Mar 1, 1978

Faithless, Lawless, and Kingless

“Thus, power ever seeks to disguise itself, exalting its own qualities, denigrating its foes.”

Society Against the State: The Leader as Servant and the Humane Uses of Power Among the Indians of the Americas, by Pierre Clastres, translated by Robert Hurley in collaboration with Abe Stein. Urizen Books, 186 pp., $12.95.

Ever since the first European contact with the Indian societies of North and South America, Western observers have considered these societies to be anthropological cul-de-sacs—dead-end cultures that failed to mature past Stone Age levels because they were in some way “unable” to create true political organizations, i.e., the state. What political power there was-existed only in rudimentary form; thus the fact that historians and anthropologists considered these societies as inferior was simply a matter of definition. To be sure, the Incas and Aztecs developed visible, familiar state structures, but the rest of pre-Columbian America was a morass of societal failure, groups unable to “progress” beyond their archaic, anarchic forms.

The basic premise of the history we have been given by our schools, literature and popular entertainment for untold centuries has been the state as bulwark and source of society. But recently the flood of statism produced by two world wars seems to have crested—may even be ebbing—and an intellectual resistance is emerging. If we do not confine our vision to strictly political and economic issues, we find both in other disciplines and in other countries counterparts to American libertarian ideas. The Nouveau Philosophes of France, for example—Andre Glucksman, Bernard-Henri Levy and others—are challenging the fundamental Marxist dogmas of European statism. Now, this translation of Pierre Clastres’ La societe contre Vetat makes available to American readers a book that may be the first anarchist classic in the field of anthropology.

Society Against the State is a discourse of power, both general and particular. Clastres provides the raw material for this book from his own records (he lived with tribes in Paraguay and Venezuela) and those of other observers since the 16th century concerning leadership and political power in American Indian societies (especially the tropical forest cultures—the nomadic Guayaki, the sedentary Tupi-Guarani farmers—but occasionally venturing as far afield as the Apaches under Geronimo). Clastres underscores the observations with his classification of these “peoples without history” as societies “in struggle against the state.”

The Indian societies discussed by Clastres were and are (those few that survive) purely voluntary associations. Political power did exist, in the sense (employed by Clastres) of there being organized social functions; but power resided in the community as a whole. The most singular aspect of the chiefs of these tribes is that they had no coercive power; a chief performed several functions, but had no authority to enforce anything, in peacetime (war created a special case). The chief was effective in his office only as long as the consensus omnium lasted; the moment “his” (or “hers”—women were sometime chiefs) people judged him to have overstepped his assigned role, his power vanished—for the people ceased to follow him.

Indian societies were stateless by design, not chance. Both political infrastructure and individual psychology were intended to reinforce each other to defeat any attempt to impose coercive rule.

The Indian understanding of power is profound: “It is in the nature of primitive society to know that violence is the essence of power. Deeply rooted in that knowledge is the concern to constantly keep power apart from the institution of power, command apart from the chief.” (Emphasis added)


Philosophically, the Indians held that both power and nature were limits on the domain of culture, which “apprehends power as the very resurgence of nature” and sees “the principle of an authority which is external [to culture] and the creator of its own legality [to be] a challenge to culture itself.”

But, just as culture negates nature, so may it negate power: “Thus effective elaboration of the political function, coercive power, is possible only if it is in some way inherent in the group”—i.e., a part of culture. The Indians realize fully that the basis of culture is exchange, exchange of goods and ideas. They defeat power, then, by removing its perquisites and duties from the realm of exchangeable values; for example, the chief must recite daily a speech to which no one pays any attention, so that no ideas are exchanged. With the rupture of exchange, the political function ceases to be a part of culture and thus becomes impotent.

The individual psychology that makes this work is deeply ingrained, especially by the rite de passage, a process both awesome and horrible to European observers. The Indian societies have no written law; in the initiation into adulthood (endured by both sexes), the law is inscribed in the memory of each person by ordeals of physical torture, in rites undergone voluntarily, even eagerly, borne with incredible stoicism. In these “societies of the mark” both the law and membership in society (they are the same to Indians) are written in pain on each body. This primitive law, a prohibition of political inequality, says to each member of society: “You are worth no more than anyone else; you are worth no less than anyone else … You will not have the desire for power; you will not have the desire for submission.” By each individual’s acceptance of personal agony, and by the rememberance thereof, a more monstrous cruelty—the state—is rejected.

Even granting the existence of working anarchic societies, some critics will remain unimpressed: What, after all, is proven by the example of scattered tribes of Indians, barely eking a living from the forest?

To this, Clastres makes two telling rejoinders, one demographic, one economic. Because of recent American studies of Indian populations, as well as his own calculations, Clastres agrees with the estimations of P. Chaunu, in the Revue Histori-que, that the population of pre-Columbian America was not 8 or 13 or 40 million people but rather “80 and perhaps 100 million souls.” Even excluding the Incan and Aztec populations and a number of societies with state-like organizations, we must conclude that around the year 1500, a small but substantial portion of the human race lived in stateless societies. On the economic side, Clastres argues that Indian societies were actually “affluent”: They worked but a few hours a day, spending most of their time in pursuit of happiness, and enjoyed diet and health certainly superior to that of their European contemporaries. The absence of capital accumulation, however we may judge it, was from choice, not incapacity.

After following Clastres through the Indian societies, seeing the reality of cultures that deny the state even the opportunity to gain a toehold, one wonders with the author, What caused the collapse in other societies of social structures acting as barriers against power in other societies? Clastres produces several hypotheses, but these are only suggestions. He evinces little interest in showing how cultures failed against the state; he desires instead to explore their successes.

I should like to have read such an account, Clastres’ view of the origins of the state, judging from the insights demonstrated in this work. As he died in a car accident in Paraguay this past summer, at the age of 43, Society Against the State must stand as his chief contribution to political anthropology. Yet there is one major flaw with the book: The inadequacy of this translation is a serious matter. The American edition has many internal style variations, and numerous French phrases—perfectly good constructions in the original—are translated awkwardly, even literally, into disagreeable or meaningless English forms. I strongly suggest to the publisher that, for the second edition, a better translator or a bilingual copyeditor be put to work.

“Faithless, lawless, and kingless,” the Indian cultures of the forest were to the European conquerors, soldiers, and priests who claimed the sanction of a murderous god and an intolerant state for their actions. Thus, power ever seeks to disguise itself, exalting its own qualities, denigrating its foes. And, although new studies of state and power are removing their mystique, we too often accept unwittingly the judgement of power upon its vanquished (and vanished) enemies. Pierre Clastres’ achievement was to brush aside the deceits of power, to uncover a society, strange and primitive to our eyes, whose people valued their liberty above all.

Robert Cooke is the manager of Laissez-Faire Books and associate editor of the newsletter of the Association of Libertarian Feminists.