What Would it Take to Change a Nation State? 

Some Reflections on the Dangers of a Purely Political Approach. The Beginnings of a New Strategy. The Essential Role of Social Threefolding in This New Strategy.

Nicanor Perlas[1]

In the wake of mixed success of massive global demonstrations around the issue of globalization, activist groups around the world are now discussing and asking. We have achieved global resistance but the results of the Doha Ministerial of the WTO shows that our efforts are not enough. We have convened the World Social Forum to showcase our alternatives but the ravages of elite or corporate globalization continue to spread around the world. What can we now do to shift the discourse and direction of globalization towards "another world" which we want to create?

With this question, the outlines of a third strategy for global civil society are starting to emerge. We need to deeply influence the social outcomes in our own countries so that, among others, decisions by our governments truly reflect the will of the people. How can we do this?

In the Philippines, a group of individuals, active and prominent in the Philippine society, are coming together to launch a comprehensive social movement to radically transform Philippine society. In the beginning it was not clear whether this new social movement would be a political party or simply a "congress" of citizens. In the end, this group of individuals decided that it will launch a social movement that would give birth to three autonomous but interactive movements. It decided not to collapse the social movement into a purely political expression.

What was the reasoning behind this decision? The on-going beginning experiences in the Philippines could shed some light on the on-going debate and discussions in global civil society as to how to transform the national state so that it truly reflects to the will of its people. And, by being truly reflective, nation states would then start dismantling the onerous provisions of global agreements that are starting to facilitate corporate and political control over the destiny of billions around the world.
Needless, to say, the Philippine experience is only that: a Philippine experience. The different cultural, political, and economic conditions of other nation states would require different strategies and approaches. However, they may be some elements of the Philippine experience that may be of value in the global discourse of creating "another world".

The Proposed Decision

“The decision is to establish an organization that will manage resources to allow like minded individuals to eventually seize political power and promote the change needed to have a more equitable Philippine society. What has not been decided is whether this organization will be a political party, or simple a "Philippine National Congress."  Thus starts a summary of several plenary meetings of the group referred to above.

A Response

One member of the group wrote: “Please do not fall into this trap of just being a new “political party” or just a quasi-political “Philippine National Congress”. There is another approach, even more powerful and long-lasting, that can achieve the same goal of creating a more equitable Philippine society.”

 “The ideal of a more equitable Philippine society is important. However, the proposed mode of ‘seizing’ political power and only political power will actually not advance the intention of a more equitable Philippine society. There are social, behavioral, historical and epistemological reasons for suggesting a different approach to creating a new politics and a new Philippines.”

 Since I wrote the response, what follows is now a summary of the reasons why the social movement should not be collapsed to a purely political expression. This summary also included other subsequent discussions regarding the proposed “decision”.

Social Reason

Socially, the domain of culture and the domain of politics are different from each other just as the domain of economics is different from both. Of course, culture, economics and politics interface. What is important, however, is how they interface.

 The decision as stated has the implicit logic of confusing and collapsing a cultural aspiration and movement (new values including a different kind of politics and a process of inner transformation) into a purely political expression. If this happens, there will be no checks and balances in society. There will be no autonomous independent force in society to ensure that, indeed, the new politics is “new” and to check the destructive tendencies of traditional politics disguising itself as new politics. (See below on the behavioral dimension of this phenomenon.)

 New politicians will be incessantly exposed to the pressure of old politics and will need a source independent of them to support their struggle with the old or to prevent them from being swallowed by the old. They need a lifeline, especially outside the political system, to save them from the “bermuda triangle of Philippine politics”, a favorite expression referring to the capacity of politics to corrupt idealistic activists.

 We can only witness with horror how, for example, “strong” and promising leaders of civil society becoming transformed into traditional politicians or “trapos”[1] in less than two years by the feudal political system of the country.

The proposed movement itself recognizes the importance of the existence of an independent autonomous power outside of politics. This autonomous power is necessary to countervail problematic tendencies of business and governments, even those that may be installed as a result of its influence. At the height of the successful movement to remove former Philippine President Estrada from office, the beginnings of this movement agreed that it would extract the same standards of accountability towards those who would take over the reigns of political power from Estrada.

