Decolonizing Thought in the New World

On the Passing of Norman Girvan and the Continuation of the New World

Girvan_BThis past Wednesday (April 9, 2014), Norman Girvan passed away after suffering paralyzing injuries on a hiking trip in Dominica. He was in Cuba receiving treatment. Norman Girvan, trained as an economist, was by most appreciative accounts a leader in the Caribbean intellectual scene, as a public figure and a scholar. Needless to say, he cannot be replaced, but he does leave a rich intellectual legacy that should continue to stimulate efforts to further decolonize diverse areas of experience, from the cultural to the political-economic. In many ways, the New World Group (NWG) of which Girvan formed a part, was one of the original intellectual inspirations at the foundation of Zero Anthropology itself, which is not accidental given my own prior immersion in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, my being taught some of the core texts in this field as a student, and my years studying at the Institute of International Relations (IIR) at the University of the West Indies (St. Augustine, Trinidad), where Norman Girvan later taught and served as director and where I regularly heard and read Lloyd Best, another key figure in the NWG. I still have many fond memories of my time at IIR, remembering all of the students from across the Caribbean who were my classmates (still remembering all of their names), and the kind of eye-opening experience that was. I had met Norman Girvan at a very charged conference at the same IIR, where one of the central topics of debate was the Eurocentrism of developmentalist theories and practice. On this very site, many years after that conference, Norman Girvan and I exchanged our views on what were some of the misunderstandings that arose from that conference. The political scene in Trinidad was, at the time, dominated by Prime Minister A.N.R. Robinson, such a devotee of IMF structural adjustment, and the hegemonic narrative of “globalization,” that he made these seem as if they had sprung locally, as endogenous ways of thinking and doing. I thus became attracted to the insurgents who led an armed uprising against Robinson’s government in July 1990, who were the focus of my first book, dealing with the Jama’at at Muslimeen (and which will be revised, updated, and re-released late this year). Coincidentally, Robinson himself also passed away on the very same day as Norman Girvan–virtual opposites in Caribbean politics.

Tributes from Across the Caribbean

Given that I, as a non-Caribbean person, found inspiration in Girvan’s work, I was especially attracted to Caribbean Intelligence‘s observation that, “you don’t have to have moved in Caribbean academic circles to have benefited from the work he did during his regional and global career”.

Irwin LaRocque, the Secretary General of CARICOM (the Caribbean Community and Common Market) issued a press release in which stated that, “Girvan’s ideas and ideals placed him in the upper echelons of Caribbean intellectuals,” adding that,  “his service as main author of Towards a Single Development Vision and the Role of the Single Economy, a visionary document to guide the development” of Caricom, was a prime example of the commitment that Professor Girvan had to his Region”.

Professors of the University of the West Indies (UWI) have also been paying tribute to their colleague, remembering his energy, brilliance, and honesty. Perhaps one of the best statements came from Jamaican scholar, and radical intellectual, Brian Meeks:

“Girvan’s work, both as individual scholarship and as part of the New World Group that flourished throughout the Caribbean in the Sixties and early Seventies, sought to critique the nature and limitations of political independence and to redefine a space for Caribbean sovereignty as well as more inclusive notions of democracy. More specifically, through studies like the evocatively titled Foreign Capital and Economic Underdevelopment in Jamaica and Copper in Chile, Girvan argued that through the structure and operations of international corporations, the newly emergent nations of the Caribbean and Latin America were being denied a fair share of the surplus from the exploitation of their mineral resources. This, he suggested, contributed immeasurably to their inability to escape from a cycle of underdevelopment”.

The Walter Rodney Foundation in its tribute also pointed out that in the mid 1960s, Norman Girvan was a member of the CLR James study group in London that included Walter Rodney. Global Voices Online created a page listing various tributes from institutions and persons across the Caribbean, along with a collection of videos of Girvan’s speeches and interviews.

