Topic Six.


Robert Buddan



Politics involves the interaction of state and society. Very often, politics is studied from the perspective of the state - its laws, policies, structure and personnel. However, the study of politics from the societal perspective is also important because usually it is the demands that society makes upon the state for rights and opportunities that produce the benefits. Such a perspective shows, which groups make what demands, how successful they are employing what strategies and which other groups might lose out in making demands.

This is particularly important in the Caribbean context where:

(A) The state was colonial and functioned to serve the interests of the colonial power and not those of local society;

(B) Societies emerged from slavery where did to satisfy the conditions of free and organised societies and where the struggle for rights and opportunities has been intense and on-going.

What is>Civil Society=.

Civil society is a sphere of action that is independent of the state and is a counterweight to the state. It is a sphere of public action that exists in a public space between the personal level of the household and the state. It is a network of civil organisations within which citizens act out their public roles in society. This occurs through such organisations as teacher=s unions, manufacturer=s associations, labour organisations, ideological movements, welfare organisations and voluntary organisations such as Boy Scouts and Girl Guides.[1]

Civil society cultivates many prospects of public citizenship. For instance:

- it provides organisations for political and other forms of participation.

- participation through civil society organisations builds solidarity among citizens and enhances a culture of citizenship.

- it creates a recognition of the importance of associational life and the habits of association as a way of fostering patterns of civility towards fellow citizens. They learn to solve problems through collective action and to work in ways that cut across racial, class and other social cleavages, bridge social and political divisions and reduce polarization by encouraging a spirit of wider cooperation.[2]

Civil society is possible only under certain conditions:

1. Individuals must be free if they are to exercise their actions.

2. Persons must have civil and political rights to be able to form associations, express their beliefs, and vote freely.

3. Organisations must be able to operate autonomously, that is, free from the control of the state; and must be able to function without limits to their freedom imposed by the state.

4. Individual rights must be protected with recourse to justice should those rights be infringed.

Civil society is stronger under other kinds of conditions:

1. An educated and informed society;

2. A tolerant society mature in its treatment of issues and people.

3. An ethic of social responsibility for the welfare of society.

4. A viable economy that allows citizens to devote resources and time to their pursuits as citizens.


Caribbean History and Civil Society.

Historical societies of the Caribbean can be discussed in four main phases: slave society; post-Emancipation Plantation society; the nationalist period; the post-Independence period.

Slave Society.


The conditions for a civil society were not met by slave society. Slaves, the majority of the population, were not legally free to exercise their actions. They were regarded as property rather than as citizens and were bought and sold like cattle. They were not allowed to organise lest they conspire against their masters. The very basis for a social order among the slaves was made impossible by repression of family, religion, education and freedom. Only >secret societies= managed to survive by night and underground based on magical religions of obeah and voodoo as well as slave songs of liberation and threats against whites.Slave society was the opposite of civil society.

Civil society activity came neither from the slaves nor the planters and local whites but was introduced from outside in the form of Church activities. The single most important civil society organisation of this period was the Church. African religions had retained a spirit of community, kinship and a meaning to human existence for African slaves. This made them receptive to the Evangelical movement after 1750, particularly the Baptist movement. That movement implicitly carried the message of freedom and equality. It appointed slaves as deacons and Black missionaries led the way of Church organisation and some literacy was achieved from reading Church literature.[3] The non-conformist Church was the only organisation independent of the State that played any significant role in attempting to bring a free, civil society into being. Slave society though was ultimately neither civil nor a society in the modern sense of the term. 

Post-Emancipation Society.

After emancipation, a social structure gradually emerged around which a society was formed. The conditions for society did not exist under slavery and had to be created from scratch. These included:

- communities and buidling a sense of community;

- skills to make one functional and capable of social mobility;

- land as the basis for a household economy, home, family, independence and pride;

- organisation of groups into interest groups to promote their agenda;

- rights to influence the political system.

