In our previous piece we took some time to clarify the major difference between the capitalist and socialist ideologies. With that settled we proceeded to look at our region’s recent history and with it, some pros and cons of both views and their impact in the modern Caribbean and Latin American region. It remains as imperative as ever to restate that both views are not absolutes as they can, in fact, be present in any economy at the same time to varying extents. That in mind, let’s continue along that train of thought and better yet, let’s see how it informs our colonial history as well.
The Plantation Economy’s Legacy
By default a lot of islanders seem to be fundamentally opposed to capitalism from the moment it’s raised as a topic. This despite unwittingly realizing the various benefits or daily applications of it they enjoy; ranging from their favoured gadgetry and luxury items to consumer choice and options for social mobility. Why is that though? One answer may lie in the imperialistic nature of our colonial history where islands frequently changed hands and were fought over in the interest of profit and financial gain. Make no mistake the nature of the plantation economy was extremely oligarchic, revolving around a system of wealthy, upper class private owners extracting profits from the production of raw goods in the name of their crown. The fruits of this enterprise and the resultant profits were then repatriated from the colonies to the home country, particularly during the era when mercantilism was at its height of popularity.
Indeed, in his book Capitalism and Slavery, Dr Eric Williams goes into great detail on the nature of this system which fueled the enrichment of Western European empires. In fact, he postulates that the very reason these European nations now enjoy ‘developed’ status is because of this one sided system with the colonies having been left spent from centuries of underdevelopment. Notions of freer, open markets and private ownership not limited to a select few only emerged once the plantation economy was rendered obsolete by technology and the Industrial Revolution. These striking differences in wealth led many to adopt or sympathize with more Marxist views. A failure to properly redistribute wealth alongside the continuation of sharp divisions within classes undoubtedly fueled pro-socialist views later on, even after many of these colonies achieved independence.
Putting The Pieces Together
Many have postulated that even post-colonial societies retain defining traits of their dark past. For example the fixation with lightness of skin, prestige and ascribed ideas of status as opposed to meritocratic perspectives continue to persist. There’s truth to such claims as even foreign indexes such as the Global Competitiveness Report, Ease of Business Index and even the Transparency International Corruptions Rating Index all highlight a similar, unfortunate reality. In the Caribbean things tend to occur based on relationships defined by patronage, graft and nepotism more than it does on meritocratic factors. This stain on progress tends to manifest along lines described above, not unlike those present in the plantocracy.
Academics have even claimed that there is a neo-plantocracy wherein whites and light skinned foreigners maintain a strong hold on the most influential, lucrative and powerful business entities in the Caribbean despite gradually bowing out of open politics in recent years. Given the region’s poor record for curbing monopolism and ensuring greater consumer rights it’s probably prudent to say that we enjoy both the best and worst of what capitalism offers at the same time. Living standards have indeed been improved vastly thanks to foreign investment and the emergence of local businesses but many times at the expense of smaller entrepreneurs and innovators.
With our own history in mind and modern day examples of disastrous socialism in action, it’s safe to say we don’t want to be gravitating to either extreme. Pure, unregulated capitalism as well as heavy-handed socialism is likely to create more problems than they solve. It’s been demonstrated that states simply can’t be the sole pillar upon which everything rests nor can private owners be given free reign while hoping for the best. However, ethical regulations, transparency and sensible applications of social democracy may prove to be a better solution. In fact, many developed nations utilize forms of market socialism or social democracy wherein the means of production aren’t monopolized by the state but rather, sensible state oversight, utilization of taxes and policies aimed at generating social mobility are instead sought out.
Perhaps, considering the problems outlined above, technology can serve the purpose of being the great equalizer. One doesn’t need to own a large, powerful business to be a successful entrepreneur with technology nor can innovation and creativity fully thrive if rigidly controlled under a single state run vision. Consider the number of prominent youths turned overnight business successes because of apps, software development, innovative technological services or some other unique concoction that both caught on and provided great benefits to the general populace. Can the Caribbean be a part of this too?
The answer is obviously yes but to do so we need to commit ourselves to the path. This requires not just modernization but challenging archaic mentalities towards economies based solely on extracting, processing and selling raw goods and commodities. In that regard the plantation legacy remains strong as economic monoculture persists. This may prove to be the hardest part as there’s little doubt skill, talent and smarts abounds on our shores. It’s left to be seen whether such proactive thinking will catch on though.