Academic journal article Arena Journal

Society against the State as Society against Surplus

Academic journal article Arena Journal

Society against the State as Society against Surplus

Article excerpt

This contribution to the special issue of Arena Journal on the question of 'humanity: surplus to requirements' revisits the arguments of Pierre Clastres, a French anthropologist who studied with Claude Lévi-Strauss and died prematurely at the age of forty-three in a car accident.1 Clastres worked in the subfield of political anthropology and his main contributions to the literature were through a series of essays, collected under the titles Archaeology of Violence and Society against the State, which elaborated on the political formations of so-called 'primitive societies'.2 The term might now resonate as problematic, so it is important to note that Clastres did not use 'primitive societies' pejoratively, nor did he assume that such societies 'lack' technology, productive capability, or complex social formation such as the state. Instead, he was concerned to probe implicit assumptions about such societies, and to understand them ethnographically and according to their own terms. Clastres' insights, notably on surplus and society against the state, continue to be relevant to contemporary discussions on the global capitalist economy and the human condition.

For the purpose of this special issue, the presentation of Clastres' argument in this article begins with his idea of surplus. Generally defined, a surplus is more than what is needed. The Neolithic or Agricultural Revolution, which archaeologists suggest began around 10,000 BCE, is associated with the domestication of plants and animals and the inferred settlement of previously nomadic peoples. The intensification of production from settlement is thought to have created surplus products and goods, which radically altered the material base of populations and created conditions for accelerated population growth and the development of cities. This evolutionary narrative is in part picked up by Marx, who in his analyses of production in nineteenth-century Europe rightly observed that surplus production indicated alienated labour and power differentials between classes.

By taking up the idea of surplus, Clastres did not disagree with the archaeological records of the Neolithic Revolution, but he did question the evolutionary trajectory that was inferred in the progression from extensive hunter-gatherer nomadism to intensive agricultural sedentism. Similarly, he did not disagree with Marx's thought, which he wrote was 'a grandiose attempt (sometimes successful, sometimes failed) to reflect on the society of his time (western capitalism) and the history which brought it into being'.3 Rather, he seriously doubted Marxist thought, which he regarded as 'an ideology in service of politics'.4 Specifically, he took aim at Marxist anthropology for its uncritical application of Marxist thought to primitive societies through its argument that the economic base shaped social relations.5

Countering a definition of primitive societies as 'subsistence economies', which assumes an incapacity to fulfil productive agency, Clastres argued that primitive societies are in fact societies that refuse useless excess, exhibiting instead 'the determination to make productive activity agree with the satisfaction of needs. And nothing more'.6 Supporting this with ethnographic evidence, Clastres discussed how, when presented with metal tools, Amerindians wanted them 'not to produce more in the same time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter'.7 This was surprising to European observers, who deemed the Indians lazy for seeking to work less. Given the technological advantage of metal over stone axes and the ability to produce more in the same amount of time, why would the Amerindians not desire to maximise the production potential offered by technology? Because of the ramifications of such evidence - namely, questioning the assumed goal of productive intensity - these points are worthy of greater consideration.

Marshall Sahlins, in his work Stone Age Economics, presented ethnographic accounts from societies from West Africa to New Guinea to analyse how households sustain themselves. …

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