When the socialist government of Michael Manley came to power in Jamaica in 1972, the charismatic new prime minister asked the up-and-coming Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson to become his special adviser for social policy and development. Only a decade after the country gained its independence from Britain, Jamaican voters elected Manley with a sweeping mandate to transform the colonial-era hierarchies of race and class that remained intact. Manley needed a team of trusted advisers to help implement his ambitious agenda, and Patterson was high on the list.
Over the course of the 1970s, Patterson split his time between Cambridge and Kingston, teaching sociology while researching and implementing development programs. From his perch within the prime minister’s office, he advanced a policy of what he called “urban upgrading.” Instead of slum clearance and the creation of housing, Patterson argued for rehabilitating existing structures to make them more livable. Rather than seeking to expand employment through industrialization, he argued that the new policy should support the existing economy of street hawkers and petty traders. In lieu of the large, complex bureaucracies that tend to come with an expansion of the welfare state, the program focused on using community centers to deliver social services like health and child care.
Patterson’s approach reflected a wider revolution in third world approaches to development, marking a shift from the heyday of modernization in the 1950s and ’60s to the basic-needs approach of the 1970s and ’80s, which emphasized decentralization and overcoming extreme poverty. Modernization programs had envisioned the complete transformation of society, but their benefits reached few postcolonial citizens. Though on its face, urban upgrading appeared less ambitious, it promised to bring meaningful improvements to a larger group of citizens, and it did so by empowering local communities.
Patterson, who is currently the John Cowles professor of sociology at Harvard University, reflects on this era in his latest book, The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament. An exploration of politics, economic development, and popular culture in the nearly 60 years since the island’s independence, the book seeks to understand what became of the promises of decolonization, including Manley’s socialism. For Patterson, the postcolonial predicament is largely characterized by failure—of specific programs like his urban upgrading project and of the wider efforts at social and economic transformation. Two of the book’s three sections are dedicated to assessing the disappointment of those unfulfilled aspirations. Yet it is not a melancholic work: In the ruins of postcolonial Jamaica, Patterson unearths a vibrant popular culture, centered in particular on dancehall music, that can provide new resources to address the postcolonial predicament.
Born in 1940 in Westmoreland Parish in Jamaica, Patterson was the son of a police detective and a seamstress. Thanks in great part to his mother’s efforts and encouragement, he attended the prestigious Kingston College and was among the first cohort of undergraduates in the social sciences at the University College of the West Indies, then part of the University of London based in Kingston. His specialization in the social sciences rather than the humanities was not the path he had envisioned. When he arrived on campus in 1959, he was steeped in the emerging West Indian literature of the postwar period, attracted to the existentialism of Albert Camus, and committed to the study of history. He settled into economics and, later, sociology only after university officials rejected his application to major in history. The new nation needed social scientists more than it did humanists.
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Despite some initial hesitation, Patterson embraced this calling, which soon brought him into contact with Manley, who was a decade and a half older but frequented the university. They remained in touch throughout the 1960s as Manley planned his entry into electoral politics and Patterson entered a sociology PhD program at the London School of Economics.
In fact, although they embarked on separate paths, their relationship grew stronger in these years, representing the marriage of politics and social science that characterized nation building in the decolonizing age. National independence was not just about the transfer of political power: It involved the formation of a national culture and state infrastructures, the nurturing of a homegrown intelligentsia, and the organization of new social data. Third world intellectuals were needed to furnish the historical and empirical analyses that would inform the policies of economic development and social transformation. Social scientists were at the center of this work.
Jamaica proved to be a key site for these entwined processes. University College received its independent charter and became the University of the West Indies in 1962, the year of Jamaican independence. By then, the faculty and students of the social sciences department had founded the West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues, which became part of the New World Group, an organization of political economists dedicated to the study of the plantation and its afterlives in the Caribbean and around the world. The group’s journal, New World Quarterly, published from 1963 to 1972, not only covered the economies of the island states but also provided a venue for the region’s emerging literary cultures, one that always situated the Caribbean as part of a wider third world.
