What could undermine the stranglehold of global capitalists? As millions slip into poverty while the super-rich make fantastic profits, what could loosen their grip?
Gramsci (1971, 1991) gave us the concept of hegemony, which he saw as the result of the activities of politicians establishing rules of predominant influence over a public. Over and against these efforts by leaders, however, power is never finished i.e., no hegemony created by powerful leaders is entirely secure (Scott 1985, 1990). Another way of putting this is that the consequences of the exercise of power are never safe from counter-exercises by other internal or external forces. There is, and presumably always will be, both resistance to domination and historical-material conditions that threaten it.
Savvy leaders know this and most prefer not to have to continually put down rebellions and revolutions so they usually attempt to instill “followership” as a corollary to their leadership. That is, they try to create a sense of legitimacy to their rule in the minds of the people. They do this in a variety of ways. Here I want to focus on two strategies commonly used by politicians in history: (1) citing tradition and (2) referencing the occult.
If politicians can get people to believe that there is sufficient historical precedence for their rule it gives them more legitimacy in the minds of their followers or those they wish to turn into followers. This is done in very simple societies and in states.
Let me cite the example of the Sisala of Northern Ghana as a case of a simple society. Before the coming of colonialism in 1908, the Sisala were an acephalous segmentary society of shifting cultivators of grain crops and yams in the savanna region of Northern Ghana. They had a concept of wongbiing-titi, which we can take to be roughly translated as “tradition.” It literally means “path-truth” or “true path.” It is considered to be all the lore and institutions established by the ancestors in the dim past.
No doubt such ideas, codes and social structures that constitute the wongbiing-titi had some functionality in the very insecure world of the past, where farming only produced harvests barely adequate to sustain the people. Communalism was a bulwark against starvation and it was the duty of the elders to keep the lineage (jachaking) together and working as a unit to survive from year to year.
Famine was a constant threat. Even at the time of my fieldwork in the early 1970s food didn’t stretch over the whole year sufficiently to provide every person with enough calories to maintain proper health. Consequently, food had to be rationed in the latter part of the dry season (March & April) to make it stretch until the first crops came in during the rainy months (May through September). It was common for the very young and the very old to sicken and die in this period.
In order to accomplish such rationing the senior elder of the lineage (jachaking-tiina), that being the primary work/sharing/consumption unit of Sisala villages, had to limit access to the stores of crops produced in the previous rainy season. This meant that the farm laborers, who were usually young men, had to be convinced by the elders, who were past productive age, to centralize the products of their labor. This was done by storing the crops produced by the various sub-units of the lineage in a central granary or group of granaries that fell under the authoritative control of the lineage headman (jachaking-tiina). These granaries were considered shrines (vensing, sing. vene) and their contents were thought to be protected by the wrath of the ancestors. Anyone taking grain without the permission of the jachaking-tiina would be killed by occult forces.
This centralization of crops under the jurisdiction of the linage headman served to allow the parceling out of food over the period of scarcity, that time when the farms had been seeded but when the crops had not yet begun to bear fruit. This ensured that no one would hoard food and that there would be a fair distribution of it.
In short, this gerontocratic rationing of food enabled the Sisala to survive in a marginal farming environment. Such food control was functional in that it provided them with sustainability by preventing selfism that would undermine the ethos of communalism.
Of course, the food-sharing lineage was not immune to fission (Goody 1958). As population increased or disputes arose that created a split between households in the lineage, it would, in time, break apart and a new lineage headman would arise in the splinter group and the process would begin anew in the nascent lineage. But while a lineage was unified, the authority of the jachaking-tiina gave the group the ability to weather periods of semi-famine that threatened its viability as a work/sharing/consumption unit of the village.
The basis of the authority of the jachaking-tiina was tradition (wongbiing-titi). The true path of the ancestors was laid down in Sisala lore, the stories from the ancient ones of the dim past. Such stories were contained in the minds of the elders and were passed on orally to members of countless younger generations. In this preliterate society ideas of the wongbiing-titi were contained in Sisala legends, songs, proverbs and ritual recitations.
