The Sept. 15, 2016 edition of The BVI Beacon carried a commentary by Dickson Igwe titled “‘Why social class fails in the Virgin Islands.’” I am surprised that four years have passed without anyone offering any kind of critique of the interesting and thought-provoking content in the article in question. I am grateful to the editor of the Beacon for allowing me to make such a critique in the limited space available.

Mr. Igwe’s basic argument is the following:

(a) contrary to what some people believe, “‘social class’ is a backburner issue in paradise” (meaning the VI), and

(b) any attempts to establish “class stratification” in the VI are headed for failure.

Mr. Igwe attempted to defend that basic argument by highlighting the following “clear realities,” to use his term.

  1. Social class in the VI is not as strong as in some other countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom, where the economy is less fragile.
  2. The VI is made up of a number of large families that are connected by blood ties, and even though these families have substantial landholdings, the blood ties are stronger than those of a non-filial nature.
  3. The ability to pass wealth down the line is not as robust and enduring as in societies with families which have been in power for a long time.
  4. The territory is ruled by a powerful head of state, the governor, who (1) does not “cocoon” himself with any one social group, and (2) is part of a system in which power has “devolved” into the hands of the premier. The ruling political party owes its power to the native population and the native population calls the shots every four years at election time.
  5. Although the “powers that be politically” tend to come from certain large and prominent families, in recent years a “meritocratic dynamic” has been at work. This dynamic has allowed a number of political leaders to emerge from outside those prominent families.
  6. Education is a “great equaliser” which has been passionately pursued in the VI. It is definitely “a beast that has the power to demolish any attempt to establish a social-class-based order” in the VI. It is accessible, of high quality, equitably distributed, and benefits every Virgin Islander and belonger regardless of family name.
  7. The world is becoming more technologically and digitally driven. This change process allows students with the best skills and the most creative and innovative mindsets to thrive. Meritocracy, driven by information technology, is the new global order, and will ultimately be the “graveyard of the old British type social class model.”

I certainly hope that in this summary I have not left out anything of importance. I will now become more evaluative and point to some of the strengths and weaknesses of the article.

 

Commentary’s strengths

 

On the plus side, we can agree that landownership and family name are not as important as they once were in determining status position in the VI. We can also agree that there are some large (or even very large) families connected by blood ties, and that these ties are to some family members as important as material possessions. I would not want to push this too far, though. Conflicts between and within large families over property rights have not been non-existent. Also, the strength of blood ties may mean more to the older members of the native population than to the younger ones.

Additionally, I can agree that wealth is not passed down the line in the VI as robustly as in the US or UK. There is hard statistical evidence that in the US, for one, the inter-generational distribution of wealth (since World War II) has become astoundingly worse, not less unequal. Race has continued to be a complicating factor, as have massive tax cuts for the “one percent,” the unjust distribution of stimulus funds, and so on.

It is true that elections are held at regular intervals in the VI, and that this helps to put a curb on any exercise of raw power by the political directorate. I also accept that (1) social relations are being influenced in some measure by the diffusion of the meritocratic ideal, and (2) the democratisation of access to education has played a vitally important role in the partial realisation of the meritocratic ideal.

 

‘Problematic’ areas

But while I can agree with all of these things, the commentary is problematic in a variety of areas, to which I will now draw attention.

The first thing to be noted is that the two key terms in the commentary — namely, “social stratification” and “social class” — have not been defined. As a result, we cannot be sure precisely what the argument is. Here I have to make a special effort to keep things simple, but the nature of the topic demands that we move away from the level of gossip to a level demanding at least the use of some basic social science concepts and tools.

Social stratification is the arrangement of society into layers (“status-hierarchies” in more academic language). These layers are one on top of the other, and are found in tribal societies, feudalism, the Indian caste system, capitalist society and state socialism.

Social class is a term which has meant different things to different people, as noted in Polish sociologist Dr. Stanislaw Ossowski’s essay “Different Conceptions of Social Class,” which was among the contributions in the 1966 edition of the book Class, Status and Power: Stratification in Comparative Perspective. I believe that social class is a concept only: It means what people say it means — nothing more, nothing less. This is why I prefer to use the term socioeconomic status (SES), which normally is measured by a composite index of income, occupation and education.

It is also more useful to speak of a social class system, as discussed by Trinidadian-American sociologist Dr. Oliver Cox in his 1948 work Caste, Class and Race: A Study in Social Dynamics. According to Dr. Cox, when we speak of a social class system, we are referring to a society marked by individualism. This is the case with all capitalist societies, including that of the VI. The more advanced the country or territory along the capitalist path, the more intense the individualism.

The VI has been moving away from being an agrarian society, and so we would not expect the individualism in the VI to be as rampant as that in the US and the UK, which have fully gone through an industrial revolution. Given the individualism of which we speak, we would not expect to find well-marked-off estates or strata. What we would expect to find is a milling of status atoms. The reference here is to a constant circulation of individuals or families as bearers of status. This is a vicious movement which is directed upwards and against a “social gravity” that brings down the less efficient competitors in relentless fashion.

This situation is a dynamic one, and keeps many people unnerved and even paranoid, for the very expectation of success or failure tends to influence the social status of the individual. This perspective on social class is very different from one which focuses on whether an old landed aristocracy is still around.

 

‘Power structure’

Mr. Igwe’s treatment of the “power structure” is weak. He needed, first of all, to distinguish between “power” and “authority” when commenting on the “power structure” in the VI. Here is where, once again, definition of key terms comes into play. Power refers to the ability to get someone to do what they would not otherwise do. It is not to be equated with the related term “influence,” which has to do with the ability to persuade others to follow one’s will and is mainly based on interpersonal skills. What we are talking about when we speak of “power” is the ability to impose one’s will on others, and to coerce the person or group into complying or obeying if or when necessary.

