The Geber system

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Dec 28 15:58:34 MST 1999

(From Chapter One of Teshale Tibebu's "The Making of Modern Ethiopia
1896-1974" (Red Sea Press, 1995), a book the author describes as using
Wallerstein's world systems approach.)

The concept "geber system" is my own "invention." In the Amharic language,
the term geber has three different but interrelated meanings. First, geber
means work, derived from the word gaber, with extensions like gabare (farm
worker, peasant) and gebrena (agriculture.) The name Gabre is given to
servants and slaves. Hence the first meaning of the term geber refers to
the labor (production) process. Second, geber means tax/tribute or labor
service paid to the Emperor and the various ranks of the imperial ladder
below him. The second meaning of geber hence refers to the appropriation of
tribute by the ruling class — the Beta Mangest (House of State, House of
Kingdom is a better term to show the looseness of the state structure), and
the Beta Kehnat (House of Clergy) — from the gabbars (tribute providers.)
Interestingly enough, unlike the other two, the gabbar has no House.
Thirdly, geber means banquet. This refers to the redistribution relations
of the appropriated tribute among the various segments of the ruling class
in the form, among others, of provision of consumables like free food and
drinks. If we tie together these three different meanings of the term geber
and call Ethiopian society a geber system, we have the social history of
Ethiopia at our fingertips.

The geber system consists of three classes, or three orders, based on the
tripartite functional division of Ethiopian society: those who fight,
organized as the beta mangest; those who pray, organized as the beta
kehnat; and those who provide for daily subsistence, disorganized as
gabbars. Fighting, praying, and tilling land — these were the social
foundations of the geber system.

In the geber system, the production process, the appropriation process, and
the redistribution process formed a systemic whole with the giving and
taking of tribute knitting together the entire system.

There were two sets of tributary relations: (1) relations between gabbars,
on the one hand, and tribute appropriators, on the other; and, (2)
relations among the different ranks (orders) of the tribute-appropriating
class. The former was the fundamental social relationship of tribute
provision and appropriation between producers and appropriators; the latter
was the mechanism of tribute distribution and redistribution within the
appropriating class itself.

The geber system was an inverted pyramid, with the beta mangest and beta
kehnat as parallel power centers extracting tribute from the gabbar.
Ethiopian history is essentially the history of the geber system.

The three orders of the beta mangest, the beta kehnat, and the gabbar were
similar to the tripartite division of medieval Europe — those who fight,
those who pray, and those who till the land. The great French scholar
Gerorg Dumezil wrote that the tripartite division of labor among those who
fight, pray, and till the soil was a unique Indo-European phenomenon. But
we had it in Ethiopia, as if Ethiopia were Indo-European. In social
relations of production, religious culture, and distribution of power
relations, geber-system Ethiopia of the Ge’ez civilization, with its
church/state/peasant trinity, was remarkably similar to medieval Europe,
and yet had no peers in Africa. It was also fundamentally different from
the social relations of the lowland pastoral-nomadic Afars and Somalis
within Ethiopia itself.

The geber system was not only a mode of production and appropriation of
material life, but it was also a mode of production of social and moral
etiquette. The three classes of the geber system were also classes of
manners, values, and moral expectations. They were the subjects of what
Gramsci called hegemonic presence, the elaboration and maintenance of
social norms. These norms of how each group was to behave defined the
cultural contours of the Ge’ez civilization.

Central to the social construction of etiquette of the geber system was the
concept of honor. Honor meant name, status, prestige, social standing,
recognition, and above all, respect. Honor was a class phenomenon; it was
above all what defined a person. The producing classes were defined as
honorless. Their "honor" was in recognizing the honor of their masters or
superiors. There is no better way to see this than look at how the Amharic
language defines words of social class and status, for the Amharic words
for the three producing classes of nomadic pastoralists (zalan), herders
(eragnya), and peasants (balagar) are also terms of social location in the
honor hierarchy.

The word zalan refers to a mode of production of subsistence, as well as to
a mode of ascribed moral conduct. It has a double meaning: nomadic
pastoralist, on the one hand, and rude, uncultured, uncultivated, on the

The sedentary agrarian counterparts of zalan are eragnya and balagar. Like
zalan, eragnya and balagar have double meanings. Era gnya means herder. It
also means rude. Zalan and era gnya are both nouns, nomadic pastoralist and
herder, respectively, and adjectives, meaning rude. In the case of balagar,
however, the word is a noun whose adjective form is balage. As in zalan and
eragnya, the word balagar has a double meaning. On the one hand, balagar
means one with the country, man of the soil, tiller of the land, peasant,
country person. On the other hand, balagar is related to balage, which
means rude. In all this, there is a symbiotic relationship between class
and etiquette, the lower the class, the ruder it becomes, and vice versa.
The zalan, eragnya, and balagar are all defined as rude and lacking in

The contempt for the zalan was not simply a superiority complex of an
agricultural mode of production over a nomadic-pastoralist mode of
production; it was also an extension of the aristocratic contempt for the
balagar. Unlike in the early Arab, Ottoman, Mongolian, Tutsi, Fulani, etc.,
cases, in Ethiopia it was not the pastoralists that imposed their dominance
over the sedentary agriculturalists, but the other way around.

On the ruling side of the class divide, the opposite of the
zalan-eragnya-balagar triplet of the "rude" classes — all of whom belong to
the macro class of gabbars — is the word chawa. Chawa has four meanings:
(1) soldier, as opposed to peasant, on the one hand, and clergy, on the
other; (2) free, as opposed to slave (slaves were the most honorless of the
entire geber system); (3) layman, as opposed to the learned ecclesiastical
order; and, (4) cultivated and civilized in manners, as opposed to the
"rude" classes. The beta mangest-beta kehnat couplet represented the
"free," civilized, cultured, cultivated, and well-mannered class; the
peasant-herder-nomad triplet that of the uncivilized, uncultured,
uncultivated, rude class.

It is quite revealing to see that the Amharic word for soldier is watadar,
made up of two words, watito adar, which means one who spends the night
outside the house, as soldiers did during war. Moreover, the word watata,
the root for watito, refers to wandering from place to place, as soldiers
went everywhere to fight and loot. It was in opposition to the
ever-wandering warrior, the watadar, that the balagar was defined as one
with a country, with a household, with a place of residence and, most
importantly, with a place of burial. The watadar died anywhere and
everywhere, his dead body did not get a decent burial and religious
service. Not so with the balagar.

To sum up: The geber system was made up of three main classes — prayers,
fighters, and producers. (Slaves and occupational minorities "castes" cut
across class lines). Each class was ascribed a social etiquette, a
moral-ethical obligation, and a cultural name. The moral calling of the
praying class was to be pious while the warrior class was meant to be
gentlemanly. As to the producing class, it was condemned to be rude.

The "rude class" was a negative creation of the "civilized class." After
all, what does a Christian Amhara peasant have in common with a Muslim
Somali nomadic pastoralist save that both are under the rule of the beta
mangest-beta kehnat power bloc?

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list:

More information about the Marxism mailing list