Group identity and Constitutional change
The ROAR of Ravi Dev
While the Government has finally proposed a consultative mechanism for initiating its campaign promise for “constitutional change”, they are once again putting the cart before the horse. A constitution basically allocates power in the state to ensure the society is governed according to the wishes of the people, and that the people in turn are not oppressed by the state. While the politicians like to pretend otherwise, “power” is what politics is all about: the currency of politics is power, and politics is ultimately concerned with the competition of groups within a given society to capture and secure power.
If this allocation of power is to be acceptable to all, that is, for it to be legitimate and authoritative, shouldn’t we begin by finding out first what kind of society we are; what kind of society our citizens want, and what are the obstacles that must be overcome to bring such a society into being? The constitution can then be crafted to deal with those obstacles immanent in the structures of the state. Other obstacles must be dealt with by other institutions, since, ultimately, changes in moral and cultural consciousness precede changes in political behaviour.
Within each polity, the competition for power is informed by the political culture, structures, and institutions present in the society. “Political culture” basically consists of the attitudes, beliefs, values and orientations about politics in a given population at any given time. After half-a-century of “self-rule” after independence, our political culture, for instance is dominated by a pervasive belief that the major political parties not only favour the group that forms their base, but actually work to “marginalise” the other groups. Constitutional change must address this view.
The nature of these politicised groups is therefore crucial to an understanding of the politics in any country. In general, the composition of these competing groups varies with the nature of the cleavages in the society: all societies are split economically, most ethnically and some racially. These categories are not mutually exclusive and may occur in varying combinations: in Guyana for instance, race and ethnicity coincide, and are used synonymously. The nature of the political competition depends on which of the cleavages, if any, emerge as the most salient, which in turn, hinges on various contingencies: structural/economic, historical, political and psychological.
Our political structures were foisted on us by Europeans who assumed they had already ‘solved’ their ethnic/nationalist problem by transmuting it from a ‘national’ problem into an international one when they formed more or less ethnically homogenous states. “State” and “nation” were generally synonymous to the early European constitutionalists who focused on economic cleavages rather than ethnic ones, which were peripheral to their reality. The few, who did, such as J.S. Mill, pessimistically concluded that: “Free institutions are next to impossible in a country made up of different nationalities”. England, of course, is still trying to deal with its “Scottish and Irish problems”.
But yet in Guyana, where race/ethnicity transcends class as the dominant cleavage and suffuses politics as well as most other social interactions, we have ignored the implications of this source of group identity in the political institutions created by the constitution. A powerful norm has emerged which militates against the public acknowledgement of this fact by the political parties. In spite of this, these same politicians, by their mobilization tactics and other activities, demonstrate that they have come to a modus vivendi with the racial/ethnic imperative.
Until the politicians and other actors in the public arena openly and publicly confront the racial/ethnic bases of Guyanese political culture and structures, and deal with its consequences affirmatively, we will remain mired in a Sisyphean paradigm. Doomed to struggle strenuously - perhaps even heroically - but ultimately futilely, for the goal they all claim to share in common - a Guyana in which all groups can have their just share of power: political, economic and social. As part and parcel - and in fact as suggested - as a condition precedent to the taking proposals on constitutional change, this discussion must take place.