Who’s left now? – conclusion

The death of socialism
Business Page last week suggested that amidst the cataclysmic dislocation to have rocked the capitalist world first manifested in the housing market in the United States, the response of the governments in the developed market economies is leading to a fundamental rethink of the role of ideology, and in the context of Guyana, raised the question playing on the word ‘left.’ Spreading like wildfire across industries and continents, the dislocation has made it obvious that the crisis goes far beyond the US or its housing market. It has raised troubling questions about the strengths and weaknesses of capitalism and the possibility of the revival of the socialist model of economic development which appeared to have been abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

So fundamental and vast is the problem facing the market economies that not even one trillion dollars has been able to calm the waters with the latest potential casualty being the car industry in the US, with the loss of over 2.5 million jobs directly and indirectly if the Big Three – Ford, Chrysler and General Motors – were to collapse. No longer is there any question of whether the state should get directly involved in the economy but only the extent of that involvement. For close to 20 years the world had this illusion that capitalism had solved the cycle of boom and bust, that regulation was the curse and deregulation and the market were a panacea for all the ills facing economies, that wealth in the form of derivatives could be created out of nothing and that socialism was dead.

For some, perhaps simplistically, this all boils down to ideology, itself a misunderstood word that means nothing more that a set of doctrines or beliefs that form the basis of a political, economic or other system. Contrary to popular belief the word is not synonymous with socialism but is rather any underlying set of values and ideas and can embrace market capitalism, co-operativism or even religious fundamentalism. In last week’s column I indicated that at one stage the whole of Guyana, barring a small element, had been converted to socialist ideology by Jagan and Burnham and their respective political parties.

To get an understanding of whether those parties still subscribe to that belief I wrote their respective General Secretaries for answers and clarification about their commitment to socialism, and specifically to the PPP, whether the party gives any direction to the government on the kind of political and economic agenda it should pursue. My specific question to the PNC was whether it promotes and supports a socialist agenda. For whatever reason, neither responded to my letter.

It turned out that the PNC had long ago answered that question. In a letter published in the Stabroek News on January 12, 2002, General Secretary Oscar Clarke wrote that he could “think of no political party which can claim to have reversed itself so profoundly as the PNCR. It has changed its ideology and its economics.” That was as clear as one could be on distancing itself from the socialist agenda to which Burnham had committed that party.

The situation with the PPP is far less clear. The party’s constitution defines it as Marxist but the party as government was all too willing to pursue the IMF-inspired Economic Recovery Programme inherited from its predecessor. The late President Jagan may have been uncomfortable having to reverse himself as much as he did in embracing the West to the extent he did, but for his supporters to selectively deal with his writings and his actions to show consistency is disingenuous, if not dishonest. I will respond separately to PPP member Rajendra Rampersaud’s letter in Thursday’s Stabroek News but for now he should refer to page 22 of Poverty Cause and Cure in Developing Countries by the late Dr Jagan. Calling for a “new economic planning strategy [which is] based on an anti-imperialist, pro-democratic and pro-socialist programme,” the late President identified the following ‘cures’:

1. nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy – foreign and comprador capitalist-owned and controlled mines, plantations, factories, banks, insurance and foreign trade;

2. an almost total centralised planning and control;

3. expansion of the public and co-operative sectors;

4. rent, price and foreign-exchange controls.

These were obviously the very antitheses of the ERP which Dr Jagan’s government pursued on taking office in 1992 and no amount of manipulation of the records could explain this as anything but an about-face which has been taken to new lengths by Jagan’s successors. In this regard the PNC is less ambivalent. It would be more sincere if those who now want to protect or embellish Jagan’s reputation would simply explain that confronted with the prevailing international and domestic reality, he and his party had no choice.

The completeness of the reversal by the politicians is seen not only in economic polices but in the legislative agenda; the subjugation of the interest of the worker to that of the employer; a tax structure that imposes low or no taxes on passive income while taxing earned income at punitive rates; the shift from direct to indirect taxes; concessions to business at the expense of the worker; and yes, the concentration of wealth to the business and political class.

