Is It as Impossible to Build Jerusalem as It is to Escape Babylon? (Part Two)

(Part Two of Three)

An interview with Peter Harrison by GYRUS.

The late French anthropologist Pierre Clastres seems to be a big influence on ​your work, and I was interested to gather from your work that he seems to be influencing quite a bit of recent anthropology. His theories are a kind of subversion of the usual Hobbes vs. Rousseau dynamic, in that he valorises pre-state societies because of their penchant for violence — since he believes the structure of their violence resists the consolidation of power by a State, and thus preserves autonomy. How did his theories impact your thinking?

I have only read Clastres in very recent years but his work is pivotal to the perspectives I attempt to elaborate in the book. I am not sure that his writing is yet having an influence on modern anthropology in general terms, but it is significant that the Brazilian anthropologist, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, not only makes clear the key concepts that emerge from Clastres’ ethnology but has also endorsed Clastres’ rejection of the teleology of exchange as the basis of all human societal interaction — something that was, of course, effectively inaugurated by Marcel Mauss (which is evident if one follows Claude Lévi-Strauss’ elaborations rather than David Graeber’s attempt to escape the notion of the immature exchange relationship as the motor of pre-State human behaviour in his gamble on the critique of debt). The archaeologist Severin Fowles, has also, following Clastres, explored the centrifugal logic that appears to lie at the heart of ‘primitive’ society through his studies of violence in Puebloan societies.

It is by examining Clastres’ understanding of the violence in ‘primitive’ society that I have also been able to provide a perspective on the feud in non-State societies that abandons the summoning up of motives derived from the perspectives of economics and exchange, and which also abandons the notion that all societies must operate under the premise of social control. All these perspectives — economics (survivalism), exchange, and social control — are part of our modern-day logos and they are relentlessly and crudely employed to ‘understand’ all other social forms and peculiarities. So, scholars as varied as Fernand Braudel, Christopher Boehm, William Miller, and Yuval Noah Harari, feel able to use their modern Sherlock Holmesian magnifying glass to explain the motivations of non-State peoples from their own perspective of exchange, trade, social control, and ‘human nature’ — with no awareness, I contend, that their magnifying glass only reveals to them the ‘human’ story they are able to see. This does not mean that I am claiming to understand how non-State societies work, this is something I stress as being impossible. But I am claiming that if one takes the actual words and actions of non-State peoples seriously (as Viveiros de Castro does, for example), along with generating an awareness of how the way we live today impacts our view on everything, then there is the possibility of recognising that in other societies other things are going on.

But we can extend Clastres’ observations of the centrifugality of ‘primitive’ society, in which dependence in any shape or form, or at any level, is anathema, into an investigation into the problematic that exists within the interconnecting discourses of freedom, universality, and peace. What Clastres tells us, in perhaps a roundabout way, is that all political phenomena since the emergence of the State must always, if become reality, be made manifest as methods for managing the population — and that this necessary management naturally and unavoidably denies independence and what we understand as freedom. What I do with this vertiginous insight is to then simply reveal the impossibility of removing the State form in a mass society. This has implications for all political tendencies that claim to offer a way to dispense with the State and/or to institute a realm of freedom, as Marx terms it.

Have you found holes in Clastres’ model of pre-State societies relying on violence and feuding to keep social units small? Without suggesting that any particular form of contemporary foraging life is necessarily typical of early human life, Clastres’ case studies were in the Amazon, and cultures there can have very different dynamics to those in other areas, e.g. Inuit, San, or Hadza. Clastres seemed to make no effort to correlate his Amazonian findings with wider ethnography, which seems myopic for generating general theories. Also, what do you make of David Graeber and David Wengrow’s recent proposition, that seasonal gatherings played a crucial role in the origins of hierarchy?

No, I haven’t found ‘holes’ as such in Clastres’ intuitions in regard to the position of violence, feuding, or ‘war’ in non-State societies. What I have found is support for his conjectures in the work of diverse anthropologists who do not usually intend to promote such conclusions, or who leave significant questions hanging in the air, such as the question of why ‘tribal rivalries’ are the last ‘primitive predisposition’ that generates heat in certain Indigenous communities.

Perhaps if Clastres had lived longer he would have searched for and found evidence for his theories in studies of other societies. I have, of course, recklessly extrapolated his theory across the gamut of non-State societies across the world but, for me, in general, his perspective holds.

