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Amazing Dahomey

From “What Karl Polanyi found in Dahomey”, Chapter 5 of The Culture Cult.

The role of state officials

The famous economist Karl Polanyi believed in the need for strong, centralized, state-managed economies. He promoted this in much of his writing, and toward the end of his life made a remarkable discovery—that the arrangements to be found in ancient, blood-stained, slave-trading, war-making West African Dahomey (now Benin) amounted to a wisely ruled Welfare State. He described its features in a book, Dahomey and the Slave Trade, and we describe below some of the things Polanyi thought he had found.

Right from the start he assumes that in 18th-century Dahomey economic activity only takes place because it is “implemented by state officials”, all the way from the king at the top down to the subsistence farmers planting their crops. It is a fact of common observation that interference by the state in the decision-making of small farmers about what to plant and when has time and again produced disasters. In Russia, China, Cambodia, and Ethiopia famines resulted. Yet Dahomey was spared such misery: it had only one recorded famine throughout its history. How could this be?

According to Polanyi the reason is not what you’d expect—that its rulers had the good sense to leave the farmers alone. Instead it was because the king and his ministers were telling them what to do. “The King of Dahomey enforces cultivation over all his dominions”, he quotes approvingly from a 19th-century source, while “the permanent administration of agricultural affairs was in the hands of the ‘Minister of Agriculture’, the Tokpo”. Beneath him were other administrative assistants, and “it was the duty of the agricultural officials to insure a balanced production of crops and adjust resources to requirements. If there was overproduction or underproduction of any crop, the farmers were ordered to shift from one crop to another.”1

No-one knows how far Dahomey’s bureaucracy actually succeeded in achieving any of these goals. But Polanyi clearly believes that it did, seizes enthusiastically on any evidence of “an extensive apparatus of planning and administration”, and jubilantly hails the taxes imposed to provide state revenue. He is particularly excited by a report that when the king was “about to set a new price for pigs” (did the Royal Personage have nothing better to do?) “a complicated system of controls was set in motion”. The slaughter of sows, the movement of livestock, and both production and transportation, were monitored by state officials throughout the land.

Of hoes, Amazons, and IBM

Could a peasant who wanted a hoe just sit down and make one? No way. “Twelve forges throughout the country were designated to make hoes; and production of hoes was limited to these forges, each of which was under the watchful eye of an official charged with supervising production.”2 Polanyi sees nothing wrong in the king having some 4,000 women attached to the court, 2,000 of them wives and the rest a regiment of female soldiers known in the literature as the “Amazons”. That “people of rank engrossed the major part of the women” was not a worry, since other women were appointed by the king to provide sexual services to the public at large.3 Plainly, no detail of public welfare was overlooked. Security was attended to by a system of state spies.

But how were numerical records kept of all the taxes paid, the numbers of livestock, the men available for the annual war, of births and deaths and marriages? Here we come to Polanyi’s remarkable claim that Dahomey possessed a system of enumeration representing, for its time, “an advance in communication comparable to IBM”. It seems that when a citizen wanted to count he put pebbles one by one into raffia bags, the annual census-taking conducted before the slave-raiding wars being the main occasion for this, and the time when hundreds of bag-carriers bearing pebbles converged on the capital.

Because there was no way of indicating percentages of a total, each tally in the census—of women, of men, of male and female births during the year, of male and female children below the age of thirteen, of male and female deaths from natural causes during the year, of deaths in war, of the number of captives taken, and finally the number of slaves available for sale (a secondary matter compared to the number of captive “heads” or prisoners for sacrifice to the ancestral gods) was conveyed independently in separate bags of pebbles.

As one tries to visualise the lines of porters toiling uphill under the blazing African sun, day after day and week after week to the capital city, with their burdensome raffia bags slung from their shoulders, and the innumerable pebbles they must contain . . . it is impossible not to become suspicious. Perhaps Herskovits did too. The arithmetic itself seems odd. And where are the earlier reports corroborating the account Herskovits obtained in the 1930s? There are none. To his credit Herskovits admits to finding “the system of bureaucratic control” he describes as “bordering on the fantastic”. And when one considers all the complications it is not surprising to find it has been described by another authority on Dahomey as “almost incredible”.4

Cut the “almost”. It was indeed entirely incredible. About the kindest thing that can be said about Karl Polanyi’s credulity is that only someone of the type set before us in Peter Drucker’s biographical note, with “a naive belief in the cunning, cleverness, and foresight of our rulers”, filled with that sacred hate of the market system so admired by his wife, convinced of the impending downfall of modern capitalism, and simple-minded enough to see pebble-counting with raffia bags as analogous to the achievements of IBM—only someone like this could have possibly fallen for it in the first place.

Academic delusions

But let us try and be sympathetic. Consider the ageing scholar’s situation in New York. Sitting in his “tiny faculty apartment on Morningside Heights, each of its grimy and ill-maintained rooms piled from floor to ceiling with books and pamphlets, articles and letters”5, never having done an actual day’s fieldwork in Africa in his life, and with everyone talking up its prospects, it was perhaps understandable for him to wildly idealize this 18th century state so long ago and far away—a despotic kingdom set before us as a model for the modern age. Seldom can the delusions of romantic primitivism have put a man so completely out of touch.

When Karl Polanyi moved west from Hungary he carried some of the worst ideological baggage of eastern Europe with him. He never learnt to appreciate the principles of democratic government which defended his existence. He never understood the economy which fed him, and gave him the freedom to work. While Michael Polanyi deepened our understanding of civilization in The Logic of Liberty, Karl Polanyi was preparing a book which might have been called The Logic of Slavery.

In one place he casually mentions that after a military victory 4,000 captives were sacrificed to Dahomey’s gods. How would Polanyi have felt if he had witnessed these killings? He was hardly a family man, but his relationship with his daughter seems to have been close. What would he have thought of the training procedure for future Dahomeyan executioners, where girls and boys were given knives to hack at the heads of their living victims?

In the 18th century thousands of slaves and prisoners were killed each year in Dahomey. At the only place in his book where he shows any concern about this Polanyi writes that “admittedly, acts of repulsive cruelty, religious mass murder, and endemic techniques of treachery in the political field were the accompaniment of its high achievements. Nevertheless, Dahomey’s was an unbreakable society, held together by bonds of solidarity over which only naked force eventually prevailed.”6

That only naked force could break this culture is presented as its vindication. As much might be said of Hitler’s Germany. Such are the priorities of those who believe that the primitive moral claims of solidarity outweigh all others—simple humanity included.7

1 Ibid, pp 38-39

2 Ibid, p 46

3 Ibid, p 51

4 W. J. Argyle, The Fon of Dahomey, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966, p 94. A somewhat fuller description of the census tallies, and of the circumstances in which Herskovits got his data, may be found in Roger Sandall, “Herskovits’ Last Day in Dahomey”, Anthropology Today, Vol. 15 No 6, December 1999, pp 18-20

5 Peter F. Drucker, Adventures of a Bystander, p 138

6 Karl Polanyi, Dahomey and the Slave Trade: an Analysis of an Archaic Economy, p 9

7 In West Africa scarcely imaginable brutalities were routine. Visiting Benin in the1860s, Sir Richard Burton saw a slave lashed to a keg of dynamite and blown up. “‘When he descended,’ Burton wrote, ‘his brains were beaten out with clubs and sticks, even the women and children joining in the pastime gleefully, as boys killing a rat.'” In Mary S. Lovell, A Rage to Live: a Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton, Little, Brown and Company, 1998, p 389

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