The naked truth about politics

Ian on Sunday
Stabroek News
March 28, 1999

" I have had neither the compulsion nor the courage to enter politics. In Aristotelian terms, such abstention amounts to idiocy. It gives to the thugs, the corrupt and the mediocre every incentive and opportunity to take over. The sum of my politics is to try and support whatever social order is capable of reducing, even marginally, the aggregate of hatred and of pain in the human circumstance. And which allows privacy and excellence breathing-space. I think of myself as a Platonic anarchist. Not, I realise, a winning ticket".

George Steiner in Errata: An Examined Life

Economic progress depends on underlying political stability. Who can doubt that? Look at the marvellous island examples of Barbados and Mauritius which have few resources apart from a well-educated population but where politicians possess in abundance common sense and the unusual and precious ability to perceive what is bed-rock national good underlying their differences.

Speaking personally, I have always seen great merit in the concept of the best in all the parties in Guyana coming together to recruit all our talents in the cause of tackling what after all in a desperately poor country is a national emergency. Coalitions are formed to fight wars. Our war is the war against poverty and against the ignorance and corruption and crime born of poverty.

If only for a limited period of, say, five years such a coalition of the best political talents would surely give the sort of breathing space needed to calm fears of racial discrimination, firmly entrench democratic structures to go along with a new constitution, recruit the widest range of available qualified professionals, agree a national development strategy, and confront in unity the multitudinous challenges of nation building. As Jean Monnet used to say when he began the process of uniting Europe, "Let us all come together on this side of the table and face the problems on the other side."

Sadly, it is unlikely that a coalition of the major political parties will be achieved. The fact is that in our politics "power" and "sharing", like oil and water, simply do not mix. They are antitheses. The very idea of sharing is repugnant to those involved in the exercise of political power. Get down to the bedrock of reality and you find that power-sharing is a contradiction in terms. The Mandela solution depended on a uniquely great man and in any case lasts for a very short time.

During the last general election campaign Pat Thompson made a heartfelt appeal for the nation to be relieved of those "ethnic affiliations and partisan posturings" which disfigure our political life. "What we really need in Guyana," Pat Thompson said, "is a national climate of tolerance, together with at least a modicum of respect if not goodwill amongst our several political parties, coupled with the firm resolve of their respective hierarchies, to conduct political debates in the context of a lively but well-informed discussion of genuinely relevant developmental issues."

Pat Thompson then expressed the view that most Guyanese are anxious to see political consensus develop on a wide range of important issues affecting our lives and our children's lives. I think he was absolutely right but he, and most Guyanese, are not politicians. And the fact is that the thought of consensus, perhaps even the word itself, automatically triggers a politician's rejection mechanism.

The fact is that in our politics "powers" and "sharing", like oil and water, simple do not mix

The truth seems to be that the great majority of politicians really are different in the naked reality of their ambitions. The best book about politics remains The Lives of the Caesars written by Suetonius in Rome 2,000 years ago. Then there was absolutely no pretence about what politics was all about, no shilly-shallying over "issues" and "principles" and "good of the nation" and "rights of the people" and "consensus". As Gore Vidal wrote in a famous essay, it is simply "Power for the sake of power. Conquest for the sake of conquest. Earthly dominance as an end in itself: no Utopian vision, no dissembling, no hypocrisy. I knock you down; now I am king of the castle." To wield power, to be famed and feared, to keep your enemies down, to look after your own, that is the whole, the only, idea. Suetonius portrayed the truth unflinchingly.

Nothing very much seems to have changed since those Roman times, except that now it is considered indelicate to admit the basic fact that politics is about naked love of power. Political disputes have to be dressed up as high-minded differences over "issues", "ideology", "principles", "the good of the people", "the future of the nation". But who can doubt that the true political mainsprings remain ambition and the quest for power. And, given that fact, what use is it to talk of sharing power? The whole idea is to win and keep power for oneself. All else is evasion: leaders as teachers, historical struggle as sociology, benevolence as a motive force, patriotism as a heartfelt aim. Read Suetonius. No word there, I'm afraid, of governments of national unity or power-sharing for the public good or tolerant debate aiming at consensus.

The miracle we must hope for is that the Constitutional Reform Commission will somehow set the scene for a kind of politics very different to what the Caesars practised.