The old goal of the autarchic state has been abandoned

Stabroek News
August 23, 2001

Dear Editor,

We had vouchsafed earlier in the discourse that our purpose in seeking to unravel the confusion over the usage of the terms "nation" and "state" as congruent, was to further the goal of institutionalising democracy in Guyana. If democracy is to be ruled by "the people" hopefully it should be self evident that there should be clarification as to who are "the people" and exactly how "they" would rule. The decision that all citizens over eighteen could vote would answer the first part of the question but unfortunately this led to problems with the second part. While direct democracy and the majority rule may have worked in ancient Athens, the vaster number of citizens in all modern states necessitated indirect voting and where, as in Guyana, "the people" insisted on defining themselves by ascriptive criteria, such as ethnicity, the majority rule lost its legitimacy. Mr. David de Caires' proposal for cultural homogeneity in a symmetrical nation-state attempted to address the latter condition and is in consonance with a line of thought that posits certain preconditions - civic culture, economic development, etc - for the institutionalization of democracy. Apart from the substantive reasons we gave before for rejecting the "nation building" project, we see it, along with the other preconditions, as problematic in that they confuse causes with effects.

Paradigm Shift
It is important to note that in their modern forms, "the state", "nationalism", "democracy" and "capitalism", were all part of a paradigm shift in Western Europe, centered first in Britain and France. This occurred just over the last three centuries during the rise of capitalism in its mercantilist and then free-trade phases of that early "globalisation". While each institution obviously influenced each other, it was the formation of strong centralised states that led to the sometimes brutal consolidation of nations, in the service of capitalism. Democracy was a reaction against the absolutist state. Nowadays, while no one would call for a return of the all powerful state to foster the "one nation" ideal because of its accepted incompatibility with democracy, there is this nostalgia for the construction of an all-consuming nation, which is just as incompatible with democracy.

Marxism has already offered a critique of the above mentioned institutions and offered an alternative vision to nationalism as an integrative mechanism. Their panacea was proletariatianism where the working classes would recognise their common interests and provide the glue to move the polity. Capitalism was abolished but the unitary leviathan state was still retained - and even augmented - with lip service given to "democracy" and "nations" - as in the USSR. Well, this experiment has failed miserably and only a few diehards within the PPP still harbour hopes of rekindling the proletarian flame.

We should therefore see the ideal of a unified and congruent "nation-state" as a historical contingency in the development of the democratic ideal. Events have overtaken the ideal as with so many others. In the present wave of globalisation, there have been forces unleashed that are profoundly reconfiguring the nature of the state, nation, capitalism and inevitably, democracy. The old goal of the self sufficient, autarchic state has been abandoned; truly global corporations have utilised comparative advantage and free trade to undermine the old order. Stable modern states have loosened their notions of sovereignty internally to accommodate the variegated nationalities which they could never completely obliterate, within their boundaries. Simultaneously, these states have been willing to concede sovereignty externally as they agglomerated into mega blocs. The prototypical, nation-state models - Britain and France - have both taken the lead in granting autonomy to its sub-nationalities - Scots, Welsh, and Irish from the former and Bretons from the latter - even as they both integrate deeper and deeper into the European Union.

Project democracy
We turn to our realities in Guyana, where we are hoping by now that most would concede that we should aim for a multicultural (and thus multiethnic/multinational by our usage) society and polity striving to improve our welfare through the free enterprise system within a democratic state. While the particular stage of development of our macro-institutions will inevitably influence our efforts, there is no need to repeat the detours of either Western or Eastern Europe. Just as in economic theory and practice we accept that we can utilise existing technologies to leapfrog development, why should we not do the same in political theory and practice? After all, are not "technologies" simply methodologies of doing things?

