10 April 2013

Society Against the State

In 1648 a bunch of guys sat down and decided that the best way to end wars of religion would be to create states. Sovereign states with sovereign rulers, and what happened inside those states was no one's business but the rulers'. People eventually stopped warring over religion, at least in Europe – they started warring “internationally” instead, as states became nations and saw in themselves something intrinsically unique to their respective nations that must be defended at all costs. Bloodshed ensued. Within the last 100 years the entire planet has been fitted into a neat pattern of nations, states, nation states, term it as you please, nice coloured spaces on the map, characterised by their internal affairs being nobody's business but their own. It is seen as a result of 'development', as something inevitable, as all societies must eventually progress towards having a State, and this is a Good Thing. While we're at last shedding some of the “my genocide is nobody's business but my own” thinking, and people are also beginning to get a grip of why “everybody must develop so as to be as civilised as us” may be deemed offensive, that a state should be inevitable is not so easily forgotten. Historians and other clever people sought out evidence in the sources of history to show why all peoples must eventually develop state structures in order to govern themselves, as not having a ruling power is equal to being Neanderthals, to paraphrase only slightly. Which brings me to what I want to present to you today. Is the State inevitable?

Not everybody bought into this thinking, you see; is it not our jobs as anthropologists to question the seemingly given? So I introduce to you: Pierre Clastres. He was a French anthropologist, studied with Lévi-Strauss, did fieldwork in the Amazon, and died too young. He is remembered for some ground-breaking work, though. For he is the author of “Society Against the State”, a book on the nature of power, of violence, and of statehood. His argument is quite complex, and I'm a busy woman, so I'll just give you a brief(ish) summary of his major points, to waken your curiosity for more, and hopefully shake up your notions of things a bit – that is always healthy.

What Clastres did was to conceptually separate power from violence. Social scientists would look at so-called archaic societies, see no coercive power structures, and assume that these societies were apolitical and powerless, not to mention primitive. What Clastres argued in contrast was that there is no such thing as apolitical societies, the political is inherent in social life – the question is the form it takes. All societies are political. Power can be both coercive (violent) and non-coercive. Political power as coercion is just one variety, but not the universal one. That there is not coercive power present in a society does not mean that it is void of power. Just as there is no social life without the political, “there are no societies without power”. 

Amerindian Societies

The case study for this argument is the pre-colonial societies in South America (Clastres says “Amerindian”, to be used forthwith). People were living in small independent groups, with seemingly powerless chiefs, and went about their business not doing what the chief told them to do should he try to tell them, only paying attention to him in situations of war. The rest of the time, the chiefs had to be peacemakers; they had to be generous with everything they had (give it away if someone asked), and they had to talk a lot, and talk well, and every day. All this in exchange for wives and the formality of the position. Since women are more valuable than any amount of talking, the chiefs had to do a whole lot of talking and give away everything all the time, and still it could never be enough. Whenever he tried to force people to do as he told them, he would be ridiculed and ignored – coercion was not welcome. This is why he had to make peace; because war meant he would get power to order about people, and that was not socially desirable. At times war happened nonetheless, but a chief who did not make a real effort at avoiding it and sought out conflict constantly would eventually be abandoned (even on the field of battle). The chief's word carried no force of law, and he must attempt at convincing people through persuasion. Should he fail, he would lose his position, and he was under the power of society; society exercised authority on him and not the other way around. Power was kept in check. The chief's power negated reciprocity (which anthropologically means an exchange of something of equal value, both real and symbolic, not the “US tariff walls are the same as Burkina Faso tariff walls” nonsense they try to make us believe in IR and the like nowadays), and reciprocity was the basis of these societies, so the power of the chief negated society. These people did not want power, so they removed it by reducing it to impotence.

