Antigua and Barbuda is an eastern Caribbean nation, which is a federation of two islands that were former British colonies that became independent in 1981. Barbuda following Hurricane Irma in 2017 had most of its infrastructure destroyed. Most Barbudans now live as refugees on the island of Antigua.
As terrible as the catastrophe of recent events have been, they have an equally dreadful social and historical context that is still unfolding. The Barbudans are being dispossessed from aspects of a communal life that has existed for generations and emerged as a free village movement following the abolition of slavery in 1834. Not inspired by modern communist ideas, instead Barbudans have known a substantial life of communal land tenure, creative self-reliant labour, and social ecology.
This way of life is being attacked by an Antigua government and a Black political class that is informed by disaster capitalism in the name of providing Hurricane relief, a desire for authoritarian development of tourism by offering back-breaking incentives and invitations to foreign capital, and a vision of state planning that calls itself “entrepreneurial socialism.” The Black political class from the moment of independence led by Vere Cornwall Bird in 1981 has been attacking the popular self-reliance that Barbuda embodies even as it claims to be concerned with its autonomy and development. The most recent manifestation of this attack is led by Gaston Browne’s Antigua Labour Party (ALP) government. But it is also supported by “progressives” who should know better.
The recent plan to build a resort on the other side of Barbuda, by inviting a global investment group led by the American actor Robert De Niro, was in the works before Hurricane Irma. But now the Antigua government has accelerated these plans by calling a snap election, and passing oppressive legislation to dispossess the Barbudans from their land. The new law does this by granting private property deeds to the Barbudans. But also by enclosing them in their historical village, Codrington, and undermining their historical use of commonly held land for farming, grazing of animals, and restricting their use of beautiful pink sand beaches.
Karl Marx once noted that capitalist development begins not by industrialisation and wage earning, but primitive accumulation. That is even under feudal hierarchies there were still some commons, land and bodies of water held communally, where ordinary people could farm, fish, and live free from the dictates of private property. These commons have to be encircled, fenced in by law and coercion, privatised in order to create dependent toilers and homeless, cheap labour for the emergence of “free market” capitalism.
The Antiguan government is militantly hostile to the communal culture of Barbuda, which they term that of a lazy, unproductive, pastoral people that need to be modernised. The recent disaster is only the latest excuse to question if Barbudans, as a representative culture of the Caribbean, can survive. Communal living can always be improved upon but this criticism is coming from apostles of private property, profit, and managers of debt who believe Caribbean empowerment will not come from those who seek to live beyond the dictates of capital.
Instead of animated by a deep vision of Caribbean unity, the Antigua government asks cynically how can they benefit from the burden of Barbuda refugees? Instead of genuine Pan African or Pan Caribbean solidarity they ask what does Barbuda have to offer that makes this relationship sustainable? The present Antigua and Barbuda government, under a technocratic premise, expresses nothing but contempt for ordinary people, and looks at Barbuda’s “refugees” like President Trump looks at the plight of Puerto Ricans, who as a colonised people are supposedly part of the United States. Caribbean unity is not supposed to be pretence for tax collection, but for cooperation to establish meaningful sovereignty against imperialism. But the original West Indian federation was invented by the British for concerns with efficient administration of colonial subjugation. It takes considerable imagination for Caribbean federation to be a meaningful experiment that enhances popular self-reliance.
Barbuda and Antigua are both small places. Barbuda is about 30 miles from Antigua. Barbuda is about 15 miles long and eight miles wide and had less than 2000 residents before Hurricane Irma. Antigua at its last census had about 80,000 people but some say its population is close to 100,000 now with a recent influx of residents from Jamaica and Guyana. Antigua is roughly 108 square miles with its capital city, St. Johns, having about 32,000 people. Both Antigua and Barbuda have large Caribbean diaspora populations in London, New York City, Miami, Toronto and Montreal that dwarf the population of their homelands. Barbuda is much smaller in size and population than Antigua. Antigua is known for much more tourism, following a former colonial plantation economy, and in addition has been a notable site of international banking and money laundering. Barbuda before the Hurricane did have a few shops, some resort hotels where people find seasonal work, an elementary school, a health clinic, and several churches. But Barbuda is so untouched by urbanisation that undomesticated animals still roam much of its terrain.
