Measuring the Manila square meter

This essay originally appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition titledLiving Spaces: Hyperreal Estate and the Architecture of Dispossession“, curated by Alice Sarmiento. I wrote it in conversation with, and with thanks to, Alice Sarmiento, Andre Ortega, and Maria Khristine Alvarez.

Consider the average Manila billboard.

It is many times larger than the average Manila home. Perched above Manila’s hypertensive roads, it gets better breeze, sunlight, and sight lines than the average Manila home; its floodlights consume more power than several average Manila homes.

The visuals of the average Manila billboard are also larger than the average Manila life—especially when they peddle condominiums, those new average Manila homes for the 21st century. They feature models with impossibly white, impossibly smooth skins, living impossibly carefree lives of minutes-away convenience from the best that the city can offer, all under impossibly blue skies.

From a messaging point of view, the average Manila billboard needs to be larger than life. It must, after all, be heard above the jostle of shoulders, the knots in our backs, and the blare of last night’s death toll—all before we heave and lurch our way onto the next billboard.

It then needs to tell, within the limits set by 216 square meters,[1] convincing lies: small lies, about the life of grandeur possible within an eighteen square-meter unit,[2] about how the baked air takes your breath away, or about the mysterious dues and fees that await.

Fig. 1. About twelve 18m2 Manila studio units can fit within a 216m2 Manila billboard.

Continue reading “Measuring the Manila square meter”

The mobility-oligopoly nexus in Philippine property development

This book chapter appears in Aulakh, P.S. and Kelly, P.F. (2019). Mobilities of Labour and Capital in Asia: Spatialities, Institutions, and Cultures. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

What kinds of places do contemporary mobilities of capital and labour create, and what kinds of place-specific capitalisms do they enable? This chapter addresses this question through an examination of the restructuring and rise of the largest Philippine-nationality conglomerates (PNCs) from 2001 to 2015, a period which saw the emergence of property development businesses as a core interest among these companies. It situates this development within two place- and period-specific sets of labour and capital mobilities: the continued growth of the overseas Filipino workforce and their inbound remittances; and the emergence of a foreign direct investment-driven, information technology-enabled business process offshoring industry in the country’s major urban centres, and a concomitant strengthening of domestic rural-urban migration flows. While PNCs had played only minor and indirect roles in facilitating these two developments, they have been the primary beneficiaries of demand for residential, office, and retail property which these movements of labour and capital have created.

Continue reading “The mobility-oligopoly nexus in Philippine property development”

The new rules of the game

This material originally appeared as  a chapter in W. Bello and J. Chavez (eds.) State of Fragmentation: The Philippines in Transition. Bangkok: Focus on the Global South.

This entry is the second of a four-part serialization.

Part I
Part III: Back to the land
Part IV: The creative destruction of Filipino capitalists

From the early 1980s to the present, the structure of the Philippine economy, its position astride global circuits of labor, commodities, and capital, and the opportunities for accumulation available to its capitalist classes have been defined by three sets of processes. First among these was neoliberalization. At first glance, the Philippines was perhaps one of the countries where neoliberalism saw an unqualified ideological triumph. It was among the first countries in the world to participate in structural adjustment program in 1980, and has since been the recipient of a total of nine structural adjustment loans from the World Bank and a participant in three IMF programs.[1] The momentum of neoliberal reform has been sustained from within by state economic planning agencies, the academe, and private-sector think tanks.[2] As a consequence, the Philippines has consistently gone above and beyond the prescriptions of the Washington Consensus: it had unilaterally adopted among the lowest average tariff rates in the world, innovated the privatization of economic zones, and embarked on some of the biggest privatizations in the world.

Far from being a completely ideological project, however, neoliberalization in the Philippines has been implemented in a specific, locally-contingent, and highly-uneven manner, and the resultant contours were crucial to the recent successes of domestic capitalists. This is perhaps most evident in the Philippine privatization program. Beyond the crown jewel corporations, such as Philippine Airlines, Petron, National Steel, and Napocor, public land and infrastructure have been the most consistent targets for privatization by successive post-EDSA governments. In Manila, the privatization of military-owned land, such as Fort Bonifacio and Camp Bago Bantay, of national government centers in Quezon City, and of reclaimed land on Manila Bay have in recent years been a defining feature of urban development in the city. Through the Bases Conversion and Development Authority alone, a total of 267 hectares in the city have been privatized in this manner, creating some PhP46.697 billion in revenues.[3]

Two particular features of the privatization program deserve closer scrutiny. Continue reading “The new rules of the game”

Cash-crop condominiums

A version of this piece was first printed by the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s “Talk of the Town” section on 16 March 2014 (p.16). An expanded version of this analysis appears as a chapter in the forthcoming co-authored book, “States of Fragmentation”, to be published by Focus on the Global South.

When we tell the stories of our wealthiest men, we tend to tell the stories that are of no consequence: we repeat their names, which have mostly remained constant for most of recent memory; we futilely recite the numbers of their net worth; we mythologize the secrets to their success.

These stories are of no consequence for the simple fact that we are telling ourselves things that we either already know, or things we don’t need to know. When we dwell on who the ten Filipinos on Forbes’ 2014 list of world billionaires are, we learn nothing of value. Henry Sy’s net worth is a few hundred million dollars lower this year, the Ayalas are mysteriously absent, the majority of the names are Filipino-Chinese. So what?

But once we turn our attention to understanding what the richest Filipinos are, an entirely different story reveals itself. The true significance of the recent fortunes of our Ten Millionth Percent is in how their stories can help make sense of the puzzles of our recent economic successes, such as jobless growth, our inability to address deep and widespread poverty, or whether the near future holds an East Asian-style ‘takeoff’ in the Philippines.

To tell this other story, we need to ask different questions: how are the biggest Filipino capitalists building their fortunes? Why, in the Philippines of the 21st century, is wealth being built in this way? How does this strategy compare to strategies seen in other periods of our economic history,s or in other places? Finally, what does the success of this strategy mean for the prosperity not just of the few, but of the country as a whole? Continue reading “Cash-crop condominiums”