Introspections on the true meaning of freedom and sovereignty over a century since the Philippine declaration of independence
The definition of freedom is one that philosophers have chased in countless debates for years. The question of whether a former colony in the Global south such as the Philippines has truly gained full sovereignty is an even trickier question to answer.
On paper, it seems pretty clear. On June 12, 1898, Filipinos proclaimed independence from Spanish colonial rule, albeit being taken over by the American and Japanese occupation later on. This proclamation took place in Kawit, Cavite, one hundred twenty-three years ago, and is published in important government documents, echoed throughout our history books, and written in the law.
Needless to say, there is substantial evidence to make the case that the Philippines has indeed become an independent nation. But more than a century later, the question of whether we are truly free still pops up every time we celebrate Independence Day.
Neocolonialism through Neoliberalism
One of the common threads in Philippine history is the shift of colonial rule from one global superpower to another through deliberate attempts of forcing us to be dependent on them. But today, the kind of dependence we have on other stronger nations is not exactly forced, especially as we live in an era when governments willingly go to bed with other states for economic or political reasons.
As Ferdinan S. Gregorio writes, “We are free from the dangers and horrors brought by the Spanish Guardia Civil or an American Soldier holding a loaded rifle. But we have succumbed to the subtle encroachment of neocolonialism.”
Neocolonialism refers to the indirect control of developed countries over less developed countries. This form of imperialism no longer sees a man of power stepping foot on our soil, threatening to kill anyone who stands in his way. Today, it takes on a different and more subtle legal form: neoliberalism, which is a system that favors a global free market, sans government regulation, and giving businesses and industries control at the expense of profit. This includes trade liberalization, deregulation, and privatization of otherwise public services.
In order to engage in trade freely within the global market, a country’s government must lighten trade restrictions and allow for public services like water, electricity, and public transportation to be privatized. This also includes less protectionist policies and a reduction in tariffs to allow the easier flow of goods and, in turn, profit. There is also the elimination of government intervention within industries and the transfer of government services or assets to the private sector.
What could possibly go wrong?
Well, for one, there’s the exploitation of resources as explained by American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein. According to his World-Systems Theory, the world is divided into three great regions: the core, the periphery, and the semiperiphery.
The core consists of powerful and developed countries, whereas the periphery are regions that have been forcibly subordinated to the core through colonialism or other means and in the formative years of the capitalist world system. The semiperiphery are the regions in-between — either those previously in the core that are moving down in the hierarchy or those previously in the periphery that are now moving up.
Within this system, the development of the core countries results in the underdevelopment of the periphery. Wallerstein suggests that wealthy countries benefit from other less powerful countries and exploit those countries’ citizens. Case in point, the Philippines exports raw materials and cheap labor, while the more developed nations the country exports to sell the products they manufacture from those materials back to us. They are able to do so because they have the capital.
“In a world system, there is an extensive division of labor. This division is not merely functional — that is, occupational — but geographical. That is to say, the range of economic tasks is not evenly distributed throughout the world system,” he notes further.
The COVID-19 pandemic only amplified the deeply flawed foundations of our society. However, as much as these institutions hold power over us, it is important to remember that the people, in return, can shape them as well. If core countries are getting richer through the exploitation of the average Filipino laborer, it is the utmost duty of Filipinos to demand even more of their own institutions.
What Citizenship Entails
In times of political turmoil and rampant injustice, it was nationalism that sparked progressives like Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio, and many others to revolt against colonial forces. The sovereignty that we experience today was paid for with their own life and blood. But what do we now do with the freedom passed down to us?
Renaissance philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau opens his book Du contrat social (Social Contract) saying, “Man is born free, yet everywhere, he is in chains.” He proposes that if society were to have a genuine social contract, we need not be chained. Furthermore, he introduces the idea of reciprocated duties when he says, “The sovereign is committed to the good of the individuals who constitute it, and each individual is likewise committed to the good of the whole.”
Rousseau strongly encourages citizens to actively take part in the legislative process, as this would eliminate inequality and injustice, thus achieving freedom and liberty. This means that for a citizen to remain passive while corruption and abuse of power rampage throughout society is to put public interest and common liberty at risk. And if an individual allows this to happen at an institutional level, the punches are more strongly felt on a personal level. Thus, by letting governments institutionalize inequality and injustice through antipoor and procapitalistic policies, an individual’s autonomy and right to a good and equitable life are robbed.
Being a citizen of our country entitles us to various benefits and rights as sovereigns, in return requiring us to take on a set of responsibilities, including fighting for the common good of the ordinary Filipino. Citizenship demands selflessness, putting the demands of society first, and bridging socioeconomic gaps.
Citizenship challenges us to care for the vulnerable in our communities and to stand in solidarity with them when they are being oppressed. This spans from small acts, like supporting community-driven initiatives, to protesting on the streets in order to persuade leaders to enact societal reforms.
Citizenship requires deep commitment — not just to ourselves but, more importantly, to others.
It is easy to claim being Filipino because we were born from Filipino parents, but the true measure of being Filipino goes beyond the Pinoy movies we have watched, the OPM songs we know by heart, or the platefuls of adobo we have consumed throughout our lives.
Being a Filipino is asking for accountability from a government that normalizes acts of corruption. Being a Filipino is about using our collective voice to demand better representation of the masses, to ask for more humane living conditions for minimum-wage workers, national minorities, and other marginalized communities.
Would we rather choose to forget that our nation was born out of protests, mobilizations, and revolutions, that the freedom of this land was won in a battle fought time and again with countless lives sacrificed?
Despite proclaiming independence more than a century ago, Filipinos still remain under oppressive rulewhether on the local, national, or international front. We may have gotten out out of being mapped as part of an imperialist nation, but the inequality brought about by a global system that prioritizes profit over people still exists. Was General Antonio Luna right when he said that “our greatest enemy is ourselves”?
We bury questions surrounding the legitimacy of our freedom and its implications at the back of our heads thinking that it is at this point passé, but also because asking such questions would force us to look inward and examine our role in the bigger picture — an endeavor too daunting for the individual mind. So let’s frame it in another way. Instead of asking if we are truly free, maybe we can instead ask if we’re doing everything we can to be.
Annabella Garcia is currently earning her undergraduate degree in sociology at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She genuinely enjoys doing research and is a storyteller by heart whose interests span from pop culture to sociopolitical issues.