Emancipation came about by the struggle of slaves for freedom. The most important was the Sam Sharpe Rebellion in Jamaica in 1831. Some 200,000 slaves were involved. About 214 slaves were killed in action and 750 convicted, most being sentenced to death. Hart believes these rebellions had a decisive impact on the decision to end slavery. He says, AThere can be no doubt that it was the cumulative effect of the nineteenth-century slave rebellions and conspiracies in the region, particularly the rebellions in Barbados in 1816, in Demarara (Guyana) in 1823, and above all, the rebellion in Jamaica in 1831-32, that forced the British abolitionists and the British government to revise their approach to the issue of the abolition of slavery.@[4]

It is the undercurrent of resistance in all its forms that one needs to look to in order to appreciate the energy behind the growth of civil societies in the region. Many changes had to come through struggles for land, voting rights, greater political representation and civil rights.


Free villages sprang up in the larger territories where land was available such as Jamaica and Guyana. In Jamaica missionaries bought land from 19 abandoned or unprofitable sugar estates and subdivided them into lots which they sold to ex-slaves. The first free village was established at Sligoville in 1835. These villages, eventually numbering about 2,000, mainly subsisted on agriculture. Simple skills like sewing, cookery, and reading were also taught. Usually these villages would have a chapel and a school.[5]


Land was not always easy to obtain. Caribbean peoples were able to squat on land or purchase land left idle by failed sugar estates. In 1846, some 10,000 squatters were estimated in Jamaica. In other cases, land was made expensive to force workers to remain on estates and provide labour. Yet, many ex-slaves were able to purchase land. Jamaica=s 1844 census showed that 19,000 former slaves had settled on legally registered freeholds.[6]


New Social Classes.

A major change after slavery was the dissolution of the caste structure into a class structure. More complex class societies arose based on race, occupation and status. The Jamaican class structure changed significantly after emancipation. In 1891 there were 1,100 professionals but in 1921, there were 4,300. For the same years there were 2,800 and 7,200 commercial workers; 31,100 and 37,300 industrial workers. Professional, commercial and industrial workers were joining the agricultural workers as the backbone of the economy.[7]

A new bourgeois class came into dominance made up of merchants, remaining estate owners, professionals and managers. A large number of Jews obtained the vote in Jamaica and began to engage actively in politics. In Barbados, Jews and a small number of persons of colour also gained more political power. In Trinidad, English, Scots, French and Spanish whites entered the elite and In Guyana, French, Dutch and English planters and merchants held power. These elites held power until the 1940's.[8]

A new broader-based middle class emerged between 1880 and 1940. It was mainly non-European, that is, from the free coloured group, industrious East Indians and Chinese and new immigrant groups of Jews, Lebanese, Syrians and Portuguese. The lower ranks of the colonial civil service too, was an avenue for a state-based middle class to form.[9]


Voting Rights.

More ex-slaves were able to buy their own plots of land. In 1840, 883 ex-slaves owned land. By 1860, the number had jumped to 60,000. Land ownership also enhanced voting rights.[10] Property and voting rights were strongly linked. Voting was restricted by property rights. In Jamaica one could register to vote if he owned six pounds (Sterling) worth of property. By the 1850's, 20,000 Jamaicans were eligible to register but only 3,000 had actually done so. Baptist missionaries started a campaign to get them to register and by 1865, in one or two parishes, they made up as much as 60-65 per cent of the voter=s list.[11]

Between 1832 and 1865, two Jamaicans - George William Gordon and Paul Bogle - were outstanding leaders of an emerging civil society, remembered for their struggle for land and voting rights, and who were most critical of the political and social order. In a sense they awakened the mass political spirit in Jamaica when 400 persons joined a rebellion in 1865. While they did not win broader civil and political rights they forced the new government to establish a more modern and less corrupt civil service, improve communications and transportation after 1866. This was an early indication of how society can force changes upon the political system.


Professional Organisations.

Between 1880 and 1920, the Caribbean witnessed a proliferation of organisations. Some important organisations came into being to train or organise professionals. In 1836, Mico College was established for the benefit of free Africans engaged in teaching. In 1843, Calabar College opened to produce teachers and ministers. The Jamaica Union of Teachers was founded in 1894 and the Jamaica Agricultural Society in 1895. The importance of these last two organisations is summed up thus:

Athese two organisations acted as focal points in...the formation of a national campaigns in defence of teachers= rights against school management boards, the setting up of vocational schools, methods of teacher payment, forming an independent bloc of farming opinion, and formulating Jamaican points of view on a wide range of public issues, including racial discrimination and the Aforeign@ content of school education with its almost complete disregard for Jamaican history.@[12]


Civic organisations came about in this period too. The Boy Scout Movement was formed in 1910 and the Girl Guides in 1912. The Jamaican branches of the YMCA and YWCA were formed in the 1920's.


