Few citizens would deny that there is widespread corruption in public affairs – and even in private transactions. The corruption seems to have penetrated every facet of national life. The question becomes, why do we Guyanese put up with the venality and outright criminality that seem to have become part and parcel of our polity?
A recent book describing the rise to power of colourful former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, sheds some light on the question. The book, The Liberty of Servants: Berlusconi’s Italy, is by Maurizio Viroli, who teaches politics at Princeton University.
Viroli’s arguments about what has happened in Italy, and how it developed culturally and politically, delineates the possible genesis of the political malaise that has engulfed us in Guyana.
Viroli explains that there are two types of liberty. Given Italy’s historical and social context, he describes them as the liberty of the servant and the liberty of the citizen. In Guyana, given our own history, it might be more appropriate to refer to them as the citizen and the slave.
The slave or the servant might believe that he leads an enviable life if he has a good master who only beats him occasionally. He may have food, drink, a place to sleep and freedom to do what he wishes. But what makes him a servant or a slave is his unwillingness to address his fundamental condition, that someone else has absolute power over him and can do anything he wants at any time and for any or no reason.
In the modern context, a citizen of a state can have what he thinks to be considerable freedom in his daily life, but he will frequently fail to understand that he lacks real freedom. Viroli calls it trading political liberty for private freedom.
The freedom that the slave possesses is an illusion, sometimes derived from a situation that Viroli describes as a “veiled tyranny.” In a veiled tyranny, the government takes office through legal or constitutional means but gradually subverts the checks and balances that prevent it from behaving arbitrarily. If the government is a good one, respectful of individual rights and mindful of its limitations, there will be a constitution in place that protects one from arbitrary rule or capricious behaviour by officials.
The constitution also protects the individual from mob rule, since in a pure democracy, unchecked by constitutional restraints, a majority can always vote in laws that diminish the rights of the minority and that can lead to autocratic rule.
The constitutional system breaks down when an individual – Berlusconi in the case of Italy – or Burnham and possibly Jagdeo in the case of Guyana, disregards the rules that it is supposed to play by and becomes powerful enough to either ignore or change the laws to its advantage and to the disadvantage of the average citizen.
This is precisely what has occurred in Guyana over the past forty years, with an over-mighty executive completely shifting the power relationship between the government and those who are governed and passing laws that constantly erode the rights of the individual.
We the people now have little real power even if every five years we are allowed to choose between two different forms of the same despotism at the ballot box.
Viroli’s proposed solution for Italy is for a revival of civic sense and responsibility. Voters cannot just aspire to material wealth but no real say in what happens in their lives. They think they are free because they can choose from many brands of clothes and flat-screen televisions, but their liberty is an illusion, the freedom of a slave for all its emoluments.
Our constitution tells one what the liberty of a citizen should be, as part of an engaged people that understands that citizenship entails duties and responsibilities as well as benefits.
Guyanese must understand that we will get the government we deserve. For instance, there will be no corruption if we refuse to deal with corrupt officials or more importantly we refuse to benefit from corruption.
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