Thursday, November 24, 2011

True Democracy (in ancient Athens)

WARNING! This post contains some speculations on matters of history and etymology. I find that sort of stuff very interesting, but it’s not for the squeamish.

We don’t always know what we mean when we say “democracy”. It signifies different things in different contexts. There is “representative” democracy, in which voters elect a limited number of oligarchs to pass laws and hire bureaucrats to interpret those laws and security personnel to enforce them. And there is “pure” or “direct” democracy, in which all licensed electors vote for or against specific propositions.

It was the city-state of Athens in Greece 2500 years ago that gave us the concept of democracy. In their usage it was a liberal kind of representative democracy - a reform imposed by a popular dictator who set out to break the power of the City’s hereditary rulers - property-rich native families whose clannishness had long inhibited the development of the City’s full economic potential.

Hitherto, all eligible citizens could vote for members of the governing Assembly: no problem there. But each family always voted together as a bloc, for its own relatives. The liberal dictator’s new constitution created artificial groups with the authority to elect representatives to the Assembly. Think of school “houses” with elected leaders to represent the members in matters involving the governance of the school.

Each “house” had its own meeting-place called a deme, where the voting took place. Hence deme-ocracy, -cracy being the standard English transliteration of the Greek word meaning “rule”. The members of each deme were a carefully chosen cross-section of the citizenry; social classes and families were so mixed that none of the traditional factions could gain dominance. That was the innovation.

There were occasions in ancient Athens when the entire electorate voted as a bloc, but only ever on issues, not on candidates for the Assembly. Athens’s democracy never meant “rule by the people”, especially in the sense of the direct voting we associate with Switzerland.

By 500 B.C. the franchise was the monopoly of male hereditary (bloodline) citizens. The rest of the population- women, slaves and long-term residents, could not vote. This situation particularly irked the immigrants, who at that time dominated commercial life, and were nearly as numerous as the citizens. Giving them the vote was deemed necessary to prevent an exodus of foreign investors and their skilled foreign workers, which might have seriously damaged the local economy.

Sound familiar? Immigrants in Cayman who benefitted from the mass Status grants of 2003 may well owe their good fortune to FCO clerks who remembered their school history lessons. What a thought! In Athens, mass grants of citizenship happened more than just the once. The occasional merging of immigrants and bloodline natives is what set Athens above and apart from its more village-oriented neighbours. Will bloodline Caymanians have the gumption to do the same? Doubtful, I’m afraid.

Incidentally, the demes would not have been specially created for the purpose, merely adapted for it. Brand-new places would never have been able to override family loyalties. It’s far more likely that they had existed in some form or other for some respectable traditional purpose. For me, the most likely original purpose would be religious shrines to a highly respected god. My candidate for that honour is Themis, one of the earliest recorded Greek gods, who was associated with the divine law and custom-law, which in England is called common law.

It would have been a stroke of genius to choose that god’s traditional holy places as venues for the casting of votes under the new constitution. Themocracy, democracy: potato, potahto.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Our Latest Blacklist (Filipinos in Cayman)

In the end, it wasn’t even a nine-days’ wonder. Three days’ attention was all our local media gave to the Philippines Government’s sudden broadside against Cayman’s mistreatment of migrant workers. It can’t have taken the Philippines authorities years and years to acknowledge the slavery-like aspects of our indentured-servitude program, so we are left asking ourselves what the purpose of the broadside might have been. I think it probably had three objectives, each of which was at least partly achieved.

First, it was a general warning- notice to the whole world not to exploit Filipino citizens working abroad. There are several millions of them at any one time, and the forty-one nations and territories on the published blacklist are all very minor importers of Filipinos. How many of them could there be working in Zimbabwe, for goodness sake, or Tuvalu, or Haiti? If the home bureaucrats were working strategically, it would make sense for them to start their threats with the smaller importers and work their way up to the majors. The two or three thousand Filipinos in Cayman comprise a miniscule proportion of the total working overseas.