The Body as a Canvas

The laws of any society must be remembered. The body is a convenient place to write them so that people do not forget. Many initiation rites (that's where you go from child to adult in this case) involve physical modification and torture – this is in order “to teach the individual something”. The scars stay there and remind you what you were supposed to learn, what society wanted you to learn; they are a marker for your inclusion in society. You must stay silent during this torture, to show that you accept to become a full member of the community. The scars show that you have endured what all others had to endure, that you are one of them. That you are no more than them, and no less than them. The law is written into you body in this way. And it shows the refusal of society to accept power and inequality. It says, “You will not have the desire for power; you will not have the desire for submission.” These societies are not simply stateless, as they were so often labelled, they are against the State with its inherent power inequalities and coercion, and they make sure their individuals know this before these can even conceive of the idea.

Rejection of Economy

The Amerindian societies of Clastres had what some labelled a subsistence economy; they did as much as needed in order to survive, no more, no less. Maybe 3-4 hours of work a day was required, the rest of the time they spent laying about in idleness. For why should they do more? They had no need of excess, and they saw no sense in the idea of “man must work” in order to be fully human. Man works more than necessary only when forced to do so, and there was nobody to force these people; they actively rejected work. Excess makes an economy, and coercion makes economy a political one, for excess means inequality, and inequality means coercive power. Refusal to be engulfed by work and production is also the prohibition of competition and of inequality. It is a refusal of economy.

The specific organisations in these societies show no relation between mode of subsistence and of the type of society. Agriculture or hunter-gathering; nomadic or sedentary life styles – all the combinations were seen in the pre-colonial Amerindian societies. Their economies had no influence on their political structure, and their refusal of economy was not what determined their form of organising themselves. Only the advent of hierarchical society and coercive power had any influence on the creation of a State.

Against Coercive Power

All this could be done as long as the societies were relatively small; Clastres sees the emergence of something resembling state power in the Tupi-Guarani societies, which numbered several thousand inhabitants each, and chieftainships with a power not seen elsewhere. What might have happened here was .. shall we say interrupted, by a bunch of European guys jumping in and killing people, yet Clastres makes the point that the societies themselves were rebelling, slowly. Prophets were coming, causing an uprising among the people.

These prophets had power, however. Their words carried a power that those of the chiefs were never allowed to achieve. Clastres ends on this note: Maybe the origin of the discourse of power lies in the discourse of prophets, and that is where the Despot (of a State) would ultimately appear. But the history of these people without history is that of their struggle against the State.

But What About the Women?

Now, let it be said, before anything, that I think Clastres did some impressive work, and I'm personally very besmitten with his theories. But that should not spare them of criticism, for there are some valid ones to be made. I'll stick to one, though, as this is what I know something about. The women.

Clastres paints a thorough picture of societies against the State, of societies without coercive power; and it may be true that the men where not coerced, and lived in a society without power being exercised on them. But women were exchanged, given to the chief as seen fit by whoever, and rarely was a woman a chief (though apparently it did happen at times). I obviously have no way of knowing whether they had to be dragged screaming to the next village to get married; somehow I doubt it though. But symbolic power is the invisible power that socialises us into doing what we are expected to do without realising it, maybe even making us think this is always the best for ourselves. It is what makes women walk in high heels that hurt their feet and their bodies, what makes them want to avoid spaces where they are not welcome, such as the public one. Violence does not have to be physical to be coercive; Clastres was aware of this regarding chiefs, and men – he does not seem to consider that it might apply to women too. I have not been able to find any recognition that it might even be worth discussing in his work, besides a few pages saying, basically, (and I paraphrase) “totally not a problem”, “women could make babies, so created life, so they were cool”, and “they only had the babies they wanted to have”. Which... well. Ignoring half the population is not cool, and not highly effective either. Clastres himself is off the hook, so I guess means there's nothing for it but for someone else to pick it up and continue the work, and see what might come of it.

Note: Clastres' argument is immensely complex, and I may have misrendered some points in my hurry. Unclearness would be due to my writing, and I apologise in advance for that.

Clastres, Pierre. 2007[1974]. Society Against the State [La Société contre l'état]. New York: Zone Books

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