Back in 1971 I wrote my honours thesis for social anthropology at Sydney University. Its theme was a link between witchcraft/sorcery beliefs and egalitarianism in native and peasant communities around the world. Given discussion earlier this year about inequality, I believe it has a relevance.
Its principle argument went something like this:
The basic concept of egalitarianism is that everyone is equal and has an equal share of abilities and resources. Of course, in reality, this is never quite true. And in those native and peasant communities, witchcraft was a common approach to explain the differences.
It worked in a number of ways. Those who rose above the norm and those who fell below it were prone to witchcraft, either being attacked by it or accused of it. (Please note that when I say witchcraft, I include sorcery — there was a difference in the anthropological literature of the time that wasn’t relevant to my thesis nor to this discussion. Also, I use the term ‘witch’ to include both males and females.)
Those who rose above the norm could include those who were ‘conspicuously fortunate’, those who had outstanding innate talent (such as a Bradman or a Mozart), and even the ‘big men’ of the village.
For those with talent, it helped explain why they were so good but it also helped keep them within the bounds of the community. While it may only be thought that their talent was a result of witchcraft, if they did not use that talent in acceptable ways, or if they boasted of their talent, it could become a public accusation, leading to public sanction.
Similarly ‘big men’ were recognised as being important for the community, particularly in its dealings with other communities, but they had to maintain the welfare and best interests of their own community or they would also be publicly accused of being witches.
Being ‘conspicuously fortunate’ is clearly an egalitarian crime. The threat of being accused of being a witch helped ensure that those people spread their wealth in socially acceptable ways — catering for large ceremonies, for example.
Those at the bottom (below the social norm) were rarely attacked by witchcraft but prone to being identified as witches, the ones paid to provide the potions or spells. This often related to an illness occurring after an argument between two people (and the argument most often related to one person having more than the other). Both sides of the issue would then have to be addressed, the argument (and which party paid the witch), and the role of the witch.
Some of this demonisation of those at the bottom, those falling below the social norms, can be seen in the European and North American witch trials. Elderly widows struggling to survive on their own and young women perceived as promiscuous were among those more commonly accused.
I saw this operating like three concentric circles reflecting the values of the community. The majority of people fell within the central circle. Then those who were different, the probable witches, operated within the second circle. As long as they remained within that second circle they could be tolerated in a somewhat ambivalent way, but if they moved beyond that second circle they had moved too far beyond the bounds of egalitarianism and would face sanction, exile, or even execution.
I read a simple example of this in a story by Camara Laye about an African childhood. A boy was with his uncle, the village headman, and as they worked their way along a field they were moving ahead of the other men. Then the uncle slowed down and the boy pointed out that the others were catching up. His uncle told him it was not good to get too far ahead. In my terms, he was reaching a boundary where greater success (his speed working the field) would be seen as extreme and probably the result of witchcraft.
Witchcraft in this way acts as a sanction to acceptable behaviour. One tries to stay within the egalitarian norms, even if those norms are somewhat extended within the second circle, so as to avoid witchcraft.
So there you have it in a nutshell. What does this mean for our society?
We no longer believe in witchcraft but perhaps we should.
The majority of us sit comfortably in the middle (within the central circle), follow social norms, at least within acceptable bounds, and are free from accusations of witchcraft. We understand disease much better and no longer need witchcraft or other supernatural sources to explain it. Although it is interesting that arguments or disagreements and the associated stress can lead to illness — perhaps we still need witchcraft to explain that and should focus more on the argument as the root cause of the illness so that the argument is dealt with before a cure is found.
We are much better off in terms of our material possessions but still find blatant displays of wealth unacceptable. When someone builds a house twice as big as those around it, or suddenly appears in a Porsche when everyone else has a Holden or a Toyota, we no longer accuse them of witchcraft but we may think they are crooks, or dealing drugs, or something similar.
We elevate and praise our successful artists and sports people but only so long as they don’t abuse their position or become ‘big heads’. When that happens they become dangerous to our social stability and an element of witchcraft comes back into play. They are seen not to have played by the rules and need to be brought down or cast out.