Here is one case I recorded where the transmission of lore is obvious and served as an educational moment for the village youth. One morning I heard a racket in the village of Bujan where I was conducting field research in 1971-1972. It turned out to be a quarrel and wife-beating that resulted from adultery on the part of a young wife from one moiety with a young man of the opposite village moiety. She was caught sneaking back into her husband’s compound in the wee hours of the morning after a tryst with her lover. The husband and his brothers beat her and her screams were part of the ruckus that alerted me that something was amiss in the normally placid life of the village. Such extra-marital affairs are not unknown in Sisala life, but are frowned upon (Mendonsa 2001a).
The commotion eventually evolved into a confrontation between the young men of the two moieties who, by the time I arrived on the scene unfolding in the no-mans-land between the moieties, were facing each other brandishing weapons and hurling threats at each other. Standing between them was the village jachaking-tiina and the niihing-niihiang, the oldest man in the village who had been summoned from his bed by the jachaking-tiina to assist him in calming the two mobs of youth.
To prevent inter-moiety violence the jachaking-tiina had laid down a line of white ash from a cold fire pit. The line was drawn between the two groups of heated youth. The symbolism of the cold ash would not have been lost on the Sisala youth because a hot thing must be countered with a cold thing, according to Sisala lore. Their thinking can be seen in the following table:
CORRELATES OF SISALA CONCEPTS
OF HOT & COLD
Compliance with the wongbiing-titi
Lack of Ancestral Retribution
The argument between the two sides was a hot thing in the Sisala way of thinking and when the jachaking-tiina laid down the cool ash line it was intended to stop the advance of the hotheads. In Sisala wisdom stepping over such a line would bring retribution from the ancestors – illness, death or some other form of misfortune.
The firebrands were stymied. Standing on either side of the white ash line the young men were forced to listen to the sermons of the two senior men. They lectured the young crowds denouncing violence and extolling the virtues of rectitude and restraint. The elders took turns repeating their main points. In such situations the Sisala are prone to reiteration. The point is that this was a teaching moment and the elders had a captive audience. Sisala lore was being imparted across generational lines. Tradition was at work in an everyday situation.
Furthermore, the communal ethos was extolled by the elders as opposed to sectionalism. The boys were told that village unity was more important than pitting one moiety against the other. If they had known the song, they would have sung Kumbaya.
Citing the Occult
In the case above tradition is trotted out to make a hot thing cool, or at least to prevent more heat; but note that there is an element of the occult involved. The cool ash line only works because of the belief that the Sisala ancestors are alive in death in the world of the ancestors and that they retain an interest in the lives of their offspring. The belief goes something like this: we are born, live and physically die, but our spirit lives on. Pretty common stuff to most religions in the world, but the Sisala twist is that the spirit of the ancestor only stays alive as long as the kin of the departed remembers him by making periodic sacrifices at which his name is included in the recitation of names of the departed of that kin group. This keeps things cool, but if the ancestor does not hear his name, he may bring misfortune on the living to get their attention. Furthermore, if they continue to ignore him, he could suffer a second spiritual death and disappear forever (Mendonsa 1975).
Just as the elders in life try to keep the people on the wongbiing-titi, the true path of righteous behavior, obeying the rules of tradition; the departed elders also have an abiding interest in seeing to it that deviance is punished. This belief was established ages ago when young men and women had to be controlled by the village gerontocrats and when that control more or less functioned due to the fact that these junior members of society had few alternatives. The Colonial Era had not yet dawned, the outside world had not penetrated the area and for the immediate centuries prior to the 20th slavers had been at work in West Africa. Life was precarious and the youth could not easily find ways to avoid conformity to the dictates of the wongbiing-titi. It was even dangerous to stray a few kilometers from the village.
