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Individual issues, public problem

Published: 
Sunday, November 8, 2015

Speaking with some graduate sociology students last week the question was asked, why doesn’t the Caribbean region produce world-recognised thinkers and public intellectuals like it once did?

The students were discussing luminaries from Caribbean Marxism and the New World Group. They started with people like CLR James, Oliver Cox, George Padmore and Claudia Jones. And moved on to many others like Elsa Goveia, Lloyd Best, Walter Rodney, George Beckford, Sylvia Wynter and Frantz Fanon.

They also suggested there’s a relative dearth of indigenous social science theories emerging from the region. Where are the 21st century sociology ideas of and from the Caribbean, like those from the 20th century like Plantation Theory, Critical Race Theory, and Caribbean Dependency Theories? some asked. Instead of a new wave of such thinkers, one student suggested we are left with media opportunists and newspaper populists.

Yet populism is often more Donald Trump than Noam Chomsky. Populists are generalists, rarely experts, their job is to help sell newspapers and other media. They don’t worry about their constant repetition of anecdote as fact, taking statements out of context, or the implications of their requirement to play to the crowd. Populism never does. Its function is simplification not social improvement.

And it’s the simplification of populism and the disconnection of everyday life from the sociological imagination at the heart of the students’ concerns. One student remembered the words of Norman Girvan who suggested the period up to 1970 was such a fertile time for Caribbean thinkers because Caribbean people felt they were on the cusp of something new and wanted to break out of their colonial chains.

This situation of nascent nationalism and everyday Caribbean precariousness provided a sense of purpose, a catalyst for thinking, and gave birth to political movements. It united many around a common cause, and propelled ideas of political and social change. The individual was aware of the historical conjunction they were connected to.

As Girvan noted, the New World Group’s many intellectual viewpoints such as the need for independent thought, the Caribbean as a plantation system, and the structural violence of economic dependence to foreign multinational companies and governments came out of the intense local and regional pressures Caribbean people were feeling in this period.

For the sociology students, the West Indies Cricket team’s historical ups and current downs provided a loose metaphor for the dearth of radical Caribbean thought. Much like West Indies cricket from the 1940s to 1980s, Caribbean intellectual thought was once a “fire in Babylon,” to borrow the title of the documentary. But now it only receives deliveries of foreign theory rather than throwing down its own intellectual bodyline bombs, as it once could.

The students themselves echoed what many others have said too. Life is different today. It’s less volatile and precarious than it was. There are certain financial safety nets in place for the national population like GATE, pensions and a national health system. The institutional racism of white supremacy has been attacked and we’ve achieved national sovereignty. The old battlegrounds for critical thinking are no longer there.

To a point, this view sounds and feels correct. But perhaps the terrain of life is still precarious, but we no longer understand the world as we once did. In replacing the sociological imagination with populism, psychological theories of self-determination, and mind-numbing media entertainment, we disconnect the relationship between individual issues and public problems. We no longer understand our individual lives in conjunction with the larger social structure, history, and the biographies of other people.

Instead, everything is sold to us as the result of our individual efforts. That quaint lie so central to the unfolding of neoliberal capitalism, which implies that in the post-colonial era somehow the world playing field was suddenly made level for all. And as such, any failure to get ahead is always a personal failure and never connected to larger public issues and social contexts.

Post-colonial societies are an oxymoron. Independence did not bring freedom and justice from colonialism. It simply replaced it with neo-colonialism. Life is still precarious and dependent for most. Guns, violence, poverty, and all the rest are not simple individual problems, all are interrelated to each other and the wider history, sociology, political economy and culture of the region and its relationship to the rest of the world. As are all the recent problems of local prejudice and race talk.

To disconnect the utterances of racist individuals from their links to wider history, culture, social context, biography and political economy is the equivalent of trying to understand fish without water.

So the suggestion is here, that the political, social and economic conditions at this historical conjunction are still precarious. This makes them fertile for the emergence of world-recognised thinkers and public intellectuals from the Caribbean, and there are a few I could suggest. But perhaps it’s the public’s understanding of itself and its potential possibilities that’s changed. Without the sociological imagination the individual is no longer conscious of the international historical system they’re a part of.

—Dr Dylan Kerrigan is an anthropologist at the UWI, St Augustine Campus.

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