Challenges to Civil Society: Popular Protest & Governance in Jamaica

by Hume Johnson


Despite widespread ‘hurrah’ and euphoria over its apparent virtues––including the capacity to enhance democracy, bring back citizens to the centre of a revivalist participatory politics, and thus disprove claims about citizen apathy and malaise–– pessimism abounds about civil society’s meaning and actual manifestation in different societies. Civil society continues to suffer from its two-faced nature and an inherent potential to contribute to its own demise. Although civil society retains enormous usefulness as a space for citizens to associate, engage and participate to secure common interests and goals; defend collective causes; build social capital and, in so doing, improve the quality of society, civil society often displays a tendency to self-destruct and resemble everything that, properly speaking, ‘civil’ society is not. This political and moral irreconcilability of the civil society project is manifested in popular protest and other aspects of citizen politics in Jamaica, as elsewhere.

This book undertakes an in-depth case study of contemporary protests to illustrate not only the challenges to building civil society in Jamaica but also the requirement for the current scholarship to reconcile its moral and thematic ambivalence. For example, whereas the capacity of citizens to band together to make claims upon the state exemplifies the civil (read as positive) dimensions of civil society, the typically non-peaceful strategies and tactics deployed by citizen-protestors as they seek ‘justice’ exposes its uncivil (read as negative) aspects. The presence of rogue actors called ‘dons’ in the civil sphere and their construction of outlaw systems of governance at the community level––eclipsing the functions of the Jamaican state, and of organised civic groups––also illustrates the ‘uncivil’ dimension of civil society in this context. In other words, using Jamaica as empirical template, the book not only accounts for the reality of civil society but also demonstrates that the official literature perpetuates a universal misunderstanding and misrepresentation of civil society by variously denying its capacity and tendency to be negative and uncivil.

Recent studies of the ongoing political and social crisis in Jamaica have approached it from a variety of perspectives. Criminologists, for instance, point to the role of organized crime in subverting democratic rule in Jamaica. In their turn, political analysts attribute the crisis of democracy to the failure of political leadership and the collapse of middle class moral authority, while still other analysts point to the urban poor as powerful political actors whose social power not only transformed Jamaican politics and society, but made the poor a force to be reckoned with. Yet very little scholarly attention has been made to the social dimensions of this crisis. This study also looks at the crisis but its focus is on the style and moral content of protest politics in the streets. Its intervention in the debate is to highlight how much incivility and belligerence have become defining features of the politics of protest in Jamaica and to show that this might rather disempower rather than empower the most marginalized.

In this sense, the book corrects the inadequate reading of civil society by focusing on activities and actors within Jamaican civil society that skirt and/or blur the boundaries between legality and extra-legality, uphold contrary values and exhibit tendencies that negate the wisdom of political networks engaging in collective citizen action as necessarily civilizing agents, and civil society as a constantly positive force. By also focusing on the shortcomings of the Jamaican state, the book offers important insights into both the performance of the state and the character of civil society, as well as canvasses an understanding of the real nature of the relationship between these two entities. The book explores the role of social inequality, media coverage, ingrained feelings of (social) injustice among the citizenry and variable state response and performance as contributory factors in the existing mood of citizen politics in Jamaica. By focusing on both civil and uncivil actors, legal and extra-legal practices, processes and dimensions, the book questions who should (or should not) be represented in civil society and how the voices of the marginalized are to be heard.

This book is the first empirically grounded investigation into the challenges to civil society in Jamaica, and thus breaks new ground in the study of the difficult relationship between civil society and democratic governance in the country. It is unique in renewing the scholarly focus on uncivil politics and the consequences for power and the status and quality of civil society in contexts faced with these challenges. By seeing civil society through the lens of non-peaceful forms of popular protest, the book allows readers to confront the realities of ‘actual existing civil society’ and compels a rethinking of the established normative view of civil society. For example, where civil society commentators often emphasize civility as a core feature of democratic polities and their civil societies, this book is unique in insisting that civil society contains both civil and uncivil elements. By calling for an inclusion of the latter in a revised definition, the book reminds readers of civil society’s dual face and the challenge this poses for developing countries.

This study is also unique in acknowledging the importance of structure––political and social institutions as well as patterns of political representation––and the role of individual agency and responsibility of citizens in determining the character of citizen politics and civil society in Jamaica. Poor state performance in delivering public goods, the state’s abuse and mistreatment of the poor, sensationalized media coverage of popular protests and the presence of rogue actors among the poor all are compelling features of the book. This is because they contribute persuasively to the argument of the consolidation of insolent, uncivil dispositions and political behaviors in post colonial Jamaica. Indeed, the study looks squarely at the influence of violence as a tool of political engagement by otherwise powerless subaltern classes in Jamaica and accepts that unconventional methods of political engagement such as protests are also being employed as effective additional methods to more institutionalized strategies (globally). Yet, the book’s distinctiveness lies in its scrutiny and critique of the long-term consequences of protesters’ uncivil actions for the future of civil society in Jamaica.

This is an important book for collections in political science, sociology, anthropology, and media studies/communications, especially given the increasing interest in understanding popular protests, violent social movements, resistance cultures as well as radical political culture, democracy and civil society across the developing and developed world. The book will also hold wide appeal among policy makers, political actors, activists, civil society practitioners, and specialists in international development as a result of its strong focus on civil society. This will also be an excellent text for undergraduate students and above, particular those studying international relations.


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