Ravi Dev Column
March 11, 2007
It is to the edification of all of us that Peeping Tom (PT) has joined the discussion between Mr. Clarence Ellis and myself on proposals for addressing the political morass we have found ourselves in Guyana .
PT makes common cause with Mr. Ellis to criticise my emphasis on “organic intellectuals” as catalysts for change. The former claimed that intellectuals are invariably members of the self-interested “petit bourgeoisie”, while the latter is concerned with possible antidemocratic implications.
Thinking that the qualification “organic” made my usage explicit, it is unfortunate that in attempting to shorten last week's article, I omitted the following caveat from the quoted 1993 piece: “The definition of intellectuals, in the Gramscian tradition, must be broadened to include many who work with their hands … It is the act of free choice of the people that is important, and choice implies participation.
The manual worker must also be allowed to define his reality. If we thus empower the people through their active consent, the counter-hegemony will not alienate the people from the new ideas. Intellectual leaderships must also be moral leadership. Intellectual leadership has to live truth, not simply only know truth. We have to reject the idealisation of the intellectual as only a man of words. For too long we have in the Caribbean been seduced by such a faith in men of words.”
In my estimation, therefore the intellectual will be everyone who will be willing to reflect and participate in changing his/her reality – the butcher, the baker and yes, even the much-maligned canecutter.
Our villages used to be filled with such intellectuals. I grew up in the mixed village of Uitvlugt and this was true of all groups. I just came back from the wake of an old friend, Jai Singh of Leonora, who was a true intellectual in the Gramscian sense. He never went to high school but he was an articulate and indomitable fighter for justice and truth all his life. He opposed excesses of the PNC in the eighties and those of the PPP after 1992. Action, not slogans, typified the intellectual's life.
And this brings me to the Peeper's second trenchant objection: the need for an organising principle. I agree with the Peeper: all our discussion is so much hot air unless we have such a principle. I have elsewhere elaborated on this as “Federalism”, insisting on its substantive, as well as a procedural or structural/institutional, component.
The substantive aspect concerns itself with the sociological values that the groups in the particular society seek to realise, while the procedural component focuses on processes, institutions and organisational forms that the said groups in society may utilise to realise their values by living together.
But even from the organisational standpoint, we have stressed the principle of subsidiarity, which declares that governmental tasks should be delegated to the lowest layer that can handle them. Ultimately, this is the village. When the PNC removed authority and responsibility from this level of our society we really shot ourselves in the foot. The Village movement was a uniquely Guyanese phenomenon – a product of our history and an innovation of the African Guyanese people.
We have stressed elsewhere that each society must select its own mix of the three institutions – the state, the market or the communities for coordinating the activities of its members. This is one of the reasons that we support Mr. Ellis' stress on the third level of decentralisation down to the village level: village means communities. Unlike the state (which uses coercion) and the market (which uses money), communities structure the activities of citizens through voluntary cooperation engendered by close personal ties and relationships. Communities work through trust. The role of communities has been a most neglected aspect in the development efforts of third world countries such as Guyana . Let's take the rice industry. A crucial feature of rice cultivation is the control and allocation of water.
In Asia where there has been intensive cultivation for centuries, the communities have evolved intricate local, non-government sanctions and rewards that ensure the most efficient use of water. Compare this today with our situation in Guyana where farmers downstream are never willing to wait for water, in their turn and they either surreptitiously open regulators or “talk” to their friends in authority. Everyone ends up frustrated and costs go up when they have to pump water.
China 's and Vietnam 's ability to produce rice at one quarter of our costs is not just due to low labour costs. We have to return responsibility, authority and ultimately, trust to the villages. Mr Ellis would like to move on to the “social contract” of Stiglitz and “constitutional changes”, which he feels would resolve all our ethnic insecurities. But if “admittedly, Stiglitz is not considering multi-racial societies” we would be making quite a leap.
Stiglitz is making a normative proposal which cannot ignore the target society. In Guyana we will have to start from first principles: we have to ensure that we want a “society” before we can have a “social” contract.
By definition, politics begins when there is injustice but we must have a shared conception of what is the “good” we seek before we can decide if justice is, or is not served and arrive at a “contract”. We haven't done this yet.
The point is to agree on a set of basic values related to ends, irrespective of our differences. In the absence of such common ground politics becomes another word for “war” as it presently is in Guyana . It is for this reason we have always opposed those who want to avoid talk about “race/ethnicity” when they talk about politics. Whether we like it or not (and most of us don't like it) what else has politics been about in Guyana since the first white man “discovered” our dear mudland?
The heated discussion of the possible role that caste may play in the perceptions and actions of Indians towards to Africans (which precipitated this discussion) illustrated the experience of racism in our society. We cannot gloss over this. My take was that anti-African racism is an integral aspect of the very Enlightenment discourse that Mr. Ellis appears unwilling to challenge.
If Stiglitz is not considering “multi-racial societies” then his prescription assumes, for instance, the Enlightenment “chain of being” construct that underpins much racist thought when “development” is discussed. So as we talk about constitutional changes, shouldn't we, say, first agree on the value of “diversity” as well as unity? What are some other values that are core on which we must have agreement?
In conclusion, when I spoke about “civil society” I was simply using it in the Gramscian sense of all institutions outside of the state – not in the recent faddish sense being pushed by the global institutions as the panacea for all our problems. I am simply saying that we can all influence and eventually alter the hegemonic discourse that keeps us in thrall because of the easier accessibility to the hegemonic apparatus present in the non-state sector.
Changes in the political behaviour of a people will occur only after there have been changes in their moral and cultural consciousness. State institutions, such as anti-discrimination regimes, cannot be imposed on societies that ignore entrenched values and if stipulated formally, will only be observed in the breach and be ineffective or dysfunctional.
To fight the deep racist structures, for instance, that still surround us, there are the newspapers and schools that can disseminate a new discourse. The work of Channel 9, for instance, in disseminating the hidden history etc., of Africa , is proof that some impact can be made. This does not imply the end of politics to affect the State's policies, of course.
Gramsci's distinction between state and civil society (which is not affected structurally by the racial composition of the society) simply offers us a broader strategy for initiating needed change.