The pastoral mode of life holds a romantic allure for Westerners seeking an alternative to the contradictions of their own society, and I was one of them. Formerly such sojourns in the pastoral realm took place in the context of imperial domination. Today, they occur in a post-imperial world where local power relations have become more complex and ambiguous.
In the history of European exploration—the history that begins here in Lisbon, where we are today, where the River Tejo meets the sea—many travellers have commented favourably on the self-sufficiency, nobility or hospitality of the indigenous pastoralist peoples they met in the lands they conquered and—sometimes favourably, sometimes not—on their frequently warlike culture. These commendations and reservations, though they may coincide to an extent with indigenous perceptions, reflect, of course, our own values and our yearnings for an imagined past of our own. Or, alternatively, our alienation from those values—and that past—and a desire to embrace what we imagine to be its antithesis.
Aspects of the social organization of some Nilotic-language speaking communities in Sudan in the past had a resemblance to some of the institutions in More’s description of an imaginary Utopia. Private property in Nilotic communities was minimal, certainly in comparison to the societies of the West. Until quite recently most individuals had few possessions except homesteads and livestock. Significant capital accumulation was uncommon, except in the form of cattle. Rights in land were held collectively. And survival depended on kinship networks.
Something like this, at least, is the picture that the first generation of ethnographers researching these societies presented to their readers. Nilotic societies have, of course, like others, been subject to incursions. And they exist in a constant state of social change, change that predates the European presence in East Central Africa. So this classical ethnographic picture can be seen as a construct, a frozen moment–a tableau vivant, to use the expression of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Still, it does not give an entirely misleading picture. Historical change has indeed been slower in these societies until quite recently. Material possessions have been fewer. And resistance to externally induced transformations has been a marked feature of the history of the Dinka and of other pastoralist—or agro-pastoralist—peoples.
With the benefit of distance I can see that, in my case, the allure of people with a more slowly changing way of life was a form of response to political events in my own society. It is a response that has literary roots as deep as the idea of Utopia itself. This romance of difference served as an unconscious attempt to sidestep social change, to evade history, to escape from the acceleration of time. During my fieldwork, I found myself drawn to what seemed to me to be the primordial aspects of Dinka life, to the embodied memory of a society that had, in recent generations, existed largely beyond the state. I paid greater attention to this than to contemporary Dinka responses to the outside world, their participation in class and state formation and the economy of development. I was struck by analogies between the old Dinka way of life and the earlier history of Western societies, and by traces in it of the features of prehistory.
In my research, then, I was practising, prophylactically, a kind of salvage anthropology, trying to record things I feared—and some of my Dinka peers also feared—were vanishing, rather than noting the ongoing incorporation of the elements of modernity into new forms of life. This has the whiff of Victorian ethnology—fiercely abjured by anthropologists today—with its insistence on measuring particular societies against an imagined evolutionary history of humanity. My classical education conspired with vestiges of this imperial strain of thought.
At the time I set out for Southern Sudan in the 1980s, then, I was not exactly looking for Utopia, but I was, like many anthropological researchers then and since, unconsciously seeking to investigate a related idea—Arcadia, the pastoral realm of the classical world. The term “pastoral” is not just a coincidence here. The ancients also cultivated a form of literary nostalgia for this form of life. “Pastoralist”, in its technical sense, describes a mode of livelihood that centres on rangeland animal husbandry. But “pastoral” is also the name of a literary genre in both classical and modern European literature, the pastoral romance, one where some of the ideals of Utopia find a home.
The pastoral lyrics and narratives of classical Greek and Latin literature, which I had studied years before at school—in those chilly, hungry early-morning classes before we were allowed to eat breakfast—are set in a rural society where the lives of shepherds epitomize the good life. These pastoral lyrics were written, however, by city dwellers like ourselves (most of us here today being city-dwellers, I think). The country life they portray is a literary fantasy: the pastoralist literary genre has its origin in a reaction within the urban world of the Greeks and Romans against the corruption of town life and the decay of political institutions. Instead of presenting an urban dream, an ideal version of the city—in the way that classical Utopias, including More’s, tend to do—these Arcadias are anti-urban; they relocate the ideal to the rural realm.
