Cultural events such as festivals and carnivals have always been in the midst of cultures, supporting heritage and traditions. The role of festivals has evolved over the centuries, first centered around religions or emerging organically, in concert with agricultural and climatic cycles festivals have developed into tools used to celebrate communities, practices, historic events..

Cultural events known to have the most sociological and political meanings are Carnivals. Taking place once a year, in rural environment, revelers take the streets of a city, dancing and marching behind music bands. Martin (2001) defines a Carnival as a renewal rite performed in almost every human society. It stages a play on life and death and because it deals with fertility and the permanence of life, it is closely linked to representations of power.

Traditional carnivals – Symbolic displays of power

Literary theorist and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin was the first to analyse the political and social power of medieval carnivals. Bakhtin describes medieval carnivals as anarchic and liberating occasions during which the political, legal and ideological authority of both the church and state were inverted. He defends that it is in this vision of a world upside down that resides the political power of carnivals. The emphasis on abandonment, the mock of normal rules, and changes in normative hierarchical power structures allowed for moments of freedom and liberation of the lower class. (Bakhtin, 1984).

Carnival is a communal performance where there is no boundary between audience and performer, marked by displays of excess and grotesqueness. Simultaneously carnival allows the displays of social hierarchies and their temporary abolition (Bakhtin, 1984). The emphasises on abandonment, the mock of normal rules, and changes in normative hierarchical power structures allowed for moments of freedom and liberation of the lower class.

During the Colonial period, Europeans established the slave trade, deporting millions of Africans to work the sugar cane fields of the Caribbean. French colonists bought with them their European carnivalesque customs. The white elite’s masquerade balls, as well as their parades through the streets, introduced the ‘world turned upside down element of European carnivals into the Caribbean.  

Once emancipated in the mid-1800’s African slaves, formed their own parallel celebration: ‘canbouley’. Drawing on their own traditions of dancing, and masking, they engaged in role-reversal and re-enactment of ‘Cannes Brulées” in English “Burnt Cane”, a brutal practice during which they were forced to cut and salvage cane during cane fires. During these celebrations, bands would rampage through the streets blowing horns, and conch shells, carrying lighted torches, cracking whips, brandishing sticks, beating drums, jumping up, dancing and chanting African and patois songs. These instances of symbolic displays of power are intimately linked with Bakhtin’s analysis of the political and social power of medieval carnivals.

Although historically there have been some instances where carnivals have turned into revolutions leading to drastic political changes, carnivals do not imply an upsetting of social order and power systems. Martin (2001) defends that the political power of carnival resides in its symbolic displays. In his research, he argues that studying carnivals in terms of imaginative rationales, symbolism and social representation can tell us more about the relationship between rulers and rules than just concentrating on the open manifestations of political opinions.

The elements that differentiate carnivals from other cultural events are the elements that contribute to the political potential of carnivals. These elements are masks, laughter, and disorder.

Politics of Carnival

Carnivals have evolved since medieval times and are today somewhat less obvious in their characteristics of political symbolism. Contemporary carnivals may appear to be a pure cultural performance but carnivals remain inevitably political through the centuries.

The creation, modification, and integration of various cultural forms to deal with changing economic-political conditions is at the core of politico-cultural movements. It is this evolving cultural structure that defines the political identity of the community. It serves as an important system of communication between its members, uniting them and providing them with ideology to guide their actions (Cohen, 1980).

The political and organizational functions of Carnival are in direct relation to its cultural and artistic forms: The cultural is not separable from, or in opposition to the political: itis fundamentally political.

The function of carnival is dependent on the politico-cultural climate it finds itself in. One of its functions can be to act as a resource for cultural resistance and for social progress. However, Carnivals also offer release from the constraints of the social order (Cohen, 1993). In this case, it will primarily attracts those  “under endless pressure, the dispossessed and the oppressed”. As a result, socio-cultural movements such as Notting hill Carnival, unavoidably call for the active intervention of the government.The political nature of a carnival will depend on its respective community’s integration within the dominant culture. Cohen (1993) argues that the state, the dominant culture, or the politically dominant group will try to co-opt the movement.

By politicizing it, in other words, recognising the carnival as part of the social order, the carnival will require less active participation of the law and order. In the opposite case, where the politico-cultural movement isn’t integrated in the dominant culture, the carnival becomes a resistance movement, acting as a safety valve, an “opium for the masses” (Cohen, 1993). This calls for active participation in the law and order.

"where the politico-cultural movement isn’t integrated in the dominant culture,the carnival becomes a resistance movement, acting as a safety valve, an “opium for the masses” (Cohen, 1993).

Carnivals can thereby become contested politically and culturally, on a continuum from predominantly resistance movement to a predominantly co-opted one. The political impact of carnivals which depends on its integration within the dominant culture is subject to change depending on the challenges the communities are facing. For example, the riots of Notting Hill Carnival in 1967 were directly linked with issues of racial acceptance, lack of opportunities and unemployment of the West Indian community. The riots of 1967 required an active participation of the law and order. What stared off as a cultural movement in the 1950’s had become a resistance movement for the West Indian community.

In her book, ‘Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy’ Barbara Ehrenreich (2006) comes back on the history of festive processions and dancing rituals, illustrating how authorities such as the church and later Capitalism and Puritanism have attempted and mostly succeeded in banishing public group manifestations of dancing, feasting, drinking, costuming, and mocking the powerful. She claims that in these manifestation lies rare instances of ‘collective joy’ during which ‘ecstatic states” can be reached, these techniques of ecstasy represent an important part of the human cultural heritage.

She states that depression is a direct consequence of the abandonment of collective festivities with their "mind- preserving, life-saving techniques of ecstasy".