Society Against the State

Anti-Evolutionary Model

Primitive Society characterized by ‘Savages’ lacking political power [Lapierre’s model] (8-10).

*Political Power: “a relation that ultimately comes down to coercion” (11)

*Weberian power: “state power as the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence” (11)

Critiqued as ethnocentric: “the model…is…constituted in advance by the idea Western civilization has shaped and developed….[P]olitical power in terms of hierarchized and authoritarian relations of command and obedience.” (16)

*The impact: “the ethnocentrism that mediates all attention directed to difference in order to reduce them to identity and finally suppress them.” (16)

*Nietzschean question: “when there is neither coercion nor violence, it is impossible to speak of power?” (11)

Ethnocentric assumptions about surplus/accumulation

*Subsistence economies(strawman): “living hand to mouth, from perpetual alienation in the search for food…technically under-equipped, technologically inferior” (191) as if incapable of developing a surplus. (13)  An existence that “barely manages to feed its members and thus find itself at the mercy of the slightest natural accident (drought, flood, etc.)” (13)

Man must work” double-bind:

1)    assumes that primitive society “calls upon the totality of its productive force to supply its members with the minimum necessary for subsistence.” (193)

2)    yet the contradictory idea of the lazy Savage (193)

Resolution: “The Indians devoted relatively little time to what is called work.” (193) (14)

Intellectual work done: The Savage does not work beyond need, refuses excess. (194) Won’t worth for others who don’t work. (198)


“The first explorers of Brazil and the ethnographers who came after often emphasized the fact that the most notable characteristic of the Indian chiefs consists of his almost complete lack of authority” (28)

Q: How are primitive societies political [and for C, always political (22-3)], without the coercion of a State?

A: The self-subverting authority of the chief who is at the service of the tribe.

(and not the inverse: a tribe at the service of the chief) (207, 209) – there’s a culture of this (44-5)

In order to maintain power, the chief must

1)    convey dependence on the group

2)    exhibit the “innocence” (lack of coercive power) of the office (“a kind of blackmail”) (45)

Three specific conditions of power for the titular chief (titular: ‘by title only’): (29)

1)    moderator, arbiter/facilitator but not judge (30), pacifier (36)

2)    generous, often the one with the least possessions (31), has to work the hardest (40)

3)    orator, a duty but not a privilege (41)

Chiefs and war powers:

Chief as authority only in war (198 – “you are worth no more than the others” except in their limited technical ability as a warrior (208) which is quickly forgotten (210).

Chiefs become invested in war, creating a desire for war.  However, their lack of authority allows the tribe to stave off becoming a tool for the chief (thus preventing the desire for war from becoming a will to power).  In fact, it condemns the warrior chief to death in advance (210)

Intellectual work: “Separate political power is impossible in primitive society; there is no room, no vacuum for the state to fill.” (210)

Hanging Chads:


When the Tupi-Guarani were edging toward transitioning from primitive to state-based, prophetism emerged to cause mass exodus and stave off a state form. (213-6)


War prevented demographics from making tribes large or centralized  through unification – alliances were only temporary (212-3). (contrary to Marxist/structuralist approaches)


“societies with non-coercive political power are societies without history, societies with coercive political power are historical societies” (24)

“The history of the peoples who have a history is the history of class struggle.  The story of people without history is to tell the same truth, the history of its struggle against the state.”

Neolithic Emergence

Was there a political break?  Was there a primary structure, was it through private property? (200-204)


Using Clastres, is it possible to argue that we can transition between various contemporary forms and primitive society? (look to p. 200-204)  Using De Landa’s model in 1000 Years, would it just take negotiating the right positive/negative feedback loops to find a bifurcation?

Is Clastres’ discussion on war useful in determining forms that ward off ‘globalization’ through autonomy? (p 212-3)  Why or why not?

Deleuze and Guattari argue that to be truly anti-evolutionary, it is necessary to posit the Urstaat, a state form that always exists.  Is this a way to answer Clastres’ unanswered question about the founding moment of the State: “Where does political power come from?” (205)

“Pierre Clastres broke up with his mentor Claude Levi-Strauss to collaborate with Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari on their Anti-Oedipus. He is the rare breed of political anthropologist—a Nietzschean—and his work presents us with a genealogy of power in a native state. For him, tribal societies are not Rousseauist in essence; to the contrary, they practice systematic violence in order to prevent the rise in their midst of this “cold monster”: the state. Only by waging war with other tribes can they maintain the dispersion and autonomy of each group. In the same way, tribal chiefs are not all-powerful; to the contrary, they are rendered weak in order to remain dependent on the community.”

