The strength of a “class” lies in the economic interests of its members; but generally, it fails to satisfy the affective emotional need of man to belong to a wider collectivity.
The salience of ethnicity is based on its accomplishment of both tasks – it is simultaneously instrumental and expressive. A person is born into an ethnic group, and especially – as in Guyana – if it is simultaneously a racial group, he can hardly jettison it. If he attempts to do so, he risks great psychic damage to his “self”, because so much of his personal identity is enmeshed with his ethnic identity. His ethnic group is the home, the womb to which he can always return, and from which he cannot be turned away. It is the only social grouping that accepts him for what he is, and not for what he does.
This reflection of the group’s ethnic identity in the individual’s identity has several consequences. Firstly, attacks on the group are equated with attacks on the self. Every Indian winces when he hears, “Coolies are cowards”. But accolades on the group also elicit similar identification reactions. It is for this reason that lower class members of an ethnic group are the most vociferous supporters of the ethnic politics of their upper classes. For in addition to promising the economic rewards (the instrumental purpose of ethnicity), which may or may not be delivered, there is the psychological boost which will certainly be delivered in knowing that his group is ruling.
In the modern world therefore, ethnicity is particularly susceptible to politicisation. In a world of scarce resources and powerful, all-pervasive states, ethnic political entrepreneurs do not find it difficult to persuade fellow group members that their economic interests are better served if their ethnic group controls the state. The affirmation of themselves as a people and the economic interests served mutually reinforce each other.
Secondly, if it is felt that the ethnic group’s interest is threatened, the individual can be motivated to defend it at almost any cost: it is literally a matter of the latter’s survival. It is for this reason that ethnic conflicts are so intense. We see this dynamic operating quite clearly in the wake of the PPP’s successful no-confidence motion. African Guyanese are convinced that if the PPP returns to power — as do Indian Guyanese with the PNC — they will be faced with “extinction”. It does not matter whether this is a perception or not: as Thomas’ Theorem states, “If men define their situation as real, they are real in their consequences”…
Thirdly, an individual can rise out of his economic class, but not from his ethnic group, which makes the former not an inescapable fate. This very openness of “class” makes its hold on members very tenuous. Every poverty-stricken individual has a dream of “striking it rich”, not as a member of the “blessed” poor, but on his own. Class position is one of the several social roles an individual performs on a quotidian basis, and the greater the possibility of the individual escaping his class position, the less will be his class identification. It is an article of faith in the Indian community, for instance, that if they work hard and the Government does not discriminate against them, they can rise in class position. Even if this possibility is only a myth for most, as in the US, class loosens its hold.
Fourthly, a person’s conception of self is formed to a large extent by the socialisation provided by his primary (read ethnic) contacts during his early years. Thus by the time the individual enters the wider world of economic and wider societal concerns as a young adult, the new influences are much more diffuse, with the class role etc., typically not as intense as the ethnic one.
The dominance of race over class does not imply that class — or for that matter any other orientation, affiliation, segmentation, differentiation etc — has disappeared: within each ethnic group, they are alive and well. In this sense, class is more fundamental. Class and ethnicity both exist objectively, and the subjective preponderance of one over the other depends on the situation and context, as the two interact dynamically within the nexus of the personality of individuals.
In multi-ethnic, multi-class societies such as Guyana, situations that appear to threaten unrelieved domination by one ethnic group over another will trigger “ethnic” responses. Hence the desperateness of our ethnicised politics.