Friday, January 19, 2018

Wealth, Crime and 32 Acres of Land

Sunity Maharaj49

Mark Fraser

 The recent string of scandals ranging from cocaine in juice tins to share purchases and contract awards opens a window into the complex relationship between money and crime in this country. If there’s anything to be said for these expose´s, it is that they offer privileged access for seeing how people get rich in this country and why it remains so difficult to deal with criminal behaviour involving anything from a traffic breach to gang violence and robbery with V.

Right from the very beginning of modern T&T, the complex relationship between wealth, advantage and injustice has served to rationalise crime and make it very difficult to nip.

In some ways, crime is an open defiance of the mythology of superiority in which wealth has wrapped itself. It challenges our smug notions that wealth is the product of diligent hard work and extraordinary intelligence. From the very beginning, crime has thrived because it could rationalise and justify itself by the unworthiness of the wealthy given the injustice embedded in wealth creation in Caribbean society.

You could say the die was cast from the moment Columbus arrived and claimed this land without any reference whatsoever to the rights of the people who had lived here for some 5,000 years. But what set the peculiar socio-economic foundation of Trinidad society was the deal negotiated 231 years ago between Roume de St Laurent, a Frenchman living in Grenada, and the King of Spain. Today, we might refer to the 1783 Cedula de Poblacio´n as a pioneering example of foreign direct investment, designed as it was to attract people and money for settling and developing the under-populated island.

Under the plan, every white person, irrespective of gender or age, who was willing to swear allegiance to the Spanish King and the Catholic faith, was given, free of cost, 32 acres of land plus 16 acres for every enslaved person they brought. Large families with substantial holdings of enslaved bodies got hundreds of acres with ten-year tax breaks on earnings and profits.

Thus was set the framework for a society in which qualities such as intelligence, imagination and diligence were rendered irrelevant in the pursuit of economic and social mobility. The reality of privilege based on colour has haunted us ever since, even as estates changed hands, cash became king and new generations in rainbow colours were born into inherited wealth, privilege and a leg up on the other. 

Although the mind has tried hard to forget, the spirit remembers the injustice. A mere seven generations since 1783, voluntary amnesia as a mechanism of survival has proven unequal to the challenge of transforming our past of injustice into a modern democracy boosted by social harmony.

The true measure of our political failure in the era of Independence has been this failure to reconceptualise the society based on a grounded understanding of its past, a commitment to a future of equity and justice for all, and an imaginative approach in the present for intervening and carrying us from one to the other.

Unequipped for the challenge of building a nation out of the shards of a damaged history, we have settled for keeping our sights low, making our peace with an unjust system, and taking whatever we can get out of it. Lacking the confidence to change it, we have chosen instead to master it. We judge ourselves by our success in moving from the class of the exploited into the class of the exploiter, convinced that the only way to beat the system is to join it.  

We look the other way, bite our tongue, pay the bribe, give the cut, surrender our bodies and generally pay the devil as we rationalise it all away, asking ourselves: In a world of undue advantage for a few, how else are we to get ahead and give the next generation a headstart?

In our acceptance of wealth as a condition without morality, a straight line can be drawn between 1783 and 2014. Whatever differences exist are no less cosmetic than a facelift. Over 200 years, the colour of unjust privilege has mutated into a culture of unjust privilege. These days, instead of swearing to the King and the Catholic Church, the privileged swear to the Queen and her congress. The party card has replaced colour as the all-access pass to opportunity, with the highest rank of privileged elites being those who own the political parties and enjoy enough power to hire the government they want.

There is no doubt that since Independence, there has been substantial redistribution of resources as governments respond to the demand to even out the odds and democratise opportunity. This impulse is being driven by the tight competition which, since 1986, has turned government into a revolving door for political parties. While the fact of redistribution is laudable, however, how it is done is crucial in determining whether redistribution perpetuates the old system of wealth with injustice or makes a break from it.

The parade of sensational disclosures involving public assets suggests that, more than ever, wealth and personal advancement in T&T are being derived from acts of injustice, making today’s privileged elite no more fit than those of 1783. In such a scenario, it will require a lot more than law enforcement to break our history of entitled criminality.