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Egalitarian fantasy and politics in the real world

When Donald Trump became American president, the global intelligentsia recoiled in disbelief. It wasn’t just Trump himself that they found dismaying, but also the fact that millions of Americans had voted for a tycoon from a gilded penthouse to head their state. How could they elect someone so utterly unlike themselves – socially, culturally, economically – as their political representative? And why did so many women prefer a lascivious male bully to Hillary Clinton, contra the presumptive laws of female solidarity? Most of the answers offered by left-liberal intellectuals were derogatory: racism, populism, bigotry, cultural anxiety, economic ignorance, political naïveté. But surely the voices of Trump’s supporters were sufficiently clear. What they wanted was someone precisely not like themselves, but rather superior to them: a richer, more powerful man, better positioned and able than they could ever be to improve their lives. A woman who voted for Trump in Michigan put it this way: ‘Obama is more like your best friend who has parties and has Beyoncé over, and then Trump is like your dad. He’s going to come whoop your ass because you didn’t do what you were supposed to do and get it done’.[1]

What made commentators tone-deaf to this choice, apart from wishful thinking, is their belief in equality as the ultimate political value, a value that in their eyes ought to organise all kinds of political relations: among citizens, within political parties, between voters and politicians. Surely, they thought, people will vote for someone most like them, someone they can identify with and trust for this very reason. But for many of Trump’s voters representation was a matter not of identity, but of putting their faith in and pledging their loyalties to someone who stood far above them. This is to say that the logic of their choice was not egalitarian, shaped by the value of equivalence or identity, but hierarchical, oriented by distinction and inequality as a political good. This logic works not only in America, of course, but most anywhere in the world: India, Italy, Indonesia, South Africa, France, Brazil. And yet, social scientists are as resistant as journalists to the moral significance of hierarchy in political judgment. They condemn it as ‘clientelism’ or ‘patronage’ and denounce it as a residue of premodern, feudal politics; or as cynical realpolitik – desperate, instrumental, exploitative – not a politics of choice and will.

In their richly researched, politically astute and lucidly written ethnographies – no theory stodge here – Jason Hickel and Aaron Ansell confront this consensus. Their settings could not be more different. Hickel’s is post-apartheid, rapidly neoliberalising South Africa, and Ansell’s are the backlands of Lula’s socialist Brazil.  And yet both give accounts of deeply felt hierarchical sensibilities at war with liberal democracy’s egalitarian mandate.

In 1994, when South Africans put an end to apartheid, it looked as if the newly unified black majority, which had elected Nelson Mandela as president and ratified an intensely progressive constitution, had finally launched a new era of liberalism and democracy. What followed instead, however, was a protracted civil war that claimed some 20,000 lives. Its epicentre was the province of KwaZulu-Natal, home of the Zulu tribe, where Hickel conducted his research. The war, Hickel argues, was not tribal or ethnic, but cultural and ideological, with fault lines falling between Zulu townsmen who backed the project of liberalism and democratisation, and rural Zulu migrants who took up arms against liberal democracy, in which they saw a systematic assault on their lives, something that was ‘ruining families and killing the country’. In his beautifully crafted book, Hickel explains the logic of this hostility, showing what makes millions of Zulus see liberal democracy as a violently destructive force, and why for them the struggle against it is a matter of life and death.

To do this, Hickel takes us into the inner sanctum of Zulu life, the home. The Zulu home inscribes in its spatial layout the moral order of proper family relations which are the bedrock of a good Zulu life: a life of social reproduction and peace, plentiful harvests and robust health, good fortune, personal flourishing and fulfilment. Relations in the home and the family are strictly hierarchical –  structured by distinctions of gender, generation and status, rooted in rules of precedence, built on deference to and dependence on superiors – and mapped out in the Zulu homestead, which is divided into ranked spaces for ancestors, elders, heads of household, and their sons. This layout is a microcosm of broader social relations within extended families and the Zulu polity. Once used by kings to structure rank and tribute in their kingdoms, it was later the locus of British indirect rule. Rural Zulus see in this order the source of life – its social and biological reproduction. Those who are older give birth to and care for the young, while ancestors ensure healthy harvests, fertility and good fortune. The hierarchical code of family relations (norms of respect, deference and comportment, the ranking of houses, order of inheritance, and the homestead tribute system) is also ‘fundamental to [Zulu] cultural heritage – the very root of their autochthony … the most important marker of proper Zuluness’. Reified and refashioned though it was under the British, this order has been around for a long time.

