August is an important month in the calendar of the English speaking Caribbean. It was on August 1st, 1838 that slavery was finally ended in the British West Indies following the four year period of so-called apprenticeship between the abolition of slavery and emancipation. August 1st has been celebrated as a public holiday – Emancipation Day – in Trinidad and Tobago for almost three decades and a number of other Caribbean countries have followed suit. On August 6, 1962 Jamaica became an independent nation, the first in the English speaking Caribbean followed on August 31st 1962 by Trinidad and Tobago. Within the next 15 years all but a handful of former British colonies became independent. We therefore have had the experience of a half century of being independent, of being in charge of our own affairs.
Two years ago, on the occasion of the golden anniversary of independence, there were analyses offered about exactly where we are along the road to fulfilling the promise of political independence. Professor Norman Girvan (the English speaking Caribbean’s foremost radical political economist who passed away earlier this year) mused about the experience being “not fifty years, perhaps, of Independence; but fifty years In Dependence.”
Why such a bleak assessment? In one word, the economies of the majority of Caribbean countries are in crisis. In the English speaking region all but a few are heavily indebted. From Jamaica in the north to Grenada in the south every single Caribbean Community (Caricom) member state has a debt to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – a measure of national income - ratio of close to or over 100%. Many are in International Monetary Fund (IMF) programmes. The highly indebted countries are in the infamous debt trap since: interest rates on top of the capital borrowed can never be fully repaid; and the high debt service ratio (which can be as much as 40% of the national budget and after paying essential recurrent bills e.g. public service salaries, there is little or no money left for capital expenditure that could help to drive growth).
These IMF programmes not only structurally adjust our economies and alter governments’ priorities to the disadvantage of the working people and poor, they also undermine sovereignty. Professor Norman Girvan described it thus:
The last IMF agreement, made in 2010, is a clear demonstration of the extent to which the government of Jamaica has lost the ability to independently determine its own policies. The Letter of Intent and its Annexes outline 10 undertakings by the GoJ in the areas of fiscal policy, three in monetary policy; and over 40 actions of structural reform …including undertakings to change a number of existing laws and regulations. There are also nine different quantitative performance criteria which it must observe. On top of all this the government of Jamaica is obligated to make daily reports to the IMF on 13 items, weekly reports on 6 items; monthly reports on 22 items and quarterly reports on 10 items. It would be an interesting project …to compare the powers exercised by the IMF over Jamaica’s economic policy with those exercised by the British Governor and the Colonial Office in London.
Governments cannot meet even their normal monthly payments for public servants, teachers, police officers, nurses and doctors. Barbados, which was once touted as the best managed economy in the region, has recently begun to lay off three thousand workers, which given its total labor force of just 145,000, is a very significant number of workers; and has introduced additional taxation which has prompted mass protests.
Unemployment is very high for most of the region, with figures ranging from a low of 4% to a high of 25%. Of those who are unemployed, our region’s youth are the most affected. Fully 40% of young people between the ages of 18-25 are unemployed.
The banana producing Windward Islands have never recovered from the loss of most of the export of bananas which was occasioned by the decision of the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) that their exports to the European Union were a breach of WTO trade rules. The beneficiaries of this decision were the US owned multinational food producers like Dole and Chiquita who own huge banana plantations in Central and South America. Whatever recovery that these islands were making was further set back by the loss of tourism revenue following the collapse of the US Stock Market and large financial institutions which precipitated a crisis in the global capitalist economy in 2008. Other islands have been affected adversely by the refusal by the United States to abide by another WTO ruling that said that its punishment of Antigua and Barbuda for off-shore gaming was wrong. This demonstrates that imperial might is still right as when we lose at the WTO we lose, and when we win we still lose!
Many economies in the region have their foreign exchange earnings sustained by remittances which enable hundreds of thousands of families to keep their heads above the poverty line. At the same time, the very high exchange rates in many countries (in Jamaica $1US = $105 Ja; in Guyana $1US = $ 205 Guy) means that those who do not have access to foreign currency are at a disadvantage since we largely produce a few commodities for export and import most of what we consume, including food. High exchange rates mean every time prices rise abroad we pay dearly. Those who suffer most are the poor and senior citizens on fixed incomes.
