Values for Constitutional Change

There has been persistent calls for “constitutional reform” and the government members of the Parliamentary “Standing Committee on Constitutional Reform” has just submitted their proposals on the composition the Commission that will oversee any overhaul of our constitution. But in any discussion that will affect the nature of our state and its institutional makeup, we have to ensure that the latter secure the widest possible legitimacy. And for this there is the need for its values to be shared by all our citizens. The meta-values of justice, liberty and equality should be paramount in any scheme of organisation for us, based on our history
The philosopher Immanuel Kant succinctly posed the dilemma of establishing a just state back at the end of the eighteenth century in these terms:
“The problem of organizing a state, however hard it may seem, can be solved, even for a race of devils, if only they are intelligent. The problem is, given a multitude of rational beings requiring universal laws for their preservation, but each of them is sincerely inclined to exempt himself from them, to establish a Constitution in such a way, although their private intentions conflict, they check each other, with the result that their public conduct is the same as if they had no such intentions.”
Al constitutions accept Kant’s proposal that the solution to the inevitable conflicts in organised human societies, lay in the design of appropriate institutions. Kant proposed that institutions, as with all normative behaviour, would have to satisfy the “categorical imperative”: which if followed, would ensure the person(s) behaving in accordance with it, are behaving morally. He defined the categorical imperative: Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Unfortunately, our politicians have always sought to maximise power for their own group, or even more short-sightedly, their own coterie.
The values that have shaped the struggle of all Guyanese above all others are liberty and equality and must become living reality if before we can say that we have justice. The institution of slavery was the apotheosis of “unfreedom”. In the words of Orlando Patterson, “The social construction of freedom was made possible by the relation of slavery. Slavery had to exist before people could even conceive of the idea of freedom as a value, that is to say, find it meaningful and useful, an ideal to be striven for…Slavery immediately made possible something that had never existed before: the absolute, unprotected, unmediated power of life and death of one person over another.” This was the experience of the African slaves during their hundreds of years of enslavement. The lack of freedom of the indentured servants who replaced the slaves on the plantations was also palpable, even though their legal status was not one of “chattel”.
J.S. Mill best stated the British Liberal principle of liberty or freedom by emphasising emphasising, like Hobbes and Bentham before him, what was labelled “negative liberty” – one is free to the extent that you are not under coercion or compulsion of others – the aspect noted by Orlando Patterson above. This is the freedom that all Guyanese hanker for.
After the British granted independence to us in 1964, the concern over “negative” liberty-freedom waned somewhat but the excesses of the Burnhamite dictatorship brought it right up on the political agenda. In Guyana, our early leaders adopted Marxism as their guiding philosophies, they implicitly assumed the “positive” vision of “freedom” – the need to fulfil ones human potential. Burnham saw his role as “moulding” the nation and his chosen vehicles were education and discipline. Jagan criticised specifics not the principle. The essence of that dictatorship was that the powers of the state expanded to such an extent that the political and social space left for civil society became vestigial. The contradictions between the “negative” and “positive” visions of freedom became manifest.
The institutions created by the Colonial and Burnhamite regimes to secure control over society have not disappeared after 1992. In the upcoming constitutional review, those regimes that still fetter our freedoms must be removed.