The second purpose of the blacklist might be the political one of assuring domestic voters that the governing Party is looking after their sisters, daughters, mothers and brothers, sons and fathers labouring in strange lands thousands of miles away. It’s always a scary move (and sometimes a dangerous one) for young people, to head off to parts unknown. We should all- especially native Caymanians- have the greatest respect for the bravery of those who make that move. All native Caymanians have forebears who made it, after all.

Thirdly, all but the most heartless of bureaucrats in Manila must feel genuine disgust at our immigration system that gives local employers a licence to cheat and exploit migrants held on bond-service. They must also wonder what kind of people we are, to be practising such a departure from civilised behaviour. Of course we know that most of the devisers and enforcers of our system are nice people on the surface. We see their photos in the paper and think, well, he or she looks pleasant enough. But a lot of us are discerning enough to see, behind some of the smiles, personalities that lack compassion. They are people from whom we should withhold our respect, however high and mighty their positions.

In my mind, endorsing servitude is not all that much less offensive than endorsing gang culture. Individuals are intimidated into silence in both cases. Filipinos in Cayman (like all migrant workers) risk having part of their wages and pensions stolen without recompense, and risk being assaulted in public places by thugs who are never brought to trial.

Ah well, Filipinos are a resilient people, and they have a strong support-network here in their fellow-nationals. They will survive, as exploited migrants everywhere survive. Ultimately, they and their families are better off being exploited in Cayman than unemployed back home. Any moral equivocation is ours, not theirs. We Caymanians should feel shame for our community, that it refuses our guest workers the full protection of the law. In many ways, Cayman is a paradise; so how can we live in paradise and not be on the side of the angels?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Parishes of England

It’s an ancient English tradition that every parish look after its own natives. Parishes used to have the right to expel “foreigners” back to their home parishes. Most of those expelled were poor people, since some parishes had more money in the kitty than others. “Foreign” workers brought in to help with the harvests acquired no right of residence no matter how long or frequent their visits. In general, the only foreigners accepted as residents were men who married into one of the parish families. There was no rollover policy as such.

The natives themselves, of any and all parishes, were subject to arbitrary transplantation by decree of the king or the local lords of the manor. In the 1700s, tens of thousands of parishioners from England, Scotland and Ireland were unwillingly “planted” in the British Caribbean and North American colonies as indentured servants, and in the preceding Century King James implemented the mass transfer of villagers from his realm to what is now Northern Ireland.

One can see the link between the old British customs and the practices Britain includes in its current colonial rules. Cayman is an example of a parish’s autonomy; the deportation of the Chagossians in the 1960s illustrates a British monarch’s legal power to override that autonomy. Both examples are consistent with the old customs. If the United States had wanted Cayman Brac handed over to it instead of Chagos, all the Brackers would have been expelled without a moment’s hesitation.

It would pay native Caymanians to study British history in more detail than is done at present. It would pay their MLAs to study and understand the distinction between a nation and a parish-sized territory, too. One day those studies might come in handy.

It’s very tiresome hearing and reading comparisons between Cayman and large nations. “How would Britain like it if two thirds of its population were immigrants?” or “America’s Presidents have to be born in that country, so it’s only right that all our MLAs be born in this country.” Utterly stupid comments, deriving from a deep ignorance of the world around us.

Cayman’s proper comparisons are with British parishes or towns, not Britain itself. Why is that so hard to understand? The FCO did our Islands a great disservice when it re-titled our Leader of Government Business as Premier and our ExCo (Executive Council) as Cabinet, and set up a Protocol Office. How many English parishes have Protocol Offices, for goodness sake? Those titles just gave our local rulers ideas above their extremely modest stations. A place of our size needs Parish Councillors, not Cabinet Ministers.

Dear God, the FCO does get some cockamamie ideas into its woolly head! The junior clerks assigned to watch over the flyspecks of Empire must be laughing themselves sick, watching the ridiculous posturing of our Protocol-obsessed village aldermen. It would be nice if the aldermen would plant their feet back on the ground and bring a sense of perspective to their foolishness. Yes, maybe they don’t see their actions as foolish, but the rest of the world does.