— Semiotext(e)


Pierre Clastres, born in 1934, died in 1977 in a car accident.

Was director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, and member of the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie Sociale du Collège de France.  Took part in the events of May ’68.

6 thoughts on “Society Against the State

    1. Hadn’t seen the massthink, I’ll check it out.

      This was a handout I had made a few years ago for a seminar presentation. Recently I decided to return to them when considering questions on sovereignty and though they were polished enough to make them public.

  1. any thoughts on Scott’s Urstaat (from the anarchist history)? does his work help you answer clastres question?

    In anarchist history he also seems to suppose that maintaining Clastres’ necessary dispersion is a lot less about ‘waging war’ with other tribes than running for the hills (from the state). Maybe there was a political break. Perhaps private property was that break, but only in the sense that states have managed (more and less successfully) to capture dispersion through private property.

  2. sorry for the sloppy response: here’s some ideas i’ve jotted down—

    Can you refresh me on Scott’s Urstaat?
    — In the beginning of “Art”, Scott claims that the state is a recent innovation. Looking to his footnotes, he only has a minimal claim about the ability of non-state people to have metallurgy. This relates to the archeological evidence, no doubt, but he doesn’t elaborate further.
    –In contrast, D&G claim that the State has always existed. D&G argue there _was no break_.
    (1) ATP 426: “We are always brought back to the idea of a State that comes into a world fully formed and rises up in a single stroke, the unconditioned Urstaat.”
    (2) 427: –“Archaeology discovers it everywhere, often lost in oblivion, at the horizon of all systems or States.”
    (3) 428-9
    Archaeological Origin of States
    NOT the material “State presupposes advanced agricultural communities and developed forces of production.”
    –“On the contrary, the State is established directly in a milieu of hunter-gatherers having no prior [pg] agriculture or metallurgy, and it is the State that creates agriculture, animal raising, and metallurgy; it does so first on its own soil, then imposes them upon the surrounding world.” (428-9)
    –“It is not the country that progressively creates the town but the town that creates the country.”
    ****”It is not the State the presupposes a mode of production; quite the opposite, it is the State that makes production a “mode.”” [AC: bataille.]

    –The problem w/ Clastres wasn’t that he went too far, but that he didn’t go far enough in critiquing ‘evolutionist’ models of sovereignty. Their argument is that the state has always existed, both in its ‘virtual’ potential (ie: that it didn’t have to be invented, the idea was always there), but even more importantly, that non-state societies _knew_ about states and resisted them. (In the App of Capture plateau in ATP, that’s D&G talk about the anticipation-warding couplet). I’ve pasted my notes on these passages on ‘evolutionism’ at the bottom.

    –Scott doesn’t quote Clastres much, but one of the times he does is to draw on the empirical work that argues the population Clastres studied (the Guarani) weren’t always pastoral — but may have originally been state-peoples and had fled! Strangely enough, I don’t remember this in Pierre’s work and the work of Hélène Clatres (his wife?) argues the opposite thesis! [“Her central argument is that these migrations in search of a place of earthly immortality were not generated by contact with Europeans, as previous ethnologists had argued, but instead were the result of political and religious conflict within Guarani society” — not necessarily contrary to Scott’s characterization of peasants as being millennial, but against how he cites the Guarani…]

    Re; Running for the Hills vs War:
    -Scott’s idea of “state effect” figures more prominently in earlier work. While it’s a bit vague on the causation (it implies that the state is the necessary and sufficient cause), I think I would contrast w/ Scott, and would want to give non-state societies much more credit for movement/migration.
    -D&G’s unification of Clastres and Bataille seems decisive. Clastres focused on sovereignty (rule, governance, etc) while Baitaille focused on expenditure (circulation, production, connection). Together, they seem to fill in blindspots in each others approach. In particular – the idea of the “break” and the theorization of private property as a possible explanation (one in which Bataille can explain more thoroughly). On the other hand, Bataille’s expenditure has a rather simple notion of sovereignty (I know he worked on it a bit, but from the parts I’ve read, it was still quite incomplete and narrow).

