The rise of Michael Manley and the George Floyd connection

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The rise of Michael Manley and the George Floyd connection

Danny Roberts

Monday, July 27, 2020

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THE death of George Floyd in 2020, tragic as it was, has turned out to be both symbolic and of historic significance. For one, it raises the question about justice, dignity, and the fact that all men and women are born equal, even as it reminds us that those noble ideals, centuries after they have been proclaimed as the inalienable rights of man, still elude the oppressed black race in the US and around the world, as well as some indigenous peoples.

The symbolic significance of George Floyd is not a convenient insert on the pages of history. It has a context, text, and subtext that, for us here in Jamaica, span 500 years of a brutal reminder of slavery and its colonial bedfellow. History records that those rights are never going to be achieved without a struggle.

Just about the time of George Floyd's birth, the overwhelming majority of black Jamaicans did say they too 'could not breathe'. The unemployment level had nearly doubled in the first decade following Jamaica's Independence; the poverty rate had soared; there still existed a social hierarchy of class and race; and there was the uneven distribution of property and a growing sense of marginalisation, ostracism, inferiority, and insecurity among the black masses in their own country. Juxtapose that with an annual average growth rate of over six per cent in that first 10 years after Independence, and a complete mosaic of the country's development model, devoid of the primacy of the human element, unfolds.

So, while the development model provided impressive economic growth, it denied the black masses a just share of the economic fruits of their labour. Where industry increased, the workforce decreased; excess profits were repatriated and the social, economic, cultural and psychological aspects of the development process stood beyond the reach of the vast majority of our people.

Researchers have long postulated that the quality of life index has a far more significant and positive impact on economic growth, whereas the latter has a far less significant lagged effect on the quality of life. A 2005 study in India concluded that the neglect of the social sector resulted in “the prevalence of widespread poverty and deprivation”; and Drs Omar Davies and Michael Witter, in examining the country's economic status since Independence, contended that the development of the economy “cannot be understood outside of the political, social, and cultural development accompanying it”.

The development model we pursued after the attainment of Independence followed on a continuum laid out during the colonial years. Professor Claremont Kirton, in his 1992 book Jamaica: Debt and Poverty, reminded us that the country's economic development programme was “heavily dependent on foreign capital being attracted to invest in the country by the provision of generous government incentives”. He argued that the increased penetration of multinationals in our bauxite, tourism, and financial sectors “led to the transfer of surpluses abroad and did little to improve the situation of ordinary working people”.

Alexander Bustamante's foray into the heart of the workers' struggle and his subsequent rise to political leadership as Jamaica's first Independence prime minister was to achieve just that improvements in the situation of ordinary working people.

Michael Manley came to power on a promise of the politics of change in 1972. The broad philosophical framework he articulated included:

(i) freeing Jamaicans from the psychology of dependence brought about through slavery and colonialism;

(ii) deepening the democratic tradition to offer the electorate a feeling of power over their own destiny;

(iii) linking the concept of democracy to the principles of justice and equality; and

(iv) taking steps to ensure that local government, education and health are tailored to suit Jamaica's needs.

Although Manley's rise to power occurred during the heightened ideological tensions depicted through the Cold War, he was quick to reject the parlous political thinking of those on the radical left and the extreme right of the ideological spectrum. His central thesis, which was rooted in the anti-imperialist struggle that ushered in Jamaica's Independence movement, was simply about the equitable distribution of the country's wealth.

Capitalism, Manley argued, with its emphasis on notions of liberty and the creation of wealth, proved incapable of distributing wealth on an equitable basis. The experience in the first decade after Independence clearly demonstrated that. He would, of course, be attracted to the notion of liberty, which is everywhere evident in his many exhortations about building “a spirit of national cooperation”, promoting self-reliance, and mobilising the people around “the politics of participation”.

The second extreme on the ideological spectrum communism was flatly rejected by Manley, arguing that it “has evolved into the idea that the equitable distribution of wealth can only be ensured within the framework of an authoritarian system”. Manley's development of a 'third path' would naturally draw on capitalism's notion of liberty, recognising however its limitation in providing equitable distribution of wealth, and communism's notion of the equitable distribution, but totally rejecting authoritarianism as a method.

The development paradox which Jamaica faced in the early post-Independence years would certainly, therefore, be caught in the cross hairs of the Cold War. Manley himself recognised that to build a society founded on equality, social justice, and egalitarianism meant to change the power structure of the society built up through 300 years of slavery and colonialism.

The profundity of the Manley years, linked by a common theme to the George Floyd protests, is best represented by comments from a Confederate supporter who still carries the anger that his foreparents were “wrongfully deprived” of their sole livelihood of earning an income through the enslavement of blacks. Consequently, the post-Independence development paradox, set in the context of the Cold War, was sure to be mired in ideological conflict real and imagine.

The Manley Government of the 1970s infuriated the colonial lineage with the audacity to think that a small, developing country of predominantly black people could defy the Monroe Doctrine. Its author the fifth president of the United States would betray the spirit and intent of the doctrine by his chastisement, ridiculing and name-calling, like “scoundrel” and “worthless”, of an enslaved man named Daniel, simply because he desired freedom and equality under the American Constitution.

What the Michael Manley Government of the 1970s represented was that sense of justice and equality, preceded by Daniel, and succeeded by George Floyd. In acknowledging and understanding Manley and his contribution to Jamaica's development we therefore have to judge him by his deeds. Perhaps to determine whether his deeds were consistent with his ideological postulation of democracy, social justice, egalitarianism, and of wanting the majority of Jamaicans to have pride in themselves and respect for each other.

Let's examine some of his policy initiatives to determine whether the spirit and intent of the Manley doctrine were designed to make Jamaica a place to work, raise families, and do business.

We start with the abolition of the Master and Servant Act to protect the rights of workers; the granting of legal rights to children born out of wedlock; the maternity leave law; the equal pay for men and women Act; free education from which people in positions of power and authority today were the beneficiaries; the Jamaica Movement for the Advancement of Literacy (JAMAL) Foundation; the development of G C Foster College of Physical Education and Sports; the building of 93 infant schools, 67 primary schools, 44 new secondary schools and four community colleges; the establishment of the National Housing Trust (NHT); increased access to land to boost agricultural production; the Employee Share Ownership Programme, and the list goes on.

The truth is, subsequent governments of both the People's National Party and the Jamaica Labour Party would have built on Manley's progress to varying degrees, like the distribution of houses under the NHT, the safeguard and protection of the maternity leave law, and other labour legislations. But that pride, that sense of self that is the touchstone of equality and social justice, is perhaps Manley's most enduring accomplishment. To be sure, it is at the heart of the reparations movement and the quintessence of the George Floyd protests.

The Manley years never achieved the level of economic growth as in the preceding years. There is undoubtedly an explanation for that, and it lies somewhere in the nature of small, open economies which either ignore or underestimate the impact of exogenous factors in the development process: It may be climate change, the oil crisis, the novel coronavirus, or a global economic recession. Manley faced at least two of these, but unlike any other Government before and after, he faced the full onslaught of the Monroe Doctrine because he dared to seek social justice and egalitarianism for the majority of Jamaican people, without fully recognising the deep-seated link to the imperial master plan.

The price for human progress, respect, and social justice may mean we have to suffer with dignity. I too wish it were not the case, but the argument of the Confederate supporter, who opposed the George Floyd protest, rings resoundingly true.

Danny Roberts is a former chairman of the Michael Manley Foundation.


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