Wed | Mar 21, 2018

Peter Espeut | No consensus, no peace

Published:Friday | June 30, 2017 | 12:00 AM

Students of the science of society know that social order is a fabric tightly woven with different strands of different colours and textures. If you don't like how one of the strands makes the fabric look, and you try to pull it out, you must disturb several of the other strands in the process.

A high rate of crime and violence has always been tightly woven into the tapestry that is Jamaica, and it will be impossible to remove it - or even significantly reduce it - until some other strands - just as firmly intertwined into our national persona - are removed or readjusted.

Professor M.G. Smith, in his still valuable Plural Framework of Jamaican Society written in the 1960s, pointed out that the different social sections that constitute Jamaican society are not bonded together by any social (or even national) consensus, but by the coercive power of the State.

In this regard, Jamaica, in 1830, was hardly much different than Jamaica in 1930. As an economic enterprise, Jamaica was carefully constructed to benefit the investors, and labour and planting material were brought from overseas to guarantee the highest possible return. Have you ever wondered how 16,000 slave masters could have kept 300,000 slaves in absolute subjugation for so long? The disparity in numbers should have been overwhelming! But the Jamaican colonial state practised a form of state terror that kept the slaves in line so that the plantations could continue to generate profits for the few. No consensus here.


Agreeable terms


The slaves were freed in the 1830s on terms agreeable to their masters, who received monetary compensation for the loss of their property. The victims of the tyranny got nothing. No consensus here.

Thirty years after Emancipation, it was clear that little had changed; only landowners could be magistrates and jurors, or could vote and stand for office; and they legislated arrangements that tried to inhibit the growth of an independent peasantry. The flash point was injustice in the courts. Protests in Morant Bay led to violence, and the colonial state responded with a level of state terror reminiscent of slavery. Soldiers killed 439 black Jamaicans directly and arrested 354 more who were later executed, many without proper trials.

Other punishments included flogging of more than 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences. The soldiers burned more than 1,000 homes belonging to black Jamaicans without any justifiable reason, leaving families homeless throughout the parish. This was the most severe suppression of unrest in the history of the British West Indies, exceeding incidents during slavery.

The results were interesting: Rather than give everyone the vote, the House of Assembly was abolished, and no one had the vote, although the colonial state continued to administer Jamaica on behalf of the plantation interests. Still no consensus.

Slowly over decades, the landowners regained the right to vote, but a century after Emancipation, the vast majority of Jamaicans were still disenfranchised. The Jamaican Government was neither of the people, by the people, nor for the people. And so there was still no consensus.


'Step up inna life'


Then came the 1938 riots, and when Great Britain was distracted by Hitler and World War II, in 1944 adult Jamaicans were given the right to vote. One might have hoped that maybe now the descendants of slaves would be offered high-quality education, and the opportunity to 'step up inna life', but it was not to be. Rather than seeking consensus across Jamaican society on how to give some real substance to the idea of Emancipation, Jamaica's two main political parties have focused on making alliances with landowners and investors to protect their interests, which are, fundamentally, a desire for really cheap labour.

Jamaicans know when they are being exploited, and they will not work hard to support such a system. Overseas, Jamaicans work hard - sometimes at two and three jobs - because they see that in a relatively short time, they will be able to buy a car and a house and get a good education for their children. But in Jamaica, working hard is 'Alibutton' business.

And so, many believe, crime and violence is one way of striking a blow against a system which has never meant ordinary Jamaicans any good.

In the meantime, the middle class wants crime and violence to end so they can continue to make money and enjoy their place of privilege. They want to excise only one thread, and leave the rest of the fabric intact.

We will never be able to seriously reduce crime and violence in Jamaica unless there is consensus across the society on how Jamaica can be governed in the interest of all Jamaicans, especially the historically disadvantaged.

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist. Email feedback to