Today this is changing because both young men and women have economic options provided by new technology, education and work in the national economy (Mendonsa 2003). Things are opening up for farmers in the region today. A new agricultural bank had just opened in Tumu. Credit is easier to come by to buy seed and other agricultural inputs. Entrepreneurs from southern Ghana are now bringing tractors up north in the farming season to hire them out and young people and women can expand their farms accordingly. All this has the result of increasing the power and independence of subordinate youth and females who have their own farms. The corollary is that elders are losing their grip on those subordinates who are now able to feed themselves and grow cash crops, which provides them with income to buy modern goods (Mendonsa 2003).
Yet in spite of the opening up of Sisala society to the outside world during my 30 years of involvement with the Sisala the occult in the form of ancestral retribution for deviant acts remained a powerful tool in the hands of the gerontocrats (Mendonsa 1978, 1979, 1982, 1986, 2000). The other major change in Sisalaland has been the rise of Islam, which one may be inclined to consider an influence on the belief in traditional ideas about the occult, but in my experience the Sisala, not unlike other Africans, tend to be less exclusive about religion than Westerners (Mendonsa 2002). More than once I have seen practicing Muslims participate in public traditional rites and also consult privately with traditional diviners in order to comprehend events in their lives.
The main influence threatening the authority of gerontocrats and adherence to traditional ways stems from new economic opportunities provided to young men and women since the global economy has penetrated Sisala life, as referenced above.
In spite of modernity arriving in Sisala, life’s problems and death have not disappeared. People, no matter how modern or affluent, still face problems. In my writings on Sisala divination (vugung) I have recorded many cases of individuals involved in the misfortune-consultation-rectification cycle. That is, people consult a diviner to contact the occult world, specifically the ancestors in lelee-jang (the world of the ancestors), in order to comprehend the cause of a misfortune e.g., illness, death or an accident. Such consultations inevitably lead the supplicant to perform a piacular sacrifice, done to rectify a misdeed that divination revealed to be the cause of the misfortune. It is thought that the ancestors are the occult cause of all misfortunes and by referencing the occult deviant acts, such as the adultery mentioned above, highlight correct behavior and the rules inherent in the wongbiing-titi.
This is the etiology of illness and misfortune in Sisala thinking, but something sociological is at work in when people seek occult answers to life’s dilemmas. By that I mean that power structures are involved when people access the occult realm. Divinatory prognostications are not available to all on an equal basis. Not all individuals in Sisala society can solve life’s predicaments on their own. Only senior men in the lineage can consult diviners and young men and all women must approach their ancestors through the auspices of the gerontocracy, the patriarchal hierarchy that provides elders with authority, presumably backed up by the wrath of the ancestors.
Divination is a ritual means of solving life’s quandaries. Divinatory ritual sets certain selected elements of experience off against normal life experiences and in so doing imbues them with special relevance (Valeri 1985). The belief in this process is a political tool in the hands of the gerontocrats. The youth and women cannot solve perturbable events in their lives without recognizing the authority of the lineage elders. Within the context of the lineage there are two such authorities: (1) the jachaking-tiina or lineage headman and (2) the kaala-tiina or the headman of a section of the larger lineage. A kaala is a compound that usually contains a nuclear or extended family and the members of it share common descent from one of the lineage ancestors. When a person in the kaala has a problem he or she must go through the kaala-tiina to solve that problem if it escalates to the point where it is thought to have an occult cause. If the problem relates to the entire lineage, the jachaking-tiina will perform the divinatory consultation and post-divinatory sacrifices to rectify the situation.
Such institutional behavior is predicated on the belief in the virtue of the wongbiing-titi and the occult power of the ancestors to harm and kill those who deviate from the true path. Eric Wolf (2001:395) says, “Power is implicated in meaning through its role in upholding one version of significance as true, fruitful, or beautiful, against other possibilities that may threaten truth, fruitfulness or beauty.” For the Sisala that power resides in the gerontocratic structures of divination and ancestral sacrifice, both of which are denied to women and young unmarried men and which are the purview of senior men.