In regard to the work of David Graeber and David Wengrow, that you mention, I tend to think three things. Firstly, that there is an assumption based on radical Enlightenment thinking as we have inherited it in the West, particularly as expressed in the idea of communism (or ‘radical democracy,’ as the French economist and activist, Frédéric Lordon, terms it), that it is possible for a mass society to operate on the basis of egalitarianism and individual freedom. Secondly, that there is a deep desire amongst these types of scholars to find justification for their radical democratic views in past social organisation. Thirdly, that if one tries to use the categories of ‘egalitarianism’ or ‘freedom’ as descriptors for social organisation in non-State societies one is immediately skewing what those societies may actually be like in favour of the promotion of a teleological bias or political agenda.

This is where, for example, the very fine thinker and anthropologist R. Brian Ferguson takes a dubious route, I think, in his objection to Steven Pinker’s ‘Hobbesian’ judgement of non-State peoples (see Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature). Ferguson can’t ‘accept’ the violence of non-State societies, and therefore can’t connect this to their ‘autonomy and independence,’ because to do so would be to destabilise his (leftist) argument that it is the State that prevents peace and the universalising of good will (following, and adapting, Rousseau).

In fact, the State does facilitate peace through its strategy of assuming the monopoly of violence, as Max Weber indicated. It is interesting that most leftists around the world will currently be favourably comparing countries with strict gun laws to the present situation in the USA where, for historical reasons, the US government has never apparently quite understood the benefits for a State in more properly disarming the population.

Graeber and Wengrow, whose paper was presented in the same year as Brian Hayden’s similarly-themed book, The Power of Feasts: From Prehistory to the Present, but extended and published the following year, occupies the same territory in regard to pondering the origin of the State as did Étienne de La Boétie nearly 500 years ago. La Boétie described the establishment of the State as a misfortune caused by the phenomenon of tyrants or gangs taking control of society (‘by force or deception’) that was then ‘normalised’ by the population as it, slowly or quickly, accepted this new state of affairs. That is: the masses, ultimately, voluntarily, frustratingly and annoyingly, subjected themselves to servitude.

These are the twin myths that underlie radical leftist political discourse, or perhaps the existential angst at its core. The first one is that bad people gained control over others (or at least that unchecked power corrupts), at some point in the past, inaugurating a tradition of hierarchy and domination. The second one is that the retarded, or false, consciousness of the masses does not allow them to see that they contribute voluntarily to the misery that envelops their lives.

The radical leftist strategy to escape this situation is, therefore, to replace the government, or dispense with it, and to simultaneously — or at a later date — awaken the consciousnesses of the entirety of the masses.

On the other hand, in reference to how the State began and what Wengrow, Graeber, and Hayden propose, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, following and extending Clastres’ intuitions, have suggested that there is no evolution of the State and no one thing, such as fire, or the scattering of seeds, or the invention of pottery, or feasting, or the settlement of an alluvial valley, that initiates the inexorable rise of the State. Instead, they further deepen the mystery, but in another direction, by claiming that the State was always already there. This is how they rationalise that societies that were against the State, in Clastres’ terms, could exist when there was no discernible State in the area. This is also why, in their conception, the State was able to appear ‘all at once and fully armed.’

But their ‘solution’ to the question of the State is more a provocation than a simplification. The problem, as I see it, is that too much hocus pocus is being invested into what the State actually is. So much so, that the notion of the State becomes a mystery like the mystery of God. My proposal is that the State is simply the natural (necessarily managerial) solution to the fact of a large population — which is why, for example, the Russian Revolution, irrespective of whether it was a communist or a capitalist phenomenon, became what it always had to be: a managerial solution. The mystery, which is now, under these terms, much more prosaic than the mystery of the origin of the State, is simply how populations got too large.

