Strength in Smallness

An Anarchist response to “A Heritage of Smallness” by Nick Joaquin by Carolus Plebejus. You can read the original article here.

Submitted by Bandilang Itim on July 21, 2021

The Filipino identity has been discussed by one of its National Artists for Literature, Nick Joaquin through his essay; “A Heritage of Smallness”. He began his essay with this small paragraph: “Society for the Filipino is a small rowboat: the barangay. Geography for the Filipino is a small locality: the barrio. History for the Filipino is a small vague saying: matanda pa kay mahoma; noong peacetime. Enterprise for the Filipino is a small stall: the sari-sari. Industry and production for the Filipino are the small immediate searchings of each day: isang kahig, isang tuka. And commerce for the Filipino is the smallest degree of retail: the tingi.” The rest of the essay is a critique of everything small the Filipino has, saying that such smallness is what inhibits the Filipino from ever progressing over perceived aversion of scale. But is there anything wrong with such smallness?

Of Tingi consumption and ventures

Nick Joaquin proceeded with critiquing the tingi phenomenon as an Only-In-The-Philippines practice among Filipinos where people just take what they presently need no matter how miniature it can be according to what they are able to do so, and give or sell based on the amount demanded rather than a fixed wholesale package unless demanded so. Like a stick of cigarette, a half of a garlic head, a single egg or a single banana. It does sound like that one mantra that all community pantries use; “Give what you can, and take what you need” or that heavily-used quote from Karl Marx; “From each according to his need, to each according to his ability.” He compares it to how people in the developed west buy in scale, a consumerist attitude that is conducive to every capitalist but leads to overproduction which then leads to overconsumption and wastage. But is there anything particularly wrong with tingi?

On the Russian-Ukrainian mini-series called “Nine Lives of Nestor Makhno”, though partly fictional, there is a scene where Nestor Makhno was narrated to have debated with a capitalist named “Maisey Naumich”. The workers union — under the protection of Makhno’s forces — submitted demands for a pay increase amounting to 70% of the company’s profits, and a ten-hour work day. But Mr. Naumich complained that if they agreed to these demands, the value of production would be lost, income would go down, and they’ll have to fire trading officials that are on vacation. He asks where they’ll make money from to augment losses, and that competitors will outcompete them. That if the company doesn’t go bankrupt, they will be forced to cut off production, and that they will have to fire workers. Nestor Makhno then replies that to solve Naumich’s predicament, all he has to do is basically reduce his luxuries according to what he really needs, buy local quality goods for cheaper expense so that he didn’t have to worry about where to get the money from the losses, and this will inevitably end in worker’s direct control and direct distribution of wealth. Because, anyway, workers will only get what they need according to their ability without taking more money, that the demanded 70% share will be used to buy goods which then will be distributed among the workers according to present need and ability, no more and no less.

So what is the relevance of this story? To live in tingi minimalism is not an erring value, it is precisely a practice of rational choice between overconsumption and too much luxury that would have otherwise cannot be afforded without unjust exploitation through profiteering, and responsible consumerism which can only be practiced by taking a reasonable amount of goods according to need and ability rather than excess. Or between overproduction and supply which could lead to wastage and even bankruptcy, and production based on perceived demanded supply which is possible to do if the producer practices conscious measurement, take cooking food for example where a cook has to know how many servings needed. In Tagalog, we call it “walang labis, walang kulang” (not too many, not too few) or “tama lang” (just the right amount).

But does the tingi phenomenon have anything to do with our success or failure as a society? Nick Joaquin says so. That because we buy and sell small, we must also be thinking and doing small. That is an erroneous gaslighting. Minimalist lifestyle and consumerism has no proven correlation nor causation to the short-sightedness of especially Filipino authorities and figures of influence while also attributing it to the whole Filipino society. Because what? They are elected? Yet another “bobotante” (stupid voter) gaslit?

He then mentioned what Aldous Huxley said that there are some people born predestined to be either victims or murderers, that Filipinos have least originality. That originality requires a daring attitude, enough to destroy or annihilate the obsolete and the petty. Nick Joaquin then reflected that in cold comfort, Filipinos haven’t developed that kind of “murderer mentality.” It is an odd way to describe abolition of old, narrow or trivial perspectives as a “murderer mentality” to say the least. But dare I say that saying that people are born to be victims or murderers is one such example of an ‘obsolete’ and ‘petty’ perspective. As libertarians, we know that such a perspective is a reactionary poison that belongs to the dustbin.