This grim story is mirrored in the social relations and in our inability to create humane societies where life is respected and valued by all, whether it is the criminal who kills without feeling and with impunity or the elite whose obscene lifestyles come at the cost of exploiting workers or by the politicians who implement neo-liberal policies knowing that the result will be greater impoverishment, hunger even, of thousands of their citizens. Cuba is the only Caribbean society where such wanton disregard for life and the well being of all does not exist.
From Kingston Jamaica in the north to Georgetown Guyana in the south, crime and violence are the order of the day. In Trinidad and Tobago with a population of 1.3 million, in the first seven months of 2014 there have been 260 murders. Most of these murders resulted from some form of criminal activity, but not all. There is the killing of our children and of course the violence against women
These wanton acts of violence are a manifestation of a deeper malaise – of an anger that has turned inward. It is a sign of the barbarism that is inevitable once the economic relations themselves become brutal. It is directly linked to the neo-liberal capitalist model which promotes individualism and denigrates and seeks to break up community and collective. This is why the gangs have become so attractive to young people, young men in particular. These young men are alienated from mainstream society, find belonging and meaning to life in the gang, which becomes the new collective, the new community in the face of the decline of the old forms of social organization.
The neo-liberal capitalist model is based on material advancement being the route to happiness, rather than happiness being derived from the satisfaction of producing something of value or in achieving an individual or collective goal. This consumption driven society emphasises the market place and the “brands” and the importance of money. It is no accident that young people identify with the hip hop artist’s injunction to “get rich fast or die trying.”
But how can they get rich quickly or even live comfortably if they are the social group most affected by neo-liberalism with its feature of high, permanent unemployment of the youth? The only jobs on offer for them are in the low paid, low and semi-skilled service sector. This is not decent work that offers a challenge to the talents and abilities of the youth. Then the education system also alienates the majority of students and causes so many to drop out or “fail.” As a result, a very large number of our youth – and especially young men – don’t even have the minimum academic qualifications and indeed may be illiterate or semi-literate and therefore cannot even seek these low paying jobs. Committing crimes of violence then, in order to get rich or, if not, at least to be able to acquire the latest cell phone, or “bling” for the girlfriend becomes an acceptable activity.
For these young men, unorganized in traditional social and political organizations, the only sense of their power is with a gun in their hand. Killing therefore becomes simply a job no different from selling burgers. In the process we can see the barbarism, the total loss of humanity.
Shifting focus to our political reality there is growing discontent with the post-independence state – which state is, in essence, no different from the colonial state. Most of the institutions of the state are failing:
- In Trinidad and Tobago the police service is unable to deal with rampant crime – the detection and conviction rate for murder is less than 10%, making murder a very low risk activity. White-collar crime including acts of corruption and money laundering are never punished. In this situation impunity reigns.
- The Parliaments have become places where personal attacks are traded by opposing parties instead of informed debate of the real issues affecting citizens. And it passes laws to further entrench the power of the rich and powerful, including the friends and family of members of the government.
- Our Public Services and state enterprise sectors are not delivering quality public goods and service, efficiently to all citizens. Corruption abounds while basic needs for water, electricity, health care, decent schools, proper community facilities, roads and an efficient transport system, drainage and irrigation systems are not met.
- And everywhere there is corruption and at the level of the political and economic leadership there is the total absence of a vision, of hope for the future.
- Nowhere is the absence of courageous, visionary leadership more obvious than in the regional integration project that is CARICOM. In 1992 the Caricom appointed West Indian Commission published its Report entitled “Time for Action.” 22 years after it was “Time for Action”, there has been no progress.
- The consciousness of our citizens is being shaped by external forces because we rely on news networks that provide their version and analysis, which of course is skewed by their capitalist world view. I call this “the gospel according to CNN.” To compound this, failure to use the net wisely leads many to accept as fact “information” that is totally false.