But there is a spanner in the works of my argument concerning mass society, as I indicate in the book, and it is found in the example of Çatalhöyük as it has been interpreted by archaeology. This, apparently, was a large settlement of perhaps up to 8,000 people at its ‘height’ that existed for up to a thousand years, from about 6,500 BC, that yields no evidence in the archaeological record of any form of hierarchy. The phenomenon of Çatalhöyük is not only viewed as an egalitarian society by modern scholars, it is also viewed as a ‘warless’ one. But this makes me wonder about the motivations of the interpreters of Çatalhöyük. It is possible that Çatalhöyük might be used as a practical, historical example of the modern concepts of egalitarianism and individualism — as it has been used in the recent past in support of the claimed virtues of matriarchal society — in order to gain leverage within, and for radical democratic discourse. If Çatalhöyük is to be used as a proposal for moving present society forward, or as an example of how we might fix our problems, then it must be suspected that Çatalhöyük is being misunderstood, fabricated even, for employment within a modern political agenda.

Drawing on Eduardo Kohn’s work, you describe capitalism as the most effective system for rendering us ‘soul blind’. Could you outline this concept, as something from indigenous cultures which has relevance for understanding the modern world? I found the ‘perspectivism’ here to have interesting resonance with psychologist James Hillman’s use of the word ‘soul’.

Marx identified the concept of alienation as being a separation, or estrangement, from one’s labour. And for Marx the consistent ability to labour, to work purposefully and consciously, as opposed to instinctively, towards a pre-imagined goal, was the trait that distinguished humans from other animals. This means also that humans are able to be persuaded to work creatively, with vigour and passion, for the goals of others, or for some higher goal than the maintenance of daily survival. As long as they are able see some tiny benefit for themselves, which might be service to a higher cause, or even just simple survival, since working for the goal of others may be the only means of obtaining food. So, Marx’s definition of alienation was more specific than an ‘existential’ definition because it specified labour as the defining human characteristic. But he was also aware that the general conditions of capitalism made this alienation more acute and that this escalated estrangement of humans from immediately meaningful daily activity led to a sense of being a stranger in one’s own world, and not only for the working class. This estrangement (I want to write étranger-ment, to reference Camus, but this is not a word) afflicted all classes, even those classes that seemed to benefit from class society, since capitalism had, even by his own time, gained an autonomy of its own. Life is as meaningless [or better: as anti-human] for a cleaner as it is for the head of a large corporation. This is why Marx stated that all people under capitalism were proletarian.

When I discovered the idea of soul blindness in Eduardo Kohn’s book, How Forests Think, I was struck by it as another useful way of understanding the idea of alienation. The concept of soul blindness, as used by the Runa people described by Kohn, seems to me to be related to the widespread Indigenous view of the recently deceased as aimless and dangerous beings who must be treated with great care and respect after their passing to prevent them wreaking havoc on the living. In Kohn’s interpretation, to be soul blind is to have reached the ‘terminus of selfhood,’ and this terminus can be reached while still alive, when one loses one’s sense of self through illness or despair, or even when one just drifts off into an unfocussed daze, or, more profoundly, sinks into an indifference similar to — to reference Camus again — that described by the character Meursault, in L’Etranger.

There are some accounts of Indigenous people first encountering white people in which the white people are initially seen as ghosts, one is recorded by Lévi-Strauss for Vanuatu. Another is embedded in the popular Aboriginal history of the area I live in. On first contact the white people are immediately considered to be some kind of ghost because of their white skin. This may have something to do with practice of preserving the bodies of the dead. This involves scraping off the top layer of skin which, apparently, makes the body white. This practice is described by the anthropologist, Atholl Chase, in his reminisces of Cape York. But for me there is more to the defining of the white intruders as ghosts because of their white skin. These foreigners also act as if they are soul blind. They are like machines, working for a cause that is external to them. For the Indigenous people these strangers do not seem to have soul: they are unpredictable; dangerous; they don’t know who they are.

But it is the anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro who, I think, connects most clearly to the work of James Hillman on the notion of the soul. James Hillman uses the term soul but he does not mean a Christian soul and he is not ultimately meaning the mind. For him the soul is a form of mediation between events and the subject and, in this sense, it might be similar to Bourdieu’s conception of ‘disposition.’ For Viveiros de Castro, ‘A perspective is not a representation because representations are a property of the mind or spirit, whereas the point of view is located in the body.’ Thus, Amerindian philosophy, which Viveiros de Castro is here describing, perhaps prefigures Hillman’s notion that ‘soul’ is ‘a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself.’

To be continued…

Originally published in 2018 by Dreamflesh blog.


Peter Harrison wrote ‘The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control,’ and co-authored ‘Nihilist Communism: A Critique of Optimism in the Far Left.’ For work Harrison drives a bus.  Email: