Commentary: Manley’s democratic socialist project

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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

By Oliver Mills

Democratic socialist ideology, was very popular in the Caribbean in the 70s, as a political lever to achieve social and economic transformation to benefit critical sectors of the economy and society that were allegedly historically disadvantaged. But frankly, it is not an ideology or philosophy of politics and governance. It is actually a number of populist incremental steps that were taken by the political directorate to minimise discontent and enhance hope among the lower sectors of society.

This brought only short term success, since it proved unsustainable, because of a productivity deficit, and alleged antagonism from certain first world governments. And although it was abandoned as a strategy sometime later, aspects of it continue to be embedded in the policies of certain Caribbean political parties.

Yvad Billings in a piece in the Jamaica Observer titled “Is Manley’s vision worth revisiting?” states that democratic socialism is one of the many philosophies through which governments seek to organise the economy, and that it emphasises democratic management of economic institutions within a market driven, or decentralized, planned economy.

He however needs to say that democratic management refers to the democratic aspect of socialism, and decentralisation and a planned economy are the socialist ingredients of democratic socialism. This distinguishes it from a traditionally capitalist oriented economy controlled by the elite.

Billings argues further that Michael Manley failed in his attempt at introducing democratic socialism in Jamaica, and some of the reasons were sharp class divisions, the entrenched position of a highly privileged elite, the world economic recession at the time, anti-democratic socialist propaganda, and a lack of political education.

He proceeds to address the political, and socio-economic issues existing in Jamaica which Manley sought to address through democratic socialism.

There are certain questions that should be posed. For example, how precisely could sharp class divisions be a reason for the failure of such a populist notion of politics? Democratic socialism was meant to be inclusive of all social groups, working purposefully to advance the interests of the state and its citizens. It was not meant to be divisive or deferring to one group over the other.

So in the case of Manley, how is it that social cohesion, was not achieved? Were the ideals of democratic socialism interpreted as hostile to traditional elites who saw nothing in it for them? And why were there no vigorous attempts to convince the elite that it was in their interests also, and did not mean taking from them to give to others? Was it made clear to the majority group that it had to contribute to the economy and its competitiveness, so that the country as a whole could benefit in everyone’s interest?

Were the main advisers of the maximum leader too evangelical in their approach to politics, and never at any point tried to reason out the consequences of what they were engaged in? Did the spirit of politics overcome its substance and purpose? And were the political architects of democratic socialism so concerned with their own self-righteousness that it blurred their vision of what was possible? Was there a need for ideological detachment in order to find their political bearings, so the course could be adjusted? If the maximum leader had risen above the enthusiasm of the masses instead of being caught up in it, would he have seen more clearly the need for a course correction?

When Billings says that anti-democratic socialist propaganda, and a lack of political education were some of the reasons why Manley’s failed at introducing democratic socialism, he does not say what constitutes anti-democratic socialist propaganda? And why was this not countered by conceptualising an effective political education strategy?

If a particular political view is going to be articulated, then it should also be accompanied by the political skills and knowledge to successfully deal with intellectual assaults on it. Politics is the ability to convince and win others over to a point of view. It is also about anticipating critique and formulating a strategy to off-set it convincingly. This cements follower support.

For Billings to say that Manley failed falsely implies that political thought is about success and failure. Democratic socialism cannot be equated with a pass, fail test. It was an idea that underwent shifts because of changing domestic sentiments. And aspects of it remain over time, even though its totality as a body of thought was not realised. To say Manley failed, is to mischaracterise the dynamics of politics. The fact that Billings suggests revisiting it testifies to its staying power.

To further his view of Manley’s failure, Billings alleges that Manley’s strategies occurred at the wrong time, and were bound to fail given the level of external shocks, and the reaction of the quasi-capitalist class.

Is there a right or wrong time for a strategy? How is the appropriate time determined objectively? The implementation of any strategy is done over time, with twists and turns in between. So how could Billings talk about the failure of Manley’s strategy?

He also blamed external shocks. These economic winds affect all Caribbean countries, and have very little to do with politics alone. A quasi-capitalist class can only have minimal influence on the failure of a political strategy. The weight given to it by Billings is overstated.

Billings, in closing his discourse, does not really indicate whether Manley’s vision is worth revisiting. What he does is to say that an analysis of socio-economic and political issues in Jamaica reveals the need for change to deepen the democratic process and create a more just society.

He gives Manley credit for noticing these at the time, among other inadequacies, and says he sought to address these through democratic socialism. He also concedes that the society is drifting towards becoming more unjust.

Despite this, Billings still does not answer the question posed by his own article. But it could be gleaned from his statements about the Manley model, that he grudgingly, but without commitment, feels it should be revisited.

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