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The myth of the Jamaican middle class

Donna P
Hope

Thursday, November 14, 2019

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Many understand that the term “middle class” is used in capitalist and/or classist societies to obscure the status and privilege that accrue to the tiny minority positioned at the top of that society, based on the convergence of a multiplicity of factors (wealth, social background, family legacies, distinctive and luxurious lifestyle, race, etc) over time. As the story goes, everyone is middle class or almost there; just keep working hard, following the social cues, and being a good citizen.

The Jamaican narrative of this “working hard” seems to now be bought and sold like phone cards. Security guards and household helpers work very hard on shifts of 12 hours and sometimes more, but they continue to struggle to make ends meet and to give their children a decent future. And, as many people find, working hard does not guarantee you much more than a revolving cycle of being stuck on the same old treadmill day in and day out. You are stuck in your class positioning, as are your children, and more than likely their offspring.

Jamaica's three status groupings and seven classes identified by Carl Stone are reflected in the status grouping pyramid. Those who open their eyes at birth to higher-placed positions on this or any other such structure have less work to do to maintain same or to climb higher. Those at the lowest point in that 76 per cent identified as lower class would have to breach many chasms in order to achieve real social mobility.

Nonetheless, increased opportunities for social mobility have been harnessed by many Jamaicans from the lower class, especially over the last three to four decades. Consequently, Stone's status groupings and the classes within them in this pyramid must have been transformed, and at least one new status or class grouping emerged. Is there a middle middle-class status group that must be inserted in what was traditionally identified as the original lower middle class? It is definitely time to make allocations for those who have transformed their lives, and that of their families, and have moved up from what was identified as the lower class, to now form a new and truer lower middle class.

For example, only about two per cent of the population had access to tertiary education in the late 1970s into the 1980s. Today, a combination of factors, including increased numbers of accredited tertiary institutions with more programmes, more part-time, evening, weekend, and online options, and more options to fund same, has resulted in over 40 per cent of Jamaicans now able to access tertiary education.

A tertiary-level graduate in a family does translate into a variety of economic and social benefits that accrue to generations over time. Additionally, the benefits of migration, remittances, and opportunities that have been created for several generations on the backs of many who “run weh to foreign” in the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s cannot be discounted. The rise of athletes, artistes, and other working class, home-grown stars who have come of age and are more informed about how to safeguard their earnings to maintain their lifestyles in this era means real change has occurred. More superstar sportsmen and women emerging from the working classes and poor communities are superheroes in the minds of many youngsters. Musical icons in dancehall and reggae hold out the promise of status and riches. Many millennials are boldly entering representational politics, claiming their positions as leaders and members of the administrative classes. New and emerging entrepreneurial options are on the rise. As things change, the face of poverty is updated, and “being poor” takes on new shape and form. The field has indeed been made wider, but it has definitely not been levelled.

Nonetheless, multiple subliminal and not-so-subliminal messages suggest that one can also join the amorphous middle class and step up into higher status by simply buying into specific distinctive activities and behaviours. Eat this. Drink this. Wear that. Attend this event or party. Be seen here. Be seen there. Do that. Desires are inflamed and manipulated. Some, whose quest for social mobility included investing in their education and joining the throngs of those “working hard” become caught up in a continuous cycle of transferring important caches of their key resources — time, money and energy — away from themselves. One does not 'become' a member of the upper and upper middle classes by sipping an expensive concoction in a preferred location, for a price. While this may generate love and likes and many emoticons it also ensures that many remain caught, like a fly, within the spider web of consumption. If you blink, you miss the entire spectacle and become the meal.

Other socially approved messages about those who matter and those who don't really have a foothold continue unabated. It is an open secret that some Jamaicans are over-represented in negative social statistics than are others. What are identified as deviant social behaviours such as a propensity to engage in violent or criminal activities, drop out of high school, become a teenage mother, or be at-risk in Jamaica has a specific social profile. Individuals from the inner cities or poor rural communities predominate. Cutlass Mumma stood as a proxy for many poor women whose limited opportunities become even more confined with growing responsibilities for several children over time. Her image became the subject, not just of formal media discussions, but also of memes and caricatures on social media. This is the norm, where the images of those who come from the lower social classes are used and abused by everyone, including many who are also at the base of the society, or simply one generation removed from it. Everyone finds it extremely funny, and will drop an emoticon, click, and share. The message is underlined and highlighted that men, women and children who are at the base of the society are fair game and can be caricatured and publicly shamed because of how they dress, speak, live, and even breathe. Here, within these caricatures, more power is bestowed to the unkind, classist structures and the marginalisation of a huge majority is ratified. Political correctness and an understanding of the implicit humanity of everyone becomes an unnecessary appendage as going viral with the “correct” and socially appropriate display is always good and right — or so the story goes.

In the meantime, the class system is busily spinning its Utopian dreams, selling a moment at the right point on the ever-moving escalator at a price for those who are willing to pay over their futures and what should have been their incremental savings towards a downpayment on a wonderfully expensive studio up there somewhere. For me, no lies were told in that Proven statement on which the dust is all but settled. And I have had my fair share of behind-the-scenes discussions with aggrieved young men and women, these milllennials, who came face to face with the understanding that income distribution is different from wealth distribution. And that conspicuous consumption does not equate to class positioning. No, you are not that middle class. You do not have that kind of wealth. Wealth distribution looks at the economic distribution of assets (land/real estate, capital, and labour) in a society, not at the income of individuals. Indeed, one per cent of the world's population now owns just about 50 per cent of the world's wealth and social and economic equalities continue to expand. Desires continue to be transformed and manipulated, and wealth continues to be transferred from those who have less to those who have long had more. Escaping the cages of poverty and marginalisation and gaining real social mobility is a daily struggle for some and a fleeting dream for many. Others realise that no, there is really no single, broad-based, middle class into which everyone has a rightful place. Jamaica's pervasive and tightly structured class system is alive and well.

Donna P Hope, PhD, is professor of culture, gender and society at The University of the West Indies. Send comments to the Observer or dqueen13@hotmail.com.


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