Patterson played a key role in the society’s founding and participated in its research activities and discussions. Alongside fellow students Norman Girvan, who would join Manley’s government, and Walter Rodney, a Guyanese student who would soon become a radical historian of slavery and its legacies, Patterson was encouraged to pursue scholarly work and contribute to the nation’s development. After completing their PhDs in London, Patterson, Girvan, and Rodney returned to Jamaica to take up this calling.
But the idea that the postcolonial university, housing scholars like these three, could play a supporting role in the country’s political and economic development was soon decisively challenged. In 1968 the government of Hugh Shearer barred Rodney from reentering Jamaica, prompting an eruption of student protest. The state’s repressive response made it difficult to sustain a vision of scholarship informing national transformation. Rodney took up a post at the University of Dar es Salaam, and a disillusioned Patterson departed for the United States.
In 1970, Patterson arrived in America for a six-month sabbatical. Soon that sabbatical turned permanent: In the following year, he would receive a tenured faculty position at Harvard. While he settled into life as an academic in America, he continued to watch Jamaican politics closely, and his decision to go back as a special adviser to Manley’s government just two years after his move to the United States demonstrated how much the island continued to play a central role in his scholarly and political commitments. For him, the position of special adviser brought with it the opportunity to fulfill his generation’s calling. He could now apply the tools of the social scientist to the tasks of postcolonial transformation. As Patterson soon discovers, this calling came with new challenges: The independence of the intellectual proved difficult to square with popular politics. The short-term gratifications of charismatic action, a regular indulgence for a politician like Manley, did not agree with the intellectual Patterson’s constitution.
At the end of Manley’s second term in 1980, Patterson returned to full-time scholarship at Harvard. He never looked back. In the four decades since, he has published six highly regarded books on themes ranging from the sociology of slavery to the ordeal of racial integration in the United States. Though most of his work did not directly address his Jamaican experiences, the island’s history of slavery and emancipation and his involvement in postcolonial politics have continued to animate almost all of his thinking.
The Confounding Island brings us back to Jamaica and this period of Patterson’s political activism and subsequent skepticism and ambivalence. As a retrospective on decolonization and its aftermath, it works through the tensions that have gripped Jamaica since the 1960s and ’70s. The island now enjoys a vibrant democratic culture with free and fair elections and freedom of speech and of the press, but it is also one of the most violent societies in the world. Jamaica is a diverse multiracial country, yet it is marked by deep forms of economic hierarchy. It is a small island of just under 3 million people, but its musical forms and athletes have earned a dominant role in the global arena.
That Jamaica and its postcolonial quandaries are central to Patterson’s thinking can be seen in the fact that none of these themes are new to his work: In the earliest stage of his career, he combined fiction and sociology to capture the riddle of Jamaica’s postcolonial predicament. His first book, the 1964 novel The Children of Sisyphus, draws its title and themes from Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. It follows the residents of the Dungle, a Kingston slum, who are outcasts in a new nation struggling to get by. At the center of the narrative are members of a Rastafarian group, led by Brother Solomon, who eagerly await a ship to take them to Ethiopia, and Dinah, a prostitute who struggles against all odds to escape her social conditions. By the end of the novel, Brother Solomon reveals before killing himself that the anticipated ship was his fabrication, and Dinah finds herself firmly back at square one. Though their aspirations are thwarted, the Dungle’s residents remain determined to find a way out. They maintain the hope of a future transformation of their circumstances, no matter how impossible this may appear.
Patterson’s second novel, 1967’s An Absence of Ruins, offers a biting portrait of the West Indian intellectual elite, the class that tasked itself with the making of the nation. The central character is Alexander Blackman, a young sociologist who returns to Jamaica after studying and working in London. The novel dramatizes the young man’s conflicted psyche: He is tormented by indecision, an unwillingness to commit in his intellectual, political, or personal life. Fearing the responsibility and judgment inherent in taking action, he ends up going back to London to live in hiding. Published just as Patterson was contemplating his own return from London, the novel uses Blackman’s internal crisis to explore the larger limits of the postcolonial intellectual’s preoccupation with securing identity to a stable past. Unable to accept the absence of such a past and trapped by the search for essence, Blackman finds himself incapable of seizing the opportunities and confronting the challenges posed by his present existence. History remains, for him and the nationalist intellectuals he represents, an impossible salvation.