In addition, other trades developed - carpentry, masonry, fishing, shoemaking - and migration to the towns accompanied this. The rapid growth of trades and wage labour transformed sleepy districts into thriving towns and a process of urbanisation started. The number of persons living in Kingston and St. Andrew grew from 117,000 in 1921 to 237,000 in 1943 - an increase of 102 per cent.[13] 

By the end of this period in the 1920's, it is estimated that there were about 10,000 persons attached to social organisations in Jamaica along with another 15,000 members of the Jamaica Agricultural Association.[14]

The Nationalist Period.

From the 1920's West Indian societies developed political consciousness and organisation and a maturing political middle class was emerging.

Pre-political organisations.

Organisations out of which political parties, political opinion and political leaders came were formed - the Social Reconstruction League, the National Reform Association, the Jamaica Progressive League.

Influential newspapers arose - The Outlook, the Jamaica Post, the Jamaica Times, the Jamaica Advocate, Public Opinion. West Indian novels, poems, and pamphlets appeared to raise consciousness, and with these, a cultural movement of the arts. This was the age of the coming of West Indian cricket, the University of the West Indies, the Institute of Jamaica, the National Gallery, and the Natural History Museum. Sculptors like Edna Manley and literary leaders like C.L.R. James, Vidia Naipaul and others were testimony to a flowering of a new society.  Garvey=s United Negro Improvement Association and the Rastafarian Movement raised racial consciousness. Trade Unions and political parties became standard. These organisations helped to take the middle class out of the Victorian cultural mold and to establish a local culture and interpretation of history to begin to give respective Caribbean societies their own identities.[15]

Jamaica Welfare.

Norman Manley had been instrumental in conceiving and engineering the development of a tradition of volunteerism through welfare organisations which is the precursor to the contemporary idea of community-based development. This was important in the context of a history where slavery had destroyed the basis for community life.[16] To build a civil society, Norman Manley utilized a brand of socialism that sought to create the necessary aspects of social life that had been missing because of slave and early plantation societies. This initiative was designed to:

1. Inculcate a sense of social responsibility through social volunteerism.

2. Build communities and >development from below= through community self-reliance.

3. Create a social welfare system that would cater to the neglected: women and children, youth, the aged, the poor and marginalised.

4. Build civic pride and nationalism.

Manley created Jamaica Welfare Limited in 1937. By 1940, over 40 kinds of voluntary organisations had been formed including the YWCA and YMCA, Girl Guides and Boy Scouts, 4-H Clubs, the Child Welfare Association, the Jamaica Women=s League, The Family Planning League, the Save the Children Fund, the Friends Social Service Council and a number of others.[17]

They were involved in education and training and the provision of scholarships, community crime fighting, literacy programmes, family life education, youth services, help for the handicapped and aged, and disaster relief. In addition, economic organisations such as credit unions and farming cooperatives came into being.

Between 1937 and 1948 alone, Jamaica Welfare had activities in 236 villages, with 77 village committees, 51 community councils and 346 groups. There were 1,180 organised groups in all, including 57 handicrafts groups and 261 cooperatives. There were 185 savings unions, 30 buying clubs, 42 poultry groups, and 185 self-help groups.[18]


These organisations laid the basis for a network of citizenship involvement in the self-management of society. Society came to be more organised and its networks more dense. It became more able to work out its own problems independently of the state and to do things for itself and its citizens that the colonial state would not do for the society. The more society is organised the more capable it is to manage its affairs and look after its interests.[19] Importantly, in this period, voting rights were won, political parties formed, labour unions came into being and movements towards constitutional development and political independence mushroomed.

The Post-Independence Period.

The basic pattern of organisations continued after Independence. An important organisation, for example, was the Jamaica Youth Council. It led the registration of young voters, 21-23 years of age for the upcoming Jamaican elections of 1972, with the support of organisations such as the Jamaica Council for Human Rights and the university student guilds.

