Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State, review by Luciano Nicolini (n°39)
(translation by Valeria Bellagamba)
The publishing house “Ombre Corte” has recently republished Pierre’s Clastres collected essays (1934-1977) entitled “Society Against the State”. In this work, appeared for the first time in 1974, the author, called “the Lévi-Strauss libertarian heir”, analyzes the political structure of pre-Columbian America societies, referring in particular to the “societies without state”.
Clastres is less interested to Incas, to Aztecs, to the great empires, whose political structure was somehow similar to the one of the empires that conquered them.
Clastres investigates rather on populations that didn’t develop, or didn’t want to develop, a state apparatus.
In his first essay, “Copernicus and the Savages”, he invites the reader (in his own master’s footsteps), to avoid the eurocentric point of view on the so-called “primitive society”; in the second one, “Exchange and Power”, he dwells on the role of the “chief” in amerindian “primitive society”; in the third one, “Independence and Exogamy”, he deals with matrimonial exchanges; in the forth one, “Elements of Amerindian Demography”, he introduces interesting considerations on the studied people numerical consistence; in the fifth one, “The Bow and the Basket”, he writes on the roles division between males and females; in the sixth essay, “What Makes Indians Laugh”, he tries to explain some of their myths.
With the seventh essay, “The Duty to Speak”, Clastres goes into the analysis of the deep connection between word and power; in the eighth one, “Prophets in the Jungle”, and in the ninth one, “Of the One Without the Many”, he develops some considerations on the religious thought of Tupì - Guaranì populations; in the tenth one, “Of Torture in Primitive Societies”, he investigates on the meaning of such practice; in the eleventh, finally, “Society Against the State”, he comes to a conclusion of his reasoning, trying also to reflect on the origin of the great state apparatuses.
I have to say that the book deserves to be read, at least for three good reasons: first of all because it is well written and of pleasant reading (which never spoils); secondly because it gives interesting cue for thinking; finally because in this work the author shows somehow libertarian feeling (that, presumably, would be appreciated by “Cenerentola” readers).
After that, I have to say that Clastres ideas are not convincing and I also find them some dangerous.
Substantially the author sustains that “societies without state” were deprived of coercive power. Their so-called “chiefs” didn’t have, except that in war, any possibility to command, also because they would not have found anybody willing to obey them. Therefore, inside society, they would have been only orators, “facilitators” (as business language would say), men forced to maintain their own prestige being generous of their own good, unable to reject, without bringing discredit upon themselves, the continuous requests of the other components of the community. They would have represented, in short, something similar to a secretary or a “correspondence commission” into anarchic organizations. For sure they would have had the power, but something like the “good power”, close to a concept that anarchists, in opposition to authority (term full of negative connotations), call “authoritativeness”.
I allow me to have some doubts. Since in these societies, as the same author points out, war was almost permanent, what does “except that in war” means? The second question is: are we really sure that, in time of peace, the so-called “chiefs” didn’t have any possibility to command? And is it possible that they have less necessity of it, compared to our rulers, because of the rigidity of their norms and the pervasion of their social control?
The amerindian chiefs in the “societies without state”, unlike our rulers, were certainly not endowed with an apparatus of police, of a magistracy, of jails. They primarily succeeded in maintaining their own role through their word, their mediation abilities, their personal prestige. But this also happens inside state societies, inclusive dictatorships. No power, neither the most merciless, would succeed in sustaining itself without leaning on a good dose of consent. It is not a case, in fact, that the dowries of a head “without coercive power”, described by Clastres in his second essay, are more or less the same ones that could be attributed to characters like Fidel Castro or Benito Mussolini, that for sure had non lack of coercive power.
To believe that this condition has existed inside the “society without state”, described by Clastres, would be dangerous for people that would like to abolish every kind of coercive power. The risk is that to propose models whose superiority, from a libertarian point of view, are at least debatable.
But there is another risk that I hold, perhaps, still greater: we can believe in the existence, besides the coercive power, of a sort of “good power”, based on the authoritativeness and on the word. The authoritativeness, that we attribute to some persons in particular, is a fact; and probably we can not get rid of it; as we can not probably get rid of the “power” deriving from it. Anyway it doesn’t mean that such “power” is “good”. The libertarian man that has authoritativeness doesn’t feel pleasure for his hard reached position of legitimacy. He constantly works for reducing it, contributing to increase the authoritativeness of the man that doesn’t have enough, to call upon somebody that can’t speak.