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THE QUESTION OF POWER

© 20 12 Sens & Tonka. O riginally publ ished in issue 9 of L'Anti-Mythes on


D ecember 14, 1974.
©This edition 20 15 by Sem iocexc(e)

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Cover Photograph: Edward S. C urtis, Nuh!irnahla- Qagyuhf. cl914.


Des ign: H edi El Kho lti

ISBN : 978-1-58435-183-2
THE QUESTION OF POWER
AN INTERVIEW WITH PIERRE CLASTRES
Translated by Helen Arnold
With a Preface by Miguel Abensour

semiotext(e)
Preface by Miguel Abensour

THE VOICE OF PIERRE CLASTRES

It is in no way surprising to find Pierre Clastres interviewed by


L'anti-mythes, a periodical created in the effervescence of the post-
M ay '68 period in Caen by former students of Claude Lefort. The
journal is known for taking particular interest in the history of the
Socialisme ou Barbarie 1 group and for having published interviews
with members of that then defunct group. Nthough Pierre C lastres
never joined the group, he did feel close to the anti-bureaucratic
scene and unreservedly shared its cr iticism of the USSR. This is
corroborated by his note on Martchenko, published in the review

1. T he grou p Socit1lisme ott Brirbr1rie, founded in 1945 and self-di sban ded in 1967,
engaged both in revolu tionary activism and in develop in g a cri tical theory of co ntempo-
rary societies in which the same analysis was ap plied to both western ca pi talist societi es
and bureaucratic capitalist societies including the USSR and C hina, and whi ch placed
emp hasis on the fundamental div ision of society into order-givers and order-takers, rather
than on formal ownership of prope rty. Although it remained very small- never more than
several dozen members- it had a definite influence on the May 1968 movement, and on
a number of important theore ticians, includin g Pierre C lastres.
Cornelius Castoriad is and C laude Lefort, co-fo unders of the gro up, were among its
most prominent members, known for their po li tical and social theoretical co ntributions.
Despite their serious disagreements, they subsequently worked together in rwo periodicals,
Textures ( 1970- 75) and Libre (1977- 80), along with Marcel Gauchet, a former student of
Claude Lefort, who went on to write a number of books in which he cakes hi s di stance
with radical criticism of liberal democracy. [Trans lator's note]

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Textures2 (issue 75 / 1O) whose editorial committee included
Cornelius Castoriadis and C laude Lefo rt, among others. It was in
that same issue that Marcel Gauchet began his long study of
Clastres' work. Interestingly, we might point out that the interview
in L'Anti-mythes was followed by a brief text by Marcel Gaucher pre-
viously published in October 197 4 in Etudes de Marxologie, headed
by Maximilien Rubel. A closer look shows that the interview with
Pierre C lastres, published in issue 9 dated December 14, 1974, is in
between the one with Cornelius Castoriadis (first semester 1974)
and another with C laude Lefort (April 19, 1975). So it was definite-
ly from within that constellation of radical anti-totalitarianism that
C lastres gave his contribution to L'Anti-mythes. Later, shortly before
his accidental death in the summer of 1977, he participated active-
ly in the creation of the review Libre, which replaced Textures and
published his last texts.
As for the editors of L'Anti-mythes, one imagines they were
stunned by Pierre C lastres' first writings, like so many others at the
time, and were only too happy to give him an opportunity to expose
the broad lines of his tremendously innovative work. Pierre
Dumesnil, one of the threesome that conducted the interview, has
described the visit. His description gives us an excellent idea of the
intellectual climate at the time and of the tone of the talk:

The majestic setti ng in which Pierre C lastres received us fo r


our interview- Claude Levi-Strauss' office at the College de
France- hardly im pressed us, any more than the life-sized effigy
of an American Indian decked in his finest feathers chat it
contained. We were there to hear the sin gu lar thoughts of a
political ethno logist, and we cou ldn't care less about our
surroundings. C lascres' first books Chronicle of the Guayaki

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Indians and the collection of articles in Society Against the State
produced a stimulating shock in many of those who read them
in France in the early 1970s. Enough so, in any case, for the
tiny group that ran the journal L'Anti-Mythes in Caen
(Normandie) to send three of its members to Paris to interview
the author of those books. The contact was made by a good
friend of several members of the group, Marcel Gauchet, a for-
mer student of Claude Lefort and like him a member of the
editorial committee of the review Textures, whose somewhat
sporadic publications we awaited impatiently. I remember the
man as sti ll very young (he was barely over 40 and we had not
yet turned 25), with the leanness of the long-range hiker,
expressing himself very calmly- we made practically no
changes when transcribing his words in to writing- concen-
trated on speaking accurately, and ma in taining some distance
with his listeners. He was neither Marxist nor structuralist,
but in spite of what some of our questions may have inferred,
his answers expressed no hostility or irony toward those of his
co lleagues who espoused those conceptions. Simply, com-
posedly, he informed us chat the theorization of kinship
norms or some supposed economic determinism are not basic
to the issue of power. Because it was definitely that very
political question that interested him, and continued to
interest him throughout his too short life. In his comments on
a new edition of La Boetie's The Discourse of Voluntary
Servitude, published a year before his death, he wrote: "How
can it be, wrote La Boetie, that most people obey a single indi-
vidual, and not on ly do they obey him but they serve him, and
not on ly do they serve him but they serve him willingly?"
There is no doubt that the question, more relevant than ever

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here and now, was also one he himself raised. But symmetri-
cally, in those same comments, he spoke of a possible other
world, one he had glimpsed during his stays with the Savages:
"what do these primitive societies do to prevent inequality,
divisions, and power relationships?" and he gives a beginning
of an "answer": "they have no state because they don't want
one, the tribe maintains a cleavage between chiefdom and
power. ... " These societies are definitely, although of course
unknowingly, societies against the state and not merely with-
out a state.
That this in terview, which embroiders on that assertion, is
now available to English-speaking readers is excellent news for
me, as was Paul Auster's lost and recently retrieved translation
of the Chronicle ofthe Guayaki Indians. Perhaps it will be Pierre
C lastres' fate to be constantly rediscovered, after being
apparently forgotten- like La Boetie. For a man who, he too,
died so young, that would be a very fine fate.

A few years earlier, Georges Balandier had delineated, in his Political


Anthropology, what Thomas Kuhn calls "normal science." So did
Jean-William Lapierre, whose Essai sur le fondement du pouvoir poli-
tique (Essay on the foundations of political power) was targeted by
C lastres in his essay "Copernic et !es sauvages" (Copernicus and the
savages) . It was Pierre C lastres who was to set forth the revolutionary
theses that gave birth to new paradigms and to a new political
anthropology. There were three theses:

1. So-called primitive societies are truly societies without a state, not


because of any lack or deficit, but because they refuse the state, to
the point where they can be called "societies against the state" rather

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than "societies without a state." The shift from "without" to
"against" points up a series of arrangements whose function it is to
prevent, or block, the emergence of a political power separate from
society. These mechanisms, taken as a whole, constitute a genuine,
fully adult primitive politics. Where traditional political anthropology
saw nothing, or merely embryonic states, this new anthropology is
able to perceive a specific political societal institution whose purpose is
to block the development of a state, inasmuch as it is opposed to the
development of a separate political power. This means that politics
exist before the state, leading to the conception of a fundamental
distinction between politics and the state, or between politics and
the sphere of the state. Thanks to the work of Pierre Clastres, we
discover that there can be a political sphere, a form of political com-
munity, without there necessarily being a state. The consequences of
this fundamental distinction are decisive: the state is toppled from
its throne, so to speak. Far from being the fulfillment, the ultimate
achievement of politics, the state turns out to be only one possible
form among others, a regional form, and therefore not destined
to be become universal. Because politics can unfold outside the state
and against it.

2. The study of South American Indian tribes shows that the savage
chief carries prestige- no small thing- but is bereft of power. This
means that within this society he is located outside any sphere of
power, and has no power to command or to turn the other members
of the tribe into obedient subjects. The logic of primitive society, an
undivided society, makes it remain undivided and obstructs any
situation that would introduce a division between dominant and
dominated individuals, and would allow a separate locus of power
to come into being within the community. Nonetheless, the chief,

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deprived of power as he is, is a fundamental element of primitive
society. He is the one who, in relations with other communities,
takes upon himself the group's will to exist as an undivided whole.
If we take indebtedness as the criterion for assessing what power is
wielded, it is clear that power is not separated from society, since it
is the chief who is indebted to society rather than the opposite. The
chief, who must be a good speaker, owes people speech, and he
must know how to be generous, too, he owes people goods. The
primitive chief is under surveillance; according to Clastres, society
makes sure that his penchant for prestige doesn't turn into a desire
for power.

3. Not only does Pierre Clastres show the opposition between


societies without a state and those with a state, or more accurately,
between societies where power is non-coercive and those where it is
coercive; he encourages us to perform a Copernican revolution as
well. That is, to completely reverse the way we look at things,
making a radical about-face by which we have societies with a state
gravitate around those that are opposed to the state, so as to open
up and discover a previously unheard-of space of intelligibility and
to completely renew our understanding of the political. After
Clastres the important thing is to take societies against the state as
the basis for understanding societies with a state rather than looking
at societies without a state through the prism of the state, as if the
meaning of those primitive societies was to be found in a logic of
absence, or deficit, rather than in a logic of refusal.