Both have classical antecedents. In the same way that the Renaissance Utopia, beginning with Thomas More, drew on Plato’s portrayal of the ideal city state in the Republic, so the idea of Arcadia draws on the classical myth of the golden age as described by Virgil in the Aeneid and the Eclogues, that is, a classless society of shepherds engaged in a life that permits the maximum of leisure. It is an idea that is echoed, consciously or not, in much recent anthropological writing about pastoralist and hunter-gatherer societies.
In a world that was—and is—continually speeding up, where social change leapfrogs generations, Arcadias like these have a growing appeal: they are cool societies, as Claude Lévi-Strauss called them, that is to say they are social formations where change has, until recently, been slower, as opposed to those like our own that are constantly on the boil.
And the idea of Arcadia has another characteristic that may recommend it to us moderns. It puts an emphasis on the integration of humans and their environment. Utopia is a city and, like all cities, represents man’s ascendancy over the natural world; but Arcadia is rural. The shepherds of Arcadia, in its literary manifestation, are country-dwellers who live in harmony with nature and commune with nature spirits.
Let me, once more, put the appeal of this vision in personal context. An increasing number of people of student age in Britain in the 1970s–especially those such as myself who were cushioned by middle-class prosperity–could afford to be unengaged with the immediate pursuit of wealth or professional status. In some other European countries social revolutions were underway (there were those who wished Britain was more like such countries). But British domestic politics, in the 1970s, lacked a radical vision with any imaginative traction, concerned as it was with struggles over the fate of the welfare state and the relative power of organised labour on the one hand and the owners of capital on the other.
Among my contemporaries at the Institute of Social Anthropology in Oxford, where I was a graduate student, I can discern, in retrospect, a convergence of different intellectual and psychological trajectories: some had become disillusioned with the false promise of Marxist revolutionary politics; some were involved in the growing environmentalist movement and sought new models for human relations with the natural world; and some of us harboured individual desires that made us marginal to the society that bred us, feeling the romantic allure of other races and cultures, a siren call from the wilder shores of love.
For whatever combination of reasons we were more than usually alert to the world outside the West, more interested in it, perhaps, than we were in our own society. And we were also drawn, as people often are at that age, to a grandiose notion of individual destiny, a notion that derived, ultimately, from the Romantic movement in Europe, and found expression at that time—in a vulgarized form—in the United States in the hippie movement, the antinomian youth movement of the day.
So it was, in the 1970s and early 1980s, that for young intellectuals of a certain stripe, anthropology represented a turning away from the idealistic political projects that had been current in the previous decade and a turn towards an examination of the real world of difference still in existence on the periphery of world culture. While some of our contemporaries spent their early years as activists on the left, measuring the society we lived in against a hypothetical post-capitalist ideal derived from works of socialist political theory, we apprentice ethnographers—or some of us—went looking for places that, we hoped or imagined, had remained, comparatively speaking, outside the dialectic, even beyond the reach of capital. We were fleeing globalisation, fleeing the battle between the two Leviathans, Capitalism and Communism—and fleeing the selves that embodied these things.
We were dreamers, of course. And we found that, in W.B. Yeats’ numinous phrase, in dreams begins responsibilities. My own initial attraction to a different form of human life—an attraction that is at the heart of the anthropological romance—resolved itself over time into a long-term identification with the concerns of the people of the place where I had done my fieldwork. I lapsed as a professional anthropologist, but I remained in touch with the communities I had lived among. In this sense I took my place in my age-set (the cohort of my educated contemporaries among the Dinka and other Southern Sudanese) and was drawn, to an extent, into their disputes. I came to understand more about the historical quandary of the pastoral communities of Sudan—the downside of Arcadia—and to understand something of the source of my own interest in them. This meant, among other things, that my political education took place largely in Africa.
(And this, I would hazard, is something I share with some of you here today in Cascais, those of you who belong to that generation that grew up in the last days of the Portuguese colonial presence in Mozambique and Angola, in Guinea-Bissau and Cabo Verde, who served there perhaps—as I know some of you did—as administrators and soldiers and latterly political activists, and who witnessed the end of colonialism and the beginning of the next phase of political life in these countries.)