Billions are spent annually on tax concessions to employers in exchange for their undertaking to provide employment, as though they do so for some philanthropic or altruistic reasons. The number of gas guzzling 4×4’s that are on the road, the majority with concessions, on a per capita basis is one of the highest in the world. But this practice is not only for the businesspersons. It seems that one of the first acts of a parliamentarian after taking the oath of office is to apply for duty-free concessions valued at millions of dollars to purchase a vehicle. At the exclusive community of the political elite in Pradoville the concentration of duty-free vehicles must easily be the highest in the country, with a one-car family being a rarity. These apparently trivial statistics are a measure by which it can be seen how far our society has been transformed. They are never issues that are ventilated.

Intellectual failure
It was suggested to me that one of the failures of socialism was its inability to respond at an intellectual level to the case made by Reagan and Thatcher for the market, and another was the fear of survival of socialist countries following the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is some merit in those suggestions but why have the economists and leaders of political parties not argued for an economic system, without label if necessary, that does not leave the market in charge or one that does not see the role of the government as being a mere facilitator?

Other than Cuba there are only two countries that have embraced state participation in the economy and those are right here in our region – Venezuela and Bolivia. Meanwhile we in Guyana proudly boast of how successful we have been in nationalising state entities which at the end of the day make us as a country poorer. The problem will come when we have exhausted debt write-off, when there is nothing else to privatize and when there is no further windfall revenue from VAT. For all his faults, when Burnham departed the scene, Guyana was owned and controlled by Guyanese. Now we have no control or influence over resources which have passed into foreign hands often with a bunch of goodies to go with them. To reverse that will not be easy, although we saw, as victims, some of that when CDC pulled out of GPL and Reynolds out of bauxite, leaving us to carry the can and the cost. Paradoxically, that is how it is happening in the developed world as well, as more and more businesses take public money in exchange for ceding some control to the government.

It seems that Guyana’s policy response to the global economic crisis is to wait, see and hope it does not affect us. That is a naïve approach as we already see prices for our main commodities falling and we may soon see a number of Guyanese from the Caribbean returning as the construction job market dries up. In fact this seems an ideal time for a serious re-think of first the kind of society we would like to have, and second the formulation of the economic model that will take us there. That model will inform the investment policy, the regional and proportional development of the economy, the regulatory systems, taxation and the redistribution of wealth, planning and development and the provision of social services. There is no agnosticism in terms of ideology. A political party that seeks the support of the voters and the opportunity to govern has a duty, and ought to have the courage, to tell the public where they stand on fundamental issues.

The shenanigans of Wall Street, fascination with Fortune’s list of the richest this and richest that, greed and power at any cost have corrupted values and ideas. No longer do governments and parties think they need to believe in anything, once they can build a road here and create a few jobs there.

When a more objective judgment is made, the gains from IMF and neo-liberal policies are far from the impressive successes they seem to be. The benefits of free market liberalisation depend on who you are, your party affiliation and how much money or assets you had to begin with. There is no universal solution to begin with so rather than try to answer the question ‘Who is left now?’ I would prefer to see our political and intellectual leaders take the opportunity of the global meltdown to redefine their vision of our country and formulate a plan for taking us there.

Faced with real choices on issues and ideas I believe that our voters would be better disposed to renounce racial cleavages and start concentrating on ideas and policies. At the moment, the choice seems to be between persons of similar ideological persuasion distinguished only by their race.

Who’s left now?

The crisis facing the world economy is leading to a fundamental rethink of the role of ideology and the place of the ‘market’ in economic development. Some twenty years ago there was triumphalism in the West following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union. With the announcement and celebration of communism’s death mainly by those in the West, the practitioners, politicians and academics who had at one time extolled the virtues of socialism and the egalitarian society and equal opportunities which it would bring to all individuals all went into retreat.