Beginning in the late ’60s, Patterson turned more and more to history—and its futilities—in his scholarly work as well, employing historical sociology to examine how transatlantic slavery had irrevocably destroyed the collective past. This would be the thesis of his dissertation at the London School of Economics, which appeared in 1967 as The Sociology of Slavery. A sweeping exploration of Jamaica from the 17th to the mid-19th century, the book argued that the dynamics of colonization and enslavement had produced a distinctively disintegrated social order. Eighteenth century Jamaica was on “the brink of the Hobbesian state of nature…loosely integrated; so much so that one hesitates to call it a society.” The masters and the enslaved constituted separate spheres, with the former consisting largely of absentee landlords who delegated their coercive authority to overseers. Under the violent plantation system, each enslaved person, Patterson argued, suffered from “a broken, trauma-ridden personality.”
Written in the first decade of Jamaican independence, The Sociology of Slavery helped consolidate Patterson’s thinking about the limits of Jamaican nationalism. As he recalled in a 2013 interview with the Jamaican anthropologist and political theorist David Scott, “I was very much involved in a criticism of that love fest of the ‘Out of Many, One’ idea” (which referred to Jamaica’s national motto). The book contains two main elements from his career-long exploration of slavery. First, while a study of slavery in Jamaica, as its title suggests, it also presents sociology as a form of social criticism: Out of thick description comes generalizable argument. Second, it began to develop Patterson’s view of slavery as an entirely destructive process that leaves behind it only social and cultural discontinuity. Slavery was more than just an economic institution; it was a state of social death, too.
In an early review, the Barbadian poet and historian Edward (later Kamau) Brathwaite critiqued both of these tendencies in Patterson’s work. His account of disorder and disintegration, Brathwaite argued, ignored how enslaved people generated stable social formations over time. One element of social regeneration that Patterson deemphasized, Brathwaite noted, was the African cultural traditions that were retained and expanded by enslaved people. Patterson’s thesis of discontinuity depended on “denying specific African survivals in Jamaica.” Through this denial, Brathwaite said, Patterson elevated slavery’s disintegrative effects into a general and unchanging condition in the New World.
Brathwaite’s 1971 The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770–1820 countered this picture by tracing the creative reinvention of European and African traditions, which produced a majority Afro-Creole folk culture in the Black Atlantic. Without recognizing this social and cultural creativity, The Sociology of Slavery struggles, in Brathwaite’s view, to explain a surprising feature of Jamaican slave society—that it had given rise to the most slave revolts in the Americas. Indeed, Patterson acknowledges this limit near the end of his book. “Sociological explanation can only partly explain the persistence of this spirit of rebellion,” he writes.
As he did earlier, Patterson explored this spirit of rebellion in a novel before turning to the questions of emancipation and freedom in a sociological work. His last novel to date, Die the Long Day (1972), offers an early example of what we now call the neo-slave narrative. The novel’s protagonist is Quasheba, a name that refers to the Jamaican version of Sambo, a feminine figure associated with submission and docility. Patterson turns this figure on its head, making her an agent of resistance. Seeking to protect her daughter, Polly, from the advances of a syphilitic master, Quasheba becomes a rebel, asserting, “Me is human too and is only one time they can kill me.”
By conceiving the enslaved Jamaican as a character who announces a universal language of humanity, Patterson presents the Caribbean archipelago as the exemplary space of modernity. In this approach, he followed the Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James, who mentored Patterson during his London sojourn. In the final pages of the second edition of The Black Jacobins, James’s classic history of the Haitian Revolution, he argues that the twin institutions of “the sugar plantation and Negro slavery…imposed…an original pattern” in the West Indies. Neither European nor African, both outside the “American main” and “not native in any conceivable sense of that word,” the West Indies’ culture and politics proved to be “sui generis, with no parallel anywhere else.” As a result, West Indians “from the very start lived a life that was in its essence a modern life.”