But perhaps one of the oddest, or at least unexpected tributes came from Jamaica’s own Gleaner newspaper, an ultra-right newspaper with a distinguished track record of rabid anti-communism, pro-US editorials, and support for the defeat of Jamaica’s first earnest attempt at radical social and political transformation in the 1970s, a transformation in which Girvan personally played a part as a key adviser to the government of Michael Manley. In its tribute, the newspaper casts Girvan as a “liberal”–this in spite of his long career of critique of transnational corporations, dependency, and his own avowed anti-imperialism. The Gleaner editorial also tells us that Girvan believed, “that scholarship ought not to be an end in itself. It was to be employed in bringing practical value to people”. Girvan “practised what he preached,” they add, but they also caution: “Norman Girvan would probably have argued that the effort to which he committed himself remains far from finished.”

Active Public Engagement and Leadership in Academia

  • Senior Lecturer and Lecturer in Economics at The University of the West Indies (1966-1973)
  • Senior Research Fellow, United Nations African Institute for Development and Planning (IDEP), Dakar, Senegal (1973 -1975)
  • Regional Coordinator, Caribbean Technology Policy Studies Project, The University of the West Indies/University of Guyana (1975 – 1976)
  • Head of the National Planning Agency of Jamaica (1977-1980)
  • Senior Officer and Senior Consultant, Policy Analysis and Research Division, United Nations Centre on Transnational Corporations, New York (1981-1985)
  • Director of the Consortium Graduate School of the Social Sciences at the University of the West Indies (Mona, Jamaica) (1987-1999)
  • Professor of Development Studies and Director of the Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies at the University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica (August, 1999-January, 2000)
  • Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS)
  • Institute of International Relations at UWI St Augustine, 2004-2010
  • Personal representative of the UN Secretary General on the Guyana-Venezuela border dispute
  • Board member of the South Centre
  • Member of the UN Committee on Development Policy

Political Decolonization is an Unfinished Task

Norman Girvan also led a group of faculty and students at the University of the West Indies’ campus in St. Augustine, Trinidad, in forming 1804CaribVoices: Pan-Caribbean Voices for Integration and Social Justice. “Political decolonisation is an unfinished task,” they argue, noting the continuing legacy of colonialism and economic dependency. The project was avowedly “inspired by the freedom struggles of Caribbean people through the centuries, as exemplified by the Haitian Revolution”. Their effort was aimed at promoting a “united and sovereign Caribbean, social justice, responsible governance and sustainable living in our region”. As with the New World Group before it, one central goal was to cultivate “the development of a collective Caribbean consciousness that is rooted in our rich history of resistance and creativity; transcending regional differences of language, ethnicity and political status; and supporting the emergence of a united community of Caribbean nations charting its way in the world”. Hopefully then 1804CaribVoices will continue. As we see, Girvan also utilized so-called new media/social media in helping to disseminate his message, maintaining a Twitter account in addition to his very rich blog.

Anti-Imperialism: From Venezuela to Libya

In recent years, along with his expressions of support for the Bolivarian revolution and the emancipatory transformations brought about under the leadership of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Girvan’s public writing also pushed forward the anti-imperialist perspective on Libya. Here he not only joined the Caribbean region’s many strong supporters of Muammar Gaddafi–a support that cut across religious and ethnic differences–he endorsed a number of the regional organizations’ condemnations of the war and calls for peace, posting statements by ALBA, as well as CARICOM’s initial denunciations of the war and support for the work of its sister organization, the African Union, and posting the condemnation of the murder of Gaddafi offered by Dominica’s Prime Minister, Roosevelt Skerrit and by the CARICOM Secretariat. Regarding the war against Libya, Girvan not only posted the critical articles of Caribbean journalist Rickey Singh (here and here), he also endorsed and circulated Courtenay Barnett’s open letter to Professor Juan Cole, which was also a call for an end to NATO’s war against Libya.

The Thought of New World: The Quest for Decolonization

As succinctly put by the Centre for Caribbean Thought at UWI (Mona), the New World Group (NWG),

