Column: The new name of imperialism

Published on June 17, 2008

Nilintican aco!” Thus a playful Maximo Viola wrote from Barcelona to Jose Rizal in Berlin on Oct. 21, 1886, exactly four months before Rizal completed “Noli Me Tangere.” He covered a lot of ground in the short letter, not least the itinerary he followed in making inquiries about the cost of printing the novel. As it turns out, Viola ended up nursing Rizal back to health in December 1886—and initially paying for the cost of printing the “Noli” in Berlin.

Austin Coates wrote: “As if he had not done enough already, Maximo Viola, who had been reading the manuscript while the author had been correcting it, now offered to defray the entire costs of publication. With embarrassment Rizal refused, saying that [Antonio] Regidor in London would help him; but eventually he accepted Viola’s assistance, on the strict understanding that it was a loan and not a gift.”

Of Rizal’s many gifts, which we will undoubtedly contemplate yet again when we mark his 147th birth anniversary on Thursday, that of forging loyal friendships with men of quality cannot be said to be the least.

* * *

One response to the column I wrote on Paul Graham’s hierarchy of disagreement was decidedly unusual. A lawyer-friend called me up in the middle of a partners’ meeting, to say their law firm was adopting the scheme.

Well, buyer beware. As I wrote then, I still have some reservations about the scheme, in particular regarding the role of fallacy-naming in arguments. In Irving Copi’s definitive book on logic, Schopenhauer is quoted thus: “It would be a very good thing if every trick could receive some short and obviously appropriate name, so that when anyone used this or that particular trick, he could at once be reproved for it.” This isn’t name-calling, but it isn’t exactly contradiction or counter-argument either.

There should be a place for it in the pyramid.

* * *

I am moved to respond to the redoubtable Amado Gat Inciong, who insists, in his letter published in the Letters section today, that “globalization” is the root cause of decline in labor unionism. “The observation that the ranks of organized labor are thinning, here in the Philippines or elsewhere, is a fact,” he writes, conceding a premise of the Philippine Daily Inquirer editorial he found wanting. “But that it is ‘the result of improvements in work conditions’ is definitely not true. Organized labor is on the retreat because of globalization, not because of improvements in work conditions.”

Inciong, a lifelong labor advocate and at one time acting labor secretary in the Ferdinand Marcos era, takes issue with the editorial of May 22nd, not because it came to praise the late labor leader and party-list Rep. Crispin Beltran, but because it presumed to bury labor unionism with him.

Inciong writes: “It is not true that the right of workers to self-organization has lost some of its urgency or appeal. What is true is that under globalization—the new name of imperialism—organizing or joining a union makes a worker unemployable.” The knight of labor, affronted, ends his letter with a throwing down of the gauntlet. “If improvements in work conditions have thinned the ranks of organized labor, let me know where.”

I would like to oblige, but for one thing. I am not sure if we would agree on what, exactly, constitutes proof.

As a matter of personal preference, I am wary of reductionism, the attempt to reduce complex problems to one explanation. On this point, I share the same view as the editorial board. “The ranks of organized labor are thinning, in the Philippines as well as abroad. In large part, this is the result of improvements in work conditions”—the qualifier “in large part,” I think, crucially acknowledges that other factors for the decline in labor unionism exist.

Indeed, a quick review of the literature tells us that the reductionist view is not shared by many. US federal labor official Robert Hunter, for instance, suggests four critical factors for the decline—globalization is among them, yes, but (to cite just one other factor) so is the lack of interest in unionization among today’s workers. Today’s workers, Hunter writes, “care about wages, but many care more about such issues as career advancement, day care, quality of life on the job, developing new skills, and having some say in how their jobs are done.”

Inciong blames the “Washington consensus” for the scourge of globalization. Is this name-calling or mere fallacy-naming? The argument can be made either way. But we must remember that the so-called consensus was suggested by economist John Williamson in 1989, to refer to a specific reform agenda for a specific situation. “Let me remind you of the 10 reforms that I originally presented as a summary of what most people in Washington believed Latin America (not all countries) ought to be undertaking as of 1989 (not at all times),” Williamson said in 2002. Today, however, “[a]udiences the world over seem to believe that this signifies a set of neoliberal policies that have been imposed on hapless countries by the Washington-based international financial institutions and have led them to crisis and misery.”

I can understand the appeal of such a view; it offers an explanatory power that can move people, drive them to the streets. But does it make sense that this Washington consensus also hurts Washington? Can the new imperialism undermine, not only those of us in the periphery, but even the very capital of empire?

It is a pity that there are fewer labor unions today (although the latest update from our Bureau of Labor and Employment Statistics suggests a slight increase last year). Organized labor can be a boon to democracy, which in the Philippines needs all the help it can get. But the decline won’t be stopped by raising one factor, and burying all the rest.

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Filed under Newsstand: Column, Readings in Rizal

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