November 14, 2017

Book Summary: Society Against the State by Pierre Clastres

          I had to write a summary of the book Society Against the State for school that focused on the main argument that Clastres was attempting to make in the book, so I thought I'd just post it here as it may be helpful. It has some page numbers and quotes if someone is doing a similar assignment that would be useful. Generally though the book did teach me a lot about primitive societies and made me dust off a lot of the knowledge that I hadn't used since reading Guns, Germs and Steel, so for that I think this quick summary may be worthwhile to read for the understanding of the typical structure and functioning of small (150 people or less) primitive societies. 

         The one major problem is that Clastres really only describes one type of primitive society, the ones with a power structure equalized amongst everyone, and excludes any other society with a different structure that may still be commonly be described as 'primitive' without ever clearly making proper distinctions. I spent much of the book being bothered by that, but near the end, to his credit, he does limit his definition of the societies he is describing to those that are small (of about 150 people). I just wish he had made that clear from the beginning. Further the sources I looked up, verify that Clastres is accurate in his descriptions. 

Society Against the State

Pierre Clastres makes the case that various native groups can and should be looked at as examples for an alternative model for societal living.  That alternative model has been sitting in the open and partially documented yet remained unseen, obscured by the Western standards used in the judgment and understanding of primitive cultures. That bias has resulted in the underestimation of three parts of primitive societies, the cohesion between small primitive cultures, the amount aggregate people living in those cultures and, critically, how politically active those societies are. When that bias is mitigated those societies can then start to be understood in their own terms, which, largely, amounts to the realization of how power differs between ‘advanced societies’ and ‘primitive societies’. This difference in the use of power, for Clastres, creates a binary distinction between modern Western societies where power exists as coercion and primitive societies where coercion doesn’t exist. This doesn’t mean that there is an absence of power in primitive societies, only that, that power is distributed evenly instead of coercively amongst the population. This difference in the distribution and use of power leads to the essence of Clastres book which is expressed in its title, that primitive societies shouldn’t be seen, as they commonly are, as lacking a state, but rather they are people that are fundamentally against the state. The argument put forth in support for that conclusion is most successful in its attribution that it’s the difference in power within primitive societies and how power is distributed within those societies that can account for why it is correct to view people in primitive societies as not lacking a state, but actively choosing to live in an alternative way.
         Clastres (1989), begins Society Against the State through attempting to illuminate the bias that has caused his later conclusions to remain unseen for so long. The depth of this bias can be documented in the distinction of why primitive societies exist in with the structure they possess. Instead of the understanding that people in primitive societies make active choices affecting the structure of their society, or that systems may be purposefully different in other types of societies observers are often looking and judging those societies from the understanding that modern Western societies are the standard in which all other cultures and societies are to be compared and judged with. This can directly be seen in the type of words which are commonly used as descriptors of primitive societies, which include ‘embryonic’, ‘nascent’ and ‘poorly developed’ (Clastres, 1989, p. 16). Those evolutionary terms posit that there is a clear direction in which a society is supposed to aim towards, a natural progression with steps to be made in which ‘the state’ is the destiny of every society (Clastres, 1989, p. 189).  This necessary unfolding is emphatically denied by Clastres (1989) as he writes, This is what needs to be firmly grasped: primitive societies are not overdue embryos of subsequent societies, bodies whose, ‘normal’ development was arrested by some strange malady; they are not situated at the commencement of a historical logic leading straight to an end given ahead of time, but recognized only a posteriori as our own social system.” (p. 199)

This is of paramount importance as it amounts to a ‘Copernican Revolution’ where society can’t fairly be described or defined by progress to arbitrary markers. There is no objective standard which society can be judged by despite how often ethnologists make that error and express their opinions in such a way that it would affirm an evolutionary view where there is an upward progression from savagery to civilization (Clastres, 1989, p. 190).

