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Long live the Alternative Society

Collection brings a revival of the French anthropologists who worked in South America, in particular Pierre Clastres

Regarded as one of the most respected political anthropologists of the 1960s and 1970s, France’s Pierre Clastres (1934-1977) is now enjoying a revival of his works in Brazil. Two of his seminal books, A sociedade contra o Estado [Society against the State] (1974) and Arqueologia da violência [Archeology of violence] (1980), have just been relaunched by Editora Cosac&Naify, in a collection dedicated to anthropology. The books have as their axis the proposition of Pierre Clastres, above all an anarchist and a liberal, who preached an alternative society that was not divided into oppressor and oppressed and which renounced in an absolute way the presence of the State.

“His project was for a radical refounding of anthropology. Clastres’ work makes it possible to realize at the same time that the expression ‘political anthropology’is pleonastic and provides a new meaning for the concept of ‘political'”, in the analysis of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, a professor from the National Museum, in Rio de Janeiro, and the author of A inconstância da alma selvagem [The inconstancy of the savage soul], a book that inaugurated the collection of essays from Editora Cosac&Naify.The Clastres thesis present in the two works was drawn up following the observation of indigenous tribes from South America, in Paraguay and Venezuela, who lived without any hierarchical leadership, in a model of society without the coercive figure of the State.

“Following these analyses, Clastres came to refute the negative view related to a tribal society and made an exalted criticism of the power of the State in the West. In primitive, or indigenous, societies, Clastres found the instruments necessary for defending a different society, one in which the power of the State is essentially denied”, explains anthropologist Florência Ferrari, responsible for the line of anthropology publications at Cosac&Naify, which has some other titles published, such as Sociologie et anthropologie, by Marcel Mauss, and The Raw and the Cooked: Mythologiques – vol. 1, by Claude Lévi-Strauss.

Philosopher Bento Prado Jr., who signs the preface to Arqueologia da violência, says that Clastres’ work should be analyzed in the context of Western thought post-1968, since its impact is not limited to anthropology and resorts to interdisciplinary foundations, such as philosophy, political science, and sociology. With the union of these elements, Clastres showed a new way of thinking out political power, which ceased to be regarded as something necessary to society, to be seen as a root of social inequalities.

“I don’t know if one can interpret Clastres” work as an argument in favor of the dispensability of the State at any time and place. Clastres is certainly not an ultra-liberal in the American sense of the word, but he is an anarchist, a libertarian, in the European sense. His thesis is that the State is not intrinsic to social life, and that neither is coercion. Not that this leads to any laissez-faire”, explains Castro.

For many scholars of Clastres, who was the director of L’École des Hautes Études in Paris for six years, his criticism of the political model of the State is more up to date than ever. It could be extended to the economic model of globalization, an analysis in vogue in today’s left wing. The anthropologist considered that what Western society saw as something inherent to any society, like a market and an economy, ought to be demystified, opening up new possibilities for other modes of sociopolitical organization.

However, this bridge between his studies and the present should be viewed with care. “The uptodateness of Clastres’ work has nothing to do with the lauds of praise intoned to civil society. This notion only makes sense as an obligatory accompaniment to the notion of the State, and to talk of societies against the State is, simultaneously, to free oneself from the concept of civil society”, claims an anthropologist from the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro, Tânia Stoltze Lima.

The most radical part of Clastres’ thinking lies in the idea that there are means for society to deny political power, represented by the State, combining authority and coercion. And these means were to be found in indigenous societies. In the case of societies with a State, Clastres used to say that a kind of war was being fed, which would suffocate any social and cultural difference, as he writes in his essay “On ethnocide”.In this text, the author analyzes the European conquest and the genocides committed in the course of this period. That is to say, if genocide kills people, ethnocide exterminates cultures and ways of thinking. For Clastres, the State could be defined as a violent movement for subordinating differences to the primacy of unity, but this unity will always be artificial.

The republication of the two works reveals the passage of time from one to the other. In A sociedade contra o Estado, Clastres advocated the opposition between societies that accepted the State and otherwise. Then in Arqueologia da violência, the opposition takes another place, that between primitive war and the war of conquest. The first does not imply violence, as it is a movement for freedom. The second is founded on annihilation and on the subordination of the other.

Pierre Clastres thus points to a sort of genealogy of power in a society. For him, tribal society resorted to the systematic practice of violence, to be on their guard against the State. Only with the wars against other tribes would it have been possible to maintain the dispersion and autonomy of each group. By making war amongst themselves, men would not submit their differences to a strange apparatus (in this case, the State) and would keep an autonomous political space, where they could all be equal. “The anthropologist also noted that chiefs exist, but they are not so powerful, they have duties and are relatively weak in their communities”, says Florência Ferrari.

