On capitalist utopia and the rightful share

4 dead fish on the banks of the Tigris in Hasankeyf, left by children or just forgotten by fishermen. The picture was taken in 2012 as part of the ongoing photo project Hasankeyf (http://hanshochstoeger.at/portfolio/hasankeyf/)

by Deniz Seebacher & Julia Büchele

The title of James Ferguson’s latest book (2015) draws from (arguably) “the world’s most widely circulated development cliché”: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime. Contrary to the widespread assumption that most of the world’s (adult) population make a living through paid labour, Ferguson argues that full or nearly full employment remains, at best, a capitalist utopia. This is true not only for Southern Africa (the empirical basis of his work), but for capitalist countries in general. To give a man a fishing-lesson, then, will produce an unemployed fisherman rather than a person who can earn a living. Politicians and policy makers have come to realize that providing wage labour will not solve the problem of poverty and fierce inequality. They have turned recently to other means of inclusion and distribution, which generate new perceptions of social categories defining who should be entitled to social welfare. This is what Ferguson terms: ‘the New Politics of Distribution’ which first and foremost decouples work from income but also lays the foundation for new possibilities of claim-making and a sense of entitlement to (national) wealth.

The man in the title of the book is meant quite literally the “young, abled-bodied men” who are believed to participate in wage labour in order to provide for themselves and their families. Ferguson argues that the beneficiaries of social welfare were long thought to be only those who could not participate in wage labour: mothers and children, the elderly and sick. However, mass joblessness among young men has created a social underclass or “surplus labor force” for whom all hope of inclusion in the shrinking labour market is fast diminishing. As a result, new ways of inclusion into national welfare systems are being discussed and experimented with.

Give a Man a Fish, stresses the need to look at inequality within the nation state. Yet it largely ignores the larger context of historically grown, global inequalities that allow certain states to have stronger middle classes while others serve as hubs for cheap labour in the global market system. This places the argument of the book firmly within a methodological nationalism and fails to address issues of interstate redistribution and national belonging as one of the main causes of discrimination.

Ferguson celebrates the idea of Basic Income Grants (BIG) but certain issues are left unclear. Arguably most important of these is the purpose of such grants. This, Ferguson tells us, is a question that needs to be addressed empirically. While the book sets out to discuss the “possibilities and dangers” of BIG, its implications can at this point be merely speculative. Discussion about “[handing] money to the poor” do not resolve (or even address) the question of how work is or should be distributed. How would work (productive and reproductive, administrative and distributive) be organized within a system of unconditional monetary distribution? While it is high time we examine how men have been excluded from welfare grants up to now, it is crucial to be reminded that the lions share of unpaid (reproductive and care) work is still done by women. What implications do Basic Income Grants have for enduring gender-related divisions of labour?

Moreover, the attempt to provide a policy relevant book as well as a “diagnosis” of current distributive policies leads to some shortcomings in terms of its scientific basis. The conceptual and theoretical framework (as well as the methodological approach) remain vague. The book seems instead to cater to a popular political argument. Ferguson draws from his earlier work but gives hardly any evidence for the findings of this book, beyond the anecdotal, while historical accounts remain unsystematic. Give a Man a Fish comes across, less a scientific contribution than an effective spur to (political) discussion. However, despite the advantages of this approach, it raises questions as to whether the desire to engage with a wide popular audience on current social issues exempts scholars from conforming to established standards of conceptual clarity and methodological transparency. If these standards are not met, should we rather be reading this book as an opinion piece (albeit a well-documented one) which steers interesting questions for academic and policy developers alike.

And so, we were curious to see how discussions would evolve around it. And indeed, since its publication, the book has been widely discussed but also fiercely criticised. As such, it achieved its main aim, offering a starting point for discussions in a variety of academic fields. Since last summer we came to hear Ferguson’s talks on three occasions. At the University of Bern, Ferguson gave a public lecture on the “Proletarian Politics Today”. He presented a pre-marxist conceptual analogy, arguing for understanding the proletariat not as the working class but rather as the class of people without possessions, similar to the political category in ancient Rome. Ferguson argued that this understanding is more suitable to the contemporary South African context in which millions cannot even dare to hope for employment and need to find alternative ways to make a livelihood – a class of people who would constitute the lumpen-proletariat in Marxist terms.

At Harvard University, Ferguson framed his work in medical and ethical anthropological terms. His talk Presence and Social Obligation. An Essay on the Share offered an analogy to Mauss’ famous Essai Sur Le Don. He proposed to see sharing (or the rightful share) as a total social fact similar to the gift; and presence (‘the mere fact of being there among us’) as the basis for social obligation. Obligation (in contrast to generosity) does not lead to compassion or pity; it might rather provoke anger among those who have to give and a sense of entitlement among those who have the right to receive.

Ferguson’s most recent talk was held at the University of Sussex on production and distribution in relation to wage labor and unemployment. Here, he not only discussed his book but also his current work with Tania Li on mass urban unemployment as a way of life in the modern city. Ferguson suggested we ‘stop thinking of improvised livelihoods as marginal, transitional, provisional’ and instead look at how people engage in what he terms ‘distributive labor’. Importantly, he urged us to overcome the ‘productionist bias’ that underpins policy and scholarship, that binds labour to production. Rather, as managing and cultivating complex networks of relationships becomes central in the everyday lives of those who are not employed or engaged in production, we should see labour as the work involved in sustaining those relations and claiming a share from these collective productive endeavours.

Ferguson’s talks show the wide spectrum he covers thematically: while in Bern he spoke about the “proletariat”, in Harvard he offered thoughts on presence and redistribution, and in Sussex he turned to the Development agenda and the crisis of the non-working. Yet at all three talks the subsequent discussion centred on similar issues: questions of methodological accuracy, the lack of historical depth, analytical notions of space and physical presence, most notably of all, the need for more nuanced perspectives on gender and reproductional work. All valid and important critiques, which nevertheless underscore, rather than undermine, the vital contribution Give a man a fish makes. As a spur to current debates, for practitioners, policy writers and academics alike Ferguson seeks to engage with wider questions of making a living, poverty, labour and redistribution of wealth.

For more discussion on the political economy of social assistance and James Ferguson’s Give a Man Fish take a look at Bennett Heine’s post, Invisible Government, Conjured Markets

* This book review was first published in similar form in the Swiss Society for African Studies Newsletter 2/2015 (Schweizer Gesellschaft für Afrikastudien – SGAS).

Feature Photo © Hans Hochstoeger – www.hanshochstoeger.at

Deniz Seebacher is a DOC-team fellow of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, PhD candidate at Vienna University, and currently visiting scholar at Sussex University. Her main interest lies in contemporary organisations and organising, especially in (business) practices framed as corporate social responsibility and sustainability. Her PhD draws on extended ethnographic fieldwork in one of Turkey’s largest apparel corporations.

Contact: seebacherd56@univie.ac.at // deniz@vereinmindset.org

Julia Büchele is PhD student at the Centre for African Studies Basel. She has studied Social Anthropology and Sociology in Vienna, Basel and Lucerne and writes her PhD on expatriates (accompanying spouses) in Kampala, Uganda. In 2015/2016 she was a visiting scholar at the African American and African Studies Department at Harvard University and is currently working at the Centre for African Studies, Basel

Contact: j.buechele@unibas.ch




Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s