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Slandering Our Time

By Dr. Selwyn R. Cudjoe
May 17, 2010

It is true in philosophy as it is in political science that if one asks the wrong question one is likely to get a wrong answer. Trapped in a climate of uncertainty, the question that faces the Trinidad and Tobago voter on May 24 is not whether the People's Partnership (PP) can hold together if it is elected or whether Kamla is an inspirational genius? It is whether PP and Kamla who happen to be in the right place at the right time can fulfill their roles as creative place holders in our country's political history.

As I see it, the PP is simply an amalgam of individuals, parties and interests that have come together to get rid of the PNM. Their past histories have taught them (remember ONR in 1981 and COP in 2007) that if the opposition parties divide the votes they cannot defeat PNM. Coming together (and Kamla and Jack Warner must be credited for this achievement) gives them a better chance to defeat the PNM and that is their raison d'etre. It is irrelevant whether the PP possesses a common philosophy or how long they can stay together. The inchoateness of the present moment may just allow them to prevail in 2010.

It is my contention that Trinidad and Tobago has reached or is about to enter another stage of its social development. Since the inception of elected representative government in 1925 the society has advanced through certain stages and thrown up leaders to meet the challenges which faced the society. Such changes have as much to do with the individual leaders as they have to do with the activities of people in their everyday lives at particular moments of their history.

If we look at our history we will that Captain Cirpiani and the Trinidad Workingmen's Association (TWA) were the most important players between 1920 and 1935. While Cipriani and the TWA made notable achievements (such age old pensions; a modicum of representative government; fortnight holidays for municipal workers) when more militant workers came onto the scene they were no longer relevant and gave way to another political force.

Cipriani was followed by Uriah Butler who first came into the public eye when he led a hunger march in Port of Spain in 1935. The deteriorating conditions of the workers on the sugar estates and the oil fields (as a result of the depression) and a rising cost of living between 1935 and 1937 allowed Butler to rally dissatisfied workers to his cause. In 1936, he formed the British Empire Workers and Citizens Home Rule Party and led the oil disturbances in 1937 which inaugurated a new chapter of our history.

The extension of the representative principle in 1945 threw up an interesting alliance between Butler and the East Indians. The elections of 1946 and 1950 respectively elevated Butler's status. He banded with the East Indians to become one of the most prominent political leader of the period. Indeed, most of the elected members of his party were East Indians. Although Albert Gomes played a prominent role during the early part of the 1950s, Butler remained the most prominent leader during that period.

Dr. Williams and the PNM entered the political arena in 1956. They ushered in a new political era that was characterized by the achievement of internal self-government and national independence. However, these notable achievements did not erase all the obstacles that stood in the way of the liberation of the underclass hence the onslaught of the Black Power movement in 1970. Like the nationalist struggle, it was part of a larger international current of freedom that was taking place throughout the world.

This turmoil of the Black Power revolt was intensified by the oil boom of 1973 which tore the social fabric asunder. From then on the rise of financial capital (the age of "the blues") depreciated the social capital we had developed over the previous century. From 1973 to 2010 we witnessed the declining importance of our village councils; our friendly societies; our Boy Scout movement; our garden clubs and other such social organizations. Although we had more money the quality of our social relations declined considerable.

The death of Eric Williams in 1981 coincided with an end of the hegemony of the PNM and de-centered the nationalist movement. After the defeat of the PNM in 1986 (it had lost the Federal Elections in 1958) national governments changed five times, an indication of the fragmentary and unsettled nature of the society and the crying need for something new. Although Vision 2020 tried to fill the gap its inability to center on people rather than things (big buildings, etc) diffused the post-nationalist movement further.

Today the society is at a cross roads. Although the PNM has lost its way the PP has not offered anything different. It seems to be in a competition with the PNM to see who can offer the society more things (such as $100 m. Life fund; a raise in old age pensions; free laptops to all SEA students, etc.,) rather than demand that our citizens contribute more of their spiritual and creative gifts to the society. In this interregnum, citizens should think more about the collectivity rather than the self trying and use their creative abilities to move the society forward.

No one can guarantee that we will be better off if the PP triumphs. It might be the impetus that we need to move towards the creation of a truly interracial society or one might just see the intensification of ethnic chauvinism. However, the challenge is not so much if the PP stays together -they might well do that for the next five years-but what sort of social environment they create during their rule.

At this point of our social development political power must be placed in the hands of the people in their communities. It's the only place from which the seeds of a truly democratic society can emerge. It is the logical culmination of all that has happened since we elected our first representatives to the Legislative Council in 1925. As we view the rise of the PP we should remember Gustave Flaubert's advice to George Sand: "Ignorance of history causes us to slander our time."

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