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Commentary: Plantation politics in the Caribbean
Published on December 30, 2013 Email To Friend    Print Version

By Oliver Mills

Dr Tennyson Joseph, of the University of the West Indies Cave Hill Campus, recently wrote that it would make a very interesting study to discover why the same groups who were opposed to independence, as pro-British anti-nationalists, are today masquerading as the most die-hard small-island nationalists, opposed to integration. He then poses two questions. These are: Could it be that the same factors which explained their earlier anti-nationalism, also account for their present day anti-regionalism? Could it be that those groups are so comfortable in their continued existence as economic masters within small island fiefdoms that they dare not risk the shift of political power to a more self-determining regional institution over which they would have reduced influence?

Oliver Mills is a former lecturer in education at the University of the West Indies Mona Campus. He holds an M.Ed degree. from Dalhousie University in Canada, an MA from the University of London and a post-graduate diploma in HRM and Training, University of Leicester. He is a past Permanent Secretary in Education with the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands
This is a very perceptive analysis by Dr Joseph, and Caribbean history provides a context for his questions. Our history shows how nearly every effort to advance the welfare of the Caribbean populace has been met with resistance by a particular group, with its ancestry and ideology based on plantation politics. And this is the reason, as I have argued in another article, that plantation politics remains the operating social and political system in the Caribbean today, although its features have changed.

George Beckford, an eminent Caribbean economist, states that plantation society represents an institutional structure coterminous with the state, the objective being to make the most money for the plantation owners, not to enhance the welfare of the workers. Patterns of land and labour use are enforced to keep workers at the poverty level, and education, health and social services are minimal. Dependency is upheld and this discourages progressive values, and offers few incentives and rewards. The question is then posed as to whether plantation society reflects an image of the way economic interests are organised in Caribbean society today.

Beckford further notes that, within the plantation community, relationships reflect the authority structure of the plantation, and in every aspect of life, a strong authoritarian tradition can be observed. Anyone with power over others exercises it in an exploitative and authoritarian manner, and this deprives people of their dignity, security, and self-respect. It also saps motivation so necessary for development.

This view of plantation society mirrors its politics, since the structure of any society or system is intertwined with, and determined by its politics. The plantation, the society, and its institutions were one. Plantation owners owned the politics and the economy. They were the ones with the wealth, and this shaped governance, since property was the qualification for membership of the political class and the institutions that crafted political policies. Race, class, and colour were also interconnected.

CLR James states with reference to St Domingue, where the owners were concerned, that the big whites were opposed to the French colonial state since it restricted their opportunities to make profits, while the small whites opposed the big whites who lorded over them, and to whom they owed debts. Both these groups opposed the mulattoes who had inherited land from their white parents, and were therefore wealthy. Small whites hated the mulattoes, because “whiteness” alone conveyed status, but the existence of wealthy mulattoes contradicted this position. Also, the mulattoes despised the free black population, and both these groups despised the slaves who returned the hostility.

This was the structure of plantation society and politics, and in significant aspects, it remains so in today’s Caribbean. This is why the UWI political scientist posed the questions he did. Generations of the descendants of these very groups over time became the economic and political power structures of Caribbean society. Those with wealth funded both parties in each country so they would continue to dominate the plantation.

Although elements of the economy have changed somewhat, the basic structure and operations of Caribbean society remain in the plantation mode. Privileged groups opposed independence because they felt their power and influence would wither away, and now they oppose integration sentiments for the same purpose. Their descendants opposed the abolition of slavery, and any semblance of a wider democracy at various points in Caribbean history. They want to exist on their separate plantations, despite the contradictions around them.

These contradictions include faltering economies, less influence in the wider world, persistent poverty, and stubborn underdevelopment. Their representatives in the political corridors increase taxes on the lower socio-economic groups, periodically offer the descendants of slaves mild incentives to manage their mood, and stage periodic political contests to give the false impression that one or the other political outfit is working in their interest.

According to one study, the economy of one Caribbean country is owned by twenty-one families. Certain social programmes in health and education are now not so widely available as before in many others, validating what Beckford said about these goods being minimally provided, based on the plantation way of doing things, while many big commercial enterprises enjoy increased profits.

Politics has become a game, with the players on each side having their wealthy patrons to ensure their vision of politics holds. Whichever political outfit wins, their patrons win as well. These patrons, and many politicians across the plantation region secure shares in the various investments made, often have reasonable tax rates, and others are co-opted in the ranks of the plantation owners. Those descendants of the plantation not blessed with high colour, continue to exist at the bottom of the economic and political structure, and are courted every election, since their support is needed to keep the plantation operatives functional.

Political institutions therefore legalise the inherited functions of the plantation, with legislation to keep others in their designated place in the structure. Their aim is to also shape a conforming, passive personality. And, as Beckford says, anyone with power over others exercises it in a most authoritarian manner. In politics it is seen where the governing party, when disturbed by critiques of its policies, often threatens its opponents. The legal system is dangled about to instil fear in others about court action. Manipulation of constituencies is done to give a particular party an electoral advantage, and, in one recent case, there is a charge of treason against a high parliamentary official. So authoritarianism is alive and well.

Even in employment in the public or other sectors, managerial authoritarianism is practiced. Many employees face fear of dismissal, demotion, or having their character commented on, so that the perpetrators can gain an advantage. Hypertension is common in some organizations, as well as stress issues. There is constant unease, and anxiety, and an atmosphere of punishment constantly prevails. Just like on the plantation. In this situation productivity and motivation suffer.

There needs to be a reformation in the way we conduct Caribbean politics. And the structure, and policies of Caribbean organizations, and the thinking that underpins them need to be transformed. Authoritarian practices also should be dispensed with. Respect for each other needs to be encouraged, and Caribbean institutions need to aim at growth and development for their owners, and for those who collaborate to run and sustain them. These institutions, and the society, will then be able to make the fundamental transition from the plantation mode to an egalitarian, more civilised way of being, and conducting its affairs. The purpose of politics will then be really about serving the people, and not about politicians being in it for what they can get.
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