The interview with L'Anti-mythes is in fact a polemic paper. Pierre


Clastres isn't refuting, he is asserting. What does he assert? That a
society against the state does not contain "bits of power" as such, or

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power sequences," susceptible of becoming an embryonic state
power. In doing so, he is combating what I would call the prevailing
Foucaldism. Michel Foucault's thesis about the existence of
micropowers has led people to see power everywhere-wrongly so.
Felix Guattari, for instance, in spite of his admiration for Pierre
Clastres, views the opposition between societies with a state and
societies against the state as too complete, since he claims there are
always some forms of power in every stateless society. This is why
Clastres is so determined, in this interview, to reject the tendency to
see power everywhere. He therefore takes care to stress the criteria
defining power, and for the same reason he repeatedly outlines the
distinction between power-based situations and those where power
is not at stake.
For there to be power, the society must be divided on the basis
of a commanding-obedience relationship. Society must be divided
into top-the dominant-and bottom-the dominated, who obey.
A power that is not exerted is not power. Power is brought to bear
by the fact that those on top force those on the bottom to pay a
tribute in the form of alienated labor or in any other form. Clastres
therefore professes a restrictive view of power in that it is specifically
political and in that the power relationship takes the form of division.
Once that political division exists there is an obligation to pay one's
debt to the chief or to the dominant group. He is perfectly explicit
on that point. "But what's the use of the tribute? First of all, it is a
marker of power, it's the sign of power! ... The tribute is the sign of
power and at the same time it's the means for maintaining it, the
means of ensuring the permanency of the sphere of power ... " (p. 28).
If there is no political division and if the obligation to pay a tribute
is absent, then the power situation doesn't exist. Let's take the case
of social norms, what we might call the normative power exerted by

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society on its members, or to be more accurate, on itself This is not
political power. That power is not in the hands of a leader or of any
particular domin ant group. These are norm s that society imposes on
itself and through which it maintains and reproduces itself T hat
power does not co rrespond to any political division , nor does it
translate into any requirement of a tribute. It takes the form of edu-
cation, learning norms, socialization. As C lastres concludes, we are
not in th e sphere of political power here, nor in a situation of power.
T he same is true of the sha man or medicine- man, who unques-
ti o nably possesses powers. As a doctor, he is the master of life and
death. But the possession of powers is not being In Power, since
those powers are not of a political nature. T he medicine- man is all
the less susceptib le o f holdin g power in that he differs fro m the
prophet. As we see, it is not enough for the observer to notice the
existence of powers or o f power sequences, beyond that he must ask
himself whether or not that power pertains to the political sphere.
Two criteria are relevant here: is there a political division, and does
the wieldin g of that power translate by the obligation of the domi-
nated to pay a tribute ? O nce th e political nature of power is
reasserted , it is no longer possible to take just any power situation
and draw the conclusion that that power is susceptible of being
transform ed into state power. As soon as these criteria are applied ,
the observer is definitely obliged to recognize that political power
doesn't exist everywhere.
I had the good fo rtune to attend Pierre Clastres' courses at the
Ecole pratique des hautes etudes (the French School for Advanced
Studies in the Social Sciences) for two years. T hose courses were
absolutely unique. Pierre Clastres arrived with a large notebook that
he never opened , and began to speak. H e talked rather meditatively,
in a tone halfway between the academic ritual and a prophes izing

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ceremony. With difficult simplicity, as if expressing the outcome of
a previous ascetic experience, he strived to return to the thing itself:
in this case the enigma of the political institution of the societal
dimension in savage societies, the enigma of chiefdom without
power, external to power, the enigma of savage societies. T his inter-
view, revealing his bluntness, his provocations and barely veiled
irony- in short, what makes him inimitable-is infinitely precious
in that it offers something close to those teachings-Pierre Clastres'
tone, his voice.
Listen to that vo ice, the voice of a man who is free and who calls
for o ther people's freedo m. The voice of a m an listening intently to
the Ache, sin gin g in the night, listening to La Boetie, and Rousseau,
they them selves passers-on, listening to those "new peoples" from
before the malencounter. All those voices entwined resonate and
vibrate in the unique voice of Pierre C lastres.

Mi g uel Abenso ur, presid ent of th e College in te rn ationa l de Philosop hi c from L985 co
L987, had previo usly pa rtici pated in the pe riod ica ls Libre and Textures. He is the cd icor of
a co llective work o n Pi erre C lastres: l'esprit des lois srtuvttges (Pari s: Ed itio ns d u Sc uil ,
L987), a nd co-ed ico r, with An ne Ku piec, of Le Crthier Pierre Clastres (Pa ri s: Se ns & To n ka,
2 01 L). His own latest books inclu de Democnuy Against the Strtte (Cam b ridge: Po li cy Press,
20 LL ) Utopiques I : Le prods des m11itres reveurs (Pa ris: Se ns & To n ka, 201 3) a nd Utopiques
2: l'hormne est '"' rtnirnrtl utopique (Par is: Sens & To nka, 20 13) .

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AN INTERVIEW WITH PIERRE CLASTRES

I.: anti-mythes: What is your definition of "political anthropology"? How


would you situate your present approach to anthropowgylethnology (with
respect to structuralism in particular)?

Pierre Clastres: Let's take the question of structuralism first. I'm not
a structuralist, but it's not because I have anything whatsoever
against structuralism, it's that as an ethnologist, I work on fields for
which a structural analysis isn't relevant, in my opinion. For people
who are studying kinship, or mythology, structuralism apparently
works, as Levi-Strauss has clearly proved in his analyses of the
elementary structures of kinship, or in his mythologies. Now, in
what I study- let's say, grossly, it's political anthropology, the ques-
tion of leadership and power- my impression is that that doesn't
function, another type of analysis is required. Having said this, it's
quite probable that ifl looked at a set of myths I would necessarily
be structuralist, because I can't see how to analyze a set of myths
outside of the structuralist framework ... other than by doing some
inanity like psychoanalyzing myths or applying Marxism to them-
say, "myths are the opium of the savages"-but that's not serious.

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You're not just talking about primitive societies: your questions about
power are questions about our society. What is the basis of your
approach? What justifies the transition frorn one to the other?

The transition is implicit in the definition. I'm an ethnologist,


which is to say that I study primitive societies, especially those in
South America, where I did all my field work. Now, here we start
with a distinction internal to ethnology or anthropology itself.
What is a primitive society? It is a stateless society. To speak of a
stateless society is necessarily to name the other societies, which is to
say societies with a state. Where does the problem reside? What
interests me, and why do I try to think it out? I wonder why state-
less societies are stateless, and it seems to me that if primitive
societies are stateless it's because they are societies that reject the
state, they are against the state. The absence of the state in primitive
societies doesn't reflect a lack, it isn't because they are still in the
infancy of humankind, and so are incomplete, or because they aren't
big enough, or aren't fully grown-up, adult, it is truly because they
refuse the state in the broadest sense, the state defined by its mini-
mal figure, which is the relationship based on power. By the same
token, to speak of stateless societies or societies against the state is to
talk about those with a state, so there is bound to be practically
no transition at all, or one that is immediately possible. And the
question inherent in the transition is: where does the state come
from, what is the origin of the state? But still and all, there are two
distinctly different questions:
- how do primitive societies manage not to have a state?
-where does the state come from?
So what about "political ethnology"? If the question is "can the
analysis of the question of power in primitive societies-in stateless

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societies-feed our political thinking about our own society?," the
answer is definitely yes, but it doesn't necessarily have to be. I could
very well confine myself to pure social anthropology, even if my
questions are not completely academic: what do primitive societies
do to avoid having a state? Where does the state come from? I
can stop there, and remain purely and simply an ethnologist. And
actually, that's what I do. But there is no doubt that any thinking
and research on, basically, the origins of the division of society, or
on the origins of inequality, in the sense that primitive societies are,
precisely, societies that prevent hierarchical distinctions, that thinking
and that research provide food for thought about what goes on in
our society. And then, in fact, the question of Marxism comes up
almost immediately.

Could you be more specific? What are your relations with ethnologists
with more Marxist leanings?

My relations with my Marxist colleagues are marked by disagree-


ments about the work we do, and about what we write, but not
necessarily by personal disagreements. Most Marxists are orthodox
thinkers. I say most of them, since there are fortunately a few who
are not, but the orthodox Marxists care more about a literal inter-
pretation than about the spirit of it. So what is the theory of the
state, in that sense? They have an instrumental conception of the
state. That is, the state is the instrument of domination of the
ruling class over other people; both logically and chronologically,
the state comes afterwards, once the society has been divided into
classes, and there are the rich and the poor, the exploiters and the
exploited. The state is the instrument of the rich to better exploit
and mystify the poor and the exploited. My impression, based on

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research and thinking that stay within the confines of primitive,
stateless societies, is that the opposite is true: the initial division , the
one that underlies all the others, in the last analysis, is not the divi-
sio n into conflicting social groups, into rich and poor, exploiters
and exploited. It's the divisio n between those who command and
those who obey: that is, the state, because fundamentally, that's
what the state is, it's the divisio n of society into those who are in
power and those who are subj ected to that power. Once that ex ists,
that commanding/obedience relationship- that is, a guy, o r a
bunch of guys who give orders to the others, who obey- everything
is possible from then on , because someone who gives orders, who is
in power, has the power to make th e others do what he wants,
prec isely because he has the power, he can tell them to work for
him , and at that point the man in power can easily turn into an
explo iter, into someo ne who makes others do the work. But the
point is that when you give serious thought to the way primitive
soc ieti es fun ction , as social machin es, yo u see no way for those
societies to be divided, I mean to be divided into rich and poor. You
don't see how, because everythin g is don e prec isely to prevent that
from happenin g. On the other hand, you see a lot better, you
· understand a lot more, and several unclear questions are clarified , in
my opinion, if you assume that the power relationship comes first.
T hat's why I think that if we want to gain a better understanding of
these issues, we have to turn the M a rxist theory of th e origins of
the state co mpletely upside down- that's an enormous point, and
also a very precise one. It seems to me that the state is fa r from bein g
the instrument by which o ne class do minates the others, and there-
fore something that appears following a previous division o f society.
It's the opposite, it's the state that produces classes. T his can be
shown using examples of non-Western societies with a state, and I