What then of the response by our people to this Caribbean economic, social and political reality? Some of our people have tried to escape this reality by migration in search of a better life. This outward migration results in a huge “brain drain” making our region one of the highest in the world for “brain drain.” The cost to the region in terms of the loss of valuable human resources trained at our expense is enormous.
Poverty is a serious problem. In some countries it is as high as 40%, while even in energy rich Trinidad and Tobago the percentage is 15%. For persons living in such difficult circumstances – and many of them are women, single parents – everyday life is a humongous struggle. Their concerns are how to get enough money to feed a family; or how to find the resources to send the children to school; or where to find a decent job; or how to shelter the family from rain; or how to take care of a sick child. In this situation engaging in collective struggles is almost impossible, except when the momentum of the movement gives them hope and they can participate.
Yet another response is apathy or cynicism. These persons say – we’ve tried but nothing’s changed, so it makes no sense to waste time in struggle; you go ahead and fight for us. This attitude fits in with the neo-liberal philosophy of individualism, of the new alphabet of “A for apple; B for bat and C for myself.” If the slaves throughout the Caribbean were cynical, they would still be enslaved today! Others put self before everything else. They just don’t care. Some fundamentalist religions encourage this attitude by saying – save yourself and don’t worry about the other sinners, which is contrary to the Christian injunction – that we should be our sisters and brothers’ keepers.
Many citizens have used elections to express their dissatisfaction. Disenchanted with the performance of one government; recognizing the corruption, lack of transparency and the failure to address the real issues affecting the working people and poor; the citizens decide to vote out the government and put some good men and women in office. Then after a few years, these good men and women become as bad as the ones that were voted out and so we decide to change governments again. All the time we are hoping that after the change in government we will get some good men and women who will deliver good governance, only to find out that each time; as the celebrated Caribbean radical philosopher CLR James once said, that the good men and women rapidly become bad men and women.
This happens because the real problem is not whether or not the men and women whom we elect are good, it is that the system of governance is bad. The state which these men and women operate is not designed to deliver good governance. It is the old colonial state meant to serve the interests of the elite, the rich and powerful. And so, once in office, the good men and women – people with good, decent intentions, soon find themselves opposing the interests of the people and promoting the interests of the elite. Corruption soon sets in, especially since parties need money to finance their campaigns and those with money, including the narco-traffickers, invest in the parties expecting to receive a rate of return once that party gets into office and is in a position to award contracts to friends, family and political financiers. CLR James also said “If you can’t change the politics, the politics will change you.”
So our efforts at bringing about a better society through changes in government without changes in the system and relations of power have not been successful. And so, frustrated we protest. Most of these protests are short lived and on very specific, localized issues: a workplace action by a single trade union; a community protest over the lack of water, bade roads or a much needed community facility. But these mass protests do point a way forward.
What has gotten us to this point where some even bemoan independence? Indeed, one poll conducted in 2011 in Jamaica found that as many as 60% of Jamaicans believed that they would have been better off if Jamaica had never become independent. To understand where we are it is useful to get an understanding of how we won our independence. In order for us to understand the present, we need to have a grasp of theory and of our past.
Slow accumulation and volcanic eruptions
In a revolution, where the ceaseless slow accumulation of centuries bursts into volcanic eruptions, the meteoric flares and flights above are a meaningless chaos and lend themselves to infinite caprice and romanticism unless the observer sees them always as projections of the sub-soil from which they came—CLR James
The history of the Caribbean has been the history of struggle between the process of exploitation by foreign capital and the process of resistance by the exploited and oppressed. This struggle has been described as “the struggle out of slavery, through indenture and up to freedom.” It has been characterized by many important moments of “volcanic eruptions” when the mass movement reached a peak and was able to take decisive, collective direct action. Today we call these mass movements, social movements.