Under the democratic socialist theme of political participation and the strategy of mass mobilization, the basic philosophy remained self-reliance and community development. Civil society=s activities included, National Labour Day, National Youth Service, community organisations, national literacy drives, and crime fighting. Youth clubs and women=s organisations flourished. Much of these efforts depended on public volunteerism. The most important civil society organisation formed in the 1990's was the Citizens for Free and Fair Elections (CAFFE) in Jamaica in 1997.

The Latin Caribbean

The development of civil society in Cuba was more advanced than in the English-speaking Caribbean by the end of the eighteenth century.

A wealthy class and the United States hijacked Cuban independence and proceeded to establish a distorted modernisation. Independence did bring about a social, economic and political pluralisation; the centres of power multiplied, the opposition grew. Social mobilisation as a process by which old social, economic and psychological commitments are eroded or broken and where people become available for new patterns of socialisation and behaviour, proceeded significantly. There was greater literacy, more educational opportunities, changes in the occupational structure and exposure to the mass media.  There were increases in the number and size of politically relevant groups in the population which heightened pressures for the transformation of political practices and institutions, and broadened the range of human needs that impinge on the political process. The increase in the level of social mobilisation increased political participation. Whereas 43% of the population was literate in 1899 this grew to 72% by 1833.[20] Public school enrollment increased from 172,000 in 1902 to 367,000 in 1933.[21] By 1908, 70% of registered voters voted (excluding women who did not have the right to vote).[22]

Ethnic cleavages were deeply rooted in Cuban society. An Independent Party of Color was organised in 1908 favouring land distribution, and eight-hour day, ending racial discrimination, and more equal access for blacks in administration. Racial discrimination had increased under American occupation. Congress refused to pass laws outlawing racial discrimination.[23] A black rebellion in fact occurred in 1912 involving about 4,000 - 7,000 black rebels. The government reported it killed 3,000.[24]

Although strikes were common since colonial times labour laws were weak and governments did little to protect workers after independence. The police and military were used to repress workers= strikes and foreign born labour leaders were often deported. Socialist and labour parties formed but most were unsuccessful.

The levels of urbanization and modernisation achieved  reflected the large gap between urban and rural life, typical of plantation capitalism in the Caribbean. Knight summarizes the condition:

A For the majority of Cubans in the 1950's, life was brutally miserable and often miserably short. Unemployment and underemployment were rife...public services were appallingly inadequate, and even worse, unevenly distributed. Greater Havana, with 17 percent of the Cuban population, had 60 percent of the dentists, 66 percent of the chemists, 60 percent of the nurses, and a disproportionate share of everything...Only 9 percent of the rural homes had electricity compared with 87 percent in the cities. Well over 90 percent of rural Cubans did not regularly drink milk or eat fish, meat or bread, despite living in a country with one of the most highly developed cattle industries in the Americas. Rural illiteracy was four times that of urban areas.@[25]

Although Cuba was one of the richest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, its income distribution was highly skewed.

Society was repressed under a corrupt political system and by brutal dictators. The political opposition, eventually enjoying formal rights, was highly constrained and fragmented. This led, in the estimation of many Cubans, to only one possible action - revolution. If Cuba=s independence established a state but not a nation, the revolution created a nation forged by a strong history of Cuban nationalism.

Cuba=s civil society changed in fundamental ways. The sphere between the >civil= and the >state= was blurred, autonomous group action was limited to the boundaries of the revolution and the liberal-capitalist socio-economic framework was abolished. Cuban society became revolutionary with most aspects of society operating through mass organisations but under the guidance of the state and communist party. In one sense, certain goals of civil society were achieved - mass voluntarism, political participation, numerous civil organisations, citizenship, civic pride and civic action. In the liberal sense, civil society lost its independence from the state and was coopted by the state. One can only speak of civil society in Cuba in a revolutionary socialist sense.

Caribbean Civil Societies Today.

The Caribbean is torn between different concepts of society. There is the concept of socialist society which promotes the idea of a state-led model of social development; the concept of the market society which promotes the idea of individualism and economic achievement; now, there is the concept of civil society which stresses that, outside of the spheres of the state and the market, there is a domain of public citizenship which must be harnessed to build a society=s social capital. Neither the state nor the market can satisfy all social and human wants and besides it is inherent in human beings to want to voluntarily contribute to the welfare of society and its members. But there are problems in making civil society effective.

