Saturday, 22 March 2008

The future of progressive politics in Jamaica

published: Sunday March 16, 2008 in the Sunday Gleaner
Peter D. Phillips, Contributor

Last week, as some of us gathered at National Heroes Park to commemorate the 11th anniversary of the passing of Michael Manley, one could not help wondering as to the fate of his legacy. Together with his father N.W. Manley, Michael was the standard-bearer and indeed, a main champion of a Jamaican tradition of progressive politics.

They were not the only ones to champion this tradition. Rather, each in his generation was simply the main figure developing and articulating ideas that were generally shared by their peers. Neither were they always agreed with. Within the People's National Party (PNP), as in the case of the so-called Four Hs (Ken Hill, Frank Hill, Richard Hart and Arthur Henry), they were viewed by a more radical left as not being radical enough; outside the party, the local establishment, as dangerously disruptive of the social order.

Despite all this, however, the progressive tradition was well-established in modern Jamaican politics, with a clearly stated body of ideas and a well-defined organisational presence in the PNP, the trade union movement, and in the cultural and artistic community. Embracing the philosophical outlook of 'democratic socialism' and its implied commitment to a more equitable social order, their intellectual and political legacy was in fact rooted in a far-reaching critique and analysis of the Jamaican reality and the history of plantation society with its attendant disfigurements of economic inequality, social and racial oppression and cultural attitudes of superiority and inferiority between the different races.

Independent nationhood
In summary, the core principles of the progressive political tradition were first, the commit-ment to independent nationhood for the Jamaican people and to the development of national institu-tions, such as to enable the Jamaican nation to secure a viable and creditable place among the world community of states.

Second, there was the commitment to equality, that is, to the building of a more equitable society through the restructuring of patterns of ownership and distribution of wealth. The expansion of social opportunities and access to education, health, housing and other social services, was a necessary element in the pursuit of a more equitable society.

In the political sphere, the principal commitment was to democracy. The focus was not only on the people's right to vote - the PNP having championed the demand for Universal Adult Suffrage - but it also meant extending the means whereby the population would have an opportunity to participate regularly in the key decision-making processes affecting their lives, whether at the national or local levels, and whether at the work-place or in their communities. This was the essence of Michael Manley's notion of "The Politics of Participation".

Similarly, Michael Manley was to move explicitly to define and advance the notion of 'self-reliance' as a central plank of the political platform of progressive politics. Self-reliance for him was both the principle underpinning national action and the objective of the cultural transformation needed by the nation.

This political tradition lay behind much of Jamaica's success. A viable nation state was consolidated. Regular changes of administration have been achieved by way of elections. Access to the educational system and to health care and other social services has expanded for the majority of the people.

Yet, despite all of this, Jamaica bears all the marks of a society in crisis. Murder rates are among the highest in the world. Reports abound of violence and rampant sexual depravity in our schools. Evidence mounts of corruption in public life affecting not only our representatives in Parliament, but others, including civil servants, police, etc., who hold positions of public trust.
People yearn for solutions, but it is unclear to the population whether solution is possible and if so, where will it come from. Routinely, when polled, a majority of the population says we are moving in the wrong direction. Even so, they continue, in the majority, to participate in elections and in political life, generally.

What, then, is the role of politics in finding the solutions to these myriad problems? Further, is there scope for the progressive political tradition?

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the triumph of market-based economic systems the "end of ideology" was proclaimed. Globalisation was to be embraced, meaning that international transactions in trade and finance were to be liberalised and the disciplines required by the world-financial system were to be observed. The result to be expected was the sustained expansion of the world-economy.

Retreat from ideology
This view of the 'end of ideology' was mirrored within Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. Development choices and politics itself were effectively redefined as a matter of narrow technical choices regarding economic- management strategies, and for the provision of social services and physical infrastructure. We removed from consideration the fundamental issues of broad national objectives, and the qualitative issues as to the kind of society and the quality of nationhood that we sought to build. And politics became poorer and less idealistic because of this.
The first casualty of this "retreat from ideology" was the politics of participation and the voluntarist spirit which carried the progressive political movement since 1938. Without a grand vision of nation building, and the inspiration derived from a clearly state political philosophy or ideology, it is difficult to mobilise the kind of selfless commitment to the political process, which was typical of the early period of nationalist politics.

Instead of speaking to the high ideals of politics, and of nation-building and self-reliance, politics is reduced solely to proclaiming opportunities for personal benefits. Notions of the collective and of community have disappeared and individualism and materialism reign triumphant. Political activists who previously acted out of love of community and country now demanded pay in hard cash. As a consequence, financial demands of political organising became greater and standards of political integrity and morality were weakened.

The challenges were com-pounded for the progressive movement and the PNP in the 1990s because market liberalisa-tion and fiscal crisis was to result both in growing inequality and in reduced national control of significant segments of the economy. It was perhaps unavoid-able in the circumstances, but, nevertheless, it was counter to the traditional outlook of the progressive movement as it had evolved over the years.

Looked at in broad historical terms, it is clear that the central themes that have defined the progressive political movement over the years are still relevant today. Indeed, the quest for equality, for effective functioning national institutions, and for wholesome and beneficial cultural expression reflective of the lives and experiences of the Jamaican people, are perhaps even more urgently needed in today's intensively globalised world than at any other period in our history.

Politics of participation
Moreover, it would seem that the solutions to problems such as inter- and intra-community violence, teenage pregnancy and nihilistic sexual codes of behaviour can only be tackled on the basis of widespread popular mobilisation and community building that was implicit in Michael Manley's notion of a "politics of participation".

Perhaps the most important aspect of the progressive political legacy in Jamaica, however, was its insistence on a rigorous analysis and critique of Jamaica's social and economic reality.
The intellectual inheritance of the movement was rich, recalling the names of people such as M.G. Smith, Philip Sherlock, Douglas Hall, Rex Nettleford, and many others.

If we are to continue and build on the progress achieved thus far, politics ought never to be reduced to a simple quest for power for its own sake. Instead, we need to be clear as to the social, economic and political purposes underlying the quest for 'power'. And we have to be clear as to the guiding principles and values underpinning the political organisation or movement that seeks power.

Ideology and ideas are still very much relevant. To be sure, the progressive tradition in Jamaican politics needs a revival.

Dr Peter Phillips is Opposition spokesman on national security and leader of Opposition business in the House.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Progressive political tradition in the Jamaican, lead by the PNP,has always had a "landmark" to focus and rally around and it was from these "landmarks" that the popular philosophy, that drive the mass movement and momentum toward "mission accomplished, was derived.

In 1944 it was getting the right to vote, then it was federation and independence in the 50s and 60s in the 70s it was equal right and justice for all through democratic socialism.

the decline of our progressive politics took a nose dive in the 80s when the 'Get Rich quick" philosophy began taking shape and since then the country has been like a rudder less ship trying to find its way on the stormy seas of globalization

so What should be the country's "landmark" for the 21st century. Look to the the Norman Manley's "Mission Accomplished" speech and there you will find the the Landmark required yes 'Economic Independence' the purveyors of progressive political tradition must take on the task of making the country economically independent by the middle of this.

this must become the mantra for all out political leaders - the focus of every single Jamaican - a movement - the Jamaican dream - this movement must give hope to the young Jamaicans - and energy to the present generation to fight the struggle that is required for this mission to be accomplished in our life time.

For me the economic independence must begin at the individual level. each individual must become a successful economic unit - then the family - the community and eventually the entire country.

A literate populace and mass public education is the starting point for this mission.