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am thinking of the Andean, Inca state, in particular, but we could
also take a number of other perfectly Western examples, and even
one more contemporary example, the USSR. I'm simplifying of
course, I'm no specialist of Russia, nor am I a Kremlinologist . .. bur
after all, taken together, viewed from a distance, but not from too
far off, what did the 1917 Russian revolution do? It did away with
class relationships, by simply eliminating one class, the exploiters,
the bourgeois, the large landowners, the aristocracy and the state
machinery that went along with everything the monarchy stood for,
the outcome being that what remained was what might be said to
be an undivided society since one term of the split had been elimi-
nated. What remained was an undivided society, topped by a state
machinery (thanks to the Communist party) holding the power for
the benefit of the people, the workers and peasants. O.K. So what
is the USSR today? Except if you're a Communist Party militant, in
which case you believe the USSR embodies socialism, the workers'
state, etc., barring any rheology and catechism, if you're not com-
pletely blind and so on, what is the USSR? Ir's a class society. I don't
see why we should hesitate to use that vocabulary; it's a class society
and a class society that developed purely out of a state machinery.
That seems to me a good illustration of how classes-the rich and
the poor, exploiters and exploited-develop; that is, how that
particular division , that economic division of society develops starting
with the existence of a state machinery. The Soviet state, centered
around the Communist party, created a class society, with a new
Russian bourgeoisie that is certainly no less ferocious than the most
ferocious 19th century European bourgeoisies, for instance. I'm sure
of that, and when I make the apparently surrealistic claim that it is
the state that creates classes, this is illustrated by examples from
worlds completely different from our own, such as the Incas or the

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USSR. Take specialists in, say, ancient Egypt or other regions, or
other cultures, societies that Marx called Asian despotism or what
other thinkers called hydraulic civilization. I think they would
probably tend to agree with me, they would show how political
division is the starting point which very easily generates an economic
division; that is, those who obey become the poor and exploited at
the same time, and those who command become the rich and the
exploiters. That's perfectly normal because if you hold power, it's to
use it, power that isn't wielded isn't power, and what is the vector for
wielding power? Obliging others to work for you. It's not at all the
existence of alienated work that creates the state, I think it's exactly
the opposite, it's power, holding power, that generates alienated
work. What is alienated work? "I don't work for myself, I work for
others," or rather, "I work a little for myself and a lot for others." He
who holds power can say to the others, "You are going to work for
me." And that's where alienated work begins! The first and most
universal form of alienated work was the obligation to pay a tribute.
Because if I say, 'Tm the one who has power and you are subjected
to me," I have to prove it, and I prove it by making you pay a
tribute; that is, by diverting part of your activity for my exclusive
benefit. This in itself makes me not only the person with power, but
the one who exploits others. There is no state machinery without
that institution known as the tribute. The first move made by a man
of power is to demand a tribute, the payment of a tribute by those
over whom he wields his power.
Now, you will ask, "why do they obey? Why do they pay the
tribute?" That, precisely, is the question of the origins of the state. I
don't quite know, but there is something in the power relationship
that does not have to do with violence only. That would be too
simple, that would solve the problem right ofr. Why does the state

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exist? Because at some point, here or there, some guy or some group
of guys says, "We have the power and you are going to obey." But
then, one of two things can happen: either the listeners say, "yes,
that's true, you have the power and we are go in g to obey," or they
say "no, no, you don't have the power, and the proof is, we aren't
going to obey you," and then they may call the others crazy, or "let's
kill them." Either you obey or you don't, and at some point, neces-
sarily, that power was acknowledged, since the state developed here
and there, in various societies. In fact, the question of the origins of
that power relationship, the origins of the state, is a two-part one, in
my op inion, in that there is the question of those on top and of
those on the bottom:
- The question of the top is: how is it that in some place, at
some time, someone says 'Tm the boss and you're go ing to obey
me"? That's the question of the top of the pyramid.
-The question of the bottom, of the base of the pyramid, is:
why do people agree to obey, when there isn't one person or group
of people with enough strength, a great enough capacity for violence,
to make terror reign over the entire group? There is something else,
then; that consent to obedience harks back co something else. I
don't quite know to what. I'm a researcher, so I search. But all we
can say for the time being, it seems to me, is that although the
question is relevant, there is no obvious answer.
But we can't forego the question of the bottom, of why people
agree to obey, if we are to seriously reflect on the question of the ori-
gins of the power relationship, and on the question of the origins of
the state.

Those were the two questions Rousseau raised already at the beginning
of The Social Contract, when he said: never will a man be strong

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enough to always be the strongest, and yet the state exists; what
grounds political power, then? My impression, when reading Society
Against the State, was that there is a similarity between your
approach and Rousseau's, with a very significant anchor point: the
reference to small societies (Rousseau talks about Geneva, Corsica, the
small Swiss valleys) with a quest that arrives at the question of the
origins ofpolitical power.

It isn't a quest. It's what primitive societies teach me ... Here we're
taking a slightly different angle, but in fact we're still in the same
field. What are the requisites for a society being stateless? One
requisite is that it be small. In this respect I come close to what you
just said about Rousseau. It's true, primitive societies share the fact
of being small, I mean population-wise, territory-wise, and that's a
fundamental requisite for the absence of development of a distinct
locus of power in those societies. From that perspective, primitive,
stateless societies and societies with a state are opposites on every
point: primitive societies are on the side of what is small, limited,
scaled down, constantly splitting, multiple, whereas societies with a
state are exactly the opposite; they are on the side of growth, inte-
gration, unification, oneness. Primitive societies are concerned with
multiplicity; non-primitive societies, with a state, are societies of
oneness. The state is the triumph of oneness.
You just mentioned Rousseau; we could also mention someone
else who raised that basic question I put a little while ago, which is
what I called the question of the bottom: why do people obey when
they are infinitely stronger and more numerous than the person
who commands? It's a mysterious question, a relevant one in any
case, and it was raised a very long time ago and perfectly clearly by
La Boetie in The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. It's an old question,

(22 )
but that doesn't mean it's no longer relevant. I don't think it's old hat
at all, to the contrary, it's time to get back to that question, which
means to get a bit out of the "Marxist" quagmire in which the
reality of society is reduced to the economy, grossly speaking,
whereas it is possibly to be found more in the political.

You said that you encountered the problem ofMarxism naturally. Don't
you also encounter the psychoanalytic grid ofanalysis, and why don't you
talk about it?

Now that's something else. I must say I'm practically illiterate when
it comes to psychoanalysis. So my lack of references stems from my
lack of culture. Secondly, I have no need for it. I don't need to refer
to the psychoanalytic interpretation for what I am looking for.
Maybe chis limits me, or makes me lose time, but for the time being
I haven't felt any need for it. And I must say, furthermore, that the
few papers I have read that span ethno logy and psychoanalysis
haven't spurred me to go in that direction. When I talk about a
desire for power, or on the other end, of a desire for subjection, in
my discussion of the question of power, I'm well aware chat "desire"
is part of the vocabulary and gear of psychoanalysis; but then, I
might just as well have taken it from Hegel or even Karl Marx, and
that is actually where my references tend to come from. Very simply,
I don't know much about it; I know next to nothing about psycho-
analysis, and I don't feel the lack. Naturally, ifl feel I'm down a dead
alley some day, and that psychoanalysis can get me out of it, I'll
make an effort ... But for the time being, no, I have no need for that
tool. To the contrary, I think that would muddle my ideas; for ideas,
it's not a big deal, but that would muddle reality.

(23)
You say that the basis of the distinction between primitive and non-
primitive societies is that one is divided and the other is undivided.
But it seems to me that if the Guayaki aren't divided into rich and
poor, exploiter and exploited, there is another kind of division,
between men and women of course, and also normal/deviant. In the
Chronicle of the Guayaki lndians,for example, you took the case of
two homosexuals: one adjusts to the norms, while the other doesn't.
What sort ofpower is exerted on him to make him feel that his position
is abnormal?

We're far afield here. What sort of power? How can I put it ... the
point of view of the group, of the community, the societal ethic.
Here, we have a specific case: the Guayakis are- were, since we now
have to refer to chem in the past tense- a hunter society. So a fellow
who isn't a hunter there is almost a complete minus. This guy has
no choice, then; not being a hunter, he is practically no longer a
man. From there it isn't a far throw to the other side, the other
sector of society, which is the women's world. But I don't know if
we can talk in terms of power. In any case, it isn't power in the sense
we have used so far, power of a political nature.

Would that be non-coercive power? But is it because you don't see any
power crystallized in any one person that you claim it's a power-free
society, precisely because it isn't crystallized in a few individuals? Yet
there is a division, nonetheless, and social disapproval, the result being
that individuals don't act just any which way. With a married couple, for
instance, the man who refuses to let his wife have a second husband
(in Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians) finally gives in after a while.
So power exists after all, since there are behavioral norms?

(24 )
Those norms have the support of the entire society, they aren't
imposed on society as a whole by a specific group. They're the
norms of the society itself; they're the norms through which society
perpetuates itself, norms that everyone respects; they aren't imposed
by anyone. The norms of primitive societies, their taboos, etc.,
are like our laws, you always have a little leeway. Except that here,
those norms aren't those of a special group within society, which
imposes them on the others; they are the norms of society itself It
isn't a question of power. And in fact, whose power? Over whom?
It's the power of society taken as a unified whole, since it isn't
divided, it's the power of society as a whole over the individuals that
comprise it. And how are those norms learned, acquired, inter-
nalized? By life, children's education, etc. We aren't in the field of
power. Just as a father's "power" over his children in primitive society,
or a husband's power over his wife, or wives if he has several, has
nothing to do with the power relationship I view to be the essence
of the state, of the state machinery. The power of a father over his
children has nothing to do with the power of a chief over the people
who obey him; that's completely different. We mustn't mix up those
different spheres.

There is a spatial division, usually predicated as primordial by Henri


Lefebvre and the Situationists, it's the division between the city and the
countryside. In Chron icle of the Guayaki Indians, and especially in
the chapter "The Bow and the Basket" in Society Against the State,
you point out another division, between men's space and women's space.
What does that division refer to?

In this case, the division is a normal one. Don't forget we're talking
about nomadic hunters; it's normal that there be two rather

(25 )
well-defined spaces, since hunting is men's business and it takes
place in the forest. This is definitely forest country anyway, and
everyone is in the forest, but there's a distinction between the camp
where you stop to sleep and eat, etc., which is everyone's space
(including men, women, children, the elderly) and the forest, which
is strongly connoted by those who spend their time there: men, as
hunters. Aside from that, the fact is that because of the demographic
composition of the Guayaki-there were more women than men-
the camp was more identified with women than with men, particu-
larly since men go hunting with other men, while the women stay
in the camp with the children. So we definitely can define two
spaces, without exaggerating that opposition:
- the forest is the space for hunting, the space of game and of
men in their hunter role;
- the camp tends to be a female space, with children, cooking,
fami ly life, etc.
However, that doesn't involve anything reminiscent of a power
relation of any sort, of some people over others.