In the book, it is also possible to find the Clastres version of a chronicler. In the first chapter, “The last circle”, the anthropologist narrates his experience amongst the Ianomamis of Venezuela, and in the second, “A wild ethnography”, he comments on the book by Ettore Biocca about the memories of Elena Valero, a white woman kidnapped by these same Indians.”Arqueologia da violência is a resumption of the great European tradition, particularly from France, of reflecting on the foundations of social life from the ‘savage’. It is also one of the rare direct and explicit contributions of Amerindian thought to Western philosophy, through a radical effort in interlocution carried out by Clastres”, Castro comments.

“It also contains a theory of the primitive war machine that makes it possible for us to appreciate the truly infinite distance that separates the ‘violence’ of peoples against the State from the violence of the State against the people(s).”In the essay “Myths and rites of the Indians from South America”, Clastres also says that primitive society is not just against the institutionalization of political power, but also against the institutionalization of religious and economic power. In the preface to the book by Marshall Sahlins, Stone age economics, the French anthropologist observed that the idea of “affluent societies”, to contrast with the ideas of classic political economics, like the idea of scarcity, goes in the opposite direction to Marxist and evolutionary thinking that saw in the precarious economy of these societies the reason for the absence of the State.

For him, it is not the economic base that determines the political one, but the other way round. It is the fight against the State, guided by the wish to remain at liberty, that prevents the emergence of economic inequality. But Marxism really is queried in “The Marxists and their anthropology”, in which he claims that it is not economics that dictates the bases, but politics, and politics, from his point of view, depends on will, on philosophy, and on culture. Another highlight of the book is the questioning of why men subordinate themselves to a single sovereign. The answer lies in the fact that man allows himself be subjugated. The emergence of the political power of the State is thought of as an accident, not as indispensable for social life. In primitive societies, the State is denied by the choice of freedom.

This was Clastres’ path, a compass for creative and original thinking. A proof of his intellectual temperament lies in the fact of his having broken with the pope of anthropology, Lévi-Strauss, to collaborate with Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, in their studies, Anti-Oedipus. “The relationship with Clastres seems very close. The Anti-Oedipus had an obvious influence on some of Clastres’ most important ideas, and vice-versa, A sociedade contra o Estado lies at the origin of crucial chapters of A thousand plateaus (by Deleuze and Guatari). Deleuze’s conceptual anarchism is in resonance with Clastresian political anthropology”, Castro continues.

A disciple of Lévi-Strauss, Clastres developed one of the few anthropologies that can properly be called post-structuralist, in the analysis by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. This is because he bears witness to an effort to go forward, in relation to structuralism, to indicate its limits without failing for this reason to incorporate its intellectual achievements. “Clastres can be seen as a thinker who formulated the political anthropology that was lacking in structuralism in its ‘classic’ or Lévi-Straussian, developing and modifying seminal ideas from Lévi-Strauss”, the anthropologist comments.

Pierre Clastres died in a car accident in 1977, leaving many essays published in various magazines, as well as some unfinished reflections, which are gathered together in this work. His premature death interrupted the ripening of his ideas, which were already echoing strongly in intellectual circles in the 1970s and 1980s. For anthropologist Márcio Goldman, Clastres’ legacy in Brazil occurred in three equally important dimensions.

“First, inspiring, directly or indirectly, a series of works in the field of indigenous ethnology. Second, supplying anthropologists working in fields other than indigenous ethnology a series of ideas about the nature of power and the forms of resistance. Third, by offering a clear, rigorous and perturbing way of access to students who are starting in anthropology or in the humanities in general”, he says.In Castro’s assessment, Clastres’ work is important for specialists in the Tupi-Guarani cultures, by virtue of his ethnography in the form of a “chronicle” about the Aché-Guaranis of Paraguay, a hunting people of Guarani origin, or at least strong cultural influence.

“The time spent by Pierre Clastres and Hélène, his wife, amongst the Mbyá-Guaranis, and the attention that they learnt to give to the works on the religion and the mythology of this people, lies at the origin of some of Pierre’s most stimulating anthropological and philosophical reflections, as well as of Hélène’s fundamental essay, Terra sem mal {Earth without evil].”For the author of A inconstância da alma selvagem, the Clastrian reflection on primitive society had a greater impact on some Brazilian philosophers than on anthropologists. “But his influence diffused over a whole generation, of which I am part, was an enormous conceptual, stylistic, ethical, cultural even, influence, I would say. For me and some of my colleagues, like Tânia Slotze Lima and Márcio Goldman, Clastres’ work had a landmark role. A role that, after some years of relative eclipse, it is, or so it seems to me, coming back to play”, Castro says.