However, with the opening up of Sisala to outside influences subordinates have two new options to access occult answers to life’s problems: (1) World religions and (2) non-traditional diviners. To an extent, these alternatives to vugung divination and the ancestor culture have also cut into the power of lineage elders, undermining their authority. Muslims and Christians have prayer as well as imams and priests to consult and anyone can pay a non-vugung diviner – fairy caller (kantongo-yiring) or cowrie-thrower (moribii-pul yuoroo) (Mendonsa 1976) – to contact the occult world for answers to life’s problems.
Nevertheless, even if one is more or less economically independent or has converted to a world religion, one does not lose one’s kinship status and obligations within the lineage. Thus, if a lineage elder calls a young man to participate in an ancestral rite, he should respond if he is to honor his kinship group. The reality of living in close proximity in a remote village tends to place great pressure on the individual to participate and, in so doing, reinforce the authority of the gerontocracy, the power structure of the elders.
It is a constant back-and-forth struggle for elders and youth in Sisalaland to deal with life’s misfortunes and problems. To some extent, the old gerontocratic system retains power; but, on the other hand, to an extent it is being undermined by historical-material changes. The power of gerontocrats may never disappear completely, but they certainly have less power today than in ages past.
Hegemonic Change in Sisalaland
If hegemony is not inviolable, though politicians like to present it as such, then how is a political stranglehold untied? Is it resistance on the part of those disaffected by hegemonic control (Scott 1985, 1990)? Or is the dismantling of hegemony accomplished without human agency?
I would propose that agency is always involved but that it is less significant than other factors. For example, in the Sisala case, today young men vote with their feet and leave the village to pursue an education or find work and in the process escape gerontocratic control, even if that is not the primary motivating factor in their decision-making. Again, those youth, both men and women, who elect to stay at home also have new options that were not available until the 1980s and beyond. Both can now access agricultural inputs – tractors, bullock plows, fertilizer, pesticides, imported seed – that enable them to farm independent of those who would wish to control the fruits of their labor.
Traditionally the unmarried men and women could not easily escape the authority of their gerontocrats because in the Sisala way, to farm one needed access to institutionalized forms of labor. Even a newly married man had to remain farming for his father or elder brother if he did not have access to many hands to help him on the farm. Institutionalized access to farm labor took time to build. A married man would do this by producing children to help on the farm, marrying off his daughters giving him access to affinal labor and developing relations of friendship with other able-bodied men enabling him to call on them for help with weeding and harvest of his crops and perhaps in clearing the land.
A young unmarried man had difficulty doing this before the penetration of the outside world, which has come to Sisala in the form of NGOs, the Ghana Cotton Corporation and government agricultural development projects. Also, the availability of work in the south has allowed some young men to leave, save money and return to farm using modern technology. Furthermore, the Ghana Cotton Corporation began to supply farmers, both men and women, with fertilizer and access to tractors to plow their land, which enabled new and younger farmers to grow a cash crop and food without needed much human labor. The biggest aid has been in the spread of Bullock Traction Technology or BTT (Mendonsa 2001b). A young man or woman who can access either BTT or a tractor has a chance to grow cash and food crops that provide them with significant independence and the ability to escape the traditional requirement to work for their immediate gerontocrat. The labor-saving efficiency of BTT and tractors is indicated below:
HOURS TO PLOW ONE ACRE
I am told that BTT was a balloon that has lost some of its air lately. This is due to the fact that renter tractors are now available from entrepreneurs and as you can see in the above table, a tractor only takes an hour to do what bullocks take a day to perform. However, taken together both BTT and tractor plowing given Sisala youth and women independent power, the ability to farm outside the authority of the lineage gerontocrats.
In sum, new farming technology has allowed wives and unmarried men to gain a degree of freedom from custom that was not possible either in pre-colonial times, during colonialism or in most of the 20th century. These new inputs began to arrive in Sisalaland in the 1980s (Mendonsa 2003, 2001b). The hegemonic engine of the gerontocrats is sputtering.