 We should therefore not be confusing and collapsing the domains of society. We should recognize the differentiated spheres of society, the different functions and logics of culture, economy, and the political system. Otherwise we will also be creating old trapos out of promising new politicians.

 This is not speculation. This has been the lesson historically of prominent cultural movements that ventured into politics by collapsing their cultural movement into a political movement and party for a new politics.

Historical Reason

This is the stark lesson, for example, of the German environmental movement which transformed itself into the Green Party. The following observations are based on an on-going acquaintance with the Green party from its inception and extensive discussions with one of its founders who is currently a member of the German Bundestag or German Parliament.

 The moment this powerful cultural movement for a new worldview and lifestyle and a more balanced ecology became totally political as a Green Party, it gradually destroyed the basis of its own vitality. The energies of the social cultural movement were diverted into politics. The environmental movement started neglecting its grassroots work, believing that political power would substitute for the work. Power considerations dominated its decision-making processes and the direction of the Green Party. It started neglecting the other possibilities that remained and inhered in the domain of cultural activism and cultural power. Its grassroots support started declining.

In the end, as one prominent member of the Green Party shared with me, their present success in the coalition government of Schroeder is actually internally an indictment of the degree of corruption that the Green Party has attained. You may remember the incident where the charismatic peace activist Joschka Fisher, the “green” Minister of Foreign Affairs, was drenched in red paint during a national convention of the Greens for spearheading Germany’s military involvement in Bosnia.

A similar thing has happened in South Africa. The icon of democracy, Nelson Mandela, when he became President of South Africa, declared. “We no longer need civil society because civil society is now in government.” Mandela then started systematically undermining the support base of civil society, that independent cultural force that actually brought him to power, So here we have an icon of democracy undermining the very foundations of democracy in his country – undermining an active and vigilant citizenry defending the democratic space of the country and the cultural space that is creative of the very aspirations of democracy.

 And to an increasing extent, this is happening in the Philippines. Significant segments of civil society are recipients of the “spoils” of People Power II. As such an increasing number of them are forgetting their “watchdog” function over the politics of the country.  This is beginning to be very apparent from the very same civil society forces that threw Estrada out of power. As such, they are just continuing one long problematic “tradition” of civil society leaders or even organizations entering politics, thereby neglecting their own cultural work in their own social movements that enabled them to actually influence aspects of Philippine political life.

In this context, there is a very interesting survey of world values that has covered 75% of the world’s population.[2]  This survey reveals that there is a direct causal relationship between the values that citizens have and the kind of democracy or lack of democracy that prevails in that country. In other words, cultural vitality is a pre-requisite to good governance. Remove cultural vitality by collapsing it into a purely political expression, then you not only destroy the cultural foundations of democracy. You will actually destroy the actual practice of democracy in the country.

This world survey on values which has been going on since 1981 is clear about the direction of causation. Values that are creative of democracy are the foundation for the existence of a real given democracy. But democracy in itself, especially formal democracy and the kind of democracy we have only in name, does not create democratic values. Our trapo phenomenon is a clear empirical validation of this causal relation uncovered through a comparative study of over 100 countries of the world comprising 75% of its population.

Behavior Reason

Both social and historical aspects are also reinforced by behavioral considerations. It is a rare person who is able, without inner effort, to be his or her own conscience and objective critic. It often requires another person to be able to point out gaps, inconsistencies and weaknesses in one’s own thinking, framework and behavior.

Part of the reason lies in the difficulty of overcoming habitual modes of viewing and behaving in the world. Everyone has tried breaking a bad habit. We all know how difficult and unpleasant it is. But this is foundation of the new politics – the creation of new modes of behavior and habits which can then either be further ingrained and institutionalized with the appropriate laws and executive issuances or totally neutralized by the system. But it is also important for those new habits to also be practiced not only in the political sphere of society but also in the cultural and economic domains as well.

There is a further element to this. We all know that we have some relatively acceptable laws. But how many of these laws are really being followed? 

We have a Clean Air Act, courtesy of one of striving embodiment of the new politics. But even this person will be quick to admit that there are not only lack of resources but there is no “political will” (which is a kind of habit with structural ramifications) and there is no habit to ensure clear air out there. People continue to burn and emit toxic fumes and bus companies continue to ply their pollution spewing vehicles with impunity, both secure with the thought that the police can be corrupted. (That’s another bad habit.) 