In fact, space divided into town and countryside is a hierarchical,


authoritarian space. Is it that there isn't the sarne hierarchical relationship
between the two spaces here?

No, not at all! Even if we take other cases-because this is a special


case, these are nomadic hunters (after all, a society of nomadic
hunters is very rare, or rather, it was very rare ... ), even if we take
the most usual case, which involves primitive societies of sedentary
farmers (that was the case of practically all South American
Indians, and I'm not talking about the Andes, I'm talking about the
ones living in the forest, the completely-naked-Indians-with-feathers,

(26)
I mea n Amazonia .. . almost all of them are sedentary farm ers, even
if they do go hunting, fishin g, gatherin g . .. they are sedentary
farm ers), there is no distinction between the village, as the first
likeness to the town , and the countryside. Th at's a completely
differe nt story.
T he distinction between town and countryside develops when
there is the town , with people who aren't villagers, because villagers
have to do with the village, but who are bourgeois, people who live
in the bourg (town) , with chiefs. T hat's where the chiefs live at first.
T he town and th e distinction between the town and the country-
side develop alon g with and after the development of the state,
because the state, or the figure of the despot, immedi ately settles in
a cente r, with its fortresses, its temples, its sho ps . .. So there is
necessarily a distin ction between the center and the rest; the center
becomes the town , and the rest turns into the countryside. But that
distinction does n't wo rk at all in a primitive society, although there
are some really sizeable primitive communities. Size doesn't make
the difference: whether you're talking about a band of some 30
G uayaki hunters or a G uarani village of 1,500 people, there is
absolutely no split between town and countryside. T hat split occurs
when there is a state, when there is the chief, and his res idence, and
his capital, and his depots, military barracks, temples, and so on .
Tow ns are created by the state: that's why towns and cities are as old
as the state. Where there's a state, there is a town ; where there is a
power rel ation there is a distinction between town and countryside.
Unavoidably, because all those people who live in the town, around
th e man in command, they have to eat, they have to live, and so it's
the others, those who are outside the town , who are in the country-
side, who work for them. And in fac t, that's why you could even say
that the fi gure o f the peasant, as such, appears within the state

(27)
machine; the peasant lives and wo rks in the country partially for
th e benefit of chose who are in town and who command. That is,
he pays the tribute, he pays the tribute in the form of personally
rendered services, which may be compulsory work or produce from
hi s fields ... Bue wh at's the use of the tribute? First of all, it is a
marker of power, it's the sign of power! T here is no ocher way of
demonstrating the fact of power. T he tribute is the only vehicle. If
I say, 'Tm the chief, I'm in power," how am I goin g co show it? By
asking yo u fo r so methin g, and that so mething is called a tribute.
T he tribute is the sign of power and at th e same time it's the mea ns
fo r maintainin g it, the means of ensuring the permanency of the
sphere of power, includin g all the peopl e around the chief. And the
burea ucracy starts to expand ve ry quickly once there's a chief, a
despo t. H e is soon surrounded by people who secure his power,
such as bodyguards and warriors. T hey can very easily be turned
into specialized administrators in charge of collecting the tribute,
co un tin g it, or keepin g records, that is, into statisticians and priests.
T he whole range of soldiers, administrators, scribes, and priests
develops really quickly with and around the fi gure of the chief. All
you need is a so mewhat wide-ranging field of application of the
power relati on, and from then on you find everythin g that develops
around the figure of the chief: the priests, the military, the scribes,
administrato rs, inspectors, etc., and court life, an aristocracy. All
those peo ple aren't go ing co do any work, because they have some-
thing else co do, in fact. It isn't even out o f laziness, or a desire to
enj oy li fe, like the master in H egel 's wri tings, but because they have
something else co do, they have co be priests, generals, civil servants,
etc. They can't do that and also till the fields and ra ise animals, so
they need other people to do that for them.

(28 )
There are witch-doctors-shamans- in primitive society. How do you
explain their role?

This brings us back, to so me extent, to what we were talking about


earlier, to the ambiguities of the word "power."

Yes, I think that actually a number of our questions revolve around


that sort ofambiguity, which is: the coercion that ensures social cohesion,
and on the other hand, political power; and I think you make a clear
distinction between the two, whereas it isn't quite as clear for us.
That's perhaps the point that "shocked" us most, among all the questions
we had.

First of all, yo u say coercio n, but there is no coercion in primitive


societies.

For example, the obligation to reciprocate, to give and return, to receive


and return.

Exchange and reciprocity! It would be absurd to deny, say, the obli-


gation to exchange, to exchange goods and services, as well as to
exchange women so as to respect the rules of matrimony, and first
and foremost the prohibition of incest. But the exchange of goods
that goes on every day, that's visible, mostly involves food. In fact
one hardly sees what else might circulate. Who exchanges with
whom? Who are the people involved in that network of circulation
of goods? They're mostly relatives. Here, kin ship goes beyond
co nsa nguinity, and includes allies, brothers-in-law a nd so forth.
It's a n obligation, but pretty much in the sa me way as we are
obliged to give a nephew a gift, or to bring our grandmother flowers.

(29)
Furthermore, it's a network that defines what we might call social
insurance. Who ca n an individual in a primitive society count on?
On his kin. T he way to show your kin and your allies that in case
of need you hope to be helped by them is to offer them food. T here
is an ongoing circuit oflittle gifts. It's simple: when a wom an cooks,
when the meat or whatever is ready, you immediately see the
woman herself, or a child sent by her, send a little bit, practically a
symbolic portion of the food- it doesn't represent a meal- to so-
and-so, and to someone else, and som·eone else again, almost always
relatives or allies. Why do they do that? Because they know that the
others, in turn , will do the same, that those people can be counted
on in case of need, in a catas trophe. It's insurance, social security. It's
a social security th at does n't com e fro m the state, it comes from
kinship. But a savage would never offer something to someone from
whom he ca n expect nothin g. That would never even occur to him!
T hat's why the sphere of exchanges is limited- I ~ouldn't say exclu-
sively, but mainly- to the network of kinship and alliances. Now,
the re may o f cou rse be other kinds o f excha nge, whi ch have a
differe nt fun ction. T hey are more ritualized, and have to do with
one community's relations with another co mmuni ty, for example.
H ere we are talking about "international relations," so to speak.
Those exchanges I've been talking about, between kin and between
allies, take place within the community.
You mentioned shamans, ea rlier: it's true, unquestionably, the
shaman is probably the ma n wh o has, say, the most power. But
what kind of power? It's not at all a power of a political nature. I
mean , its locus, its inscription in society isn't at all a locus from
which he may say, "I am the chief, so you are go ing to obey me."
Absolutely not. There are shamans in various groups who have more
or less of a reputation , dependin g on how great a shaman they are.

(30)
So me have a tremendous reputation , chat is, one chat extends very
far, co groups chat do n't even know chem. T he shaman, as medicine-
man, which is co say as master of illn ess, is th e master of life and
death. If he cakes care of so meo ne he removes che sickness from the
patient's body; he is the master of life. And as such he gives care and
heals. Bue at the same time, he is necessarily the master of death ;
th at is, he handles sickness, and if he is able to wre nch the sick-
ness ... or rather, to wrench a person from sickness, then conversely,
he is capable of casting sickness o n someo ne. So bein g a shaman isn't
a sinecure, because if something abnormal occurs within che society
(either the shaman's cures fa il repeatedly, or so mething else happens)
the shaman will be the preferred scapegoa t for the group. H e will be
viewed as respo nsible fo r whatever happens, fo r anything abnorm al
chat occu rs within chat society for thin gs tha t fri ghten or wo rry
people. H e will be accused because, bein g che mas ter of life he is
the mas ter of d eath. Peo pl e will say " it's him ," he's the o ne who
th rows curses, he's the o ne who makes children sick, a nd so o n.
What happens, the n? Well , mos t o f th e tim e th e shama n is kill ed.
T hey kill him.
T hat's why I said before that the shaman's job isn't a sin ecure.
Bue in any case, the prestige and respect a shaman may receive fro m
a tribe do n't give him the sli ghtest poss ibili ty of fo undin g a state, of
sayi ng, 'Tm in co mmand." H e wouldn't even chink of it.

Isn't his prestige open to question? H e isn't necessarily what you might
call a sacred figure. I n the two "tales" you relate about shamans they are
made fun of

But shamans aren't in the sacred sphere at all. T he Indians' relatio n


co the shaman isn't anything like that o f the Andea n Indians of the

(3 1)
old days coward the Incas, or of C hristians, here, toward the Pope.
Simply, they know that if they're sick they can count on him , and
also that you have to watch out for him because he has powers. H e
doesn't have T he Power, he has powers, which is not at all the same
thing. Because he has his helper spirits with him , to help out (why
and how is he aided by helper spirits? Because he learn ed, it cakes a
long time to become a shaman, it takes years and years of- let's call
it studies), he has powers but that will never give him power, he
doesn't want it! What good would it do him? And then, he'd be the
laughing stock! We should definitely no t look for the o rigins of
power in the shaman's pres tige, it seems co me. T hat's certainly not
where it is.

H e's "inspired".. . Is there a connection between the shaman and the


p rophet?

None whatsoeve r. You have to see shamans for what they are:
doctors. T hey take ca re o f people and at the same time they kill
enemi es . A shaman cares for the people in his co mmuni ty, and he
ca res for people in allied co mmuniti es if as ked to , and he kills
e nemi es. In chat sense he is a pure instrument of the community.
How does he kill ? H e kills in shaman fashion, he calls out his army
of helper spirits and he sends them to kill the enemies. So that in a
given co mmunity a child , fo r example- or so meo ne else-dies: the
local shaman didn't succeed in healing him. What will they say? "It's
the shaman of such and such a group who killed chat perso n,"
whence the need to cake reve nge, to orga nize a raid, and so forth.
T hat's what the shaman is about. H e acts as doctor within the
co mmunity and as war machine for th e community against its
enemi es. A prophet is never a docto r, he doesn't give care. Actually,

(32 )
to take a South American example, there have been prophets among
the Tupi-Guarani, but the chroniclers all distinguish perfectly clearly
between shamans, who are sorcerers and doctors, on the one hand,
and prophets on the other. Prophets speak, they go from one com-
munity to another, from one village to another, making speeches.
They have a special name, "carai''; whereas shamans are called
"paje." The distinction is perfectly clear. I actually think we can go
a bit farther and say that prophets are not former shamans. That's a
completely different figure.

