Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology

November 28, 2020
Society Against the State: Essays in Political Anthropology

Originally published as La Société contre l’état 1974Editions de MinuitUn this seminal, founding work of political anthropology, PierreClastres takes on some of the most abiding and essential questionsof human civilization: What is power? What is society? How, amongall the possible modes of political organization, did we come tochoose the monolithic State model and its accompanying regimes ofcoercion? As Clastres shows, other and different regimes do indeedexist, and they existed long before ours — regimes in which power,though it manifests itself everywhere, is nonethelessnoncoercive.In such societies, political culture, and cultural practicesgenerally, are not only not submissive to the State model, but theyactively avert it, rendering impossible the very conditions inwhich coercive power and the State could arise. How then could ourown "societies of the State" ever have arisen from these rich andcomplex stateless societies, and why?Clastres brilliantly and imaginatively addresses thesequestions, meditating on the peculiar shape and dynamics ofso-called "primitive societies," and especially on the discourseswith which "civilized" (i.e., political, economic, literate)peoples have not ceased to reduce and contain them. He refutesoutright the idea that the State is the ultimate and logicaldensity of all societies. On the contrary, Clastres develops awhole alternate and always affirmative political technology basedon values such as leisure, prestige, and generosity.Through individual essays he explores and deftly situates theanarchistic political and social roles of storytelling,homosexuality, jokes, ruinous gift-giving, and the torturous ritualmarking of the body, placing them within an economy of power anddesire very different from our own, one whose most fundamental goalis to celebrate life while rendering the rise of despotic powerimpossible. Though power itself is shown to be inseparable from therichest and most complex forms of social life, the State is seen asa specific but grotesque aberration peculiar only to certainsocieties, not least of which is our own.