Pierre Clastres: Anarchist Anthropologist

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Anthropology as a discipline may be more susceptible than most to infusion–not to say intrusion–by the political perspectives of its practitioners. This was certainly true of the outwardly colonial character of the discipline in its early days, when no attempt was made to hide the racist and imperialist beliefs and aims which underpinned its development. However, since the advent of a more critical anthropology in the early twentieth century which saw the advent of notions such as ethnocentrism and cultural relativism, and especially after the strengthening of critical trends in social science and philosophy in general in the postwar decades, anthropology has undergone considerable shifts in its political substrata. Some anthropologists of the postwar period sought to distance themselves from the colonial projects of their precedents, instead adopting more radical political projects–for instance, Marxism, anarchism, and feminism, to name a few. Within the camp of anarchist anthropology, few made greater contributions than the ethnologist and theorist Pierre Clastres.

Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) was a French anarchist anthropologist who conducted ethnographic fieldwork within Indigenous communities in several regions of South America, namely the Aché and Nivaclé of Paraguay and the Yanomami of Venezuela. From his fieldwork among the Aché Clastres wrote the classic ethnography Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians (1972). His most significant publications, however, are the two books of fieldwork-derived theory which together condense his main theses: Society Against the State (1974) and Archeology of Violence (1980). Before summarizing his theoretical contributions, it is important to situate Clastres within the disciplinary and theoretical context in which he worked.

Clastres was a student of Claude Lévi-Strauss, one of the most influential anthropologists of the twentieth century. Lévi-Strauss was a proponent of structural anthropology, which essentially posits that there are deep structures innate to human consciousness that find expression in elements superficially different but structurally homologous across all cultures–the conclusion being that all cultures are, on the structural level, essentially analogous. Lévi-Strauss’s project was to uncover those basic structures which he thought underlie all cultures. In this project Lévi-Strauss was influenced by Marx, who similarly thought in terms of patterns with a set number of possible combinations–in Marx’s case, stages in a unilineal theory of history. Marx, in turn, was influenced by Hegel, and the dialectics of both are echoed in Lévi-Strauss’s theory of structures based on pairs of binary oppositions. Lévi-Strauss was also partial to Rousseau, whose universalizing philosophy finds expression in the anthropologist’s work.

If all this sounds baroque and a little obscurantist, it’s because it is–the structuralism of Lévi-Strauss was based on limited ethnographic evidence and has been criticized as taking on a life of its own as free-floating armchair theory unattached to concrete analysis. Clastres seemed to recognize this, taking cues from structuralism while disregarding its more abstract or fanciful notions and firmly grounding his theory in ethnographic experience–namely, his own.

One of Clastres’ basic theses is that the question of power, which was at that time being taken up by the likes of Michel Foucault, is a political one. Clastres begins the first essay of Society Against the State with an inquiry: “Can serious questions regarding power be asked?” He quickly clarifies the terms of the inquiry: “At issue is the space of the political, at whose center power poses its questions.” In other words, power is political; when we reference one we signify the other. This is an affirmation central to Clastres’ understanding of power: power is vested in the political sphere, which is that of culture. Power is not, he assures us at the beginning, a biologically innate fact, “a vital necessity”; rather, it is immanent to culture, where it is the social and not the biological to which we must attend.

Clastres proposes that in what he calls “primitive” societies–the dated terminology, while not to be excused, is typical of the time–political power is not coercive nor subordinating, nor can it be, precisely because these societies are undivided and are therefore organized in such a way as to actively oppose and derail any process or effort that might tend towards division of the social body. This brings us to the crux of Clastres’ theory of power: his thesis that societies without a state, like the Indigenous South American cultures he worked with, may better be conceived as societies against the state.

This thesis requires some unpacking. Clastres argues that in undivided society, power is necessarily dispersed; it cannot be wielded by one individual or portion of society over or against another, for that would be to introduce division. Such division creates two basic classes from which the existence of the state in all its forms proceeds: those who command and those who obey, masters and subjects. The basis of power in general is, in Clastres’ schema (echoed later in the work of activist anthropologists like Marshall Sahlins and David Graeber), debt; and it is the directionality of debt which determines whether power is concentrated or, as in the case of undivided societies, whether it is dispersed, the common property of society itself. In short, the indebtedness of leaders to society is the condition for power’s dispersion; the indebtedness of society to its leaders is the condition for the concentration of power, and it is this concentration which is the basis of social division—the death of undivided society and the emergence of the state, of masters who hold power over society.

Undivided society is not characterized by lack, whether of technology, material affluence, or the state; it is a society which develops technology and requires work of its members only to the extent necessary to provide for the satisfaction of energy needs. This raises the question of where the idea of work as a central and necessary facet of social life has its roots: it is “the question of the origin of work as alienated labor.” And here it is again debt which comes into play, for only in a power relationship wherein a majority is held to be indebted to a minority can the latter demand of the former work of a kind and degree beyond that which is necessary for the provision of needs; wherein those who hold power tell those subject to it that “you must pay what you owe us, you must perpetually repay your debt to us.” And it is when this relationship arises that the state is also emergent. The political division of power precedes the economic division of power; the emergence of the state precedes and conditions the emergence of class division.

According to Clastres, the desire for freedom is immanent in human nature itself. The state, which has monopolized the political sphere in most societies today—although it was and remains an historically contingent configuration—requires the desire for submission on the part of society in order to function. What Clastres terms “the misfortune” (i.e., the emergence of the state) comes to pass when society no longer wants to be free, but desires to be ruled. And undivided society does not want to be ruled. In undivided society, the will to freedom suppresses the will to submission; the “evil desire” must not be realized; society is against the state.

A certain melancholy and a sense of grave injustice reminiscent of that which pervades Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss’s magnum opus, is present in Clastres’ Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians, and is even detectable in some of the essays I have discussed in this overview, scholarly conventions notwithstanding. In Clastres’ quasi-apocalyptic vision, the state has done what it set out to do, what it projected as the inevitable sign of progress: under different guises but essential in form, it has nearly succeeded, and soon enough will have totally succeeded, in erasing difference, in homogenizing, in reducing and compressing, drawing everything and everyone into its mass…

But Clastres was wrong. Insofar as he projected the imminent demise of the Indigenous groups he worked with, history has proven him wrong–all the cultures he worked with, far from remaining trapped in a past from which they could not escape, soon to be swept aside by the unstoppable advance of modernity and the state (as Clastres seems to have imagined), remain vigorous still today. And there is an uncomfortable exoticism and primitivism in his thought that has rightly been criticized as romantic and Othering. As one reviewer of Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians has aptly put it,

“Clastres presents his sensational findings in the most neutral way possible: to see everything in the Atchei’s way of life, even their cannibalism, as eminently reasonable, as exemplary of what in his conclusion he calls ‘the Atchei’s piety, the gravity of their presence in the world of things and the world of beings’ and ‘their exemplary faithfulness to a very ancient knowledge that our own savage violence has squandered,’ is to undermine his claim to knowledge along with the authority of whiteness that his scientific search had presumed. And yet it’s hard to forgive him that assumption of authority, or his belief that the Atchei were doomed. In 2008 an Atchei woman was appointed Minister of Indigenous Affairs in Paraguay.”

And yet, though wrong in his pessimism about Indigenous futures–and perhaps wrong in some of his more generalizing theoretical claims, too–what Clastres shows us, as all good thinkers do, is that alternative ways of being are possible, that what is now is not what always was nor what always must be. The ineffaceable mark of difference, of alternate possibility, can still be evoked to remind us of what must not be forgotten.