Thursday, May 8, 2014

Ashwin Raj on the “(Im)possibilities of Democracy”

The military dictatorship which seized power in Fiji at the point of a gun in 2006 now promises not just to hold elections in September. It actually assures the world that what will result will be nothing less than “genuine” or “deep” democracy. This is ensured, the dictator told the United Nations General Assembly in September, by the constitution his regime imposed on the country earlier last year.

Birds of a feather flock together
“This Constitution introduces the first genuine democracy Fiji will enjoy since we gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1970,” Frank Bainimarama told the UN. “We finally have a Constitution that is worthy of the Fijian people.” Bainimarama told the world that his constitution “enshrines principles that are at the heart of all the world’s great liberal democracies – an independent judiciary, a secular state and a wide range of civil, political and socio-economic rights.” By all accounts, he actually said this with a straight face, which would be no small feat given not only the captive nature of the nation’s judiciary, but also the limitations that his constitution imposes on human rights in Fiji, especially on press freedom. Hopefully it was not lost on delegates that the regime not only dismissed out of hand a constitution it had invited an independent commission to draft after it dared to urge the restoration of human rights limited by innumerable junta decrees. It then went so far as to railroad its own version into law without even bothering to put it up for discussion at the “constituent assembly” it had promised to appoint.

This is supposed to ensure “genuine” or “deep” democracy? Of course not. It’s a charade, a farce. The whole world can see right through it. The only question is whether the junta can get Fijians to believe it, which is actually probable given the control the regime exercises over the country’s domestic media and hence the worldview of its populace. It is unlikely, however, that outside observers will deem the coming elections free and fair given the ever-increasing level of intimidation exerted against the nation’s press by the regime’s new media commissar, Ashwin Raj. As chronicled in the first part of this look at the background and qualifications of the new Chairman of the Media Industry Development Authority, Raj is a failed academic who once railed against the regime. Now he has conveniently come around to enthusiastically support its aims, perhaps as a result of his own peculiar notions of democracy, or as he put it in the title of his only known academic publication, its “(im)possibilities.” 

As a graduate student at the University of Hawai’i in 2004, Raj published an article in the peer-reviewed academic journal Fijian Studies: A Journal of Contemporary Fiji which was titled “Spectres of the Neo-liberal State and the (Im)possibilities of Democracy.” The article provides a telling glimpse into Raj’s ideas about how things should work in Fiji. I highly recommend it to your reading, and it will cost you only AUS$1.98 to download. Keep in mind, of course, that the article is now a decade old, and not only have Raj’s ideas doubtless evolved over the past decade, but events have also altered the political landscape in Fiji. Bainimara’s coup, for example, was still two years in the offing. Neo-liberalism had yet to be discredited by the economic crisis that gripped the world starting in 2008 and is only just now loosening. (In Fiji, where received wisdom seems to arrive late, if ever, neo-liberalism is still in vogue, judging by government policies of income tax cuts and an apparent consensus in favor of slashing the VAT.)

Just as it would be in an ironic 2007 letter to the Fiji Times, the bee in Raj’s bonnet in his 2004 article was the proverbial monkey of good governance. “Good governance and democracy are identified not with the empowerment of the many, such as those working in the Fiji garment industry for low wages,” he wrote, “but with constitutionality, free elections and a deregulated market.” The implementation of neo-liberal economic policies posed an inherent contradiction in Fiji, according to Raj, due to their withdrawal of entitlement programmes. “One of the colonial legacies of Fiji is that the political imaginary of the nation is that of entitlements,” he wrote. “It has never been a nation of rights.” Government insisted that neo-liberal policies would bring economic growth, noted Raj, which would have a trickle down effect on the country’s social and political development that was necessary to rescue the economy from the severe downturn that followed the 1987 coup. The structural adjustment reforms, however, were implemented while Parliament had been suspended, which had “a serious bearing on the notion of democracy as unpopular reforms were implemented by a group of people who were not democratically elected.”
While the postcoup state had promised to ensure indigenous Fijian advancement in the realm of the economic, it now had to address the tension between pursuing economic liberalization on the one hand and economic affirmative action programmes as part of its nationalist agenda on the other. The reform measures pursued had an adverse effect on the indigenous Fijians as the market did not discriminate between Indians and Fijians. The burden of public sector reform fell largely on ethnic Fijians since much of the public sector was dominated by indigenous Fijians. 
The displacements following the 2000 coup served as justification for Australia to intervene and seek the restoration of democracy, noted Raj. Through their insistence on good governance, Western governments such as Australia and institutions such as the World Bank “create a regime of ‘truth’ as they decide whether a particular regime of governance is good or bad and as such become the arbiter of ethical good.” Raj even utilized the exclamation point, which is rarely seen in academic writing, in making his argument. “It thus constitutes a shift in the burden and responsibility from developed countries to developing countries whereby the latter have to ‘clean up their own mess’ so that it no longer appears to be an external imposition but owned and implemented by governments that have been legitimated through the national democratic process of free and fair elections!”

