing a society where everyone is treated equally.
The Conclusion emphasizes that ordinary people’s submission to a saintlike patron is a strategy to escape from the debtor’s position. Therefore, the author concludes that “politics of tulong is a process of negotiation of power to transform the patron-client relations into an equilibrium of the loob” (p. 240).
I believe that the book makes three major contributions to Philippine political studies. First, Soon radically reexamines the interest politics of material transactions between politicians and the poor from the perspective of moral politics based on a religious worldview. This does not mean that previous studies on the patron-client relationship entirely ignore its moral aspects, but they emphasize that the poor who receive help from a politician inevitably embrace utang na loob (debt of inner being) as a moral obligation to be paid back in the form of political support. In contrast, Soon insists that even though politicians are superordinate to the poor in interest politics, the poor actually have the agency to force politicians to provide sincere help to the needy in moral politics.
Second, Soon makes his argument convincing by introducing the unique analysis that bridges studies on local politics and folk Catholicism. The two topics have been separately discussed by scholars in different fields, and this division has prevented scholars from fully exploring the moral and religious aspects that characterize interaction between local elites and the poor. For the marginalized, the choice of asking help from a politician or God in order to overcome everyday hardships would be analogous but not the same, because God is perfect while politicians are often dubious. The difference gives moral power to the poor to scrutinize politicians and induce them to behave morally.
Third, with the religious analysis, Soon successfully sheds light on the emancipatory moment in moral politics. He disintegrates the concept of utang na loob, which has been analyzed to highlight the poor’s submission to elites. Rejecting the dominant view, he points out the tension between utang and loob: while the former is associated with the economic debt that subordinates the poor, the latter is marked by the poor’s desire to attain an authentic self, namely, freedom. Help from an ambitious and devious politician further subordinates the needy, but tulong from a politician with good loob can lead to a harmonization of loob that transcends the hierarchy of a patron-client relationship. Therefore, even though ordinary people are trapped in a vertical patron-client relationship, their behavior and decision to seek freedom of loob can realize horizontal mutuality in moral politics.
Considering that Philippine political studies have been dominated by various versions of elite democracy arguments such as patron-client relations, machine politics, and patrimonialism, these findings of the book are a great contribution, especially in highlighting the moral agency of the poor that challenges the elites’ control. However, I cannot help questioning whether the freedom of loob in moral politics can really be emancipation for the poor.
First, I regret that Soon does not further elaborate the complicated interaction between moral politics over the definition of “good” and interest politics over the distribution of resources. Freedom of loob in moral politics means neither economic emancipation nor the disappearance of social hierarchy in interest politics. I wonder whether the voting behavior or “resistance” of the poor who seek salvation of loob has had any impact on improving unequal distribution of wealth or paradoxically perpetuated the elite rule that exploits them. If the latter is the case, freedom of the loob that the poor enjoy as a result of “resistance” in moral politics has an ironic implication for interest politics.
Second, although Soon evaluates the poor’s appreciation of moral leadership as “resistance,” it may actually signify penetration of the elites’ hegemony over them. We are familiar with cases where ambitious politicians exploit moral discourses and images to woo votes of the poor. Sometimes the poor are skeptical over politicians’ morality but still support them in order to maximize their own economic benefit. However, if the poor truly appreciate the moral discourses and behaviors of ambitious politicians, it may imply that the poor are actually subjugated by the latter’s hegemony. I am afraid it might be a paradox that while Soon tries to figure out the agency of the poor, his study might implicate their further hegemonic subjugation.
Finally, the poor cannot always enjoy the initiative in moral politics, especially at the national level. The urban middle classes who uphold the morality of neoliberalism totally criticize the patron-client relationship as a corruption that has damaged national development. They believe that hard-working taxpayers are morally superior to the poor, who are dependent on handouts from corrupt politicians. Moreover, the state’s and NGOs’ attempts to uplift the poor through moral education via conditional cash transfer programs assume the cause of poverty is the poor’s lack of morality. Against the moral marginalization, the poor may be utilizing another form of moral discourse that even rejects a patron-client relationship. For instance, in the 2016 presidential election the number of poor that supported Rodrigo Duterte, who appealed the moral discourse of discipline, was bigger than those who voted for Jejomar Binay, who exploited morality in the patron-client relationship. It needs careful examination if many of the poor only avoided Binay who seemed to have a dubious loob or entirely rejected traditional politics based morality of patron-client relationship.
As a scholar who also works on moral politics in the Philippines, I attempted a critical engagement with the new findings of the book, but I know that some of the criticisms I have made in this review are beyond the scope of the book and must not lower its value. I expect that studies on moral politics in the Philippines will further develop from the book, which will give us a new understanding of Philippine politics beyond the elite democracy arguments.
Kusaka Wataru 日下 渉
Graduate School of International Development, Nagoya University