Habits and other behavioral aspects of social life are so pervasive that contemporary sociologists speak of “structuration”[3] (in contrast to “structure”) to give a more comprehensive account of how unjust or just structures of society arise, among others through habit and behavior.

Want to reform government? Think of how the habits of millions of government employees at all levels will have to be transformed and you will have a realistic grasp of why thousands of Filipinos are going to other countries, totally frustrated regarding their prospects in Philippine society.

We have all heard about ningas cogon[4]. We all complain about ningas cogon. But ningas cogon can be overcome only if we are determined to overcome it and continuously work on it. This is transformative work that begins in the inside at the individual level and needs to continue at the group level and at the societal level. We need to create societal arrangements which can reinforce the conviction and the intent to do something different, including to subvert the totalitarian world of the trapo.

But societal transformation, from the behavioral perspective, cannot be done in the realm of politics alone. It has to be done in tandem with the mobilization of those active forces in society, often found in the social and cultural movements of civil society. Political society is often blind to itself. This, of course, is an understatement given the prevailing conditions of our feudal, corrupt political system. It requires the presence of another independent force in society to resist totalitarian aspects of political life and support promising tendencies in politics.

Epistemological Reason

At a deeper level, part of the need not to collapse the cultural with the political, is ultimately rooted in the limits of the human cognition and its capacity for self-reflection. These are not ultimate limits but these are limits of the given state of ordinary consciousness as generally found at the individual level and in human societies.

There is a much discussed proof in the area of mathematical epistemology, a branch of general epistemology, the science of how we know that we know and what we know and the conditions of certitude regarding our knowledge. This mathematical proof is called Godel’s proof and has been elevated to a scientific theorem.[5] Godel is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century and was together with Einstein in Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Studies

In essence, Godel’s proof shows that the assumptions of a system of thought (its paradigm, loosely conceived) cannot be verified or refuted on the basis of the assumptions and logic of the same system of thought or paradigm. A paradigm (or belief system) will always tend to reinforce itself and cannot be independently verified within that system. One has to have access to another system of thought, another paradigm of reality, that may then have the possibility of assessing the assumptions of a paradigm under question. (Of course, Godel did not express it in this way but I am doing it in a kind of intelligent lay person’s language.)

Applied socially, to fiscalize political life, including elements of the new politics that may emerge within it, we need to have access to an independent system of thought and center of power. This is then one way to understand the importance of the historical re-emergence of civil society as understood currently. Its different paradigm from that of institutions in politics and economics enables civil society to effectively resist or engage the state and/or the market on issues of good governance and true democracy.

So if civil society collapses itself into political society, then the larger Philippine society will not have an autonomous forceful standpoint from which to assess the performance of political society. Worse, it would mean the decline and death of civil society And, in conditions where power (the paradigm of institutions in politics) is the logic, truth and integrity (the paradigm of civil society) will suffer as has been the case.

Of course there can also be corruption in civil society but it is part of civil society to countervail against its own excesses and failures. The failure of civil society to do this will mean the deterioration of civil society as an effective and independent space for advancing the social good. There are behavioral aspects to this deterioration but it is not the time to dwell on this now.

Social Threefolding and the Transformation of the Nation State 

From all these considerations, it is clear that a new political movement in and of itself will NOT transform the political system of the country. It will require the parallel and independent formation of a national civil society or cultural-social movement that also has an equal passion for good governance and a better society.  Together these two will lay a strong foundation for a new Philippines.

Together with this two, we also need to consider establishing a new movement in the third and equally important leg of Philippine society, its economic life.

We need to critique corporate or elite globalization but we need also to understand that there are also legitimate and essential activities in economic life that societies need. Someone has to produce the food, the housing, the clothes and other products that truly respond to human needs. We need to honor those in economic life, those businesses, who are satisfying our economic needs with sustainable and equitable approaches. We already know this from our support of sustainable agriculture, green businesses, and so. Yet we fail to advance this tacit approval of truly “green” businesses to the point where we actually need to create networks in economic life, networks of businesses – an economics of solidarity and association, that can truly advance authentic and comprehensive sustainable development.

