On George Beckford: Brief Notes

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There is a 70-year old critical tradition within the body of economic knowledge and thought about the socio-economic development of the Caribbean. Within it, and through it, scholars have analyzed the problems of the individual countries and the region with a view to improving the material economic welfare of the broad masses of Caribbean people, while generating the requisite economic growth to sustain an improvement in the general conditions of life. Self-consciously adopting the perceived interests of the people, these scholars waged a long and distinguished struggle against the ideas in economic theory that justified and rationalized the disenfranchisement and exploitation of the working people.

Central to this critical tradition was the work of the New World scholars that was rooted in economic critique but extended into all spheres of society. With few exceptions, most notably Kari Polanyi Levitt and Archie Singham, the scholars were indigenous to the Anglo-Caribbean, or the West Indies as it was called in the 1950s and 1960s. They sought to reinterpret conventional and radical theories for the analysis of Caribbean reality.

This tradition was characteristically expressed in the work of the late Professor George Beckford of the Department of Economics, Mona, in its breadth of fields within the discipline of economics interpreted in its widest sense, and in the depth of philosophical enquiry. He pioneered work in quantitative price analysis, agricultural policy and planning, and more generally, economic planning, as well as more broadly in the theory of economic development.

He is perhaps best known for his highly original work on the plantation as an institution, which demonstrated that from its traditional position of dominance in the colonial economy, it continued to determine the possibilities of social and economic development in Caribbean societies even after political Independence. Indeed, a central theme which stretched throughout the life-time of his work was that the creative potential of the region resided in its working people, especially the peasantry where this class was highly developed, but that this creativity was denied expression in the sphere of production by the domination of society’s resources historically by the plantation and other such institutions. Further, these institutions embodied a hierarchy of race-class relations, which persist in modern Caribbean society.
The central theoretical contribution of New World thinkers was the Plantation Economy, elaborated by Lloyd Best and Kari Polanyi Levitt. It explained the adjustment processes within this class of economies in response to changes in the terms of trade with the traditional metropolitan economies with which they were historically integrated. Beckford’s focus on the plantation was an explicit critique of the model of the socially disembodied firm that was the basis of the neoclassical microeconomics, but which bore little resemblance to the principal units of production in the Caribbean. Instead, the model of the plantation served as the microeconomic foundations of Plantation Economy, but with a twist. That is, at the same time, as a total institution, it was a microcosm of the whole economy and the whole society.

Beckford was one of the leading thinkers in the New World group. Like his colleagues, the spirit of his work was imbued with originality of conception of the problematic, and often the method of analysis, but always with an inviolable respect for facts. He led by the example of his work, and as editor of the group’s journal, New World Quarterly. Further, he inspired the network of critical thinkers from a variety of walks of life with his commitment to improving the lives of the ordinary Caribbean people in whose creativity and resilience he was supremely confident. Indeed, he drew his inspiration from their historic and daily struggles, and he passed this on in his teaching, his discussions and advocacy, and his organization of ideas. This commitment to a development process which enhances the quality of life of the masses of Caribbean people and the involvement in various ways in the policy formulation process is a distinguishing feature of the critical tradition within Caribbean economic thought.

The patterns of underdevelopment that Beckford and his New World colleagues identified and analyzed are still evident today, though masked by market relations, and justified by the ideology that advocates the supremacy of market forces. Their work is an excellent starting point for understanding current development challenges in the Caribbean, and will carry the current generation of social scientists some ways toward articulating solutions. But, there is more to be done by the current generation, and the work of New World is a major source of inspiration for critical assessment of today’s dominant paradigm.