Society Against the State

by Pierre Clastres


Having read Clastres´ later Archeology of Violence, I was prepared to be blown away by this one (after all, the production/jacket is much higher end stuff, which means it’s better, right?).

But I was instead disappointed. He says essentially similar things, but in more theoretical ways than he does in the other book. This made it harder for me to stay interested. Additionally, there were a couple of spots where he seemed to romanticize the indigenous people, giving them way more credit for creating a sophisticated political safeguard than they probably deserved. Theirs struck me as a system that evolved much more organically than he continuously intimated. For example, from page 44:

. . . it is as though these societies formed their political sphere in terms of an intuition which for them would take the place of a rule: namely, that power is essentially coercion. . . these societies astonish us by the subtlety with which they have posed and settled the question. They had a very early premonition that power’s transcendence conceals a mortal risk for the group, that the principle of an authority which is external and the creator of its own legality is a challenge to culture itself. It is the intuition of this threat that determined the depth of their political philosophy.

Now, call me cynical and “culture-ist” if you will, but to refer to the organization of primitive societies and tribes as a deep political philosophy seems a little ridiculous.  In fact, Clastres seems to contradict himself, alternately explaining their societal structure by “intuition” or “premonition,” (which strikes me as accurate), then in the next breath ascribing it to some complex and conscientious philosophical maneuvering for which he heaps loads of credit upon them. I don’t see how you can have it both ways: it was either intuitive and subconscious (or “organic,” as I say), or it was conscientious, subtle, and indicative of profound philosophical insight.

Clastres’ preaching aside, he continues to raise some good points about the common modern view of “primitives.” He points out the paradox of the stereotype that the primitive lived in a subsistence economy, but is also invariably considered lazy. Either he worked all day for his food, or he didn’t work it all, it can’t be both.

Also, there is a brilliant essay (“Elements of Amerindian Demography”) where he neatly debunks the low estimates for pre-Columbian population in the Americas, convincingly arriving at a significantly higher estimate, including a shocking 90% mortality rate in the 100 years after the white arrival.

Ultimately, though, Clastres left me wanting more. In the titular essay at the end of the book, he poses some fascinating questions: All civilized people were first primitives, and the State is impossible in primitive society, so what made the State cease to be impossible? Why did some people cease to be primitives? What event allowed the Despot to emerge? “Where does political power come from?

These are all the questions that I expected to get answered when I picked up the book. Instead, Clastres immediately follows them with a disclaimer about the impossibility of answering, followed by a weak hypothesis about the emergence of spiritual prophets who could have provided the seed for political power.

For those who haven´t read “Archaeology” and already have this one instead, I would definitely recommend it as an introduction to Clastres. Otherwise, “Archaeology” is far more interesting — an anthropological masterpiece.

For more info. . .


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