What is an Oligarchy? And Can They Even Be Dismantled?

Earlier today, July 14, president Rodrigo Duterte made headlines once more after taking credit for taking down the country’s oligarchs during a a speech in front of soldiers in Jolo Sulu.

“Without declaring martial law, I dismantled the oligarchy that controlled the economy of the Filipino people,” said the president. “Itong mga mayayaman na ginagatasan ang gobyerno at mga tao. Without declaring martial law, sinira ko ‘yung mga tao na humahawak sa ekonomiya at umiipit at hindi nagbabayad. They take advantage sa kanilang political power.”

His comments ignited criticism on social media, with many stating that the oligarchs are still very much in power.

But what exactly is an oligarchy?

There a number of definitions for “oligarchy.” Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “a government in which power is held by a small group of people.” Encyclopedia Britannica defines it as a “despotic power exercised by a small and privileged group for corrupt or selfish purposes.”

To summarize, an oligarchy is a government by the few, in which the masses are not as influential as they should be. This refers to the powers that be in politics and economics. As money is king in capitalist systems like the Philippines, the oligarchs Duterte is referring to are the one percent—the bilyonaryos and tycoons of old and new money who direct the invisible hand. These are the same people on the Forbes and Bloomberg billionaire lists, the last names that have regular presence in headlines: Ayala, Aboitiz, Cojuangco, Gokongwei, Tan, Sy, Ty, Uy, and more. There are also the newcomer tycoons like Davao-based Dennis Uy and Manny Villar, the richest man in the country and husband of an incumbent senator, who could technically qualify as oligarchs.

It’s these names and their family businesses that dominate the Philippine stock market and influence the local economy. It’s through the sheer size of their wealth and conglomerates that make these businessmen powerful enough to influence the nation—whether for good or for bad.

Aren’t political dynasties also oligarchies?

Aside from the billionaire families listed above, oligarchs also include political dynasties as these families have a firm grip on local politics. Political dynasties are common in the Philippines, with almost every province having at least one or two.

The House of Representatives and the Senate have a number of politicians who hail from political dynasties. In the senate alone, a good chunk of those in power belong to political families, with a few having a sibling or a spouse sitting in the House at the same time. A few notable last names in politics include: Aquino, Marcos, Roxas, Cayetano, Remulla, and Duterte.

The 1987 Constitution actually prohibits political dynasties, yet it has never been implemented and dynasties continue to flourish throughout the country. A number of actions have been made to stop dynasties in the Philippines, with the late senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s Anti-Political Dynasty Bill as the most popular so far. It proposes to disqualify candidates running for office if they have a relative (up to the second degree of consanguinity) also in office. The bill is still pending, as well as a number of similar bills, in the House of Representatives. The likelihood of any of these passing is slim as the House is home to many members of political dynasties from the province.

Who was Duterte referring to?

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque confirmed that Duterte was referring to Lucio Tan, Manny Pangilinan, and the Ayalas in his statements, of which the latter two have experienced the brunt of Duterte’s antagonism. More than once the president has lambasted MVP and the Zobel de Ayala brothers publicly, yet he changed his tune after their conglomerates stepped up when it came to providing COVID relief funds for their people and the public. He even issued a public apology for the oligarchs he’d so vehemently bashed before.

Roque clarified that Duterte was not referring to the Lopez clan of ABS-CBN, the embattled network that recently had its franchise rejected by the House.

Despite the president’s claims, the oligarchs in the Philippines have not been dismantled. Lucio Tan’s LT Group continues to reap profits, MVP still leads Metro Pacific, and the Ayala businesses are still operating.

Even the Lopezes, who Roque insists were not the target of the statements, will remain influential despite ABS-CBN’s rejected franchise due to the family’s diversified wealth.

Can you even dismantle oligarchs?

That’s a complicated question. As far as we know, no business oligarch has been dismantled in the Philippines as many of these influential people have tied their existence tightly to the state of their conglomerates, the state of the economy, and the state of local politics.

Many tycoons are responsible for hundreds of thousands of workers, and their subsidiaries are some of the staple brands in the Philippines. SM, Robinsons, Meralco, Manila Water, Philippine Airlines—some of the essential companies in the country belong to so-called oligarchs. To go head to head with an oligarch would mean opposing some of the huge corporations of the Philippine economy.

Should these be “dismantled,” it would spell trouble for the entire market. When one giant falls, other will follow, but it’s the people below—the blameless employees at these major corporations—that would bear the brunt of the fall.

Don’t get us wrong—oligarchs are not healthy to society. But it would require bankruptcy instead of political influence to dismantle a true oligarch.

Battling oligarchy is more complicated than targeting one or two men. The answer is to look at the ills of capitalism, a system that allows the rise of such exorbitant wealth and inequality.

Oligarchs are just a symptom of a greater cultural and societal problem, one that favors centralized power for the few instead of the many.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *