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The Humanities Center Lectures, 2009-2010: Global Connections, Global Responsibilities

Co-sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy (CAAEPP).

Declarations of Dependence: Labor, Personhood, and Welfare in South Africa and Beyond

James Ferguson, Monday, Oct. 5, 2009

4:30pm, Porter 100, Gregg Hall

South Africa has in recent decades gone through a wrenching transformation from a labor-scarce society to a labor-surplus one. Labor scarcity through most of the 19th and 20th centuries led to forms of social solidarity and social personhood that had significant continuities with the pre-colonial past (continuities that are obscured by conventional narratives that emphasize the rise of capitalism as a complete and comprehensive break with the past). In recent decades, however, economic restructuring has radically reduced demand for low-skilled, manual labor, and mass unemployment has become a durable structural feature of South African society. This new situation is more radically different from the past than is generally recognized, and calls for new ways of thinking about social membership, work, "dependency", and social assistance. It is suggested that the South African experience reveals, in an extreme and clarifying form, a set of processes that are occurring in many other parts of the world. Better understanding such processes may help us to find our way past some of the current impasses in progressive politics.

James Ferguson is Professor and Chair, Department of Anthropology, Stanford University.

The Humanities Center is supported in part by a National Endowment for the Humanities Challenge Grant.