Category Archives: [English]

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?