A very good friend of mine recently asked me that, having a column in the Kaieteur News, how come I haven’t been writing polemically on several issues the paper has been highlighting for some time now. Since most of the issues have to do with the government, he suggested that it must be because I am aligned with them. Especially since, he pointed out, I was such a strident critic of the government while I was directly involved in politics between 2000 and 2006.
But his comment exposed the polarised nature of our local situation and its default presumption of the ‘excluded middle’: you’re either ‘against them’ or ‘with them’. There’s no middle ground that accepts we might want to work for an ‘us’ that includes every ‘side’. So I hastened to assure him that in no way, shape or form have I been ‘working’ with or for the government. In fact I told him they had never even approached me. Not that I would have come out of retirement, but I thought it signalled the confidence of the PPP about its Indian base – or conversely, fears that my presence might drive away all the non-Indians who were clamouring to join the party.
But to return directly to his question, I confessed it had to do with my fundamental position on how to effectuate social change – especially in a society such as ours. While all actions – for good or bad – are performed by individuals, we are overwhelmingly influenced by the institutions and structures in which we are enmeshed. Of course we can change individuals – we all have the potential for change – but in my experience, I have found that we stand a better chance if we focus on the institutions and structures that encourage or facilitate the behaviour with which we may disagree.
When I was in electoral politics, as I’ve written before, I had a long-running battle with my colleagues about the wisdom of ‘negative politicking”. I hadn’t met many individuals who had changed their minds through debate – and absolutely none who did so through ‘cuss downs’. After going along with the majority for the duration, I found nothing to change my mind. In fact I discovered that going after people or groups personally made them harden their position and just as crucially, harden their view as to who you were: an opponent or enemy who was totally against them.
This will not do for a nation as small as ours, where everyone knows everyone – or should be in a position to do so. We have to begin to work together. In my estimation, everyone has the capacity to do good or bad or even nothing at all – but each tendency can be facilitated or hindered by the environment.
Take the life or death struggle we have waged for over half century in Guyana as to which group should control the state. I’ve proposed that it was institutional factors – the majoritorian system and control of the disciplined forces – that created ‘Ethnic Security Dilemmas’ in our people. Unless we change the system we’ll always have ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ who will exploit the fears for seizing power. It’s no use just ‘cussin’ out’ the particular individuals.
Now take the latest raison d’être for our ‘cuss downs’: distribution of the national patrimony. We can cry until ‘thy kingdom come’ (as Burnham did) that any perceived anomaly is on account of ‘political’ and not ‘racial’ reasons – but it will not go far in our polarised society. We have to change the system that allows facially neutral criteria to be bypassed. It’s not going to be easy. I don’t get too het up because I became an adult in the USA – my post-high school twenty years- and I saw how even that system can be manipulated. Witness the top 1% in the US owning over 35% of its wealth.
I’ve identified over the last two decades the unfortunate acceptance by all of our political parties of the neoliberalism dogma that the market should control distribution of wealth and income. In my estimation, it doesn’t matter which party gets its hand on power, we’re going to have the same skewed results out of the Ayn Rand’s ‘greed is good’ ethos of market fundamentalism. “The question,’ she had proposed about accumulating wealth, “isn’t who’s going to let me; the question is who’s going to stop me.”
What I’ve proposed is that if the system cannot stop ‘them’, the exploiters, at least it must make it difficult. I’ve heard a lot about ‘constitutional change’ to alter the political rules of the game. You don’t have to be a Marxist to accept that politics can be trumped by economics.
As for changing people, I’ll stick with the youths. They’re not completely morally ossified yet.
Pres. Ali putting water meters on the citizens in Berbice, and not meters on Exxon oil pumps.
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