Monday, November 7, 2011

The Class System in the Philippines

I just finished reading "The Fall of Giants", an absorbing novel about World War I written by Ken Follett. It blends fiction and fact to follow five families through the war: one Russian, one German, one American and two British. The families get knitted together before the war, divided during it, and the remnants come out at the end bruised and re-educated.

The two British families are at opposite ends of the British class system: a lower class mineworker's family and a royal class Earl's family.

I suppose there are a number of ways to identify classes within a country. Wealth is perhaps the most common identifier. It is what separates America into three basic classes: Wealthy, Middle Class, and Poor. But history is rich with other criteria: religion (e.g., extremist Muslims break the world down into two classes, heathens who need to be disposed of, and those of the faith), ethnicity (China is a hodge-podge of ethnicities, each seeing itself as supreme), power (dictatorships, where being "in" is a class apart from those in the out), geography (American northerners vs southerners vs westerners, or liberal, conservative, pragmatic), or tradition/inheritance (as in the British Commonwealth).

As I observe the Philippines, it seems to me there are four essential components to a clear class system: wealth, geography, education and power. Going from bottom to top (hidden to visible; influential to non-influential) we have:

  • The Tribal Class: The mountain or island tribes. Almost no wealth, geographically isolated (a blessing and a penalty), almost no education, and no influence outside the local community. They are the scraps of Philippine society. They have few roads and limited utility infrastructure, weak law enforcement, and no health care. They are the families washed away by mudslides and poisoned by mine effluents. And the rest of the nation just forgets about them.

  • The Subsistence Class: The agrarian and laboring workers. This is the vast, sweaty core of a thin but broad Philippine economy. These are the people who work for P200 or less a day, with no future job promised. Forget social security and health care. Career is an unknown word. They work the rice fields, fish the seas, dig the foundations, haul the cement, climb the coconut trees, whack the weeds on the side of the road, drive the Jeepneys and taxis, staff the local stores, provide household services, and pedal  tricycles. They are the Philippines, in its most honest, hardworking, fun loving and sustaining self. They don't have enough money to be corrupt but they have so little money that they will sometimes "innovate" to get some more. They have lots of kids and send them to the fields early to help put rice on the table. They are the worker bees of Philippine society, locked into poverty by an overabundance of mouths to feed and no way out.

  • Low-End Skill Workers: Masons, carpenters, call center workers, store department managers, small store owners, shop foremen, bus drivers, military men, policemen. People in this class can support a family and send their kids to public school. They are the entry point to aspirational self-improvement, and could succeed if the points of progression were not all blocked. And if aspiration, like career, were a prized concept in Philippine society. It is not. But kids born to these parents do have a small chance to break out. They would have more of a chance if the public schools weren't such a mess of overcrowded, under thinking pools of obedience. Low-end skill workers cluster around large towns and urban centers.

  • Professionals: Teachers, doctors, lawyers, business owners, tech workers, government officials, higher ranked military and police officers, engineers, journalists, bank managers. They have college degrees and generally know somebody to make the leap from no career to meaningful career. Their family ties help in many ways. Funding their schooling. Opening doors. Establishing a tone of a higher standard of living. They form a sound middle class with potential to move up. They look down on a lot of people.  There is a lot of subservience in the Philippines. Their professional skill levels are often, ummm rudimentary at best, but the country does not demand more.

  • The Entertainers: This is an isolated class of pretenders who are held in extraordinarily high esteem by the masses. A boxer, singers, actors. They are rich and live well. Their kids can attend the best schools and many move easily into the Connected class, spreading their wealth amongst their family and favorites. They live a life as far removed from the subsistence class as Neverland is from London. They pretend to be one of the people, for they must do this to succeed. But they are not. It is fantasy for them and their audience, a dream that people of little opportunity drift into, imagining that they, too, could be there.

  • The Priests, Imams and Assorted Other Pretenders: Another isolated group. I say pretenders because each claims to have the sole ticket to heaven, and each condemns those who won't buy that ticket. But there is only one God, indivisible. So someone has to be blowing smoke; I presume they all are.  Religion is a big deal in the Philippines, even if Superstition is the master religion that overlays all other faiths. Catholic priests, Muslim imams, Protestant pastors. They have such influence in the Philippines, but none claims any responsibility for the outcome. For the condition of the land. For the poverty. For upside down values that find cheating acceptable. Like very ordinary Man, they blame. They make excuses. They deny any part in the result.