This powerful vision of Caribbean modernity percolates throughout Patterson’s work. The small islands occasioned the grand questions of slavery and freedom, of self-making in the wake of violent deracination—questions for every people on every continent in the modern world. And even after Patterson had turned from Jamaica to a wider canvas, he drew his inspiration from the modernist landscape of the Caribbean. His career-defining books, Slavery and Social Death and Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, which spanned the globe and the ancient and modern eras, carried the figure of Quasheba onto the stage of historical sociology.
First published in 1982, Slavery and Social Death introduced Patterson’s now-canonical definition of slavery as “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” Drawing on sources from 66 slave societies, ranging from ancient China to the New World, he moved from generalizing from one island’s experience to documenting his arguments on a global scale. He dispensed with the legal categorization of enslaved people as property and the economic dimension of their exploitation, taking up slavery as primarily a social and political institution. What Patterson called the “social death” of the enslaved emerged from the fact that slavery was often a “conditional commutation” of a death sentence that denied them any connection to their ancestors and descendants. The enslaved person was “a genealogical isolate.” As the example of Quasheba makes clear, social death did not mean she was without social relations; the problem was that they “were never recognized as legitimate and binding.” As a result, enslaved people were forced to become liminal figures, always dependent on their masters to mediate their relations with the wider social world.
Critics like the historian Vincent Brown have argued that invocations of social death obscure the rich practices through which enslaved people sought to preserve their ancestral ties. The concept of social death, Brown insisted, is an ideal type that “provides a neat cultural logic” but tends to obscure the specific experiences of slavery and the political struggles that transformed the institution. Patterson would not necessarily disagree: For him, sociology requires a necessary “schematism” that operates like “the essential heavy plow that must first clear the ground, turn the rough soil, and demarcate the boundaries.” He did not mean for this schematism to displace historical specificity but instead to illuminate recurring structures of domination. Yet as the concept of social death was taken up in American slavery studies, it increasingly came to name the singular experience of racialized chattel slavery. Patterson resisted this exceptionalism, rejecting the thesis that chattel slavery in the United States was a “peculiar institution.”
No matter the schematism, Slavery and Social Death certainly cleared important ground. It also helped reveal the intertwined roots of slavery and freedom. “The idea of freedom,” Patterson writes, “is born, not in the consciousness of the master, but in the reality of the slave’s condition.” This would be the thesis of Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Published in 1991, just as the self-declared free world was congratulating itself on a hard-fought victory against its communist foe, the book examines the birth of freedom as a concept and value in the Western world. Freedom, Patterson argues, is a quintessentially Western ideal. But despite this, his story of Western freedom situated its birth in the degradation and domination of slavery. If those heralding the West’s triumph in the Cold War assumed that the history of Western freedom somehow qualified it for global supremacy, they misunderstood the paradoxical conditions that gave rise to this ideal. An arresting passage signals the darker story Patterson wanted to tell:
Originally, the problem I had set out to explore was the sociohistorical significance of that taken-for-granted tradition of slavery in the West. Armed with the weapons of the historical sociologist, I had gone in a search of a man-killing wolf called slavery; to my dismay I kept finding the tracks of a lamb called freedom. A lamb that stared back at me, on our first furtive encounters in the foothills of the Western past, with strange, uninnocent eyes. Was I to believe that slavery was a lamb in wolf’s clothing? Not with my past. And so I changed my quarry. Finding the sociohistorical roots of freedom, understanding its nature in time and context, became my goal.
To search for freedom’s sociohistorical roots in slavery, Patterson begins with ancient Greece—the first place the institution of slavery became a constitutive feature of the social order. In Athens, between the end of the seventh century and the early fourth century bce, the expansion of slavery created the sociological conditions in which freedom was idealized and institutionalized. This period saw a dramatic rise in the size and proportion of the enslaved population, gradually becoming a structurally significant feature of Athenian society and yet also enabling its flowering as Europe’s first democracy. On the foundations of slavery came the formation of classical and modern notions of liberty.