“was established in the early 1960s, when Lloyd Best, Alister McIntyre, and other social scientists at the Institute for Social and Economic Research, UWI, Mona and later with others in Georgetown, Guyana, formed a loose discussion group for the purpose of examining economic and social problems in light of an analysis of West Indian history and society. They were committed West Indian integrationists and before the concept of the ‘Third World’ became fashionable, were radical and innovative in their approach to and rejection of metropolitan intellectual and political hegemony. With an aim to ‘transform the mode of living and thinking in the region’, the Group rejected external dogmas while engendering an ‘unfettered analysis of the experience and existing conditions of the region’ for future development. With the spread of ideas through Jamaica, Guyana, Trinidad and Tobago and the Windward and Leeward islands, the Group’s membership was regional, formidable and made an indelible contribution to the discussions, ideas and activities surrounding nation- and region-building. Many of the ideas generated by the Group found an outlet through the New World Quarterly out of Jamaica, and the New World Fortnightly out of Guyana. The distinguished participants included Lloyd Best, George Beckford, Norman Girvan, David deCaires, Miles Fitzpatrick, James Millette, Owen Jefferson, Roy Augier, Mervyn Alleyne, Kari Levitt, Alister McIntyre, Vaughn Lewis, Havelock Brewster and Sylvia Wynter, among many others.”

Some of the central questions of the NWG were summed up by Girvan in Lloyd Best and the birth of the New World Group“:

“What kind of societies and economies could, and should, be shaped once political independence was attained? Was Westminster democracy an appropriate form of government for the West Indies? Could politicians be trusted with their newly acquired power? Could economic regionalism be a substitute for the failed West Indies Federation? Was there such a thing as a ‘West Indian identity’ and what was the role of the artist in reflecting and shaping it? What about Rastafarianism and pan-Africanism?”

In “Caribbean Dependency Thought Revisited,” Girvan argues that New World thought, with its challenges to epistemic dependency (see also Long Live Independent Thought!), its original critiques of transnational corporations, the plantation economy, and peripheral capitalism, formed the foundation for Caribbean Dependency Theory which, though it suffered from a number of problems, may still be relevant in ongoing critiques of globalization. Indeed, he saw a revival of interest in dependency theory as of late given the widening revulsion with neoliberal orthodoxy. As Girvan explained in the latter article, “New World put forward a theory of Caribbean economy, a theory of Caribbean society, and a theory of Caribbean politics”.

The formation of the Faculty of Social Sciences at the Mona campus of UWI in the 1960s, along with the University’s decision to rapidly “localize” the hiring of faculty, followed by the creation of the West Indian Society for the Study of Social Issues, all helped to create the conditions for the emergence of the NWG. The critique of epistemic dependency, and thus the need to decolonize thought, became primary concerns of the NWG (and judging from where Girvan last taught, at the IIR, it is no wonder that this has endured). As Girvan explains in that paper,

“New World thinkers argued that the root of the Caribbean development problématique lay in epistemic dependence, the reliance of regional elites on ‘imported’ concepts and theories of limited relevance to actual conditions in the region. They proposed the creation of a Caribbean-centred cosmology and theory of society derived from historical study: the ‘epistemic decolonization of the region’.”

The uncritical borrowing of all foreign theories was thus their first target–and this included not just capitalist orthodoxy, but also Marxism. The Caribbean should not have to rely on the rest of the world for ideas about themselves, NWG theorists argued. For NWG, thought was action, and in their context this is one of the most important and most basic lessons they have to share with the rest of us. The creation of what some saw as a distinct Caribbean methodology and an autochthonous Caribbean social theory formed part of what some critics of NWG called the “nationalization” of social science concepts. For those of us interested in seeing non-hegemonic anthropologies formulating themselves outside of the shadow of US empire, this remains a valid project, and not just for the Caribbean. It is also significant that current calls for intellectual decolonization in various fields of study, saw their first embodiment in Caribbean scholars of the 1960s and 1970s.

You Can’t Lead Your Country to Independence Wearing a Waistcoat

In many ways, New World thinking fit perfectly with the time in which it emerged. It developed in the context of the rise of Rastafarianism, Black Power, the Cuban Revolution, and the spread of armed national liberation movements across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, since few of the original problems of this period were resolved in any meaningful manner, it’s not so surprising that there should be a revival of interest in New World thought. “Its emergence in the early post-colonial period,” Girvan explained, “responded to the contradiction between the constitutional form of national independence on one hand, and the cultural and economic reality of continuing imperial domination on the other”.

