How can we imagine social obligation beyond the nationhood? Not only in his fieldwork in southern Africa but also in his home country did James Ferguson observe that existing schemes of distribution are limited by principles of nation-state membership, which leads to a paradox situation: „Those most in need of social assistance are not juridicial members of that society“. In his recent book Give a Man a Fish. Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution (Duke University Press, 2015) Ferguson has analyzed the figure of the share as a principle of distribution of social protection payments or “cash transfers” in the global South in general, and in southern Africa in particular. In his Dahrendorf lecture he set out to develop a more complete account of how an understanding of presence might provide a basis both for an expanded sense of social obligation and for more inclusionary forms of politics.
What is society today and what does social obligation really mean? Ferguson finds the 19th century idea of society as a membership organization and, relatedly, the concept of the nation state as defining and bounding a society influential to this day. The foundation of social insurance, social welfare and other sorts of ‘social policy’ as well as the birth of social science can be attributed to this logic. “But when we confront the great challenges of our time”, the anthropologist continues, “that old equation of society with the collectivity of authorized members of a nation state fails us spectacularly.” Not only to the precarious circumstances non-citizens within nation-state borders live in but also to grievances in countries, which are foreign but hardly unrelated, such as Syria, serve as examples.
Distributive obligation, says Ferguson, has long been tied to either gift exchange, as elaborated by Marcel Mauss, or by market exchange, both seen as contrasting alternatives. In Give a Man a Fish, Ferguson has already suggested share as a different approach to solidarity being neither a gift nor a market exchange. In the Dahrendorf lecture the anthropologist explains his notion of ‘share’: “Its defining feature is that it is based on a common ownership that is prior to all exchange. Sharing thus entails a kind of social obligation that is rooted neither in reciprocity nor in exchange but instead in a form of commonality that precedes distribution. It is less based on rights but on the idea of a rightful state of affairs.”
But who is entitled to receive such a share? The answer provided by the ‚presence’ principle is as clear as simple: „Whoever is here.“ But what does this mean? The obligation to share, as Ferguson puts it, can either be attributed according to membership, supporting a person who is one of us. Or according to presence, helping a person simply because she or he is among us. “My claim here is that one attribute without the other may have some force but never the full force that comes with both membership and presence”, states Ferguson. In modern western countries the idea that some minimal obligation is due to one’s fellow members within a society – those who are both co-members and co-present – is in his words both familiar and generally accepted. Ferguson contrasts this with rather weak commitment to social obligation in cases of presence without membership, as for instance towards physically proximate non-nationals (asylum seekers) and in cases of membership without presence, such as humanitarian aid directed towards distant foreigners, nationals of other countries in need.
Should the children of undocumented immigrants attend school or not? Who gets vaccinated from measles? “The answers to these questions often proceed not according to a logic of rights but a logic of practicality”, explains Ferguson. What would undocumented kids not going school do instead and with what consequences? Would one want to exclude a large group of society from vaccination programs, putting at risk the immunological effects those programs aim at? Examples like those show that certain services should be extended not only to whoever is an authorized member but to whoever is here, according to Ferguson. “After all, epidemics like cholera will not distinguish between a South African and a citizen of Mozambique. So better make sanitation an issue for all.”
Based on these arguments, Ferguson sketches a two-dimensional politics: to work the axis of membership aiming to expand the sense ‘of us’ via a politics of expanded membership and solidarities. “The less familiar dimension would involve working to expand the sense of here and among us thus strengthening the political claims of presence.” Presence is neither literal nor self-evident – ‘social invisibility’ being a phenomenon often described by ethnographers –, it must be acknowledged as such through a political process of recognition.
Where might an enhanced political concept of presence lead? Optimistically speaking, it may lead to stronger, more robust norms of social obligation and – maybe – eventually to the “World Civil Society” Ralph Dahrendorf had envisaged. With this vision Ferguson concludes his lecture, appealing for more intellectual work on this issue: „For recent decades we spent a lot of critical and political energy rethinking who counts as us. We have recognized that taken for granted social identities are in fact elaborate and consequential constructions whose reworking must be at the heart of our politics. We now need an equal dedication to the problem of what counts as here, recognizing that common sense notions of presence – the idea that some people are here among us while others are not – are also elaborate constructions. They too need a reworking that ought to be central to both contemporary politics and to engaged intellectual life.”