A Precarious Balance: Neoliberalism, Crisis Management, and the Social Implosion in Jamaica

By Weis, Tony | Capital & Class, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

A Precarious Balance: Neoliberalism, Crisis Management, and the Social Implosion in Jamaica


Weis, Tony, Capital & Class


   Everyone is cryin' out for peace
   No one is cryin' out for justice.
   Peter Tosh in 'Equal Rights'

   ... laws for the constraining of violence are laws of the
   ghetto, wearing a democratic mask. A society of equality
   and justice does not live by the gun.
   Ras Brown (1)

Introduction

Neoliberal economic reforms obviously contain profound contradictions--the ratcheting-down of workers' and citizens' rights, while those of capital are privileged; the cut-back and privatisation of public services; the increasing subjugation of local production possibilities to the globally-determined logic of comparative advantage, with large areas of the world moving from exploitation to outright exclusion; and the disjuncture between the promise of freedom and prosperity, and their manifestation as commodified consumerism and rising inequality. These contradictions are particularly intense, and seemingly volatile, where they are layered upon the huge, colonially-ingrained disparities that exist in most Third World countries.

Not surprisingly, neoliberalism is cultivating frustration around the world, and there are many hopeful cases in which this frustration is being channelled into constructive mobilisations, both in protest and in building alternatives. From the Zapatistas' creative engagement with civil society from the hills of southern Mexico, to the electoral success of the Workers Party in Brazil, to the strong support for Hugo Chavez amongst the poor in Venezuela's intense class struggle, to Cuba's dogged determination to pursue its own course, to the mobilisation of peasants and indigenous peoples to overthrow a neoliberal regime in Bolivia, Latin America and the Caribbean is a region where neoliberalism is facing mounting resistance. (2)

However, it is often the case that where contradictions are deepening with neoliberal reforms, and where conditions seem, objectively, to be very ripe for active alliances of the oppressed and the excluded, the frustrated energy is instead fuelling a social implosion characterised by spiralling crime, violence, fear, and, perhaps most destructively, anti-social behaviour. Amidst this mess, the struggle of political and economic elites has been to insulate themselves and their interests, keeping things from falling apart economically and struggling to disengage the poor, and to prevent discontent from radicalising and challenging the social order: as reggae icon Peter Tosh put it so plainly, crying out for peace, and not justice.

Jamaica provides a good setting in which to examine the interwoven nature of neoliberal economic reforms and an unravelling social fabric, and the insidious efforts of elites in government, business, and international financial institutions to preserve the uneasy status quo. After a brief flirtation with social-democratic reforms in the mid-1970s, Jamaica began a prolonged and intense relationship with the IMF and the World Bank. Structural adjustment has since produced an enormous debt burden; exacerbated already huge social inequalities; rendered large sections of the population 'irrelevant', with productive sectors like agriculture and manufacturing reeling from trade liberalisation; and created a political climate in which the ideological hegemony of the Washington Consensus--'there is no alternative', in Margaret Thatcher's famous words--is suffocating. The ensuing social implosion is most evident in Kingston, one of the world's most violent cities.

This paper examines the disjuncture between the deep contradictions of the objective reality in Jamaica, and the adverse subjective conditions for change that exist at present. It points to the importance of deconstructing the practices and impacts of neoliberalism, as well as the processes mitigating the ingrained contradictory tensions: not only the way enclaves of privilege are being fortified in a concrete sense, but also how oppositional responses and imaginations are being manipulated and stifled. …

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