The entwined origins of freedom and slavery have, Patterson argues, produced three distinct conceptions of freedom that the classical and modern worlds accepted. First, personal liberty—the absence of domination—appeared among those who lived in constant “terror of enslavement.” Because women were the most likely to be captured as slaves or to witness the condition of slavery in the home, Patterson argues, they were the progenitors of this negative ideal. Second, as slavery became more institutionalized, civic freedom appeared as a strategy of incorporating the unenslaved masses into a collective whole, a citizenry. The value of democratic citizenship came into view in juxtaposition to the nonnative slave. As a result, the high point of Athenian democracy coincided with the tightening of the boundaries of inclusion. Finally, imperial expansion, fueled in part by slavery, sanctified this ideal of sovereignty. Sovereign autonomy had been limited to the elite, but now it could be claimed as a democratic principle, a right of all citizens within a society at the expense of those outside it.
A striking feature of Patterson’s Freedom in the Making of Western Culture is that his indictment of freedom as an ideal “founded…upon a rock of human virtue but upon the degraded time fill of man’s vilest inhumanity to man” is enunciated not from the position of an external critic but from the point of view of an insider, someone who strongly identifies with what he calls “our civilization’s preeminent ideal.” The ease with which Patterson claims Western civilization for himself and yet limns its paradoxes is itself a marker of the Caribbean’s sui generis modernity, one born from Atlantic slavery.
For Patterson, the Caribbean and the African diaspora in the Americas more broadly embody both the promise and the perils of modern freedom. The consequences of slavery’s disintegrative power left Black people in the Americas uniquely unburdened by the past and able to manifest the freedom of self-making. While Black nationalists have sought to remedy this absence of a past, suturing the wounds of deracination through a search for common origins, Patterson views it as a liberating condition. As he put it in a 1972 essay, Black people in the Americas should
abandon their search for a past [and] recognize that they lack all claim to a distinctive cultural heritage…[thus] accepting the epic challenge of their reality. Black Americans can be the first group in the history of mankind who transcend the confines and grip of a cultural heritage, and in so doing, they can become the most truly modern of all peoples—a people who feel no need for a nation, a past, or a particularistic culture.
This is a mighty task to place on a single group, especially one subjected to the modern world’s original sin of chattel slavery, and some readers have imputed a conservatism to Patterson’s rejection of Black particularism and cultural nationalism. Yet nothing signals the revolutionary like the desire to be freed from the shackles of the past, and one might note that there is in Patterson’s declaration of “a future that has no past” a bold and radical vision of the Black diaspora as a vanguard, a universal class that ushers in a “new New World.”
For many intellectuals and radicals born in countries rapidly breaking their imperial chains, the era of decolonization promised precisely this: to make the world anew. As Frantz Fanon, whom Patterson praised in an essay subtitled “My Hope and Hero,” proclaimed, “We must turn over a new leaf…work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.” The postcolonial world birthed in the mid-20th century has fallen far short of that aspiration. But as Patterson witnessed, decolonization heralded a universalization of the Western ideal of freedom, especially in its democratic permutation. If the end of empire achieved nothing else, it forever delegitimized the view that democratic self-rule was the exclusive purview of the West. Since then, democracy has become the world’s lingua franca for political legitimacy. Yet the triumph of democracy remains ambiguous, not only because it has yet to become universal but also because where democracy and collective freedom have been institutionalized, a yawning gap between our expectations and our experiences of this ideal remains.
This gap is at the heart of Patterson’s account of the postcolonial predicament in The Confounding Island. The book is a homecoming in two senses: Not only does it return to the place of his birth and intellectual formation; it also allows him to revisit the twinned projects of nation building and social scientific inquiry. This time, though, the postcolonial social scientist does not play adviser to the democratic prince. Instead, he arrives at the scene of nationalism’s failure in order to excavate and interpret its ruins. Seeking to develop a framework that can capture the processes from which the postcolonial predicament emerged—and not just by reference to a Euro-American yardstick—Patterson has created a layered account of these ruins, one that begins with the historical forces of colonialism and plantation slavery and works its way to the contradictions of political leadership embodied in the figure of Manley. As in his earlier work, Patterson’s attention to his particular subject does not lead him to abandon the universal themes that have marked his career. Instead, he uses the “confounding island” as the site from which to understand the world.
