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The Caribbean in the new Century: Challenges to the emergence of a new Political Culture - May 30, 2000

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The Caribbean in the new Century: Challenges to the emergence of a new Political Culture

Address by Prime Minister Hon. Dr. Kenny Anthony to the Caribbean Studies Association, 30 May 2000

There have been so many reflections and conferences on the 21st Century and its meaning that just months into the year 2000, the entire theme has already assumed an ironic fin-de-siercle weariness. Only recently the University of the West Indies hosted a high profile conference on the Caribbean in the 21st Century bringing together the most prescient academics and social scientists of the region. And as has been the case with most reflections on the new century, the paradigm swings between two extreme poles – those who see unparalleled problems and those who see unprecedented opportunity.

It seems to me that the significant adjustment of vision is to achieve a balanced perspective between those supreme optimists and the supreme pessimists and I am reminded of the story of the supreme optimist and the supreme pessimist. The supreme pessimist was described as the person who on entering the ground floor of a 40 storey building and beginning to climb to the first floor exclaimed in fear "Oh God, Ah go dead!". The supreme optimist on the other hand, is the person who after jumping off the top of that 40 storey building and after falling 39 floors, exults "So far so good!".

This necessary adjustment of vision to gain proper perspective on the heights attainable as well as appreciation of the depths degradable is one that was succinctly captured many many years ago by the famous Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci when he urged that we maintain "an optimism of will inspite of the pessimism of the intellect".

I have therefore taken the liberty of making this address, not the usual litany of challenges and opportunities facing Our Caribbean, but a self-critical reflection on one particular challenge that constitutes a pre-requisite to economic transformation – the cultivation of a new political culture.

Much has been said and written about the imperative of economic restructuring, cultural hegemony, social re-adjustment as occasioned by the globalizing tendencies of the new age but comparatively little has been posited about the re-invention of government, the cultivation of a new political culture that is required to sustain and facilitate these dramatic realignments of society. The reconfiguration of the State is treated in much of the literature as disembodied and structural, as depersonalized and unconnected to the day to day vagaries of politics. As an intellectual who entered the world of politics with much optimism of the will and only a deferred pessimism of the intellect I would like to reflect – from our own experience here in St. Lucia – on the challenges, the frustrations, the aspirations in the building of that new culture.

On May 23rd 1997, the people of St. Lucia granted this government an unprecedented victory in the general elections with a 16-1 margin. This electoral landslide was an expression of collective exhaustion with the "ancien regime" and signalled the acceptance of the promise of a new order of governance. The watchwords of the Contract of Faith as our manifesto was called (itself signalling our commitment to its implementation), centered around "accountability" "transparency" "participation" as the cornerstones of the new governance.

Three years into government we are facing the most unyielding public scrutiny ever faced by any government, the freest expressions of dissent (even within our own ranks), and a previously almost comotose press has gotten a new fix from the cultivation of negativity. In the absence of a credibly organized opposition, the old Jamesian adage, "every cook can govern" has been transposed to "every cook can criticize". And it is a positive reflection on the evolution of democratic practice when the capacity for critical review can be cultivated and strengthened at the level of civil society. And this must be upheld even when the loudest voices may come from the most discredited fronts because that which is being preserved and enlarged is a space greater by the degree of tolerance than is the suffocation sought by such spirits.

The Governance requirements of the 21st Century require nothing less than a reinvention of governance to facilitate the emergence of that new political culture that I referred to earlier. That new culture must represent a fracture from the norms and mores of the past but experience has taught us that the fracturing of the past from the present is not as definitive as theoreticians might paint it to be. The past in many ways continues to colonize the present and distort the future. In every effort at transformation, there is always a battle for the appropriation of history. Those who shaped the past seek desperately to ensure that their legacy is perpetuated and that the record of time wears kindly on their works. Those who seek to mould the future are often impatient with the past, sometimes relegating more to the dustbin of history than ought to be jettisoned. In that optimistic moment of seeking to give new shape to the world, we may tend to ignore the shadows that once gave substance to the past. This is a particularly difficult path to walk because the forces of change cannot afford to relegate their responsibility to transformation and allow the past to pose as the future. Yet, due credit must be given to the things that endure and the effort and sacrifice of another era, upon whose shoulders the present – however imperfectly – sits.

We have sought in those past three years to articulate this vision of the new culture principally through the instrumentality of the throne. The traditional throne speech which elevates government policy above the partisan divide has become the channel for the expression of the elements of that philosophy. The dynamism of our new Head of State – young, female, highly educated but retaining the common touch – has helped immeasurably to make that high office of direct relevance to the person in the street. Only last night on local television, this new reality was embodied in a documentary in which Her Excellency was filmed, walking with the easy authority of her office through the alleyways in which the neglected blind reside, to promote the cause of the disabled.

It is in such a reinvention of an office that epitomizes the soverign power of the state that a new and different articulation of the citizen to the structures of authority can be facilitated.

What are the lessons to be learned from this experience?

1. The emergence of a new political culture requires the embrace of the necessity of a new politics by all major political actors. In the context of a multi-party democracy, the best efforts to rise to a new level of statesmanship must find a reciprocal chord on the other side. Again, as successive throne speeches have exhorted, as a small island state with the multiple vulnerabilities associated with this geo-political condition, we must at elemental moments, focus more on "the necessities that bind us and the ties that unite us rather than the differences that separate us." In so many spheres of survival, this principle must be operationalized. Only a united front against drugs, a combined effort in the face of globalization, a common mind on education, a clear concensus on youth development and a team approach to sports can permit us to excel in this competitive world. In many ways, there are strong public expectations that with increasingly educated political leadership on all sides of the spectrum that an elemental common sense and a patriotic commitment will guide the way.