Given however that, with the exception of Cuba in 1959 and for a period Haiti after its Independence in 1804, the eruptions in the Caribbean did not result in a break with the system of imperialist economic relations, what emerged were new social settlements imposed from above by first the colonial and later the neo-colonial state, acting always on behalf of capital. Put another way, there has been an ongoing process of struggle between the forces of progress represented by the mass movement and the forces of reaction represented by the local and international owners and managers of capital and their institutions – the local state and supranational institutions (IMF, World Bank, WTO etc).
How this struggle plays out depends both on the objective and subjective factors existing at the particular moment. How strong is the mass movement? How conscious is it of its possibilities? How strong are the forces of reaction? Are they divided or distracted? Are there any special conditions that exist that would contribute to the mass movement gaining strength? Are there real dangers in going forward? All these help to shape and determine the outcomes of particular struggles. There has never been, and there is not now a straight line in the struggle. This is particularly true of the period of neo-liberalism where, in spite of all the apparently favorable objective conditions, we have not seen a correspondingly resurgent mass movement.
As Susan Craig notes in her Essay “Smiles and Blood:”
interests of the State coincided with the interests of the propertied. […] the response of ruling classes to uprisings is often a mixture of token concessions and severe repression, the mailed fist in the kid glove, the ultimate aim being the consolidation of their own power.
We will look at some of the key moments in the mass movement and identify the challenges that confront it in this period of neo-liberal globalization. This of course cannot be an exhaustive historical account of those moments, and therefore we shall of necessity have to focus on some of the main characteristics of the mass movements and particularly see what changes have occurred over the years. The key moments that we will look at are those which had major impact throughout the entire region – the 1930s, the 1970s and what occurred in the aftermath of these explosions.
The big eruptions – The 1930s
There is little doubt that the 1930s were the most significant period of region-wide popular revolt. Given the barriers of language it is not well enough known that the entire Caribbean was erupting at that time. As Craig notes:
the nationalist movement ….in Puerto Rico, the struggle against the dictator....in Cuba, the anti-colonial movement of workers and peasants…. in Suriname, and the wave of strikes in the English-speaking region were systematic attempts of the Caribbean people to shake off their imperial masters.
The wave of strikes referred to embraced Belize, St. Kitts, Guyana (then British Guiana), The Bahamas, Trinidad, Jamaica, St. Vincent and Barbados, and there were also strikes in Curacao.
The conditions that gave rise to these eruptions were the combination of the economic, social and political. Thus, the capitalist crisis of the late 1920s precipitated in the Caribbean conditions of worsening poverty for the mass of workers. A virtual non-existent programme of social welfare meant that housing and health-care were abysmal and educational opportunities were available for only the elite few. Politically, colonialism frustrated the aspirations of the people of most of the region for self-determination, while dictatorship frustrated their aspiration for democracy in Cuba and racism was a factor everywhere.
Significantly, as there was a crisis of capitalism then, so too there is one now, albeit manifest in some different forms. Will the crisis of today lead to revolts as they did then? That is both a question that we must ask and a challenge to those of use committed to fundamental social transformation in the interest of the working people and the poor.
The 1930s therefore saw the mass movement reaching a new level of consciousness with demands being not merely industrial or workplace related. Sure, workers wanted and demanded pay increases, but to this they added progressive reforms of the social services, proper housing, full adult franchise and self-government. This time too the intensity of the explosion was far greater than before. The result was, as Craig describes one where “the workers struck a blow at property” thus “striking too at the state and the whole structure of colonialism.” and “Altogether, these reforms were important because, for the first time, labor had thrust itself into the political arena.”
But there was still the element of the mailed fist in the kid glove as the imperialists saw these reforms creating a safety valve on the pressure cooker thus enabling the workers to let off steam from time to time, thus averting an eruption of such a proportion that would lead to a complete break with the imperial economic system. Key to the success of the imperialist’s strategy was that trade unions, while being encouraged, should be very much under the control of capital. Thus, the official Colonial Office position stated - “there is a danger that, without sympathetic supervision and guidance, organizations of laborers…may fall under the domination of disaffected persons, by whom their activities may be diverted to improper and mischievous ends…it is the duty of colonial governments to take such steps as may be possible to smooth the passage of such organizations …into constitutional channels.”