At this point let me note that the idyllic picture of the life of African pastoralists that I entertained as a young anthropologist—the vision that nurtured some of these yearnings—is not one that is generally shared by those who themselves come from this pastoralist background, those who have travelled in the opposite direction. South Sudanese who have had access to higher education have, on the whole, been keen to see economic development, to get a larger share of the national budget, to see roads and schools and clinics, better veterinary services and modernized farming practices.
They have also realised that, as non-Arabs and non-Muslims in a country which was—and is—dominated by a northern Arab-Islamic elite, they need to pursue strategies of political empowerment, to seek other, less exploitative connections to the world system that is slowly penetrating their world and engulfing them. They seek political independence, and the option of a nation-state. Educated Southern Sudanese can be impatient with the conservatism of their own kinsfolk in the village when the latter resist such changes. In the 1970s a leading politician, Abel Alier, then the President of the Southern Region of Sudan, said this: “if we have to drive our people to paradise with sticks, we will do so.”
In this context, we may note that the idea of a nation-state, promulgated by the Western powers, may be seen as another kind of Utopia, an ideal type of political organisation that is not always easy to achieve.
In Meskal Square in Addis Ababa, Ethopia, in 1977, launching the Red Terror, Mengistu Haile Mariam smashes bottles of red dye to represent the blood of imperialists and counter-revolutionaries
6. Stalin in the tropics
As my interests expanded from one particular pastoral society in Sudan to the culture and history of other parts of Eastern Africa—a region of the world that I found myself returning to again and again—I learned more about other visions of the ideal society that were at large there. These were visions that eclipsed my own half-conscious search for Arcadia, primitivism lite, as it could be called, the nostalgia for a life closer to nature and to ancient ways than one’s own.
Southern Sudanese intellectuals’ vision of economic development and nation-building was one of these other visions, so also was the Islamic idea of jihad, interpreted as the conversion of the unbeliever, and the expansion of the umma, the vision of a society ordered by Islam, a vision that was then growing in influence in the political climate in the Muslim north of Sudan.
While Dinka intellectuals in the South pursued various avenues of material and cultural development, the Islamist movement in the North of Sudan was also gaining ground. In Northern Sudan, where there is a historical memory of Mahdism—a form of Islamic anti-colonial millenarianism—the new generation of Islamists was attempting in the 1980s to recreate a religious monoculture, at least in name, reviving, according to their lights, the theocratic language of the Arabian peninsula in the seventh century.
The imposition of sharia law in Sudan in the early 1980s added to the many injustices suffered by southerners. In Sudan sharia law specified harsh physical hudud punishments including amputation (though this was seldom carried out); it attempted to ban activities such as brewing alcohol, the latter being central to non-Arab cultures in Africa (and, in Sudan, to soi-disant Arab cultures also). Such discriminatory practices contributed to the resumption of civil war in Sudan, a war that has wreaked devastation in the South, destroying village after village and displacing communities, including the one that I lived in.
The Islamist putsch took place in a country where Islam is at its most subtle and diverse, where a third of the inhabitants are not Muslim at all. Sudan is the largest and arguably the most culturally diverse nation in Africa. And the Islamist movement in Sudan did not unite the country. On the contrary, it was a divisive influence, one that exacerbated the economic and cultural tensions that led to a renewal of war in 1983. After a coup in 1989, the National Islamic Front, as the ruling party was called, became a military regime for which the priority was maintaining power rather than instituting Islamic government. But its advent spelled the end of a vision of multiculturalism that had once promised to unite the diverse elements of the country.
Towards the end of my first period of fieldwork in Africa I was also brought face to face with another of the great historical examples of what may, with some hesitation, also be understood as a variety of Utopian thought. This was Stalinism, an ideology that has now–let us be thankful–more or less vanished from the world. Returning from Sudan to Europe I travelled through Ethiopia, then ruled by a Marxist dictatorship known as the Derg (the word is Amharic for “Committee”). The Derg was the military junta that overthrew Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, the same year as the revolution in Portugal and the beginning of independence for Portuguese colonies in Africa. The Ethiopian revolution, though, was a very different kind of event from these, one that brought no liberation but gave rise, rather, to an oppressive government whose violence eclipsed that of the imperial regime it replaced.
