The well-being of the masses

Responding to our editorial of February 13, 2009 (‘The Grand Old Men of Guyanese diplomacy’), Mr Frank Fyffe, one of SN’s regular correspondents, seems to suggest that our praise for the intellect and accomplishments of Sir Shridath Ramphal, Rashleigh Jackson and other luminaries of the foreign service was perhaps misplaced.

Why, Mr Fyffe asks in his letter of March 19, did these exceptional men and women not do more at home to help maintain the integrity of the social fabric? Why did they remain silent even as Guyana was experiencing “many unwholesome happenings, disturbing events, injustices, etc?”

Mr Fyffe then moves from notions of “civil responsibility and moral obligation” to what might be called a ‘class-ist’ approach, posing his central question: “Shouldn’t the coveted intellect of these men/women − in some cases gotten at the expense of the working class − have been expanded towards the service, protection and upliftment of the people?”

By way of elaboration, he argues that scholarship and knowledge lead some people to prostitute their intellect and soul, as he embraces George Lamming’s thesis that education is “an instrument of continuing social stratification, an index of privilege and status, a deformed habit of material self improvement.” Notwithstanding this somewhat jaundiced view of the value of education, Mr Fyffe concludes: “while we do forever need our gifted sons/daughters and brilliant technocrats, it is clear that the wellbeing, development and stability of a people must depend ultimately on the organizing, education, consciousness and actions of the masses.”

Mr Fyffe has clearly given a lot of thought to these issues and raises pertinent and provocative questions, worthy of further reflection.
We shall not expend too much time or energy on the “civil responsibility and moral obligation” of those who served our country − for better or for worse. We would not at this point wish to pass judgment on the motives and actions of people who perhaps felt that, as public servants, they were serving the national interest and the public good by putting their intellect and skills at the disposal of the government of the day. Indeed, the same accusations might well be levelled at some in service today.

And we need only consider how many Guyanese have opted to vote with their feet since Independence, rather than stay to correct wrongs, fight against injustice and build our nation, to refrain from condemning those who served, even if some of these then moved on to greener pastures.

It is sometimes difficult to draw a clear distinction between right and wrong or to separate black and white, and so, things become even greyer when we examine Mr Fyffe’s premise that Messrs Ramphal, Jackson et al represent an intellectual elite and privileged class intent on preserving the status quo at the expense of the working class. It is a curious assumption, especially when we consider that most of us are of humble origin, with our roots in slavery and indentureship. That many of our forebears, by dint of sacrifice, hard work and in some cases, scholarship, managed to rise above an imposed, dehumanising condition is to their credit. On the other hand, that too many of us still live in poverty and degrading conditions is a stain on our record of self-government.

Now, scholarship does not by itself transcend class. And intellectuals are not, by definition, anti-working class. It is worrisome therefore that some should countenance painting all those who have done well, who have risen above their station and sought self-improvement, with the broad brush of elitism.

True, some of us may have lost sight of our roots in our climb upwards. Admittedly, some of our politicians since Independence may appear to have betrayed their commitment to the masses. But with a succession of governments rooted in the labour movement and the working class, it is difficult to understand all of Mr Fyffe’s class-based analysis.

Where is it decreed that the masses must remain resolutely working class in their ambitions, actions and world view? Is not the whole purpose of human life to achieve a degree of happiness on earth based on decent work, mutual respect, peaceful co-existence, civilized behaviour and so on? Do we not all seek to enhance our capabilities to provide a better life for our children and grandchildren? Is this not the essential ethos that led us from the cane fields to seek an education, to improve our lot and by our collective endeavour, to take our country forward?
Perhaps our intellectuals and other privileged members of society could have done more to stop the rot. Perhaps they still can do more to make Guyana a better place for all. But it is not up to them alone. We all have a collective responsibility to work together, across divisions of class, race and creed, to build our nation, conscious always that the greater good has to be that of the majority of the country, the masses.

Returning to Mr Fyffe’s letter, isn’t there a hint of self-contradiction in his arguments? If the masses are organized and educated, don’t they become middle class, as it were? Surely Mr Fyffe is not suggesting that the masses must always be the masses, perversely proud of a condition that condemns them to remaining on the bottom rung of the social ladder, as presumably bourgeois opportunities are forsworn in favour of working class solidarity? And if the masses are empowered, do they still need the paternalism of the privileged?

We do not have definitive answers to all these questions, but one thing is certain: the masses will only be held captive if they fatalistically accept their condition. We Guyanese, with our history of slavery and indentureship, are not naturally predisposed to do so. It has always been a struggle to escape this condition and it remains so today.

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