Implications for Hegemony
Hegemons strive to secure political control by controlling the minds of the public, but find it difficult to create a perfect and lasting hegemony. I have provided data from the Sisala of Northern Ghana to indicate how a change in the historical-material conditions there altered the customary controls exercised by gerontocrats over their subordinates.
If we look at some of the recent events of the Arab Spring we see that hegemons there are not faring well either. For example, Hosni Mubarak struggled to maintain his forty-year hold on the people but his hegemony was undermined by new Internet technology. Hegemons that attempt to ignore historical-material changes occurring on their watch will find that their institutions will be destabilized if they do not change with the times.
It is becoming clearer to greater numbers of intellectuals, academics and thinkers that the stranglehold of global capital is also on shaky ground (Kotkin 2011). Every day the media show evidence of one financial crisis after another. Riots are breaking out with greater frequency. America’s credit rating has slipped below it historical AAA status for the first time and the EU is struggling to stave off a series of looming defaults by some of its weaker member countries.
History is catching up with the financial fiddling that has been occurring in global capitalism. Under this political economy, the rich have been able to become fantastically richer by engaging in shaky financial practices that are not good for the commonweal e.g., subprime mortgage manipulation, futures speculation and, in general, “casino capitalism” (Strange 1986, 1998a) or what Susan Strange has aptly called “globalony” (1998b).
Thus there is hope that we are witnessing the diminishment of the stranglehold of global capitalists on the lives of people around the globe. The hegemonic vice-like grip of global capitalists may be weakening. They have created a world of very well-off haves leaving the majority of people either poor or slipping out of the affluent post-World War II bubble into poverty and homelessness. They seem oblivious to a world where millions of people are starving and in the richest country in the world, the USA, many elderly cannot afford to heat their homes and are forced to eat cheap dog food to stay alive.
They are the Hosni Mubaraks of capitalism. They too will lose their grip if they don’t wake up to the fact that history is being written by the unintended consequences of their actions. The hegemons need to provide some safety valves or the steam engine of popular anger will explode.
In American politics at the moment there is good evidence that politicians and their hegemon backers are waking up, but their response is to clamp down and support Tea Party radicals who want to move America closer to Fascism. In response to the recent riots in Britain, the government has arrested and is prosecuting those arrested in the riots, but is that going to solve the underlying angst that gave rise to them in the first place?
I said earlier in this article that two strategies to counter threats to hegemony are: (1) citing tradition and (2) referencing the occult. We see both as Tea Party fanatics like Texas Governor and Presidential Candidate Rick Perry wave the Constitution as if we live in the 18th century and spew religious dogma as if God is on their side and the Rapture is right around the corner – anything to shore up the corporate and financial institutions that bring millions of dollars into their campaign coffers and provide them with cushy jobs when the leave “public service.”
It is possible that social scientists are not wrong when they indicate that each time institutions are created, their creators also generate internal contradictions that serve to undermine the stability of the formed institutions. Furthermore, there are historical-material forces external to such institutions that unexpectedly alter them. The creators cannot anticipate all the possibilities in the complex world of the future.
The gerontocrats of Sisalaland are baffled by the slippage of their gerontocratic institutions. They expressed to me bewilderment as to why they are losing their hegemonic hold on young people and their wives. The global rich seem baffled too, as they see their structures shaking even as they are making record profits. Perhaps these tremors foreshadow earthquakes of revolution. Conceivably the waves of protest on the shores of their seaside mansions prefigure tsunamis of a coming era.
The Sisala elders don’t seem to be able to stem the tide of change in Sisalaland and perhaps the super-rich and their conservative politicians will also find themselves in dire straits in the near future. Neither has a lock on the “true path.” Therein rests the hope against hegemony.
This is not to say that agency and political action are not needed. I recently wrote a variation of a poem by the poem “Torture” by Alice Walker. I call it “Political Shenanigans” and it goes like this:
When politicians haggle over ideology
get mad & act
When the rich get richer & you get poorer
get mad & act
When dangerous men & women run for office
get mad & act
When the old folks down the street eat dog food to stay alive
get mad & act
When your actions seem futile
Stay the course
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