In a footnote to Geronimo's memoirs, he is defined as a war shaman.


What do you think that means?

I have no idea. It's not very important. Geronimo was a warrior


chief. He may have had some shamanic talents as well, and known
some special chants. But he was essentially a warrior chief.

We might pursue the question of war; that is, what is the status of war
in primitive societies? Which brings us back to the problem of whether
we should talk about isolated societies, or groups ofsocieties, or relations
between groups. Is war an exceptional occurrence, or isn't it actually
part of the everyday life of the community, in the last analysis?
Inasmuch as we talk about the chief's role in wartime, what does that
mean? Is it an exceptional occurrence or rather, isn't it the horizon of
all social life?

It's a fact: war is written into the very core of p.rimitive societies. I
mean that a primitive society can't function without war; therefore,
war is permanent. To say that war is permanent in primitive society
doesn't mean that savages are out warring from dawn to dark every

(33)
day. When I say that war is permanent, I mean that for any given
co mmunity, th ere a re always enemies out there so mewhere, people
susceptible of attacking us. T hat attack only occurs very occasionally,
but the hostile relations betwee n communities are ongoing; that's
why I say that war is permanent, the state of war is permanent.
Why? H ere we come back to what we were sayin g at the beginnin g
about the size of societies. I talked about the requisites for a society
to be p rimitive. One requisite, an all-importa nt on e, is the size of
the society, o r co mmuni ty. A society cannot be both large and
p rimitive, or at least that's what I think. Fo r a society to be primi-
tive it has to be small. For a society to be small it has to refuse to
be large, and to refuse to be large there's somethin g of a technique,
universally used in primitive societies, or at least in American societies,
and that is splitting, breaking up. T hat may do ne in a perfectly
fr iendly way when the gro up feels- judges-that its populatio n
has grow n beyond the optimum level , and there is always someo ne
wh o suggests that a number of people leave. As a rule, these sepa-
ratio ns go alo ng kinship lin es; there may be a gro up of bro thers
who decide to fo und a no ther co mmuni ty, which will of co urse be
allied to the one they leave, since they are not only allies but relatives.
But they do found ano ther co mmunity, so there is this ongo in g
process of splitting up.
But war is equally importa nt here, since primi tive war, war in
primitive societies-that perm anent state of war I mentioned , a
state of war that beco mes effective from time to time- really
depends on the society. All or almost all primitive societies are war-
like, bu t more or less intensely so. T here are so me very bel ligerent
peo ples, and others that are less so, but actually, war is o n the hori-
zo n fo r all of them, in any case. Wh at are the effects of war? T he
effects of war are to maintain the separation between co mmunities.

(34 )
The only relations you can have with enemies are hostile ones,
',
implying separation. That separation and hostility culminate in
actual war, but the effect of war and of the state of war is to keep
communities separate, to divide them. The main effect of war is to
constantly create multiplicity, thanks to which the possibility of
existence of the opposite of multiplicity doesn't exist. As long as
inter-community relations are in a state of separation, co ldness or
hostility, as long as each community is and remains self-sufficient by
that means-we might practically say self-managing- there can be
no state. War, in primitive societies, is firstly a way of preventing
oneness; oneness is above all unification; that is, the state.

Could we go bacle to that splitting up? You say that they were small
societies, and as soon as they began to grow they split up. How do you
account for the fact that Tupi-Guarani societies reached such huge
proportions? Why didn't that splitting mechanism work any longer?

I don't have any very accurate answer there, except on the figures .
What made the Tupi-Guarani so unusual in South America was the
very large size of the tribes and communities forming what I call
Tupi-Guarani society. To the point where one necessarily imagines a
sort of population explosion, relatively speaking: this isn't China or
India. That population explosion actually led the Tupi-Guarani to a
sort of territorial expansion, they occupied a huge territory, most
probably because they needed living space. Since they were both
very numerous and very warlike, they went out and chased away the
occupants they found and took over the place; they chased them
away or killed them, or took them into the group .. . I don't know.
But in any case, they arrived and took the other people's place once
they had thrown them out.

(35)
So why did that happen? I mean why did they experience such
an incredible population growth? I have no idea. And it isn't only
an ethnological problem. It's problematic for all kinds of people,
such as geneticists, ecologists and so forth. I really don't know what
to say.
What I can say, in any case (it's something that is increasingly
clear as researchers pursue their work on the population of primitive
societies) is that, let's say, primitive societies are "coding societies,"
to use the Anti-Oedipus vocabulary. Let's say that a primitive
society is all sorts of flows circulating, or to take another
metaphor, a machine with its organs. Primitive society codes- that
is, controls, keeps a firm grasp on-all those flows, all those organs.
What I mean here is that it keeps a firm grasp on what may be called
the flow of power; it grasps it tightly and holds it in, doesn't let it
out, for if it lets it out, then there is a conjunction between a chief
and power, and then we are in the minimal figure of the state, which
is to say the initial division of society (between those who command
and those who obey). It doesn't allow that to happen. Primitive
society keeps control over that organ called leadership.
But there does seem to be one flow that primitive societies
sometimes have trouble controlling, and that is the population flow.
It is often said that primitive societies know how to control their
size; sometimes that's true, sometimes not. Obviously, when the
Tupi-Guarani were first discovered- that is, at the beginning of the
16th century- that didn't bother them, because they were expanding,
territorially, so there was no problem. But there would have been a
problem, for example, if their desire, or rather, their need for terri-
torial expansion had met up with adversaries who were determined
to protect the land they wanted to occupy. What would have
happened then? When the population is developing and the territory

(36)
is closed, then there are problems. Here we have something-
demography-that is perhaps beyond control in primitive societies.
They have a lot of techniques for controlling the population.
They constantly resort to abortion, infanticide is very frequent, and
there are a great many sexual taboos. For instance, as long as a
woman hasn't weaned her baby (children are weaned when they are
two or three), sexual intercourse is almost universally prohibited
between that woman and her husband. If the woman has a baby (as
I said earlier, prohibitions and taboos are made to be respected, but
also to be disobeyed) or is pregnant before her last-born is weaned,
the chances are great that she will abort or that the baby will be
killed at birth. In spite of that, population growth may be considerable
in the context of a savage economy and ecology ...

Many of our questions have to do with the problem of language: for


one thing, language is presented as the source of coercive power
(through the word of the prophet) and for another, language is the
opposite of violence.

We're talking about coding again. As we know, in America (and not


only in America, that too is apparently universal), the leader, head
of the tribe, the chief in primitive societies, must have various
qualities that qualify him for that function. And among other
qualities, there is the need to be eloquent, to be a good speaker.
That is constantly evident. Now we can say it's because the savages
like flowery discourse; they enjoy listening to a good orator, which
is true, they love it. But I think we have to go farther: that obligation
according to which you can't be acknowledged as a chief if you aren't a
good speaker contains something through which a community,
when it recognizes someone as its leader, traps him in language. It

(37 )
traps the leader in language, in the speeches he makes, the words he
pronounces. It isn't just the pleasure of listening to good speeches.
But at a deeper level, not a conscious one of course, that has to do
with the political philosophy involved in the very functioning of a
primitive society. The leader, or chief-that is, the person who
might be in power, be the commander, or order-giver- can't
become that because he is trapped in language, trapped in the sense
that his obligation is an obligation to speak.
As long as he is in the medium of language, in that particular
kind of language (because giving an order is also speech ... ), he can't
free himself of that obligation to be a good speaker. If it crossed his
mind to change over to another kind of language, which is the lan-
guage of commanding (he gives an order and the order is obeyed),
he wouldn't be able to. Personally, my understanding of that obliga-
tion to be a good speaker is unquestionably that it is one of the
many ways used by a primitive society to maintain the split between
leadership and power. As long as the chief is in the medium of
discourse, and of what I have called "edifying discourse," which is
empty discourse, he isn't in power.

He tells the story of the tribe, why it is the way it is ....

Yes, it's a profoundly conservative discourse. But what does it con-


serve? Society itself. It's a discourse against change, including the
greatest of all changes that could occur in a primitive society: the one
that would allow some man to address society, saying, 'Tm the chief
and from now on you're going to obey me." So the chief is a good
speal<er precisely so that he can't say that. He is caught now in the space
of language, a prisoner of it. As long as he is in that space he is within
a chalk circle and can't get out. He's the man who talks, that's all.

(38)
And people don't even have to listen to hirn, apparently?

No, there is no obligation. If people were obliged to listen, then


there would be law, they would already have gone over to the other
side. There is no ob ligation in primitive societies, at least in the
relations between society and its chief The only one who has obli-
gations is the chief In other words, it's the absolute opposite, a
complete reversal, of what happens in societies with a state.

It's the chief who has to obey?

In our countries it's the other way around. It's society that has obli-
gations with respect to the person in command, whereas the chief
bas none. And why doesn't the chief who commands, or the despot,
have any obligation? Because he is in power, of course! So what
power means is precisely that: "I no longer have obligations, it's you
who do." In primitive society it's exactly the opposite. The chief is
the only one with obligations: the obligation to be a good speaker,
and not only to be talented, but to prove it constantly, by contenting
people by his speeches, and the obligation to be generous.
What does the obligation to be generous mean in societies
where, say, units of production are economically self-sufficient? The
unit of production is the family cell (a man, a woman, and their
children). They are self-sufficient, meaning that each unit has no
need (or almost no need) for the others in order to subsist, aside
from the small flow of exchanges; secondly, its production does not
exceed its needs. But things are very different for the chief, because
he is obliged to be generous, he is obliged (if he is to do his duty of
generosity) to make his production exceed his own needs. He is
obliged to produce amounts including his obligations as leader,

(39 )
which means he must always have a little stock of various things to
put into circulation if needed. If asked to. So to be chief means to
make speeches, speeches that say nothing (to make it short) and to
work more than other people. When I say that in primitive societies
the chief is the only one with obligations toward society, you can
take that literally, it's true.

