Pariahs

[From the archives.]

At levels of high institutional development, the state very commonly first makes pariahs, and then later uses them. It is only a very recent idea that a civil service can make complicated and distasteful principal-agent problems into a respectable profession with its own code of ethics and sense of corporate purpose.

The earliest pariahs were definitely eunuchs. One of the first manifestations of the inequality of early agricultural societies was extreme forms of polygamy. Where this polygamy merely took the form of slavery with opportunistic sexual exploitation of female slaves by their masters, it is difficult to speculate as to how upset the master would be if his overseer raped a slave whom he had been accustomed to rape himself. No doubt, once in a while the master would have developed a sort of possessive jealousy toward the slave in question, and punished the overseer.

Nonetheless, once a slave-owner wants not only sexual access to his human chattels but also exclusive sexual access, you see the difficult principal-agent dynamic that develops. With more than one or two chattels, a jealous master faces a choice; he must either trust his slave-girls and leave them to their own devices, or set an overseer over them and trust him, instead.

Gradually hyper-polygamy began to fulfill symbolic as well as merely sexual needs, and was institutionalized in forms that permitted men of high rank to buy the daughters of multiple other men, accorded them some legal status as wives, and thus made them legally competent to bear him legitimate (as opposed to low-caste/enslaved) children. The question of how to guard the hypergamous harem becomes more important than ever. Probably concubines are not as keen to run away as the slaves, but the traditional ability of the husband to watch his property – both to protect it and to prevent it from developing socially unsanctioned, romantic interests – is compromised in this strange extension of traditional tribal marriages. If one deputizes overseers for this task, then inevitably the overseer will step into the role of surrogate husband for the neglected concubines.

In a hyper-polygamous marriage, there is an obvious symmetry; it is impossible for all men to have an above-average number of wives, so only a few are able to aspire to the privilege.  This gives the acquisition of multiple concubines from low-status families an additional value, as status symbols for the groom.  The status value attached to this large harem is, of course, ruined if the owner of the harem is in effect maintaining dozens of little families for other men who may not even be part of his own branch of the tribe – and so much the worse if their children are in competition with his children for clan resources.

(In matrilineal societies, polygamy is a more relaxed affair, to the extent that a man’s wives’ children are never in competition for his clan’s resources to begin with.)

As a prissy moralist I’m inclined to present this conundrum as a reductio ad absurdum of hypergamy — and of the general project of accumulating status by buying other human beings. But ancient societies were not so easily dissuaded and simply chopped the penises off the overseers, preventing them from having sexual relations with their charges. This made them pariahs in at least three senses.

  1. Traditional societies seem to view any form of misfortune or bodily deformity as ominous and to be shunned (perhaps a primitive attempt to deal with contagion).
  2. Status in a segmentary tribal society is in the first instance connected with forming a link between one’s parents and one’s children; being unable to sire children makes one preemptively a failure and a traitor to one’s ancestors, and excludes one from the standard social hierarchy.
  3. While modern surgeons can perform a phalluctomy without damaging the uro-genital system, ancient peoples could not and (depending on how much was removed, and how carefully) the resulting eunuch was left with no defense against infections, with pus and piss dripping steadily into his crotch. This would be unpleasant enough in our own days, but in the days before mechanical laundry, detergent, running water, and hygiene, the resulting stench would have been revolting.

To create the perfect harem guards, the grasping rich of ancient times had to create a creature that was unlucky, unfruitful, and unclean – the perfect pariah, and embodiment of everything the primitive mind found hateful.

As a result the eunuchs were not just adequate harem guards, they were completely dependent on their master on every question. They could have no wife or children whose interests they could put above their master’s; in some cases, their kin disowned them, leaving them with no family obligations whatsoever. Did they have friends and allies they made through business ties, religious rituals, or casual friendly interaction?  Unlikely, at least in the early stages of the pariah-system: to become tied or indebted to a eunuch would be no honor, and to betray him no disgrace. That is how things are with pariahs.

Mutilating a man to make it easier to acquire a high-status stockpile women seems terrible enough; but ancient societies saw in the eunuch’s misfortunes a further opportunity to exploit him.

Ordinarily, any interaction that a family had with the rest of society needed to be mediated by an agent who was himself embedded in that society. If an agent was instructed to, say, negotiate a trade deal, his obligations to his own branch of the tribe and his branch’s stance vis-à-vis the branch with which he was negotiating was every bit as important as the principal’s instructions concerning the goals of the negotiations. How could the negotiations even begin unless both sides had some sense of where they stood in relation to each other? Each side had a certain status, and owed or was entitled to certain ritual observances from the first greeting to the final farewell.

This situation – the embedding of intermediaries into the very communities they were supposed to intermediate – became a serious problem when central states were trying to extract tax revenues and enforce compliance with the law. What the highest master imagined to be a simple question of dictating what would happen ended up turning into a negotiation between the family of his local deputy and the families that the deputy was supposed to bring to heel about how best to manage the demands from the center to the benefit of all involved. Attempts to deal with this problem led to repeated waves of refeudalization, repatrimonialization, and state collapse.

