The Economic question
Ravi Dev column
Kaieteur News
April 29, 2007

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Mr. Ellis has raised the issue of economic justice a number of times during our ongoing discussion. He did so most expansively in his explication as to what should be the framework for the “Social Democracy” that he considers as the necessary “organising principle” for creating a just Guyana . He stated very forcefully that such a principle must be “extended to include widespread economic democracy.”

Very interestingly he “suspects” that such an extension “frightens” me. I am not sure why, since I had stated in the summing up on the areas where we agree that, “Economic development of all groups is a prerequisite for social peace and stability – not to mention justice.” (Point 8).

The question that I believe that may be troubling Mr. Ellis may concern both the means and the ends to such development: are there means that can deliver the equality of economic performance among the groups that Mr. Ellis desires? There is, unfortunately, the analogous problem of procedure and substance that plagues political democracy.

In terms of what Governments can do, Mr. Ellis had also claimed that I was relieving ours from the responsibility to intervene to rectify structural conditions that perpetuate unequal economic development. In fact, for the very dirigeste “ Catalytic Entrepreneurial State ” that I advocate such a responsibility is even greater. Because such a model is free enterprise dominated, we have always cautioned that some notion of distributive justice would have to serve as a guiding principle to temper the inevitable biases of that model.

A focus on community/village development would also assist towards that end…but for getting us out of our present deep economic rut, much more than “twenty acres and a mule” is needed. This is why we reject the hands-off State pushed by the Washington Consensus – in whatever incarnation.

But for such an intrusive state that will direct and facilitate development through a Development Bank, for instance, we need the greatest legitimacy possible, which is another reason for a more inclusive governance structure. We will have to agree on a distributive principle to buttress that legitimacy.

While Mr. Ellis seems to retain great faith in some sort of collectivised approach, which purports to deliver both procedural and substantive economic justice, after the various experiments based on that methodology during the last century – and their near universal failure, we maintain that we have to look elsewhere for sustained and rapid economic development.

While we do not subscribe to any sort of “end of history” thesis, we do believe an equitable political, social and economic democracy can be fashioned, bricolage-like, out of the appropriate various success stories that abound across the globe.

It is not, as Mr Ellis, suggests that we do not want to state our “political philosophy” but to acknowledge that neither institutions nor ideologies can be imported, lock, stock and barrel to force us procrustean-like into “success”.

For instance, within the a free market oriented economy we espouse, the necessary distributive principle cannot not merely be the usual utilitarian (the greatest good for the greatest number) or the communist “from each according to his ability; to each according to his need” or even the merit principle (to each according to his work) because our ethnically divided polity gives lie to their common individualistic premises.

In the 1990 paper, For a New Political Culture, we stated that distributive policies should be focused towards reducing primarily the gross representational disparities in “valued” areas that are found between our several societal groups.

One of the key proposals was on distributive policies: “That percentage participation targets be established in key sectors of the economy to ensure the equitable representation of all ethnic groups in the society… In Guyana , for African Guyanese this would be in the areas of business and farming and for Indian Guyanese, in the bureaucracy, police and armed forces.” We explicitly called for Affirmative Action – based on goals and targets, never quotas – even while noting some of the dangers in that approach. What is more “socially democratic”?

But Mr. Ellis would recognise that there is a limit to what governments can do. He recognises the inhibitions to economic success under the present dispensations created by the various cultural accretions. It is the responsibility of individuals and organisations in civil society (in the Gramscian sense) can play to remove such inhibitions; governments have always proven to be too heavy-handed when it comes to matters of culture.

I have always been a bit taken-aback at the vehemence in which even its most downtrodden victims defend the abominations of Creole culture. Such is the power of the hegemony.

But frugality, deferred gratification, sobriety etc, which have been shown to be necessary qualities for economic take off in poorer societies, have also been shown to be cultural attributes that are widespread across cultures and not necessarily present only in some “Protestant” work ethic. It will be up to us to take a lead in inculcating these values for economic success, which in most instances were historically induced.

For instance, Indians had arrived as immigrants with the typical immigrant's drive for material accumulation in addition to a “hunger” for land that engendered in over-crowded India. They combined their knowledge of rice farming and cattle rearing with this drive for land-ownership to build an independent economic base for themselves.

By the time they attempted to enter society outside the plantations, in large numbers, the Coloureds and Africans occupied the state sector. Indians were forced to enter the independent professions and petty retailing, using funds generated from their agricultural pursuits.

In the modern world built on entrepreneurship, they acquired an advantage from their willingness to take risks. The Africans, whose earliest efforts to establish independent businesses were stymied, and who had been channelled into the salaried state jobs of teaching, civil service, police, army, nursing, etc., were socialised into less risk taking occupations. Under the present dispensation of the “minimum state” facilitating a free-enterprise economy, Africans in Guyana are placed at a disadvantage, because of that history playing out in the present.

“Education” as presently defined remains partly the problem. The grammar-school curriculum exemplified by Queen's College was designed to leave more than a slight distaste for the “trades” or (God forbid, agriculture) even the open pursuit of wealth, in the psyches of the graduates.

One was supposed seek employment in the professions or in the services; not the vulgar world of business. The early Coloured and African middle class have left a lasting legacy of this tradition on their descendants. Their Indian counterparts had their other traditions to temper somewhat the imparted “dignity of poverty” dogma. This dilemma of historical contingencies, has led many states to extend their definition of “equality” to mean, additionally, equality of results.

So I ask once again, “Is this what Mr. Ellis means substantively by “economic democracy”?”

Now while this may be desirable we have to concede that this goal implies a distribution which is based on a particular version of distributive justice that will impinge upon the liberty of many citizens.

Equality from this perspective, demands a more extensive and intrusive state. Maybe Mr. Ellis can elaborate.

Returning to governmental actions, which is the arena of political activity that, as Dr. Ramdas reminded us, we should seek to influence, ROAR has long argued for the introduction of an Ethnic Impact Statement before every governmental initiative. In the pursuit of “racial parity' that Mr. Ellis contends should be the mantra of the moment, what could deliver greater “economic democracy” into this troubled land?