One characteristic of the mass movements of the 1930s: Consciousness
In other words – it’s OK for you to have trade unions, but just make sure that all you do is to negotiate for better wages and workplace conditions. No mass mobilization around wider social and political issues, no development of political consciousness that would lead to workers wanting to end the “whole structure of colonialism.” Many unions succumbed to that strategy. Others didn’t. Craig perceptibly stated that “The history of Caribbean trade unions remains a history of conflict and tension between these competing interests.” And it is this contradiction that is a key determinant in the strength of the mass movement. The reality today is that there is a predominance of unions that are comfortable with the routine of industrial relations, and therefore correspondingly, the mass movement is weak.
As James boldly tells us “A spirit of frustration, humiliation, rebellion is not political consciousness.” The leaders of the labor movement of the ‘30s and ‘40s were conscious. To give but one example, several of them participated in the 1945 Manchester Pan-African Congress (The 6th PAC), which is arguably the most important of all the Pan-African Congresses. The Resolutions and Declarations of that Congress affirm a clear ideological position, with a defined responsibility for labor to play a leading role in the struggle:
the struggle for political power by Colonial and subject peoples is the first step towards, and the necessary pre-requisite to, complete social, economic and political emancipation…Colonial workers must be in the front of the battle against Imperialism. Your weapons – the Strike and the Boycott – are invincible.
Today, we need that same sharp focus of the principal political task of trade unions.
The middle-class take-over of the mass movement: Precondition for granting independence
Of vital importance to our understanding of where we are today is the concerted effort by imperialism to ensure that democracy and political independence would not lead to the newly independent nations breaking with the world capitalist system. In the aftermath of World War II British and American imperialist collaboration targeted the labor movement with a strategy to purge it of any radical (communist) influences and leadership. This was not just a reaction to the Cold War. It was in order to ensure that when political independence took place, as the British knew was inevitable, it did so with local political leadership in the hands of the elite middle class and not the “disenchanted elements.” This middle class, educated and schooled in eurocentric thinking and conscious of their position in society rather than in overturning the colonial order, would simply put a local face on the system, but not seek to change it.
The 1970s: Political independence, the masses response and the counter-revolution
In the lead up to and just after Independence, foreign capital was therefore able to freely penetrate and exploit the region. Multinational aluminum, oil, hotel, banking and insurance and manufacturing companies entered the region with great ease, making significant profits as a result of the attractive investment “incentives” offered by governments. As one Trindadian calypsonian described it in song “Trinidad is a paradise…but for (the capitalists).” The social settlement of Independence with all of its outward symbols of anthem, flag and of our own being in charge had not altered the old imperialist economic and social relations and while political power was now formally in local hands, the real rulers continued to be transnational capital and their local agents. And the working classes knew this.
The result was a growing mass movement. In Jamaica in 1968 the masses of urban working people and unemployed revolted, the spark which ignited the eruption being the banning from that country of the revolutionary Guyanese intellectual Walter Rodney.
In Trinidad and Tobago in 1970 the “Black Power” revolt saw the mass movement in the English speaking Caribbean reach a peak not attained since the ‘30s. The government was paralysed by huge demonstrations of youth, workers and farmers that took place virtually every day for two months. And the army mutinied in solidarity with the people’s protests. In fact, the government was almost toppled by these actions.
In the years before and after the Trinidad and Tobago 1970 revolt, movements in the Eastern Caribbean challenged the old order. In Antigua in 1974 there was a massive strike and street protests, eventually resulting in a new political party and trade union breaking the stranglehold on power held by the traditional labor party. In Dominica a similar process took place five years later. However, in neither country could the progressive forces hold state power for long as they failed to recognize the need to transform what was essentially the old colonial state and create institutions of popular power. Within a few years both countries were back under reactionary leadership.
The mass movement in Grenada, led by the radical lawyer Maurice Bishop rose to a peak in 1973 on the issue of the Independence Constitution only to be brutally repressed. Maurice and his colleagues in the New Jewel Movement continued to mobilize and educate the people and tactically shifted to electoral politics in 1976, only to be shut out of office by the corrupted results engineered by the Gairy regime. Then on March 13, 1979 Maurice and the NJM seized power and established the Peoples’ Revolutionary Government (PRG).
