An American statesman once said that Americans needed to improve the ‘promise’ of their democracy by first improving the ‘practice’ of their democracy.
The Barbados Labour Party Government has announced the establishment of the Thorne Commission on Local Governance to fashion ‘community-based People’s participatory governance structures.’ The ostensible purpose is to give the citizenry a say in both local and national concerns. This would involve the setting up of 20 People’s Assemblies organised over Barbados’ eleven parishes.
A few days before the announcement, I heard a statement on one of the American TV networks which claimed that politicians have never heard of an idea that they would not seek to ‘weaponize’ to their own partisan political advantage.
To suggest that the Barbados Labour Party’s idea of People’s Assemblies is simply about gaining a political advantage would be both cynical and uncharitable. One of the longstanding and evidentially probative critiques of Barbadian and West Indian democratic practice is that it is deficiently participatory. Hence the notion of ‘The Hero and the Crowd.’ There is little to suggest that either the BLP or the DLP has worked consistently to enhance popular participation in national governance. Neither has shown an eagerness to embrace opposing opinion. Nothing indicates this more than the obsequious way in which both parties have tended to use the government-owned Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation as a voice of the ruling party. The devolvement of power and the enfranchisement of the citizen are hardly commensurate with the feral political attitudes governments display after years in power.
Looking at participatory democracy from a historical perspective, the late Professor Simeon McIntosh points out that the Barbados Independence Constitution was itself not grounded in popular participation. He wrote: “The process of constitutional founding was not one in which it can truthfully be said that the people were engaged in a discursive, deliberative, collective conversation as to the fundamental terms of their political order.”
The Anglophone Caribbean is blessed by many of the laudable characteristics of liberal democracy, many of them, a benign legacy of British colonial rule. Yet, we continue to lament the fact that except for the vote every five years, Caribbean people do not exercise a sufficiency of participation with and control over those who govern them. In 1991, Pat Rahming published this calypso verse:
‘Dey coming out the woodwork just like worm,
Everybody catching politics just like germ,
Dey chasing after sweetness just like fly,
All dat means is five more years gon by.’
Paul Ginsborg, in an article entitled How to save democracy, suggests that disaffection with liberal democratic praxis is increasingly reflected in low voter turnout, falling party membership, loss of faith in democratic institutions and distrust of political elites. In a 1968 survey done in Sweden, 60 per cent of respondents stated that political parties were interested in the people’s opinions. By 1994, the figure had fallen to a mere 25 per cent.
It would therefore represent a significant paradigmatic shift if the intended Assemblies could, in fact, effectively change the existing trend. On a theoretical and prima facie level, the notion of devolved government to ordinary citizens in community assemblies is highly laudable. But as an informal Barbados TODAY survey showed, Barbadians would want to know more about the details of the proposal.
Will the assemblies be significantly different from the meritless DLP Constituency Councils to which the BLP itself was justifiably opposed? One difference is that the assemblies will be elected. Does this mean that all parties can contend for seats? Is this not likely to increase political dissension and discord? The proposal adds a new tier to the governance of Barbados. Is the expected outcome likely to outweigh the added expenditure at a time when we should be reining in the cost of government? Do we run the risk of creating little local fiefdoms occupied by persons whose only cause is their popularity and political affiliation?
The case for some form of localised governance has always been that area concerns such as road repairs, sanitation, welfare assistance and transport can be better dealt with at the local level than by more distant centralised bureaucracies.
Those of us who came to full political consciousness in the late 1960s and ‘70s, inspired by the American Civil Rights struggle and the Black Power movement, searched for a revolutionary ethic that would shake off what George Lamming calls ‘the antagonistic weight of the past.’ We have seen how so much of it has fizzled out. We have grown wary of phrases like ‘platforms to partnership’, ‘people’s empowerment’, ‘economic enfranchisement’ and ‘citizenship engagement’. We continue to labour not only under the antagonistic weight of the past but the terrifying challenges of the present.
Ralph Jemmott is a respected retired educator.