2. The tensions inherent in seeking to institute new patterns and norms of political behavior are instructive in themselves. One of the ways in which this finds expression is in the treatment of elder statesmen from the ancien regime. Here we face the challenge of bringing balance to the respectful treatment of such figures on the one hand in the face of the reluctance of some of the old brigade to give up their aspirations to power. The continued active presence of elder statesmen in the fractious waters of partisan engagement complicates this process, making it difficult to establish the boundaries of respect for past accomplishment from current antagonism. In the challenge of that emerging new political culture is that of the management of one’s own supporters who experience difficulty in giving credit where credit is due without providing unnecessary fodder to the partisan arsonists. These difficulties we expect to be mitigated by the recently established Commission to examine the status of former heads of government which will make recommendations on the appropriate protocols to be accorded them.

3. A third challenge is the difficulty of changing perceptions in civil society that have been predicated on old patterns of behavior. The prevailing notion in the Caribbean portrays all politicians as crooks or liars – in short a distinct culture of distrust to be overcome. Caught in the ambiance of skepticism, the notion almost assumes a life of its own as, in the unrelenting persistence of disbelief, every action is accredited the most questionable motives. In such a context, the optimism of will can suffer from the paralysis of action. In such a context, political mobilization for sustained transformation can be an uneven process particularly in the moments when the "best lack all conviction and the worst are full of passionate intensity".

4. An important element in the long term revitalization of Caribbean politics is the struggle against historical amnesia – too often a symptom of partisan infection of the body politic. The contradictions of behavior and principle must be viewed in historical perspective so that the comparisons drawn can be adequate. The preeminence of narrow self-interest too often obscures that historical perception. One recent example is the contrast in the example of an outgoing administration legitimizing its conversion of leave into payment to the tune of $748,780.96 as against the example of a new administration that establishes an independent commission to rule on salary status that recommends the payment of backpay to a total of $1,473,581.00 for present and former parliamentarians, the latter accounting for $509,952.00

5. The challenges of transforming the state apparatus to wield state power is not an inconsequential matter. In every context of transformation, the persistence of old modes of domination even under a new ruling class constitutes one of the stumbling blocks to the capacity of the new regime to expeditiously implement policy.

6. The persistence of modes of dependence particularly in the context of a small vulnerable economy can prove a burden on the capacity of the state. The neo-classical mythology has painted the state as too much of an interventionist construct. The arguments for the attainment of new efficiencies are compelling but it is virtually impossible to treat the underdeveloped state as a passive agent in the economy. One must face too the reality of the dependence of the traditional private sector. Inspite of being called the engine of growth, its persistent appeal for concessions masks a reluctance to face the real risk of business. In St. Lucia it was estimated that about $74 million was granted in concessions to a private sector in the last fiscal year – effectively constituting a state subsidy of massive proportions to a largely import sector that displays too little entrepreneurial initiative. The unspoken desire behind many of these appeals for concessions is to treat government as the mitigator of risk. In such a context, the state must carefully choose the forms of entrepreneurial endeavor that ought to be privileged by policy – preference ought to be provided to indigenous business that shows the entrepreneurial effort to take on regional competition, with potential for contributing to foreign exchange earnings.

7. Yet another challenge is the management of dissent. A line from the recent throne speech now famously quoted is – "dissonance strengthens democracy". A recognition that, at the end of the day, the ventilation of dissent provides the safety valve of democratic practice. Dissent facilitates the discussion of issues and the clarification of positions on a range of issues. This has been counterposed by a healthy debate on the appropriateness of some forms of criticism and the issue of the appropriate forum for dissent. While notions of "sincere" and "independent" critical scrutiny might appear subjective and open to interpretation, it is this kind of open debate, characterized not by emotional hype but factual and empirical, that we ought to promote.

8. In our political culture in the Caribbean we have been ambivalent about the role of the intellectuals. On the one hand, we have a strong and powerful intellectual tradition to draw upon; on the other hand, there is a reluctance on part of the intelligensia to engage in mainstream political activity. One reason for this is the intolerance in the society fuelled by myopic elements who fuel ignorance and often make the intellectuals the object of their villification.

9. The problematic of the state apparatus particularly in the context of the culture of distrust referred to earlier is another challenge. There is a visceral public distrust over those elements of the state apparatus that exercise a juridical or arbitration function. And not without reason – people want justice to be done and want it to be seen to be done. They call for the comfort of the knowledge that Justice walks the land and that fairness represents the geography of that level public playing field. For political directorates, a tension arises between the imperative of upholding the independence of such organs and the necessity of achieveing their transformation. The crisis of public confidence in the public service is exercabted by poor decision making. In some cases, change is hamstrung by constitutional provisions that are not located in modern management doctrine or by approaches that lag public expectations. A recent example of this is the ruling of the Teaching Service Commission to simply demote a teacher literally caught in a case of sexual misbehavior with a student instead of dismissing that person from the service. Public outrage at such an action gets directed indiscriminately at the Ministry of Education or the Government without the appreciation of the nuances of the independence of the Commission. The lesson in that experience is that, notwithstanding the independence of the process, decision-making is expected to be – in keeping with the temper of the times – transparent and consistently logical.

These collegues are some reflections on the challenges of maintaining an optimism of the will in the face of pessimism of the intellect. If as Bill Gates has asserted, the 21st Century is going to be characterized by business at the speed of thought, then no matter on which side of the digital divide we find ourselves, our processes of governance, our political culture must undergo a radical transformation if democracy is to be sustained. The cultivation of a more informed, more empowered civil society acting with greater autonomy and rationality is an absolute imperative for this future.

I thank you for your indulgence and take great pleasure in declaring your Conference open.


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