Book Review… Democratic Advance and Conflict Resolution in Post-Colonial Guyana

This is the last book, posthumously published, of a fine scholar and teacher. Both his scholarly expertise and his skill as a teacher are on show here. It is also unusual in West Indian terms in that it discusses democracy. There has been surprisingly little discussion of democracy and its meanings in  West Indian thought. This despite the fact that from the nineteenth century until the arrival of universal adult suffrage the demand for the vote was central to much political agitation in the region. Of the earlier thinkers two Trinidadians spring to mind- CLR James and the little-known Arnold Hamilton Maloney ; both interestingly had  experience of living in the USA before the Civil Rights era when US claims to being democratic were to put it mildly open to criticism; then there was the call ( it is not certain that it was ever answered properly) for major discussion in the aftermath of the end of the Grenadian Revolution about its non-democratic features; then the extensive and intermittently continuing discussion in Guyanese newspapers about power-sharing and forms of government. To this on-going debate Seecoomar’s discussion is an especially valuable contribution. It is systematic when so much of the discussion is unstructured. A contributing element to this lack of systematic thinking is the absence of philosophy departments at the Universities of the West Indies and Guyana: philosophy is not a luxury as anyone who reads this book will appreciate, as will those who compare  James’ writings with those of the philosophically trained Maloney.

There were, however other reasons for comparatively little discussion in the West Indies. We can summarize them briefly. There was the legacy of Britain with its aristocratic/liberal  political tradition; the  legacy of nationalism with its stress on the unanimity of the people; the  attractiveness of Marxism with its warnings of the perils of bourgeois democracy  and the failure to consider other Marxist traditions like the  Austro-Marxist one with its grappling with the issues of nationality, culture, and citizenship in what we might now call multi-cultural/ multi-ethnic societies; the  legacy of colonialism with its authoritarianism; and  the legacy of liberalism with its emphasis on the rule of the educated and propertied. Any one of these was probably enough to explain why democracy as an idea was not explored: together they over-determined the outcome. It is important to note that despite this democratic practice in the Commonwealth Caribbean has not been rare.

Democracy, however, is not an unproblematic concept or practice. All sorts of questions arise:

Who votes? Not usually a problem in Guyana as we have high voter turnouts at elections. What is the relationship between voters and elected? What control do voters have over parties? How do they influence them? Are the parliamentarians representatives (with some degree of autonomy) or delegates (having to stick to orders)? What are styles of political leadership- authoritarianism is rife, inherited from colonial times and underpinned in the Guyanese and other Caribbean cases by authoritarian party structures. What sort of voting system exists? Note Kenneth Arrow’s mathematical proof that none of us can in some systems of voting get our first choice so we all end up with second or third choices (note this actually may be what we want as first choices) may be out of traditional loyalty and fear rather than a genuine first choice; note also the 2009 Economics Nobel winner Elinor Ostrom’s  observation on the ability of small groups to organize and police themselves with economic matters at stake- a boost to the anarchists and CLR James at the end? What are the constitutional arrangements? Is the government a centralized or a federal one, how much  local control exists? This is the infamous “subsidiarity”-  that wonderful European Union term which simply means that matters should be controlled at the most appropriate level of government. How well does parliament function?  Perhaps the biggest question of all: can liberal democracy only exist in certain forms of society? Are multi-ethnic, religiously divided societies with weak civil societies capable of democracy?

At the end of the Cold War victory for Liberal Democracy was declared. Illiberal democracy was rediscovered a little later: most prominently by Marina Ottaway and Fareed Zakaria but we can trace the discussion back to Jacob Talmon on totalitarian democracy and further back to Aristotle’s warning of unmixed forms of government . Seecoomar’s most provocative suggestion (the good teacher will often provoke her or his students with outrageous comments) of alternating governments is an interesting suggestion in the Guyanese context. Here the idea is that parties will alternate in government whatever the electoral outcome. At the book-launch in London this puzzled people the most: what it clearly does is force readers (and one hopes citizens) to think deeply about what they want. More conventionally, however, he does explore the idea of Grand Coalitions (note Grand Coalitions or National Governments can be of short duration and the fears of one-party government are unfounded if these are temporary).  In such situations parties may settle their differences and oppress the people- political conflict is not always a bad thing. At the other extreme there was a recent call in the Guardian newspaper in England for the Chartists’ idea of annual elections to be instituted. Here too much politics might be a bad thing.

One of Seecoomar’s great contributions in this book is to the style of argument that needs to be fostered. In much of the discussion of politics in the region and more especially in Guyana there is exaggeration and excessive volume- there are signs that columnists in Guyana are taking this on board, though a recent case suggests that government ministers need some lessons here.