Brought to power initially by a student insurrection, the Derg, with the support of the Soviet Union, soon turned on its own supporters. It suppressed rival revolutionary groups with sedulous ruthlessness, and purged its own ranks with increasing regularity. All this, of course, in the way of twentieth century communist and socialist revolutions, was conducted in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
More than a decade later, in 1993, after the Derg had been deposed, I returned to Addis Ababa to cover the trial of its leading members on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The trial took place in a Ministry building unchanged since the heyday of their regime. Above the heads of the accused, gazing down from the ceiling, was a bronze plaque with a hammer and sickle and a map of Ethiopia encircled by a quotation in Amharic, an inscription redolent with Leninist hubris. “We Will Subdue Not Only Reactionaries,” it read, “But Nature Itself.”
With difficulty I obtained permission to interview the second-in-command of the Derg, Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres, in the place where he was confined, a prison within a prison known as World’s End. He, with other members of the Derg, was under indictment for the deaths of the Emperor, the Patriarch of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, fifty-nine ministers and two thousand members of rival revolutionary groups. Most of the latter were students who had been killed in a campaign that was named, in deliberate emulation of earlier revolutions in France and Russia, the Red Terror.
Fikre-Selassie Weg-Deres was quite willing to discuss the events of the 1970s. When I asked him if he regretted them, he said this:
“We were destroying feudalism. The revolution was under threat. Drastic measures had to be taken. It was the will of the people.”
He repeated this phrase several times: the will of the people. The phrase that has so often been the death knell of freedom, that has wrought such moral and political destruction in so many countries in the course of the twentieth century. It was a line that could have been spoken in any communist revolution, a line from George Orwell’s Animal Farm. (Orwell’s book had been popular among intellectuals in the Derg’s prisons–when people like Fikre-Selassie were the gaolers rather than the prisoners. One of the former government officials imprisoned by the Derg told me he had managed to smuggle a copy of Animal Farm into the gaol by convincing his guards that it was a guide to livestock husbandry.)
It is not necessary to meet a Stalinist face-to-face to mistrust those who speak in the name of the people, or those who believe that it is the manifest destiny of humankind to dominate and subdue the earth. But it helps. I am glad to have had the chance to see a late blooming of this form of pathological communist idealism, now that it has gone out of fashion, and now that has been succeeded by the subtler forms of oppression that are prevalent under capitalism, and by capitalism’s comparable rapacity towards nature.
7. Rastafarians of the Rift
Ethiopia (rather than England or Jamaica) was also where I encountered Rastafarianism, a more esoteric and engaging variety of Utopianism, one that also derives from a western tradition, transmuted by the cultures and traditions of the non-Western world.
The doctrines of Rastafarianism are derived from the Old Testament. They are an outgrowth of the writings of the Jamaican visionary Marcus Garvey, who sought to repopulate Christian mythology with figures from African history. For Garvey, in the 1930s, Ethiopia symbolised the promised land. It was a symbol of black hegemony: a Christian country, but one uncolonised by Europeans and ruled by an African emperor, Haile Selassie. The term Rastafarian is derived, in fact, from Haile Selassie’s feudal title “Ras”, before he became Emperor, and his given name, Tafari. In Rastafarian belief the emperor became a Christ-like, messianic figure.
(We can be sure, by the way, that Sir Thomas More, Catholic Martyr and scourge of heretics would have condemned Rastafarianism and all its works.)
When Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia arrived in Jamaica for the first time on a state visit in the 1960s, he was barely aware of the existence of this new-world belief system. He was shocked, on landing at Palisadoes Airport, outside Kingston, to find tens of thousands of Jamaicans with dreadlocks and ganja pipes occupying the runway. As he emerged from the aircraft they prostrated themselves on the tarmac crying “Behold the Lamb of God”. At this point, it is recorded, the Emperor retreated and declined to disembark from the plane. Only when it was explained to him that the worshippers at the airport believed he was an embodiment of divinity did he warm to the idea. Later he told his assembled Jamaican followers that they would be welcome if they wished to come and live in Ethiopia.
