Your editorial last Saturday’s “A New Politics for a New Guyana” raised some new assertions that deserve examination – even if the basis of the editorial was contradicted by the editorial the next day, which lamented the persistence and apparent permanence of the old bad political order. Leaving that aside, Saturday’s editorial spoke of impending social change (a term encompassing political and economic change) wrought by the arrival of our oil industry and manifesting itself in the continued rapid growth of commercial activity local and commercial/governmental clicker. Moreover, the editorial boldly asserted that “rising incomes will mean new priorities for a growing middle class. Debates in a newly wealthy Guyana will no longer be about class struggle or perhaps even race. What! A post-racial Guyana?
In recent times, the country has seen several progressive (and unstudied) social changes, such as the migration of followers from traditional churches to modern start-ups, and the growing number of independent and swing voters. But what do we mean by “social change”? The definition is important because identifying such changes allows us to respond in a timely and appropriate manner, also recognizing that not all social change is good.
Not all changes in society constitute social change. Social change only happens if existing structures and institutions (such as how we govern ourselves and how we worship), relationships (such as how we interact across ethnicities and genders), values ( for example, how we deal with the environment and our rules) or our identities (how we perceive ourselves as individuals and as members of a group) have morphed into something different (for the better or worse). If the changes (whether slow or fast) do not amount to a change from the old to the new, then what we have is not social change but simply movement within the existing status quo. As such, your example that ties between business and government are increasing is not social change, just more of the same. Nothing old is broken and nothing new is formed. The economic and political order remains stable and intact.
That said, to find where the oil industry can most likely trigger social change, we have to look elsewhere. Where? In the spending of oil revenues by the government, especially to eradicate poverty and radically improve the standard of living for all. A government that itself initiates (or is compelled by public pressure to initiate) the spending of oil revenues on the scale of Joe Bidenesque can trigger several social changes, both intended and unintended. It can, for example, generate middle-class impulses in the form of civic participation (as evidenced, for example, by the rise of volunteering and the formation of community groups) or changes in the size and dynamics of family. The oil discoveries in Norway, for example, led to the emergence of new political parties (pro-social-welfare as the only program) which were able to win seats in the Norwegian parliament by exploiting and catalysing the evolution national values and priorities on what it means to live well in Norway.
In Guyana, we are in what sociologists call a state of social inertia – a situation where the demand for social change is strong (for our political system, livelihoods, moral standards, institutions, etc.) but where this change is blocked or remains uncatalyzed.
Finally, Editor, I must comment on your assertion that rising incomes could lead to a post-racial society in which people and groups identify less by race and more by economic assets and status.
Evidence suggests otherwise. Higher standards of living (as manifested by a large and growing middle class) do not slow the formation and expression of racial/ethnic identities. In fact, wealth can intensify the desire of ethnic/racial groups to express themselves, to represent themselves and to determine themselves. Disagreeing with your assertion, my exhibits include social psychology theories, such as Maslow’s, and the fact that the high separatist/ethnic fever of Catalans in Spain and Quebecers in Canada, two thriving nationalities, is still burning.