Q&A with James Ferguson

Ferguson S15 author photoJames Ferguson is Susan S. and William H. Hindle Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences and Professor in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. His new book Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution is based on his 2009 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture at the University of Rochester. He examines the rise of social welfare programs in southern Africa in which states give cash payments to their low income citizens. These programs, Ferguson argues, offer new opportunities for political mobilization and inspire new ways to think about issues of production, distribution, markets, labor and unemployment.

What was your inspiration to begin this research?

I first started thinking about these issues (already back in the 1990s) out of my Ferguson_cvr_front_REVdissatisfaction in trying to square the usual academic narratives about “neoliberalism” with what I was observing in southern Africa. All the social theory suggested that “free market” capitalism was rampant across the globe, while “the welfare state” was everywhere in retreat or worse. Yet what I saw – in South Africa, Namibia, and several other places – was a steady expansion of schemes of social protection, featuring the payment of old age pensions and child support grants to increasingly large proportions of the population. I began to realize that there was something fundamentally wrong with our most influential critical narratives about contemporary capitalism. Indeed, once I started looking, I realized that is was not only in southern Africa that new sorts of “social” states were challenging those narratives, but that the same was happening across much of the global South. So I wanted to take up the challenge of theorizing these strange new sorts of welfare states, and trying to assess their political significance.

I also became interested in the fact that new thinking seemed to be emerging in and around these new welfare states in ways that suggested to me possibilities for new sorts of politics. In particular, I became interested in campaigns for what is called “basic income” (a small universal payment to be paid to all citizens, in the form of a “basic income grant” [BIG]) in South Africa and Namibia. In the book I reflect on the significance of some of these new ways of thinking about social payments, and try to think about how they may be coming to be linked to new sorts of political claims.

You say you want to understand cash transfers and other forms of social protection as part of a “politics of distribution.” What do you mean by that?

The story I tell about cash transfers is set against a backdrop within which the role played by wage labor has, especially for the poorest segments of society, declined markedly. This is especially true in southern Africa, of course (the real rate of unemployment in South Africa is often reckoned at around 40%, and it is much higher in some neighboring countries). But it is not only a southern African story. All over the world, people are leaving the countryside for the city, but while our old narratives suggested they would be swallowed up into an expanding proletariat, in fact they are often not able to find stable wage labor of any kind, and end up hanging around in this thing we call the “informal economy.” In this context, I try to point out the increasingly important role played by new sorts of distrubutive claims. Social payments are key here (more than 30% of all South Africans today receive a monthly social grant from the state). But the wider point is that this is just one sort of distributive claim among others. All around the world, people are making direct claims to resources based on things other than labor – things like humanitarian or emergency assistance, medical need, compensation for environmental stewardship, claims based on indigeneity or national ownership of resources, and so on. This is what I mean by a politics of distribution.

Why do you think the whole issue of distribution has tended to be neglected and (as you put it) denigrated?

I start here with the old “Give a man a fish” cliché, with its common-sensical idea that while distribution only treats a superficial symptom (the man is hungry), creating new forms of production (“teaching a man to fish”) creates a “real”, “structural” change that is of lasting value. But of course knowing how to fish doesn’t guarantee you an income – as I show, southern Africa is in fact swarming with unemployed fishermen. In fact, I suggest that the real “underlying cause” of the deprivation of those with only their labor to sell is not their own failures of preparation (not knowing how to fish), but simply that they have been abruptly cut out of a distributive deal that used to include them. In such a view, getting cut back in to the distributive deal is not treating the “symptom” but goes, in fact, to the very root of the matter: the lack of any distributive entitlement is the underlying cause. And there is no reason to treat distributive arrangements as any less “real” (or any less “structural”, for that matter) than productive arrangements.

It’s also clear that the belittling of distribution is linked to a kind of gender politics, in which women and children may require direct distribution, but a man must “fish” (i.e., labor) for himself. So the valorization of production over distribution is also the valorization of the masculine over the feminine, which helps make visible why the politics of welfare is always bound up with such nasty sorts of misogyny. Insisting on a politics of distribution here can be a quite fundamental theoretical move, one that questions the masculinist and productionist common sense that lies behind both our received ideas of the “real” and the “structural” and our political privileging of the figure of the wage laborer, the proletarian.

The book highlights the importance of distribution, not only in social programs, but in a whole range of livelihood strategies pursued by the poor. How do you understand these, and what do you mean by “distributive labor”?

We often tend to suppose that most people, most of the time, derive their income by working for wages and salaries. I think it’s very important to realize that that is simply not the case – certainly in southern Africa, and to a surprising extent not even in a place like the United States. Huge numbers of people (not only children and the elderly but also massive numbers of so-called “working age” people) are not in the labor market at all, but find other ways of “getting by.” We sometimes talk about the “informal economy” here, but I argue that that term often obscures more than it clarifies. Instead, I’m interested in making more visible all the livelihoods that depend not on selling either one’s labor or its products, but on making distributive claims on the resources or income streams of others. Social assistance is one important way this happens, but it exists in the context of a great many other, vernacular kinds of distributive flows.

