What does nationalism mean today?

This is an essay I wrote for the Philippine Online Chronicles.

Street children are once again selling little Philippine flags in busy downtown streets. The relatively well-off families display flaglets in their homes and cars as proud proofs of patriotism.

It is the country’s independence day, the time of the year when the national symbol is in vogue.

Under the protection of the United States, General Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence from Spain on June 12, 1898.

This date has been commemorated annually since 1962, the year when President Diosdao Macapagal moved independence day to June 12 from July 4 which is the day the United States “granted” the country independence in 1946.

A Sterile Formalism

As in any other year, a civil-military parade will be staged in the national capital on the same date while various programs will be held by local governments and schools nationwide. And like the past two years, President Noynoy Aquino will give a national address.

But fewer and fewer people are paying attention to what is said on these occasions. And even less are buying the flaglets being hawked on the sidewalks. Exhortations made by politicians about loving the country have largely become empty rituals that have largely lost symbolic efficiency.

Nationalism has become equated with display the national flag, singing the national anthem, buying native delicacies, following traffic rules, throwing your trash on the garbage bin, joining some charity, or posting yellow twibbons on your Facebook profile picture.

In short, we see all too clearly what the Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon decried in The Wretched of the Earth as “the imprisonment of national consciousness in sterile formalism.”

Does this mean the terminal decline of nationalism in the present generation? And are these perfunctory rituals the only remaining horizon of Filipino nationalism?

To answer these questions, we must distinguish between two different and conflicting strands of nationalism, between a nationalism that seeks liberation from an oppressive and exploitative system and an official nationalism that is used to legitimate the interests of the ruling classes.

From Ferdinand Marcos’ “Bagong Lipunan,” Fidel Ramos’ “Philippines 2000,” to Noynoy Aquino’s “Matuwid na Daan,” a state-sanctioned nationalism has been occasionally encouraged to promote the political fortunes of those in power.

What truly matters – the nation as “a historically constituted community of people” – is lost in this equation.

A Neo-Colonial Order

Unfortunately, this empty and artificial nationalism is the only kind recognized and tolerated by the ruling order because it is one way to veil the continuing ties that bind the country’s rulers to its former colonial masters. It is one way of hiding the country’s neo-colonial status.

For despite the formal independence, it remains politically, economically, and culturally dominated by foreign powers, particularly the United States. The official independence day, be it July 4 or June 12, thereby serves only to mark the transition from direct colonial rule to indirect neo-colonial rule.

The country’s economy remains backward and agrarian. The Philippines remains dependent on foreign loans direct capital investments that pushes the country into the direction of cheap labor export and extraction of natural resources while being swamped by foreign consumer products.

We do not have our own heavy industry and cannot produce for the daily necessities for the people. Even rice has to be smuggled. Even a tiny nail or needle is imported.

The ballooning foreign debt has sequestered much-needed funds for foreign banks. Loans are tied to the imposition of neoliberal programs that seek to abandon the government’s policy to provide for the educational, health, and other needs of the people in the pursuit of corporate profits.

This stranglehold over the economy is coupled with unequal agreements and treaties to ensure the government’s subservience to US geopolitical interests. Under the Visiting Forces Agreement, US troops and warships are conspicuously present in various parts of the country .

The Conditional Cash Transfer is a World Bank-dictated program. The government’s Oplan Bayanihan internal security plan is based on the US Counterinsurgency Guide.

And in the cultural sphere, Renato Constantino noted that “the westernization of the Filipino mind has dulled its perception of even the worst aspects of Western exploitation.” Many dream the “American dream” and believe that all US acts are done out of benevolence rather than out of self-interest.

This was accomplished through an educational system that breeds docility, individualism, and colonial mentality, as well as a mass entertainment industry that serves as a tranquilizer of unrest and propagator of unbridled consumerism.

A Love for the People

Genuine nationalism then is not a mere abstraction but is ultimately a love for the people that compose the nation. It means advocating the rights and welfare of the people, especially the toiling masses.

It means combating social injustices and pushing for radical changes in a system that has consigned the majority to the bottom of the social pyramid. And who exactly are these people?

They are the peasants who are already landless, hungry, and exploited not only by despotic hacienderos but by a bogus land reform law that only peddles to them the illusion of tilling their own land while actually consolidating landlord power.

They are the katutubo, tumandoks, or lumads who are displaced from their ancestral domains which are being land grabbed by big corporations and the national government to make way for environmentally-destructive large-scale mining, cash-crop plantations, legal logging, and big dams .

They are the workers who suffer from low wages , inhumane working conditions, contractualization, lack of job security, attacks on their right to organize and form unions, among others.

They are the urban poor who are dispossessed of the homes that are demolished in order to give way to the construction of highrise condominiums, shopping malls, and beautification projects that favor real estate developers at the expense of the people’s rights.

They are the women who “hold half the sky” yet are victimized by gender inequality, discrimination in the work place, rape, domestic violence, and sex trafficking.

They are the small entrepreneurs and businessmen who are burdened by high taxes and utility costs and who cannot compete with the deluge of foreign multinational corporations in the country.

They are the youth who are deprived of their right to education and a bright future because of massive unemployment , incessant tuition and other fee hikes and insufficient state subsidy for education.

Under this setup, genuine nationalism means standing up for national sovereignty against foreign domination and for the democratic interests of the majority against the rule of an elite few.

We can gain inspiration from the social criticism of Jose Rizal and more importantly the 1896 revolution led by Andres Bonifacio against Spanish colonialism.

Rizal’s willingness to speak the truth and die for his country and Bonifacio’s daring to launch revolutionary struggle against the people’s oppressors are some of the greatest examples of nationalism.

Frantz Fanon once said that “the living expression of the nation is the moving consciousness of the whole of the people.” In the final analysis, a true nationalist is one who is willing to serve the people and actually does so.

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