Why be a chief? Who becomes a chiefand why?

How does one become a chief? First of all, there has to be a chief
Now wait! I'm not saying, "There has to be a state; if there isn't a
chief, we're cooked; there has to be someone in command." It's not
that, since, precisely, the chief isn't in command. But in earlier days
the primitive social machine ran well if it had, I don't really know
how to formulate it- a spokesman. The chief is above all a
spokesman, literally. In relations between tribes or communities,
obviously everyone can't speak at once, or no one will be heard.
Now, inter-tribal relations are all-important, precisely because
there's a permanent state of war. When you have enemies, you have
to have allies; you have to have networks of alliances, and it is the
leaders who are the negotiators, the spokesmen for the communities,
precisely because they are good at talking. But I think we can go a
little further, and say that society would be incomplete without a
leader. I seem to be contradicting myself, but let me explain what I
.mean, on the basis of ethnological facts. A society without a leader,
without a guy who speaks, would be incomplete in the sense that
the figure of power-as-a-possibility (that is, the figure of what the
society wants to prevent), the locus of power, mustn't be lost. That
locus must be clearly defined. There has to be someone about
whom you can say, "Look, he's the chief, and it's precisely he who

(40)
we'll prevent from being the chief." If you can't go to him to ask
him things, if there isn't that figure that occupies the locus of the
possibility of power, then you can't prevent that power from
becoming a reality. To prevent that power from beco ming real, you
have to make that locus a trap, you have to put someone there, and
that someone is the chief. When he's chief, he is told, "From now on
you are the person who is our spokesman, who will make speeches,
and will do his duty to be generous, you will work a little more than
the others, you will be the person who serves the community." If
there was n't that locus, the locus of the apparent negation of primitive
society as a power-free society, it would be incomplete.
I remember go ing with my friend Jacques Lizot to visit the
Yanomami Indians in Venezuelan Amazonia three years ago. It's the
region of the springs of the Orenoque river, bridging the extreme
so uth of Venezuela and the extreme north of Brazil, which is the
heart of the Amazo nian system ; let's say it's still one of the last
"uncharted" parts of Amazonia. That's where the Yanomami, defi -
nitely the last great primitive society in the world, are living. They
are about 12 to 15,000- although it's hard to give a definite fi gure-
which is enormous, when you co mpare that with recent figures for
American Indians. We were in a small community of 50-60 people.
And following some co nflict within the co mmunity, I don't know
what, there was no longer a leader. I don't know what they had done
to him, whether they killed him or he resign ed, so to speak, or
whether he left. In short, it was a co mmunity without a leader,
without a spokesman. There was no one who could play the role of
the chief of etiquette, because that's what it is, to some extent ... An
allied group came to visit, and they had a leader, that is, a guy who
did the talking; and that guy made a very nice speech to the group
that had no leader. He told them, "Yo u're less than nothing, you

(4 1)
don't even have a leader, you will amount to nothing." He absolutely
didn't mean, "You need someone in command, a chief (in the sense
we use nowadays)." He was in a good position to know that, he was
well aware that he wasn't in command, but he was almost annoyed
to see that spectacle, because it wasn't complete. There is a locus that
is structurally written into primitive society- structurally is the
right word- which is the chief's place, and that place was unoccu-
pied. "If you don't have a leader, you're done," because there was a
void, an absence, a missing organ.
I think that organ exists in order to be coded. If it doesn't
exist, it isn't clear where to look for it. You have to be able to see
it. If that place isn't occupied society isn't complete. Of course I
don't mean that if there isn't a chief, in the sense of a chief in
command, nothing goes right. It's precisely the opposite. And if
the locus of apparent power is empty, then maybe some oddball
from out of the blue will show up and say, 'Tm the chief, I'm in
command." They may be in big trouble, because there isn't any
chief of etiquette, the spokesman, the man who makes speeches,
to say, "No, it's me." And I think that's why, in the anecdote I just
told you, the visiting leader told the others, "You're a nonentity,
you run the risk of being a nonentity, because you're at the mercy
of anything or anyone."

It's as if language is viewed as potentially dangerous, and by locating


it in a specific place you prevent it from becoming dangerous. If that's
the case, the prophet would be the person who takes the word from
elsewhere, from some uncontrolled, uncontrollable elsewhere?

Yes, of course. We might say, to phrase it succinctly, that when the


locus of power is occupied, when the space of leadership is filled,

(42)
you can't go wrong, the society won't be mistaken about what it
should distrust, because it has it right there in front of it. Visible,
tangible danger is easy to ward off, since you have it before your
eyes. When the place is empty (and it never is for very long), any-
thing can happen. If primitive society functions as a machine
against power, it will function all the better if the locus of the
possibility of power is occupied. That's what I mean. So, over and
beyond the everyday functions fulfilled by the chief, which are
almost professional functions (to make speeches, act as spokesman
in relations with other groups, organize festivities, launch invita-
tions) , he has another, structural function, in the sense of partaking
of the very structure of the social machine. That place must exist
and must be occupied so that the society, as a machine opposed to
the state, is constantly confronted with the place which may be the
point of departure of its destruction. That place is leadership, and
the society has to make power nonexistent (and it succeeds perfectly
in doing so) . And that's what I meant when I said that if that place
didn't exist those societies would be incomplete.

Isn't constant discourse, and also the group's constant control over the
chief's discourse a way ofseeing whether he goes crazy, and also, whether
he wants to take power?

Of course. As long as he makes speeches, and as a rule that's, say,


every day, or almost every day, and as long as he makes the same
speech, everything's O.K., because in addition, the chief, as orator,
never says anything but what the society wants to hear. He himself
functions as an organ for preserving the society (as a power-free
society), for what he says is a discourse that constantly refers to the
traditional norms: it's an "edifying" discourse. "We have lived very

(43)
well like this until now, respectful of the norms we were taught by
our ancestors, above all, we mustn't change anything."
"Yanoama'' (a book published in France in the same series as my
Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians) is about the same Indians I was
just talking about, the Yanomami. Ir's absolutely fascinating. The
author is an Italian, Ettore Biocca, bur he's really not the author, he's
a swindler. The real author is a woman named Helena Valero , a
Brazilian woman who was kidnapped by the Yanomami Indians. Ir
must have been in 1939. She had completely disappeared, and
turned up again 21 or 22 years later with four children. So she had
spent 20 years in that incredible society, and she ran away. The book
is what she told that Italian, whose sense of decency didn't prevent
him from signing the book, whereas it's purely and simply 100
hours of recording her voice. In short, there's one great episode. She
tells 20 years of her life. Ir wasn't always a sinecure, you shouldn't
have a boy scout's vision of savages. For example, you certainly
shouldn't rake Robert Jaulin's claims literally: his intentions may be
good, but it's radically false.
Anyway, she talks a lot about her first husband. Because she
actually became an Indian. This woman had two husbands: at any
rate, she talks about two husbands in her story, and she mostly talks
about the first one, for whom she felt what we might call love. Her
depiction of him is very moving. Who was the guy? He was a leader,
precisely. He took her as his last wife. He had four others. Ir's a
standard situation, leaders always have a lot of wives. She was his
most recent wife, and actually, visibly the one he preferred, maybe
because she came from the white people's world, so she carried more
prestige. Why was this guy a leader? Most Yanomami leaders are
warrior leaders, organizers of raids. This man was a great leader, a
courageous one. But he gradually went crazy. He became paranoid

(44)
and megalomaniac: that's what warring does, it's the destiny of
warriors. What is a warrior? Someone who always wants to go war-
ring. That's normal, since he's a warrior. And gradually, instead of
wanting to go on wars corresponding to what was wanted by the
society, the tribe of which he was the leader, he wanted to make war
on his own right. He had a personal grievance with a group, one
that didn't concern anyone else. He wanted to draw his tribe into
that war, but that war wasn't that society's war.
So what happened? You might say that one difference berween
savages and other people is that when savages don't want to go to war,
they don't go, whereas in our case, if the state wants us to go to war,
like it or not, you have to go! So what happened in this leader's case?
His people left him; they abandoned him to the point where he, on
the other hand, couldn't lose face (because he was a warrior), he
couldn't say, "OK, since you aren't coming with me, I won't go either."
A warrior can't do that. So what did he do? He went off on his attack
all alone, and he was killed, of course! He committed suicide. But he
was condemned to die, because he shouldn't have tried to impose
his war on his commun ity, that didn't want it. That's how you prevent
chiefs from being chiefs. That's a magnificent illustration. That
happened to Geron imo all the time, aside from the fact that he was
a hero. And what about the Indians in the United States?

There are two aspects: first, the fact that Geronimo absolutely viscerally
detested the Mexicans ...

But also the other Indians, other Apaches ...

But he seems to have been more motivated to fight the Mexicans than
the North Americans ...

(45)
Because he had suffered personally, si nce the Mexicans had killed his
first fam ily, and his mother; but many other Apaches also ...

But on the other had, even when he went out with 2 or 3 fellows, if they
returned beaten, they came back sheepishly and nothing was said. But
if they were victorious {even if only 2 or 3 guys had gone out), there was
celebrating. That was a much more limited "repudiation" than in the
case of that Yanomami leader. ..

Yes, but here we should take into cons ideration the fact that the
Apaches were probably well aware that they might need him at
some point. After all, he was a very competent warrior, he proved it
sufficiently.

Right, but both in his own memoirs and in those ofhis nephew Cochise
Jr. (the two agree pretty well on many points), you can see how
Geronimo was viewed by Apache society. His family was massacred in
1858. In 1859 there was the great foray by all ofthe Apaches, to avenge
that. In '59 he returned with 2 guys, and failed; everyone kept quiet,
nothing was said.. .

