The era of slavery which occurred in the Caribbean during the 16th to 19th centuries put into place a social and political order which formed the social structure and class related lifestyles of the plantation system. The social structure of the plantation society was static and pyramidal in design. At the top of the social pyramid was the white ruling class or the planter class which consisted of the white plantation owners and those who were closely associated with them. Directly under the white ruling class was the mixed or mullatto population along with the poor whites and free people of colour, who still contributed to social fabric of the society despite not having much political power. At the very bottom of the social pyramid was the Black and non-white labour class and within this class itself existed racial divisions and a labour hierarchy.
Therefore, it can be seen from examining the various classes within the plantations systems social structure that the plantation society was composed of various ethnicities. For the most part a major portion of the labourers were African, but due to the various racial groupings within the plantation societies across the Caribbean, these societies were considered to be culturally plural. This population mix influenced the character of society in many ways such as in the way that certain cultural groups would only be seen together when there was an economic related activity. It was therefore not uncommon to find on a plantation society two or more racial and cultural groups living side by side but also having minimal social or cultural intercourse. Another example of how the character of the society was influenced by the population mix can be seen from the fact that during this time whoever was the owner of the plantation was automatically deemed the super-ordinate group in the wider society and the plantation workers were of the subordinate group. Social and economic power was concentrated with the super-ordinate group, and thus real political and legislative power had only resided with them.
Before examining the political development or lack thereof ,we must first consider the social construct and its relevance to today, during the plantation era the society was made of a majority of unskilled workers, large areas of land devote to production and the working class was excluded from majorly centralized decision making due to the rigid social hierarchy. Today we can still see evidence of the working class being excluded in this way and now to a lesser but still significant extent due to a somewhat rigid social hierarchy, where evidence of this can be seen by the difficulty present to move up the social ladder and relatively minor effort needed to maintain ones social standing.
Bearing in mind the description of the social construct of the past, lets consider the changes which ensued leading to the present day model, the social hierarchy moved from a rigid to a forcefully mobile structure which was brought on by the changes caused by emancipation and the mass immigration that followed, the criteria for bettering ones social standing moved from the color of ones skin to a less rigid even though still difficult criteria to include educational, occupational and economic status, another change which allowed for the differences in the post emancipation period was the bankruptcy and consequent migration of the whites back to Europe making space for the upward movement of both colored as well as black individuals not only in the social scheme of things but also in the political arena leading to an increase of colored individuals in power and a decrease in white control at least directly. By the latter part of the twentieth century, these middle classes (mostly the black and brown educated and professional elite) controlled the leadership positions of political parties and states throughout the region.
The evolution of the colored middle class to power lead to many serious struggles with the white powers, these struggles included the struggle for greater democratic participation for the majority black population and the struggle for political independence from European control which was eventually achieved at least physically even though it is quite arguable that mentally the European control persist, the realization of political power and independence by the national black and brown elite did not necessarily shatter the foundations of white domination throughout the region. Although it can be said that politically there has been great changes leading to the physical political emancipation of todays society from that of the plantation society the economic power was still in the hands of the expatriate white ownership classes even after political independence was won in the 1960s, and the Caribbean racial formations spawned by slavery and colonialism are still intact.
From an economic standpoint we can also say that the plantation is still with us. During the era of the plantation we saw two distinct developments, one was the clearly distinct stagnant economical hierarchy which eventually evolved in the times of emancipation to a slightly mobile economical hierarchy however in both forms the separating factor was clear race and type of education, placing the white planter class at the top and the freed or slaved blacks at the bottom, the other characteristic was the clear goal of the economy not to better the masses but to improve or maximize the profit for the plantation, these two main characteristics of the economic plantation society is still seen today, although because of hierarchy mobility blacks have been allowed to rise in status they are still clear restrictions to this such as the need for a European education to make it in society meaning that although black the top tier blacks are deep within the influence of the European mentality.
That being said the majority of the top tier economically standing people are still white and the majority of the lower class are black which is still in keeping with the economic stratification of the plantation society. the second characteristic of the plantation society which was the profit of the plantation which today would be the profit of the organization can still be seen and is explain in various theories where we can see that the working class is still exploited for the profit of the higher class and is allowed by the political power in order to make the rich richer and the poor poorer which can be said to also contribute to the clear differences and difficulty associated with economical hierarchy. the persistence of these traits as well as the seeming acceptance of them as normal is clear evidence of the persistence of the economical plantation society today.
Caribbean societies today can still be seen as plural societies, some more than others. Present day plural societies can be seen on islands such as Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana and Suriname. The actual pluralities of the modern Caribbean societies can be characterized by divisions of race, ethnicity, religion and cultural differences, to mention a few major elements while others like economic disparities and political membership can also be seen to form division. In societies today there still exist a hierarchy of social class; the upper class, middle class and the lower class. The upper class is an elite group of people who occupy the highest position in the social hierarchy. The members of this social group are wealthy and may have great social and political power and influence. The middle class is socio-economically located between the upper class and the lower class and comprises of a group of people of the contemporary society. The lower class also called the working class is made up of the socio economic groups who are often working for low wages and would include the skilled and unskilled workers.
The middle and working classes make up the masses while the upper class is seen as the minority but the upper class still holds most of the polical and social power within the society as was with the plantation society where the hierarchy was divided in the super-ordinate and the subordinates. People are born into a class structure and it is difficult to leave the social bracket on an upward movement. For example people born in the upper class structure will be more than likely to stay in that structure for their entire lives and in the middle and lower classes while there still is a slight chance of changing their social status. The hierarchy that embodies the plantation society is evident in the todays society in housing, jobs, lifestyles, prestige, colour of skin, image, wealth, opportunities, education and background to mention a few factors.
Housing is an example of class separation embodies the hierarchy of class. Some neighborhoods are just exclusive to members of the upper class. For example the gated communities where in that neighbourhood there is a gate separating that neighbourhood from the surrounding neighbourhoods. Also there are neighbourhoods that are exclusive to the working class, for examples developments and housing areas. Racism still exists in society today but to a lesser extent where some People are still denied jobs and positions because of the colour of their skin and also hired for jobs based on the colour of their skin. In many organizations the owners are whites who are of the upper social class and their subordinates are persons from the working classes and middle classes.
It can be said therefore that from a social structure and an economical standpoint there are remnants of the plantation society in the Caribbean today however there has also been many changes including social mobility and political control which makes todays society different is some ways but similar in many from that of a plantation society
Criticism of the plantation society model
The plantation model/theory in identifying the characteristics of the social and political structure of plantation societies has provided from critical errors; Theory does not provide a direction for moving forward or combating the negative remnants of the plantation society. Does not consider in its analysis the effects of the injection of other racial/cultural groups such as the Chinese into these plantation societies. Again the assumption of the theory is that plantation societies are homogenous. Does not take into account the effects of migration on the demographic, economic and cultural patterns which emerge in the post-emancipation era.
Does not take into consideration the activities to combat racial, political and economic discrimination mounted by local community based organizations such as the, land cooperatives, the UNIA and the labour movement of the 1930s. Does not account for the development of a large-scale afro and indo-peasantries which existed in the post emancipation period which saw land moving into the hands of black and other non-white groups. a crucial group within the matrix of the said society and economy was ignored; that is the poor whites and the free people of colour. It therefore implicitly argues that this group did not contribute to the social, political and economic organization of the plantation society. By ignoring this group the analysis of the plantation societies as it existed under slavery is skewed toward the small white elite and large African/East Indian labour force; which were not the only.
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