But since 1994 it has been under siege. Democracy and a host of liberal policies (which rural Zulus also think of as ‘democracy’), such as support for abortion, free-choice marriage, the rights of women and youth, child support grants, public housing programmes, etc., aim to level the Zulu world, to equalise and atomise individuals across differences of generation, gender and status, to flatten patriarchies and geriarchies, and so, as rural Zulus see it, produce ‘a sterile homogeny that undermines life itself’. ‘Because of democracy’, says one migrant, ‘now the women and the men are becoming the same, the ancestors are displeased, and many misfortunes are coming upon us’, misfortunes such as ‘declining marriage rates, rising unemployment, deepening poverty, and epidemic disease’. Encounters with egalitarian forms of life in the townships amplify this sentiment among rural migrants, inducing what Hickel calls a ‘structural nostalgia’, a longing for a pristinely hierarchical age and its rich, happy life. Rural Zulus have nothing against racial equality and universal franchise; however, they reject two aspects of neoliberal economic and liberal social engineering: ‘the neoliberal subject who is left to sink or swim in the brave new world of the market, and the autonomous, self-realising individual disembedded from kinship and cut loose from the ancestors’. This is not an idle metaphysics of the soul nor a retrograde cultural fantasy. The threat is very real and for the rural Zulus it is well and truly a matter of life and death: ‘Families across Zululand countryside invest a tremendous amount of their meagre incomes toward purchasing livestock for sacrifice in a desperate bid to reorder their families and solicit the protection of their ancestors against a world of mounting misfortune’.

Meanwhile, in the backlands of northern Brazil, the sertão, where Ansell conducted his research, the farmers, conversely, celebrate democracy: they relate intensely to politicians, engage enthusiastically with electoral politics and vote with zest (voter turnouts hover at 80%). What the farmers take issue with is not the democratic process as such, but its egalitarian vision advanced through Brazil’s then president Lula’s anti-poverty programmes. In the Brazilian backlands, democracy is grounded in the hierarchical principles that morally anchor people’s relations to their political leaders. These relations, known conventionally as ‘patronage’ or ‘clientelism’, rest on lasting loyalties, expectations of care and generosity, and they tie politicians into relations of deeply personal responsibility. Here patronage rests, as Ansell puts it, on ‘intimate hierarchy’, an intense and personally profound bond of mutual vulnerability, reliance and need. Patron-politicians and their client-constituents are unequal (politically, socially, economically), as is the reciprocity between them. They owe one another different things. But, as Ansell explains, their relations are also rooted in a fundamental equality of mutual need: voters rely on politicians’ provision and care, and politicians rely on voters’ loyalty and support. Hierarchy and equality are mutually supporting, not mutually exclusive, principles.

An earlier generation of anthropologists understood this. They knew that for ordinary people, the world over, hierarchical exchanges formed the backbone of political responsibility, that they tied politicians into relations of fundamental, familial obligation, requiring them to deliver what people need and want (e.g., Mintz and Wolf 1950; Pitt-Rivers 1954; Campbell 1964; Wolf 1966). But in recent decades patronage has become the political institution non grata, slated by both policy makers and social scientists as the archnemesis of democracy, the global political villain that silences and humiliates the poor as it ties them into servile bonds. President Lula shared this view. In 2003, he rolled out a very expensive, country-wide antipoverty programme, called Zero Hunger (Fome Zero). It was designed to feed the poor, but it was also, as Ansell notes, a social engineering project meant to dismantle patronal relations in the name of democracy and social justice. Mundane programme exercises turned into moral crusades against people’s relations with their patron-politicians, against their political intimacies. Programme officials, convinced of the wrongness of patronage, tried to inculcate ‘egalitarian nostalgia’, a moral longing after a presumptive golden era of virtuous reciprocity; they led pilgrimages to promote lateral, ethnic solidarity among Afro-Brazilian villagers; and they attempted to marginalise local mayors.  Their efforts failed and within a year of its existence, Zero Hunger collapsed. The programme’s officials did rattle the endogenous sense of political life – they ‘messed with people’s hearts’, as one farmer put it – but the local political culture withstood the siege. Poor farmers rejected abstract, bureaucratised promises in favour of people, real people whom they could relate to, hold responsible and trust. Like the rural Zulus, Brazilian farmers chose the order of beneficence, care and mutual support over immediate financial benefits.

