SUGAR SYMPOSIUM: SOCIAL ASPECTS OF THE. SUGAR INDUSTRY
Ladies and gentlemen, you have so far heard the economic arguments for and against the sugar industry. Whatever the merits of any particular side of that argument, it is my contention that from the social point of view the sugar industry, as it presently exists must be condemned. It is my view and it is the view shared by most sociologists who have worked in this area that no society which has opted for progress and industrialism, no society which is committed to the ideal of democracy and equality, and, most important of all no society which hopes to create a stable social order, can afford a sugar industry of the type we presently possess.
In support of these assertions I would like to make a five point.
First the sugar industry has always undermined and continues to undermine the institution of the family, and, by extension the entire social fabric. You are all acquainted with the way in which the the sugar plantation during the period of slavery not only destroyed the family life of the African slaves but also that of their masters. What is Jess known is the fact that it still continues to do so. Study after study has demonstrated this fact beyond any reasonable doubt. It has been shown for example, that if you compare a sample village of independent small farmers with a sample sugar estate village, you will find this disturbing contrast: in 7 cases out of 10, at least, within the independent village the individual is born and brought up in a stable family protected in the warmth and security of both parents who, in the majority of cases are not only faithfully living with each other, but are likely to be legally married.
In contrast, no more than half of the house-holds on the estates (at a very generous estimate) are likely to have both parent present, and what is worse, the majority of such households invariably tend to be extremely unstable. What accounts for this deplorable effect on family life? The answer is not hard to find. Low wages for one thing, which the young male worker quite rightly feels is inadequate to support a family. Lack of job security. And the high percentage of migrant labour which is part and parcel of the estate system and which inevitably goes hand in hand with unstable social patterns.
The second feature of the sugar estate which makes it extremely undesirable from the sociological point of view is the rigid class (one could almost say, caste) structure which it entails. The Jamaican sugar plantation, like plantations all over the world, involves a class hierarchy with overtones of paternalism and personal domination which other sectors of Jamaican society have long ago began to move away from. It is also a class hierarchy where colour is still very much equated with class, in which there is little chance of social mobility for the mass of workers, and in which there is a gross discontinuity in the status hierarchy because the owners, the ultimate source of power are still absentee. Thus certain abuses of authority by the managerial class which might have been checked by a resident ownership, go in fact unchecked.
Contingent on the above two point is a third factor, namely, that the plantation, not only within its own borders, but in its impact on neighbouring areas definitely leads to a weakening of community structure. This is due not only to the damaging impact on the family already mentioned, but to the fact that the plantation system, by its very nature, leads to a situation where the centre of gravity of all strata of the community is outside of the community. The working population is largely transient, but we also find that the upper section of the community instead of performing roles which one normally expects of the more educated and fortunate social groups, ignore such duties in preference for social life in the urban areas or in the metropolitan area of Europe and America. In short, in the plantation belt, we have not just a weak community but one in which there is that dangerous phenomenon of power and wealth without responsibility.
The fourth point I wish to make concerns the psychological impact of plantation life on the mass of people who are forced by circumstances to work within it. There can be no doubt that the seasonal nature of employment, the insecurity of this employment, when it is available, and the low wages involved, the lack of any real dignity and respect granted the worker due to the paternalistic nature of management and the general ambience of insecurity, casualness and transience which characterize the plantation leads to a general demoralisation of the Jamaican working man. What this has meant is that a psychological accommodation has developed among members of the rural proletariat which makes them not so much unemployed but unemployable. And it should be clear that this is a state of affairs that is not only damaging to the individuals themselves, but to the entire society. It is also a truism that one of the basic prerequisites for the development of industrialisation is the existence of a disciplined, highly motivated working force. To the extent then, that the sugar plantation tends to induce the formation of demoralized personalities and unsystematic, though understandable attitudes to work, to that extent it undermines all attempts at industrial development in this society
The fifth and final point is that there is much in plantation life, that is morally objectionable. We often hear complaints being made about the refusal of the Jamaican rural proletariat to work on sugar estates. The explanation usually offered is the simple minded and erroneous one of laziness. No one who has who has seen the Jamaican working on his own land could support this view. The truth is that the Jamaican worker loathes and hates the sugar estate and rightly so. It is my contention that it is immoral and perverse for anyone not to sympathize with and understand this dislike on the part of the rural working class. For if the members of the rural upper classes, and the urban middle classes have for gotten slavery and the horrible association of the sugar estates with that cruel and ghastly institution the Jamaican countryman has not. The memory of that cruel and brutalising experience still lives on and the fact that there is no articulate group among the folk to express their feelings on this matter is no reason to think that they do not still remember with horror what the sugar estate has meant. Do we ask the Jew to live and work in the concentration camps of Germany? Do we ask a recently released prisoner who has been unjustly imprisoned for the better part of his life to continue living in his cell? Do we expect him to like it? Is it not natural for him to loathe it and despise it? Why then, is it that when the ex-slaves and their descendants express an abhorrence for the sugar estate we do not accept the obvious explanation? Why do we seek to pervert a natural moral response by calling them lazy or by talking nonsense about hatred for manual labour? It is immoral, it is criminal that the Jamaican after 300 years of torture after the prolonged collective agony of his none-too-distant ancestors-it is immoral I-say-to expect him to work on the sugar estate. And it is the height of perversity to expect him to like it.
To sum up, I submit that the sociological case against the sugar plantation is unanswerable. The sugar plantation destroys stable family life and in so doing destroys the whole fabric of our social order. It strangles community development. It induces the perpetuation of rigid class and status hierarchies. It is psychologically demoralising and as such is an obstacle to progress. And last but not least, it is morally repugnant.
Orlando Patterson teaches Sociology at the University or the West Indies, Mona and is the author or a book on The Sociology or Slavery.