Pierre Clastres, Archeology of Violence, review by Luciano Nicolini (n°41)
(translation by Valeria Bellagamba)
On the penultimate issue of “Cenerentola”, I have reviewed the collected essays of Pierre Clastres entitled “Society Against the State”, that was recently republished by “Ombre Corte”. As I don’t like to leave things half done, I review this time the other fundamental work of this interesting author: “Archeology of Violence”, gone out in Italy in 1980 (edited by “La Salamandra”) and, more recently, in 1998 (edited by “Meltemi”).
This is also the case of a book pleasant to read, written in a clear, elegant and synthetic way. In this work Clastres contests the opinions of Leroi-Gourhan and of Lévi-Strauss on the origin of war.
To the first one he attributes the idea that war derives from hunting. “For Leroi-Gourhan - he writes - war is nothing but the hunt for the man” and this affirmation, express in these terms, results certainly few believable. In fact “even near cannibal tribes the purpose of the war is never the killing of enemies for feeding”.
Concerning the second one, Clastres reassumes Lévi-Strauss thought in the following formula: “Commercial exchanges represent the pacific solution to potential wars, and wars are the result of unlucky transactions”. The validity of this formula is quite doubtful, if we consider the information we have on “societies without State”. The famous anthropologist would have sustained this idea only because the “sociological function of war” resulted incompatible with his analysis of society.
On the contrary Clastres sustains that “War is a primitive society structure, not the accidental result of a missed exchange. And we find this similar structural statute of violence in the universal character of the savages wars”. But he says something more: “In primitive societies the state of war is permanent”. This affirmation would be agreeable, but it also reduces the value of Clastres theories previously sustained, based on the idea that the “society without state” was deprived of coercive power “except that in war”.
According to Clastres, the cause of war and of its never being decisive in “primitive society” would be the necessity to maintain group cohesion and relative homogeneity. On the contrary, the absence of war would bring to social stratification, and, consequently, to a proper tool for preserving it: the State. In conclusion, war persistence should be interpreted as a way to prevent the formation of classes and state.
There are, he adds, in some of these societies “social groups” composed by warriors, but their destiny is to die in fight, so that they cannot became the dominant class.
Something sounds strange in this theory. In fact, looking from Clastres point of view, it would be very difficult to find the reason why, in a lot of parts of the world, “societies without state” have often become society with state and classes.
Perhaps because “the state of permanent war” come less? No, according to the incomplete protohistory information.
It would come rather to think that a caste of warriors were institutionalized during the “state of permanent war”, even though in presence of other factors, and that the position they consequently obtained allowed them to consolidate their power on population and on defeated people.