Strong State/Weak Society.

In Cuba the state is very strong relative to civil society, and in Haiti, civil society is very weak relative to the state.

In Cuba, volunteerism is most developed as are national and community organisations. However, they either do not exist independently of the state or their activities can be easily circumscribed by the state. Civil society exists in Cuba, not in the liberal sense, but in a revolutionary sense.

In Haiti, volunteerism and organisation have been at the weakest. The military and police arms of the state along with private paramilitary forces, have decimated societal organisations through a campaign of repression. Haiti has had neither a real civil society in a revolutionary or liberal sense. However, since the restoration of democracy there are signs of growing peasant associations, grass-roots development organisations, trade unions, student bodies, church groups and independent radio stations.[26]

Financially Dependent Organisations.

Although civil society organisations are supposed to provide a counterweight to the state, in may cases, these organisations have to be sponsored and subsidized by the state. Many environmental groups and community economic organisations depend on the state for at least some funding. Civil society organisations are largely non-profit and do not have the power to tax so they do not have their own revenue sources.[27]

Social Divisions.

Societies are divided by class, race and colour and do not act with one purpose and with the unity as the term civil society suggests. Some civil society organisations carry a class or racial bias and are not seen to represent the interests of the society as a whole.

Attitudes and Values.

There is a difference between >civil= and >uncivil= attitudes and values. The breakdown of traditional values, and changes in new generational attitudes to society, have led to new ideas of what constitutes >civility=.


[1] Sheelagh Stewart, AHappy Ever After in the Marketplace: Non-government Organisations and Uncivil Society,@ Review of African Political Economy,71, 1997, pp.11-34, gives a comprehensive and critical discussion of this concept.

[2] A good discussion of the relationship between civil society, the state and politics is in, Michael Foley and Bob Edwards, AThe Paradox of Civil Society.@ Journal of Democracy, pp.39-52.

[3] Sherlock and Bennett, pp. 176-182, op cit, certainly give this impression.

[4] Richard Hart, From Occupation to Independence, 1998, p.38.

[5] Sherlock and Bennett, pp.231-242. The development of Free Villages is studied by Douglas Hall, Free Jamaica, 1838-1865: An Economic History, 1959

[6] Hart, op.cit., p.43.

[7] Sherlock and Bennett, pp.271-272.

[8] Knight, op.cit., p.293.

[9] Ibid.,pp.293-294.

[10] Sherlock and Bennett, p.242.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Gordon Lewis, The Growth of the Modern West Indies, 1968, pp.172-173; also Sherlock and Bennett, p.273.

[13] Verene Shepherd, AIndians, Jamaica and the Emergence of Modern Migration Culture,@ in Mary Chamberlain (ed), Caribbean Migration, 1998, p.170.

[14] Don Robotham, Vision and Volunteerism: Reviving Volunteerism in Jamaica,1998, p.34

[15] Sherlock and Bennett go some way to capture the cultural awakening of this period, pp.389-411.

[16] Sidney Mintz, AThe Caribbean as a Socio-Cultural Area,@ Michael Horowitz, Peoples and Cultures of the Caribbean,1971. Mintz is one who makes the argument that slavery destroyed the basis for communities. Community building would therefore be important part of constructing society.

[17] Norman Girvan (ed), Working Together for Development, 1993.

[18] Robotham, p.33

[19] A very useful work is by Elsie Sayle, Council of Voluntary Social Services: The First Fifty Years,1994.

[20] Jorge Dominguez, Cuba, 1978, pp.24-25.

[21] Ibid., p.25.

[22] Ibid., p.26

[23] Ibid., p.46.

[24] Ibid., pp.48-49.

[25] Knight, Ibid., pp.239-240.

[26] Irwin Stotzky, Silencing the Guns in Haiti,1997, especially pp.88-101.

[27] Sayle points to this problem, pp.153-154.

Seventh topic The Decolonizing State

Political Geography | Political History | Political Culture | Political Leadership | | Democratic Traditions | The Decolonizing State | The Caribbean Abroad