Archaeology of Violence

by Pierre Clastres


A fascinating account of the relationship between war and primitive society, primarily in South America. It is a series of essays that all approach the topic from a slightly different angle.

Clastres´ main premise here is that war is not just a part of these primitive societies, it is inseparable from their existence. He separates societies into undivided and divided societies. The former are “primitive,” even though this implies that they need to progress to “civilized.” Civilized societies, on the other hand, have allowed themselves to become divided into a ruling class of some type and the class that allow (even desire) themselves to be ruled. This inherently results in a ruling class dominating a ruled class, however mildly it may be.

Every society from the “primitive” kingships of Africa to the most totalitarian Nazi Reich (including our democracies) have been this “divided” society, a society with a State, where people voluntarily give up their freedom. True egalitarianism, Clastres posits, can only be found in so-called primitive societies, where even the chiefs do not have power to rule but can only advise as the society already wishes.

Some of the more memorable essays are: the 1st, a first-person account of Clastres visit with Jacques Lizot to the Yanomami tribes of Venezuela; the 2nd, a review of a biography of a Brazilian girl who was kidnapped by a tribe and lived with them for 22 years before returning to “civilization;” the 4th, a fascinating treatise on the term “ethnocide,” the killing of a culture; then comes a fabulous treatise on Etienne La Boetie, the man who was writing 200 years before Rousseau on the nature of power, liberty and the social contract; the penultimate (and titular) work, a comprehensive summary of the entire process of war, and how it transforms itself into the method of maintaining societal autonomy while preventing the rise of a State; and finally, an essay on the less common “warrior societies” along with the harrowing plight of the privileged/cursed warrior, a “being-for-death.”

Lest this sound like a ridiculous romanticization of primitive life, as has become popular lately, I gladly contradict the notion. Clastres does indeed come across as defensive of these societies, but he is defending them against the academic arrogance that allows people to consider them “pre-civilized,” when in reality their societies seem to be almost as sophisticated, just in another direction. If anything, Clastres´ position is one of deflection and enlightenment, trying to shift the paradigm of how we consider these people — not heathens to be “civilized,” but rather a completely alien society that have developed distinct methods over thousands of years and can be respected in their own right, without being compared to us.

Indeed, just reading the book will disarm you of any illusions of romanticism. The picture he describes of a permanent state of war is distinctly unappealing as a modern reader. There is too much tension and uncertainty; he never comes close to suggesting that we should return to such a way of life.

His questions are more concerned with origin: Assuming all societies began this way, how did the first divided society arise? How and why did people voluntarily give up their liberty? His perspective is so interesting because he considers our divided society as the anomaly, not theirs.

It results that the essays gradually divulge more on the topic, and build on what you’ve already read, so you feel like their order is a logical progression, even though each was published several years apart during the 70s and early 80s. I can only suppose that´s a result of excellent editing. Sometimes the ideas get a little repetitive, but overall there is enough freshness in each essay that they are able to captivate you.


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