Of patricians and plebeians

EVERSLEY FilesAncient Rome, which has had profound influence on Western civilization, was divided into two social classes –– the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians were a small, powerful, land-owning aristocracy who initially ran Rome
as if it were their personal fiefdom.

The plebeians, or plebs, on the other hand, were mostly merchants, farmers and artisans who were excluded from state power until the so-called Struggle Of The Orders resulted in their winning
a say in government through the right to elect their own leaders –– the tribunes –– who served as a counterbalance to the consuls and Senate, where patrician power resided.

At the bottom of the social ladder were slaves, the nobodies of Roman society. Slaves, who were mostly persons captured in war, former criminals or poor Romans, who sold themselves into slavery to escape starvation, accounted for about one-third of the population. They had no say in how they were governed. Under Roman law, they were property, to be used and disposed of as their owners saw fit.

As has been the tendency of every ruling class throughout history, the patricians held the lower classes in contempt because of a presumed superiority. Not surprisingly, patricians and plebs hardly mixed on a social level. In fact, prior to the establishment of the Roman republic, it was even against the law for a pleb to marry a patrician.

Patrician contempt for the plebs is reflected, for example, in the poet Horace’s famous statement: “Odi profanum volgus et arceo.” (“I hate the common crowd and keep them at a distance.”)

Politics, as practised in Barbados and the Caribbean, following its evolution from the historic labour struggles of the 1930s, is in some ways reminiscent of what obtained in ancient Rome –– with some variations, of course. The Barbadian equivalent of the Roman plebs –– the working and middle classes –– go to the polls every five years and, in the exercise of their democratic franchise, elect mostly fellow plebs to serve in public office and advance their collective interests.

However, almost immediately, especially where some politicians get the opportunity to serve in Government, public office somehow causes the adoption of patrician-like behaviour. These politicians start behaving no longer as plebs, but as privileged patricians with ruling class status, albeit temporarily, because the vagaries of democracy, which punish political arrogance, can cause an overnight reversion to plebeian status in another five years.

Hence, we see some politicians, previously reported to be struggling, suddenly displaying the trappings of a privileged lifestyle: fancy custom-made suits, big expensive rides, travelling first class, and so on. At the same time, they sometimes start to become detached from the very people –– their constituents –– to whom they owe their new-found status.

Whereas before election, when these politicians were ordinary folk, it was so easy to get them on the phone or find them at certain spots, they suddenly become hard to reach or find. And,
to make matters worse, it is accompanied by a condescending arrogance when
the people legitimately complain.

In a democracy, elected politicians are meant to be servants of the people, not their masters. Some politicians, however, see it the other way around. It is certainly reflected in the statement “Shut up and listen to your masters”, which a former Caribbean politician, now deceased, reportedly once told ordinary folk who had talk for him.

It is ironic that politics, which served to liberate and empower the masses immediately after the experience of colonialism, has become, to some extent, a source of bondage in the era of Independence when our own are ruling our own –– which partly explains why the average citizen has become so disenchanted with politics.

Compared with the era of Sir Grantley Adams and Errol Barrow, when the masses took a deep interest in politics because they saw it as a vehicle for advancing their interests, many people today see politics as nothing more than providing an opportunity where they are shamelessly used at election time by persons claiming to have their interests at heart but, who on election to office, sometimes pursue an agenda that seems at odds with what the ordinary man and woman had bargained for.

Last year, Barbadians witnessed the conferment of special status on politicians through their coronation and induction into membership of a new “political class” which, to me, seemed more like an attempt at a “patricianization” of our politics. It also brought to mind Napoleon’s famous statement in George Orwell’s Animal Farm that “all animals are equal but some are more equal than others”.

Recently, too, there was the implicit articulation of a new doctrine of governmental infallibility where, based on the reasoning put forward, anyone who dared to question or criticize any aspect of public policy, ran the risk of being accused of engaging in the treacherous act of attempting to establish a rival government.

Are we no longer living in a democracy in Barbados? Are elected governments, which are supposed to be accountable to the people, now above criticism because of this new infallibility doctrine? To become true guardians of our hard-won democracy, Barbadians really need to stop taking things for granted and pay greater attention to veiled threats to our rights and freedoms.

More specifically, Barbadians need to place greater emphasis on political education through, for example, reading the Constitution, getting to know their guaranteed rights and freedoms, understanding our governance framework and taking the importance and power of the vote more seriously. When people accept payment for their vote from either politicians or their agents, they are selling themselves short and belittling the struggle and sacrifices of our forefathers.

To get better representation that makes a real difference in improving the quality of life, Barbadians need to start carefully scrutinizing persons who offer themselves for public office, especially insofar as determining their motivation and agenda.

We often elect persons on the basis of popularity, only to regret later sometimes; persons who, in some cases, bring no real value to the table in terms of a track record of accomplishment that at least demonstrates a measure of competence and experience which may be applied to the sound management of public affairs.

How much then can we realistically expect from such persons in public office? A general election is similar to the annual general meeting of a company where the board of directors is up for election. In the same way that shareholders scrutinize the credentials of persons seeking to get on the board to ensure their investment remains in safe hands, voters should apply the same approach to electing a government. The Cabinet from the Government we elect, constitutes the Board of Directors of Barbados Inc.

Errol Barrow, a patrician in the social context of Barbados, who faithfully served and advanced the interests of the plebs, once reportedly warned that if we were not careful, we would wake up one morning and find out that Barbados no longer belonged to us. His was a call for vigilance.

Those who care about democracy and good governance will heed the warning of our esteemed National Hero who would have openly frowned on and resisted any attempt to have him designated a member of any special political class.

(Reudon Eversley is a political strategist, strategic communication specialist and journalist. Email reudon@gmx.com)

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