A new hope was kindled in the minds of Caribbean people that it was possible to make a break with the old imperialist relations. This was blown asunder in 1983 when the Stalinist group the Organization for Revolutionary Education and Liberation (OREL) in the NJM led by Bernard Coard initiated a coup in the party against Maurice Bishop, claiming that he was a “petit-bourgois nationalist” and therefore “incapable of leading Grenada into socialism.” This was a nonsense of course, but the OREL faction was so blinded by dogmatism that it failed to understand that their actions were in fact counter-revolutionary and would lead not only to the destruction of the Grenadian Revolution, but set back the left throughout the Region. The assassination of Maurice Bishop and his colleagues on October 19 1983 ended the Revolution and created the conditions for the US invasion one week later. The political forces of global capital and reaction led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were handed a gift on a platter.
Walter Rodney returned to Guyana in 1974 and immediately set about fashioning a multi-ethnic movement to break up the old order of Afro-Indo Guyanese division In the end, Walter was assassinated on June 13, 1980 in a bomb explosion. Walter’s assassination created the conditions for the resurgence of ethnic politics as the possibility of Afro-Indo unity of working people receded in the years following his death.
The 1980s and 90s: The ideology of revolution is in retreat and the new spheres of organization
The successive waves of setbacks had profound impacts right through the Caribbean. To this we need to add the fact that the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe on the one hand and the rise of neo-liberalism on the other, shook the very premises on which so many radical activists based their work. The revolution which many had held to be not only inevitable but imminent – especially after the seizure of power in Grenada in 1979 – was now not only seemingly impossible in the Caribbean, but not so inevitable after all.
Most of the small, but very influential left wing organizations collapsed in the aftermath of Grenada. Several were so closely identified with the comrades in Grenada in general and the Coard faction in particular that they had to simultaneously face the need for serious personal introspection on the one hand and hostility to their politics from their own masses on the other. After all, the cold-blooded assassination of the popular Maurice Bishop, a pregnant Jacqueline Creft and other well-known Ministers of Government and leaders of the Revolution by firing squad – no niceties of trial here – were completely alien to our political culture.
There was no doubt that the left was in retreat and, with many of the countries being in the grip of International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank structural adjustment programmes, the ideological position of neo-liberalism became not just more strident, but dominant in academia as well as in the public discourse. The right hammered home their advantage trying to get the TINA (there is no alternative) message across to the people.
In Trinidad and Tobago the mass movement was not as affected by the crisis of the left. Thus as late as 1989 the radical political party – the Movement for Social Transformation (MOTION) was launched after a long process of political work. In MOTION’s leadership were key national trade union as well as community leaders. Earlier that year there was a general strike against IMF policies that totally shut down Trinidad and then came a series of mass protests in 1990 under the banner of the Summit of People’s Organizations (SOPO) – a coalition group involving trade unions, women and community based organizations and religious groups. The growing mass movement coupled with a radical party with a fairly broad base and the fact that the traditional political parties were weak and divided meant that a real opportunity was emerging to challenge for political power. This was not to be, however, as the Jamaat al Muslimeen, a Muslim group that was a member of SOPO initiated armed action, to which SOPO was neither privy nor supported, that resulted in the occupation of the Parliament and the taking of Members of Parliament – including the Prime Minister – hostage. In the aftermath of this, the mass movement was forced to retreat as the continuation of SOPO became untenable in the face of a need to re-evaluate the process of building coalitions of social organizations and a right wing backlash. MOTION, on the other hand, was splintered by an internal conflict and eventually ceased activity.
