Values for the Guyanese State
Ravi Dev Column
Kaieteur News
May 13, 2007

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In the discussion of creating a state with the widest possible legitimacy, I have stressed the need for values to be shared by all our groups. I propose that the meta-values of justice, liberty and equality should be paramount in any scheme of organisation for us, based on our history. I offer the following survey of views from the Western canon as a background for further discussion.

The philosopher Immanuel Kant succinctly posed the dilemma of establishing a just state back at the end of the eighteenth century in these terms:

“The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved, even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is, given a multitude of rational beings, requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of them is sincerely inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a Constitution in such a way, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.”

Kant proposed that the solution to the inevitable conflicts in organised human societies, lay in the design of appropriate institutions. Kant proposed that institutions, as with all normative behaviour, would have to satisfy the “categorical imperative”: which if followed, would ensure the person(s) behaving in accordance with it, are behaving morally. He defined the categorical imperative: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Our politicians have always sought to maximise power for their own group, or even more short-sightedly, their own coterie.

Most political theorists who followed him, however, agreed with his stricture that institutions constituting a state must be organised in accordance with the principle of justice, but there were interminable discussions as to whether particular proposals satisfied or did not satisfy, the categorical imperative.

John Rawls, the most influential of modern liberal political philosophers, came up with another formulation to guide the formation of social institutions nearly two centuries later, in 1971. It had the great virtue of simplicity. In the opening line of his first section in his magnum opus A Theory of Justice , Rawls boldly declared that the principle of “justice” is the standard that would generate the broad acceptability for the establishment of any institution necessary to implement any initiative for enduring stability: “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.”

Recognizing that Guyana does not even reach Rawls' definition of a society as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests.” his definition of “justice” is very pertinent to our effort to construct a democratic state in Guyana: “…a way of assigning rights and duties in the basic institutions of society and they define the appropriate distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation.” We tend to stress the “rights” aspect of justice, with nary a mention of “duties”.

Apart from his procedural “veil of ignorance” proposal, Rawls derived two substantive principles of justice that have been very influential since then in liberal political thought. A) Special Conception of Justice: Everyone will have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with similar liberty for others. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions: They are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle). They are attached to positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. B) General Conception of Justice: All social goods – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favoured. Apropos our discussion, the latter principle may serve as a suitable distributive principle.

The values that have shaped the struggle of all Guyanese above all others are liberty and equality and must become living reality if before we can say that we have justice.

The institution of slavery was the apotheosis of “unfreedom”. In the words of Orlando Patterson, “The social construction of freedom was made possible by the relation of slavery. Slavery had to exist before people could even conceive of the idea of freedom as a value, that is to say, find it meaningful and useful, an ideal to be striven for…Slavery immediately made possible something that had never existed before: the absolute, unprotected, unmediated power of life and death of one person over another.”

This was the experience of the African slaves during their hundreds of years of enslavement. The lack of freedom of the indentured servants who replaced the slaves on the plantations was also palpable, even though their legal status was not one of “chattel”.

J.S. Mill best stated the British Liberal principle of liberty or freedom: “The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way so long as we do not attempt to deprive others or impede their efforts to obtain it.” He further stated that: “…the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self protection; that the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community against his will is to prevent harm to others.”

Mill, of course didn't think that we in the colonies were ready for such a full-blooded notion of liberty. Mill was emphasising, like Hobbes and Bentham before him, what was labelled “negative liberty” – one is free to the extent that you are not under coercion or compulsion of others – the aspect noted by Orlando Patterson above. This is the freedom that all Guyanese hanker for.

Bernard Bosanquet who felt that the “negative” concept limited “freedom” had earlier noted the point about negative freedom and its nexus with slavery. He proposed that freedom should include the “positive” aspects noted by Rousseau and Kant, Hegel and Marx. Man was seen as a social being and he could only reach self-fulfilment if society facilitated the flowering of his potential. Freedom then meant the freedom ‘to be and to become”, which was the function of the state in the theories of Hegel and Marx. Bosanquet followed Rousseau and saw that, “we can speak without contradiction of being forced to be free.”

After the experience with the totalitarian Soviet state in the twentieth century, Sir Isaiah Berlin reaffirmed Mill's concept of negative freedom and in identifying the totalitarian imperatives of positive freedom, proffered a stinging denunciation. He pointed out that positive liberty assumed, “Freedom is not freedom to do what is irrational or stupid or bad. To force empirical selves into the right pattern is not tyranny but liberation.” Berlin showed that because “negative” freedom was premised on the incapacity of man to have the totality of, or final, truth, it compelled continuous examination of beliefs and the freedom of choice. He accepted that on occasions men might have to be coerced for their own good, but rejected any notion that such coercion could be subsumed under the concept “freedom”.

After the British granted independence to us in 1964, the concern over “negative” liberty-freedom waned somewhat but the excesses of the Burnhamite dictatorship brought it right up on the political agenda.

In Guyana, when Burnham and Jagan adopted Marxism as their guiding philosophies, they implicitly assumed the “positive” vision of “freedom”. Burnham saw his role as “moulding” the nation and his chosen vehicles were education and discipline. Jagan criticised specifics not the principle. The essence of that dictatorship was that the powers of the state expanded to such an extent that the political and social space left for civil society became vestigial. The contradictions between the “negative” and “positive” visions of freedom became manifest. The institutions created by the British and Burnhamite regimes to secure control over society could not disappear overnight and even if they did, the structural patterns of behaviour would have remained after the PPP took office in 1992. The PPP has shown little inclination to root out the manifest authoritarian tendencies of most state institutions.

Justice, liberty and equality are our birthright and we must struggle to ensure that they are manifested in all facets of our national life.