ROAR of Ravi Dev
In the ongoing debate on the merits and demerits of “ethnic” representation by some of our public intellectuals, those who insist there are specifically “ethnic” concerns and issues that must be articulated and represented are dubbed, “tribalists”. Now I have always been deeply offended when this particular term is used in odium and contrasted with being “nationalist”. Firstly it connotes the image of societies that have tribes, especially in Africa, as irredeemably backward and violent and needing to get on with it to become “modern” and develop into a “state”. But what is the modern “nation” – constructed in Europe – but the “tribe” writ large? And which tribe has been more violent than, for instance, those same nations as they fought their “world wars”? Witness the survival of European “tribalism” in the Brexit phenomena through the different reactions of the English, Scots, Irish and Welsh, not to mention the about-to-be-expelled Eastern Europeans.
Rather than condemn the phenomenon, therefore, our elite opinion makers ought to try to understand the wellsprings of ethnicity and ethnic aspirations especially. The norm of not publicly conceding the pre-eminence of ethnicity in Guyana is one result of the ideological blinders imposed by a Eurocentric scholarship to which most of the opinion- shaping elite still subscribes. Modern social science developed in a Europe that had already ‘solved’ its ethnic 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 theorists 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”.
The dominance of ethnicity over class in most multiethnic societies does not imply that class is negated; they both exist objectively and subjectively. The two interact dynamically and as to which preponderates depends on the situation and context. The transformation of class and ethnicity from analytic categories into social groups is a contingency that involves the same set of actors, and where the class and ethnic motives may either conflict or reinforce each other. In multiethnic, multi-class societies such as Guyana, situations which pose perceived threats to the survival of a group, be it violence or domination by other groups, tend to evoke “ethnic” responses while local economic issues, which pose threats at the individual level, may evoke a “class” reaction.
Ethnicity is particularly susceptible to politicisation since it fulfils the instrumental economic demands of “class” while simultaneously satisfying the affective, emotional, cultural and moral needs of its group members (ethnic interests). In a world of scarce resources and all-pervasive governments, ethnic political entrepreneurs do not find it difficult to persuade fellow group members that their economic interests are better served if their group controls the state. The affirmation of themselves as a people, and the economic interest served, mutually reinforce each other.
Ethnicity is based on the perception by a group that it possesses common traits, primarily cultural and ascriptive, and common origins, which taken together make them distinctive from other groups. Objectively, when as in Guyana the ethnic groups are from different races, the exclusiveness of each group is indisputable as the cultural markers of different religions, mores, and social institutions become reinforced by the disparate racial characteristics of skin colour, hair texture, etc… The cultural basis of ethnicity makes it impossible to compartmentalise from other aspects of life – political, social, and economic. Instead of disappearing as most had postulated, the opposite has occurred with ethnicity, as modern man searches for meaning, struggles against atomisation and seeks transcendence. ‘The ethnic group is the only social institution that defines and accepts persons for what they are and not by what they do’.
Subjectively, the individual’s perception of self and identity is formed in the early years of socialization, when typically, the ethnic markers themselves become a part of the individual’s identity. In our estimation, therefore, political and other leaders have to acknowledge the legitimacy of ethnic concerns and deal with them objectively rather than pretending that they are distasteful and must be swept under a rug. “Reconciliation” as we understand it, is needed between our ethnic protagonists in Guyana.