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?

Controversial things, or the dual sense of ‘saklighet’

A quick comment on the translation of the term ‘nysaklig’ into ‘new-thingly’

It seems to me that ‘thingly’ loses one aspect of the dual nature in ‘saklig’. A ‘sak’ can actually refer to two things: First, a thing or an object in the most concrete way; crystals, ants, computers, gay bath houses or supernovas; the second aspect of the word ‘sak’ is more relational and refers to an affair or a controversy, the fact that something matters and have become important or crucial in some sense to certain actors; a quarrel between friends, a scholarly disagreement or the scandals of classical politics. ‘Sak’ can even refer to a cause, as in fighting for a cause etc.

I’m not sure that Rasmus Fleischer intended this, but then again that’s not the point.

What I like about the second aspect, which seems to me to have been lost in the translation, is that it places relationality by way of controversy, confrontation and affairs at the center of how to study objects. This does not mean that objects are merely reduced to their relations, that relationality “undermines” the independent being of things, as Graham Harman likes to say it. Rather, it brings forth the idea that to know, study or encounter a thing (a parrot, boulder or para-military group) is always in some way dramatic, or at least political (in the cosmopolitical sense of Isabelle Stengers, whom I haven’t read, but at least in the way Latour has made sense of it [pdf]).

In danish, this aspect becomes even more clear, as the corresponding word ‘sag’ specifically is used to refer to law suits or other legal disputes between parties. Also, the news media are especially obsessed about ‘sager’, ie. affairs, that are scandalous or revealing.

Curiously, ‘saklig’ (or in danish, ‘saglig’) also refers to a manner of discussing focused on facts – for some people this even implies so called “neutrality”, but I guess that sense comes from the party of dusty scientism. In a broader sense ‘saklig’ refers to an attitude of being to-the-point. But most interestingly, ‘saklig’ is usually used synonymously with being objective, which should be understood very literally in the OOOsense: oriented towards the objective, ie. the involved objects and what concerns them. Similarly, ‘saklig’ is also usually used synonymously with the expression ‘matter-of-fact’ (which is similar with to-the-point, but at least makes a for me still unclear reference to Latour in the article ‘Why has critique run out of steam? From matter-of-fact to matter-of-concern’)

This should be enough to give an idea of some of the richness that the term ‘saklig’ could reveal. To sum up the dual sense of the term that I have outlined above: ‘saklig’ implies both an object-orientation, but also an orientation towards confrontation, dispute and drama. If anyone was ever uncertain of the political implications of OOO and might have thought that it implied static or reactionary conservatism, where the subterranean qualities of object are always preserved and all the shallow entanglements and collisions between them are merely fleeting changes in a hard-as-diamond state-of-things, then the scandinavian expression might evoke a quite different idea of the object-orientation, of sakligheten.

To make a closing association (and I’m aware that this post has been almost entirely associating), we might consult Karen Barad and her agential realism in Meeting the Universe Halfway. Barad is certainly a philosopher of the speculative sort – in one occurence calling for a “weird materialism” – by audaciously launching her grand metaphysics by merging the micro-physics of Michel Foucault with the quantum physics of Niels Bohr. There are important differences between her and OOO though, and I feel that the concepts of apparatus, entanglements, intra-action and especially the Bohrian term phenomena bring up crucial problems (Instead of objects, at least in the non-entangled sense, Barad argues that ‘phenomena’ should be the real objective referents; a term that could also fruitfully be named situation). Nonetheless – or maybe exactly for that reason – Barad can help us grasp the dual sense of ‘saklighet’ in her discussion of “onto-epistemology”. The argument is fairly simple, because of an elegant wordplay, that she borrows from Judith Butler. Barad’s metaphysics can be summed up in a sentence: the universe comes to matter. Every thing comes to matter in two ways: comes to matter as in materialize; comes to matter as in having meaning, or making sense. It is in this way that epistemology always has ontological consequences (and vice versa). Every process of mattering (e.g. an experiment on the behavior of light) involves what Barad calls an ‘agential cut’ in the object (e.g. light), that makes certain aspects of the object come to matter (e.g. its particle-quality) and certain others not come to matter (e.g. its wave-quality). Agential cuts make certain things appear and other certain things disappear. It’s in this way that the ontoepistemological process in a profound way always implies ethics: in an almost literal sense to ‘take sides’ when making agential cuts, in a particular controversy between objects (where the ethical actor in question naturally becomes one of these objects).

