Disempowered Democracy

Trapped In The Excruciating Paralysis of the Fevered Dreamer

The sheer dross of what passes for politics in this country is enough to weigh the soul down with woe and a permanent sense of foreboding. And yet, somehow, the inventively survivalist culture of the Caribbean invariably manages to inch back from the brink of disaster, retaining always a kernel of hope in the possibility of tomorrow.

It is offered as a truism that people get the government they deserve, but are we really as bad as our governments would suggest we are?

At the Common Sense Convois two weeks ago, this proposition would have been impossible to sustain as the sheer beauty, intelligence and soulfulness of our people set the place alight with hope and an energised spirit of can-do.

What transpired at the Convois was remarkable, even magical, but perhaps no more so than what occurs every day across the Caribbean when people trust their world enough to release the power clutched in their fist. It is this power that has defied the odds in lifting us out of a brutal past of such recent vintage that almost every one of us can recall a miracle story of how we came to be where we are today. No matter how financially successful you may be, chances are that if you’re  above age 50, you know about barefoot school children or sleeping on the floor or five-a-bed, even if the barefeet or sleeping head wasn’t yours.

The irony is that in this imagined freedom space for people-power in the post-Independence period, the people have simply gone missing. In their place are cyphers, empty vessels sent forth to represent them without any real power to actually do so.

As we thrash about and beat up on the bobolee politicians running down this town, we cannot escape the men and women in the mirror looking back at us. The politicians didn’t elect themselves; we chose them. It is clear that as a people, we are better than those we send to represent us. The question is: why? Why are we systematically selecting those who we know are incapable of doing the job? If every time we vote, we are surprised by the outcome of incompetence, what does it tell us about the quality of our own judgment? Or could it be that we are knowingly and actively subverting the political process with some unarticulated, self-protective purpose in mind?

Throughout our history, subversion has been the weapon of choice in the battle for survival. Quite possibly, it may be the defining element of the modern Caribbean and hold the key to explaining, not just the dysfunctional nature of our politics, but the dysfunction in every facet of our lives, from the workplace to the family. The tragedy is that so deep-rooted is the phenomenon that our academic system has itself fallen victim to become, in turn, perpetrator of the subversion. Almost by definition, therefore, academia is in no position to investigate the processes and strategies of the subversion through which the culture blocks the route to change in order to maintain the conditions for replicating itself. Further, any chance of academia accidentally stumbling on the truth of our condition has been laid to rest by the UWI’s abandonment of culture-specific programmes in favour of a generic curriculum designed to prove that we are fit to rub shoulders with the world, even if we have to squeeze our shoulders, painfully, into somebody else’s wrong-sized jacket.

The proposition here is that the permanent regeneration of the culture of subversion is at the heart of the political logjam that keeps us locked into the zero sum game of dead-end politics where political scenarios repeat themselves, from administration  to administration.

Under normal circumstances, only rank newcomers to the politics would fail to recognise the persistent poverty of the political treadmill on which we have been trapped for almost all of the past 50 years. And yet, even the veterans behave as though every shameful development is the first of its kind, demonstrating in doing so, the national capacity for willful, deliberate and self-inflicted amnesia, in itself a strategy of survival.

In the case of the collapsing Partnership drama, it is irrelevant who says what about whom. None of the players, including the prime minister, is of any enduring significance. The only real protagonist is the culture in whose tentacles they are all trapped. Again and again, we return to the question of how to break the cycle by getting the culture to turn on itself and create the room for change.

We can only hope that this is what we are now witnessing as ethnic politics enters the phase of extreme absurdity where it is reduced to mamaguy, pappyshow and farce in its inability to serve even itself. If, therefore, hope lies in the collapse of the status quo, does it mean that things will have to get much worse before there’s even a chance of them getting better?

Perhaps, but we should be warned that there is never any guarantee of order arising from disorder, as romantic as that sounds. Further, such an outlook also assumes a stance of impotence in our collective inability to intervene and change our world.

As we poke around for chinks in the armour of the change-resistant culture of self-subversion, the only prospects that offer themselves are the youth who have not yet discovered the profits of surrender, and communities who have created their own circles of trust within which they are free to open their clenched fist and release their power into the world. These are the community circles of the fully empowered; people doing things, changing their world, confident in their ability to prevail. They are also the enemies of the parasite of central power which lives off the power of others, fattening itself by co-opting and disempowering people through ideologies of helplessness . We who have come through the experience of colonialism are particularly vulnerable to such ideologies, and are therefore easily seduced by paternalistic and maternalistic relationships of power, happy to surrender our individual capacity for independent thought and action in exchange for the promise of being looked after.

Under conditions of democracy, however, the greater the disempowerment of people, the more difficult it becomes to govern.  We simply cannot have it both ways. Democracy needs empowered people. Democracy with disempowerment gives us exactly what exists today, the excruciating paralysis of the fevered dreamer caught in a nightmare. Agitated but unable to move.

Only by the act of independence will a people reclaim their power. This is the basis for decentralization and for promoting independent individual and community activity    throughout Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean. Any society with a real investment in change must develop and promote strategies for initiating and supporting community activity as the single most powerful weapon in the quest to help people rediscover their potential for accessing the power from within, and expressing it from without. As it ripples from their fingertips into the world around them, its potential for triggering change will become evident. This is the basis for the self-empowerment from which the emancipated imagination catches fire and lights up the world.


By this logic, too, we can quickly recognize the disempowering impact of the educational architecture that systematically robs our children of the capacity to think and act for themselves.  No lesson in civics and morals will ever undo the damage wrought by an education system designed to breed conformity and tame the inquisitive and unfettered mind.

For the umpteenth time, as we watch the politics consume itself and its players, we need to resist the temptation  to be distracted by the personalities and events, no matter how titillating they may be. Instead, we should look beneath the surface to find the source of the paralysis that keeps us trapped in the vicious cycle that could eventually consume us all. As we examine the careers of leaders from Williams to Persad-Bissessar, the reality of our condition should humble us with the warning that, there, but for the grace…

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