His impulse to do so has some justification. For one thing, the postcolonial predicament characterizes most of the world: At the height of imperialism, over 80 percent of the planet’s land was subject to European conquest and control. Colonial rule and decolonization were thus a nearly universal experience. For another, the features that make Jamaica a confounding island, he insists, also reveal the wider dilemmas of modern democratic politics. Patterson’s goal is to frame and pose the particulars of Jamaica to disclose a set of universals.
The roots of Jamaica’s postcolonial democracy, like the origins of freedom, are, Patterson argues, in slavery and colonization. Drawing on his work in The Sociology of Slavery, he begins with a question: Why did the various Caribbean societies where extractive plantations prevailed have different economic and political outcomes? Jamaica and Barbados, for example, have had divergent trajectories, such that by 2000, Barbados had a real per capita GDP of $22,694, compared with Jamaica’s $5,819. While some point to the policy choices of Manley’s socialist government, Patterson has a different answer: This divergence has its roots in colonialism. Though both were plantation economies, a greater planter presence and more women than men among the enslaved in Barbados created circumstances for stability and gradual social integration. Returning to his disagreement with Brathwaite, Patterson now argues that the conditions for creolization—the development of a distinctive New World society—existed there but remained minimal in Jamaica during colonization.
The two islands’ divergence only widened, Patterson argues, after slavery’s abolition. In 1866, just a year after the Morant Bay Rebellion, in which Black and brown Jamaicans demanded equal political and economic rights, the white-dominated House of Assembly abolished itself. The planter class decided to forgo self-rule rather than share political power with former slaves. Anxious that they might be enslaved to a Black majority, the Jamaican elite abdicated a key element of their sovereign freedom. In Barbados, on the other hand, a more stable planter class was politically secure enough to leave representative institutions intact.
The persistence of local parliamentary institutions and the social integration of creolization in Barbadian culture did not mean that Black Barbadians experienced racial equality or greater freedom. The franchise, for instance, was limited to property owners. Moreover, the plantation system survived emancipation in Barbados relatively intact, whereas Jamaican peasants were able to enjoy greater personal freedom as a result of the struggles to protect peasants and to enable small-scale farming. Yet even if these forms of hierarchy and exploitation persisted in Barbados, Patterson argues that the institutions of representative government and the rule of law established post-emancipation bequeathed to its citizens a stronger and more independent state, one with the institutional capacity to create high levels of literacy and a per capita GDP that was in 1966, the year of Barbadian independence, 57 percent higher than Jamaica’s when it gained independence in 1962.
While Jamaica has lagged Barbados on economic indicators since decolonization, it has successfully institutionalized a parliamentary democracy. Patterson moves from the legacy of the colonial past to the postcolonial present in order to assess the experience of democracy there. On every indicator, from free and fair elections to robust protections for freedom of the press, Jamaica ranks highly. Yet as Patterson notes, democratization has coincided with extreme levels of violence. Jamaica’s murder rate of 58 per 100,000 people in 2005 “made it the most homicidal nation in the world.” While we tend to think the ballot replaces the bullet, Patterson argues that in this instance the bullet followed the ballot.
This uptick in violence coincided with postcolonial state building and the consolidation of the country’s two main political parties, the Jamaica Labor Party and the People’s National Party, in the early 1940s. The proliferation of guns due to the global trade in illicit drugs not only centered on criminal activities; it also permeated partisan politics. The fact that jobs, houses, and other rewards were distributed and controlled by the victors of an election added to the stakes of party affiliation. For politicians, the dispensation of patronage proved a powerful means of securing electoral support, and thus violence erupted around it. After all, for members of the various constituencies, ensuring that their candidate won was tied very directly to the material conditions of their lives. Under these circumstances, violence began to supplement the electoral process.
