Electric Currents

Barbados and the Tide of Current American Politics

Mar 10, 2016

Party officials and political pundits have been caught off-guard by the totally unexpected rise of Donald Trump and Senator Bernie Sanders, but if they knew more about the history of Barbados, they wouldn't have been.

What an interesting election year! Donald Trump pulls off a three-state coup earlier this week, while avowed Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders upsets Hillary Clinton in Michigan, flummoxing all the pundits who saw the real estate mogul 'loosing steam' and the Vermont Senator 'on the ropes.'

With both campaigns doggedly marching towards their respective party conventions this summer, heedless of the handwringing and obstructionism by their party elite, it's becoming clear that there's a revolution taking place in American politics, one I would characterize as pitting the last vestiges of self-centered, industrial age capitalism against a rising tide of digitally-directed democratic socialism.

While Republican party officials can't seem to understand the appeal of a narcissistic personality like Trump, the mainstream media are equally perplexed why young people, in particular, are attracted to a white haired geezer like Sanders, one who openly professes his belief in what he calls 'democratic socialism,' a term that if it doesn't confuse people, certainly leads many of wrongly assume he's talking about communism. After all, aren't the two terms pretty much synonymous? If you're a socialist, then you're also a communist, right?

Actually, no. They are different animals entirely, but more on that later.

I am reading a fascinating book on the history of Barbados from the perspective of one family, the descendants of one George Ashby, who sailed from England to the then-virgin island around 1640. Through property records, birth and death certificates, and lots and lots of digging into contemporary colonial journals, ships logs, and newspaper broadsides and pamphlets of the period, Andrea Stuart tells 'A Family Story of Slavery and Empire' in Sugar in the Blood.

Now you'd think there would be little commonality between the rise of the Caribbean sugarcane industry in the late 17th century and the slavery on which vast personal financial empires were built, and our modern high tech world.

You might be surprised to learn that the exports, mainly sugar, which Stuart compares to crude oil today in its financial impact, from the tiny island of Barbados of "less than 100,000 arable acres were more valuable in 1680 than the total exports to England from all the North American Colonies."

Stuart writes that the fortunes of a tiny elite of planters on Barbados "dwarfed those of the Chesapeake tobacco planters and those of the New York and Boston merchants, as well as their counterparts in Jamaica and the other Leeward Islands. Indeed, the Barbadians produced more sugar and employed more shipping than the other islands combined."

"Barbados was no longer a society of peasant farmers like George Ashby, struggling alongside one another to stay solvent; it was now a rigidly hierarchical society. At the top were the elite planters, who were reinventing themselves according to an aristocratic model derived from the feudal culture that they remembered from back home (in England), and which shaped their attitudes and behavior. They dominated the political, military and financial infrastructure of the island, where they held high ranks in government, militia and (Anglican church) Vestry. Beneath them was a middling group of planters and merchants who acted as something of a buffer between the elites and the poorer planters who were struggling to keep their heads above water. The sugar industry was creating extremes of wealth and poverty that would eventually produce a yawning gap between those at the top and those at the bottom, with disastrous consequences."

And what were those consequences? The imposition of an unspeakably brutal system of terror and oppression that not only wreaked havoc on the lives of their slaves, but warped the very character of their owners and overseers. Yes, a few planters at the top of the heap got insanely rich by contemporary standards feeding the sweet tooth of Europe, but they secured it through a Faustian bargain that robbed them of their humanity. Even newly arrived colonists who at first were revolted by the slave system, eventually succumb to its diabolic rationale that argued, it's either them (the black slaves) or us (the white planter and his family). The slave system was maintained only by a methodical application of suppression by terror.

Gratefully, that system self-destructed, but it left in its wake an all-too-often deadly undercurrent of fear, anger and prejudice that still affects us today. I need point no further than Donald Trump rallies or the controversy around the "Black Lives Matter" movement.

Economist Professor Richard D. Wolff , who founded Democracy at Work in support of economic justice gave a video lecture several years ago that described the evolution of economic systems. Beginning with the simplest community-based exchanges where farmers and villagers traded their surplus, society has progressed through a series of economic experiments, including the ancient invention of slavery dating back to the Bronze Age if not earlier, to the Catholic religion-enforced imposition of feudalism and serfdom of the Middle Ages, to the creation of capitalism at the beginning of the Age of Discovery (Columbus' first voyage was venture funded by Spain's monarchy), finally to the relatively-modern spread of communism, which itself arose in a now-failed attempt to counter the economic inequities of the capitalist system.

With the exception of those early community exchanges, all subsequent systems have had one thing in common: a gradual stratification of society in which the few pretty much control everything and everyone else. That's again where we find ourselves, and explains why voters in 2016 appear to be attracted to the likes of Trump and Bernie Sanders. The capitalist system, as Wolff and more recently Elizabeth Warren and former Clinton Labor Secretary Robert Reich have warned, is rigged. It is a rigged system where for the last thirty years, the rich few have gotten the lion's share of the wealth of the world. Check out this Mother Jones article from 2011. And the gulf has only gotten wider since then.

While Senator Sanders, like Professor Wolff, who is a specialist in Marxism, calls for greater economic justice starting with the break up of the "too big" to fail banks, ironically, Donald Trump is the poster boy for all that's wrong with the system. Inheriting millions from his father, being bailed out more than once by bankruptcy courts, the only thing he appears to excel at is promoting his brand, himself, which is, of course, the core value of capitalism: look after number one first. It's the concept epitomized in Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," which was written as her response to the communist revolution in Russia from which she'd fled and that appropriated her family's pharmacy business without compensation. The Cuban revolution did the same with private businesses there.

So, as I see this election cycle unfolding, we're viewing a rekindled debate between what I call "community" and "self." Between socialism in all its varied hues and colors and self-centered capitalism with its promised allure of personal fortune and power, the very same siren call that drew George Ashby from his stratified life in feudal England to the promise of wealth and independence in far-off Barbados. But as he and others who followed soon discovered, reality was much harsher. He survived, but fortune and power would elude him.

If you go over to Debate.org you find an interesting series of dialogues about the merits and failings of capitalism. There's similar discussions and articles pointing out the problems of socialism; and it has its shortcomings, for sure. But like the colonists on Barbados, the wider the gap grows between the few haves and the multitudes of have-nots, the greater the tension generated and the more oppression that's needed to maintain that unequal status quo: ranging from huge militaries to police SWAT teams to backdoors into our smart phones.

I think Sander's supporters sense this and see the need for change, for a more equitable economic system, while Trump supporters just want things to go back to the way they were, which, in a way, are pretty much similar goals. But what's clear is this: a lot of people are unhappy with the current system and are expressing it during with their caucus and primary votes; and that's got both parties in panic mode.

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