Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica

Obika Gray, Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica (Kingston: University of the West Indies Press, 2004).

Obika Gray has made the political role of the urban lower-class in Jamaica his central subject. His earlier monograph, Radicalism and Social Change in Jamaica, 1960-1972, dealt with urban working class politics in the early years of independence. This book, by contrast deals with a vaguer category, “the urban poor”, in Marxist terms, the poorer urban working class and the lumpenproletariat.

Gray’s central thesis involves a dialectical relationship between what he calls the “predatory state” and a lower class that resists the norms that state seeks to impose by erecting its own values of “badness-honour”, a rival standard to the middle-class nationalist values promoted by the state.

Gray begins with an analysis of the “paternal and authoritarian qualities” of the Jamaican state, citing Carl Stone’s studies of clientelism, and emphasizing that he seeks to reassess and revise Stone’s work. Gray defines the Jamaican state as simultaneously “predatory and populist; violent and paternal, as well as democratic and viciously abusive of human rights.” The state is seen as parasitic, rather than destructive, in its relationship with the urban poor.

The state’s relationship to the poor is described as mediated by the needs of the political parties – the People’s National Party (PNP) and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) – which at different times have exercised control over the state apparatus. This relationship is predatory and parasitic. Yet, dialectically, the state’s predation on the poor has become the source of the challenges from the poor.

Gray’s narrative moves us from the development of partisan rivalries in the slum areas of Kingston, starting with the conflicts between the PNP and JLP in the 1940s, through the establishment of garrison communities in the 1960s and the links forged between politicians and slum-dwellers. This was never a one-way relationship. While political patrons certainly had an influence on the urban poor, Gray notes that the poor also had “sentiments of self-ownership and cultural pride” which provided “relative protection” from the reach of the state.

The poor live in conditions of marginality and presumed dishonour but construct their own Afrocentric conception of an exilic social space from within which Western and Creole conceptions of identity have been challenged through assertion of a fundamental African identity, key elements of which are provided by Rastafarianism.

In the 1970s, the conditions of urban life changed as lower-class “badness-honour”, which Gray describes as “the oral-kinetic practice in Jamaica that enables claimants, usually from disadvantaged groups, to secure a modicum of power and respect by intimidation” became a significant cultural force as the parties intensified their conflict on the streets of Kingston and found the militancy of the poor useful. The social power of the urban poor increased as it penetrated the PNP.

While the PNP in the 1970s sought to change the society, its conception of social transformation became grist for communal conflicts, and this transformation of ideological and political challenge into partisan warfare has become the defining characteristic of Jamaican politics. At the same time popular music and popular culture more widely popularized an attitude of defiance towards the authorities. The state’s combination of populism and predation was exemplified by party support for loyal poor supporters and hostility to those supporting the rival party.

Yet, even as the dependency on political party patronage seemed to indicate that the poor were captives of the predatory state, they developed tactics which could not be easily suppressed by the authorities which led them to achieve greater control over the funds disbursed to them and resulted in predation from below as well as from above. As Gray put it “In the consciousness of the Jamaican poor, politics is about predation and how to minimize its impact on their lives.” The predatory actions of the poor are seen by Gray as an “understandable self-defensive manoeuvre” against the predation of the state. Social bandits such as Dennis “Copper” Barth and Wayne “Sandokhan” Smith appear to slumdwellers as heroes who challenge the predations of the state, even as they see them as personalized by specific state officials

In the 1980s, the effects of the system of patronage that was firmly established in the previous decade continued, and the culture of the urban poor came to be centred on “martial values of a street culture that drew on competitive individualism and on the agonism of heroic outlawry”. This was the result of the growing influence of what Gray speaks of, following Carl Stone, as the lumpenproletariat. Increasingly, over the course of the 1980s, following the immense outburst of violence during the 1980 election campaign, criminal gangs acted with greater impunity and developed into independent, self-organized bodies.

This involved both what Gray calls the militarization of left-wing politics, among supporters of the communist Workers’ Party of Jamaica (WPJ), and the deepening criminalization of the state in part through the growth in importance of criminal gangs which earned their revenue from the trade in illicit drugs. Criminal leaders evolved into the “Drug Dons” who controlled the export of cannabis and the transshipment of cocaine, and built networks that connected Jamaica to criminals in theUnited States. Gang culture in Jamaica, Gray contends “was less a peculiarity of Jamaican experience than it was a disruptive, radiating force in global culture”. The gun became a source both of social mobility and social power, not to mention independence from the political élite.

Gray sees the Jamaican state as having developed a predatory relationship to the urban poor, and inflicted considerable terror on them, creating the paradox that “A key objective of Jamaica’s democratic order… was an everyday form of rule that terrorized the ghettos.”Simultaneously, the state “evinced protean, solicitous attributes” which incorporated the poor into the political system through the rivalry of the major parties.

In more recent times, Gray notes, there is more talk among politicians and other public officials about reform, and both the middle class and poor have been driven to become more activist in response to the continuing crisis which Jamaican society faces as crime and violence escalate and state repression fails to rein them in.

What Gray has given us is a complex, thoughtful work that sets Jamaica’s social and political agony in the context of a changing capitalist world-system and of conflicts between demands for a more inclusive democracy and a state that simultaneously exalts democratic values and punishes the poor and marginalized for being poor and marginalized. There are flaws – political parties aren’t arms of the state and their use of the urban poor as footsoldiers in their rivalries is less about state predation on the poor and more about jockeying for power and access to resources within the state. That is to say, analysis of the relationship between political parties and the urban poor might point us equally to the conclusion that the former mobilized the latter in order to promote elite predation on the state, and the rewards doled out for support were partial results of that predation. Even the use of public force against the poor supporters of rival parties is less about predation on the poor and more about keeping a particular party elite in a position to cream off public resources.

A key paradox that Gray brings out is that while seeking to use the urban poor for their ends, JLP and PNP leaders ended up promoting the values of that segment of society and making them appear to be normative lower-class values. Other scholars, Deborah Thomas for example inModern Blackness: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Politics of Culture in Jamaica, have pointed out that the middle-class values which dominated in decolonizing and early independent Jamaica have ceased to be normative for poorer Jamaicans (and not only the urban poor), as their need for middle-class patronage has declined. The rise of the dons is not simply a case of the tail wagging the dog; it is the tail becoming the dog.

Gray is, I think, correct to see the process he describes and analyzes as a response to modernity and a critique of it. He is equally correct when he contends that theoretical as well as social renewal is needed. It is less clear that the “alternative ways of living” that he sees as coming from the “lived experience of Afro-Jamaicans” are either likely to be more democratic or that they can constitute a successful response to the ways in which the world is being reshaped in the aftermath of the Cold War and the absence of a credible alternative to unfettered and unbounded capitalism.

Review by FSJ Ledgister 

Click here to download this book in pdf.