This pervasive error of assumed progression led to specific individual errors. The first of which is the myth of the subsistence economy which is thought of as “…one that barely manages to feed its members…In other words, archaic societies do not live, they survive.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 13). Two other problems created by that bias, one, the exaggerated separation of small primitive tribes are examined in the chapter entitled, ‘Independence and Exogamy’, and, two, the underestimation of the number of people living in the pre-Columbian America’s which is documented in a chapter entitled, ‘Amerindian Demography’. Each of those problems caused by bias is damaging to the understanding of primitive societies on their own merits, yet they don’t approach the significance of two other consequences of the bias of Western examination. The two most important factors caused by ethnocentric bias are the attribution of the lack, or even non-existence, of power and due to that lack of power the attribution that primitive societies are apolitical (Clastres, 1989, p.12 and p.20). Power and politics are conceptually linked to coercion as there is, “…the unquestioned conviction that political power is manifested within a relation that ultimately comes down to coercion.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 11).
           Each of those errors, the view of the subsistence economy, the viewed separation between primitive tribes, the underestimation of the population size of the Americas pre-Columbus, the lack of politics and the lack of power are examined by Clastres. The subsistence economy may be accurate in description as the people are getting what they need to survive and not a great deal of other things, yet it is, “…a concept that reflects the attitudes and habits of Western observers with regard to primitive societies more than the economic reality on which those cultures are based.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 14). Rather than working to barely survive many societies with economies that would be described as ‘subsistence economies‘ produce a great deal more than that society can use, and they often don’t have to work particularly hard to meet the needs of the society (Clastres, 1989, p. 196).

The chapter on Independence and Exogamy documents how the group structure of primitive societies has been described in an inaccurate way, as there is cohesion between small tribes and sharing in the practice of exogamy. This was documented in the Forest People, where the Tupi are given as an example of a situation where authority is divided between multiple groups, yet where each group retains its identity (Clastres, 1989, p 71-73).  Exogamy, the practice of out-group mating, allows the entrance and continuity of political alliances between tribes (Clastres, 1989, p. 65), which could then be called upon to work together in times of war (Clastres, 1989, p. 74). This means that while individual primitive groups are small in number, they can be linked into groups that can transcend those smaller numbers without the loss of identity or without top-down authority. 

Further, the details of judgments surrounding the density and total populations for Pre-Columbian native societies made by anthropologists are largely shown to be in error and in direct conflict with firsthand accounts from other sources, which themselves would be reduced by the amount of depopulation from earlier epidemics (Clastres, 1989, p. 96). This fact Clastres presents does beg the question though if germs are a result and consequence of population density, than the pre-Columbian native populations must have existed below the densities required for disease to flourish, as while European explorers brought with them a litany of diseases the ‘Columbian exchange’ of disease was tremendously disproportionate (Merbs, 1992), and only Syphilis is seen as being a disease transferred back to Europe which originated in the Americas (Diamond, 1998, p. 212). Even with that caveat Clastres documents errors, which if correct, make the lowest population estimates impossible to be believed outside of a politically motivated viewpoint (Clastres, 1989, p. 98-99).

Those biases are each problems, but problems that are subservient to the obscuring of politics and power from primitive societies. Clastres illustrates that power is both measured and constituted in advance by the concepts of Western civilization for ethnologists (Clastres, 1989, p. 16). Due to that power is looked for in a hierarchical way, which renders the power that exists in primitive societies to remain unseen, unable to be viewed from that narrow perspective. With that understanding it is then easy to understand why those societies were viewed as existing without power as a strictly ethnocentric view exists in a state of ‘conceptual poverty’ unable to correctly interpret the data being received.  Clastres gets away from that ethnocentric viewpoint by rejecting that power has to be linked with violence or constructed in a hierarchical way (Clastres, 1989, p. 22).

Both that power exists and that it exists in a way incompatible with the Western understanding of power can be shown through the examination of the role of the chief for Clastres. The chief, in primitive society, has three expectations, to be a peacemaker, to be generous with their possessions, and to be a talented orator (Clastres, 1989, p. 29).  Yet, while entitled as ‘chief’ that leader is unable to use coercive power, the chief must instead rely on prestige, fairness and verbal ability (Clastres, 1989, p. 30). The chief has to rely on those abilities, due to his role being humble in scope and controlled by public opinion (Clastres, 1989, p. 37). Clastres describes the leader of primitive society as “…a planner of the group’s economic and ceremonial activities, [yet] the leader possesses no decision-making power; he is never certain that his ‘orders’ will be carried out.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 37). Primitive society has built in to the role of chief the means of controlling that role and making sure that it doesn’t entail the inequality between people, as, “The same operation that institutes the political sphere forbids it the exercise of its jurisdiction: it is in this manner that culture uses against power the very ruse of nature.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 46). This creates a situation where, “The chief is there to serve society; it is society as such – the real locus of power - that exercises its authority over the chief.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 207).

