New Internationalist

Democratization à-la-Labour

Issue 389

All you have to do is plan your visit for just before general elections. Then, when you get here, follow the posters to the open-air meetings at intersections. There the orators will be, standing high on trucks, under coloured flags, addressing everyone through blaring speakers. If you can get a rough translation from the Mauritian Kreol at a random selection of meetings, you will soon notice that all the parties represent the interests of ‘the working class’, oppose ‘capital’, and vow to ‘bring about socialism’.

‘Isn’t this some far left party?’ confused visitors inevitably ask.

No, it’s the discourse of all the mainstream parties.

No-one has ever, or could ever, get elected without it. The people in Mauritius somehow demand full-scale socialist discourse. No less. And have, in all the nine general elections since Independence in 1968, got it. The Fukuyama ‘end of history’ line never went down big here.

Once any given alliance of parties gets elected, it then sets about, egged on by the local press, the IMF, World Bank, US Embassy (all the usual suspects), to implement the same old neoliberal political agenda.

And that’s when people resist.

They apply pressure against. The non-parliamentary genuine left parties analyze and organize, union delegates meet and protest, wildcat strikes happen, the women’s movement mobilizes, ad hoc demonstrations materialize – pirogues in the harbour, snail-pace truck-drivers at rush hour – and the official Opposition parties sharpen their socialistic oratory.

So successive elected governments since 1979 may have tried to privatize, say, health and education, and companies may have been greedy to invest, but no such thing has happened.

One government removed the flour and rice subsidy. It immediately lost a municipal by-election, so put the subsidy back.

Before the last elections, the then government introduced means-testing for old-age pensions made universal in 1952. It should have known better. It lost.

But there was an interesting novelty in the discourse before the July 2005 general elections.

The winners, Alliance Sociale, are a heteroclite bunch of parties around the pre-Independence Labour Party, now led by Navin Ramgoolam. As is customary, they opposed the capitalist policies of the outgoing alliance headed by Paul Bérenger, who had risen by the same means.

The new Government declared its programme to ‘Democratize the Economy’ and announced: ‘We’ll change your life in 100 days!’

These were clearly two distinct slogans. No-one thought democratization of the economy would change people’s lives in 100 days. It’s two things.

Democratization à-la-Labour means forcing the existing huge companies that control the heights of the economy to let in other big-but-not-huge companies to share this control.

But government can’t do even that without isolating the oligarchs first. This ‘historical bourgeoisie’, fatted on slavery during French colonization, and indenture during the British, and then on modern wage labour, is far too strong, far too defiant for that.

So, that’s why the Government set about getting mass support. To people’s astonishment, it actually began to implement parts of its programme.

It re-instated pensions as a universal right.

Then it introduced free bus transport for all old-age pensioners, disabled people and students. No more worry about bus fares for children – especially since education is only recently compulsory. A new freedom of movement has breathed a feeling of joy into the air. Pensioners potter off here and there about their business. Schoolchildren hop on and off buses for free.

The price of imported milk, which had been causing fury, is now controlled.

Small planters with less than two acres of land can now sub-divide without all the palaver of permits and taxes.

Mothers staying at hospital with young children now get free meals for themselves as well as for the child.

There are now weekend magistrates so police can’t just lock you up on a Friday without bail until Monday.

And so on. Changing things in people’s lives. Though not in any profound way – all the job insecurity, for example, is still there.

All the while, however, they are reinforcing the ruling class by broadening its base. Companies with ties to the Government go into joint ventures with Indian transnationals. Or they get permits to invest in Integrated Resort Schemes designed to link a couple of posh new hotels and 30 mansions for the international jet-set around a golf course. And so on.

In other words, they may be challenging the control of the two or three big old conglomerates, but they are not increasing the control working people have over their destinies. This is a grave omission at a time when both the major industries, sugar and textiles, are on the verge of massive globalization-sparked crises. And when the people do want real political changes to guide the economy.

Lindsey Collen is a Mauritian novelist.

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