We would agree with Mr. de Caires that we have to achieve some commonality of purpose which would obviously assist to pull us through the inevitable bad patches. We propose that a feeling of "we the people" can be engendered in the process of our conscious constitution of a democratic state. We call this "Project Democracy" - the creation of conditions where we are all treated as one - equally - by the state. We propose democracy as our goal since politics autonomous end - authoritative allocation of power - is the fundamental problematic of our polity. Equality of opportunity; due process; justice and fair play and rule of law may seem dry compared to the warmth of the blood ties of "nation", but it can engender the unity of public purpose and the recognition of individual worth through common citizenship.

And what would provide the incentive for creating such a state? The same incentives that spurred the development of all other democracies - crises and social conflicts. Our present crisis has already precipitated a wide-ranging discourse as to what state structures may distribute power more equitably in Guyana and there is now a permanent Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional change. The test of our democratic system would be to successfully mediate the social conflicts in our society and achieve such goals as economic growth, material security, cultural autonomy and freedom from arbitrary violence.

Even as we agonise over our failure to improve our circumstances, we have overlooked the fact that not only "nation" but the "state" itself and the other mega-institutions are also variables and that they can each be modified to further our goal of deepening democracy in Guyana. We have earlier made references to Britain where the state has been altered to give greater autonomy to the Scots, Irish and the Welsh. In multiethnic/multinational states one of the precipitants to ethnic hostilities, whether in the developed or underdeveloped world, has been the real or perceived alienation of various ethnic groups from the power relations of the state. The question, we feel, which has to be answered is what state structure can provide the most incentives for politicians to equitably distribute power amongst the various groups in the polity? Integrative federalist principles have informed most of the innovations across the world in multinational/ethnic states which have been able to alleviate hostilities and further the democratic ideal. Executive power sharing has also been utilised in some divided polities but it appears that this is a transitory accommodation.

Guyana has already begun the process of integrating itself into larger blocs of states. Caricom may have started as a bloc where the architects consciously attempted to build on the "common creole culture" bequeathed by the British-slave interaction . But even here we went beyond the core when we accepted Haiti and Suriname into Caricom. Mercorsur and Free Trade of the Americas are incipient realities and, as in the earlier European Economic Community which became the European Union, we can be sure that the ties will not remain at the economic level.

Our cultural/national sphere would be demarcated as a private one with minimal state intervention. Multiculturalism would be the order of the day. Amongst modern states, Canada seems to have hit a good note to emulate with its stress on citizenship and multiculturalism and rejection of jingoism. We have an opportunity to close the gap between the "one-nation" model, which can lead to chauvinism, and hatred of the "other", and the "individualised" ideal which spawns anomic, atomised, angst-filled souls. In our multicultural/multinational state, the acceptance that humans need to belong to a coherent "way of life" can be accommodated and balanced by the simultaneous necessity to learn about other cultures and possibilities. This provides the democratic imperative of choice in that it privileges no individual or group as an overweening standard.

In terms of institutions co-ordinating the activities of our citizens we will have to strike the balance amongst the roles of the state (coercion), market (competition) and community (co-operation). With our necessity to accommodate diversities, we see federalist, devolutionary principles informing our governmental structures - with a key role for the villages. A market oriented free enterprise system would allow us to plug directly into the global marketplace and be disciplined and toughened by international competition. Internally, of course, it would provide a locus of countervailing power to the always potentially predatory state.

It has become obvious that the PPP and PNC are not interested in any real democratization of our polity: the status quo allows them to monopolise power. Meaningful change will therefore not be engendered from the top. We, the people, the citizens of Guyana - the so called "civil society" which is still in fear and thralldom to the state - will have to take matters in our own hands. The process has already begun; there can be no turning back.

Yours faithfully,
Ravi Dev (ROAR MP)

Editor's note:
In his presentation in Trinidad Mr de Caires started from the premise that the concepts of state and nation are quite separate. The implicit question posed is whether the state can survive without some degree of `nation building'.

Nation building does not seek to deny multiculturalism. What is at issue in a multi-ethnic state is whether a sufficient mutual solidarity can be created to provide the sense of belonging, the glue to hold the state together.