In the region, many of the former activists of the left chose one of three paths. Some abandoned political activity altogether. Others became active in the traditional parties that emerged out of the trade union movement. This latter trend was particularly significant in the Eastern Caribbean and gave the old labor parties (St. Lucia Labor Party, Dominica Labor Party, St. Vincent Unity Labor Party, the Antigua United Progressive Party) new energy, leadership and a more progressive platform. Others got immersed in existing or formed new NGOs. Thus throughout much of the region a new breed of NGO flourished. These were opposed to the Washington consensus, committed to advocacy around issues of governance, debt, development, poverty, gender and the environment and imbued with a regional perspective.
The focus of these new NGOs was therefore on “empowerment” of the people – primarily in communities. But for these organizations to survive, they required resources that went beyond that which either the communities or the Governments were able to provide. External funding became necessary and various international donor agencies were the lifeline. Many of the NGO’s programs were in sync with the donor organizations’ priorities and even neo-liberal policies, as “community empowerment” meshed with the “downsizing of the state.” Relatively little was done to raise consciousness or to build movement.
Social organizations or social movements: That is the question
The Caribbean has social organizations with a long history of pursuing the interests of their members. We have also had very powerful social movements as evidenced by the mass movements that brought about major economic, social and political changes. But this paper contends that we do not now have social movements in the manner of those movements that have been changing the face of Latin America. Interestingly, many of the challenges that they now confront such as the relationship between the political party and the movement, the strategy and tactics of electoral activity, the transformation of the state – were posed to us in the Caribbean at an earlier period, given our long practice of western, liberal capitalist democracy.
More generally, however, is the fact that more than four decades of political independence and parliamentary democracy have not resulted in the fundamental transformations that the working people and poor aspire to. 77 years have elapsed since modern trade unions were established and the eruptions of the ‘70s were 40 plus years ago, but the conditions of “persistent poverty”, marginalization and lack of hope are more entrenched than ever before, given neo-liberalism. If ever there was a need for the mass movement conscious of the relations of power and the requirements to alter those relations, it is now. CLR James repeatedly taught that in the Caribbean “power lies in the streets.”
There have been electoral successes which resulted from the mass movement demonstrating its power in the streets, but the outcome was a change in government not a change in the relations of power. This limited vision is due to the dominant ideological position in social organizations. With few exceptions the leadership has rejected any notion of revolutionary change. This is true for both the trade union movement where the dominant position is for ameliorating class conflict and the NGO sector where the dominant position is to “facilitate” projects and/or engage in advocacy. True enough, governance is tackled but from the standpoint of transparency, accountability and popular participation. At best there is a demand for constitutional reform.
In reality, however, the traditional parties will not implement changes that fundamentally alter the relations of power, and therefore whatever constitutional reform takes place will entrench and not transform the old colonial state. Neither is the root of the problem – namely the old colonial relations of economic, political and social power - identified and therefore the need to break up those relations is not on the agenda for most, hence the view that we have social organizations, not social movements.
To move from social organization to social movement one has to engage in far more than advocacy. Mass action, the raising of consciousness, building regional solidarity and being a part of international struggles are key aspects of building social movements.
A return to our roots: Movements committed to revolutionary change
In these moments when neo-liberalism is causing so much misery throughout the region and governments are either passively agreeing to or aggressively implementing this agenda, there is a need for progressive forces to retake the ideological and political lead. We need to articulate the ideology of revolutionary change and build political organizations and parties around this programme. We must work to develop the consciousness of the people so that their independent struggles can lead to them seeking to end their conditions of “persistent poverty.”
We must recognize that a space has once again been opened up for social transformation, that space having been created by the social movements in Latin America and the political changes that have resulted. We must be bold, but not overconfident. We must recognize the opportunities even as we appreciate fully the dangers. We must have hope, yet be mercilessly realistic. To say all this is, in fact, to be revolutionary. And that, and not reformism, must be our implacable position.
Given neo-liberalism there will be another volcanic eruption by the people – that is certain. But whether we make a leap forward “up to freedom” or suffer setbacks and have the forces of reaction more deeply entrenched, will depend on the work done by the organizations of the people. We end with James’ perceptive comment - “a revolution is made by the revolutionary spirit of the people.” That spirit is still alive, and will burst “into volcanic eruptions” sometime not too far away.