Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The Sacrificial Victim

I have considerable difficulty separating events that are happening in our society from the philosophical material that I am reading. We are in the middle of some major upheavals in UK society but the public commentators seem to miss the significance. The backdrop to this blog is the continuing wars supposedly against terror, acts of terrorism by suicide attackers, the vote for the British exit from the European Union, and the Labour party deviation that could lead to its demise. On a more personal note, I am endeavouring to gain promotion in a system that is heavily weighted against teaching fellows and our reading on peace and peace building. Our most recent reading is Bailie's (1995) Violence Unveiled. It is drawing on some of his anthropological thinking that I am endeavouring to write this piece. From a promotion perspective, I have made my first failure because I have used “endeavouring” rather than implying a more positive outcome for my activities but we will come back to this later.

What has impressed me with Bailie's book is the insights that he brings to cultural events by recognising the sacrificial violence in society and how approved violence from police or military is used to keep a lid on wider societal violence. So far, Bailie hasn't talked about war as sacrificial violence but certainly the rapid murdering of suspects of possible terrorist acts would fall within Bailie's framework. It is better that the suspected terrorist should die than that more should die at the hands of terrorists or maybe more accurately than that our culture should be challenged and we be forced to rethink our priorities.

Bailie talks about Christ's crucifixion opening up a sympathy for victims that now dominates in western society. However, our solution when we attack the victimiser is to turn the victimiser into the new victim. The death penalty was murder at the hands of the judicial system in order to appease the murder in society. The killing of suicide bombers is legitimised violence by the state in order to protect its citizens. Is the going to war against dictators or suspected terrorists, the same attitude that in order to protect our culture and way of life, we need to destroy a culture and way of life that would bring our culture into question? What about the new British Prime Minister's response to the question on firing nuclear weapons? Is it better that a million of their people die despite their innocence than for our culture to come under attack from their ideologies or threats to our cultural survival? A deterrent is not a deterrent unless you are prepared to use it even when that deterrent is likely to bring mutual assured destruction.

All of these sacrificial victims, the victimisers, are in theory perpetrators of violence against our culture or individuals in our culture but is there a more subtle sacrificial victimisation happening in society?

One of the most obvious to me is the struggle for leadership of the Labour party. Jeremy Corbyn is a threat to the sacrificial system since he advocates peaceful alternatives. The forces of authority gang up on him because he sides with the repressed and those who abhor our dependence on authorised violence. He is unelectable because he challenges our cultural identity and the way that we believe things should be done. Even his own parliamentary colleagues believe it is better that one be sacrificed for the good of the party or culture than that the one should be allowed to cause an historical shift in our thinking about war, peace, and social justice. The news media join this sacrificial victimisation of a voice that challenges cultural norms. Is it possible that Jeremy Corbyn could be another Martin Luther King? A challenger to the cultural norms that must be silenced before it infects the culture and causes the culture to change forever? I don't expect Jeremy Corbyn to be assassinated (i.e. murdered) but I do see his ideologies being assassinated in an attempt to block the inevitable societal change. It is better that one person and their ideologies be sacrificed for the good of all than that our cultural norms be challenged and transformed by the actions and philosophies of the one.

All these are about obvious violence or political leaders, it wouldn't happen in the workplace or society in general? On 17 July, I asked the question whether serfdom was a social norm? If it is a social norm then maybe we should expect the same sacrificial victimisation to be occurring in the workplace in order to maintain that cultural system. Is this what we have seen in the junior doctor's dispute? The junior doctor's are the serfs who keep the British health system (NHS) in operation. It is better to quieten their voices than to allow their fears to be heard regardless of the validity of their claims and for the system to be changed forever.

