Noble: How the neo-liberal myth of ‘Me, Myself and I’ poisoned T&T society

Our teachers’ day of ‘rest and reflection’ is entirely unsurprising. It is the natural outcome of events that began in the 1980s. The chickens have come home to roost. But even now, we, the society, are unprepared to confront the significant issues. We are stuck at “we want we money now”! 

There is an unwillingness to wrestle with the philosophical issues about how we structure our economy and country. We forget our history at our risk.

Photo: TTUTA leads teachers on a demonstration.

As a prelude to the ‘70s Revolution, one should remember that between 1960 and 1964, there were 230 strikes involving more than 70,000 workers. In the aftermath of the 70s Revolution, state enterprises were set up to “control the commanding heights” of the economy. This action sprung from the PNM’s Chaguaramas Declaration of 1970, where the party rejected liberal capitalism and proposed strong state participation in the economy and a focus on national sovereignty. 

The founding dates of the National Petroleum Company, the nationalisation of Shell and the creation of the National Gas Company stand silent witnesses to this period (1972 – 74). The National Commercial Bank was formed from the assets of the Bank of London and Montreal.

What is missed in this account is the active participation of the trade unionists and academia. The leaders of our society wrestled openly with the issues around structuring the economy. 

While Dr Eric Williams boasted about the large public sector—more than any other Caribbean territory—he was mindful of the danger of being sacrificed on “the altar of some intellectual fetish”. But he had formidable debaters in the persons of Lloyd Best and Trevor Farrell. 

Photo: Iconic Trinidad labour leader Tubal Uriah “Buzz” Butler (left) and Trinidad and Tobago’s first Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.
(Copyright Trinidad Guardian)

In agreement with George Weekes, the latter felt that the nationalisation process was too timid. The overriding concern was with employment and national control. 

Weekes’ position was noteworthy in calling for the takeover of Texaco and Amoco. “For any country, regardless of its size, to nationalise any industry and not to expect problems is to live in a dream world.” 

Farrell complained about the nuances of the acquisition process, arguing that the country was overpaying for the assets. Against this background, one appreciates the recent comments of both Comrades Cecil Paul and Gerry Kangalee.

Ozzi Warwick (2016) wrote a thoughtful history of how trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago have made political interventions using various strategies and tactics, which include forming alliances.

Photo: Prominent trade unionists Ancel Roget (left) and David Abdulah.

Do we now have the labour leaders who could debate a vision, or are we to be happy with them threatening and marching in the hot sun? The private sector has not changed its clothes since the days of Williams, but with the intellectual and moral feebleness of the trade unions, where do we go? 

By the ‘80s, Trinidad and Tobago moved seamlessly, under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to what may be called ‘neo-liberalism’—a most selfish approach to living. The individual became the strategic cornerstone. 

As the late former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, a chief proponent of this approach, preached: “There is no such thing as society.” 

In other words: “I am okay. See about yourself because I do not care about you.” 

We did not grasp the poison in that approach. We are now paying for this.

Image: Is greed good?
(Copyright Mark Anderson/ Andertoons)

A steep drop in oil prices brought the International Monetary Fund and its Structural Adjustment Programme. Literally, everything turned ole mas! The country abandoned all its bright economic plans. 

Trinidad and Tobago recovered with the rise in oil and gas prices in the 2000s, but we never restarted those development plans nor abandoned our selfishness. We never invested in research and development. 

One estimate suggests that the research budget never rose to 1% of our national budget. We lived high and did not give a flying fig about tomorrow. We held the view that it was our brains that made us rich. Phooey! 

Tenderpreneurs need connections, not brains. They are virtual parasites. 

We had jumped off the train of self-sufficiency with the potential for indigenous technological capabilities in specific areas. The sense of national pride took a significant hit. 

Photo: Students observe a digital presentation in Tarouba.
(via Ministry of Digital Transformation)

We disembowelled the trade unions, gutted public schools and hospitals and allowed private enterprise paramountcy. Private security services began to dominate while our established police service, starved of resources, became more inefficient. Poverty rose while our money made us world-renowned through the infamous Panama Papers.

No, not ‘our’ money as in belonging for the use and benefit of the working class. That money was only ‘ours’ in origin. 

Our money is accustomed to gaining wings. It goes to places unknown for the benefit of those who fed at the public trough. Ugly monstrosities were our avant-garde homes, and larger vehicles soaked unsuspecting pedestrians. All these were not isolated events—it is the neoliberal philosophy. 

We bought into the myth that if we work harder, we will win. We excused the growing income chasm. We made many irretrievably poor. Now poverty knocks at more doors. 

Image: A satirical take on the fight for better wages.

Those who sneered at the long-time indigents now realise their money is worthless in the jaws of inflation. They can no longer ‘eat the money’ nor buy the usual fare. They are the new ‘working poor’. 

They are now angry and want to fight but still do not understand the nuances of the struggle. They merely want a reset. 

“Do not reconfigure the system; just preserve my place. Please do not ask me to contribute since I already work too hard.” This thinking is their new position.  

The past ‘winners’ were admired, but few tried to understand the system that allows the minority to prosper. Instead, those who were ‘unsuccessful’ were chastised and shamed. It was all their fault. 

The milk of human kindness was in short supply. Nobody paused. Flying to Miami was the norm. Our governments fed us baubles to keep us happy even as some in the high places helped themselves to enormous wealth. Remember the mischievous Jack Warner jibes? 

Photo: Suspended Fifa vice-president Jack Warner is greeted by supporters shortly after his arrival at the Piarco International Airport on 2 June 2011.
Warner is battling extradition to the USA on corruption charges at present.
(Copyright AP Photo/Shirley Bahadur)

‘Money was no problem’ was re-written large. Our ministers had blue lights and frequented the Hyatt Hotel. We were Trust Fund babies, living off the oil and gas ‘rent’. No hard work. 

Did anybody notice where certain gentlemen gravitated to when launching a political initiative to win the votes of poor people? We are a nine-day wonder country with three card trickers.  

We gave up our business class seats to Jamaican artistes while the wretched wannabes robbed to obtain the money to attend the shows. Who cared? Me, Myself and I could buy VIP tickets. 

We were happier than the proverbial Pappy! Who needed job evaluations to limit the disparities? Life was good. 

Image: A satirical take on falling oil prices.

The music has now stopped. No company is tumbling over the other for new oil and gas discoveries. Covid, supply chain issues, and inflation have brought great uncertainty. What is our response? 

After an initial halt in household and other private sector debt, we are again increasing our debt. The temporary rise in gas and oil prices causes us to sing, ‘better days are here again!’ Run de money! Give me de ting!

What short memories we have! Did anyone read the recent Central Bank Financial Stability Report? Why is everything about ‘me, myself and I’? Will the little kakada help? On what have we been reflecting?

How to change our schools and financial institutions to breed entrepreneurs? The disquieting SEA results? The revamped post-primary plan, aka examinations, after two years? A programme developed to help those unprepared and underperforming students? 

Photo: Belmont school boys smile for the cameras during a visit from two-time Olympian Jehue Gordon in 2010.

Why has the US system recruited 264 teachers from Jamaica but not from us? Is it because Jamaica teachers are paid lower rates, or is it the differential in their commitment?

Has any trade union reflected on how to change the food supply and inflation dynamic? How do we change the economic system to benefit all? 

While I wish Dr Keith Rowley every luck on his present mission, our Trust Fund is unlikely to return to its glory. The choices are stark. Battle each other or save our children. 

Societal implosion is at our doorstep.

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One comment

  1. We went for nationalisation and ran everything successfully- DOWN TO GHE GROUND off course

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