The Politics of Presence

All around us, we witness the demand for “representation by presence” in calls for “diversity” in institutions. Women have led this struggle in the modern era. In our own Guyana, the law demands that thirty percent of the members of Parliament must be women. This is an open acknowledgement that women must represent their views by their presence. The most contentious proposition in Guyana, of course, is that, analogously, the representation of ethnic perspectives and interests must also be effected by the “presence” of the said ethnic members.
My own efforts in this area – to suggest that we openly talk about, and deal with, ethnic interests in ways that include the politics of presence – have received quite a hostile reception, to say the least. Many insist that such talk is “divisive”. Never mind that even more virulent and divisive “talk” goes on under bottom houses, and now on social media. But those who complain of the open articulation and representation of ethnic interests are being disingenuous. They do not mention that, to our credit, we recognise the interests of one such ethnic group – our Indigenous brothers and sisters – and enshrine them in our Constitution. The sky hasn’t fallen because of that recognition. There are no complaints because Indigenous Peoples are paternalistically viewed as “wards”. They are not so sanguine about African and Indian Guyanese.
One more trenchant criticism is that while acknowledging that there may be ethnic perspectives and interests, some hold that these don’t have to be represented by the actual presence of the particular ethnics. This position – the representation of ideas – posits that once the interests of a group are identified, anyone can then represent them. The representative “acts” for the group as their agent. This, of course, was what the Europeans said of the various natives they encountered during their “noble venture” to spread their civilisation. They could represent slaves, for instance, since they (the Europeans) knew what was in the best interests of the slaves. Many men still don’t see why all the fuss for women to represent their interests by their own presence.
Marxists were in the forefront in their rejection of the politics of presence. After all, how else could they justify a bunch of “intellectuals” representing the “working” class. But the Marxists’ experience with that form of representation exposed its weaknesses – not the least being that the working class, who were supposed to rule, never themselves got a shot at holding the sceptre. They had to continue with their “heroic” task of working. When a group has been historically and systematically excluded from representing themselves, the very act of representation serves, at the very minimum, to uplift them by demonstrating that their voices and concerns have value. Their presence also serves to inhibit the others from continuing with acts or speeches that denigrate them as part and parcel of their oppression. When Africans and Coloureds, for instance, began to enter the Combined Court back in the nineteenth century, it inhibited the planters in denigrating them.
The bottom line is that even if the representatives of one group are quite serious about representing another self-identified group, continued ethnic voting signals that something vital might be lost. That “something” is the lived experience of the group: the hopes, aspirations, fears; in a word, their perspective. This is not to say that there is no value in the representation of “ideas” for a group; some representation is better than nothing. In like vein, it is not to say that the presence of members of a group guarantees their proper representation. We Guyanese are only too familiar with tokenism – be it ethnic or gender. We have to combine the “ideas” of the group with the presence of the group, especially when there had been systematic exclusion.
We have emphasised that Guyana is now a nation of minorities, so that any party winning an election must have “cross-ethnic” support. But to eliminate real or perceived tokenism, and ensure the representation of presence, we have proposed ethnic caucuses in the major parties – along the lines of the Black and Hispanic Caucuses in the US democratic system. PM Mark Phillips has begun this process, which can be widened.
We have allowed others to speak for us during our entire history, and the scars of tokenism persist. Isn’t it time we speak for ourselves to each other – about the kind of Guyana we want going forward? That’s what the political system should now facilitate.