Barbuda, unlike Antigua and much of the Caribbean that knew cultures of slavery through plantation agriculture, was owned under a British charter by one family, the Codringtons. The island’s economy was largely as a provisions station; those who were unfamiliar with its surrounding coral and tried to conquer it often found their ships sunk. While the Codringtons had slaves, many descended from the Yoruba and Igbo of Nigeria, but also from Ghana, Gambia, and Sierra Leone, the management of these Africans’ lives was more indirect than a normal centralised plantation order.
Consistent with aspects of feudalism that allowed for artisan cultures and greater autonomy of labour, Barbudans have a heritage of toilers who are skilled fishermen, wood workers, menders of boats and sails, and people who hunt sand crabs, wild deer and cattle, herd goats and chickens, and were skilled in rotational slash and burn agriculture as the basis of their free village lifestyles. Barbudans do not live totally communally, individuals own their own homes, and fish, farm, and herd while trading their modest surplus informally and in local markets. But wage labour, mass production, and private property have not defined their lifestyles, which are very ecological and communal in how means of production, particularly the land, is shared and respected.
It is difficult to think of either Antigua, much less Barbuda, as a case study for self-reliance in a neoliberal era marked by the ruthless pursuit of markets and commodities – but maybe we need to retool our imagination. We have to keep in mind that great civilisations by standards of Western knowledge (however flawed) have often emerged from a small place. Classical Athens had at the most 40,000 people during the time of the Persian Wars, and many of the surrounding peoples had 1000-2000 people with 40 to 60 homes per village. Every self-governing people need not be marked by a large city or urbanisation. And if Athens could produce reputable contributions to history, philosophy, and science (however much this was informed by the Mediterranean world and Africa), why can’t Barbuda have something to teach the Caribbean region and larger world about our own self-government today? This is what the Caribbean radical Cyril Lionel Robert James had in mind when he saw an “Athenian” potential for the Caribbean islands if they would federate productively. But few anticipated how the contemporary forms of Caribbean federation could be a mode of oppression.
The fact is both Antigua and Barbuda as embodied in this repressive legislation is still struggling in the post-colonial moment to assert their independence and self-reliance in a hostile world. It is not because their government is projecting creative proposals for democracy and development that imperialism decries at the present moment. Rather it is seeking to market what is a myopic vision as a profound nationalist or even socialist purpose while staying in the boundaries set by the empire of capital. Few who support the present government are seeking to cultivate the popular will and nobody is hoping it can arrive on its own authority.
The Antiguan government’s legislation for Barbuda’s land still speaks of “Crown lands.” What does independence from Britain mean to the authors of this law more than 30 years after colonial freedom? Does Browne’s ALP wear this disgusting crown? Does the Antigua government see themselves as a dominion of Britain, or Barbuda part of the realm of Antigua? Further, it proposes to tell the Barbudans that they cannot cut timber or burn charcoal outside the village of Codrington without government permission. What are they talking about? They basically are telling the Barbudans that communal land tenure, for farming and grazing, has come to an end. That it is a threat to industrial and tourism development on Barbuda. But in their legal double talk they don’t have the courage to be transparent about it.
With this recognition, we have to keep in mind that even dissidents in Barbuda, as part of the British Commonwealth, hope the British Privy Council (maintained by elites of the British parliament, but which functions like the US Supreme Court) will someday override this legislation for dispossession. This is part of a moderate liberal legal tradition, sometimes wielded by anti-colonials, who feel they may get more impartial justice in the British high court than in their own compromised local legal systems. Instead what needs to be reinvigorated among the Barbudans is the spirit of their historic “Llama Revolt.” More pitchforks against the Black political class and less lawyers are needed.