The arena of production, circulation, and consumption was also critical in the formulation of NWG’s critical perspective on the role of capitalism in fostering underdevelopment and unemployment across the region, in what some NWG members labelled the “neo-colonial mode of production“, or which others instead called “plantation capitalist societies“. The reliance on imported inputs in superficially local industrialization, the repatriation of profits by foreign firms, the lack of linkages between export-oriented industries and the rest of the local economy, all formed core components of what was essentially a neo-Marxist critique of Caribbean dependency. The critique established the parameters and bases for the formulation of alternatives: “(1) proposals for regional economic integration/regional cooperation; (2) proposals for institutional and structural reform centred on changes in ownership in key sectors of the economy; and (3) economic self-reliance in accumulation, production, and consumption”. In its more radical reaches, NWG critics of dependency envisioned a delinking from international capitalism, economic self-reliance and production to meet basic needs, and the diversification of external relations to favour more South-South cooperation. (It was a sad irony, however, that the language of “self-reliance” could be so easily [mis]appropriated by neoliberal, globalizing elites in the Caribbean: the idea, emptied of its original content, became a falsely radical-sounding thrust in promoting personal responsibility, or responsibilization as some now call it, and thus removing the state from its role in the provision of social welfare and resource allocation.)

We thus seem to have come full circle, as Girvan explained in his paper:

“Heightened foreign indebtedness and the dismantling of traditional trade preferences have increased the economic vulnerability of Caribbean countries, exposing them to pervasive external intrusions into domestic policy-making in the form of conditionalities imposed by the Washington-based international financial institutions and bilateral donors. The agreement establishing the World Trade Organization in 1994, to which all Caribbean countries are party, extends international trade disciplines to services, intellectual property, and the treatment of foreign corporations, thereby significantly constricting the ‘policy space’ previously available to developing countries. National development of the kind that was the accepted objective in the era of decolonization has been replaced by the mantra of ‘integration into the global economy.’ The new dependency associated with globalization is presented as interdependence in the effort to obfuscate its asymmetries. The wheel has come full circle from the 1960s, and there is a new orthodoxy that calls for a renewed critical analysis from an updated dependency perspective”.

The new thought fostered by those associated with the NWG, sought to provide endogenous intellectual alternatives to “the universalistic, context-free, ahistorical, asocial, and apolitical neo-classical economics that underpins neoliberal globalization“, as Girvan wrote in his paper above. And its growing relevance is underscored in this passage from Girvan’s Long Live Independent Thought!:

“Consciousness is globalised through CNN, BBC, Fox News, Reuters and API; dutifully parroted by the local media. We are programmed. To be more fixated on the rescue of people trapped underground in a distant place; than on the fate of those trapped right next to us in an underground of social exclusion.”

“We judge ourselves by the global competitiveness index, the global corruption perception index, the global human development index. A fall in credit ratings by international financial markets occasions more panic than a fall in citizens’ ratings of the quality of life“.

Caribbean Man, Global Alternatives

Girvan_AThe details of Norman Girvan’s passing also trace the outlines of a life well lived as a Caribbean man: a Jamaican, living in Trinidad and Tobago, hiking in Dominica, and then treated in Cuba. While I don’t think he ever advocated that the ideals of the NWG should simply be transferred and applied beyond the Caribbean, there clearly are lessons of global significance in his work and that of the NWG. That work is a testament to a region that, over a period of thousands of years and with especial intensity in the last 500 years, has tried and tested virtually every known form of human social and political organization. The Caribbean, at the crossroads of multiple empires and present at the founding of what we now call “modernity,” is ideally placed for presenting critical reflections and proposals for alternatives, such as those of the NWG. It is also a powerful reminder to all of the (would be) progressives, humanitarians, and developmentalists in our own societies of the global north, that the best thing they can do to “help” others is to first listen to them, try to understand them, and do everything possible in our societies to take our jackboots off the throats of peoples in the global south, whether by challenging the international financial institutions which we dominate, eroding the military alliances that we create, fighting against the transnational corporations whose power we made great, and pulling back the claws of our expansionist state.


  1. A select listing of Norman Girvan’s major book publications
  2. Caribbean Dependency Thought Revisited“.
  3. Lloyd Best and the birth of the New World Group“.
  4. Long Live Independent Thought!
  5. Aspects of the Political Economy of Race in the Caribbean and the Americas
  6. Towards a Single Development Vision and the Role of the Single Economy





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