What about promotion systems with their certification of practice? Is there a possibility that the promotional systems are designed to ensure that promotion does not occur for the worker who might challenge the system despite their effectiveness in the job because they do not conform to its promotional requirements? To voice discontent or propose fundamental changes is to invite failure in the cultural norms of the organisation. When that cultural norm frowns on failure, you should not admit that there is a possibility that something did not work or that you are in the process of trying to change. You have to show that you are successful and that you are conforming to those norms even when you seek to challenge them. Pointing out the shortcomings based on past experience is in adequate. You must show that you have implemented your proposal despite being at the bottom of the status heap. Management express confusion as to why the serfs in an organisation are the most unhappy when the systems that management have put in place are designed to keep the serfs in their place. Those who raise their heads above the parapet must be shot down before their infectious message damage the culture of the workplace. It is better to sacrifice the one than allow the serfs to rise up an expose our system for what it is.

Sympathy for the victim only goes so far before those who really stand up for the victims in society are turned into sacrificial victims in order to retain the status quo. These sacrificial victims may not be put to death but there will be every attempt to murder their ideologies so that they do not impact the current culture and bring the much needed change. However, the destruction of the messenger doesn't lead to the destruction of the message. Rather the sympathy for the victim or messenger has the potential to ignite a new storm of reform that changes society forever.

The fact that it requires the sacrificial victim for change to occur seems to be fundamental to our culture and this may be the real message of Bailie's book.


Bailie, G. (1995). Violence unveiled: Humanity at the crossroads. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Is Serfdom a Social Norm?

We are reading Bailie's (1995) book in which he argues from an anthropological perspective that sacrificial violence was a norm in controlling violence and possibly initiating societal transform. Sacrificial violence relies on the argument that it is better for one to die for all that for all to suffer. As we read this morning, I wondered whether serfdom is also a social norm and if we were to look at economics from an anthropological perspective that we would see that despite attempts to abandon serfdom and slavery, society continues to revert to such practices although in a revised form.

Serfdom is defined as “the state of being under the control of another person” (Free Dictionary). A serf defined as “a person in a condition of servitude, required to render services to a lord, commonly attached to the lord's land and transferred with it from one owner to another” (

This is not the result of an anthropological study but rather a personal reflection and observation based on forty years of work experience and strongly reinforced by my current employment. To some extent, it is the last few years of working in the UK that has made me a lot more conscious of the serfdom assumptions of capitalist economics.

What I observe is that there is an increased emphasis on certification of workers and if you are not certified then you don't receive the rewards even if you are already doing the job. However, that doesn't necessarily lead to serfdom. What I see as leading to serfdom is when the certification process is in the control of the management of the worker's organisation have control and are making the decisions in the certification process. In this situation, the management can refuse to certify a worker and then demand more work in order to become certified and gain promotion and the rewards for the work done.

In the definition of serfdom, there is the attachment “to the lord's land” and being “transferred with” with the land in a sale. I would contend that this is the case with employees in any company. The workers are attached to the company or organisation of their employers and if the company or organisation is sold then the employees are transferred with the sale.

If these are the conditions for serfdom then our modern economic environment seems to have the characteristics of a serfdom. The question is whether the transforms that occur in society see society repeatedly return to the key characteristics of serfdom? To be able to argue that this is so it is necessary to review the transforms that have occurred and in society and see whether the characteristics of serfdom have constantly been reestablished. Serfdom is most often linked with the period of feudalism but I believe that there are obvious cases where we could argue that it has been reestablished such as the period where slavery dominated. However, serfdom doesn't require slavery in the sense of unpaid slaves. It simply needs the workers to feel that they are locked in to the organisation and that they have few choices. As I talk to many of the lower paid colleagues in my current organisation, I sense that these conditions are in place. They have no confidence in the promotion process and feel obliged to do all that is asked of them. Occasionally there is resistance but this resistance doesn't cause cultural change within the organisation.

I would contend that serfdom has been reestablished whether governments recognise it or not.


Bailie, G. (1995). Violence unveiled: Humanity at the crossroads. New York: The Crossroads Publishing Company.

Free Dictionary at