The Black political class of Antigua has a long history of seeing Barbuda as its backyard, much the way the US views the Caribbean as its backyard. Their military power of course is not comparable. The Antiguan government, and the Black political class closely aligned with it, has historically come up with plans to dump human waste in Barbuda. It has made a business out of pillaging its sand and selling it for construction in Antigua and in the Caribbean region. It has contracted with global actors for the island to be a weigh station for animals carrying diseases – this created the conditions for the Llama Revolt. It has licensed Americans and Europeans to maintain hotels and beaches with a racial segregation policy; alienation that ordinary Antiguans and Barbudans have been subjected to and which was an insult that was a touchstone for the Grenada Revolution of 1979-1983.
Perhaps the greatest disappointment in Antigua’s abuse of Barbuda has been the decline in Antigua’s tradition of radical political thought that used to challenge the government and identify with the communal heritage of Barbuda’s free village movement that followed emancipation in 1834. From 1968 to 1998 in Antigua, the Afro-Caribbean Movement (ACM), and later the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement (ACLM), led by Tim Hector, who was a radical journalist who published the newspaper Outlet, advocated for a socialist future based on direct democracy and workers’ self-management and a rejection of Stalinism. The ACLM even criticised the Grenada Revolution from the left, noting its repression of freedom of the press and numerous political prisoners who could not be transparently brought to trial, even as it reminded that the Grenada Revolution was rooted in a call for a government of popular assemblies.
However, as the ACLM incorporated ambiguous notions of a nationalist purpose for Antigua and Caribbean people, it increasingly was open to electoral coalitions with capitalist politicians, and began to feel that to face reality meant ordinary people weren’t quite ready to assume, on their own, authority. This would have been fine if it continued popular education while continuing to affirm that electoral politics was basically a form of degradation. But by joining electoral politics it paved the way not just for patronage politics but for responsibility for oppressive policies that degrade the Caribbean working people – the denial of this in Antigua in relation to the dispossession of the Barbuda people is disturbing, especially for those familiar with Antigua’s radical democratic heritage.
ACLM once propagandised “All Power to the Barbudan People” recognising that Antigua had something to learn about its own self-government from the heritage of the free village movement in Barbuda. Many complain today that Antiguans can’t purchase land in Barbuda, but Barbudans can purchase land in Antigua. The government wishes to ameliorate this incongruity at the expense of Barbuda’s communalism, and on the side of Antiguan capitalism. The Antiguan working people should be fighting for a political culture and economic conditions closer to Barbuda.
Many former members of the ACLM have since joined the ALP or other capitalist parties with the basic disposition of supporting Barbuda’s dispossession. The mutation of their views they might think is consistent with former Third World Marxism concerned about the national development of a modern and sovereign political economy. But this is false. Most have repudiated their past criticism of authoritarian state planning that had no respect for working class self-emancipation and self-organisation. Many have discarded their affinity for African communalism for the chauvinism and reason of high modernist planning. Even those who claim an affinity for the African heritage in Antigua and celebrate African Liberation Day fall short of defending Barbuda communal land tenure. One prominent Antigua advocate of Caribbean reparations who supports the government plan of dispossession of Barbudans has noted that it is a possibility that Barbudans, after the government follows through on the plan that grants them private property deeds and allows the Robert De Niro resort to be built, will become an isolated ghettoised people. Few who recognise this possibility and who speak of working toward reconciliation of this controversy are transparent about their role in, and responsibility for, this betrayal.
One major thinker of the former ACLM, Alvette Ellorton Jeffers, has been writing to expose the Barbuda Land Act and what it means. Jeffers has been seeking to defend the history of common ownership of the land in Barbuda and has tried to expose that the Gaston Browne government fears the people’s potential for popular self-management of their own affairs. Dwayne “Omowale” Wong, a younger writer, a native of Guyana, has also written frequently to defend the Barbudans and this struggle around the land as, essential to revitalising any meaningful Pan African or Pan Caribbean unity. Naomi Klein and Alleen Brown have exposed Robert De Niro’s investment group’s coalition with the Antiguan government as “a land grab,” that is consistent with imperialism and as ecologically unsound.
