In the past few months as the buildup to the Independence Jubilee celebrations intensified, there have been several interventions from older Guyanese bemoaning what they consider a fall in civic standards. At the most mundane level, but perhaps as a symptom of deeper systemic contradictions, is the fall in the etymologically related value of “civility”.
As man moved from the “state of nature” where life was “nasty, brutish and short” to one in which “right” did not necessarily emanate from “might” but rather from acting in accordance with rules of behaviour commonly agreed to in forming the “state”, it was expected that some of the “brutish” behaviours would have been jettisoned. What then has caused this apparent reversion towards the “state of nature”?
We can examine our starting point: the colonial society in which the informal mores and norms were followed more rigorously and the laws of the colonial state that solidified the moral rules by applying sanctions if they were transgressed, were also followed more strictly. How is it that we have not been able to replicate that state of affairs after independence?
Perhaps it is because of how independence was delivered to us: it was clear to all citizens there was a tremendous gap between what was supposed to be the morality of governance and what was actually done.
In most of the analyses about “independence”, officials have generally elided the fact that we were clearly pawns in a new “great game” between the new “big powers” – the USA and USSR. The terms of the “independence” that was handed to us, were not necessarily in line with the preached morality and to that extent denied legitimacy to the successors of the colonial state and their mores, values and laws.
The people of Guyana had lived together in a generally peaceful manner even though there were some strains between the descendants of the several groups that had been brought into the colony to provide labour for the sugar plantations.
It was the US and its CIA that precipitated riots to oust the PPP from office because the latter had sympathies and connections with communist USSR and their ideology. The subsequent changing of the electoral rules from “First Past the Post” to “Proportional Representation” to achieve the ouster, while sanctimoniously claiming it furthered “democracy”, made a whole generation very cynical about the laws that undergirded the very foundation of their state.
Subsequent manipulation of the electoral laws and even the constitution of the country did not do anything to recapture the loss of faith in the laws of the land. But the “civic culture” that creates good citizens are not only formed from the external negative imperatives of the laws that are enforced by the coercive arms of the state. Even more fundamentally, they are formed by the internal controls instilled by the family, schools and communities in which the citizens are socialised into practicing the values of the society as “common sense”.
But as families suffered discrimination and persecution for their political beliefs, as they suffered privations also from loss of jobs due to the implosion of the economy, parents themselves were pushed into dysfunctional behaviours that spoke louder to their children than their words. Schools perform optimally when they can assure their charges that education can deliver status and improvement in their standards of living. This they failed to do for decades and it should surprise no one that the students – especially boys – became very sceptical of “education”.
Finally, communities, in which groups volunteer to be part of religious and social organisations that also powerfully transmitted civic values of cooperation and harmony, also faced strains that challenged their functionality.
Today, if Guyana is to recapture that “old time” civil spirit, change must start from the top. The government in charge of the state must act in such a manner than all citizens would be convinced the laws are just.