‘Be my boss!’ Comments on South African and Amerindian forms of subjection.
From the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 19, 246-247
© Royal Anthropological Institute 2013,
Oiara Bonilla, Museu Nacional, Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro.
The key to Ferguson’s article is at the end, where he argues that state policies must take into account not only transformations in the South African economy and labour market, but also what South Africans say when they insist on privileging relations of dependency and paternalism.
Ferguson asks why South Africans, who might otherwise be seen as free and autonomous citizens, continue to seek out ‘bosses’. He thus reveals the contradiction that opposes a Western ideal of autonomy and liberty informing public policies in liberal states to a social logic based on kinship, segmentation, and expansion through the capture of persons. Ferguson shows that both the Ngoni state and colonial South Africa were constituted through the incorporation of persons captured from beyond the limits of the social group, with whom bonds of dependency and temporary subjection were established through kinship. This ‘sociological snowball’ movement is closely tied to a relational conception of the person and to a socio-politics based on hierarchy and segmentation: that is, to a vertical, expansionist, and dynamic relational system.
According to Ferguson, the post-apartheid rupture brought with it nostalgia for the boss, a feeling that is common to a variety of Amazonian peoples who were also subjected to particularly violent historical processes of transformation. Although they are situated in a significantly different historical and ethnographic context, the data presented by Ferguson are easily put into relation with recent work carried out by a range of researchers in southwestern Amazonia, a region marked by the rubber
economy and the violence of the debt-peonage system.
Some of the expressions recorded by Ferguson, such as ‘Let me serve you!’ or ‘Be my boss!’, could have easily come from the mouth of a Paumari man insistently seeking work in the town of Lábrea, in the south of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. The Paumari, an Indigenous Amazonian people, inhabit the banks of the middle course of the Purus River, a region that was one of the main suppliers of rubber during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As is common throughout the region, they are nostalgic for the time of the rubber bosses, recalling the large quantities of merchandise available to them through their easy access to them.
But this nostalgia is not restricted to the manufactured goods of the whites, since it refers above all to a ‘living together’ that constituted kinship with foreigners through commensality, receiving care, and symbolic goods. Being employed by a boss guaranteed not only access to manufactured goods, but also the possibility of being baptized by a boss, receiving a new name, acquiring new techniques and modes of livelihood, and travelling through the Purus.
Inverting the Amazonian relational scheme described by ethnologists of the region as a ‘metaphysics of predation’, the Paumari choose to position themselves in relational contexts as prey rather than predators. In the present, these relations are systematically translated into a commercial idiom. The Paumari thus shift themselves from the position of prey to the position of servants, consequently forcing their interlocutors, who are potential predators, to pity them and employ them, and thereby shift towards the position of domesticated bosses. By placing themselves in the weaker position, the
Paumari oblige their interlocutors to assume the role of providers of material and symbolic goods. Subjecting themselves to others is a Paumari strategy that contrasts in interesting ways with the segmentary and expansionist Ngoni dynamic described by Ferguson. Indeed, the Ngoni state captures people in its exterior, subsuming and incorporating them to the hierarchy of the system, enabling, through time, a certain social mobility for the captives, who come to be integral parts of the system by founding their own lineages. If it is the ideal of expansionism and social mobility through
filiation and the logic of vertical reproduction that guided the voluntary subjection of populations to the Ngoni and colonial South African states, for the Amazonian Paumari the strategy of self-subjection is guided by an ideal form of parasitism that colonizes and subverts the hierarchy of the boss/servant relationship. Simultaneously blocking any possibility of subjection to a single boss by dissolving their debts among multiple bosses, they disentangle hierarchy in order to horizontalize it as best they can.
While public policies that preclude subjection as a means for vertical incorporation into the social body are rejected in South Africa, among the Paumari government aid is appropriated as a means for multiplying relations of dependency so as to dissolve them as far as possible. The two examples show that subjection, far from being only the result of the domination of the state, constitutes its own logic, founded on kinship and a relational conception of the person that is at the base of a social and cosmopolitical dynamic which exceeds our ideals of social well-being and autonomy.
Oiara Bonilla holds a postdoctoral fellowship at the Programa de pós-graduação em Antropologia Social du Museu Nacional, Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and is a research associate at the Centre d’enseignement et de recherche en ethnologie amérindienne of LESC (UMR 7186), Université de Paris X-Nanterre. Since 2000 she has been conducting fieldwork with the Paumari of the Lago Marahã Indigenous Reservation in the Brazilian Amazon and as of 2009 she has begun research on the relations between Indigenous cosmopolitics and public policies.
Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social,Museu Nacional – Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, Quinta da Boa Vista s/n, São Cristóvão – Cep 20940-040, Rio de Janeiro/RJ Brasil. firstname.lastname@example.org