Friday, April 12, 2024

THE BIG PICTURE: Economic nationalism


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The realisation of the Massy takeover of a number of Barbadian businesses only hit home after the Massy name and logo went up on once locally-owned enterprises.

It may be symptomatic of the lack of awareness of the Barbadian public that the takeover had occurred sometime before the nomenclature was actually altered. It was not so long ago that Ronnie Hughes penned a celebratory history of Barbados Shipping and Trading (BS&T). There is the feeling in some quarters that BS&T represented a small powerful economic minority not representative of broader majority interests and that it had consistently failed to widen its constituency.

The indictment has also been levied that a company of ageing conservative white men was too inward-looking and archaic to survive in an increasingly competitive world.

Protectionism may be a bad word, but even in an age of globalisation and trade liberalisation, protectionist nationalist sentiment still resides in the hearts of politicians and publics alike.

A few years ago Nicolas Sarkozy replied in defence of “l’economie nationale” when outside interests sought to take over what many saw as key sectors of French business.

In recent times, an amazing number of enterprises have fallen out of direct Barbadian control. BNB is now owned by Republic Bank, Barbados Light & Power is controlled by the Canadian conglomerate Emera and ICBL by Bermudian interests.

Many have become subsidiaries of Massy and have now been completely rebranded. The numbers are arresting: Super Centre, Illuminat, Dacosta Mannings, Knights Pharmacy and United Insurance. The big question is, does it matter? What long term benefits do mergers and acquisitions bring?

Beyond the sentimental glow of being able to call something our own, are there negative socio-economic consequences implicit in that level of foreign ownership? Have we sold our birthright for a mess of pottage? In spite of pretenders to a monolithic delusional certainty, (blind men in a dark room looking for a black cat), the debate is highly speculative.

Even among the Barbadian intelligentsia, these questions are seldom addressed. The nationalist attachment to indigenous enterprise may be largely sentimental, but as John Ralston Saul states: “Civic or positive nationalism has been with us throughout history . . . it is reinvented for each age.”

It could, however, extend to vital issues of commitment and alienation. A Barbadian was heard telling another that he should do more to help his country. The cynical response was: “Help my country? Wuh I don’t know who Barbados belongs to anymore.”

For others it implies the capacity to control our own economic destiny and defend interests proper to ourselves. One commentator has consistently argued that the sale of the BNB robbed Barbados of a developmental banking institution capable of funding native enterprise.

Then there is the anti-Trinidadian sentiment which for what it is worth, sees Barbados’ commercial interests as not coterminous with those of Trinidad and Tobago. There has long been a small body of opinion that sees Trinidad as using its petrodollars to dominate the economies of the eastern Caribbean.

The foreign ownership of much of the local economy also raises political questions. Could a foreign conglomerate in one way or another unduly influence the political process and the relations of dominance and power to the detriment of the wider population?

 One columnist has used the word “vultures” to characterise what he sees as predatory foreign investment. Interestingly, on a Brass Tacks programme, two Trinidadian commentators suggested that the T&T entrepreneurial class was more concerned with promoting its own interests than those of the Trinidadian public. Rabid capitalism seldom feels a loyalty to anything but itself, not to labour, not to the public or the corruptible governments it sometimes exploits.

Another concern is about a net loss of foreign exchange by way of repatriated profits. What does the data suggest?  

On the other side of the debate, are those who contend that mergers and acquisitions mean more venture capital, infrastructural growth and given the proverbial Barbadian aversion to risk, more institutional expansion. Few would disagree that BNB, now Republic Bank, became a more viable commercial enterprise with a superior institutional culture.

 Barbados, like so many developing states, is starved for investment capital and must source it wherever it is to be found. If Barbadians in general and the Barbadian entrepreneurial class in particular lack the enterprise and the equity capital, it cannot turn its back on foreign investment from any source if Barbados is to remain on a growth path.

Tongue in cheek, Richard D. Wolff, author of America At Work, told Bill Maher that “the logic of capitalism is to make a buck”. He pointed out that ironically, that “logic” has not turned to the Far East and away from decaying American cities like Cleveland and Detroit.

Unbridled profiting cannot be a logic. It can only lead to what J. Ralston Saul calls “the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments”.  

• Ralph Jemmott is a retired educator and social commentator.


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