Much of the post-Brexit hubbub has been about the markets. Some social media critiques decry Britain’s enduring racism, with TrinBrits’s accounts of “Leave” voter neighbours’ cheery morning-after greetings about gettin rid of those “other” immigrants. David Cameron’s resignation following the referendum prompted reflections on leadership.
For me, the result provokes more fundamental, vexing questions; about what “democracy” looks like in a globalized world.
On either side of the Pond, voters feeling left behind by capitalism, displaced from privilege, threatened by ethnic scapegoats, are making big, yellow-haired decisions that will alter the future of not just their own lives, but the world.
Michael Rosen’s 2014 poem circulated somberly last week, musing how fascism doesn’t “arrive… in fancy dress worn by grotesques and monsters as played out in endless re-runs of the Nazis,” but “as your friend. It will restore your honour, make you feel proud, protect your house, give you a job, clean up the neighbourhood, remind you of how great you once were…remove anything you feel is unlike you.”
One of my earliest columns, during the nine-days-wonder of the right-of-recall campaign here, shared how much referenda and direct democracy scare me, especially in a winner-take-all culture where we repeatedly imagine it perfectly acceptable to have others decide what some can do with their own bodies.
Fixed election terms (another feature Trinbs hanker to add to our Westminster framework), still brand-new in the UK, may hand British voters four years of Prime Minister Boris Johnson they didn’t quite reckon they were choosing at last week’s polls—with Americans not far away from electing Donald Trump, standardbearer of a party increasingly characterised by brash positions on science and reason, race, gun violence, healthcare, and women’s wombs.
I couldn’t imagine T&T’s voters being any less brutish or small-minded than those in ostensibly two of the world’s most mature democracies; wonder if the region’s 1950s and 60s decisions about Caribbean integration and our place in the world were any more forward-thinking. Or those we made in the ’80s. Often, like Sparrow, “I want to go back to Grenada, to teach the Cubans how to fight.” But nostalgia for participatory democracy the Grenada Revolution aspired to create, and protect from elections, only aggravates the painful recognition that perhaps nowhere across the Commonwealth Caribbean are we meaningfully engaged with anything similarly nationbuilding. That stain-your-finger democracy’s worth may be no deeper than flag-and-anthem independence.
Wondering two Junes ago what we’d be doing today, having re-elected the PNM, I wrote in my Sunday column: “We do have to start with the radical but simple idea that voting is not productive politics.”
I wrestled with how the “assemblage” of 2010 voters “who care about family and opportunity and security, but also care about gender and labour and justice and culture and inequality and environmental sustainability” could create “a politics that’s not about voting.” I worried that we’d become “politically unproductive…lazy… unimaginative,” and “the only reason there isn’t a political movement that offers us a different way to participate in power and policy” and aren’t “political frameworks for citizenship that move real power away from the tribalised ballot box” is that we haven’t built them as citizens.
I think referenda are a part of that laziness. A knee-jerk way for politicians to duck vision and leadership on any contentious issue, and simply hold a wet finger to the wind. A way to cede away rights and protection for anything unfashionable or irreverent to a pious majority. What is worse, I’m not sure that in plebiscites we’d even vote our own self-interest. We’re so deeply invested in being seen as moral. Or to upholding a formal set of rules we are happy to exercise our own ability to circumvent, drool about breaking in the rumshop, but pretend we never breached ourselves as we punish our daughters.
Plus we just don’t trust each other. That we can’t is the premise of every election campaign.
The thing about referenda is that outcomes of popular democracy are only as good as the inputs. And who is teaching young Trinbagonians to think and act like citizens?
Brexit also begs, quite loudly, the question of CARICOM. As do I—for two, perhaps uncommon reasons. I’m equally serious about both.
First, what use is our single-market mechanism if it can’t get local broadcasters licenses for the disappearing US TV shows we bootleg or mask our IPs to stream? Every time I watch “A continuación,” I wonder what’s CARICOM good for if it can’t even get us some good American cultural imperialism.
My second beef is what I call CARICOM’s lowest-common-demoninator approach. Participating as a bloc in international negotiations over setting development goals and human rights norms, CARICOM’s position gets pegged to what its most backward member state will support. Not only is the acceptable standard for my rights or health suppressed to the region’s worst performer, but our 14-country bloc seeks to drag down the global accountability bar. Needless to say, it’s on sexuality and gender where this matters most.