Orlando Patterson and the Postcolonial Predicament

When the socialist government of Michael Manley came to power in Jamaica in 1972, the charismatic new prime minister asked the up-and-coming Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson to become his special adviser for social policy and development. Only a decade after the country gained its independence from Britain, Jamaican voters elected Manley with a sweeping mandate to transform the colonial-era hierarchies of race and class that remained intact. Manley needed a team of trusted advisers to help implement his ambitious agenda, and Patterson was high on the list.

Over the course of the 1970s, Patterson split his time between Cambridge and Kingston, teaching sociology while researching and implementing development programs. From his perch within the prime minister’s office, he advanced a policy of what he called “urban upgrading.” Instead of slum clearance and the creation of housing, Patterson argued for rehabilitating existing structures to make them more livable. Rather than seeking to expand employment through industrialization, he argued that the new policy should support the existing economy of street hawkers and petty traders. In lieu of the large, complex bureaucracies that tend to come with an expansion of the welfare state, the program focused on using community centers to deliver social services like health and child care.

Patterson’s approach reflected a wider revolution in third world approaches to development, marking a shift from the heyday of modernization in the 1950s and ’60s to the basic-needs approach of the 1970s and ’80s, which emphasized decentralization and overcoming extreme poverty. Modernization programs had envisioned the complete transformation of society, but their benefits reached few postcolonial citizens. Though on its face, urban upgrading appeared less ambitious, it promised to bring meaningful improvements to a larger group of citizens, and it did so by empowering local communities.

Patterson, who is currently the John Cowles professor of sociology at Harvard University, reflects on this era in his latest book, The Confounding Island: Jamaica and the Postcolonial Predicament. An exploration of politics, economic development, and popular culture in the nearly 60 years since the island’s independence, the book seeks to understand what became of the promises of decolonization, including Manley’s socialism. For Patterson, the postcolonial predicament is largely characterized by failure—of specific programs like his urban upgrading project and of the wider efforts at social and economic transformation. Two of the book’s three sections are dedicated to assessing the disappointment of those unfulfilled aspirations. Yet it is not a melancholic work: In the ruins of postcolonial Jamaica, Patterson unearths a vibrant popular culture, centered in particular on dancehall music, that can provide new resources to address the postcolonial predicament.

Born in 1940 in Westmoreland Parish in Jamaica, Patterson was the son of a police detective and a seamstress. Thanks in great part to his mother’s efforts and encouragement, he attended the prestigious Kingston College and was among the first cohort of undergraduates in the social sciences at the University College of the West Indies, then part of the University of London based in Kingston. His specialization in the social sciences rather than the humanities was not the path he had envisioned. When he arrived on campus in 1959, he was steeped in the emerging West Indian literature of the postwar period, attracted to the existentialism of Albert Camus, and committed to the study of history. He settled into economics and, later, sociology only after university officials rejected his application to major in history. The new nation needed social scientists more than it did humanists.

Despite some initial hesitation, Patterson embraced this calling, which soon brought him into contact with Manley, who was a decade and a half older but frequented the university. They remained in touch throughout the 1960s as Manley planned his entry into electoral politics and Patterson entered a sociology PhD program at the London School of Economics.

In fact, although they embarked on separate paths, their relationship grew stronger in these years, representing the marriage of politics and social science that characterized nation building in the decolonizing age. National independence was not just about the transfer of political power: It involved the formation of a national culture and state infrastructures, the nurturing of a homegrown intelligentsia, and the organization of new social data. Third world intellectuals were needed to furnish the historical and empirical analyses that would inform the policies of economic development and social transformation. Social scientists were at the center of this work.

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