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Raffique Shah


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Recipe for Dystopia, not Utopia

February 01, 2004
By Raffique Shah

AS a newspaper columnist of 23 years' standing, I have passed through many stages in the way I put across my views to readers. In the 1980s I was very passionate in addressing local politics. I had had some bitter experiences in electoral politics and in the so-called highest forum in the country, Parliament, and I found myself disillusioned by the pettiness that prevailed at that level of the society. I often remarked then that our politicians were little different to the conmen and whores of the society, except that the latter were derided while the former were cloaked in decency only by their expensive suits and the highfalutin titles they bore.

Mostly, though, whatever style I used through the years, I kept on track, addressing issues that I believed were important to our society. At times I ventured into global issues that I thought were important enough for readers to have an alternative perspective, since in the main they were fed with what one might term the "Pentagon perspective".

All along I sought through my writings to stimulate interest, if not healthy discussion, on the topics I addressed. I did not expect everyone to agree with me. For real democracy to thrive, people must agree to disagree, but we must also be prepared to advance arguments and facts to back up our views. It was distressing to receive comments that ranged from inane to vulgar from politically blinkered people. But I have learnt to roll with the punches and move on.

Recently I addressed the question of democracy Trinidad-style and called for a dictatorship to bring this society back on track, I received this very analytical response from someone I hold in high regard. He is a Trini-to-the-bone who has scaled the heights of academia and the international business arena, and I value whatever little time we spend on the telephone discussing the state of the nation. In this column, I defer to him so that readers can get a glimpse of the level of discussion that we ought to have here, but which, sadly, is lacking. Here are his comments (he was responding to another well-respected national who had written to him about my piece).

"You asked for my take on Raf's article in yesterday's Express. For him to have written as he has indicates the level of anger and despair to which the situation has driven vast numbers of the population. The difficulty with his reasoning, however, lies not in the proposition per se-the strong man is a well-known historical phenomenon-but in the fact that unless his thesis is invested with philosophical, constitutional and operational underpinnings, we may end up not with Utopia but a worse form of Dystopia than exists at present. I want to address a few points: 1. Democracy not for the depraved; 2. The strong man in history; 3. Getting from here to there; 4. New concepts of governance in a multi-ethnic society.

"I disagree with the formulation of Raf's title. From the time of the ancient Greeks 'democracy' has always been untidy. Ultimately it represents a way whereby the ruling elite enshrines its legitimacy while taming the wilder impulses of the vulgus-the mass. The difficulty in societies like ours is that there is no coherent ruling elite, no one class or grouping if you will, that represents anything like a social anchor that could appeal to the broader society via convention or history. The entire society according to Raf is immoral to the core and the defect in the body politic is almost total.

"So if democracy is not for the 'depraved', one assumes that some other form of government might prove superior. The difficulty, however, is that 'depravity' might thrive under any system of government. In our region just think Haiti under Papa Doc Duvalier, not to mention other examples in other regions of the world. So the issue is not democracy per se, which, to my mind has no totemic quality in and of itself, but the manner and means by which 'depravity' might be tamed in the interests of an acceptable level of social order. For without order there is no law and without law there is no society.

"In ancient Rome the Roman Senate would sometimes invest plenipotentiary power in the Roman consul in times of extreme danger to the Republic. The investiture would last only for a defined period. The practice worked well for a time. But he was a quasi-dictator and human nature being what it is, he so enjoyed the power and plaudits of the multitude that he sought to increase his popularity with panem et cicenses (bread and circuses). Ultimately, the very institutions of the republic were subverted. An equally interesting-and modern-example of the 'strong man' idea might be Charles de Gaulle. You will recall that following the Second World War he retired to reflect and write, not willing to participate in the contortions of political coalitions of post-war France.

"He returned to power in 1958 at a time of near civil war occasioned by the crisis in Algeria. He legitimised his power via national referenda and resigned voluntarily in 1969 after failing to win a referendum with the plurality he thought appropriate. Under his Fifth Republic he increased executive power... but he also enjoyed unusual legitimacy.

"The two previous examples-Consul and de Gaulle-might be instructive in terms of how we get from here to there, from freely elected Parliament to Strongman and yet maintain legitimacy. It seems to me the two variants have one important thing in common-the sense of terminal crisis, 'la patrie en danger'. Degeneration grows apace in T&T but I am not sure we have yet reached the point of consensus when the general population says that the model we have is not working and should be reconsidered. When and if they do it will be helpful if we do not go backwards into the future but forward with a foundation model that is appropriate to our circumstances, the product of our practical intellect and, hopefully, a light to the world.

"This is the rub-the enshrinement of new concepts of governance in a multi-ethnic society. This will be a public work of the heart and the imagination performed under the participatory gaze-or glare-of the entire society. The initial concepts must be developed without illusion by a representative coterie of women, men and young people followed by broad discussion in a national panchayat. It will require unrivalled patience, perseverance and persuasion. But it might cleanse us and the effort itself might put us on the path of becoming a great people."