By SUNITY MAHARAJ
If Tobago is a thing of beauty in its simplicity, Trinidad is a thing of wonder in its complexity.
In this land of mas(k), nothing is as it seems. On any day, anybody, regardless of income, education, race, religion or creed, could be anything, anytime, anywhere, anyhow.
Social scientists have explained the Trinidadian personality in terms of the peculiar circumstances of the island’s history which have conspired to create a people who, depending on the angle at which you stand, are either quick-thinking, creative, and highly adaptable or opportunistic, unreliable and plain zig-zag. Our Jamaican neigbours long ago invented their own term of endearment for us: Trickidadians.
In this world of masquerade, the highest rewards are reserved for those with the greatest ability to negotiate their way seamlessly and fluently from one character to another, one reality to the next, and to co-exist in parallel, even conflicting worlds where psychic fragmentation is the norm. In this land of the multiple personality order, where politics has a morality of its own and apology substitutes for accountability, the national anthem begins and ends with the declaration: “Yesterday was yesterday and today is today”.
Here, social cohesion and survival depend on the mass capacity for whole-hearted belief in delusion. The greatest peril to social order is posed by the outsider who, like Andersen’s little boy, sees the truth of the thing and declares “The Emperor has no clothes!”
Repeatedly, this is our story. A people not yet confident enough to cast off the mask and stand in our skin, naked as we are, citizens of a free and responsible Trinidad and Tobago, ready for dealing with our world as it really is, no longer in need of the protection and power of the mask for survival.
A case in point was the Minister of Finance delivering Budget 2011-12.
Impatient with his failure to pull the economy out of recession, the minister harangued the private sector, annoyed that it won’t do all the things that could make his strategies bear fruit: it won’t invest, won’t create new jobs, won’t earn more foreign exchange. Track make but gouti not running!
Like every administration before it, this government’s definition of ‘private sector” fails to capture the truth of this place. Almost the entire country is in the private sector with Government as the biggest business of all.
In other countries, large numbers of people hire themselves out to two and three employers in order to make ends meet. Here, people have one employer and then work for themselves in their own business after hours. If the facilitating systems and structures were there, far more would graduate into full-time business and thereby solve the problem of public service overload and Cepep burdens.
The government’s failure to recognize, map and develop policy responses to the deep and broad informal, private business sector, holds a range of consequences for economic growth and transformation.
In the specific context of the current State of Emergency, the country will pay a heavy price for the government’s failure to understand the value of the informal business sector, both to the economy and to society.
More tragically, its lack of understanding of the historical underpinnings of the informal business sector has encouraged it to criminalise entire communities, from vendors to scrap iron dealers. Any government with a declared mission to transform the economy would have to start with the recognition that the formal business and economic structures were never designed to accommodate the mass of the population and that for many of them, entering the world of business means, a priori, breaking the law. Consider the vendors on the food court at the Queen’s Park Savannah; roadside garages; PH drivers; squatter farmers. While the government is preoccupied with the formal business sector as the locus of activity, the rest of the country is busy doing business, invisible in plain sight to policymakers and the powers-that-be.
The formal business is not all that lucky to be understood either. Berated for its failure to rise to the challenge and seize opportunity, the formal private sector is painted as risk averse and paralysed by conservatism with an over-abundance of caution. Perhaps, but it could be that the private sector also has a sharp nose for business and is therefore dealing with the reality of business opportunity in T&T rather than succumbing to the delusion of what we might like to pretend it is.
Why would a company divest itself on the stock exchange to raise capital when it could put $1 million into a political campaign and reap $100 million in contracts? It is no secret that the highest return on capital comes not from companies on the stock exchange but from investment in political parties.
No amount of tax inducements and bureaucratic improvements are going to tempt people who know that the biggest business in the country, from which a large percentage of the sector draws its life, is no respecter of process and procedure.
If, therefore, the Persad-Bissessar administration were serious about creating a facilitative environment for business, it would have started with procurement and campaign finance reform legislation. But then, as big business itself, the Government needs all the competitive advantage enjoyed in the right to be arbitrary and non-accountable.
The delusion we live is that T&T has a structured environment of government and business; capital and labour. It does not. The scale may differ, but almost everybody is in business, especially the government. This continuing failure to understand the reality of the business environment is at the heart of the inability to design and implement coherent, relevant and workable policy prescriptions.
Same with the education system. The fact of school, not the process of schooling, has led us into a quantitative, expansion-led strategy for education. We live the delusion of numbers, blind to the daily damage inflicted on the dehydrated soul of our youth. Were we to step out of the zone of delusion, we might see the youth as they really are: energy in search of purpose; passions begging to be quenched; the part longing to belong to the whole.
Seeing this, might we not be inspired to transform the education system to produce, not angry, betrayed youth, but happy and productive graduates following their dreams, sure of their places in their society?
In the social sphere, people, especially women, are begging to be liberated from the linear world of the corporation and the public service. The Gender platform’s obsession with head-counting, for example, often misses the real point about what women want. Women want what they want. In other words, it’s about the right to exercise options which are expanding by the day through the liberation of time and space by communication technology.
Were we to open our eyes and see the world, we would immediately recognize the folly of building a new world on the blocks of the old. It is time to re-draw the map of Trinidad, in particular, and to design a land of communities, not dormitories, where people could live, love, work and play in harmony with the place. The soul-lessness that prowls the land may well be the consequence of a bite-up generation, bred and nurtured in the trauma of daily 6am traffic jams.
The transformation agenda has long been packed with nowhere to go. Its tragedy is that electoral politics can’t afford the patience to take it on. The only thing important in office is staying in office which, ironically, and in the context of a people’s cry for fundamental change, is the one strategy guaranteed to push a party out of government.
With the promised transformation now receding by the day, the propaganda strategy is being stepped up with a greater investment in fuelling mass delusion. This is the parallel universe of the propagandist, a place where defining reality everyday is the job of political godmakers committed to the goal of deconstructing and reconstructing our collective imagination to serve the purposes of Power.
The irony is that in this land of delusion, it is easy to mistake the image of yourself coming back to you as the image of the people, and to confuse the echo of your own voice as the voice of the people.
For every government since Independence, this is the point that has marked the beginning of the end. It is not impossible to escape the fate, but it will require the ability to abandon delusion, park the propaganda, and listen to the people.