Politics in plural societies

Stabroek News
April 14, 1999

Sir Arthur Lewis, Nobel Laureate, had a distinguished academic career. His books included The Principles of Economic Planning and The Theory of Economic Growth. In l965 he delivered the Whidden Lectures at McMaster University in Canada. His topic was "Politics in West Africa". Sir Arthur was familiar with the countries in that region which he had repeatedly visited as an adviser to their governments. It is no exaggeration to say that these lectures are a classic in political literature and ought to be essential reading for anyone living in or interested in the politics of plural societies.

Twelve countries in West Africa had gained independence after l957, three from Britain (Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone) and nine from France (Maritania, Senegal, Mali, Guinea, Upper Volta, Ivory Coast, Togo, Dahomey and Niger). They had all become single - party states except Nigeria and Sierra Leone. Sir Arthur started by describing the political and economic structure of West African society. He noted that they were not developed class societies and that none of them was homogeneous, each consisting of several tribes speaking several languages and each including some Muslims, some Christians and adherents of African religions. He argued:

"In such a situation it is hard for any one political leader to emerge as the leader of the whole nation. Houphouet-Boigny is the only West African to have this distinction. Every other political leader has had strong support in part of the country, and met equally strong hostility in some other part. In the case of Senegal, opposition to Senghor has had some regional aspects, but has not mainly been of this order. In every other West African country regionalism has been more important in politics than the division between radicals and the middle classes".

The thrust of his argument was that the single party state in all its manifestations (totalitarian and exclusive, ideological and open) would not work but that it had come about partly because of the inappropriatness of the political model that had been inherited. He went on to argue that the winner take all system which had worked in Britain and France (though he noted that even in those societies there was de facto a considerable degree of consultation and power sharing by virtue of various conventions and institutions like house committees) was not appropriate in West Africa. The kernel of his argument can be found in the following passage:

"The word `democracy' has two meanings. Its primary meaning is that all who are affected by a decision should have the chance to participate in making that decision, either directly or through chosen representatives. Its secondary meaning is that the will of the majority shall prevail. These two meanings do not overlap, since it is normal in European Parliaments to institutionalise the minority in an opposition party or parties who are excluded from decision-making; this is justified by saying that when heads were counted in an election one set won, and the other set lost.

Children are sometimes told that the purpose of an election is to allow the electorate to choose between men; an election is thus likened to competition between business men to serve the consumer. This puts the emphasis on the politicians rather than on the groups which they represent. If the analogy were appropriate, the losing candidates would indeed have no claim to a part in decision making. In fact, however, the men who stand for election represent groups with different ideas or interests or characteristics; and the real contest is between these two groups. To exclude the losing groups from participation in decision-making clearly violates the primary meaning of democracy.

Not surprisingly, Europeans try as hard as they can to confine this secondary meaning of democracy to the political sphere, In all other institutions-business, sport, the family, the Church the university and so on-committees are expected to ensure that all interests and points of view are fully represented in their membership and their deliberations, and are expected to try to reach agreement by compromise, rather than by voting. Once a committee begins to divide into factions, and to make decisions by voting, we expect its legitimate business to be neglected. The good chairman's main task is to keep his people working together as a team.

The doctrine that the majority shall have its way has become central to the political institutions of class societies. In the definition of democracy that it is `government of the people by the people for the people', the `people' does not mean all the inhabitants. It means the great mass of the inhabitants - the poor and middle people - in contrast to the handful of aristocrats, landowners and big capitalists who have hitherto monopolised political power. The doctrine asserts the right of the poor to liquidate the rich. Politics is what the mathematicians now call a zero-sum game: what I win you will lose. You have the wealth, I have the right to take it. European politics has been operating in this mould for the past 300 years.

Translated from a class to a plural society this view of politics is not just irrelevant: it is totally immoral, inconsistent with the primary meaning of democracy, and destructive of any prospect of buiding a nation in which different people might live together in harmony. Are we, on counting heads, to conclude that the Catholics may liquidate the Protestants, the Indians of British Guiana may liquidate the Negroes, or the Negroes of some southern countries may liquidate the whites. In a plural society the approach to politics as a zero sum game is immoral and impracticable.

Plurality is the principal political problem of most of the new states created in the twentieth century. Most of them include people who differ from each other in language or tribe or religion or race; some of these groups live side by side in a long tradition of mutual hostility, restrained in the past only by a neutral imperial power. French writers use the word `cleavage' to describe a situation where people are mutually antipathetic, not because they disagree on matters of principle, like liberals and socialists, or because they have different interests, like capitalists and workers, but simply because they are historical enemies. Cleavage cannot be overcome merely by argument and economic concessions, as in the traditional British manner, because it is not based on disputes about principles or interests. Hence it is the most difficult of all political problems".

Sir Arthur ends by advocating coalition governments in multi-party states. He supports the electoral system of proportional representation with the single transferable vote. In the closing passages of his last lecture he says:

"The prospect of stable coalition government depends in the last analysis not on the politicians but on the decision of the public that this is what it wants. Politicians will always seek personal advantage; the object is therefore to create such public understanding that a politician's success comes to depend on his willingness to co-operate with other politicians. This task is difficult but not impossible; difficult, because the public must erase from its mind the heritage of the idea that democracy means the ins and outs system; not impossible, because it is obvious tht the coalition system is what the plural society requires. Given time and opportunity, the merits of a coalition system will seem as obvious to a new generation of West Africans as he merits of an ins and outs system now seem to Englishmen. They will then rewrite the the rules of the political game in such a way that only coalition-minded politicians can succeed".

By a process of acute analysis based on his experience in West Africa Sir Arthur arrived at a conclusion that some are grappling with more than 30 years later in Guyana. The issue he raises is crucial and his work adds immeasurably to the quality of the debate on power sharing which has been developing.