IUAES 2014: Ferguson’s keynote


The second day of IUAES 2014 featured a keynote address by James Ferguson, based on his upcoming book on distributive politics. He gave this address on May 17th and it was titled:

“A Rightful Share: beyond gift and market in the politics of distribution.”

Ferguson’s keynote focused on a subject central to anthropology: sharing, gift-giving, distribution, and exchange. He discussed these issues in light of the expansion of social welfare programs based on cash transfers and the growth of “distributive politics” in South Africa, where there is a political discourse based on the claim: “the people shall share in the county’s wealth,” especially as it relates to mineral resources.  In this sense, the “nation” is compared to a house, in which all people who live in it ought to have equal rights in access to basic resources that are common to the house.  In South Africa, there is an increased demand for service delivery such as housing, electricity, water and social assistance which perceived as due as a matter of citizenship. According to Ferguson, even jobs are seen as goods that the state ought to deliver. Ferguson relates both “blood politics” based on political demands for resource distribution to the institutionalized cash transfer systems in what he calls the “politics of the rightful share.”

In South Africa, there is a powerful discourse over the “right to own and receive a share” of the wealth of the country. Nationalism, or the creation of one owner on behalf of all, did not fulfill this concept as a country’s wealth was consistently appropriated by the interests of the elites who controlled the state bureaucracy. The question of “how and to whom should this stuff be distributed?” remains a fundamental problem in the logistics of rights or claims to ownership. Thus, social assistance in the form of direct cash transfers in the form of old age pensions, child care, etc emerged as a way to address the problem of poverty or ‘lack’ faced by society. One of the problems that Ferguson mentions in the context of cash transfers was the issue of giving cash largely to women and the elderly while millions of unemployed able-bodied men remained unemployed. And so Ferguson questioned if the idea of a cash transfer can be re-purposed by “re-thinking the meaning of a transfer by seeing it as a ‘rightful share.'” This is where Ferguson’s argument becomes quite interesting, even if the logic serves a  heuristic device to understand the politics of distribution.

In order to re-think the meaning of ‘transfers,’ one must begin by looking at how social assistance is distributed as a gift or type of generosity rather than a ‘right.’ If the state or donor agencies are giving out gifts, then the population who receives these gifts are faced with being in a state of “failed reciprocity” or dependence. Ferguson draws on Richard Titmuss’ paradigm of the gift and points out that in the allocation of shared resources, the central concept is in sharing, not gift-giving. Thus the recipients are entitled to a share of the wealth, as in Woodburn’s notion of “sharing is not a form of exchange,” but a key feature of sociability that often takes the form of ‘demand sharing.’ In the case of deman sharing, the process of distribution via sharing is usually initiated by “critical recipients.” Thus, when a hunter brings back a kill to his/her home community, the goods are distributed to members of the community “who already have rights in them.” These right-holding members are often critical, they may “insult the meat,” as in the meat a hunter brings back to the village. Ferguson relates this concept of “the rightful share” to modern corporate structures, which are governed by shareholders who claim rights over certain types of property or processes. It is at this moment that Ferguson’s argument becomes very interesting. He asks if it is possible to understand a payment, such as a cash transfer, as neither a gift or in exchange for wage labor. If these payments are viewed as a share, then “the social stigma vanishes, there is no expectation for return, no debt, no shame of failed reciprocity.”  Then, Ferguson takes this line of thought a step further by asserting that because most wealth in the world today is transferred through processes of inheritance, then indeed there is an increasing lack of connection between labor and wealth. If wealth is inherited, then Ferguson claims that past labor in the form of a production apparatus, the heritage of labor, is something that belongs to all and the wealth generated from such productive apparatuses can be claimed in much the same way that mineral wealth is claimed as a resource that is simply “there.” The concept of a politics of the “rightful share” serves to “sever the link between income and labor.” In Ferguson’s own words, this is at the heart of the “social origin of value.”


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