Rereading Obika Gray

It’s difficult to discuss the potential end of soundclash, as it’s deeply upsetting that clashes of a very different sort are occurring in Kingston, Jamaica.

I picked up my copy of Obika Gray’s book, Demeaned but Empowered: The Social Power of the Urban Poor in Jamaica, published in 2004, and read through chapter one, which ends as follows. Stuck in a whirlwind of information from multiple newspapers, magazines, tweets, updates, television reports, bbms and blogs (some quite eloquent in their descriptions), a strange solace is found in context:

The predicament of the predatory Jamaican state is that the measures that secure its dominance and sustain the cohesion of society–clientelist party rule, punitive violence and elite unity–become the very sources that threaten the erosion of its power. As the parasitic state and its agents move into the shadow economy, violate democratic practices with impunity, protect fearsome gunmen, and foment a crucifying political violence in which the poor became cannon-fodder and the well-to-do fear for their safety, a legitimation crisis ensues and the hold on power by state agents becomes increasingly tenuous.

Recurrent attempts to surmount this dilemma, however, seem only to compound the problem. Repeat announcements of harsh crime eradication programmes appear ineffective as the provoke party factionalism, distress civil libertarians and alienate the poor, whose neighbourhoods are targeted in the fight against crime and political violence.

Similarly, official denials of state involvement in political violence, political leaders’ ties to gunmen, and the parties’ repeated signing of peace accords, merely earn politicians the cynicism of the poor and the unease of middle-class and corporate backers of the state. In both instances, the generic strategy of combining both “order” and “disorder” entangle the state in myriad predicaments. It is hardly worth mentioning that this loss of authority requires measures to arrest it. However, efforts to stem the state’s weakening hold over economic processes and social relations are themselves sources of hegemonic decline.

The perception of growing disorder and enravelling of social relations have thus far provoked the state into devising even bolder strategies involving risky and controversial policing. But as these measures founder and become what observers cynically call “nine-day wonders”, the seem only to invite scorn for the political leadership and to further the disgust with a foundering state that cannot maintain order, achieve legitimacy or solve economic problems has not provoked a ruptural break with predatory rule. Disillusionment has led neither to calls for military intervention nor to any support for a popular uprising and seizure of the state.

This impotence of civil society and the state’s inability to unravel the tangle of social contradictions is a fitting expression of the social crisis and of the identity of power in Jamaica. On the one hand, the crisis–manifesting itself in the double handicap above–clearly shows the checkmated relations between state and society. On the other hand, however, the crisis fittingly attests to the consequences of the distinctive play of power in Jamaica. That is, the Jamaica ordeal seems to confirm what I have argued here–namely the durability of state predation and its capacity to nullify and disarm its many detractors.

Though Gray ended his book with a discussion of 2001’s assault on Tivoli, resulting in the deaths of twenty-five people, he still had faith that relations of power could be reinvented in Jamaica, specifically in Kingston. I hope he still has this faith, for I wish to share it.


One thought on “Rereading Obika Gray

  1. Hi are you the Erin Macloud who presented a paper on the Rastafari community at theI IES conference in Addis in November last year?
    If, yes, can you please e-mail me, I’ve been trying to get in touch regarding a book review for an academic journal and accidentaly came across your twitter page

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