Some of them took them at his word. When I went to Ethiopia during the time of the Derg I visited a settlement established by Rastafarians in the Rift Valley, south of the capital, Addis Ababa, in a town called Shashemane. There I met Noel Dyer, a house-painter and former professional cricketer. Brother Dyer, as he was known, was then in his fifties. He had left Jamaica in 1961, travelled by ship to Europe and then proceeded on foot through North Africa and up the Nile Valley to Ethiopia. He walked through the desert in Upper Egypt while the Aswan Dam was being built. (The Aswan dam was the world’s largest hydrological project, a scheme that created the vast lake that we see today and bought a new lease of life for the burgeoning population of Egypt, but at the price of drowning the ancient civilization of the Nubians and the dwelling places of their descendants.)
For Noel Dyer the Nile Valley was a vale of tears. It was a land where dogs howled in the empty villages where he slept at night—in abandoned houses that had once been the dwelling places of displaced Nubians, who had been forced to vacate them as the floodwaters rose. Egypt was a country of tribulation that he had to pass through on his way to the promised land. In Nubia, he said, he tasted death. And in Sudan he was cast in jail again.
Brother Dyer’s journey was epic; his sufferings had an Old Testament quality. As he described his journey his speech took on the cadences of the Bible—the King James version that we had both been raised on, he in church in Kingston and I in the school chapel at Shrewsbury School. Talking to him and hearing him describe the travails he had suffered made me feel, despite my own years abroad, that I had barely left home.
When he finally arrived in Ethiopia, he told me, he and other Rastafarians obtained a ten-hectare land grant from the Emperor under the aegis of the Ethiopian World Federation, an African-American organization that had been founded in 1937 to support Ethiopia during the Italian occupation. Members of the EWF believed that the western world was doomed. The sooner they returned to Africa the better. A Rastafarian phrase of the time went like this: it soon come—Babylon gon’ run blood.
The Rasta incomers had a grand scheme for urban development in Shashemane, which was intended to pave the way for the rest of the region. It failed. Impecuniousness, embezzlement, and the unbiddability of free-spirited Rastamen were all contributory factors. But the main reason was a clash of rival Utopianisms. The Rastas of Shashemane were overtaken by another, larger-scale Utopian project, of a different and more coercive kind, the Ethiopian Revolution itself.
Barely had these settlers from the new world arrived in Ethiopia than the imperial polity began to fail. The Emperor was deposed and replaced by the Derg, a military junta whose Marxist ideology rapidly took a murderously autocratic turn. After the fall of the emperor the Derg’s draconian land reform gave licence to local people to reclaim land granted by imperial decree, so the Rastas lost much of what they had. As believers in the emperor’s divine status they found themselves in a difficult situation, under the authority of a regime that had imprisoned him and eventually put him to death. When I visited Shashemane in 1980 their houses were the only places in Ethiopia where you could still see a picture of Haile Selassie on public display–at that point even the Rastafarians had become discreet about their allegiance.
The Rastafarian community of Shashemane has survived to this day, but their nascent Utopia in Ethiopia, their kingdom of the last days, was crushed by the Derg’s rival vision of human destiny. The Derg imported a later western ideology, seeking to impose by force a version of Marx’s secular millennium; while the Rastafarians had taken an earlier form, the Jewish chiliasm of the Old Testament, and relocated the promised land and the chosen people in Africa.
8. Return to pastoralism
I have touched on some Communist, Islamist and Judaeo-Christian ideas of the good life and the good society. Now let me return to Sudan, to the fate of the Dinka, the non-Arab, non-Muslim pastoral people with whom I lived in the early 1980s, and who represent one aspect of the cultural diversity within the country, a diversity that extends beyond the peoples of the book, that includes traces of worlds that predate the arrival of Islam or Christianity in the region.