Three quotations from the paper provide some illustration of the issues raised:

"Countries in the Caribbean like Guyana face peculiar problems. Unlike Africa or Asia (with the exception of the Amerindians) our territorial history began when we arrived here, brought from elsewhere. Of course we can appropriate some of our ancestors' history, but can we do it for the purposes of nation building, especially in a situation of multi-ethnicity? The core of our history would have to be the struggle against exploitation and colonialism. And what is our culture? That is more complex. In Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children the hero, born at the midnight of India's independence, and thus a symbol of modern India, discovers that his legal father is not his real father. But the man whom he believes to be his real father is not. Unknown to him, his real father is an Englishman who has had a casual affair with his mother. As a final touch, the Englishman wears a wig and is thus not what he seems to be. Rushdie seems to be implying that the English language, legal system, civil service, and educational system were a fundamental part of modern India. Our culture is clearly an amalgam of many things, including European culture, African culture and Indian culture".


"There is no political party that wants to divide Guyana. There is no explicit articulation of a separate nationhood. The political debate takes place within the framework of one polity. Yet there are increasingly severe ethnic tensions at election time and ethnic voting patterns have been clearly established. Where will it end, especially if one group establishes a natural majority, which could ensure control of the government, if ethnic voting patterns continue.

This is a problem of nation building. There is of course on all sides a formal commitment to pluralism and cultural toleration. But constitutional legalities do not solve the problem, which is ultimately one of power, and security. Can mutual solidarity be created, can one use historical memories to create a sense of nationhood? Although African Guyanese have generally been more assimilated to English culture than the Indian Guyanese, we have no single culture which can dominate or accommodate the others.

Can there be shared myths, shared heroes? Can one construct an ideological affinity based on the kinship of the two main ethnie, with universal qualities, values and ideas? What about our substantial Amerindian population? And who will perform this task when the elites are themselves divided"?


"It is hard to detect a spirit of nationalism in Guyana today. No one seems to be committed to the place, many are talking of leaving. The ethnic tensions and the violence have combined to poison the atmosphere. The folk memories of the society begin with slavery and indentures. The only glorious myths are the rebellions, and these were fleeting. There was a common ethnic experience of the plantation, but can a nation be built on this? Can one, to use Smith's language, invent ethnic ties and sentiments, rewrite ethnic histories and conflate ethnic cultures, in an effort to form a nation out of the various peoples inhabiting the state? Is that, in any event, a valid enterprise or isn't there something ersatz and unpleasant about it?

The task of nation building is not the same as the task of building the country though they can overlap. Essentially what is required is the will to live together, not uniformity but unity in diversity. Integration can take place at many levels, through sport, music and even food which helps to diffuse a sense of community. In other words the process is capable of gathering momentum by itself and cannot necessarily be scripted. The community can take pride in a great writer, a scholar, a singer, a runner or a cricketer and move towards becoming a nation. Apart from anything else, internal divisions restrain economic development. Governments cannot for ethnic/political reasons afford to let inefficient or unprofitable sections of the economy be creatively destroyed. This can produce a vicious circle, which does not allow the country to defuse the internal divisions with a buoyant economy".

The partition of India to create Pakistan and later of Pakistan to create Bangladesh, more recently the experience in Yugoslavia and the ongoing problems of ethnic division in Nigeria highlight the ongoing tensions between the state and the nation, or the nations that co-exist within the state. Can this be tackled by a conscious process of nation building while maintaining multi-culturalism?

Finally, to quote from a comment on the paper: "The other point, which you start to develop, is that it is very difficult to constrruct a shared culture. America has had versions of this debate and has (to some extent) made slavery and Native Americans into master narratives which frame the rest of the culture. We have never done this. Our shared past has purely negative associations which have yet to be redeemed. When there is nothing positive that can be shared (historically), I think cultures become very inward looking and defensive. Compare Naipaul's Indians with Rushdie's."