Of Barangays, and small-scale organizing

Bypassing all other complaints about historical artifacts, folk lores, dogma, and proverbs being small, and how they were made in tiny steps. I mean, let’s be honest, it kinda sounds so petty of Nick Joaquin to even nitpick on those heirlooms of the Filipino from their ancestors, that even the rice terraces in the mountainous regions of Northern Luzon weren’t spared. He even critiqued how the migration patterns of earlier Filipinos were “self-limited”, as the migrations were limited on a cluster of islands in Indo-Pacific region rather than venturing to Australia itself due to various reasons, and beyond. The choice of not migrating to Australia by these Austronesian tribes — which the early Filipino belonged to — is frowned upon as ethnical groupings from across two oceans, and the other side of the world (which are, of course, Europeans) were more able to conquer the Australian landmass, that unlike them, early Filipinos — and so are the rest of the Austronesians — were not as enterprising as those ‘strangers’ were.

And there goes the barangay — a small rowboat that can accommodate just a few individuals with its own covered quarter — that came to the Philippines carrying with it the early Filipinos that settled as it reached shore. Now, the barangay is co-opted to be a geographical-political term for a small locality which was once called a “barrio”. It is determined by population size and territory. Nick Joaquin posits that there is an aversion for Filipinos to organize, consolidate, fuse, grow, and build big. That the Filipino society ever reverts back to small enclosed barangays as they split up.But is there anything wrong with it?

To organize small is actually pretty conducive in terms of effectiveness and efficiency because when people freely associate in small groups, there are small chances for disagreements to arise. Because there is more affinity, and they will organize or split off into small groups where there are more shared and aligned interests, to cooperate and follow their own plans that compromise or a “consensus democracy” aren’t going to be required at all. No need for complex decision-making processes like democracy or elections where there will always be some people who would disagree but still have to comply even if it’s against their wishes, coerced by such “will of the people” which they’d feel they don’t belong to. Why should the many in a large group get to decide how you, I, or anyone get to live our lives? Let people secede if they so wish rather than to be imposed on by such a majority in a large group. And if there’s a need to consolidate in size, there will always be that choice to federate with the larger group subordinated to multiple small groups just as individuals are in groups. Dispense with hierarchical power structures and big groups, and let Filipinos embrace horizontal structures. Filipinos hold their destinies, they don’t have to retain decisions imposed for them by ‘strangers’.

However, to organize small doesn’t mean it is but a limit from greatness, to small performance, effort and yield. It is not a fact of being afraid or intimidated of anything larger. It is just a product of free choice informed by the various realities surrounding an individual, not of coercive imposition. It is not a manifestation of ningas kugon. What use will a large group be if a plurality or even a majority of its members are no longer comfortable in it, that inactivity from any sustained effort or cooperation within it is so evident that only few and fewer are performing yet not given any choice at all to either dissent or even secession? The sense of belongingness is still a factor that needs to be taken seriously as relationships are. For instance, many ‘Moros’ are finding it hard to fit in this Filipino nation, that they think and feel they are unjustly integrated to this Philippine state by the old colonial masters such as Spain and the United States, and that they are constantly being pushed away until they assimilate to an identity that is still foreign to them. How can anyone convince someone else to join and stay in a group if they don’t identify with it?

Unity is more easily achieved if people have more interests shared, if they are more aligned than opposed, and they can comfortably identify with it. This is easily achieved through small groups. To force such unity will only make matters worse, and bickering wouldn’t stop anyway. This is the same thing that many Leftists don’t understand when they shove “Leftist Unity” down to other left-leaning tendencies. Nothing productive — nor anything worthwhile — can be done from forced unity of a large group.

Of Envy and Kowtowing

If there’s one thing that keeps repeating in Nick Joaquin’s essay is his obvious envy of how other countries build, make, and even conquer large. In every passage, there’s this comparison between the Filipino, and the ‘stranger’ in which he calls as such. He speaks of Filipinos’ lack of originality, but here he is, wishing how Filipinos should be alike to developed countries and peoples. It’s not just Filipinos that he belittles, however, but also other Austronesian tribes and even the whole Malay world! Remember how he critiqued the migration patterns of Austronesian tribes in which the early Filipino belong to.

While our identity and the territorial scale of our Philippine state is attributed to how colonizers united these islands and its smaller pre-colonial polities like we owe them our existence, he also argued that our liberation is only because of our colonizers that prompted Revolutionaries to rise up and unite for a cause that is larger than them. Of course, I don’t deny that there are good lessons for Filipinos to learn from these other countries and peoples. But our socio-economic, and material statuses are not because of Filipinos’ unwillingness to develop, but of clear mismanagement, and bad governance of those in power. Blaming the common Filipino for it because they elected them is nothing but an insensitive gaslighting. Why not blame the hierarchical power structures and systems which prolonged the predicament of the Filipino?

Nick Joaquin is undoubtedly one of the greatest minds in literature. But like our national heroes, we have to liberate ourselves of authority figures such as National Artists that are elevated in status at the expense of forgotten other artists.