Class and Ondoy: The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Ideological Distortions

An honest assessment of Ondoy, particularly in view of the series of deadly typhoons in 2009 and in many previous years, would have begun with the question: What conditions have the ruling class created in their quest for profits and political domination, which provide the context for natural events such as typhoons to become human disasters? A supplementary question would seek to develop and make that analysis more specific: What are the social relationships — political and economic – that allow the inevitable storms to overwhelmingly impact upon the poor? Answers to these questions would totally transform the understanding of such tragedies.

Instead of implying that everyone is in danger from these events, and that it is something that everyone has to accept (like the class hierarchy) an analysis of the pre-event conditions, the event itself — rain, wind, etc. — and then the synergy between the two would be the basis for developing a true understanding of what the Inquirer suggests was a “natural disaster.” [11] But such a critique, going to the fundamental issues of the nature of the Philippine social formation, implicating that system in the death and destruction wrought by the typhoons, would not be allowed to see the light of day. Of course, the Inquirer’s concern about government unpreparedness and subsequent failures is welcome, but even here it has not analyzed these as a part of the failure of a corrupt, neo-liberal state.

Although it does from time to time attack the Arroyo bloc on its policy and performance, the Inquirer cannot subvert overall ruling class hegemony by offering a thorough critique of such a tragic event. And it cannot employ an appropriate analysis — going below appearances to show the underlying substance, — because to do so would demonstrate the falsity, the ideological nature, of the belief that all Filipinos are equally liable to such catastrophic events. It would be to reveal that the death and destruction, suffering and loss, are overwhelmingly visited upon the poor. It would also demonstrate that the economic elite — those who rule from the shadows cast by the governing elite — are practically immune from these effects, as they have been for centuries. The reason for the particular contours of the disaster would be made clear in such an inquiry: the political/governing elite act very largely in the interests of the economic/ruling elite (of course, the two overlap, especially in the Philippines). It can be no other way in the system of capitalism. That is how it works, despite rhetoric of reform, change and “taking care of the less privileged.”

A critical inquiry into the Ondoy/Pepeng tragedy would note the following. The major causes of death and destruction are private capital’s insatiable greed leading to the rape of the natural environment with the complicity of the state. Thus in a country where a few are shockingly wealthy, and governments are used to siphon off fortunes from public monies, there has been a lack of resources expended on flood prevention and proper water diversion and control against flooding. But such governmental inaction and negligence is linked to the inappropriate private use of natural resources, for example mining, logging ( both legal and illegal) have contributed significantly to killer mudslides and flooding. [12] So too have other forms of destruction of the natural environment such as excessive and irresponsible road-building, construction of malls and other structures including “dams for profit” [13] that interfere with natural water courses; and numerous other forms of inappropriate real estate and housing “development,” [14] all for the private accumulation of wealth. Other causes we would discover are attributable to the ideology t of neo-liberalism, which supports developing the private sector at the expense of government, resulting in a state that fails to regulate and control the kinds, place and degree of development. Such is the underlying explanation for continued inadequate emergency planning, policies and procurement in the face of the past record of storms in the Philippines. For example, the lack of equipment such as rubber boats. The Inquirer also carried a story that indicated there was inadequate meteorological equipment for forecasting and warning. [15]

While it is true that there will always be risk of some loss of life and destruction of property from mega-storms (it appears that Ondoy brought about double the rain attributed to Katrina in New Orleans [16]) that risk could be greatly minimized as has been done in some other countries that are far poorer than the Philippines and also located in the path of such storms — for example, Cuba. But to do so, and especially to protect the poor — the rich are able to protect themselves — would require the rich to forgo some of the fruits of nearly unrestrained exploitation of people and the environment which puts the poor at great risk.

The “natural disasters” that have long plagued the Philippines are only natural in one elementary sense. There is wind and there is rain, volcanic eruption or earthquake. But how each of these natural events plays out, how the suffering and loss occurs and is distributed, is almost entirely determined by the nature of the system in which the people affected live. In the hierarchal capitalist economic system of the Philippines, over-determined by the corruption that permeates the political system, the risk is differentially distributed against the poor. The rich are almost entirely risk free, being physically isolated and “cocooned” from danger by their financial resources and access to political power. The middle class typically avoids most risks but are not entirely able to isolate themselves physically, and therefore are occasionally affected, as in Metro Manila during Ondoy. But this does not mean that the storm was “the great equalizer” nor that the “rich and poor” both suffered, certainly not in the same degree. That is plain ideological obfuscation.

Society’s Others, poor through no fault of their own, are by the nature of the system — the specific structure of capital and labor — necessarily subjected to the dangers of catastrophe. They are forced to live in conditions where they are at high risk, be it from floods, mudslides, earthquakes, volcano flows and particles, or pollution (for example, many Filipinos suffer from contaminated water due to mining operated by the rich). That risk is inherent in the system, not in “nature.” Floods and landslides resulting in death and destruction have such effects because the conditions of risk to the poor have been constituted by the rich with the aid of the state.

It is sometimes suggested there are inadequate resources for the provision of a cocoon for the safety of those at such risk. But that simply ignores the question of priorities. For the resources are there in a country where the corporate sector rakes in huge profits. And there are ways of organizing the patterns of Filipino social and economic life that would greatly reduce the risk of disaster. Those resources, however, have not been spent in protecting against disaster. Much of the money is continually siphoned off by the rich and greedy. When the remaining resources are expended, it is the government’s priority to support the corporate sector and to, literally, let the poor suffer.

For the Inquirer to misrepresent the basis of the suffering and loss of the Filipino poor is an immoral exercise of its media power, though entirely unsurprising. What would be surprising would be an Inquirer report that tells it like it is. This was not a “natural disaster” nor did the rich suffer equally with the poor. In the real sense of the word, it was a Tragedy, a disaster that could have been avoided if the poor were powerful enough to control their own destiny. Of course, it is the role of the media, not least the Inquirer, to ensure that such a state of affairs never comes to pass.

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  1. Do a piece also on how the graduates of Ateneo and UP are ruling this country but making up the bulk of government officials who are corrupt — thieves.

    A wake up call to the priests in Ateneo and to the teachers in UP.


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