A decade after my first sojourn in Southern Sudan I returned to the area where I had worked as an apprentice anthropologist. Since the early 1980s, when I lived there, Southern Sudan has been almost continually at war. As it still is today. Most of the area where I lived in the 1980s has been under the control of the Southern rebel movement since the start of the conflict, but it was inaccessible to outsiders until the early 1990s, the time of my return visit. On this occasion I was acting as consultant to an international aid organization, surveying the route that had opened up when the rebels captured a border town.
I took two books with me. One was the book I had written about the people of the village where I had lived before the war. This was a straightforward—occasionally wide-eyed—account for a general audience of the daily life of a pre-war pastoralist society, the Arcadia of my first fieldwork, a society without the guns, landmines, aerial bombardment and dictatorial military government that have since been visited on it. Reading my own book ten years on it seemed eerily naïve and increasingly distant in time. This was the first chance I had had, though, to present it to some of the people who were its subject.
The other book I was carrying was a doctoral thesis by a fellow-anthropologist, a friend and colleague, Andrew Mawson, who had spent time in the same area shortly after I was there. This was a scholarly work which concerned the political significance of a religious shrine in the Agar Dinka area, the luak Nhialic, the byre of God, as the Dinka call such ritual centres. Andrew’s thesis was called “The Triumph of Life”.
The shrine itself was a huge hut, thatched with grass, empty save for snakes and bats, and a ritual drum and fishing spear. It was the site of a collective ritual every eight years in which the entire building was rebuilt by representatives of Agar Dinka tribal sections, an event accompanied by the sacrifice of bulls and goats. The previous rebuilding had been in 1983, the last year of peace. Eight years had now passed; the ritual was overdue.
But the village where I had lived didn’t exist anymore. It had been burned to the ground by government forces in 1985, including the house I built and lived in there. Many of the people I knew had died or disappeared. My chief research collaborator, Robert Maker Joseph, who joined the rebel army from university, had been killed early in the war in an attack on a government-held town. Another of those who helped me, Zakaria Manyang Rok, died in Wau, in the famine of 1987. Perhaps because of this, and because I had seen how my own house and the rest of the village had been obliterated, because I felt the reality of the past in danger of slipping away, I had a strong desire to see the shrine, the hut of huts, inviolate and intact. The area was now under the control of a rebel commander, Daniel Awet Akot.
I knew Cdr. Daniel from before the war, when he had been an officer in the Sudanese Armed Forces. But he was not keen on allowing me to visit the shrine. I explained that I wanted to take a copy of the book I had written to give to the custodian of the shrine, who had been one of the people I interviewed when I was doing the research for the book.
“Books are all eaten by termites,” said Commander Awet.
Besides, he said, the area I wanted to go to was a combat zone. I would have to walk there.
There was a lengthy discussion. Then, finally, with a soldier and a security officer to accompany me, he allowed me go.
I knew that the Spearmaster, the custodian of the luak, the ritual leader of the people of the area, who had featured in my book and in my colleague, Andy Mawson’s doctoral thesis, was near the point of death. The shrine that he presided over was of key importance in the life of the Dinka of this area: it symbolised the central importance of cattle husbandry in Dinka life and the ideal of a community based on kinship. My understanding was that the postponement of the rebuilding ceremony was a sign, not just of the difficulties of organising an event of this kind in the middle of a war, but of fundamental threats to the idea of such a community.
In an account I wrote at the time I described our night-journey to the shrine in these terms:
We travelled to the shrine by night through the grasslands to avoid the heat of the day, past the cattle camps–with their vast half-sleeping herds–walking until we came to the shrine a few hours before dawn. Round the watch fires there men lay in tangled heaps, their limbs grey with ash. Around them the tasselled horns of oxen stirred amid the reek of burning dung. Scenes like this, I noted, were the stuff of the pastoral romance that had seized my imagination many years before, this sudden overpowering concentration of human and animal life in the heart of the great realm of grass.
