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Commentary: Two ideas of politics
Published on February 25, 2014 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

Historically, societies have struggled with the idea of what constitutes good governance, and have devised different strategies to create order among its people. Even the Arawaks had their system of governance with chiefs, and in other societies, the medicine men gave advice on what strategies should be followed, and how. The Inca and Aztec civilisations also had sophisticated systems of governance, despite what other civilizations thought of them.

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
But, as we know, these were impacted on not so nicely by those who came from the outside. And the politics of how much government is necessary was reflected in these situations, and still continues.

This idea of what politics or governance should be about is shown in the writings of two political thinkers, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. And this has influenced governance up to the present. Hobbes wrote about what he termed the social contract, which he used to conclude that citizens ought to submit to the authority of an absolute ruler with unlimited power. He felt that for stability to be had, people should refrain from any activity that might undermine the political system. For example, they should not dispute the extent of the power of the absolute ruler, and should not rebel.

Many political writers feel that, because Hobbes lived in a period of social challenges, this was the reason why he saw law and order as being at the heart of politics. And they also see this as providing a basis for authoritarian and dictatorial systems, where the word of the political leader is absolute.

Political leaders in our modern context do not seem to realise that Hobbes stated these views because of the disorderly politics of his day. And some Caribbean historians note that the system of colonial rule in the Caribbean had clear features of Hobbes’ politics. But another reason for the position on politics Hobbes took had to do with his concept of a state of nature in which humans lived their lives.

This alleged state of nature, is a condition without government where each person decides how he should act, and is judge, jury, and executioner when disputes arose. This is why Hobbes advocated absolute power for the ruler to enforce decisions to ensure security, and a civilised life. But Hobbes does say this absolute authority is mutually recognised, because people come together to form an agreement to obey a common authority, since they were incapable of protecting themselves on their own. This also involved a transfer of rights to this absolute authority in return for protection.

But Hobbes seems to contradict himself when he says that political legitimacy does not depend on how a government comes to power, but whether it can effectively protect those who agreed to obey it. He does say that the people are free to disobey some of the government’s policies, but does not seem to appreciate that excessive power can corrupt individuals, and cause them to become a law unto themselves, and not act in the public good.

So here we seem to have the idea of government by dictatorship, and the powerful. And many political leaders have taken their cue from this, and used it as a political strategy to govern. This also suggests government by an elite, although the sovereign authority is mutually recognised and agreed to.

The other view of political governance advocated by John Locke states that men are free and equal by nature, and that people have rights such as the right to life, liberty and property, independent of the laws of society. Locke further notes that legitimate political government comes from a social contract where people transfer some of their rights to the government to ensure the stable, comfortable enjoyment of their lives, liberty, and property. And he adds that, since government exists because of the consent of the people, to promote the public good, any government that fails in its responsibilities can be replaced with a new one. Locke also defends the idea of majority rule.

In general, Locke supports private property, minimal government, and distrusted the use of power, but notes that factions should not be tolerated if their numbers grew to such an extent that they posed a threat to the state. And for him, government is a tool that depends on the consent of the people, and that the state is commissioned by the people to serve their interests.

Locke seems to present a more democratic and consensual view of politics. Government results from the consent of the people. It is not absolute, and its power is not absolute either. In Locke’s view of politics, government is an instrument of the people to institute their wishes. It is not separated and apart from the people. Here we have a view of politics which puts the sovereignty of the people in the forefront.

Government is not above, or on top of people, but is there to execute their will. People put a government in place to protect them and promote the good of everyone. And if it fails in this, it loses support, and can be replaced. This is direct democracy, with the full weight and expression of people power.

But it so happens that politics in the Caribbean seems to be based on a form of deception. Although some political aspirants go to the people and ask for their support, the agreement is not reciprocal. What really happens is that, after voting for a political party, what the people appear to have really voted for is to put a certain number of people in jobs, which many could not get elsewhere because they lack the proper and relevant credentials, exposure, and experience. The lives of many voters remain the same, and what results from political activity, is a form of tribal warfare, with the victory of one over the other, accompanied by continued skirmishes until the next time around.

There is no concept of looking after the general will of the people, or of a social contract to which government and the people subscribe. Rather, Caribbean politics is legalistic, bureaucratic, and somewhat static and repetitive. It appears incapable of making the kind of radical changes that would transform the lives of constituents.

The authoritarianism of Hobbes’ view seems to predominate over the real and direct democracy advocated by Locke. Political institutions in the Caribbean seem to pass legislation that has neither meaning nor purpose to the majority of Caribbean people. Our political systems reap from the people in the form of more taxes, rather than sow genuine development initiatives that enable them to use their energy and initiative to live a decent rewarding existence.

Good, caring politics does not allow poverty, unemployment, and crime to be a constant feature of political life. This happens because Caribbean political systems do not provide people with a genuine vision of how things could be, with their help. And this is why we have societies where development initiatives, when manifested, are lopsided, and appear not to have the desired impact on the circumstances of the majority.

Perhaps the Caribbean political directorate needs to study some of the political ideas of the ancient philosophers, and gain some wisdom from them. To their surprise, they might find that what they are now struggling about was dealt with in antiquity. And people like Plato, Locke, and Rousseau would be a healthy place from which to begin the quest for a more ethical politics, and a more authentic, people oriented development strategy, which could emerge, which is sustainable. But they would have to trust the people first. They will then understand that sometimes in order to move forward, you have to look back with new eyes, and an open mind.
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