His two companions were killed and he came back alone. T here
were actually loads of expeditions by 2 or 3 guys ...

For 10 years, until 1868, there were one or two expeditions a year, but
in 1863, for instance, he went out with three guys; he was victorious,
and when they returned there was a great celebration; the "repudiation"
was limited, they left him alone, he did what he liked and was viewed
as somewhat ofan eccentric, but not potentially dangerous, is that it?

(46)
What would Geron imo himself have liked to do? Exactly like that
Amazonian ch ief I talked about before, he would have liked the
others to want to go out whenever he did. He wanted to lead two,
three or four hundred Apaches, but they didn't want to go.

But he wasn't the head ofthe tribe. He wasn't in a chief's position.

That's right, he wasn't a chief in the institutional sense; he was a war


leader and was recognized as such for his technical competence. He
was a technician of war, a specialist. So when they needed him, they
call ed him in. But when he wanted to go to war for his own pur-
poses, and needed the others, if the others didn't want to go they
just didn't go, that's all.

There was a time when they feared him, rather indirectly, during the
following ten years (it's mostly Cochise Jr. who talks about that), because
he went out on raids and there was backlash, reprisals. But as to the
fact that he wanted to make his own war, I don't think there was any
disapproval, they just didn't go along, that's all.

That's it. But in the case of the Yanomami warrior, he wanted to


impose his war on society, and people didn't agree. He was the
leader of a rather large group (between 150 and 200 people). I went
there, it was already a pretty large group. It's an ordinary Amazonian
community. They didn't hit him, or kill him, they simply turned their
back on him.
But I know another case, in another group, of a guy who was
also a war leader, who went much further. His prestige and his vio-
lent behavior (he was very violent) led him to direct his violence
agai nst people in his own group. That went on for a while, then one

(47)
day they killed him. It was about ten years ago, relatively recently.
They killed him in the middle of the square around which the
village, the shelters, were built. They all killed him. I was told he
had been pierced by something like thirty arrows! That's what you
do with chiefs who want to be chiefs. In some cases you turn your
back on them, and that's enough. If that doesn't work, you get rid
of them, straight out. That must be quite rare, but you see, it's
within the range of possibilities for the relations between a society
and its ch ief. If the chief doesn't stay in his place.

That's what's different with Geronimo: he doesn't seem to have wanted


to impose himself He said: 'Tm going, are there any guys who are
coming with me?" That's all.

He probably put a little pressure on. You can just imagine what he
said to them: "You're a bunch of cowards, the Mexicans come and
kill you and you don't even wane co go on avenging yourself," and
secondly, "What? You refuse to follow me, I who got you that total
victory?" Because it's true, the first time he was totally victorious over
the Mexicans. You can well imagine what he would say ... Now,
think about some other examples, also in North America: the
equ ivalents of Geron imo in ocher societies, the "Big Chiefs" you see
in Westerns, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, and others. They were very
great leaders, but they didn't have an ounce of power. Red Cloud
who was able to bring out a "cloud" of Sioux horsemen (3 or 400) in
1865, didn't have an ounce of power, in che sense of being in
command. He didn't command anything at all. He was simply
extremely intelligent. You have to realize that those leaders are the most
intelligent guys in the community, the most perceptive,, the most
political, those who were able co develop a strategy in their relations

(48)
with other communities, not their own, but that of the communi ty,
of which they are merely the instruments. Red C loud, Sitting Bull
and the others may be said to have earned enormous prestige, but
that had nothing to do with power. That's completely different.

A more general question about the kind of interrogation you formulate


about our own contemporary society, on the basis of your studies of
primitive societies: aren't you "utilizing" primitive society, in a sense?
It's more or less the question I put at the beginning of this interview.
When I read Society Agai nst the State, I thought I noticed some more
or less implicit references to writers like Nietzsche (you speak of the
Indians' 'gay science"). I wonder whether your reference to primitive
people doesn't function like the reference to the pre-Socratics functions in
Nietzsche's or Heidegger's thinking: that is, those who came before, and
at the same time those who are outside, in that the transition from the
pre-Socratics to Socrates, from primitive people to "civilization" cannot
be conceptualized. My impression is that there is more than an analogy
or a veiled reference, but rather, that in your approach it touches on
something else.

T hat's true, at least in my earlier writings, because they use a philo-


sophical vocabulary, after all. It's true in the oldest piece, cal led
"£change et pouvoir: philosophie de la chejferie indienne" (Exchange and
power: the philosophy of Indian leadership), written in 1962-a long
time ago-but actually, I wouldn't change it very much. You can't
accuse me of being fickle in my ideas! But at the time I hadn't gotten
out of philosophy, in the sense that I was a student of philosophy, and
was vaguely studying for my agregation exam. And I must adm it I was
studying Heidegger. So it's pretty much marked by what I was into
then. Although those weren't always mere passing fancies: when

(49 )
Heidegger says, "Language is the house of Being. In its home, man
dwells" and "Man is the shepherd of Being," you could say that about
the savages. Primitive societies respect language in a way that doesn't
exist elsewhere. What would be needed here is the texts produced by
savages. To some extent, that's why I published Le grand parler (The
Great Talking), because it's just that.
That's where the references to Heidegger and Nietzsche are. But
for the time being, that's all it is. Except for Nietzsche ... There, I
can admit and clearly assert that I have been influenced by
Nietzsche, especially by his Genealogy ofMorals, of course. Because
if I hadn't done some thinking about the Genealogy of Morals it
would have been more difficult for me to write something like "On
Torture in Primitive Societies" (in Society Against the State). That's
clear. But there, the reference isn't literary at all, it isn't for the sake
of aesthetics, it's serious. It's obvious that someone like Nietzsche,
who probably knew nothing about the anthropology of his times,
and didn't give a damn about it (and rightly so), understood infi-
nitely more than everyone else at the time about the question of
memory, of marking ...

There's a question about the relationship with nature. On the one hand
you say it isn't decisive, and on the other hand, having read Touch the
Earth, I had the impression that their attitude toward nature is radi-
cally different from ours, a respectful attitude, lets say, and astonishment
at white people who desecrate it. Does that difference in attitude cor-
respond to something you've noticed, or is it only apparent?

Touch the Earth is a collection of texts put together by T.C.


McLuhan, with beautiful pictures. I've only read two or three texts;
some are magnificent.

(50)
To get back to what we were saying before, that's an example of
those people's language, of how they speak. It's splendid. It's deeply
moving. You have to be a "savage" to talk that way. Nobody does
any more. It's impossible to find a counterpart today. Without
reducing it all to the mode of production, it is linked, it's actually
very closely linked . The savage is someone who doesn't devastate.
H e takes what he needs from nature. When his needs are met, he
stops. That's precisely the entire point of the primitive economy.
Like any eco nomy, the primitive society is designed to satisfy needs.
When the savage feels that his needs are satisfi ed , he ceases hi s
productive activity. So he isn't going to cut branches off trees for
nothing, or hunt game for nothing. N ever will he do that. H e hunts
game to eat meat. T hat's why there's certainly no risk that primitive
societies will destroy the environment. But beyond that, it may be
contended that primitive societies, with local ecological differences,
had perfectly achieved D escartes' goal: to be master and possessor of
nature! The Amazoni an India ns mas ter their environm ent, the
tropical forest, perfectly. The Eskimos master their environment,
which is snow and ice, perfectly: theirs is a non-agricultural society,
by definition! The Australians, the desert people, with very little
water, under ecological conditions that we find not only difficult,
but imposs ible, they were there, they mastered their environment.
I'm not saying they wouldn't have been better off elsewhere, but be
that as it may, they definitely mastered the environment they were
in. When they were thirsty, they knew where to find water. .. they
managed. Actually, a society, by definition , controls its environ-
ment, there isn't any doubt. Why? Because if it does n't, either it dies
or it leaves. Primitive society controls its environment absolutely, but
to what ends? Not to build capitalism. That is, not to accumulate,
to produce beyond its needs, it produces what it needs and no more.

(5 1)
There is no surplus in those societies. Why? Not at all because they
are incapable of producing, because they are technically incompetent.
The savages are perfect technicians, and when I say that each society
masters its environment, that's not just an empty claim. They are
perfectly able to use all of the local resources to meet their needs.
Their techniques are very refined.
To take some American examples, from many South American
tribes, here are people who had an extremely refined technology in
chemistry, after all, for producing curare, for instance. Curare is
found in plants, in some creepers. Now a creeper is a creeper and
curare is a little bottle of poison you put on the points of arrows;
well, between the creeper and the little container of poison, there are
a whole lot of operations. You need to know a lot of chemistry. First,
you have to know what kind of creeper to use, what to mix it with ...
I don't see how anyone can say that the scientific knowledge of
Amazonian Indians was inferior to that of Europeans. Simply, it was
adapted to their needs.
In the great states, what are called the higher civilizations (a
meaningless expression, there is no higher and lower civilization,
it's just that for Europeans the good civilizations, the higher ones,
are those with a state, like the Incas and the Aztecs, and the others
were lower civilizations; that is, inferior because they had no
state), people are surprised that those savages didn't have the
wheel. That's absolutely not a lack, or a deficiency. It's even said
that Aztec children had little toys with wheels on them. Also, the
Aztecs sculpted round stones, they were perfectly aware of what a
circle was, then, and they were certainly capable of making a cir-
cle roll just as they made balls roll, since they had games played
with balls. Then why didn't they have wheels? Because they didn't
need them. When we broach these issues, I think we shouldn't

