With the approach of elections — especially with the PNC-led Government trying desperately to push the date backwards — many of the deeply embedded fears in our society and polity are rising to the fore, especially the “race” questions; but we should not be surprised.
Guyanese politics, like all politics, is rooted in the structure of the society and the rules of the political game.
By the time of Independence, Guyana was almost the paradigmatic, structural, hierarchical plural society, with the ethnic groups differentially integrated into the power structure. This differential integration provided dynamism for change, as each group tried to improve their position. It was not difficult to foresee that “culture” would become a stalking horse for “power”.
The nature of the cleavages influences the political culture, political competition, and any political conflict.
Unfortunately, the nature of the salient cleavage is a contested topic in Guyana even today, and some refuse to discuss this threshold issue, which must be crossed before we can craft a stable democracy in Guyana.
An appreciation of the nature of the social groups in Guyana’s groups is essential to evaluate the claims of our politicians as to the nature of the social changes that are most pertinent in positively structuring our political competition and participation. If the competitors for political power do not share a common framework for conceptualising their struggle, they would simply be talking past each other in any attempt at reconciliation.
As we asserted above, political mobilisation is always done along some actual or potential fault-line, which creates political factions in every society. In Guyana, the cultural differences and origins (ethnicity), co-joined with “race”, evolved as the most pertinent marker for political mobilisation. In his seminal work, the scholar Barth argued that the defining feature of an ethnic group is not the particular elements of culture or kinship that differentiate it from other groups, but the mere fact that boundaries are perceived and persist.
The membership criteria and the membership itself tends to change over time, as people come and go and invent and develop new traditions and ways of life, but the group itself nevertheless endures as a way of structuring social life. This is a very important point in Guyana, where some observers insist that all the groups here share so many cultural features in common — especially language — we should not speak of Guyana as “multicultural”.
The dominant politicians of the modern era, however, insist that class was more “fundamental”, and worked to ensure “class consciousness”. In this way, they avoided dealing with the central reality of political action – ethnicity. While most countries are multicultural, and the cultural differences may be the most common axis of differentiation and even political cleavage between the groups, the societies do not all inevitably become as divided as Guyana and a number of other countries have become.
In fact, they have earned themselves a special name in political science: deeply divided societies. The major variables in determining the difference in the intensity of the politics and whether the conflict may become undemocratic in multiethnic societies have been the rules of political competition, the relative sizes of the groups, the resources at their disposal, and the strategies of their leaders.
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 social, economic and identity interests are better served if their group controls the state; that is, if they unite their political interests.
The affirmation of themselves as a people, and the economic interest served mutually reinforce each other. In our political culture, ethnicity has proven to be the most fertile ground for political mobilization.
The task in front of us today is not to succumb to the siren songs of the ethnic entrepreneurs, but to appreciate that if there is one lesson our history has taught us – especially between 1968 and 1990 – it is that this is the path to perdition.