A Country Divided …
I may have in a previous article, possibly in a couple previous articles, emphasized the importance of national unity and specifically the need to embrace every citizen in the project of national development. I was therefore gladdened to hear President Barack Obama at his inaugural address speak to the theme of inclusion. He also touched on other related and fundamental ideas which I had also earlier raised in my articles. According to the President,
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.
If the foregoing is true for the massive United States of America (USA), it is quite possible to argue that it is truer for Dominica, a very small country with a very small population. In the context of even the Caribbean, we are still small.
However, we could have been disproportionately far more weighty vis-à-vis our physical size. How is that possible? It is conceivable if only we would take our agriculture seriously and recognize that we are perhaps the most fertile island in the region – and possibly the world - and "big" enough to feed the Caribbean. Additionally, if we followed the gist of the theory of comparative advantage, and left the mass tourism to Jamaica, Barbados, St. Lucia, and other countries which are obviously better at it and have the comparative advantage, while concentrating our efforts on agriculture along with a kind of tourism that complemented it, we would be far better off.
Not to be outdone, however, Dominica wants to be like all the others and to do so, we have by and large abandoned agriculture and decided to import our food including our hankered-after diet of fast foods. This is not the burden of my argument here though, since I want to treat with agriculture separately (in a different article). The consideration here is that we are pretending that we can operate with less than our full complement or quota of our citizens, at all levels whether skilled, educated, unskilled, and so on. Hence we are working with far less than our optimum level of human resources. It is tragic that not only are some of our human resources excluded from mainstream society on the basis of their audacious opinions, and the strength of their "backbones", but in so doing, we do not get the best returns for our colossal investment in education. We are thus engaged in "cutting our noses to spite of faces" because we "loathe" some people simply because they do not share our political opinions. In a country with an apparently diminishing population, this is economic suicide or, to use a persuasive idiom by Seymour Drescher, Econocide.
Hence, President Obama implies that it is unreasonable to expect the USA to survive in the face of blatant inequality and exclusion; when the chasm between the haves and have-nots is ever widening; when partisanship is the order of the day; when hating each other for having different political opinions is the new and embraced culture; when securing a job is based, not on meritocracy, but on cronyism and grovelling or on carrying malicious rumours on even friends; when the churches are not only helpless to bring the population together but actually exacerbate the situation every so often; and so on. As a small country, we will not survive if we deliberately alienate and exclude part of our population from the task of taking Dominica forward. Tragically, the citizens we exclude may well be the most competent, perceptive and discerning ones.
In various conversations with numerous people, I often hear from them that our educated people (a phrase which is often used interchangeably with "middle class") are not doing this or that, or are not speaking out against wrongdoing. I reckon that it may not have occurred to several of those people that the middle class of which they casually speak might be a figment of their imagination. Is it not possible that if the middle class feels that its education and skills are not wanted, it will take flight? Is it not possible that people who have particular expertise want to use such expertise? Is it not possible that people who are capable of thinking want to think and express themselves, a natural derivative of intellectual engagement? How can we educate people then tell them what to think, say and write? Hence, there ought to be no surprise when the middle class, which must be the driving force for development, engages in an exodus. The void left means that the masses are in direct contact with the elite, with no buffer zone and certainly no balancing thought. In such a situation, the battle lines become very clear and well-defined. At that stage, it does not take long (in history, 20 years is not long) before the masses point a finger at the acquisitive elite as being the source of their oppression and poor living conditions. No society will escape the consequences of squeezing its middle class out. Rising crime, including drug trafficking and money laundering, are undisputable signs of that tragic loss of a middle class.
I will of course be verbally abused for the present analysis. After all, this is our accustomed modus operandi; however, I will have to take that chance because my conscience tells me that I must "teach" without fear or favour. Hence, I am happy that President Obama believes that "… America's prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class." This statement should also send us into a panic if we assume that, not only is the middle class not rising, in quantity and quality, but on the contrary, it is dwindling. Self-respecting professionals will not and should not tolerate being "criminalized" in their own country on the basis of partisanship. Indeed, the younger generation "middle class" who have not had the experiences of the conscious 60s and 70s would under no circumstances tolerate this nonsense from people they believe are beneath them intellectually. They will migrate.
There is also another kind of disappointment that is expressed about "educated" people, that is, many are shocked by the fact that these "educated" people appear to be fooled. Granted, there are some supposedly educated people who are indeed fooled and can be exploited. However, you may rest assured that more often than not these educated people are not fooled. They are actually the ones who are exploiting the system, especially when that system comprises very gullible people who depend on these educated people for affirmation. Stated differently, there are many self-serving and opportunistic "educated" people, who for several reasons, appear to be grovelling.
It does not matter how much infrastructural development any country has achieved, if its citizens do not feel a level of connectedness and belongingness to the country and state, development will forever remain elusive. People are not going to "ask what they can do for their country" if their country does not engage with them in spite of their best efforts or if their country deliberately excludes them. It has to be a mutual "engagement". Many people take the decision that they will not tolerate being abused in the course of doing what is right. In that regard, many of us can shed a tear for those members of the middle class who have not only decided that now is a good time to migrate, but who have actually made concrete plans to do so, because contrary to President Obama's view, it has been decided, apparently, that Dominica does not need its middle class for its long-term prosperity. Such myopia we will pay dearly for, soon.
Copyright Dr. Francis O. Severin is the Acting Director of the University of the West Indies Open Campus Country Sites.