I speak of “distributive labor” here to emphasize that being able to make such distributive claims on others doesn’t happen all by itself. On the contrary, it is the result of long and difficult work, as social relationships are carefully tended, social obligations met (or not), long geographic distances bridged, funerals attended – all of which has to happen before one can make a claim on the wealth or earning power of a patron, an ally or a kinsman. In southern Africa, people have been doing this sort of thing for generations, in the context of migrant labor and remittances. Today, labor plays a diminished role, but the old networks and practices of distribution continue to be extremely important, even as the sources of income have sometimes themselves shifted in ways that leave recipients of social grants, rather than workers, as those who are expected to share their incomes with needy others.

Why are some people so threatened by the idea of cash transfers? What about the idea that they promote “dependency”?

In any discussion of social protection today, there is a special alarm reserved for the “problem of dependency.” This is especially the case if we are talking (as we are in the campaigns for “basic income”, for instance) about grants that might be paid not just to older people or to women caring for children, but to what are called “working age” men.  But in the book, I contest the whole idea that “dependency” is some sort of terrible problem. First of all, we’re all dependent on others for crucially important aspects of our lives and livelihoods. Indeed, in some ways wage laborers are especially dependent on others – most of all, on the persons or institutions that employ them, as they find out as soon as mines or factories close, or dips in the business cycle throw them unceremoniously into the street. What is more, the poor in particular are always highly dependent on others – in fact, it is only via relations of dependence that they are able to survive. In this respect, dependence is not the problem, it is the solution. Now what does the payment of small cash grants do to this situation? It does not somehow introduce “dependency” into a world that had been innocent of it. The relations of dependence have been there all along. And it’s not as if these small transfers of funds enable people to sit back and do nothing – they’re generally very small, and are a very long way from providing a comfortable living by themselves. In fact, what the research shows is that rather than making people passive, small amounts of cash enable a surprising range of activities that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. With respect to the question of dependence, those receiving these small cash grants are enabled (thanks to the possibility of these activities) to participate in a more active and equal way in the circuits of mutual dependence that keep poor communities going. But in the end, I think the terror of “dependency” is not really about the actual effects of grants on the behavior of the poor at all. It’s more to do with the inherited prejudices of an earlier era (when poor communities whose labor was badly needed by capitalist enterprises were kept on the brink of starvation as an “incentive” to work) and a kind of gender panic over the idea that men (and not just women and children) might be acknowledged as dependent.

Don’t these systems that deliver small cash payments to the poor in fact help prevent more systemic demands for change? Aren’t they ultimately rather conservative in this sense?

 In fact, I don’t think this is at all clear. It is an old Marxist argument, of course – that social assistance is basically just a way of buying off the poor with crumbs from the table, thereby securing their quiescence. But advocates for universal cash schemes like the Basic Income Grant (BIG) make a strong counter-argument. Turning those excluded from the world of wage labor into people who can make direct material claims on the state is in fact, they say, a way of activating and energizing them politically. The old Left, after all, used to call these people “the Lumpenproletariat” and saw no progressive role for them at all. Treating them instead as real citizens with legitimate material claims on the society, the argument goes, can in fact open up new kinds of political mobilization. Ultimately, I think this has to be an empirical question. But it would be a big mistake to suppose that we already know what the political implications will ultimately be of the expansion of cash transfers to so many poor people all over the world.

You trace the emergence of ways of thinking in which social payments appear not as a gift or “assistance”, but as what you call “a rightful share.” What does this mean?

 This idea of a rightful share grows out of the politics of natural resources in the context of highly unequal societies. In southern African countries that have both substantial mineral wealth, and a recent history of national liberation from settler-colonial rule (I am thinking of South Africa, Namibia, and Zimbabwe), the question arises of who really owns, or ought to own, this wealth. The old socialist idea that “the people” must own the wealth has historically tended to be collapsed into the idea of state ownership – but of course we’ve learned that having the state own everything doesn’t always turn out so well for “the people” in whose name they claim to rule. So it’s been very interesting to see this idea of popular rights to national wealth (whose diamonds are they, really?) starting to be linked not to state nationalization of industries, but to more specific distributive claims, such as the idea that mineral wealth that belongs to “the nation” should be used to fund a universal basic income payment for all.

I am also struck by the way that claims to “a rightful share” can harness the moral power of a language of right to claims that are not easily contained within neoliberal “rights talk”. In the book, I tell the story of a man attending a housing rights workshop. At the end of a day of long harangues about constitutional rights, what rights citizens have, how to educate oneself about one’s rights, and so on, he gets up and says: “But there’s been some mistake. I don’t want the right to a house.” What?! How can this be? He doesn’t want the right to a house? Finally, he explains: “I want a house.” It is this sort of demand – not the right to a house, but the house itself; not a claim to be acknowledged as a formally equal rights-holder, but a demand to receive a material share of the nation’s wealth – that I find so interesting. And I think it is possible to see in some of these new developments an emergent new politics.

You can order Give a Man a Fish from your favorite local or online bookstore, or call 888-651-0122 to order directly from Duke University Press. Use coupon code E15FERGU to save 30%!

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