Now it seems that capitalism as practised by those who were the celebrants at the death of communism are experiencing their own travails which offer a rare moment of satisfaction to the tiny minority which is still skeptical of the claims made by capitalism’s chief sponsors. Among this group is Joseph Stiglitz, known for his Nobel Prize in Economics and former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank. In his book Globalization and Its Discontents (2002) in which he not only critiqued globalisation but also argued that developing economies are, in fact, not developing at all, Stiglitz was particularly harsh on the IMF for imposing on those economies and countries, in exchange for loans and other assistance, economic policies “that conform to textbook economics but which do not make sense for those countries.”

In praise of deficits
Suddenly in demand for speaking engagements, Stiglitz, writing in the UK Guardian a few days ago, could barely contain his enthusiasm while speaking for that minority who never ceased having some connection to the Keynesian tradition. Lord Keynes who coincidentally was born the same year that Marx died, was the British economist who published in 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression, the tome The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money in which his theory was that when the economy is slowing and businesses are reluctant to invest, the government should take up the slack, even if this means higher deficits.

Stiglitz in the Guardian noted that the acceptance of Keynesian theory even by the right in the US offered to those who were not captivated by the power of the market and capitalism, “a moment of triumph, after having been left in the wilderness, almost shunned, for more than three decades.” He posited that what the world was now experiencing was “a triumph of reason and evidence over ideology and interests,” and that some would see this as the end of market fundamentalism, comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Where have all our socialists gone?
But what happened to our socialists, or rather all of us, when at one time we all seemed to be socialists and the UF of Peter d’Aguiar a mere anomalous nuisance? If we are to take our constitution seriously – and why should we not given that is “the supreme law of Guyana” – Guyana is a state in transition to socialism. The constitution of the ruling Peoples’ Progressive Party, which I could not find on the party’s website, is even more emphatic about the party’s ideology – it is a Marxist party. In his seminal autobiographical work, The West on Trial, the late President and founder of the party, Dr. Cheddi Jagan wore proudly his allegiance to socialism, while blaming the British-US axis of all forms of plots and misdeeds. In fact Dr. Jagan, in the Wynn-Parry Commission into the Black Friday (February 16, 1962) disturbances said he was a communist.

Burnham, who initially came to power on an anti-socialist platform which he shared with D’Aguiar, went on a nationalisation campaign that at one time saw the state controlling some 80% of the economy.

While Burnham surrounded himself with some of the most doctrinaire left-wingers in Guyana including Ranji Chandisingh, Vincent Teekah, Elvin McDavid and Henry Jeffrey, his own commitment and that of his party, the PNC, to the socialist ideology appeared to be based on political control and nothing else. He had hardly been buried when his successor Desmond Hoyte reversed most of the socialist policies and embarked on the wholesale disposal of the country’s assets and resources for which the country received little in return.

The grand retreat
When Jagan returned to power in 1992, entirely out of character he continued those policies lock, stock and barrel, maintaining with the IMF a relationship of obsequiousness while embracing an amorphous and undefined New International Economic Order that had first been raised in 1948 in Cuba. Jagan never explained to his constituents or the country his about-turn on socialism, the IMF and the West, leaving it to others to speculate whether it was due to political expediency or his own conversion.

Whatever it was, his government pursued the same free market economics and model prescribed by the IMF and accepted by Hoyte.

Even before the death of Dr Jagan, economic policy and management of the PPP government was controlled by now President Bharrat Jagdeo who had been a member of the government from its first day in office in 1992. Jagdeo’s policies, on VAT, privatisation, price controls, food production and wages, have been entirely pro-IMF and he never for one moment betrayed his own Russian training. In effect then the policies of successive governments from 1988 to the present have been a renunciation of socialism.

The WPA too had been wedded to the socialist ideal and openly supported the Bishop regime in Grenada and the Cuban revolution. A major influence on the economic philosophy of that party was no doubt its one-time leader, economist Clive Thomas, arguably the best economist this country has ever produced. The TUF remains on paper a capitalist party but its leader sees no contradiction in being often placed in the role of spokesperson for the PPP.