Of course, for the inhabitants of the great savannah there is no exoticism in such a scene. It is where they live. It is their life. Yet the cattle camp and the shrine are still a significant focus in the Dinka social imagination. For those Dinka who have been able to keep faith with the old ways, with cieng monyjaang, the Dinka way of life, such places represent something at the heart of their culture: an ideal version of the society itself.
Beyond the shrine the rule of guns prevailed. Two of the spearmaster’s sons, he explained to me, were fighting in the ranks of the rebel army. And fighting against them on the government side were young northern mujaheddin, some of whom—a minority probably since most were conscripts—were themselves inspired by a contrasting vision, the theocratic vision of universal Islam. These young northern Sudanese—or some of them—were told by those who recruited them that they were sacrificing their lives to die as martyrs in the lands of the South. They were to die in the fields of Arcadia in an attempt to establish their own opposing vision of the good society. It was such zealots who had destroyed the village where I had lived, and the house that I had had built there.
But at the byre of God a different idea prevailed. Here there lingered a Nilotic idea of the good and just society, not something derived from sacred books. Literacy has come only recently to the Dinka. They do not write down their notion of Utopia, they build it—from grass and wood. Build it and rebuild it and rebuild it again. So when the spearmaster told me that the shrine would be reconstructed the following year in the traditional manner I felt relieved and reassured. Their task to build it; and ours write about it. As I handed over the books that I and Andrew Mawson had written and saw them placed inside the shrine, I had the feeling that the books, if not myself, were at the end of their journey.
9. Other peoples’ utopias
When Thomas More sat his imaginary traveller down to describe his journey to Utopia he produced a fictional account of a single place, its customs and its laws. I have given you a brief account today of a number of later, real-world Utopian projects and visions of the good society, some past and some present, some actual experiments and some, like More’s, imagined.
The episodic character of my narrative is the product a life of shifting disciplines and uncertain vocation. Had I been a more diligent student of Thomas More’s Latin when I was at school perhaps I might have acquired more of his scholarly habits. A more rigorous mental discipline, perhaps, a more certain style of presentation, a different life.
But the fragmentary character of this account is not the product of personal idiosyncrasy alone; it is also a symptom of the times we live in. Under the sway of advancing technology and capitalism, time accelerates, cultures fragment and recombine. The stories we tell are likewise fragmented and curtailed. What I have offered you today are glimpses and traces of other people’s Utopias—their ideas of how life should, ideally, be lived—and the clashes between them.
It will be clear to you that this account is partisan. I have not attempted to emulate the ironies and ambivalences of Sir Thomas More’s narrative. And certainly in the case of functioning pastoralist societies—those that I was lucky enough to dwell in for a time during my youth—I do not feel ambivalent about their fate. A person of good will can only regret the disasters they have suffered, their disruption by war and famine and new technology, the erosion of their characteristic forms of life by external forces, by civil war and violent displacement.
When it comes to the wider loss of cultural diversity that the world has seen over the last few centuries—the process of immiseration and destruction of peoples on the periphery of the global economy, a process perhaps now entering a new, maybe final, intensified phase—I think this loss is a calamity. Not just for those who dwell on the periphery, but for us all, for us as a species, a disaster comparable to the loss of biological diversity caused concurrently by our overexploitation of the natural environment. The analogy is not trivial. The loss of these other forms of life, these different kinds of social arrangements, means that there is a dearth of real-world alternatives to the ways of life currently imposed on us by the hegemony of capitalism, in its Eastern and Western variants—capitalism with its fabulous wealth, its alarming consumption of natural resources, its dizzying freedoms, its hectic speed and its enduring social inequality.
The paradox of Utopia is this. The Western cultural tradition, the tradition that has produced a plenitude of ideas of what a good society should be like, the very civilization that has generated all these Utopian notions—and that has engendered us—this is the also the civilization most responsible for the destruction of other ways of life, for the obliteration of actually existing alternatives.
Other social arrangements are—to adapt another phrase from Claude Lévi-Strauss—good to think with. We need their otherness to fuel our imagination, to allow us to envision a better way. (And so, perhaps, do they.) Just as Thomas More used a patchwork of ancient anthropology and contemporary travellers’ tales to conjure up his Utopia, so we now have the ethnographic record of non-western societies as a foil to our own. But increasingly this ethnographic record is becoming a set of historical documents. And the societies themselves are inexorably transformed or fragmented by the penetration of world culture.
