Our modern history can be seen as a quest for equality. The irony is that even before the British decamped in 1966, the struggle had shifted from one against the unequal colonial order to one between the two major groups – Indian and African Guyanese. Even though both groups deployed the rhetoric of ‘equality’ in their mobilisation, it was soon obvious that they were basically jockeying to replace the British at the top of the social pile. Not much has changed since.
How then can we make progress towards greater equality? We need to first establish some ground rules about what we are talking about. Most crucially, we should be concerned with our equality as citizens of the State: equality in reference to all that the State offers its citizens. The State was founded to secure the rights of all citizens, so when discussing equality from a national perspective, we should ask in which way the citizens of our country are equal. Here, there hopefully would be broad agreement that if we are all citizens of Guyana, we are all equal, or we should be equal in the possession of the rights guaranteed by the State.
From a group standpoint, this equality of rights by each citizen, translates into a proportionate share of the power in a society. This is a very important connection, because ultimately it is the power exercised by the competing groups that shape the contours of the political and other struggles in the country. However, power is ultimately grounded in the possession of effective and not just “paper” rights.
Now for purposes of analysis, we can group humans, as any other object, by whatever criteria we choose: we can classify Guyanese by gender, class, ethnicity, etc. If rights are equally distributed to all citizens, then no matter how we categorise groups, each group should have equal rights and thus equal (proportionate) power. However, if the rights in their effects were denied to members of a particular classification while others enjoy those rights, the deprived group is oppressed: it does not possess its proportionate share of power.
In human societies, oppression has been perpetuated on all fronts: thus a poor woman may be oppressed simultaneously on the basis of her gender, class, ethnicity, age, religion, and race. This reality introduces the problematic of “intersectionality”. Each of these forms of oppression is ultimately debilitating, in that they cause pain and suffering, and stifles the humanity of the victims. While societies may prioritise their struggle against inequality since resources are limited, all forms of oppression must be challenged. In Guyana, there is a general consensus that the racial/ethnic cleavage is the most salient in terms of actual denial of group rights.
Even if we are to limit our field of endeavour to the rights of all citizens to have equality of rights, this leads us to other problems. For instance, how do we deal with those that enter the race today with ‘equal rights’ but with disabilities historically imposed? This is the situation in Guyana with much of the aggravating ‘inequalities’ immanent in our several ethnic groups after Indigenous Peoples were peripheralised in the hinterland; freed African-Guyanese herded into State institutions and an urban working class and rural Indian-Guyanese retaining their general immigrant drive for economic advancement combined with their specific quest for land imbibed in overcrowded India.
These dilemmas of historical contingencies have led some to extend their definition of “equality” to mean, additionally, equality of results. Now while this may be desirable, we have to concede that this goal implies a distribution which is based on some notion of justice, a particular version of distributive justice that will impinge upon the liberty of many citizens. Equality from this perspective demands a more extensive and intrusive state. It may be what we want, but what we must accept is the ensuing struggle between negative and positive liberties, between the absence of interference by other persons and doing maybe what we ought to.