Persistent disasters

A massive earthquake struck parts of Central Luzon and the National Capital region, the former emplaces Castillejos, Zambales as the epicenter, 6.1, and 5.7. Porac, a town in the neighboring province of Pampanga has been so far reported to have the most number of human casualties and damages. My family lives a few towns away from Porac; and while none of them is physically harmed, I am certain trauma from this disaster is consumes as it did during the 1991 Mt. Pinatubo eruption.

From overseas, my thoughts are with my family and more especially with the people of Porac, our field site for as long as I have worked at the UP Center for International Studies.

Anthropologist Cynthia N. Zayas (Chim) and botanist Elena Mencias Ragragio have spearheaded an inter-disciplinary project; and along with activist scholars Aya Ragragio and Jef Mancera, I have come to learn about the Aeta’s (an indigenous group in Central Luzon) experience of disaster and resource management strategies through this endeavor, which took place in 2012 and has since continued under Chim’s watch. Chim has informed us that our good friends, a group of Aetas, are currently stranded in a remote town in Zamables as they try to find their way out of the area.

Classes are now suspended in Metro Manila. What I find really striking is an earlier conversation I had with my dear colleagues at the Center for International Studies (Center). They are concerned about resuming office in our building—Benton Hall. It has long been condemned. Yet we willfully dwell in it as our workplace. We do this within the fatal context of austerity measures inflicted by government leaders upon public institutions. Certainly, we are not the hardest-hit in this latest disaster. Yet, we share with those who are the primary factor for poor disaster preparedness and management: government’s capitulation to neoliberal dictates.

This is not something unique in the Philippines but a shared experience among peoples in the Global South. Sadly, leaders of public institutions have prioritized their roles as “managers” who need to kowtow to state dictates, lest they lose their official appointments. Whenever we say “we do not expect public officials to “rock the boat,” we also mean, among other things, that we have been used to these “managers” approaching public service as personal careers. The killings and political vilification of mass organizations in Porac, Pampanga and in places like Clark Air Base, which push back against extractive industries have been well publicized in the last seven years.

Meanwhile, austerity measures in the National University are discussed in a manner that is hush-hush as we do not want to upset university managers who are responsible for allocating funds and determining tenure and promotions. Frankly, this sort of reflection on disaster is dismissed as a mode of “unnecessarily politicizing” instead of coming together for a charity drive. That is most untrue. For those who are most vocal on this issue of mismanagement of public funds have also been the most active in disaster response. I can cite the work of the Union in the UP System as an entity that does the groundwork in terms of pooling and redistributing funds and other resources to regions affected by disasters, the same entity that will not cower in hammering a critique of neoliberalism. These two modes of intervention should go hand in hand— immediate relief and consciousness raising through a tough and thoughtful structural critique.

This intervention may be viewed improper by some quarters in the University. Perhaps some may be of the opinion that as the current director of the Center, I should have relayed this critique and appeal for ensuring safety in Benton Hall “thru channels.” I disagree as I will never find reason nor pleasure in self-ingratiation, certainly not when our former head, retired professor Cynthia Zayas has already made an official request for the UP Administration to pay attention and the structural integrity of Benton Hall (which houses several other units such as the Diliman Gender Office and the Office for Anti-Sexual Harassment) many years ago.

Having tackled a not-so rosy aspect of our University, a view that may not be shared by other colleagues on account of uneven funding resulting in unequal development in the disciplines, I must emphasize that a way forward is an honest recognition the global connection that shapes our experience of disasters. It is not by accident or a matter of racial superiority that rich countries have the technologies for disaster preparedness and management such as early warning signs, sturdy infrastructures. The resources at their disposal are proof of unequal development of nations as a direct result of imperialist plunder of resources and exploitation of cheap labor in the Global South by the Global North’s oligarchy. Imperialist plunder accounts for the stark differences in welfare, well-being and chances of survival people in this political-economic and spatial divide under global capitalism.

In a thoughtful and provocative chapter “Apocalypse at the Gates” of the book “Living in the End Times,” philosopher Slavoj Zizek tackles the debates and contradictions around the discourses on ecological catastrophe. In the main, Zizek argues against the dominant consensus, which he labels as “commonsense reasoning” among environmentalists, ecologists, and practically all state apparatuses asserting that regardless of our class position or political orientation, we will have to confront the ecological crisis if we are to survive.

Here, Zizek rightly positions ecological catastrophe as a “universal problem of the survival of the human species(334).” And the only way to solve this is to deal with the particular antagonism, which is none other than the “deadlock within the capitalist mode of production (334).” The commonsense reasoning about the end of the world or the impending ecological catastrophe is belied by hurricanes such as Katrina, Harvey in the U.S., Maria in Puerto Rico, and Sendong and Yolanda in the Philippines. Those disasters clearly show the interplay of imperialism, colonialism, bureaucrat capitalism and social inequality affecting the survival of poor and laboring people in those respective areas.

That commonsense reasoning, characteristic of the radical libertarian approach to the ecological crisis, knows no social division in its call to save planet Earth. It espouses the universal and elides the particular precisely to erase the “not all” or the classes which fall away from the false universality of liberal capitalism.

There is definitely room for division precisely at this time. On the local level, this division can only be between a government mired in corruption and capitulation and the rest of us. In an ideal movement for social transformation that will be responsive to calls for immediate relief and long term planning for disasters, leaders of public institutions like state universities have a great capacity to play key roles in times of social disasters as they have done so at crucial points in history as well as in important campaigns in the recent past, from the Marcos dictatorship to corrupt public leaders, from anti-war movements to a defense of human rights. ()

Sarah Raymundo teaches at the University of the Philippine Diliman-Center for International Studies. She is the Chairperson of the Philippines-Venezuela Bolivarian Friendship Association. She also chairs the International Committee of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT). She is also the External Vice Chair of the Philippine Anti-Imperialist Studies (PAIS) and a member of the Editorial Board of Interface: A Journal for Social Movements.

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