(52)
start with the question, "Why?" but from the question "What use
would chat have been?" People are su rprised, for example, chat the
Inca emp ire had a fabulous, incred ible road system. The Span iards
were amazed, they said, "We don't have the equivalent in Spain."
T he most educated of chem said chat it was like the Roman road
system. So they had a magnificent road system and no wheels!
That seems contradictory, but it's normal. What need did they
have for wheels? Wheels are mainly connected with the domesti-
cation of draught animals. T h ere were no tamable draught animals
in the Andes. The only animal susceptible of taming was the lama,
and it already had been, in face. But lamas can only carry li ght
weights, they won't pull more than twenty kilos, so there's no sense
in harnessing chem to chariots. There may definitely be roads and
no wheel. Conversely, when the savages see somethin g useful, they
take it. Actually, that's often the sign of the end: it's the story of
iron in America. The arrival of iron was a catastrophe. On the
other hand, when some So uth and N orth American societies
began to use horses, for a while that boosted chem, in a sense. Bue
one thing is sure, primitive societies solve the problems they
encounter. They always do. If not, it's simple, a society that doesn't
succeed in so lving its problems dies, it disappears.
Lets take the main properties of primitive societies; first, as we
saw at the beginning, a society is primitive provided it's small. I may
be too trapped in those demographic references, but I don't think
there's any so lution to the population problem. In western Europe,
which is rich and relatively sparsely populated in compariso n with
the Third World, things can contin ue for a while ... but what about
the others? I have the feeling chat for the first time in the history of
humanity, which has lasted for a good million years, for the first
time, what our favorite author said is no longer true. That author is

(53 )
Marx, when he said, "Huma nity only raises the problems it is able
to so lve." Here we have insoluble problems, including the problem
of population growth. I'm not competent, I may be wrong, but it
seems to me that the question of population growth, which is always
greater than the increase in food, introduces a gap, one that is
necessarily constantly widening. That's what we're seeing right now,
with the famine in the African Sahel. You will say, that's due to the
drought. Yes, of course, it hasn't rained for years, but there are other
problems. And then, above all , there's Bangladesh, India, and
Pakistan, where things are even worse, because there's no solution in
view. When you hear the ecologists, or the technocrats in the FAO,
or the C lub of Rome, say the same thing, that twenty years from
now 500 million people will be dying of hunger in Asia and India . ..
we're in a bad way, and there's no way out.
T hat's why, in my opinion, and that was where I started, and
where I will concl ude, I don't want to make the demographic ques-
tion the deus ex machina that explains everything, but I do believe
that it's a fundamental factor. For if you take it seriously, meaning
that the requisite for a society to be primitive, that is, without a
state- finally, a society where alienation is at a minimum and free-
dom is therefore maximal- if the requisite for all that is that it be
small, then why does a society cease to be small, first of all? It's the
growth of its population.
In fact, when there is a state, we notice the exact opposite of
what happens in primitive societies. We talked about war, earlier.
The state prevents war; the State prevents the state of war. Or at
least, the meaning of war changes completely in a society with a
state. The state prevents war in the domain where it has power, of
course. It can't tolerate war, civil war. It is there to maintain unity
among the people over whom it exerts power. But now, we're

(54 )
talking about demography: all states-we can say that it's probably
an inherent trait- all states support high birth rates. All states want
a virtually planned population increase. Well, all states support high
birth rates, they all want a larger population and some plan their
demography. In a sense the Inca emperors weren't at all far from
family planning, but in the sense of multiplying births by playing
on marriages and the quasi prohibition of bachelorhood. When
you're forbidden to be a bachelor you have to marry, and when
you're married the chances are you'll have children ...
All states necessarily promote high birth rates because the larger
the population, the more people there are to pay tributes and taxes,
and to work in production. The more producers you have, the
larger the masses to manipulate are, the greater the power is, and
the greater its wealth and strength. That's why we can also say that
the vocation of a state, of a state machine, not simply of the guy
who controls it at any given point (it's the very essence of the state
machine, I think), is to be doomed to escalation, to conquest. The
history of great empires and great despots is a story of ongoing
conquest, stopped only by another, equally strong state machine.
It's the only thing chat can stop it, except for savages, real ones who
don't know and above all, who don't want to know what a state is.
Strikingly, the expansion of the Incas stopped halfway up the
Andes, toward Amazonia, because that was where the reign of the
savages began, with communities-tribes-that had no intention
of paying tribute co a chief they didn't want. But barring chat, the
vocation of every state machine is to grow, and at the limit, co
become planetary.

But can "savages" come into existence in a society?

(55 )
If what you mea n by "savages" is the people we've been talking
about so far, people who say "down with chiefs!," they have always
ex isted! Only it's increasingly difficult to say that. Or rather, in my
opinion at least, the fate of present-day states, the ones we live in, is
to act in creasingly as states, so to speak. We mustn't be deceived by
appearances, or maybe even by the sincere intentions of someone like
G isca rd d'Estaing [pres ident at the time], a liberal with free- market
politics. Personally, I find G iscard d'Es taing more sympathetic than
Pompidou, of course. My reasonin g may be superficial, but actually I
was glad to see him throw out M arcellin , Druon and Royer, that
sinister threesome. But we mustn't delude ourselves, whatever the
good will, or not, of the guy who is temporarily at the head of the
state machine.
In all wes tern societi es, th e state mac hin e tends to act
in creas in gly as state, it co nstantly wants to ex tend its control,
whi ch is to say it becom es increas ingly authoritarian, and with the
underlying co nsent, at least for so me time, of the majority- what is
usually called the silent majority. T he sil ent majori ty is certainly
very equally present on the left and the right. I was struck by a survey
published in [the daily paper] l e Monde on people's attitudes toward
private property, and therefore toward a future socialist society in
which that would be an issue. Forty-seven per cent of the people
who were most attached to private property and who would defend
it staunchly voted communist. So I think we'll be goin g more and
mo re toward authoritarian state forms, because everyone wants
more authority. As soon as G iscard disappears for four hours because
he's off with a girlfriend somewhere, everyone panics: where is che
chi ef? H e has disappeared, there's no on e in command!
The state machine is go ing to turn into a sort of fascism, not
the fascist party kind, but an internalized fasci sm. When I talk

(56)
abo ut the state machine, I don't only mean the state apparatus (the
governme nt and the central state apparatus). There are lower levels
of machines, which are actual state and power-producing machines,
and which are in step with the central state machine, in spite of
appearances. I'm referring to political parties and trade unions,
mostly the CP [Communist Party] and the [Communist dominated]
CGT. We have to analyze the CP and the CGT (I'm leavi ng my own
field now, we aren't talking about savages any more); they have to be
analyzed as very important organs in the state mega-machine. I
mean that society, in its present condition, would have terrible
difficulty functioning if it didn't have that fa ntastic relay for its
power, acting as a stopper, and sometimes even to the point of abu-
sive power; that is, the CP and the CGT. You can't separate them:
they are forms produced by the same society, and there is actually a
deep structural complicity. I don't mean they call each other up
every night to ask, "so how did it go today?" T here's an underlying
structural complicity between Marchais and Seguy [heads of the CP
and CGT] and those who govern us. It's obvious. And after all, what
does any party want? It wants to occupy the seat of power, it's
already prepared to take over the machine.

I don 't have the impression that our society is increasingly coherent
and rational. That's a science fiction view, at the limit, which
depicts society as evolving toward some "Brave New World," or
"1984. "But I wonder to what extent we are experiencing the oppo-
site, a splitting up, a piecemeal juxtaposition of opposites that don't
come to anything, and which can't be explained either by references
to an apparatus in running order or as the development of a new
structure within society. Society is really falling to pieces. let's take
the example of schools, again: there is A lthusser's vision of schools as

(57)
an ideological apparatus, you've seen his paper... I have the feeling
that what we're saying doesn't refer exactly to the sarne theoretical
frarnework as yours.

I think our views are close, and I don't say that to play the radical-
socialist who brings differing views together artificially. It's
because there is a falling to pieces that there is more centralism: it
seems to me the two are completely connected. Contemporary
capitalism is visibly deteriorating, it functions on a day-to-day
basis. But it's because of chat deterioration, with explosions from
time to time, often on the fringes of the system, that the system
tends co be more systematic and authoritarian. What I said before
is not that the state is increasingly totalitarian, I said: the state
tends to act increasingly as state, it constantly wants to increase its
control. You'll say, if the state becomes everything we get totali-
tarianism. That's obvious. We can't completely exclude that risk,
in fact. But I think it's because there are more and more weaknesses,
fault lines, here and there, that there are more and more "buttresses";
that is, more state. The state can very well repossess itself of some
things, like abortion. Before, women weren't mistresses of them-
selves, of their body, as they say, because of the state, because the
state didn't allow it, because there were laws. If you don't respect
the law, you're an outlaw, and to be an outlaw means going on
trial and being sent to jail. Now women can control that problem,
but the state didn't capitulate. Before it cold them, "you can't,"
and now it tells them , "you can." But that wasn't a defeat for the
state machine. The law on abortion is a good thing, though it's
probably insufficient ... But we mustn't delude ourselves; it wasn't
a defeat for the state machine, or for bourgeois morality. The ini-
tiative came from above, even if it wasn't only from above, thanks

(58 )
to a number of organizations such as the MLAC [movement for
the liberation of abortion and contraception].

You can just look at the slogans: at first it was "free abortion" /freedom
ofchoice andfree ofcharge}, then it became "freedom ofabortion, reim-
bursed by the socialized medicine system. "

Yes, the socialized medicine system is the state!

(59 )
ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pierre Clastres (1934·-1977) was a F rench anthropologist and ethnologist


who in the wake of the events of Mfly '68, helped overturn anthropological
orthodoxy in t he 1970s. Hi s books include Society Against the State:
Essays in Political Anthropology, Chronicle ef the Guayaki Indians and
.11 rcheology of Violence.
"Clastres isn't refuting, he is asserting. What does he
assert? That a society against the state does not contain
'bits ofpower' as such, or 'power sequences,' susceptible of
becoming an embryonic state power. In doing so, he is
combating what I would call the prevailing Foucaldism.
s
Michel Foucault thesis about the existence ofmicropowers
has led people to see power everywhere-wrongly so. "

L'Anti-Mythes, a journal published in Caen, France,


by some ex-students, focused particularly on the history
of the political group Socialisme ou Barbarie and
organized a series of interviews with several members
viewed as representative of different aspects of the
group's activities: Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort,
Daniel Mo the and Henri Simon. L 'Anti-Mythes also
published this long interview with Pierre Clastres,
which has become a reference over the years. Simple
in its exposition, uncompromising on the content,
The Question of Power is a crucial introduction to
the ethnologist's thinking.

Semiotext(e)
ISBN: 978-1-58435-183-2