I’m revising my book on citizenship in Trinidad, building on Indian political theorist Partha Chatterjee’s distinction between civil society and political society. It’s helping me to explain how Trinidadians both in and out of the state navigate authority. Brought home, this is how I’m thinking his distinction applies.
When governments make decisions for us, without proper consultation or process, they ignore fundamental citizen rights. Often, state officials impose such authority to enable continued rapid growth of corporate capital. We can see this in everything from aluminum smelter agreements to lack of sufficient regulation of quarries to highways and rapid rails planned without necessary studies to the proposed privatisation of Chaguaramas. De-fanging institutions, such as Town and Country Planning or the EMA, are vital to enabling elite expediency to triumph over transparent, people-centred development.
Having undermined civil society, how then do governments appear participatory? Direct benefits, baskets of subsidies and poverty-removal programmes. These control specific population groups by identifying them as targets of government policies. Men with a history of crime get hand outs through sports. Muslims and Hindus get a cheque on Eid and Divali for diversity. Victims of tragedy get new mattresses and food directly from a Cabinet minister. Ex-Caroni workers get deeds a week before casting their vote. Here, the role of the state and bureaucracy is to transfer resources, not to represent our rights. Ordinary people are thus simultaneously marginalized and managed.
This strategy fragments benefit-seekers and divides potential opposition. All we notice are bags of goodies thrown from budget speeches, platforms and public appearances. Asserting claims to a life of worth and dignity through unions, associations or citizens’ groups becomes so much harder. Popular mobilization instead happens through fleeting, temporary and unstable forms of political organization such as marches, rallies, protests, and vote-trading.
These forms are not directed toward fundamental transformation of structures of political power. They are mostly matters of water and electricity provision, and jobs and so on, meant to make sure that those who can’t be absorbed into economic growth won’t become socially dangerous. Meanwhile, institutions, from the hospitals to the Police Complaints Authority to the Auditor-General, edge closer to the tipping point of collapse, leaving us to marvel at how little justice is protected in a system that works best through contacts. This brings us to political society, where we may forego participation for populism and invest more in politicians than in democratic institutions.
Today, thinking as just a citizen about such politics, I wonder how those groups desperately trying to secure due process can actually win. How can Tacarigua residents protect their public, green space from the stadium Anil Roberts decided they would have? How can Chaguaramas citizens say no to Bhoe Tewarie’s vision of a coast handed over to the private sector? How can Mon Desir homes be protected from the Housing Minister’s commitment to illegal asphalt-laying without the reports which should be publicly accessible?
The upcoming election season will precisely aim to extend this displacement, seducing us from being national citizens to target populations who substitute benefits for rights, disbursements for representation, and love for the leader for true equality. This is how power works in political society, where bigger budgets replace good government, and we are all disciplined by and negotiate in relation to our access and dependence.
There’s a book to be written about our politics, but there’s also exercise of authority that we have to collectively change. It means connecting with each other across our diversities, ideologies, issues, pro- or anti-government analyses, and communities. I hope to contribute to how that unfolds in practice and theory.