Nowhere is this as evident as in the duty for the chief as the speaker of the society. In both primitive and modern societies, there is a relationship between speech and power (Clastres, 1989, p.152). Yet while power exists with speech in both types of society there is a differential role as the foundation for the use of speech, “If in societies with a States speech is power’s right, in societies without a State speech is power’s duty.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 153). The primary example of this difference is in the chief’s daily speeches, which while expected of the chief, are largely ignored by the members of the tribe (Clastres, 1989, p. 218). The chief doesn’t have to be listened to because his words hold no power or even authority.  In the act of compelling the chief to speak than ignoring his words “…what the Savages exhibit is the continual effort to prevent chiefs from being chiefs…” (Clastres, 1989, p. 218).

This is the nature of power in primitive society, it is the negation of power for the individual and the control of power by society. That nature of power is further reflected in the enforcement of social roles and the written laws of primitive cultures. That primitive society’s share a group power can be seen how social roles are enforced. Despite having no one making coercive rules, there are strict societal roles, i.e. who can use a bow/basket (Clastres, 1989, p. 107), what a person may sing about (Clastres, 1989, p. 113), or societal codes, in how food is distributed (Clastres, 1989, p. 114) and even in defining who is a man and who is a woman (Clastres, 1989, p. 109-110). These social conventions are kept in place through the use of shame and fear, as there is shame for a man that would do a woman’s work, while there fear for a woman that would attempt to do something defined as being a man’s job (Clastres, 1989, p. 107). While power is equalized amongst the people in primitive society this doesn’t mean that anything goes, as can be seen in the strict prohibitions on the roles of men and women.

         Whether chiseled in stone, painted on the skins of animals, or drawn on papyrus the laws of a society is where the power of a society exists and it exists in writing. This is the same as primitive societies in a more abstract way, as the canvas they use is the body of their population and the tool of writing is aptly described as torture (Clastres, 1989, p. 180-181). There is an initiation into society that comes with coming of age in which ‘the essence is torture’ (Clastres, 1989, p. 182), and the purpose of which is to mark both the body and mind of the initiate (Clastres, 1989, p. 184). That act of initiation ingrains the law on the body of the person, which Clastres describes as having the result of showing three things, physical endurance, membership to society and further the lesson of the prohibition of inequality; that the new citizen is equal, but no more important than anyone else (Clastres, 1989, p. 186).
 Together this links three things together for primitive societies the body, writing and the law (Clastres, 1989, p. 187). This is a powerful display in the power of primitive society over the people that live within it which literally engraves itself onto its people.
       This demonstrates that far from primitive societies being pre-political or without power, there is power and politics in primitive societies that exists in an equalized way amongst society in a way that is foreign to western society; power that is given and immediately negated, society that refuses the state. That was the main argument posed by Clastres (1989) in Society Against the State. The support for this argument came first from eliminating and bias that caused the nature of primitive society to be misunderstood. With that bias eliminated it was possible to examine the use of power in primitive societies, which found that instead of existing as a coercive force wielded by those in leadership roles power was distributed in an equalized way amongst the members of society. That distribution of power when coupled with instantaneous nullifications led to a balance of power both unseen and impossible from Western perspectives. “Primitive society is the place where separate power is refused, because the society itself, and not the chief is the real locus of power.” (Clastres, 1989, p. 154).

Works Cited

Clastres, P. (1989). Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology, trans. Robert Hurley in collaboration with Abe Stein.

Diamond, J. M. (1998). Guns, germs and steel: a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years. Random House.

Merbs, C. F. (1992). A new world of infectious disease. American Journal of Physical Anthropology35(S15), 3-42.

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