In metropolitan imagination, wherever it may be located on the Right-Left political spectrum, equality has surely become the ultimate all-purpose political value. Whether communists or libertarians, we are all egalitarians now. We may disagree about what kind of equality should orient our political lives, but we have no doubt that equality it should be, believing in one or another kind of equivalence as the chief source of justice and fairness, the ultimate social and political good (Kymlicka 2002: 5).

This way of looking at things is, in fact, ethnographically and historically rare. In Euro-American thinking, and global law, the blind faith in equality is an extremely recent phenomenon, shared widely for no more than four decades (see Moyn 2015). How and why this has come to pass is a question for the historians. It is up to the anthropologists, however, to examine this faith ethnographically, as a moral fact of political and legal modernity, and to trace its implications for social and political lives around the world.

Hickel and Ansell join a small crop of scholars who treat egalitarianism ethnographically, rather than normatively, and take it to task – showing why people, from Burma to Zambia, from India to Germany and the United States, believe in hierarchy and cherish it as a vital social and political good (e.g., Ferguson 2013; Piliavsky 2014; Peacock 2015; Fumanti 2016; Haynes and Hickel 2016; Graeber and Sahlins 2017; Keeler 2017). The sensibility they describe is probably too culturally pervasive, too morally deep, too socially fundamental in too many settings to deserve a gloss as arcane as ‘hierarchy’. This sensibility stems from the recognition that inequality, or differentiation of worth, is an inevitable, indeed a constitutive, part of life; and that it can be both bad and good, the basis of both abuse and care. What social scientists call ‘hierarchy’ is a moral domestication of inequality, a way of making good of it: turning it into the basis of mutual care, reliance and responsibility, of a life that is orderly, peaceful andprosperous. Hierarchical normativity assumes myriad cultural forms that have been detailed at length by earlier generations of anthropologists, be it in work on kinship or leadership, kingship, chieftaincy or caste (see, e.g., Lewis 1974; Dumont 1980; Sahlins and Graeber 2018). But the elemental idea is that greater wealth, status and power entails greater degrees of responsibility. People with more ought to be responsible for those with less. This is as much the normative foundation of the patronal politics described by Ansell as of the family relations detailed by Hickel.

Political relations – between rulers and subjects, leaders and followers, family heads and their households, the government and the people – are unequal in principle. Democracy, even if it delivers impeccably on its promise to empower the ruled, does not change this. In democracies the power balance may pivot during elections with the rulers finding themselves momentarily subject to the will of the ruled, but at no given time is this relation actually equal. It could only be so if the ruled and the rulers were one and the same, which was not true even in ancient Athens, where most people (women, non-citizens, slaves) were subjects of a tiny citizen-elite. It is even less true in modern, representative democracies (see Manin 1997). Whether in democracies, chiefdoms or caliphates, it is hierarchical sensibility that gives inequality, which is intrinsic to politics, a moral basis, a way of reckoning political responsibility and grounds for holding one’s superiors to account. Little wonder, then, that people across the world often counter attempts to level political relations, or replace them with abstract policies or bureaucratic procedures, with hostility. For no matter how vivid the egalitarian fantasy entertained by professional analysts, or how much anthropologists labour on the ‘assumption that human societies were egalitarian and homogenous from the start’ (Sahlins 2015: 11), ethnography shows that the world for most of its human denizens is not flat.



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  1. [1]The Washington Post 4 May 2017;

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