We therefore need to form three autonomous movements, one each in culture, politics and economics, and find ways for these three autonomous movements to work together for the radical transformation of Philippine society. Furthermore, the relations between economics, politics, and culture, as expressed in their key institutions – business, government, and civil society, will have to be addressed in any discussion on good governance. 

This new approach we can call social threefolding applied to the radical transformation of a nation-state.

Aspects of the New Approach

We will now describe some details of this new approach, the transformation of national societies through social threefolding, as follows.


Establish three national movements, one cultural-social, another political, and the third, economic. All three will work to create a new future for the Philippines. The first phase will be to establish the new cultural-social movement. The second phase will be to spin off a political movement from the cultural-social movement. The third phase finally will be to spin off a movement for a new economy, within the realm of economics itself, but spun of from the cultural-social movement. (In the alternative, depending on resources and availability of leading initiatives, all three movements can immediately be started. See discussion below.)

All three movements are independent and autonomous from each other. But all three movements, through a convergent set of views, values, and principles, can interface with each other and work, where appropriate, with each other to build a new Philippines. These common principles can be embodied in one document, shared by all the three movements, or in three autonomous movement charters that embody the same principles. The possibility for synergy can also be enhanced through direct personal interaction among the initiative takers in the three different movements.

Phase One

Establish a national cultural-social movement that will have sustainable human, social and ecological development, including good governance, as its focus. This movement should have the resources and human capacities to carry out a nation-wide awareness and membership building process to bring this national cultural-social movement into birth and action.

The structure of this cultural movement would be a horizontal network of autonomous but interacting member organizations situated at the level of the barangay (village), town, or city.  These autonomous member organizations will be originated first as a forum exploring a range of ideas including the local, national, and global situation. This forum will then be the basis for the coming together of those who want to form a local group that would be interested in joining with other local groups to form a local, regional and national cultural-social movement. In all these, the human element, the real meeting of one human being with another, will be important.

Depending on their strength and number, they can then start forming provincial and regional alliances to advance their common aspirations and programs. Strength, in this context, means that they have the capacity to mobilize local citizens and other organizations to address problems in local governance and to advance comprehensive sustainable development. They have the strength to fiscalize local trapo politicians and the strength to be a creative force in their local setting.

Comprehensive sustainable development means advancing the seven dimensions of development: ecological, economic, political, cultural, social, human and spiritual. It also means using social threefolding substance and processes to achieve sustainability in these seven dimensions and their complex interactions.[6]

At the appropriate time, these provincial and regional alliances come together and convene a national movement for comprehensive sustainable development values, including good governance. Only on the basis of this joining together of autonomous, self-starting and maintaining local initiatives can there be enough force to move this country from formal (illusory) democracy to real democracy. This completes the first phase.

From the very beginning, the new cultural-social movement will come together on the basis of declared principles or principles of unity and a different vision of Philippine society. This will constitute the identity of the movement and will be the basis of its programs and activities.

Phase Two

The second phase consists in spinning off, from this national cultural social movement, an autonomous, independent political movement that will enter politics directly. In establishing itself, the political movement will either adopt the principles of unity or charter of the cultural-social movement or draft its own charter on the basis of the principles of unity of the cultural-social movement. This step is essential as it will be the basis for future strategic and tactical relationships between the two movements.

This political movement will initially be a smaller subset of the national cultural-social movement of civil society groups but could increase its numbers significantly through its own effects. The two movements will be distinct and independent from each other. They can interact and cooperate with each other on the basis of the principles of unity which they share but which they will develop differently, one more appropriate to the cultural-social, and the other more appropriate to the political life of the country.  

The spinning off from the cultural-social movement does not mean the spinning off of certain civil society organizations and converting these into political organizations. Rather it means that individuals from the cultural movement come together and form a new or several new political parties. It is the individuals coming together that form the political organizations and create the new political movement. It is not the conversion of civil society organizations into political ones, a move that will sow confusion and devitalize civil society.

Sadly enough, this has happened with some of the civil society networks and economic cooperatives that have transformed themselves into sectoral parties, known as Party List organizations. This move marginalized these organizations and networks both in the political domain they entered and in the economic or cultural realm where they came from. The cynical comment of many can be heard. “Politics lang pala ang tunay na layunin.” (It was only politics and political power that they were interested in.) They simply use the cover of cooperatives or civil society networks to become politicians.

