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Commentary: Our Caribbean: The politics of social harmony
Published on May 14, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

A former prime minister of a Caribbean country, on the eve of its independence, stated that a nation has been born, but a society has not been formed. He said this because, going into independence, his country was carrying with it inherited racial divisions, causing social disharmony, splintered political groups, extremists making demands on the system, and unresponsive colonial institutions in need of reform and redirection.

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
All of these issues required immediate attention if the country was not to experience a downward spiral into divisiveness and disharmony among its population, leading to social tensions and instability, with political implications.

The philosopher Plato states in reference to social peace or harmony that the political community consists of different classes with different values, the same as the prime minister mentioned above found on assuming office. Plato notes that social peace or harmony is to be obtained through the cooperation and friendship of all, and that the best form of government seeks to reconcile different interests. When competing interests are reconciled, social harmony results.

Politics therefore becomes the means by which the society is ordered, where each social group adds to the common good. Plato then argues that the quality of human life can be improved if people learn to be rational and understand that their real interests are in harmonious cooperation with each other, and not in partisan strife. To me, this is the essence of social harmony.

Generally, social harmony is seen as the peaceful interaction of members of society irrespective of different social groups, and this is based on trust, and respect, and is an antidote to social injustice and inequality. Plato also states that justice is the foundation of a good political order, concerns the common good, and provides a sense of unity.

My view is that, when justice and harmony are preserved through just acts, then this is the basis for social peace. If justice is seen to be massaged, or staged, so that a particular result emerges, then fairness is sidestepped, and this results in ramped up political activity with un-needed after effects. Politics should promote social harmony, justice, and fairness. When this happens, the society becomes ordered and rational, and is guided by informed judgment.

An editorial in a Caribbean paper recently referred to the country concerned as having a bloated public sector. It further noted that politicians had created a bureaucracy to serve their interests, that people were hired to bolster political support, and that politicians rewarded their friends and associates after general elections, and gave them contracts to do government work whether they were capable or not. This was payback for political support.

These kinds of actions cause social unease, and breed social discontent. If a bureaucracy serves the interests of politicians, this causes social mistrust, and people lose confidence in what it does, since anything would be regarded as politically motivated, and serving partisan interests. These acts challenge social harmony, and where political friends are rewarded, it means politics contributes to a system of social bias, and not social harmony or peace.

In a non-English speaking Caribbean country, the maximum leader recently signed a bill into law to toughen measures against government functionaries and others involved in corruption, which includes illicit enrichment, money laundering, overbilling, influence peddling, bribes, and nepotism. These are activities that deprive the state of resources, and put them into tainted pockets. It means less revenue for the state, the curtailment of social programmes, and an inability to implement policies on infrastructure projects in a broad way.

When the society finds out about this, it sees government as unfair, as catering to a few at the expense of the many, and as showing preference for some over others. This causes disharmony in the way people feel about their institutions, and they could withdraw their support as a result, which translates into using their political power to change the status quo, and restore fairness and the values that bring about social harmony.

An opposition leader in another non-English speaking territory is suspected of money laundering and forgery. What kind of political soil produces this mental outlook and psychology? When the populace sees its leaders who should be among its best and brightest engaging in such activities, it brings a sense of political shame on the country and its people. They feel violated, and this translates into a temporary withdrawal from the political process, creating disharmony among citizens. Social harmony therefore can be restored through the elimination of those acts that brought about disharmony and disrupted social peace.

It is clear, then, that social harmony could be impacted on by political acts. When some politicians feel they are the law, this leads to illegal and anti-social behaviour. This negatively affects the image of the country, and causes splits in the community, since there are some groups who give their support one way or the other. Ethical behaviour in office on the other hand, brings about respect, and for a rule-governed society, this means fairness, and a common acceptance of what is desirable becomes the way of life, as a result contributing to the social harmony of the community.

When life in a society is lived in harmony, economic growth increases, since people invest in a situation where confidence and decency prevail. A society that exists in harmony lives a positive social and cultural life. Its people are happier, because of shared values, civic affairs are conducted in a principled way, and mistrust as a practice is absent. The need to cheat, and to breach social norms, does not arise, since these are alien to the culture. Social affairs can therefore be conducted nobly, since the new role of politics is to create a just society, individual happiness and well- being, and an environment where division ends, and where harmony becomes a social value.
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