The Politics of Entitlement

The Politics of Entitlement

Photo : Ravi Dev

The ROAR of Ravi Dev

Last week, I reprised one explanation of the dynamics of our politics in Guyana from a paper I wrote in 1998, after the “disorders” of Jan. 12 of that year when several hundred Indians were beaten on the streets of Georgetown by PNC supporters protesting the results of the Dec 1997 elections. I do so because I see unfortunate signs of its recurrence.

Donald Horowitz summarized those dynamics in a simple equation:

Group Worth + Group Legitimacy = Group Entitlement

Last week, I wrote about the inclination of groups in plural societies to compare their situation against other groups and their propensity to categorize the actions of “out groups” negatively. When questions of group worth arising from the comparison are coupled with claim by group(s) to greater legitimacy, this translates into a “politics of entitlement” i.e. the latter groups will demand greater entitlement to the national patrimony.

With the state as the arbiter of the allocation of who gets what, when and how, the perception of being denied their “due greater share” precipitates a struggle to control the state. Where the group that has suffered in comparison as to its “group worth” is also the group that is claiming greater group legitimacy (eg, “greater suffering”) but this claim is contested by the other groups, the potential for extreme behaviour rises exponentially, because of the politics of entitlement they will pursue. The claim is contested most often when the groups are of comparable size as in Fiji, Guyana or Trinidad.

The assertion of greater legitimacy is the dominant posture of the African community in Guyana today (1998), as is their politics of entitlement that demands abandoning the norms` of equal treatment and opportunity. Normally such groups will demand greater educational or business opportunities but the real problem arises when such groups do not concede the right of any other group than themselves to govern. They will insist on departure from the majoritarian principle of democracy and in fact would even go as far as imposing a minority dictatorship. This is the position of the PNC, on behalf of the African community in Guyana since its formation in 1958 and is the fear behind Indian’s resistance to President Granger’s unilateral appointment of the GECOM Chair

Indians and Africans in Guyana do not only view those who are the “rulers” from an instrumental standpoint, but from a symbolic perspective that is at the heart of “group worth”. It is not the individual per se who is important, but which group he is seen to symbolize or represent. Power thus becomes an end in itself. Because of the experience of the domination and humiliations by the previous masters, much emotion is invested into the identity of ruler; the symbolism is crucial. This process is magnified in the instance of Africans who had been enslaved, which was the most extreme alienation from power.

The PNC has done a great disservice by not pointing out to its African supporters that Africans still control most of the bases of power in Guyana: the Disciplined Forces, the Bureaucracy, the Judiciary and control of the capital of Georgetown. In 1998, by implying the office of the Presidency possessed all power, the PNC incited their supporters into violence to recapture their “birthright”. Today with the PNC in power, they will do the same to keep it all.

The “group entitlements” are economic, psychosocial, political, etc, “goods” which the group believe it is justifiably entitled to and while historically determined, the economic and the political have become paramount. These will normally be evaluated versus the conditions in the society that determine the group’s chances of getting what they believe they are “legitimately” entitled. Those conditions, such as support from the police, armed forces, and Civil Service (“kith and kin:) and now, capture of the government, will be exploited to literally, “deliver the goods”.

But even when the goods are not delivered, as shown by the 1992 HIES, African-Guyanese still voted en masse for the PNC. In “the politics of “legitimacy”, groups do not judge their position in absolute terms and by intrinsic criteria, but by how well or not their opponents are doing. The Indians had not done better.