Tiptoeing away from democracy?
Two distinguished professors in the United States –– Archon Fung and Erik Olin Wright –– once wrote that the central ideals of democratic politics embrace “facilitating active political involvement of the citizenry, forging political consensus through dialogue, devising and implementing public policies that ground a productive economy and healthy society, and, in more radical egalitarian versions of the democratic ideal, assuring that all citizens benefit from the nation’s wealth”.
Reflecting on 50 years of Barbados’ Independence, it is clear that, generally, economic development has been conducive to the spread of democracy. The fair distribution of wealth within a society is an aspect pushing towards the upholding of democratic traditions.
While more wealth or access to capital does not equate to a bigger say in governance, in fact, high levels of wealth and economic development tend to usher in rising levels of tolerance, trust, political activism, and greater emphasis on freedom of speech.
This factor of political economy has been the emerging case in Barbados since 1954, with the first ministerial Government which commenced on February 1 under the premiership of Sir Grantley Adams. Initially under the previous regimes (Barbados Labour Party 1951 to 1961, and the Democratic Labour Party 1961 to 1976) development planning ensured poverty alleviation, social development and employment creation were shapers in the context of a modernizing Barbados.
The year 1976 brought about the first change of Government in an Independent Barbados. The Tom Adams-led administration responded admirably and pragmatically to the growing mass demands for liberalization in what was once an authoritarian society controlled largely by the plantocracy. To that extent, Barbados was still emerging from the containment of an oppressive colonialism even after achieving Independence and the right of self-determination.
High on the list of priorities for post-Independent administrations were “the provision of social services –– health, sanitation, education, housing, transport and social security –– in order to eradicate poverty”, according to Professor Andrew Downes. Under Tom Adams and the BLP between 1976 and 1986, economic development became revolutionized. This was coupled with policies that matched Adams’ foresight, thus bringing rapid economic, social, cultural, and physical security to the masses.
The standout for this period of democratic governance came, particularly as a result of increasing property ownership, through the Plantation Tenantries Freehold Purchase Act.
In addition, with Adams’ profound understanding that national health care was critical to national development, the BLP administration introduced the National Drug Service Act 1980. The feat assured universal health care coverage and access to quality drugs at affordable prices, regardless of persons’ socioeconomic circumstances.
By 1994, when the BLP returned to the seat of Government in Barbados, the country had become jaded, owing to the backward trek which had come about with unemployment spiralling out of control at over 26 per cent during the preceding eight years of DLP rule.
Public servants, apart from having their salaries cut by eight per cent and their standard of living seriously under threat from the Sandiford knife, found a DLP Government practically compromising its value as collective social capital.
“Social capital” is here referred to in the context of features of social organization, such as core values and norms (including social trust that helped the DLP to claim the 1991 general election) and the networks that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit in a democratic polity. All of these concerns and issues in the early 1990s revealed real claims of a broken society marred by maladministration and insufficient mechanisms for enhancing effective democracy.
In came Owen Arthur, and subsequent to 1994, there was immediate and sustained reversal of the fortunes that challenged Barbados after 1986. Arthur and the BLP policies became conducive to economic growth, people empowerment, local ownership and investments, and increased cultural openness. Together, these dimensions soon commanded less hierarchical, and more democratic institutions. The decisiveness of Arthur, coupled with the commitment of potent parliamentary and ministerial teams, were able to carve out policies and programmes designed to enhance Barbados’ overall economic development.
In addition, there is little doubt the emphasis on national/regional identity, coupled with embracing cultural values, brought a new sense of Caribbean dynamism. Arthur instrumented positive outlooks for Barbados at home and in the international system. The facets of economic prudence, together with pragmatic politicking, were intimately linked to Barbados’ unprecedented period of sustained national development. Before 2008 when departing office, Barbados was voted the number one developing country in the world, unemployment had dropped to an all-time low of 6.2 per cent, and the country was seen as a pivotal player in regional relations and macroeconomic progress.
The significant damage that fell upon Barbados after 2008 was of an external source which itself was dogged by bad internal execution; so that by 2010 Barbados was plummeting from crisis to crisis.
Numerous persons continue to wonder if Barbados under the DLP administration is tiptoeing away from democracy. Barbadians were forced to endure widespread job loss and the diminution of what was once a budding middle class. With seemingly its dollar always under constant vulnerability, the Barbados economy has been caught in a grab for more and more taxes at almost every level. Repeated multiple downgrades by multilateral agencies did nothing to ease the socioeconomic pain felt in Barbados.
No wonder then that today, ordinary Barbadians are calling for more avenues and forums for expressing their views regarding human development and on the progress of the society. Many believe that some insults and offensive remarks by the reigning DLP political elites have been to silent protest and stunt the rise of democratic voice (even if in non-violent protest).
There has been the inclination for the DLP to chastise vocal opponents of policies and actions, rather than encourage dialogue, participation and consensus-seeking mechanisms in order to find the best solutions and “pathways to progress”.
At this time, effective democracy is not a foregone conclusion in Barbados. Solidarity is essential to spur consciousness, and industrial action is yet another channel for democracy to prevail. Mass rally and solidarity marches must be mounted to demand change.
According to the BLP’s Our Covenant Of Hope, there must be provision for “the voice of the many, rather than the influence of the few”. The blinkered utterances and evading of issues by the DLP spell major concern.
Those of the private moneyed classes, such as Mark Maloney with his large footprints in the commercial landscape of Barbados, feature in the growing antipathy of the masses. Several individuals have publicly expressed apprehension regarding Maloney’s ability to influence Government actions and inactions as matters of convenience. Others perceive a knack for deriving special treatment at the expense of minions following rules and official directives. The bending of rules by a few have fast catapulted into a national spotlight of disquiet.
Indeed, there is now more reason why political parties must be clear in what they will stand for on principle and the rule of law. Interestingly, the 2013 DLP manifesto asserted that “there is a need to restore the image of Government in Barbados to one of decency, ethical behaviour and serving the interests of the people, instead of the interests of powerful groups and politicians themselves”. By 2016, the sordid irony of that statement more reflected the furtive quest by DLP parliamentarians to have the ten per cent restitution of their previously “sacrificed” salaries.
Barbadian political leaders need to become more open and tolerant, lending to a creative society in which alternatives are viewed as positives rather than dismissed at the threshold of enmity. If we are tiptoeing away from democracy, then now is the time to halt that slide.
(Dr George C. Brathwaite is a researcher and political consultant, and, up until recently, he was editor of Caribbean Times (Antigua).