Authority, on the other hand, is power that is exercised through legitimate or institutionalised channels. There are three main types of authority which I would be happy to discuss in another article dealing with “Knees on our collective necks,” if you know what I mean!

Mr. Igwe has focussed on authority rather than the full power of the governor. Under the 2007 Constitution, certain areas of control have been placed under the premier and the House of Assembly. However, in the very last article of the Constitution, certain “reserve powers” have been vested in the governor on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. These powers have not been “devolved,” and there is very little the premier and/or the ruling political party can do about them under the VI’s existing political status without the blessing of the UK Parliament. In a not-so-hypothetical example, if a governor felt that the political administration was being delinquent in funding certain entities and decided unilaterally to fund them from the public purse, the premier and the House of Assembly would hardly be able to stop that governor.

 

External factors

Still on the matter of the structure of power, provision must be made in the analysis for external factors to have an impact on what is happening locally. We also need to appreciate that wherever there is a formal structure, there is an informal one that may be more impactful. There may be individuals or groups outside of the formal arrangements who can get a given political administration to do their bidding. Different political parties may take up office while belonging to the same political class, but powerful interest groups will always be there as the “movers and shakers.” Political class is not to be confused with social class. While social class is a concept only, the political class exists empirically, and is a power group organised for conflict. I will try to avoid digging any deeper into sociological or political theory at this point.

 

Meritocracy

The next area in which Mr. Igwe’s commentary could be improved is that where the notion of a meritocracy is discussed. I wish I had the space to deal with this at length. Suffice to say that a meritocracy is a system in which an elite is picked on the basis of “merit” (a highly problematic concept). By definition, only some people will enjoy elite status. A meritocratic ideology holds that economic and social rewards should be distributed on the basis of achievement and not on the basis of ascriptive criteria such as breeding. When people work hard and earn their positions, the case can be made that they deserve those positions and that justice is being served. I have no doubt that some of this has been happening in the VI and will continue to happen.

The problem is that there is invariably a gap between the ideal and reality, between what should happen and what happens in practice. Meritocracy has an upside, but it also has a downside. Indeed, this downside was highlighted in a 2001 commentary in The Guardian by the very person who came up with the neologism “meritocracy” in 1958: British sociologist Michael Young. Here is a summary of Mr. Young’s recent observations on meritocracy.

  1. It is not a good thing when those who are judged to have merit of a particular kind harden into a new class without room in it for others.
  2. The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself.
  3. When the poor and disadvantaged are branded at school, they can become demoralised by being looked down upon by people who have done well for themselves.
  4. It is hard in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none.
  5. The poor and disadvantaged have been deprived by educational selection of many of those who would have (a) been their natural leaders and (b) continued to identify with the class from which they came.
  6. With the coming of the meritocracy, the masses became leaderless and do not even bother to vote as they no longer have their own people to represent them.
  7. The elite has become self-assured to the point where they have lifted the old restraints of the business world, and all kinds of new ways have been invented and exploited to help them feather their own nests.
  8. Those who care for the poor and disadvantaged can mark their distance from the meritocracy by increasing taxes on the rich, for starters.

 

Ruling classes

It is beyond dispute that ruling classes co-opt into the superordinate sphere those from humble beginnings who have been able to climb the social ladder by virtue of social selection through the educational system. This is a basic postulate in that branch of the sociology of education that emphasises reproduction theory.

So too is the social decapitation of the working class, which helps to explain much of the anomic behaviour in the working class today. And this is why some educational philosophers have always made a distinction between schooling and education. Education is not inert. It implies using the knowledge and skills which one acquires to help improve the human condition not just for oneself, but for the rest of society, especially the poor and disadvantaged. Failure of the advocates of meritocracy to recognise this could cause us to fall into what Yale Law School Professor Dr. Daniel Markovits recently dubbed the “meritocracy trap.” Or again, depending on the particular country, we may be witnessing the beginning of a revolution from the left against the meritocracy — as suggested by US author Chris Hayes’ 2013 book Twilight of the Elite: America After Meritocracy — as opposed to a revolution from the right as warned by Mr. Young.

 

‘Great equaliser’?

Permit me to end by confronting the issue of education as the “great equaliser.” I would be one of the last people to question the benefits of formal education since I myself have enjoyed some of those benefits. I must say, though, that equitable opportunity is not a term to be thrown around when discussing equality of opportunity. I will cut to the chase and presume that there is a “fair race” model of equal opportunity implied in the article. According to this view of life, everyone gets a chance to start at the same starting line and the inequalities which emerge during the competition are therefore fair. This model falls flat on its face once it is recognised that the race of life is not like the single running of the 100-metre dash. Rather, it is more closely akin to an endless relay race (as suggested by US sociologist Dr. Murray Milner’s 1972 book The Illusion of Equality). Whether you are ahead or behind at the end of the first lap depends on how far behind or ahead your team was when you were handed the baton.

It is undeniable that sometimes we are compassionate enough to offer some help to those runners who have to start from behind. But this amounts to no more than the offering of a consolation prize. In real life, there is no beginning or end to the competition, and the handicaps or advantages existing at the start of each new lap are extremely difficult to change. Those of us who have been pulled upward by the social gravitational forces of which I spoke earlier should consider ourselves very fortunate indeed. We should therefore feel obliged to reduce socially structured intergenerational inequality even further to achieve the over-arching goal of becoming more fully human.

 

Technical education

I hope that Mr. Igwe will have at his disposal the time to deal with some of the issues which I have raised. He has also published an article on the very important subject of technical and vocational education in the VI. I believe that I can make a significant contribution to any informed and scholarly debate on this important topic, and I will try to do so at a later date should the opportunity present itself.


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