Has the middle class failed Jamaica?


Tuesday, September 10, 2013

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THE middle class is "a class of people in the middle of a societal hierarchy. In Weberian socio-economic terms, the middle class is the broad group of people in contemporary society who fall socio-economically between the working class and upper class. The common measures of what constitutes middle class vary significantly among cultures." -- Wikipedia

In this regard, Dr Blossom O'Meally-Nelson, in her scholarly presentation entitled "Understanding the Jamaican Cultural Environment", noted that "The [Jamaican] middle class are really the educated working class; they are darker in colour, have less wealth, but strive for education as a means of social mobility. The middle class dominates government and politics. This is an example of the social transition resulting from political independence."

A close study of the socio-political landscape in Jamaica will reveal that the emergence of the Jamaican middle class was emboldened by the policies espoused by National Hero Norman Washington Manley, who infused in the psyche of the People's National Party (PNP) which he helped founded in 1938 that education was the main route out of poverty and degradation. Thus from the 1950s with the advent of the Common Entrance Examinations, many poor black Jamaican children were able to attend the established and high-class-oriented secondary high (grammar) schools. Their entry into the formal educational system at that level would eventually see many ordinary Jamaicans, the children of farmers, household helpers, common labourers, et al, going on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, etc.

In this context, the PNP skilfully used the propaganda (whether true or false) that Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) founder Sir Alexander Bustamante had on occasion suggested to the poor and dispossessed that salt fish was to be more sought after rather than education. To this day, the PNP has been seen as the party of education, and hence is the political organisation more likely to attract the middle class. However, one study has posited that "Jamaica is still highly stratified by wealth; it has a very small prosperous upper class (once referred to as the "21 families"), a small middle class, and a huge, impoverished lower class."

Ironically, Bustamante's party was supposed to be the poor people's party as well as the party for the working class. That is why the name "Labour" was used, representing the strong influences of the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). Interestingly, the JLP is in total opposite to the British Labour Party, which is a socialist movement. In essence, the early evolution of the JLP would have seen a mixture primarily of the poor and working class juxtaposed -- sometimes uncomfortably -- against an emerging business elite and the upper class.

But the middle class's romance with the PNP ended in 1980 when the fear of communism, which they perceived would ruin their preferred lifestyle of upward mobility, led to a state of panic -- or is it "chronic"? Indeed, Michael Manley's dalliance with democratic socialism saw many of them migrating, while others fled with much alacrity to the welcoming arms of the then Edward Seaga-led JLP who promised deliverance and money to jingle in their pockets.

However, by 1989, the middle class came to the conclusion that it was a case of no better herring, no better barrel. So while many returned to the fold of the PNP, led by a seemingly reformed Michael Manley, who had taken on the trappings of the upper middle class (his last marriage helped to solidify that perception), others segued into the ranks of the uncommitted. Manley's subsequent death and the rise of the "Fresh Prince" Percival James Patterson, seen as young, gifted and black, gave a renewed sense of hope, especially among the black middle class, many of whom hankered after becoming black aristocrats. The financial boom in the 1990s, which saw many black middle class individuals becoming rich and upwardly mobile, would soon come to a crashing halt ending with Finsac. Not only were many of them living beyond their means, the country was spending more than it was earning. Thus PJ's dream of creating a new breed of black entrepreneurs went up in smoke.

As a result of these ups and downs in a volatile Jamaican economic environment, a negative situation further aggravated by high levels of crime -- particularly murder -- unemployment, corruption and ineffective governance, many middle class Jamaicans have opted to shun the political system, declaring a pox on both their houses (JLP and PNP). The election results in recent times have shown that most Jamaicans have absolutely no interest in voting -- and they are not all Jehovah's Witnesses! The latest plebiscite, albeit a parish council by-election in the Cassia Park Division of the Kingston & St Andrew Corporation (KSAC), which saw the ruling PNP pitted against the Opposition JLP, resulted in only a 26 per cent turnout of voters. JLP Leader Andrew Holness referred to it as a microcosm of the Jamaican body politic, perhaps not realising that he may be sounding the death knell of the nation's democratic process if the two major parties are not able to attract more middle class followers and hence more rational voters going to the polls. This is an indictment of both the JLP and PNP, both of whom are in celebration, 70 and 75 years respectively. In the final analysis, the most serious challenge that faces them both, in terms of the electorate, is how can they woo a cynical and oftentimes unpatriotic (one foot in and one foot out) middle class.

As it stands, Norman Manley and his generation gave Jamaica political independence, and it was expected thereafter that an educated middle class would have been at the forefront of taking us to the Promised Land (economic independence). This has not happened, and so it is logical to conclude that the middle class has failed Jamaica. In the meantime, recent polls continue to show that whichever party is first past the post, it ends up, in real terms, being a minority government. This, as only diehards for the most part are voting. And it is well known that the majority of these diehards are not coming from the middle class but from the lower class, many of whom sell their votes or who cast their ballots on the basis of offered handouts, scarce benefits
and spoils.

If Jamaica is to be pulled back from the precipice of doom, then both the JLP and PNP must devise ways and means of motivating the middle class and bringing them into the thick of things. For now, they are turned off, but they must be told that they are doing this country a great disservice by committing the sin of omission. Famed author Ayn Rand puts it most succinctly, "Upper classes are a nation's past, the middle class is its future."

Lloyd B. Smith is a Member of Parliament and Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the People's National Party or the Government of Jamaica.





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