Ethnicity versus Class
Ravi Dev Column
Kaieteur News
January 21, 2007

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In a letter captioned, “Comparison of the African Renaissance and Dev's mantra for Indian space”, one D. Persaud, inter alia, “enjoined” me to remember that while denouncing racism, I should remember that race and class are “intricately linked”.

I accept the caution, and reproduce an excerpt from a 1999 paper wherein I defended my stress on “ethnicity,” which we prefer to use instead of “race” in Guyana .

To our older politicians, who were overwhelmingly Marxist in their orientation, “classes” were the fundamental categories within which all members of society found themselves, and individuals' particular class positions should define their interests.

Classes, according to Marx, were economically based groups, defined by their relationships to the means of production. Thus we were told that, in Guyana , there were capitalists, such as the sugar conglomerate Bookers and the industrialist Peter D'Aguiar etc., which owned the means of production and bought the labour of their employees, who formed the “working class”.

The presence of professionals, landlords and peasants were discerned and positioned in procrustean fashion on one or the other side of the capitalist/working class dichotomy. The existence of ethnic groups was also acknowledged, but disparaged as symptomatic of false consciousness in their misguided adherents and which would soon disappear after the inevitable victory of the working class.

During the anti-colonialist phase, the capitalists were either, we were informed, the British/Western interests, such as the aforementioned Bookers or the Canadian Bauxite multinational Alcoa's subsidiary Demba, or their local benighted representatives, such as D'Aguiar (the comprador bourgeois).

We still hear noises every now and then excoriating the business class. All other Guyanese were exhorted to join the exploited working class and throw out the oppressive capitalists. Yet in the 1957, 1961, and 1964 General Elections, each election was increasingly determined by ethnic not class cleavages.

After the famous 28 years of the PNC's rule, characterised by rigged elections, the election of October 5, 1992, deemed free and fair, was again dominated by the ethnic vote.

And, of course, elections since then have been typified by ethnic orientation precipitating the ethnic riots of January 12, 1998 and the succeeding ethnic/coloured violence. Mr. Corbin has been accused of “selling out,” presumably because the last elections were peaceful.

Yet ethnicity continued to supercede class, contrary to all the protestations of our politicians. What happened?

Firstly, our politicians frequently confused “class” as an analytic category with “class” as a social group. Objectively, we can formulate a category of six-toed people, but we cannot assume that they will so define their interests i.e. that they have formed a self-conscious social group.

Similarly, lumping together all people who sell their labour as “working class” does not mean that they will be self-conscious as a social group. The politicians in Guyana were never able to raise class-consciousness beyond bread and butter issues, and then, only on industry-specific issues, which coincided with specific ethnic employment.

Marx himself recognised this and distinguished between “classes in themselves” (analytic categories) and “classes for themselves” (social groups). In Guyana , our “objective” classes, by and large, do nor see their interests in common, but are subsumed within their ethnic blocs. Sugar workers may strike for higher wages, but that is a far cry from believing they will join striking Public Service workers who are also striking for higher wages.

Vulgar Marxists believe that class consciousness will be forged amongst a populace simply by the fact of its objective existence and its instrumentalist function – a more equitable and just distribution of the nation's wealth. The imperative for an expressive facet to satisfy the need of “class” members to belong, to feel as part of a whole, to be emotionally connected, escapes them.

In the older industrialised states, there were efforts to build this emotional solidarity through songs, literature, myths, etc. but these soon fizzled out, as they also did in Guyana . Here, there were several other reasons for class solidarity across the ethnic divides to be stillborn. We can consider the psychological:

We have asserted that the strength of “class” lies in the economic interests of its members, but that it fails to satisfy the affective, emotional need of man to belong to a wider collectivity. The salience of ethnicity is based on its accomplishment of both tasks – it is simultaneously instrumental and expressive.

A person is born into an ethnic group and especially if it is simultaneously a racial group, he really cannot leave. If he attempts to do so, he risks great psychic damage to his “self,” because so much of his personal identity is enmeshed with his ethnic identity. On the other hand, his ethnic group is the home, the womb, to which he can always return and from which he cannot be turned away.

It is the only social grouping that accepts him for what he is and not for what he does. This reflection of the group's ethnic identity in the individual's identity has several consequences.

Firstly, attacks on the group are equated with attacks on the self. But accolades on the group also elicit similar identification reactions. It is for this reason that lower class members of an ethnic group are the most vociferous supporters of the ethnic politics of their upper classes. For, in addition to promising the economic rewards, (the instrumental purpose of ethnicity), which may or may not be delivered, there is the psychological boost which will certainly be delivered in knowing that his group is ruling. Class cannot give this psychological boost.

In the modern world, therefore, ethnicity is particularly susceptible to politicisation. In a world of scarce resources and powerful all-pervasive states, ethnic political entrepreneurs do not find it difficult to persuade fellow group members that their economic interests are better served if their ethnic group controls the state. The affirmation of themselves as a people and the economic interests served mutually reinforce each other.

Secondly, if it is felt that the ethnic group's interest is threatened, the individual can be motivated to defend it at almost any cost, since to him, it is also a matter of his own survival. It is for this reason that ethnic conflicts are so intense.

Thirdly, an individual can rise out of his economic class, but not from his ethnic group, which makes the former not an inescapable fate. This very openness of “class” makes its hold on members very tenuous.

Every poverty-stricken individual has a dream of “striking it rich”, not as a member of the blessed poor, but on his own. Class position is one of the several social roles an individual performs on a quotidian basis, and the greater the possibility of the individual escaping his class position, the lesser will be his class identification.

It is an article of faith in the Indian community, for instance, that if they work hard and the government does not discriminate against them, they can rise in class position. Even if this possibility is only a myth for most, as in the US , class loosens its hold.

Fourthly, a person's conception of self is formed, to a large extent, by the socialisation provided by his primary (read ethnic) contacts during his early years. Thus, by the time the individual enters the wider world of economic and wider societal concerns as a young adult, the new influences are much more diffuse, with the class role etc., typically not as intense as the ethnic one.

The dominance of race over class does not imply that class, or for that matter any other orientations, affiliations, segmentations, differentiations etc. have disappeared: within each ethnic group they are alive and well. In this sense, class is more fundamental. Class and ethnicity both exist objectively, and the subjective preponderance of one over the other depends on the situation and context as the two interact dynamically within the nexus of the personality of individuals.

In multi-ethnic, multi-class societies such as Guyana , situations that appear to threaten unrelieved domination by one ethnic group over another will trigger “ethnic” responses. Those who have ears, let them hear.