All for your safety

Aaaaahh… The tranquility of sitting at an outdoor café in one of the civilized areas of a european metropolis immersing yourself in reading a book while being watched over by machines of loving grace.

[Naïve as I was, I was sure this was some absurd kind of cynical art installation. A friend later told me no, the cameras was to make sure that the customers paid or did not behave inappropriately. Later I saw the same kind of large grey cameras, pointing directly down on the nearest tables, at several other cafées.]

Instead of security, instead of privacy: Secrecy, intimacy and trust

Brist made the suggestion that we should stop talking about ‘security’ and instead start building a language around ‘secrecy’.

I think it sounds like a very good suggestion, so I here give my comments in a debate I would hope to see more contributions to. My problem with ‘security thinking’ especially stems from the expert bias it brings with it: the overly focus on learning complicated technologies and tools even before finding out what you want to secure, ie. keep secret. It’s like the security paradigm just breeds security consultants, eager to give their expert advice and still you have no clue why you would want to learn to encrypt your email or install plugins that makes your browser less vulnerable to so called man-in-the-middle attacks. Over and over, the same response: “Why would I want to put down time on all that crap, It’s not because I’m some kind of wanted person or politician”. The thing is: ‘Security’ seems completely irrelevant for most people.

So maybe not ‘secrecy’ … After all, everyone has secrets. Necessary secrets, secrets between friends, secrets between colleagues, large secrets and smaller secrets, silly secrets and dangerous secrets.

Before we continue, a disclaimer: Why do we even find it necessary to discuss replacing one word for the other? Is this not just silly semantics? To that I would answer: When we would like to replace one way of talking about things with another, we are messing with things other than language. So no, not ‘just’ semantics. More appropriately, we are negotiating a paradigm: Which means we are also always building the components for how we would want technology, tools, social contexts, law etc. to come into being. In short, certain words make certain things matter in a certain way. Similar to how all the fuss about ‘cloud computing’ easily comes to matter as a corporate rule of cyberspace. We think ‘the cloud’ is just ‘up there’ floating around freely in the sky, while all our data are being placed in the same few servers managed by the same few corporations, leaving us very dependent on these few central actors. Essentially losing control of how we want to communicate, share stuff, find each other etc. Then, instead of ‘the cloud’ we might speak about ‘the mountain’ – where the internet gods keep our digital offerings, or something. You get the point.

Given that the words we use matters, let’s continue to build on Brist’s suggestion to replace ‘security’ with ‘secrecy’. To frame it, here’s a long quote.

What I find really important about moving from security to secrecy is that it allows us to think about what we actually want to keep secret, and from whom. Because of this, thinking about secrecy is just as valuable for people like me who do most of what I do more or less openly as for the aforementioned people who are hunted by intelligence agencies. While security is often an all-or-nothing affair, since a weak spot can crack the whole system open, secrecy is about managing what information someone can gather about you. […] You have to ask yourself what secrets you want to keep. Your name? Your political affiliations? Your online habits, or your network of friends? Once you have those answers you can begin looking at tools and practices. Not the other way around — that’s for server admins and programmers.

There are several points to comment on, but let me start with the notion of ‘security as an all-or-nothing affair’. Security certainly invites people into a mode of thinking that can become dominated by paranoia. Either you’ve decided to be careful about it or you rather not care. And yes, paranoia does not mean that you are not followed and surveilled etc. A small dose of generalized paranoia can even be a good motivator to learn skills, as a way of remembering to do certain stuff.

But paranoia lacks heavily in what secrecy could be better in growing: Intimacy.