    Re: private property
    -I think you’re on the right track. D&G will fill out the picture even more. Private property = the revenge of the “contract pole” of the state-form (remember: there are two poles: conquest & contract). Private property emerges _after_ the Despot over-codes territory (w/in the regime of the depot, everything is _public_ property). Similarly, aristocratic+bourgeois property rights are the advancement of the _liberal_ contract — whereby property is alienable and therefore titles are transferable. In that sense – it’s able to fragment/disperse right to ‘the people’ while still assuming the institutional object of the state as the entity that governs/administers/enforces contracts. … so in review: (1) property split between factions w/ no single unifying term (so-called savage, or non-state societies) (2) Despot unifies property, but only in the name of the king (3) aristocrats + liberal bourgeois kill/split up the body of the king under the auspicious of the universal state.

    The “2nd Pole”
    “The public sphere no longer characterizes the objective nature of property but is instead the shared means for a now private appropriation” (451)
    Four Points:
    1) The bond becomes personal, no longer communal or based on public office.
    2) Law becomes ‘topical’, organizing conjunctions of decoded flows as such.
    3) Regimes of signs superseded by subjectification.
    4) Machinic enslavement replaced by social subjection.

    –> “from a standpoint within the cap mode of prod, it is very difficult to say who is the thief and who is the victim, or even where the violence resides. That is because the worker is born entirely naked and the capitalist objectively “clothed”, an independent owner. That which gave the worker the capitalist this form eludes us bcause it operates in other modes of production. It is a violence that posits itself as preaccomplished, even though it is reactivated every day.” [ATP: 447]

    Rejection of economic and ecologic evolutionism: the state pre-exists capitalism
    Clastres’ args: (429)
    1. “societies termed primitive are not societies without a State, in the sense that they failed to reach a certain stage, but are counter-State societies organizing mechanisms that ward off the State-form, which make its crystallization impossible.”
    2. “when the State arises, it is in the form of an irreducible break, since it is not the result of a progressive development of the forces of production (even the “Neolithic revolution” cannot be defined in terms of an economic infrastructure).12”
    a. fn 12: Clastres SATS, “We have seen that, according to C, primitive war is one of the principal mechanisms of warding off the State in that it maintains the opposition and dispersion of small segmentary groups. But also, from this viewpoint, primitive war remains subordinated to these preventive mechanisms and does not become autonomous as a machine, even when it compromises a specialized body.” (p565)
    3. Clastres — “presentiment” whereby counter-State autarkies warded off states before they existed! (429)
    a. D&G criticize ‘ethnology’ for not considering “the coexistence between primitive societies and empires, even those of Paleolithic times”
    b. Therefore: “Everything is not of the State precisely because there have been States always and everywhere.”
    i. Writing, speech, language presuppose States
    c. And that “the self-sufficiency, autarky, independence, preexistence of primitive communities, is an ethnological dream.”
    4. “not that these communities necessarily depend on States, but they (pg brk) coexist with them in a complex network” (429-30)
    a. connections between communities, “channeled through States, even if States effected only a partial and local capture of them.” (430) [hypothetical]
    b. language as “between those who do not speak the same tongue”
    i. opp of lang determines commonality – lang determines difference!
    ii. “language is made… for translation, not for communication”
    c. LOF “there are as many tendencies that “seek” the State… as there are movements within the State or outside it that tend to stray form it or guard themselves against it” “everything coexists, in perpetual interaction”
    5. Zig-Zag evolution
    a. Nomads usually “populations that abandoned their semiurban sedentarity”
    b. Above example: fn 13: “According to Griaznov, it was the sedentary farmers who went out on the steppe and became nomadic, during the Bronze Age: This it the case of the zigzag movement in evolution. See The Ancient Civilization of Southern Siberia, p97-8, 131-3
    6. *WAR MACHINE:
    a. W-M is not just warding but anti-state
    b. “It is under these conditions [zig-zag evolution] that the nomads invented the war machine, as that which occupies or fills nomad space and opposes towns and States, which its tendency is to abolish. Primitive peoples already had mechanisms of war that converged to prevent the State formation; but these mechanisms change when they gain autonomy in the form of a specific nomadism machine that strike back against the State.” (430)
    i. “We cannot, however, infer from this even a zigzag evolution that would go from primitive peoples to States, from States to nomad war machines; or at least the zigzagging is not successive but passes through the loci of a topology that defines primitive societies here, States there, and elsewhere war machines. And even when the State appropriates the war machine, one again changing its nature, it is a phenomenon of transport, of transfer, and not one of evolution. The nomad exists only in becoming, and in interaction; the same goes for the primitive.”
    d. *************“All history does is to translate a coexistence of becomings into a succession.”

