People say “politics is evil,” or point to the “evil of politics.” We know what they are trying to say, but I think they miss the more important fact. Politics is not evil, only man. And because politics is about how man relates to man, usually in big numbers, the combined evil of the players emerge as the collective evil of politics.
The main face of evil that we recognize is corruption. I am amazed, and amused, about the fixation to corruption that the upper classes of Philippine society has. I specifically mentioned the “upper classes” because the noise about corruption starts there, and mainly ends there. The majority poor of our society are more afraid of other things, basically about their urgent needs, their homelessness, their inability to defend their health, and their inadequate, unsteady income. They are also fearful for their lives when peace and order deteriorate in their neighborhood.
Corruption is fundamentally an activity of the rich and powerful. Corruption involves money and power, and the masses have little of both. Corruption is a buy-and-sell activity. It needs power, or positions of power, and it needs money or what money can buy. To address corruption, then, buyers and sellers must be dissuaded or punished with consistency and severity.
Wealth and power are two faces of the same coin, or sometimes, the same two faces on each side. For a long time, like almost all of human time, wealth and power were the two main traits of leadership. All too often, they have been the only traits. That is why with all the billions of human beings who have walked this earth, we cannot fill a few pages with names of leaders who had wisdom aside from wealth and power. To expect wisdom from holders of great wealth and power, then, is going against all odds. Once in a while, it happens, but like once in a blue moon.
Of course, the poor do not realize that they pay dearly for corruption. Since they are not the usual players in the corruption game, they do not know the kind of losses they incur. When the corrupt buy and sell, both parties do so in order to benefit themselves. But both parties cannot gain if nobody pays for what they gain. Someone has to pay, someone too weak to protest why he has to pay against his will or without his knowledge. That is why the masses or the majority pay for the profits of the corrupt who buy and sell.
Throughout human history, the center of power owned and controlled each nation. Eventually, more people began to want, and demand, a more equitable distribution. Democracy is one such attempt. It is new in human history, new and really radical, so much so that many parts of the world do not even have it yet. And among those who are experimenting with democracy, the results are still unstable. Many countries who have tried it have fallen back to centralized power, unable to resist the violent habit of their own history. Even the United States, listening to the raging conflict between Republicans and Democrats, or the debates of party mates against each other, seem undecided if it can sustain the nobility of its democratic experiment.
It seems to me that the rapid advance of information and communication technology is now the most formidable ally of democracy. The youthful generations, especially the so-called millennials, are suddenly empowered by this technology even before they lose their idealism, before compromise defines their decision-making process. It also helps that the youthful generations now dominate the population of the world and manning the economic and military fronts. If those in their 40s and younger can just hold out for a decade or two, the domination of unwanted tradition will disappear when the generation of baby boomers have become memories—hopefully including the way they viewed and exploited wealth and power.
Meanwhile, as frustrations eat up the soul of the guilty, or those who unwittingly tolerated venial sins until they became mortal transgressions, the outcry against corruption makes little headway. When the most sensational of cases are not all resolved after 30 years, when the Supreme Court and the lawmakers are unwilling to put strict time frames for final legal decisions, there is little fear of breaking the law for as long as one has money or power to dribble the ball. The swiftness of law may, at this point in Philippine history, be more important than its penal provisions.
I do not want to downplay the impact of corruption in society, from its economic consequences to the perversion of morals and ethics. But neither do I want to gloss over, as so many have done throughout history, the daily misery and pain of poverty—whatever its cause. If we wait for wisdom and sanctity to defeat corruption before we take urgent and radical steps to alleviate poverty, then the poor among Filipinos will undergo at least another lifetime of waiting.
Where massive poverty abounds, partisan elections are not cures to corruption—they intensify it. When people are divided, from their own greed, anger or lust for power, corruption thrives. Only in an environment where the common good, the collective welfare, become the primordial value of society can corruption and poverty be quickly and effectively addressed. Without that kind of an environment, partisan politics only serve to bring out the evil in us.
Picking the best candidates is not the primary obligation of voters mired in poverty; their survival is. That is the greater responsibility of those who have more intelligence, resources and integrity. The minority who want the masses to vote wisely must move more powerfully to make sure that poverty is dismantled as the only way to the change they dream of. Breaking the back of poverty may be the only way to break the back of corruption.