Patronage, however, is not the only way that “the democratic process both enables and is enabled by violence,” Patterson argues. The forms of mobilization that large-scale democracies require tend to calcify political identities and exacerbate conflict. Jamaican politics is not marked by ethnic conflict—but even where racial and ethnic identities are not electorally salient, Patterson demonstrates how parties and elections inspire a solidarity and loyalty that ultimately entrench divisions and violence within a society. He calls this the “tribalism” of democracy.
It is tempting to view violence and tribalism as yet another sign of democracy’s imperfect realization in the countries that decolonized after World War II. But as Patterson notes, these are features of democracy around the world. One need look no further than the electoral rise of authoritarian populism across the North Atlantic to see that even where democratic politics is most established, it is not immune to the recurring challenges of polarization, violence, and nativism. The sociological conditions of democracy in Jamaica are indeed distinct from those in Europe and the United States. But precisely by examining democracy in a variety of contexts, we can better grasp the features that have remained relatively submerged in North Atlantic countries.
Electoral mobilization is only one of modern democracy’s paradoxes. Patterson examines another set of challenges through an analysis of his time in Manley’s government. The policy of urban upgrading that Patterson pioneered in the Southside area of Kingston yielded mixed results. It successfully provided social services through community centers that offered child care, services for elders, and a health clinic, and the project staffers were able to institute a truce among rival gangs in the area. But one of its central goals, enticing landlords to rehabilitate their properties through government-backed loans, was largely unsuccessful. Even as an expansive and egalitarian state project sought to meet the basic needs of citizens, those most in need of housing rehabilitation—the tenants of absentee landlords—were excluded from its benefits. Many of the public investments ended up being captured by better-off members of the community.
For Patterson, the unintended consequences of his urban programs offer a small window into a central conundrum faced by democratic states. For much of the history of Western political thought, democracy was feared as the rule of the poor multitudes. The advocates of decolonization half a century ago seized on this view, celebrating the self-rule of the oppressed masses. But as contemporary conditions around the world indicate, without measures to check economic inequality, democratic institutions can be captured by political and economic elites.
Yet Patterson argues that even as the poor are structurally excluded from meaningfully exercising rule, democratic politics, especially elections, tend to reward the theater of populist overtures. During his time as special adviser, Patterson watched in dismay as elected officials in Jamaica either undermined or dismissed his urban upgrading program, favoring instead a populist rhetoric backed up by the occasional construction of a housing project. Sweeping promises of new housing—as well as the patronage available from controlling access to the units that were built—became the preferred option for political elites seeking to ensure their reelection. While elite responsiveness to constituencies is seen as the quintessential feature of democratic politics, Patterson argues that there is an incongruity between meeting “the needs of the poor” and “maintaining the power of a political leader” that only widens the more democratic a society is.
For Patterson, Manley’s political career embodies these conundrums of democratic leadership, and in the last chapter he reckons with Manley’s government and its legacies. Patterson tried to write about Manley before this, but as Patterson notes, he had experienced a mental block until he was asked to write a foreword for Rachel Manley’s memoir of her father. Even in The Confounding Island, he restricts his discussion to a pained and relatively brief treatment that attests to his continued difficulties when assessing his longtime friend, the political leader whose call he felt compelled to answer. But with many years’ distance, he is able to provide an intimate picture here of Manley’s rise and fall.
For Patterson, Manley was an enigmatic figure, one riven by contradictions. Born into the Creole elite—his father, Norman Manley, was Jamaica’s first premier, and his British-born mother, Edna Manley, was a sculptor—Michael Manley became a man of the people. Though he was animated by the intellectual and personal challenge of democratic politics, he disdained its retail aspects and remained distant from his constituents, who were nonetheless enchanted by his charisma. Incorruptible in public life, Patterson writes, Manley was “unscrupulous and dishonest in his intimate relations.” In Patterson’s view, these characteristics facilitated the ambition and daring with which Manley embarked on Jamaica’s project of democratic socialism, but they also fueled the vacillation and indecision that marked his first two terms as prime minister.
