Pierre Clastres: Society against the State

How does power work in societies that have no state?

Anthropologists have tried to answer the question of power in non-state societies ever since structural functionalism, but it seems to me that it never got us beyond the negative perspective: absence of state, lack of political institutions etc. I think this perspective can be overcome by a line of thought developed by the political anthropologist Pierre Clastres. I’m esp. thinking about the main work Society against the State and the article “Power in Primitive Societies” found in the Clastres-anthology called Archaeology of Violence.

I will give a brief overview of Clastres’ thesis, then some associations, and end with a practical question.

The basic idea, beyond all negative descriptions of so called non-state societies, is that there is actually a highly developed political thought in archaic societies. What might this political thought consist of? Simply, society constantly struggles to ward off the emergence of the State. In other words, archaic societies are not merely non-state societies, but anti-state societies. Warding off or subverting power is not a lack, but a political positivity, and it is something that can be thought and described. This might have tremendous consequences for a contemporary theory of the State and how to struggle with it.

The principle of the subversive efforts of the tribe is to never make it possible for an external power to emerge, dividing society into rulers and ruled. As an example we might take the chief, whom colonial anthropologists thought was an embryonic form of authority. According to Clastres, the chief is actually a self-subverting authority who is constantly rendered powerless by the tribe. This might happen through forced generosity (i.e. a kind of blackmail – thus, the chief is usually the most poor person of the tribe) or the duty to speak, even though the tribe does not care to listen, or other mechanisms. If the chief abuses his power (that is, uses power), the tribe abandons him, or even kills him, replacing him with a new chief.

This brings up a whole range of questions concerning power and violence. I have the impression that not many anthropologists have drawn the necessary conclusions from Clastres’ thesis on anti-state societies and have definately not followed this path to the end. A more contemporary example of someone using insights of Clastres and the tribes he studied is Raúl Zibechi in his recent book on the Bolivian movements called Dispersing Power. He describes how the movement of former peasants – now migrated to the metropolis El Alto, La Paz – succesfully managed to disperse state-powers as well as resisting to be co-opted by the newly elected left party.

For Clastres, “Western” political thought (ie. all philosophy of the state) can not conceive of power without social division. I presume this is why the whole discussion of power in primitive society gets so confused. Could one say, perhaps polemically, that modern anthropologists seem to insist in looking for something which is not there? Power in primitive society is fundamentally different, as the example of chiefdom teaches us. The chief continues his chiefdom because of a taste for ‘prestige’ (in the language of Clastres), but is thus entirely dependent on the community which grants him the prestige. At any time, society may forget his former actions of glory. If we want to understand power, it seems crucial to analyze and elaborate on how prestige (or ‘the logic of prestige’) is not the same as power (or the logic of power).

What I find important is not only how this opens a way of thinking archaic societies differently from the evolutionists (incl. the marxist evolutionists), who could only speak of non-state societies in negative terms, ie. in terms of their lack, absence and history-to-come. The astonishing thing is that societies against the state teaches us how the State is neither a necessary historical outcome and that there exists political mechanisms to ward off, refuse and subvert its appearance.

With Gramsci, we get an idea how the State works as both a separate organ of power (coercion–police) and through mobilizing civil society for a hegemonic project (“private” institutions, citizen guards, mundane law-abiding behavior and so on). But it seems that Gramsci’s project is usually understood in such a way that counter-hegemonic movements should merely seek to take over the state, replacing one hegemony with another, one police with another, one law with another and so on. Even with Foucault, who is not particularly interested in taking over the state, we don’t get a line of thought of how to ward it off.

My question is, using Clastres, is it possible to understand, at least as preliminary material, an abstract method for subverting the emergence of State power?

The question assumes that primitive society is actually the privileged site to understand the State and, more importantly, how to subvert it. Why did the State never appear in certain societies? We can either answer negatively, referring to some inherent lack of intelligence, or we may begin to understand this persistent refusal of the State as genuine political thought. Their entire history is, in the latter perspective, a history of avoiding the state. The political thought of anti-state societies reveals an intimate knowledge of state power, through the always-present risk of a state appearing. The chief may separate himself from society, confusing the taste for prestige with a desire for power, dividing society into dominating and dominated etc. Thus, Clastres proposes that archaic societies actually has intimate knowledge of the State. This means that the State in some way must always have existed, at least as a spectre, as all the anti-state mechanisms reveals. The State is not a recent invention, but a risk, a ghastly possiblity which archaic societies have always known.

This makes it easier to pose the question more practically: is it possible to imagine means of “transition” (understood in an anti-evolutionary sense) from various contemporary forms of the state to societies against the state?

4 Replies to “Pierre Clastres: Society against the State”

  1. For more in-deep analysis of tribes avoiding states, I can recommend James C. Scott’s “The Art of Not Being Governed”. It features a lot of examples of the above mentioned tendency, that small non-state societies have been avoiding the state for centuries. It also describes some of the methodes used by the state to capture new “forced-members” or whatever we can call them.

  2. Yes, that one definately looked promising. One of the links above is one example of reading and learning from Scott’s analysis, e.g. how State geography is similar to the glow of a light bulb. Since it shows the abstract logic at work so nicely, let me quote some:

    … consider two attributes of its light: first, that the light dims and fuzzes as it travels farther from its source; and second, that there are no clear edge to the light, but rather a continuous gradient that fades to black. These attributes illuminate the architecture of state space, which Scott describes according to friction (43-50) … It seems that most padi states thrive in low-friction environments and avoid high-friction either temporarily (as in the seasonal friction that comes with monsoon season) or permanently (as in leaving hill people undisturbed, even if they harbor escaped slaves) … In Burma, for instance, military campaigns were fought from November to February, only for the kingdom to shrink to a quarter or an eight of its size as roads became impassable in May through October (61). Trying to work against this alternating cycle, colonial states often fight protracted wars with distance-demolishing technologies, but usually still see their gains washed away during the wet season (62).

    There is much to learn from an abstract logic like this (light bulb-logic, if you will). But still we are dealing with rural or peasant societies, living in the hills or in thick swamps, which necessarily means a process of translation and distortion if one wants to apply it in an urban context where there may not even be any “societies” at all, where one floats between spineless work place environments, loose friend circles, a volunteer association or other “terrible communities” (contrast that possible lack of “societies” with e.g. the urban Aymara societies in Bolivia that Zibechi had followed, where whole Indian communities migrated together from rural areas to settle down in specific neighborhoods of El Alto).

  3. ‘The chief continues his chiefdom because of a taste for ‘prestige’ (in the language of Clastres)’
    … But also because his main attributes serve the temporal goals of the tribe. So a warlord/chief is taken down when the tribe decides to go on another strategic flow eg. diplomatic or settlement.

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