In Smoky Mountain and the other squatter districts, I couldn’t help myself: try as I would not to, I kept dwelling on the contrast with the other extreme of Filipino life, the wealthy one. The contrast is relatively hard to see in Manila itself, since so much of the town’s wealth is hidden, literally walled up in the fortified “villages.” But one day, shortly after I’d listened to scavengers explain why some grades of animal bone were worth more on the resale market than others, I tagged along with a friend and visited one of Manila’s rich young families in the mountains outside town.
To enter the house we had to talk our way past a rifleman at the gate—a standard fixture not only of upper-class areas of Manila but also of banks, office buildings, McDonald’s—and then follow a long, twisting driveway to a mountaintop palace. The family was, of course, from old money; they were also well educated, public-spirited, sincere. But I spent my day with them in an ill-concealed stupor, wandering from room to room and estimating how many zillions of dollars had been sunk into the art, furniture, and fixtures. We ate lunch on the patio, four maids in white dresses standing at attention a few paces off, each bearing a platter of food and ready to respond instantly when we wanted more. Another maid stood behind my chair, leaning over the table and waving a fan back and forth to drive off any flies. As we ate, I noticed a strange rat-a-tat sound from inside the house, as if several reporters had set up a city room and were pounding away on old Underwoods. When we finished our dessert and went inside, I saw the explanation. Another two or three uniformed servants were stationed inside the cathedral-like living room, incessantly twitching their flyswatters against the walls.
The War of Every Man Against Every Man
AM I SHOOTING FISH IN A BARREL? SURE—YOU COULD work up an even starker contrast between Park Avenue and the South Bronx. But that would mean only that the United States and the Philippines share a problem, not that extremes of wealth and poverty are no problem at all. In New York and a few other places the extremes are so visible as to make many Americans uneasy about the every-man-for-himself principle on which our society is based. But while the South Bronx is an American problem, few people would think of it as typical of America. In the Philippines the contrasting extremes are, and have been, the norm.
What has created a society in which people feel fortunate to live in a garbage dump because the money is so good? Where some people shoo flies away from others for 300 pesos, or $15, a month? It can’t be any inherent defect in the people: outside this culture they thrive. Filipino immigrants to the United States are more successful than immigrants from many other countries. Filipino contract laborers, working for Japanese and Korean construction companies, built many of the hotels, ports, and pipelines in the Middle East. “These are the same people who shined under the Japanese managers,” Blas Ople, a veteran politician, told me. “But when they work for Filipino contractors, the schedule lags.” It seems unlikely that the problem is capitalism itself, even though Philippine Marxists argue endlessly that it grinds up the poor to feed the rich. If capitalism were the cause of Philippine underdevelopment, why would its record be so different everywhere else in the region? In Japan, Korea, Singapore, and elsewhere Asian-style capitalism has not only led to trade surpluses but also created Asia's first real middle class. Chinese economists can’t call what they’re doing capitalism, but they can go on for hours about how “market reforms” will lead to a better life for most people.