Sources of inequality may have changed since the colonial era, but its scale and impact continue to shape Barbadian society, writes Collin Constantine (Kingston University).
The renowned Barbadian historian Sir Hilary Beckles has recently argued that the white inheritors of The First Black Slave Society remain both dominant and unrepentant in today’s Barbados. For all the de jure political power that black descendants have achieved, de facto economic power has not shifted. His view is supported by my own research, which reveals new evidence of how this old colonial oligarchy in Barbados has transformed itself into a post-colonial oligarchy.
As of 2015, the average household income of the richest 10% in Barbados was 3.7 times that of the general population, while in 1960 this decile received only 2.8 times as much. This trend is even more pronounced for the top 1%, the elite of the elites. In 2015 the average household income of Barbados’ richest 1% was 10 times the average, whereas in 1960 it was just four times. This clear concentration of top incomes shows that growth in Barbados has been especially extractive, but what has changed in how elite power is maintained to enable this shift?
During the colonial era large landholders represented only about 7% of total landholders, but this group owned 54% of all property (slaves) by 1680. During the post-emancipation, pre-independence period (1834-1966) the social structure was maintained principally by the Contract Law, which kept workers in low-paid, landless tenantry until its repeal in 1937. Elites also joined forces to prevent the breakup of plantations and subsequent sale to former slaves, as well as opting – uniquely in the Caribbean – not to abolish its system of elite representation in favour of Crown Rule during the latter half of the 19th Century.
At the outbreak of World War II, Barbados remained essentially the same as it had been three hundred years earlier, only instead planters and slaves, society was now divided into planters and a free but landless population. By 1970 the top 10% of landholders are estimated to have owned 77% of the land.
More recently, Barbados has become one of the most important offshore financial centres in the Caribbean and one of the world’s top 15 according to Oxfam. Just as in the USA, Britain, and other industrialised economies, there is a link between financialisation and the growth of top incomes, with the industry’s particular ability to support “super salaries” a clear driver.
Of course, Barbados’ status as an offshore financial centre also contributes to rising inequality in Western Europe and the USA by allowing wealthy foreigners to shift income and wealth into a low-tax jurisdiction. While OECD countries are attempting to reclaim their “hidden wealth”, Bajans face growing inequality alongside austerity measures and weak tourism.
How does the idea of Barbados as a beacon of democracy in the Caribbean persist in spite of these facts?
In part, this is the same issue studied in other contexts by Thomas Piketty:
“When you have large wealth, you cannot just consume like other people. You start to consume influence, consume politicians, consume academics, you consume power; this is what high wealth is here for.”
The enormous concentration of income in Barbados historically meant that the most powerful and prestigious positions were reserved for colonial elites. In present-day Barbados, economic elites use grants, media ownership, campaign contributions, and so on to influence public policy, public opinion, and key actors to forge societal buy-in on policies that protect and reinforce elites’ economic interests.
Even more than in OECD countries, part of the problem is a lack of transparency about top incomes in Barbados, with a severe lack of studies on wealth and income distribution. But this is compounded by deliberate attempts to shift the blame onto the most visible participants in the local economy, namely migrants.
Like Mexicans in the US and eastern Europeans in the EU, the Guyanese have been scapegoated in Barbados, with raids and deportations increasing despite a commitment to the free movement of peoples within the Caribbean Community. This discrimination is so well known amongst the Guyanese community that it has spawned the term “Guyanese bench”, which describes especially slow and often unsuccessful entry process for Guyanese nationals at Barbados’ Grantley Adams International Airport. As with Trump’s Mexico border wall or anti-immigration discourse during the Brexit campaign, this distracts from the underlying issue of wide and widening inequalities of income, wealth, and power.
Overall, despite an appearance of calm stability in Barbados, which has produced the nickname “Little England”, there is discontent welling beneath the surface. But a lack of clear data about wealth and income distribution, combined with the associated political inequalities, undermines attempts to channel social anger. Until this spiral of growing inequality is arrested, the poor will continue to shoulder the greater burden of economic adjustment via austerity, whereas massive capital and wage gains will continue to go those who need them least.
• The views expressed here are of the authors and do not reflect the position of the Centre or of the LSE
• This article draws on the author’s paper “A Community Divided: Top Incomes in CARICOM Member States” (2017)
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Collin Constantine – Kingston University
Collin Constantine is a PhD student in Economics at Kingston University and a Member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG). His dissertation investigates the determinants of the Eurozone current account imbalances but his interests include institutions, inequality, development economics, and new political economy. Follow him on Twitter at @collin8818.