When Leaders Are Lost, People Must Seek their Own Counsel
By SUNITY MAHARAJ
Just over forty days and forty nights after we were launched onto an apocalyptic adventure into the realm of control and containment, Trinidad and Tobago finds itself searching for an honourable exit strategy from delusion back to reality. With two months still to go, the high drama has all but evaporated leaving ASP Joanne Archie as last man standing.
Predictably, each new dawn brings the stark realization that we are more in a state, than in a State of Emergency, and that the people’s will, not Prime Ministerial whim, is what it will take to transform our fundamental condition of emergency.
If the repeated change of governments since 1986 has taught us anything, it is that we will not find the solutions among those prepared to offer themselves for office: that particular wishing well has run dry. The last short-cut to the future has now brought us, predictably, to another dead end. When the leaders are lost, the people must seek their own counsel in the knowledge that self-delusion is not an option.
If nothing else, the State of Emergency has opened a window on the traumatized soul of the nation and the dysfunctional nature of the society. With our iPads and credit cards and frequent flyer miles, we would like to forget. With our GDP and downstream industry and free education for all, we would like to forget. But in the days since August 21st, 2011, the veneer has cracked open wide enough to reveal the haunting scar of the past that lives among us through injustice, inequality, centralized authority and arbitrary power.
One hundred and seventy three years after slavery and 94 years after indentureship, we remain a people unworthy of rights, in our own eyes. Forty nine years after political independence, ours is a society without the ballast of institutions to buffer us against the arbitrary authority of law, order and power. Sensing the confusion from Prime Minister to Commissioner, we took in front and kept ourselves out of trouble’s way, discretion being the better part of valour. Mistrustful of the very institutions designed to protect and serve us, we put ourselves under curfew where there was none, zipped our lip and went inside to follow the action on TV. And what incredible things we saw, in the lack of restraint and blind concession to power! In such a world, is there any wonder that so many are prepared to live by the credo of who needs rights when you have contact?
This glimpse into our psychic insecurity and institutional weakness describes a society without the self-confidence to stand up for itself and without defences against coercive authority. Together, these have provided fertile ground for the entrenchment of a culture of autocratic leadership at every level, from national to personal, from boardroom to bedroom, with the dictatorial manager, abusive partner and gang leader being mere expressions of the same cultural phenomenon.
As we prepare for life after the SoE, the real hard work awaits. No matter how we duck and weave, we return to the challenge of transformation- the road not taken at the point of Independence when the core task was to change the terms of colonial association and create a participatory democracy with human and economic potential fulfilled.
Almost fifty years later, everything remains to be done. Overwhelmed by the towering nature of the task, we have elected to remain blind to the problem and adopt the attitude of ‘let them eat cake’.
The most revolutionary act we could take now is to invert the power relation between the people and the Government, through radical Local Government and Constitution reform. We have reached that point where, patently, the people know better than the Government. It is time, therefore, for political leaders- in and out of government- to become the audience and listen to the people on stage. For this, we will have to liberate ourselves from the fear of speaking truth to power and find in our hearts that which we stand for- no easy task for a people who have survived on opportunism and the brilliance of their masks.
We could begin with a conversation about the next fifty years and how we plan to get there intact, united, energized, enlightened and viable. From the outlines of this conversation could be distilled the Project For T&T, a partner in the Project for The Caribbean.
With central government guiding the vision, communities all over Trinidad and Tobago could take responsibility for setting and managing the priorities of their lives: security, education, health, recreation, art, culture, business, worship, the family. Empowered community-based local government is how people will seek their own counsel. It is also how the national government will become anchored in the lives of the people they represent and on whose behalf they act.
This is how representative democracy might take root and fill the leadership vacuum that has been increasingly occupied by thugs and gangs. This is how communities might secure themselves, look after their children, keep public servants accountable and engaged, protect their environment and maintain their infrastructure. But for all the talk about the people, which government dares release power and purse to the people?
Sadly, in the universe of centralized power, people politics is a sloganeering black hole where the people are humoured, bribed, feted, manipulated, paraded and tolerated, but never empowered, unless through the party card.
The Ministry of the People, an intriguing concept when first announced, has turned out to be a pedestrian distributor of hampers and vouchers, and nothing of the catalyst for promoting people-based development and strengthening civil society as had been hoped.
The approach reeks of the historic bias against the lower-income masses and survives in the devaluing of creative output and the undervaluing of its power which has crippled the development the creative economy.
Repeatedly, even when intellectually we understand its financial potency, our emotional response to creative output barely rises above condescension and hush money for the masses. Indeed, the most powerful products of our mind can hardly compete, in financial value, with mass-produced cheap imports. And which genius artist has grown richer than the merchant with a talent for buying cheap and selling dear? The problem is not just the historic lack of value; it is also the failure to invent an institutional and infrastructural framework to support indigenous creative capacity. It has simply never been seen as important enough to attract anything more than hand-outs.
The upcoming budget will therefore be instructive as we gauge the strategic impact of expenditure on the Creative sector by the Ministry of Planning. Sharing of the spoils or sustained development and diversification? We’ll see.
In the meantime, the search for the truth of our condition must continue. This is a time for our artists, social scientists and thinkers to speak out and not surrender to the cynical desperation of the “Eat Ah Food” ideology, of which the CL Financial disaster is only the most extreme case. Money for money’s sake!
As we witness the greed and rampant materialism among the elites- not exclusive to CLF- is it any wonder that our youth are prepared to kill for a pair of Nike sneakers and sell their bodies for a box of KFC? The ‘good life’ at any price.
Perhaps our social scientists can explore the devastating impact that dispossession has had on us, especially those in the professional class on whom much money and hope have been invested. For a people fleeing the memory of poverty, how much money is enough money, one wonders.
Our journey to self-discovery can start only from the point of truth- which is a difficult place to get to, given the pollution of the public stream by the agencies of knowledge and information.
But some things we already know. One, that the complexity of our reality defies the simple sums of ethnic division. For another, endemic corruption suggests institutional and systemic failure; that violence has a root in impotence.
None of these can be solved in three months and are therefore waiting for us around the corner as we emerge from the SoE. From now until then, the Government’s challenge will be to calculate the precise point of diminishing returns from the State of Emergency. Assuming we haven’t passed that point as yet.