    ORIGINS / warding off
    Hunter-gatherers, NOT the first primitives! (431)
    —whole section on causality (and how only zig-zag causality, which poses a ‘reverse causality without finality’)
    “reverse causality”
    ***”what does not yet exist is already in action, in a different form than that of its existence” (virtual threshold)
    “thresholds of consistency that are themselves coexistent,” “coexists with what has yet to cross it” (432)
    —-“ [the State] was already acting before it appeared, as the actual limit these primitive societies warded off, or as the point toward which they converged but could not reach without self-destructing” (431)
    — “to ward off is also to anticipate.” (two processes: anticipatory mechanisms, warding off)

    St8’s dialectical inversion (431)
    Once the st8 exists → acts back on hunter-gatherers, imposing ag, animal raising, extensive div of labor, etc
    –before st8 appears, already acting in the form of centrifugal/divergent wave (“a wave that cancels itself out precisely at the point of convergence marking the inversion of signs or the appearance of the State (hence the functional and intrinsic instability of these primitive societies).14”) [st8 performs a dialectical inversion]
    –fn14: Jean Robert’s “inversion of signs and messages” – periphery → center, switches to town→rural

    recap: two-step forming of state (432)
    1st: threshold/degree beyond what is anticipated takes on consistency (or the anticipatory mech make it fail)
    2nd: “what is conjured away ceases to be so and arrives”

    SKIP to 435

    “we define social formations by machinic processes and not by modes of production”
    —MOP depend on machinic processes

    Five social forms, and their machinic processes (all ‘the object of a social topology’)
    (1) primitive societies // mechanisms of prevention-anticipation
    (2) St8 societies // apparatuses of capture
    (3) Urban societies // instruments of polarization
    (4) Nomadic societies // war machines
    (5) International/ecumenical organizations // encompassment of heterogeneous social forms

    *It is the extrinsic coexistence – interaction – that is brought to its own expression in international aggregates

    Diffusion/diffusionism: [[DIFFUSE SOVEREIGNTY, EMPIRE, ETC]]
    –“badly formulated if one assumes a center at which the diffusion would begin” (A2: strike against st8)
    –“diffusion occurs only through the placing in communication of potentials of very different orders: all diffusion happens in the in-between, goes between, like everything that ‘grows’ of the rhizome type”
    –“An international ecumenical org does not process from an imperial center that imposes itself upon and homogenizes an exterior milieu; neither is it reducible to relations between St8s, for example (the League of nations, the United Nations). On the contrary, it constitutes an intermediate milieu between the difference coexistence orders. Therefore it is not exclusively commercial or economic, but is also religious, artistic, etc. From this standpoint we shall call an international organization anything that has the capacity to move through diverse social formations simultaneously: States, towns, deserts, war machines, primitive societies. “ (435, my emph)
    –Samir Amin against economism from Unequal Development
    –“The point of departure for ecumenical org is not a St8, even an imperial one; the imperial St8 is only one part of it, and it constitutes a part of it in its own mode, according to its own order, which consists in capturing everything it can. It does not proceed by progressive homogenization, or by totalization, but by the taking on of consistency or the consolidation of the diverse as such.”
    –ex: Monotheism’s universality is non-homogenous, “it makes itself felt only by spreading everywhere”

    A2: Homogenization:
    Axiomatic = isomorphic (more on this later)
    –it would be wrong to confuse isomorphy with hetero-homo/geneity [CAP IS NOT TRANS-CONSISTENCY]
    –isomorphism “centers” heterogeneous states on the world market (“exo-consistency”?)

    –even more: “each process can switch over to other powers, but also subordinate other processes to its own power” (437)
    (“there is not only an external coexstience of formations but also an intrinsic coexistence of machinic processes”)
    (1)capture’s “power of appropriation” captures phylum, but also war machines, and anticipation-prevention
    (2) anticipation-prevention = ‘high power of transference” – st8s ward off cap, cap wards/repels own limits, etc
    (3) war machines’ power of metamorphosis – cap by st8s, but resist that capture, change, objects not war (rev?)

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