Joining the clubs
For the political parties that were in government, the retreat from their ideological roots was no doubt shaped by developments in a world in which not to have the IMF stamp of approval or to be excluded from the WTO was like being an outcast. Market fundamentals reigned supreme and quietly everyone ceased being a socialist. Indeed, it would be difficult to find any leading member of the PPP – and here I distinguish it from the government – who would publicly describe themselves as a socialist. The PNC under Robert Corbin has lost not only its ideology but direction too, the WPA is peripheral as a force in politics in Guyana while the AFC is, so far as it can be labelled, very pro-market.

Cost and benefits
This column is not setting out as a value judgment on the economic model or policies which we followed at the behest of the IMF.

Nor does it suggest that there were not pluses and benefits from that relationship, however imbalanced. Perhaps both the post-Burnham PNC and the PPP needed an external force to bring investments and financial discipline to the country.

Many of the concessions and debt write-offs the country enjoyed were made possible by our allegiance to the IMF.

If the rules of accounting applied to the government, those write-offs would have been brought into its accounts as revenue, and it is partly those concessions that have made possible the substantial increases in expenditure on social services.

What is often not recognised or admitted, however, is that some of the debt write-off we have received had nothing to do with the IMF or the government, but rather stemmed from the fact that we were among a group of poor countries identified for such concessions.

Those policies have also had their cost. The resources of the country are now under external control and ownership. These foreign companies receive generous tax and other concessions under agreements which in many cases have not been subject to parliamentary approval or made available to the public. And in this regard the Asian wood giant Barama is an instructive example.

That company has reported losses for every one of twenty years while having enjoyed some of the most generous tax and other concessions imaginable. It is not only that those concessions have been costly to the revenue of the country, but they have made our domestic producers uncompetitive. With the various bauxite deals with RUSAL and BOSAI not available to the public, where is the political or public pressure to ensure that the deals are equitable and in the national interest?

One of the criticisms that can be made of the IMF-led policies is that while the national statistics may appear impressive and some Guyanese have seen marked improvements in their standards of living and a few have even reaped immense benefits, a large number of Guyanese still prefer to take their chances elsewhere. The figures show that tens of thousands of Guyanese have chosen to migrate legally or otherwise to seek jobs in just about any country they can enter. In the process, remittances have become one of our largest foreign currency earners and a major factor in any economic analysis. Public sector wages, and indeed wages in segments of the private sector as well, are cruelly low, made worse by a tax system that favours the self-employed and the shareholder over the wage earner.

Time to rethink
The crisis facing the market-oriented economies is causing a major rethink of some of the most sacred tenets of free markets and financial liberalisation. Primed as we are on the daily feed on US television we are aware of the embarrassing manner in which leaders of the US private sector trek to Congress begging for help. Make no mistake, the position in Europe and Asia is no different. When the turmoil is over and the dust has settled, the financial system, the housing and mortgage industry and the auto industry which have been responsible for much of the growth in many of the countries will have ended up in state ownership. While we privatise, they nationalise. That is not only a reversal over what took place for the greater part of the last twenty years, but a total contradiction of the free market. During all of this, the IMF seems to have gone into self-imposed silence.

Even after Guyana ceased being an IMF supervised country some two years ago, the government continued to follow the policies which the IMF imposed on us for so long that we seemed not to know there was an alternative or option. We are fortunate that we are not as vulnerable as some of the other Caricom countries, which because of a higher level of financial integration and tourism in particular, are already feeling the effects of the global storm. But make no mistake – we are not immune. Trinidad and Antigua are cutting back on construction and that will affect us directly. How do we reabsorb those Guyanese workers who may be forced to return home? For us the effects may be less immediate and also less harsh. But affect us it will.

Next week, we will look to see if there is anyone ‘left’ to help shape our response to the new reality brought about by the turbulence.