Still it is important to inquire what has happened to Antigua’s radical democratic heritage and where is this nonsensical “entrepreneurial socialism” coming from? Why is this a veil for Gaston Browne’s mediocre and abusive politics in an Antigua that has had a radical socialist heritage? The content of Browne’s “socialism,” for some, is consistent with the heritage of Vere Cornwall Bird’s Fabian Democratic Socialism. Bird was the first leader of Antigua and Barbuda at independence. But Bird always was a charismatic leader whose authoritarian personality obscured how he repressed Antiguan and Barbudan labour. It feels like a great betrayal for those sympathetic to Tim Hector’s ACLM, who was often repressed by the Vere Cornwall Bird and Lester Bird governments, to accept a political coalition around a false idea of the progressive heritage and qualities of Vere Cornwall Bird.
The tradition of British Fabian socialism, its Labour Party, was actually a co-optation of the popular and self-managing qualities of the British working class. Whether the welfare state of mind revitalises itself as a force in response to neoliberal capitalism, we must be clear Fabianism was never an advocate of popular self-management in Britain, Antigua or the Caribbean.
Browne’s “socialism” is actually a mix of Barack Obama’s and Mitt Romney’s economic policies and the disastrous capitalism that produced the housing market bubble in the US. Browne believes that failed businesses, like local banks, should be purchased by Antigua and Barbuda tax payers. Public enterprises should take on private capital investment. Bundled debts should be purchased by speculators. In this manner, Antigua’s and Barbuda’s economy can manage its debts and be made attractive to foreign capital. Browne would be horrified if the Antiguan working class seized any publicly owned property and began to manage and govern it themselves.
How are Browne’s policies “socialist?” Actually our understanding of socialism as having to do with labour’s self-emancipation and workers control has declined on a world scale and instead what we have is an embrace of “state capitalism.” This is very counter-intuitive to those who see capitalism as laissez faire (no state intervention in the economy) and socialism as state planning with merely a welfare state of mind. But the fact is modern capitalism and communism in all its forms have been state capitalism. Most learned in socialist politics understand this.
The question is will socialists advocate for state capitalism that represses labour’s self-emancipation or one that they believe can plan the lives of people from above society as a competing bloc of capital in the world system? Will we allow public and nationalised property and state planning to become the meaning of “socialism” or will we side with the actual communal heritage (however incomplete) of working people and seek to enhance and support that instead?
Consistent with the “progressive” discourse around the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) nations today; anti-imperialism has become the cultivation of an independent bloc of capital in the world with no regard for how governments actually repress toilers. A close observation of the Antigua and Barbuda situation, and the wider Caribbean region, reveals that despite talk of reparations from British colonialism, and concern with what is termed disaster relief, such are advocated by people who don’t oppose the empire of capital in any tangible manner. Instead, where there is real communal heritage to be defended there is avoidance among prominent Caribbean intellectuals and state planners despite the fact that dispossession of the Barbudans is said to be very controversial. Too many see this controversy as something to be navigated as they sustain their own patronage from the state and seek to manufacture consent of Barbudans to see themselves as part of a potentially independent bloc of capital that Browne’s government can then manage like a portfolio.
Instead we should encourage the Barbudans’ capacity to be independent self-governing producers not simply as a separate nation but as a social class. Barbuda has an opportunity not only to defend their communal land tenure but as well be in the forefront of new terms of Caribbean federation and socialism. We should not be surprised if this struggle has to overcome conservative as well as progressive politics to shape this new beginning. While both Black capitalists and Black socialists are asking similarly how do “we” accumulate capital, a social relation that is never communal, those Barbudans who fish two days and rest two days, farm and herd as necessary with an instinctive social ecology must be offered solidarity in furthering their resistance to tyranny and dispossession.
* Doctor Matthew Quest is a historian of the intellectual legacies of Cyril Lionel Robert James and the editor of Joseph Edwards’s Workers’ Self-Management in the Caribbean.