The World Bank’s apocalyptic scenario for the Pacific called “the Pacific Paradox” and Ben Reilly’s “Africanization of the South Pacific” thesis, which is characterized by soaring corruption, dismiss the role of international power differentials that inform notions of governance and development, argued Raj. “It is here that one needs to examine the complicity of the intellectual in the production of particular regimes of truth or reality.” The notion of a public sphere in which anyone can participate in political debates regardless of their social status was “indeed advocating freedom of thought as the true condition for enlightenment.”
However, when one thinks of the cacophony of the margins, one is reminded of the rise of experts and specialists on the one hand and the consistent call for unrestricted education sanitized of any social prejudice on the other. Certain modes of knowledge have been privileged over time so that the public sphere becomes a collective of selective individuals qualified enough to speak for the subaltern.
The powerless classes, or subaltern, suffer as a result of the calls for good governance by international civil society, he argued, which are fuelled by liberal individualism. “‘Normalcy’ and stability have been privileged over democracy,” he wrote. “Governance needs to examine the predicament of the ‘new subaltern.’ Otherwise, any yearnings for democracy will remain a fiction, an incomplete project of modernity reserved for an enlightened elite engaged with the pedagogical mission of speaking on behalf of the subaltern.” He poignantly illustrated his point with an anecdote from his own field research.
Who decides what are free and fair elections? To date, I am still haunted by an interview which I carried out with a subaltern woman during the 1999 general elections in Fiji. I asked her if she felt her rights were secured under the 1997 Constitution to which she replied acerbically: “and what am I supposed to eat in the evening? The Constitution?”
Raj’s article shows some insight into the dilemma that accompanies the twin goals of development and democracy. Can an impoverished nation such as Fiji have both? If not, which is more important? It is fairly obvious which one the junta has chosen, as its moves toward democracy become increasingly unconvincing. Given his apparent conversion as an apostle of the regime and his new role in advancing its goals through controlling the news that Fijians get, two sentences from his 2004 article ring louder than the rest. Not only is it “here that one needs to examine the complicity of the intellectual in the production of particular regimes of truth or reality.” Ironically it is now Raj who is helping to “create a regime of ‘truth,’” and decide whether governance is good or bad. He has himself become “the arbiter of ethical good.”

But wait, it gets even better . . . er, weirder. In the intervening decade since the article’s publication, Ashwin Raj has been transformed in more ways than one. His coming out of the closet a few years ago and his advocacy for gay rights provide us with further insights into his ideas about democracy. In a talk that Raj gave two years ago at an event to mark International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT), he mused that democracy has much to learn from sexuality. According to a press release,  Raj noted that “entering the protocols of others will play a critical role in compelling law to engage with our material conditions.”
USP academic and activist Ashwin Raj, spoke about the future of democracy. While reminding us that those who espouse to sexual values other then compulsory heterosexuality constitute the world’s largest and oldest diaspora, he said that democracy has much to learn from sexuality. They are both at home and in exile. Since sexual identities can never be reduced to sexual acts, so should democracy strive to be more than free and fair elections and the performative conventions of constitutionalism.
In other words, the people always get screwed in the end. It’s only a matter of who’s doing the screwing. Ashwin Raj has obviously done his best to ensure he will be at the front of that line.

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