Apocalyptic language should be left to religious visionaries. Seecoomar’s argument is reasoned and quiet (I disagree with him that this book became a “gut reaction”-it is the product of a fine brain and character). Part of the problem with the way we argue is the effects of the predominance in our history of the legal profession- the style of lawyers, as one distinguished Guyanese jurist once explained to me, is to win an argument not discover the truth. This style pervades discussion in Guyana.

The other tendency, shared by lawyers and intellectuals, is the desire to categorize matters before they can be dealt with- note this tendency in Guyana can lead to absurdity, e.g., the recent desire of someone to ask  Zakaria to say whether Guyana was an illiberal democracy. What this provoked in me was a feeling that all those who had battled against colonialism had laboured in vain since we could not trust our own judgment but wanted validation from abroad. There were the effects of Marxism and the style of argument of Marxist-Leninist parties. This was peculiar to Guyana until the Grenada Revolution when it contributed to its collapse. The effects of religion were no better as this was another style of disputation which ascribes moral obliquity or turpitude to opponents. Indeed we became a wonderful example of the notorious German political thinker Carl Schmitt’s belief that politics was like war- enemies confronted each other.

The effect of political parties (even if not in the Schmitt mould) should not be discounted -after modern political parties were formed it became impossible to have the sort of debates which most notably produced the Federalist Papers in the infant USA -the political party of the person engaged in the debate becomes more important than what they have to say; this of course is further complicated by the legacies of Freud and Marx as we have learnt to look for the hidden motives. One therefore has to make a diversion around powerful cultural influences of this sort when discussing these matters. Finally and again and again the authoritarian personality so generally observable in the region obviously affects styles of leadership but also affects style of argument.

In the case of Guyana there was the problem of end of political violence in the early 1960s leaving issues unresolved because we did not resolve them ourselves. A modern democracy like Switzerland only began to move on that path after great violence in the nineteenth century: not being a colony the Swiss were able to resolve these issues. Costa Rica is an example nearer to us in time and space where the same process took place.

Modern politics revolves as modern society does mainly around economics- so conditions of scarcity are especially important in setting the tone of discussion but as important in the modern world is the powerful pull of identity politics, one of the ripple effect of nationalism.

As mentioned above Carl Schmitt had argued that the basis of the political is the distinction between friend and enemy. Guyanese politicians seem to believe this because of their political experience. (Is this also a legacy of their Marxism? Schmitt writing in the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s may be taken as referring not to politics in general but a German conception and practice of politics; not a theoretical concept but a reference to the way things were conducted there in real life. But political assumptions and practices can change. We might also keep in mind that politicians are the people who make the compromises and deals the rest of us are too high-minded to make. But perhaps most essential here is the rebuilding of trust which is where Seecoomar begins. We may distrust politicians but they may also feel as the US politician said in his speech conceding defeat: “The people have spoken…the bastards”. On the issue of politicians and corruption one may observe in strictly economic terms the big issue is where the corrupt invest- is it at home or abroad?

There are two subjects on which  Seecoomar says very little. Women and Amerindians receive scant attention – he was hastening to finish the book during his terminal illness. Two observations: when men stop or are made to stop believing they own women (or collectively own the women of their group) one major defect of Guyanese society will disappear; the battle conducted in the language of victimhood by the often self-appointed representatives of the two main ethnic groups which sidelines the ethnic group which by every social and economic indicator is far worse off than those and which, incidentally, is the only one, if one insists on being old-fashionedly nationalist, with an indisputable claim on the country needs to end. Where people fail to act morally demography may force them to: Amerindians increasingly constitute an important swing vote. (And of course we need to take account of Brazilian immigration too).

It seems to me that our writers from Mittelholzer through Harris to Pauline Melville have been looking for new forms (the twentieth century quest of nearly all artists) to represent a new world and we academics have been stuck in the past ways of seeing and describing. This book is a new departure. It is comparative: not simply to identify difference or similarity or to compare away but to understand and is wide-ranging in its attempt to get beneath the surface of things and to move us towards solutions.

As Seecoomar reminds us some of us have an ethical obligation as teachers to encourage our students but beyond that we have a moral obligation not to plunge people into despair. . Here, of course, my own profession, history, can serve as a barrier to change by dwelling too carefully on obstacles and past failures. The young may escape in any case from counsels of despair by two qualities: their failure to listen and their ignorance.

The first has been a quality ever since the industrial revolution-in periods of change the elders’ knowledge is often not appropriate; the second has been noticed in every great movement for political change: these have been staffed by the young because they are unburdened by the first-hand knowledge of past failures and defeats. But the wise elders, as this book so clearly illustrates, have a role to play.

And wise teachers know that the effects and consequences of their teaching cannot be known with any certainty.  And one lesson here is that of Hobbes’  “Where there are no rules clubs are trumps”.

Around the Web