The eunuchs offered a solution; they were deputies who stood entirely outside society. They could not hope to enrich anyone dear to them. They could not be punished – except by the master. There were no tribal obligations, no status to respect on both sides, no need for give and take. As deputies eunuchs could stand in as transparent bearers of the word of the master. If they were hated, well, so what? They had always been hated and rejected.

So far as I know the only system where the use of eunuchs as the designated pariah-intermediaries of the state was advanced as a central tool of administration was Imperial China. Several societies have, consciously or unconsciously, created symbolic eunuchs, to whom marriage is legally prohibited. However, these symbolic eunuchs inevitably regained the respect due to their position of power (if they had ever lost it in the first place) and were not spurned where they became willing to realign themselves with the interest of their cousins and nephews; and sooner or later the symbolic eunuchs began to flout the celibacy requirement itself. Repatrimonialization ensues.

An alternative to symbolic eunuchs is to take an existing pariah community and then elevate it to the status of a servant of the state. This was done nearly universally with executions – some craftsmen were dragged, by their symbolic association with unpleasant aspects of their trade, to the very bottom of the community (butchers, often enough); that made them low enough to not attract significant additional contempt from the family of a slain criminal.

For selecting a fiscal pariah, it was necessary to choose from a larger community that had been debased wholesale, since acting as a fiscal deputy of the state calls for certain abilities and means that one cannot expect to find in a generic despised laborer. These sorts of pariah communities formed naturally in difficult terrain, where first geography fostered linguistic and cultural diversity and then waves of immigration and invasion left a patchwork of heterogeneous communities inhabiting geographically unified territories. The first invaders could keep the survivors as an exploited underclass; when the second invasion arrived with the intention of exploiting both parts of society equally, one or the other of the two underclasses would end up weaker, and more vulnerable.  This weaker group would end up marginalized and ripe for use as a cudgel with the new invaders could beat the tax delinquents and scofflaws in the stronger half of the underclass. If he favored his own kinsmen when calculated tax obligations, well, they did not have too much to begin with; if he embezzled too much of the fisc, no one would cry when the state executed him.

An interesting development of the fiscal pariah community is as a financial and even as contractual pariah community. The same hated, contemptible status that allowed pariahs to collect tax revenue in a blunt manner, to look only to a fiscal ledger for guidance (rather than to a complex of obligation, status, and loyalty tying together a web of families) — this status made them equally adept at collecting loans and interest!

Within a small community, a loan is a sort of symbolic gift, and it is not likely that the gift will be reciprocated by the repayment of principal plus interest. Just as likely is an intense pressure for the leader to symbolically “forgive” the debt and accept the deference and allegiance of the debtor as compensation. Understandably, if asking for a loan is in fact asking for a gift, getting a loan is as hard as getting a gift!

Therefore, the existence of a pariah community which can collect debts in defiance of social pressure opens up a source of loans that would have otherwise been completely closed. Potential borrowers begin to see the utility of the pariah community as a source of funds, and become more tolerant of the pariah’s attempt to collect debts from their neighbors. (Collecting one’s own debts is still taboo, but respecting the letter of the law with respect to the pariah is not.) This use of the financial pariah can even expand to a full-fledged contractual pariah, who is able to stick to the letter of the law in any sort of contract, not just contracts on loans. At length, the dominant community begins to use the pariah community as a front for a circuitous re-routing of their own financial and trade relations, lending or selling to the pariah so that he can lend or sell in turn back to a cousin or in-law. Finally, the sham is discarded and the dominant community starts to stipulate when they will conduct their own affairs under the socially violent laws of the pariahs – until, in the end, they realize this is the only law that deserves the name.

However, the pariah communities have never been horribly stable, either as fiscal pariahs or as financial/contractual pariahs. The problem seems to be the very source of their utility. Because people hate pariahs, they hate economic/legal institutions that put them in a subject position vis-à-vis pariahs. As time goes on, the tension between the hatred of elites for the pariahs and the power that the pariahs exercise (in the name of the law) over the state is unlikely to remain high without snapping. As the arrangement continues, the pariahs will institutionalize it and the pariah authority will increasingly be identified with the pariahs themselves. So eventually either the elites will find a chance to slaughter the pariahs (the fate of most eunuch cabals) or the pariahs will entrench themselves and reintegrate themselves as normal elites with normal responsibilities and obligations (the fate of most symbolic eunuchs).

Pariah communities are an interesting development because they exhibit internal variation, and because the mere existence of a pariah communities implies the preexistence of forces both preventing the assimilation of pariahs and forbidding their massacre and forcible expropriation. Even if all the pariah elites are killed, they still have a pariah middle class which will repopulate itself with leaders who will be suitable for fiscal duties; and the same holds true if a few pariah elites are able to leverage their services to the state into permission to assimilate.

In the grand scheme of experiment in state development, the eunuch and the symbolic eunuch were both gestures toward the need for what today we have in the form of a civil service; but it would be a long time before the social and conceptual preconditions for this form of “service” would arrive. In the meantime, the status of pariah communities and the dynamics of the hatred and violence they suffer from can be understood as part of the trauma of the rationalization of society – the movement from tribalism to disinterested individualism.

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