  • The Connected: These are the movers and shakers of the Philippines. Legislators, business owners, media executives, judges, governors, mayors, generals. They thrive on favors and somehow get rich even if their salaries are not rich. They are all well schooled and well traveled. Their kids will be, too. Many have the same names as the streets in Manila. They make sure the Philippines does not change because they would be threatened by a system that demanded capability over favor as the basis for reward.

  • The Oligarchs: These are the parallels to the kings, queens, princes, earls, dukes, duchesses of the British monarchy. Their wealth is enormous. They are an amalgamation of historically powerful landed families and big business moguls. They own the television stations, the telephone companies, the financial institutions, the shopping malls, the beer company, and the housing subdivisions. The President is one, but because he won the presidency, he owes favors and therefore has a string or two attached to his arms and brain. The oligarchs fund the politicians and, under the system of favors granted and received, get laws favorable to their continued enrichment. And the public, and well-being of the Philippines, be damned. We should do a parade for the oligarchs and ask them to wear bejeweled crowns.

Throughout the whole of the Philippines, there are actually three currencies that define the classes and provide for an understood way of behaving, one to the other:

The Peso: This is, like, money, dude. Used the same way.

Favors: I call it the trade of favors, the appointment of friends, favorites and family to the choice jobs. The back scratching that occurs everywhere, an under the table payment, a tax break for a favor granted, the judge who will accept payment for a favorable finding, a US $20 bill tucked into the passport for easy clearance through Customs, snacks offered to the visiting fire inspectors for a favorable reading. It is so prevalent that it is natural to give and to receive. It is acceptable to break the law.

Power: Every transaction, whether it be a negotiated business deal, a piece of legislation, a retail sale, a face-off on the highway, or who has more money, breaks down into a test of power. Filipinos are highly skilled at assessing who is in power and who is not. The person in power is arrogant, the person without is subservient. Or vindictive behind the scenes.  It is the way things get done.

It is interesting to note that, contrary to highly developed economies, there is one currency that plays little role in the Philippines:

Capability: Aspiration is not prized. Competition for promotions is not inspired. Plum jobs are not available; they are reserved for the Connected. Most things are done half-assed. Few people are motivated to grow, to achieve, to find their own way to prosperity, unaided by favor. As the US was born of opportunity and gave rewards to those who competed well and produced value, the Philippines is locked into its system of favors and power. Not achievement, not quality.

So it is, and always will be. Unless, from the morass, emerges a new class:

The Independent, Bold, Principled and Capable: Independent to break out of the system of favors. Bold to break out from the shackles of entrenched power and have the strength of self-esteem to accept responsibility for decisions. Principled to be fair, conscientious and considerate. Capable to apply their intelligence to achieve more, innovate more, and produce more.

It will be a grand day when the President of the Philippines is of this class.


  1. Excellent work here Joe.

    To which class do the OFW fall under? Should they be a separate class? A sudden stream of dollars/yen/dinars/euro suddenly opens a lot of opportunities for them back home. Being in a foreign country also opens their eyes to a lot of things and they generally have a bigger picture of the world compared to those who have never left the Philippines. But again, I think we have subclasses with this OFW class. A Filipino Silicon Valley H1B visa worker in Cupertino would be quite different from a Filipina working as an "entertainer" in Osaka. The same could be said for an exported Pinay Nurse vs. a TNT house cleaner in Tuscany.

    Also, no offense intended Joe, there are quite a lot of Pinays who marry a well capitalized foreigner. For many of them, this is like winning the lottery and they have an instant status boost from upper middle class to even full blown upper class (if they remain in the Philippines). This would be a fascinating study and should probably be a separate blog post.

  2. Lovely post, Joe. I move through those classes from time to time, except tribal, priests and entertainers. LOL

    It's tough to be an change agent in surroundings that's locked in tradition. Well, I hope that your wish that a leader emerges with those qualities you mentioned come true.

  3. Anon, two superb points. Indeed, OFW's should stand as a separate class, squeezed from several of the other classes by need. And a fascinating class for the motivations that take people overseas, and the conflicts they endure. I don't know if I am qualified to write of that, but such matters never stopped me before. Whee.

    However, I do have perspective on Filipinas who marry rich and foreign, through my wife. I don't know if it is a separate class. Maybe so, as they have peculiar motivations and resources, an abrupt change in lifestyle, and new powers . . . Indeed it is worth a separate blog.

  4. Nice article, Joe. I really do wish the Philippines will change.