Society Against the State  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

La Société contre l'État (1974) (English: Society Against the State is a book by Pierre Clastres. In this book, Clastres criticizes both the evolutionist notion that the state would be the ultimate destiny of all societies, and the Rousseauian notion of man's natural state of innocence (the myth of the noble savage). Knowledge of power is innate in any society, thus the natural state for humans wanting to preserve autonomy is a society structured by a complex set of customs which actively avert the rise of despotic power. The state is seen as but a specific constellation of hierarchical power peculiar only to societies who have failed to maintain these mechanisms which prevent separation from happening. Thus, in the Guayaki tribes, the leader has only a representational role, being his people's spokesperson towards other tribes ("international relations"). If he abuses his authority, he may be violently removed by his people, and the institution of "spokesperson" is never allowed to transform itself into a separate institution of authority. Pierre Clastres' theory thus was an explicit criticism of Marxist theories of economic determinism, in that he considered an autonomous sphere of politics, which existed in stateless societies as the active conjuration of authority.

The essential question which Clastres sought to answer was: why would an individual in an egalitarian (e.g. foraging) society chose to subordinate himself to an authority? He considered the consequent rise of the state to be due to the power disparities that arise when religion credits a prophet or other medium with a direct knowledge of divine power which is unattainable by the bulk of society. It is this upsetting of the balance of power that engendered the inequality to be found in more highly structured societies, and not an initial economic disparity as argued by the Marxist school of thought.



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