The new cultural-social movement will have the task of supporting, at arms length and on a case-to-case basis, the new political movement. This is because the cultural-social movement will have the other difficult but necessary task of fiscalizing the new political movement that it has spun off. The accountability to larger society by any political movement has to be there in order for it to retain its legitimacy. So, should the new political movement divert from the ideals and principles it shares in common with the cultural-social movement, then the individuals and civil society organizations allied with the new cultural-social movement will have the task of countervailing their own former colleagues.

Phase Three

A similar process can arise in the realm of the economy. Individuals involved in the cultural-social movement can come from any aspect of social life. When there are enough individuals in the cultural-social movement who care enough about actually founding new businesses and/or establishing a new network among businesses aligned to the ideals and principles of the new cultural-social movement, then they can spin off an economic movement or a movement for association economics. A similar process of relationships can take place between the three movements as explained above in the case of the political and the cultural-social movements.

These relationships, in the context of good governance, means that all three movements must have enlightened ideas, the numbers, and the relationships to ensure the simultaneous and coordinated but independent mobilization of the three movements towards the ends of true democracy. The price of democracy is eternal vigilance by all its citizens and its key institutions.

The radical concept of “demos”, the root of democracy, is a free, spiritually and socially creative individuality which is the foundation of any true democracy. The concept of equality in democracy means establishing an appropriate policy environment for the nurturing of this sense of radical individual awakening including a passion for the creation of a new politics for society. 

The three key movements can cooperate in the establishment of a true “demos” in Philippine society. The cultural-social movement will advance and nurture the hearts, minds, and feet of “demos”. The political movement, out of these new habits, will turn the ideal of demos into reality in the politics of the country. The economic movement will provide the necessary no-strings-attached support for the cultural strengthening of the ethic of “demos” and prevail upon other businesses not to subvert the attempt at true democracy through the usual subversion of governance by economic means.

Another Approach

This is only one approach. Depending on resources and commitment and beginning numbers, the three movements can be created simultaneously, In the Philippines, the group that will launch the new social movement for transforming Philippine society decided to launch the cultural-social movement and the political movement simultaneously. From these two movements, they foresee the time when the third leg, the movement for economic renewal, will also emerge out of the strength of the two movement. Then the process of total transformation of Philippine society will reach another level of expression.

Vision: The Nation State Transformed

When then three new movements emerge, there will be no remaining force in the traditional centers of power of the nation state that can resist its force for good. Old practices will fall away. Institutions will radically transform from the inside, supported or pressured by forces from the outside. The state will no longer be the trojan horse for de facto dictatorships of global institutions and agreements like the WTO. Increasingly true “demos” will operate and the nation state will become the expression of the highest ideals and excellence of its people.

The Future

In the near future, the new cultural-social movement will publicly and formally launch itself in the Philippines. In a continuation of this article, I will cover the details of this launching including a detailed description of its “Kartilya” or principles of unity.

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[1] “Trapo” is the Filipino acronym for traditional politician. It is also the Filipino word for “rag”, a material easily contaminated by dirt.

[2] See, Nicanor Perlas, “Globalization, Poat-materialism, and Social Threefolding” in www.globenet3.org.

[3] The various works of Anthony Giddens is an example of this. However, apparently, Giddens is not able to put to practice his concept of structuration as evidence by the problematic policies of Prime Minister Tony Blair of the UK. Giddens is a policy adviser to Blair.

[4] This is a Filipino expression referring to the tendency to start something and never finishing it. It comes from the brush fire of “cogon”, a native grass. It is somewhat equivalent to the expression, “flash in a pan”.

[5] See the book by Hofstadter called Glodel, Escher, and Bach.

[6] For more details, see Perlas, Nicanor. 2001. Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power, and Threefolding. Metro Manila: Center for Alternative Development Initiatives and Saratoga Springs, New York: Global Network for Social Threefolding.

[1] Nicanor Perlas is President of the Center for Alternative Development Initiatives, a Philippine civil society organization and author of Shaping Globalization: Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding.

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