By Oliver Mills
The Caribbean middle class has taken control of, and directed politics in the Caribbean since the post-emancipation period. It was the inspiration behind the formation of trade unions, political parties, and most of the major decisions that have been made that have shaped Caribbean life up to the present. This social group has provided intellectual guidance, and political leadership, and has been responsible for the introduction of different political ideologies, from democracy to socialism, which have impacted the Caribbean sometimes positively, and at other times more controversially.
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
Perry Mars states in his book on ideology and change that the earlier plantation period witnessed the political supremacy of an owner class, the planter aristocracy and that, with the decline of the plantation system, the colonial authorities carefully cultivated the upcoming middle class so they could politically control Caribbean states. So by independence, during the 1960s, the local middle classes were firmly in control as the leading and dominant political class in the region.
Mars also notes that the middle classes constitute professionals, intellectuals, small businessmen, commercial traders, and the self-employed. What we see, then, is that the previous owner class created a political replacement for itself, which was the middle class, which then took command of Caribbean political life, and still does so. And the colonial authority encouraged it. The Caribbean middle class then was created as a management tool by the Caribbean owner class, the plantation aristocracy, to shape and control the new political order, so that the former managers of that order would continue to influence it.
The new middle class possessed the contradictory values of the system that gave birth to it, including ideas of parliamentary democracy, authoritarianism, the free market system, elitism, the “right” culture, and the use of education as a tool of development, and to maintain the status quo. What is contradictory about these values is that democracy was presented as something good, which, through participation, would bring about change and progress. But for whom?
We have seen how democracy is actually for the few. The lower classes are manipulated by the middle class-run system through the use of myths and symbols to believe they have political clout, when in reality their main function is to periodically choose which middle class group would rule over them at a particular period. The two-party system is actually two contending sectors of the middle class that vie for power and influence to enable this group to dominate and command Caribbean political life.
Elections then become a false exercise designed to dupe the lower class into thinking they have a stake in their country. The middle class has become the political patrons and the lower classes its clients. This is the supreme contradiction of democracy.
Also, the emergence of the middle class has resulted in a skewed economic system with social inequities. In many Caribbean countries, economic policies made by middle class leaders, and external influences, bring pressure on the working class, particularly where taxation is concerned, while politicians vote themselves higher salaries, supplemented by subsistence from various overseas trips.
When the workers express their frustration through active political activity, middle class authoritarianism responds with the force of the state, or by buying out segments of the working class, so that a united front of workers is blunted. This is another contradiction of democracy. The Caribbean middle class seems to have more affinity with their peers within the region, and with foreign investor groups, than with their fellow citizens who exist at a different economic level.
Through carving out educational opportunities for themselves, the middle class has managed to expand its intellectual, business, and professional hold on the political and economic system. Even in some non-independent countries, middle class politicians either control, or have interests in many business ventures. This increase in economic heft means further political influence.
Secrecy, refusing to answer questions in parliament, and ducking away from voters have become the hallmarks of the middle class way of politics. The electorate is fed a diet of promises, invited to town hall meetings which neither enlighten, nor give hope, while those they elected ‘live the life,’ and seek the company of those with their own private interest at heart, and who use these middle class politicians to realise their own objectives.
But despite the opportunities they secure for themselves, many middle class politicians show little evidence of wisdom. They still trust the advice of the descendants of the planters, and despise that of those who caused them to be where they are. Even if outside advice is detrimental to the country, it is taken because it is thought to be better.
The Caribbean middle class seems to be running out of the proper ideas needed to make their countries really prosper.
Since independence, there is little evidence of economic growth, education is still not producing the skills needed for real development, and there is greater dependence on foreign institutions for sustenance. Development is seen as coming from without, not within, and there is bickering among political parties, instead of unity.
Does this mean a failure of middle class leadership? How can this group realise the hopes that were placed in it?
For a start, middle class politicians need to free themselves from the mental slavery of the plantation, and colonial conditioning. It needs to come to consciousness and realise that it was created as the hidden hand of those who wanted to use it to realise their own purposes, rather than to better the condition of their own people.
Middle class professionals must now use their creativity to frame Caribbean societies into prosperous communities, through the formulation of innovative policies, and equip their people with the competences and technology needed to make a positive difference in their lives.
An indigenous economic and political model needs to be developed that reflects the interests of Caribbean people, and new and different values fostered that connect with the traditional culture of our societies.
Trying to be like other countries is neither sustainable nor real. New ideas and positions must come from the traditional wisdom of our people, coupled with reorienting our institutions through new thinking and analysis of what could really work for us. And our vibrant cultures must be looked at with new eyes to provide new insights on what is needed, what can be done, and the methodologies to implement strategically the insights they provide.
Something authentic and indigenous needs to be fostered that supersedes in quality what we look for from overseas. We will then not have a Caribbean society based on class, but one that expresses the general will of everyone equally.