These are real, living societies, not literary Utopias or Arcadias. Although they may have had Utopian notions imposed on them, they continue to exist beyond the texts of books written about them. They are changing at different rates, in different ways, making, to an extent, their own compromise with the advance of global history. They can be revisited as a corrective to other peoples’ accounts of them. Or they could until quite recently.
Today I can still go back to the village in Southern Sudan where I lived two decades ago—now being rebuilt and reoccupied—and deepen my understanding of it. But only just. It is ceasing to be what it was. Anthropology becomes history. War-induced displacement, the ubiquity of firearms, and the further penetration of world religions—of Islam, Christianity and the religiose version of human rights ideology that is promulgated by aid agencies—these technologies and doctrines are transforming the village universe more rapidly than ever before. Change is leap-frogging generations; old belief and memory are the casualties. To employ Claude Lévi-Strauss’ phrase again, cool societies will soon be no more.
In the absence of a world outside the West, of societies that remain unpenetrated by western capital and global culture, we will have lost a yardstick for ourselves. And we have come to this pass because as members of the world’s materially powerful societies we have destroyed everything that we could measure ourselves by. Almost all those societies that once stood as significant alternatives to our own are now relegated to books. Once they were real, now they become travellers’ tales, like More’s Utopia. Few people now believe that Utopia can be found in the jungles of South America, or the islands of the South Seas—or the headwaters of the Amazon or the Nile. We know that the location of Utopia is in the minds of men. And increasingly we will be compelled to rely on historical imagination to preserve the idea of radically different forms of human life.
Despite the record of failed Utopias, the impulse to imagine a better world is not to be disdained. Without it nothing good could come to pass. Earlier I referred to the central etymological joke in More’s Utopia, the irony and wisdom built into the word “Utopia”, eutopos, the happy or fortunate place, and Ou topos, nowhere. Thomas More built a tragic paradox into the word itself. That is to say, the dreams of a good life that we live by are never realized, yet without them we could not live.
In this talk I have drawn attention to the danger of Utopian projects, to the ways that such projects go wrong in the world. It is important, all the same, that men should be free to imagine and to try to build societies based on such ideals. Free to imagine and build—but not to impose them on others. And we ourselves, similarly, should not subject others to our idea of what Utopia should be.
Let me end, then, on a more positive note. Let Utopias thrive. Let a thousand Utopias bloom. Just so long as you and I and others are not compelled to live in them, as long as they are voluntary Utopias. It is possible to admire a vision of the life of a community without endorsing it. You don’t have to be a believer to see the beauty of belief, of ideals that survive the experience of dislocation and dispossession.
And perhaps I have been unduly pessimistic about the future of diversity, of otherness in the modern world. Perhaps significant differences can be preserved after all—or recreated—in the new, hybrid cultures that spring up continually in our midst, in the heart of the world.
The Brazilian composer and singer Caetano Veloso suggests something like this in a song called “Milagres do Povo” (Miracles of the People). The song is a celebration of the survival of African-derived belief systems in the passage of slaves to the new world. People from Africa, he says—deprived though they were of liberty, shorn of material possessions, mistreated and dehumanized—still contrived to carry with them to the new world the elements of an old-world cosmology, a universe of belief, an ideal society of the spirit, one that survives to this day:
Quem é ateu e viu milagres como eu
Sabe que os deuses sem Deus
Não cessam de brotar
Nem cansam de esperar e o coração
Que e soberano e que é senhor
Não cabe no seu não
Não cabe em si de tanto sim…
Atheists who’ve seen miracles, as I have done
Know that where God is not, the gods
Don’t disappear; they multiply.
The gods don’t give up; for the sovereign heart,
Cannot be confined by slavery,
It cannot be confined by “No”.
So much “Yes” can never be confined…
So let me end thus, on a positive note, on a yes, rather than a no. Muito Obrigado. Thank you for listening. ★