This is where it gets interesting for me. Parallel to the problems and ambivalences in security thinking is all the talk about ‘privacy’ in so called information activist circles. I say, liberal information activist circles. I’m not so sure I would want to fight and struggle to defend privacy. I’m just dropping examples from the top of my head – drawing from the feminist critique of the public/private division – but we have to remember that this division between the public and the private is the same thing that gave us the idea of a single bourgeous public (thereby ignoring minor voices and naturalizing their silence); it is the same division that have forced queers of all types behind closed (private) doors under the pretension of ‘tolerance’ (like you treat a guest in his house); it was the same division that sustained patriarchy in (private) homes; and so on … (let me know more examples and maybe we can list a bunch of problems with the division in order to find fitting replacements for them)

Intimacy seems to be intimately entangled with secrecy. Intimacy, pushing the questions Brist mentioned about what to keep secret, and to whom? Security, on the other hand, is most often something you want to do by yourself – conjuring passwords, keeping your valuables in your safe, hiring a private security firm to guard your solitary house. Security easily produces the kind of paranoid affect that makes you suspicious – to other people, people you might otherwise want to build trust with, your complicities, your friends …

So yes, this makes us introduce another concept that fits into the secrecy-intimacy-pair: Trust. Trust is always a social relation, something you build between each other, something to be shared and extended. Trust might just be the single most important affect when sharing secrets.

You can certainly try to build a secure world all by yourself, but you can never build trust all by ourself. Unless, you might not be trusting yourself? But then, this is only a problem for the extremely paranoid liberal, excessively focused on security and the idea of the self.

A good practical example is already existing terminology: When encrypting mails with GPG you can verify each other’s keys, gradually building a web of trust – enabling other people that trust those of us who verified the keys to trust them as well. As a contrary way of delegating trust, you have the hierarchical ‘tree of trust’ – here, all trust is placed on one single actor, instead of being built up through the trust-glue between all your trustworthy friends.


On a side note: I’m reminded by Tiqqun’s concept of zones of offensive opacity (ZOO, in short), a concept that specifically builds on secrecy and trust: diffuse overlapping territories (not occupying the territory, but “being the territory”), dim grey zones of friend circles on dim grey zones of others who trust each other, a communist geography beneath the state’s cartography, spaces impenetrable in their composition and meaning to authority. A secret communism:

The advantage of the ZOO is that it establishes and expands a base for autonomy.  Specifically, it looks to communism as a qualitative guide.  At every moment when one might be tempted to engage in the social, for whatever resources it may offer, the ZOO suggests constructing a parallel space of communism.

For de danske / svenske optegnelser: Vi behøver at forhandle en erstatning af sikkerheds-privatlivs-paradigmet med en anden klynge koncepter omkring hemmelighed, intimitet og tillid.

It is stupid to make Facebook understand what is wrong with Facebook but it is okay if you take the understanding with you when fleeing

“We are so sorry that you decided to deactivate your account. Please take a moment to write why you have chosen to leave, so we can do our best to make our services better.

“First, Facebook is now the largest database for information about people that have ever existed, but it does not allow me to see and copy my entire social diagram. I want to participate in a social network where the fruits of my clicking and connecting comes back to me, if at all. Second, Facebook is a proprietary business, which means that all the value we create as users end up somewhere else. I want to participate in a not-for-profit social network where profits goes back into the network to develop new stuff we ourselves decide, take out the commercials or stop selling our social diagrammes to corporations. Third, Facebook keeps surveilling me, and let states and corporations do it too for a price, even if I don’t want to be surveilled. Fourth, Facebook is an infrastructure that is not copy friendly, and leaves no room for collective building and restructruring – only at the mercy of your developers, only by way of pathetic protesting, in Facebook groups. Fifth, Facebook keeps my data even if I don’t want it to, even if I delete my account. Sixth, Facebook is a closed system on the internet, where every user cannot decide which other nodes – including on the outside of the Facebook wall – we want to connect to. For all these and other reasons, Facebook is a danger to the internet as I see it now. That’s why I want to quit, at least for now, to learn how more people could also quit. See you again, or never (depends if we succeed).”