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The middle class and politics

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I was quite intrigued by an article in Caribbean News Now! entitled “Our Caribbean: Middle class politics takes command.” The author, Oliver Mills, a former lecturer in Education at the UWI, Mona, and past Permanent Secretary in the Turks and Caicos Islands, while providing a critical examination of politics in the Caribbean, has really over-simplified what are interesting and complex issues.{{more}} He blames the middle class for all of the political ills. They are guilty of duping the lower classes into thinking that they have a stake in the country, while they are mere clients of the middle class. The emergence of the middle class has resulted in a “skewed economic system with social inequities.” Middle class authoritarianism obstructs any united front of workers trying to express their frustration. “Secrecy, refusing to answer questions in parliament and ducking away from voters have become the hallmarks of the middle class way of politics,” while “the electorate is fed a diet of promises.” Mills has identified many of the ills in the political life of the Caribbean, but what he has done is to ignore all the other players, local and international, and thrown his dagger at the middle class.

Who constitutes the middle class? He does not provide a definition, but is simply content to quote Perry Mars to the effect that the middle class is made up of professionals, intellectuals, small businessmen, commercial traders and the self-employed. What constitutes the self-employed I am not sure, but clearly the middle class he identifies harbours different interests. Despite being aware of the diversity, he treats the middle class as a homogenous group and moreover, static, as he traces its development from the post-emancipation period. In doing so he is guilty of many misstatements. According to him, “the Caribbean middle class has taken control of and directed politics in the Caribbean since the post-emancipation period.” The reality is that the plantocracy continued to control Caribbean economy and politics in the period after emancipation. Its strength depended on the fortunes of the plantation economy. Crown Colony government was introduced in most Caribbean countries from the late1860s. The British government assumed control, but its advisers were members of the planter class. In the 20th century, there emerged a movement among the middle class for representative government. In the case of St Vincent, representative government re-emerged from 1925, but the franchise was so high that even members of the middle class, based on whom he identified as middle class, could not meet the requirements.

The working people, through riots and demonstrations in the 1930s, forced the hands of the colonial government into further lowering the franchise, even though, admittedly, it was the middle class that benefitted because the working people could not participate until Adult Suffrage was introduced in 1951 (and I am using St Vincent as an example, but the trends were common throughout the region and differed only in details). Up to 1951, the planter class was struggling to retain political control, but the fact that after 1951 all adults were able to vote meant that their chances had become remote. This, of course, is not the end of the story, because the planter class continued to operate from the background, funding political parties and hoping to have their interests secured. Some of them had moved away from the plantations and set up other kinds of businesses, but still were trying to secure whatever new interests they had.

It is also very difficult to isolate St Vincent from the international context. He mentions briefly external influences, but leaves it hanging. He argues that the middle class was a product of the work of the owner class in creating a “political replacement for itself.” The colonial authority, he suggests, encouraged it, but earlier he had said that “the colonial authorities carefully cultivated the upcoming middle class so they could politically control Caribbean states.”

Did the fact that the middle class was strengthened by workers moving into their ranks since emancipation make a difference to the middle class? He admits to the contradictory values held by the middle class. These comprise 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. Taking his argument to its logical conclusion, it is then possible to blame the middle class for everything, since they control the politics of the Caribbean.

Because he does not bring the other players to the table, he misrepresents what is a dynamic situation. How can we accuse the middle class of creating a “skewed economic system with social inequities,” without identifying the plantation system which shaped Caribbean economies for a long time? Do the ideological differences within the middle class, that he acknowledges, account for anything? What is even more intriguing is that he ends his article suggesting ways by which the middle class can satisfy the general will of everyone equally, so that “we will then not have a Caribbean society based on class.” But then let us remember his view that the middle class was the tool of the Caribbean owner class. But have things been static over the years? What are the dynamics at play today? What constitutes the new owner class today? Whose interests does the middle class now serve? Should any attention be given to the role of political parties? Did new players and forces come into the picture after Independence? Mills’ article raises a number of issues that are important. My concern is that it isolates the middle class and focuses overwhelmingly on it and, moreover, simplifies what are complex issues.

Dr Adrian Fraser is a social commentator and historian.

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