We accept that we need leaders and powerful people to protect us but are equivocal about their power. We have a democracy which is supposed to control that power but sometimes we wonder whether it does. Of course, we are outraged when we find the powerful misusing their power to increase their own wealth but, after a brief time, nothing really changes and we await the next occurrence.
Our society has its share of people who drop below the norm and they are often perceived as a threat. I think sometimes it is because it is a reminder that there but for a bit of luck goes any one of us. We are not always comfortable knowing they are there but generally we wish to help them back within the inner circle. Many, however, in their day-to-day activities, will avoid them if they can.
The poor and outcast may no longer be witches but they are demonised by the rich, the LNP government and the economic rationalists: they are too lazy to be helped. We are told they use the services and taxes of the core circle and reduce the services available for the rest of us within that circle. They are told by the rich and powerful that they can never get back into that inner circle except by their own efforts, that they are undeserving of help, but that approach is not fully in accord with the egalitarian values of the central circle, so the rich and powerful are treading dangerous ground.
And we have ‘the one per cent’ sitting at the top with all their wealth. How did they get there? Where I grew up, the common view was that almost all who were fabulously rich must have done something wrong, not necessarily illegal but certainly breaching the norms — a few deals that sailed close to the edge of legality, or a few mates abandoned or ‘knifed’ along the way, a bit of insider knowledge, tax avoidance (or should I say tax minimisation so as not to be sued) and so on. Of course, only the rich have this special knowledge and the resources to implement it.
As a society we seem to struggle to find good explanations for these situations, and perhaps find some of them puzzling, even troubling, but witchcraft explains them all.
The conspicuous displays of wealth are obviously the result of witchcraft. An ordinary person in the inner circle cannot get their Porsche any other way. They don’t need to be crooks, just witches. When they know that such conspicuous displays can lead to accusations of witchcraft, they will be less likely to step so far out of line.
The same goes for our successful artists and sports people. They will behave in more acceptable ways if they know that they are always on the verge of a witchcraft accusation because of their ‘unnatural’ talent.
Our leaders may need their witchcraft to counter the witchcraft of other leaders but if they know that we know they are witches then they may be more careful how they use that power. They will know they need to support the central circle or face public accusation and the sanctions that follow.
If those who drop below the norm are thought more likely to be witches, perhaps we will work harder to bring them back into the central circle and so tame their witchcraft. And we will work to keep them in the inner circle because if they drop back again, anything could happen — we might all be turned into sheep (if the rich and powerful have not already turned us into sheep).
Alternately, we may draw on their magic to bring the rich and the powerful into line. While they are there, they are also a threat to those at the top — a reminder that the second circle belongs not just to the rich and powerful but the poor and outcast, that they are in reality in the same situation, operating outside the core values of the society. The poor and outcast have their own spells to attack the rich and powerful and it is a potential battleground for witchcraft.
Finally, how did the super-rich gain all that wealth? Bugger economics! — it was witchcraft pure and simple. They have the secret knowledge that they share only within their cabal.
It follows that they demonise and accuse those at the bottom, the others occupying those outer circles, of witchcraft because they are so conscious of it and fear being accused themselves. The rich and powerful (and the LNP) persecute these other witches to divert attention from their own witchcraft.
I say it is time to bring back witchcraft. It will support our egalitarianism and help us explain so much. We would not need economic arguments to explain inequality, just witchcraft.
We can bring back the witch trials and place ‘the one percent’ before the Witchfinder General. Then let them try to explain that they did not achieve their wealth by witchcraft. We can ask the banks and global corporations to show that, in making their super profits, they have not beguiled us with witchcraft. We can demand that the current prime minister justify his accusations of witchcraft against a certain red-haired former prime minister and, if he can’t, it follows that he, himself, was using witchcraft.
There may be many executions to follow. I think, however, that I could be tempted to become a tricoteuse at the bonfires.
What do you think?