Manley came to power under the slogan “Better must come,” a promise to ameliorate the social and economic conditions of the majority of Jamaicans. His plans to redistribute land, expand social services, democratize the workplace, and harness a greater share of the profits from the bauxite industry were couched in an international commitment to third world politics. His close relationship with Fidel Castro and his advocacy for the New International Economic Order—the third world’s demand for an egalitarian global economy—infuriated the United States, which sought to isolate Cuba and undermine radical politics across the Americas.
Despite Manley’s bold domestic and global vision, he proved unable to hold together the leftists and moderates in his party. Nor was he prepared to deal with the capital flight that followed his announcement of democratic socialism and the emigration of the middle and professional classes in the wake of political violence and a shrinking economy. As was the case for many third world states in the 1970s, the oil crisis exacerbated Jamaica’s economic woes and sank the island further into debt. In 1977, with the economy in free fall, Manley accepted a structural adjustment program from the International Monetary Fund, deciding against an alternative plan put forward by his advisers.
While Manley’s democratic socialism ended tragically, his government, for Patterson, was not a complete failure. In the first five years it increased investment in education and health care, cut infant mortality rates, expanded labor’s share of income, and shielded peasant producers from the competition of imported food. Patterson notes that “the flight of the traditional white, Asian, and light-skinned elite unlocked their stranglehold of centuries on the nation’s wealth and opened entrepreneurial doors for the black businesspeople who stayed.”
Manley’s commitment to the working and popular classes helped unleash the “Afro-Jamaican culture of the masses.” As in the United States, the 1970s were the era of Black power in the Caribbean, which challenged the Creole elite and colonial cultures that dominated the region. Manley’s Jamaica would see the rise of reggae and later dancehall, musical genres that embody a democratized Jamaican culture and that now resonate globally.
The innovation and creativity of Jamaican popular culture, according to Patterson, offer us insight into a different path forward for postcolonial societies. In sharp contrast to an elite culture in which the Jamaican middle class imitates the consumptive practices and habits of its global counterparts, reggae and dancehall embrace the local and the vernacular. As Patterson writes, dancehall especially celebrated “the blackest, folksiest, and most lumpenproletarian aspects of Jamaican culture.”
Reggae’s and dancehall’s rejection of the Jamaican middle class reinforces his early critique of postcolonial nationalism, which empowered a nationalist bourgeoisie and left the country’s working classes behind. It also returns him to the characters in The Children of Sisyphus. The novel anticipated, according to David Scott, the soundscape of the reggae generation. In the poetics and music of the Dungle, Patterson suggests, new cultural as well as political possibilities reside. He finds fault with the violence, misogyny, and homophobia of dancehall, but he sees it as a profound commentary on the postcolonial predicament as well. Dancehall, Patterson writes, “is a performative venue that incites the most aural and carnal assault on the traditional inequities of class, color, language, gender, and social mores in Jamaican society.” Jamaican popular culture may not offer a straightforward alternative blueprint for the island, he concedes, but it embodies the modern condition.
For Patterson, dancehall dramatizes the rootlessness and alienation of modernity. The cacophonous orality of dancehall is not meant to be apprehended and made sense of by the ear; instead, it is absorbed by the body. He argues that this makes dancehall an immanently global form. Rooted in the particularities of the Jamaican condition—what Patterson calls an “aggressive localism”—dancehall nonetheless contains a universal appeal: Its sounds can be heard in nightclubs around the world, it has influenced American hip-hop, and it has spurred local iterations from Japan to South Africa. Dancehall thus embodies Patterson’s method of disclosing the universal in and through Jamaica’s postcolonial predicament.
Popular culture cannot resolve the dilemmas of postcolonial democracy. Nor does it complete the unfinished work of social and economic transformation. But in dancehall’s rejection of dependency and submission, in its challenge to middle-class mimicry, and in its creative joining of the local and the global, Patterson finds a Jamaica striving toward its and its neighbors’ historic role: to be a truly modern people, unburdened by the past and embarking on an adventure of democratic self-creation. Through it, Patterson reminds us, the challenge of building a “future that has no past” might yet be realized.