Pierre Clastre’s seminal work Society against the State marked a turning point in the history of political anthropology. But this founding piece has brought much more into social sciences. Underlying his ethnographic reflection on the culture and political organisation of South-American societies there is a particular epistemological scaffolding that buttresses his ethnographic work.
Foucault assertively recommended Clastres book (vid. Les mailles du pouvoir, Dits et Écrits, 1981: 1003), as he saw in the French anthropologist work a compelling new perspective on how power is exercised, far away from a liberal -and Marxist- understanding of power. Foucault acknowledges Clastres new conception of power as a technology, a conception that aims to overcome the privilege of the law and the prohibition, which ultimately dominated the ethnological work from Durkheim until Lévi-Strauss.
Clastres unravels the cultural and economic features of South American primitive communities so as to shine a light on what does it mean to live in society politically and without a state. One of the features he is interested in is the institution of chieftainship, which is central to understand the political organisation of these societies, and therefore of power. The chief needs to hold specific traits such as the capacity to moderate and act as a peacemaker, an attitude prone to generosity by means of sharing all his possessions, and communication skills so as to perform outstanding speeches.
However, Clastres is troubled because the institution of the chief does not obey the rules that one would imagine after reading Hobbes’ Leviathan. The indian chief is not endowed with real might, rather the chief is only a by-product of the tribe or community’s might. Clastres points towards the chief’s lack of authority. The tribe or community function is to negate the power of the chief.
This is why Clastres asks: «Just what is this power that is deprived of its own exercise? What is that defines the chief, since he lacks authority?» This is the initial riddle that remains in all its mystery and the one which anthropology should adventure to grasp politically:
From where does this institution without «substance» derive its strenght to endure? For what needs to be understood is the bizarre persistence of a «power» that is practically powerless, of a chieftainship without authority, of a function operating in a void.Pierre Clastres (1989 ), Society Against the State, New York: Zone Books. P. 29.