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Two empty chairs

By Rolph Balgobin

 Gas money” has a different meaning to the colloquial expression when referring to the economy of Trinidad and Tobago.  It keeps the social peace, and ensures that the dangerous alternate society continues its subsurface development while we have peace, or something resembling it.

The threat of crime is awful.  However, any globetrotter will tell you that Trinidad and Tobago is not nearly as dangerous or as backward as many other places, and that our harsh introspection remains one of our best qualities, for it is this that will spur us to action and eventually, progress.

Or so we hope.  The inner detail of our upward journey does not inspire optimism, and government, multilaterals, the private sector and civil society alike have come up short.

Perhaps this is because we are so easily distracted, fixating on symptoms and not on root causes. This is what accounts for our lurching from drama to imbroglio, exposé to revelation, controversy to crisis.  While this makes good money for the media, a matter I hope to address in the future, it also enthralls the population, perhaps easing the boredom of being a citizen of a developing country, reinforcing all the while our sneaking notion that public figures are corrupt and that back-room deals dominate our destiny.

Arthurian legend has it that the search for the Holy Grail was prosecuted by a group of knights who congregated at a round table, which had no beginning or end, no top or bottom. The T&T equivalent would probably bring together government, business and NGOs to try to get to grips with our social problems and offer up viable solutions.

But there are gaps in this configuration. Some seats are still vacant.

The most valuable element in our economy, aside from gas, is our people. However, the labour movement is not a part of the dialogue. This is a tremendous loss, because labour more than anyone else has the power to determine national levels of productivity. Labour needs to be treated with and listened to, not negotiated with.

Unfortunately, with our industrial relations context, owners of capital and employers on the one hand and the labour movement on the other enjoy either a mistrustful peace or open friction. True engagement is rare.

Somehow labour must move away from militant posturing, which ingratiates them to their membership but denies them a seat at the table, toward constructive engagement. I sense from the labour leadership that this is possible. Government and the private sector have to take a chance again, and to engage labour. It is a risky proposition, but with labour we can tackle some of the underlying productivity issues in our society, as well as deal with some of the fundamental inequities of our society.

The other empty space is for spirituality. Research makes a distinction between religious and non-religious spirituality – the former adhering to exoteric doctrine and tradition and the latter to, for example, humanist or philosophical values. However both forms of spirituality appear to emphasize ethical conduct.

Unfortunately, no proponent of right conduct has a seat at the table at present. Notions of goodness have retreated. Social activists might bridge the gap, but many of ours appear to be closet politicians, offering little beyond a pointed finger.

We are left with the bizarre antics of Auntie Verna begging the Prime Minister for the protection of children and the Police Service trying to intervene with kids from disadvantaged communities; both treat symptoms because neither intervene at the level of the parent, which is where the problem clearly begins. Yet both are necessary, because so little is being done by anyone at all.

We need people who are concerned with the heart and soul of the nation, not just its pockets, to join the dialogue. Spirituality is marginalised, and ought now to come in from the cold. The IRO might have a role here, for example, or the School of Philosophy, or those researching ethics. We need more balance.

An active involvement with labour and spirituality will not slow us down.  It will empower us to move forward together, and in ways which are less contentious and morally caustic. 

We still have a chance to avoid a harsh fate, but it requires us to judge each other less and engage each other more. We need to do this if we are to cool down some parts of the society, and prevent a dangerous brew from bubbling over. Those two empty chairs need filling.

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