For A New Social Contract

A new social contract should include reforms and proposals which are feasible, achievable and binding — this is the only way to revitalize the economy and society and restore the dynamism of capitalism for the common good

During her visit to Mauritius in 1956 Princess Margaret travelled in an open vehicle with a number of risks as the crowd tried to get a closer view of the princess. Malcolm de Chazal then wrote an open letter to the Governor suggesting that better security measures be taken to protect important visitors. The governor was furious that a civil servant had dared write to him an open letter and consequently it fell to the Colonial Secretary to write to Malcolm de Chazal asking him to retire from the Civil Service six years before his normal retirement age. There is no better example of the authoritarian nature of the colonial state. After independence the successor state was meant at least to be liberal, let alone democratic. But today the liberal regime suffers from a number of anomalies and one major explanation of these anomalies is the elitist control of our society and its pernicious influence thereon. Since it is the lower classes that bear the brunt of the various malpractices, they should seek and negotiate a new social contract with the elite to safeguard their interests and work together for a better society.

In seeking to explain why our democratization process has been so slow, the blame is more often laid at the door of the political class This explanation is too simplistic for it overlooks the fact that while the political class has its share of blame in the way our society evolves, it must be recognized that it forms part of an elitist system which controls most of the levers of power in our society. At the Lancaster Conference, 1965, our political representatives did their best to craft a democratic state adapted to a plural society. But all they could achieve by consensus was simply a liberal state. A number of proposals were put forward; some were rejected but on the whole consensus was reached for the establishment of a liberal state for Mauritius. After independence it has been extremely difficult to even implement a liberal regime successfully.

In trying to understand our political traditions, we should remember that our political system was not founded in 1968 after we had been given a new Constitution. The political system formalized by the Constitution in 1968 is an organic one, evolved from our own past. The discussions at Lancaster made a number of references to our past political experience — laws, institutions, and other conventions and values. For example, some of our fundamental rights already existed during colonial times, and a few of them were suspended with the outbreak of war in 1939. It is well known that our judicial system has evolved from the time of the French rule and has been adapted during British rule. When all this is said the colonial system remained authoritarian with powers vested in the hands of one person — the governor –, apart from the fact that in the British colonial system the colonies were administered by ordinances and orders in Council.

In 1968 we inherited all the major features of a liberal state — representative government, cabinet rule, a civil service, the judiciary, the rule of law and an electoral system, a mixed economy and even an independent Commissioner of Police. At the same time, what we inherited was a centralized system of government where the powers were distributed among various centralized institutions under the control of not one person but of an elite. By elite we mean the politicians, the civil servants, the professionals who staff all our institutions or parastatal bodies, as well as the entrepreneurs, businessmen and managers in the corporate sector – both public and private. This elitist domination of our society is not a post-independent phenomenon and can be traced to the type of colonial society prevalent in Mauritius. The business interests were represented in the Council of Government from 1831 onwards, and from that time they dominated colonial politics and they were represented in all our institutions.

What is therefore new after independence? All the institutions inherited from the past have been retained and consolidated. The old elite prevails in the private sector where they have increased its control over the economy and worked closely with the new elite, which has expanded since independence. For example the only difference between the old elite and the new elite is that that the new elite is not based on the productive resources of the country; it relies solely on the state for its survival, for jobs, resources, security, honour and status. However both the new and the old elites one are organically linked for they are interdependent and rely on the state to survive. One section of the new elite relies on political control of the state for resources, jobs, promotion and security. The business entrepreneurs of the new elite share with the old elite government contracts for they are the ones to procure goods and services to the state. Contractors, big and small, often arrange among themselves to bid for contracts at the highest prices in order to make excessive profits to the detriment of the state.

The old elite despite being invisible in politics prefers to pull the strings from behind the curtain. They are powerful enough to wring concessions from the government and these concessions are made available annually in the budgets or in various projects that require government support. In the 1950s, a dry cleaning and steam plant would not have been set up without the guarantee of a contract for the washing of hospital linen. Similarly in the 1960s a pharmaceutical venture would not have been successful as an import-substitution industry without a contract to supply medicines to state hospitals.

Today compulsory use of ethanol for cars in the near future will be sold as a pro-environment initiative but which will fill the coffers of the ethanol producer. But nobody cares about coal ash, which is dumped in sugar cane fields though it is well known that it contains arsenic and mercury that pose a number of risks for workers. And one does not expect the private sector-financed environmental NGOs to rake up such issues. When building apartments are not being sold as a result of property speculation, property developers are able to benefit from measures to help them sell their property.

With the control of the state and its institutions by the elite, comprising both the new elite and the old one, the working classes and other small business entrepreneurs or producers inevitably feel alienated from the state and its institutions. In the past it was expected that the new elite would be progressive enough to work for the welfare of the lower classes and incorporate the interests of the latter in public policies for the betterment of society. This is how some major successes have been achieved with progressive legislation and the establishment and maintenance of the welfare state. But it is increasingly felt that that the interests of the lower classes are given short shrift. Their aspirations remain unfulfilled and they are the ones who swell the number of unemployed and have become the ‘precariat’ – those who live a precarious existence. They realize that their progress is being blocked by the elite but have found no means to articulate or redress their grievances.

The elite is initially constituted of kinship groups but has also other dimensions which are ethnic, professional or even religious, and has over the course of time evolved other types of associations. These range from masonic lodges to service groups and organisations to protect and advance their material interests. Confronted with elite control and power, the lower classes and most of our citizens have hardly an organization to defend their general interests. The trade unions play an important role to protect workers but are not insufficiently strong to advance the cause of their members against the state and its elites.

Consequently all our citizens have to bear the consequences of all the problems, which remain unattended. It is no longer safe to walk down the roads without being knocked down by a van or a lorry — the new insurance company, NIC Mauritius, has only recently advertised that we had 28,476 accidents in 2015. In addition to their precarious living, people are plagued by all kinds of problems -– traffic congestion, noise pollution, low wages, short employment contracts, voluntary retirement scheme, disciplinary committees, bureaucratic inertia, contaminated water, school dropouts and loss of livelihood resulting from the sea and other pollution.

This elite is embedded in our society, and its institutions are well entrenched. It does, however, recognize the hopelessness of its task. Social distress, the rise of crime, drug addiction and violence can only result in deteriorating social cohesion. The elite itself has become vulnerable and is keen to reverse these processes of decline. Therein lies an the opportunity for the working classes and the lower classes to seek and work out a new social contract that incorporates their concerns and those of the broader society and the economy.

A new social contract should include reforms and proposals which are feasible, achievable and binding for this is the only way to revitalize the economy and society and restore the dynamism of capitalism for the common good.

Sada Reddi

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