Guyana: the blessing and curse of ideology

by Festus L. Brotherson, Jr.
Guyana Chronicle
March 28, 1999

A FACT that might seem stranger than fiction surrounds all ideologies - essentiality in state and society for purposive good, and all too frequent extremes carried out under their banner.

This makes ideologies both a blessing and curse according to intentions and results. They routinely serve the vital function of keeping the state and society cohesive, focused, and stable.

At the same time, however, they are upon occasion used in service of horrendous evil.

This seemingly strange duality inspired the late British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, to lament the ambiguity. To paraphrase him, `give me an ideology, and I will assure effective bestirring, goading and manipulation of the worst base instincts of humans.'

The crusades, slavery, Hitler's Germany, and other modern catastrophes like "ethnic cleansing" have come about from extremes of ideologies that encourage political, racial and religious rigidities. Racism, in particular, is pursued by so-called true believers on intellectually barren grounds that pervade the writings of Robert Park, Arthur de Gobineau, Thierry, et al., and in the USA, of Chamberlain; the latter with special reference to immigration policy.

On the more positive side, significant benefits have resulted from ideologies - especially democratic ideology which through its long, gradual evolution, now best serves human uplift and advancement in both spiritual and material ways.

All ideologies, whether they be political, racial, religious, or otherwise, are really strong systems of belief individuals and the collective citizenry have about themselves, their station and function in state and society as human beings, and about life itself. They are the sources of great hope, apathy and despair.

They have in common three purposes - manipulation of people's minds by leadership, maintenance of status quo arrangements, and bringing about change; especially radical change that would involve the use of violence.

The most important of the three is manipulation of people's minds, and yet this tends to be quite a disputed fact. Why?

According to Jacques Ellul, the French thinker who authored the 1965 definitive book, "Propaganda: The Formation of Men's Attitudes," and the 1967 one, "The Political Illusion," ideological bending is stealthily persuasive because it appeals to emotion most of the time and not too much reason.

And Konrad Kellen, an old acquaintance of mine who wrote the highly praised Introduction to "Propaganda," argues persuasively that the most gullible and easiest folk to manipulate are usually intellectuals. That is because vanity makes them believe that they are impervious to the penetrative reach and power of propaganda through which ideologies are always promoted.

Here is an example of manipulation of minds on the personal and collective level relevant to politics in Guyana.

When a political leader seeks to regain office for personal benefit, appeals to the general public would NOT be, "Elect me, I need to wield power."

That sort of approach would not strike the desired accord with the voters because it is too obviously self-serving. Suppose, on the other hand, that leader were to survey the scene and see opportunities to speak to a significant audience of frustrated people who have real and imagined experiences and fears about prejudice in a racially divided society.

That context would offer excellent camouflage and the most opportune hobby horse for the leader to ride in search of his self-centred objective. Scant regard would be paid to costly consequences that could endanger the state and society by escalation of racial animosities, political instability injurious to the fragile democratic political system, that contribute to economic stagnation, and that unleash violence.

This reinforces the point that ideologies never emerge from the ground up. Their sources are always ideas from the top filtered down to the general public by way of visions of hope and anger at wrongs which are factually based or exaggerated.

The hope which ideologies provide is sometimes lofty and awe-inspiring, and sometimes more pragmatic for limited objectives.

But more dangerously, hopeful dispositions of citizens can be manipulated by a leader into wrath as a device for exploiting the most negative of raw human instincts supposedly to correct wrongdoing, achieve widespread benefits to an aggrieved constituency, or the whole state and society.

Reasonably, one can conclude that the politics of race that once again has been visited upon Guyana is handcuffing citizens and placing both state and society in shackles. This type of manipulation is quite common in racially divided societies and some leaders are masters of the craft.

Ideologies always engender the will to action. Never dormant, they provide logic to life, codes of behaviour, springboards of action for achieving goals and, significantly, they buttress faith in the idea of progress - constant betterment of oneself and state and society in mutually beneficial ways.

There may be several political ideologies in any given society but usually only a single dominant one. The main components tend to be beliefs (however right or wrong) about culture, economics, race and religion.

Race and religion easily rise to prominence making it near impossible for their banishment to more distant margins of society in the overriding national interest of purposive human good. The less dominant ideologies tend to be out of sync with mainstream ideas in the polity and have next to no chance of gaining political power or other orthodoxy.

Thus it is that ideologies roam the spectrum, ranging from democratic to authoritarian to totalitarian in the political sphere, to more liberal or conservative ideas in wider culture and political economy.

In Guyana and the English-speaking Caribbean, leftist leanings have usually informed any main political ideology regarding beliefs about the best ways to generate wealth and access to it by means that assure a good semblance of distributive justice. This is largely because of our history of active trade unionism where many goals are somewhat akin to those promoted under socialism.

But adopting socialism as national policy has never won full support in Caribbean nations once initial radicalism wears off. The experiences of Guyana, Grenada and Jamaica are illustrative, notwithstanding external factors such as destabilisation that hounded the socialist experiments.

More beneficial use was made of political ideology by the dominant one at the time during Guyana's struggles under colonialism in the early 1950s. It promoted tolerance of racial and other differences including religion.

That era marked the pushing of positive emotive buttons and successful persuasion efforts not only on race but also on the right to freedom through political independence.

In the Guyana of today, it behooves all leaders across racial and other divides to make political ideology a blessing rather than a curse for our country.

(Brotherson can be reached by e-mail at