Ethnology Against the State: Anthropological Anarchy

koy • ahn • i • skaht • see
noun (from the Hopi Language)
1. life disintegrating
2. life out of balance
3. life in turmoil
4. crazy life
5. a state of life that calls for
another way of living.

The man
Of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys:
Power, like a desolating pestilence,
Pollutes whate'er it touches, and obedience,
Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
Makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame,
A mechanized automaton.
- Percy Bysshe Shelly (An Anarchist FAQ 2009)

There are very few anarchist anthropologists. Marxist theory seems to dominate, not only anthropology, but other academic disciplines as well. However, there is a small tradition of anarchist anthropology, although not officially named as such. Anarchist theory offers an evolutionary model based not on competition and survival of the strongest, but on mutual cooperation and reciprocity. Anarchist anthropology looks at egalitarian, stateless societies as desirable, natural, functioning systems. Simply put, anarchy works, otherwise it wouldn’t have made up 99.5% of human history (Azat 2000). In the Oxford English Dictionary, definition b. of anarchy is, “A theoretical social state in which there is no governing person or body of persons, but each individual has absolute liberty (without implication of disorder)” (“Anarchy” 2009). This theoretical social state was once a reality and it can be again. In an article called “Anarchism and Anthropology” anarchy is defined in Anarchy: The Journal of Desire Armed:

"The term anarchy comes from the Greek, and essentially means 'no ruler.' Anarchists are
people who reject all forms of government or coercive authority, all forms of hierarchy
and domination. They are therefore opposed to what the Mexican anarchist Flores Magon
called the 'sombre trinity' -- state, capital and the church. Anarchists are thus opposed to
both capitalism and to the state, as well as to all forms of religious authority. But
anarchists also seek to establish or bring about by varying means, a condition of anarchy,
that is, a decentralised society without coercive institutions, a society organised through a
federation of voluntary associations (“An Anarchist FAQ” 2009)."

According to Pierre Proudhon anarchy is “the absence of a master, of a sovereign” (An Anarchist FAQ 2009). Anarchist anthropology has something to offer the academy as a new theoretical approach and as a vehicle for social criticism. Today the capitalist state is encroaching on the way of life of many indigenous peoples who have lived in their way for hundreds or even thousands of years. Bakunin said of the state, “Any State, under pain of perishing and seeing itself devoured by neighbouring [sic] States, must tend towards complete power, and, having become powerful, it must embark on a career of conquest, so that it shall not be itself conquered; for two powers similar and at the same time foreign to each other could not co-exist without trying to destroy each other. Whoever says conquest, says conquered peoples, enslaved and in bondage, under whatever form or name it may be” (1950). We see this process working itself out today with globalization and its destruction of indigenous cultures. Through the work of anthropologists with these peoples an alternative to the capitalist state can emerge. Throughout 99% of human history stateless, egalitarian societies existed (Azat 2000). Some theorists describe these societies as anarchist. I will now explain what is meant by anarchism. I will first describe what anarchism is not. It is not chaos, and it is not the state. Errico Malatesta writes, “[S]ince it was thought that government was necessary and that without government there could only be disorder and confusion, it was natural and logical that anarchy, which means absence of government, should sound like absence of order” (An Anarchist FAQ 2009). This is an essentially flawed premise steeped in “society-centrism.” “Society-centrism” is the idea that dominant interpretations of the state are essentially biased toward a pro-state point of view. This idea was purported by the sociologist Theda Skocpol (Barkey and Parikh 1991). She points to the state as a “central explanatory variable.” This theory describes the state as an actor with
its own goals. This actor is completely outside society.

According to Badie & Birnbaum, the state is “a unique social invention devised to solve the specific crises of the western European societies at a particular point in their development” (Barkey and Parikh 1991: 529). Clearly the state did not originate in Western Europe, but the idea that a state is formed out of crisis is a valid interpretation of the origins of the state. Robert Paul Wolff describes a Weberian notion of the state in In Defense of Anarchism. He writes, “The state is a group of persons who have and exercise supreme authority within a given territory. Strictly, we should say that a state is a group of persons who have supreme authority within a given territory or over a certain
population” [italics his] (1970: 3).

Anarchism is also not Marxism. Anarchism is concerned, not with advancing one individual to achieve political power, but with operating on anarchist principles. Anarchists define themselves by what they believe, i.e.: anarcho-syndicalists, libertarian-socialists, green-anarchists etc., and not who they follow, i.e.: Leninists, Maoists, Trotskyites etc. (Graeber 2004). Marxism also involves state level political organization, whereas anarchism takes a much smaller-scale form.

Anarchism, according to anthropologist David Graeber consists of five principles: autonomy, voluntary association, self-organization, mutual aid and direct democracy (2004:2). Many of what have until recently been called “primitive” societies have adhered to these principles. I will focus on reciprocity as an economic concept, or mutual aid, and non-coercive political power, or
direct democracy, for this essay.

According to the Yorkshire Anarchist Federation, “Mutual aid is a concept of human interaction that comes from Peter Kropotkin. It is based on the idea that animals, including humans, can survive better and in harmony if they work together to achieve a common purpose” (“Jargon Buster” 2009). The OED defines it as, “Support or assistance given and reciprocated (in later use esp. as a social or political mechanism)” (OED 2009). Direct democracy has been defined as, “A system in which people in a political community come together in a forum to make policy decisions themselves, with no intervening institution or officials” (“Democracy and Citizenship >>Glossary” 2009). Normally, the anarchist organizing principle for such a forum is consensus. Consensus has been defined as “agreement in the judgment or opinion reached by a group as a whole” (“Consensus” 2009). The consensus-model of direct democracy, however, does not necessitate that everyone have oneness of opinion. On the contrary, differences of opinion are welcome, but usually a compromise

can be made that everyone can live with.

The Darwinian evolutionary model purports that survival of the fittest is the order of the day for
the development of species. This has been interpreted in different ways. One example is social Darwinism. T. R. Malthus’ Essays on Population influenced Darwin and established the idea that “on the whole, the best live” (Claeys 2000: 223). Darwin’s theories have been used to back up individualist as well as collectivist politics. Herbert Spencer actually coined the term “survival of the fittest” (Claeys 2000). This term has been extrapolated to “might is right” and used by capitalists and statists to justify their exploitation of socio-economically weaker, or “less fit” peoples. Anarchist anthropologists and biologists have denounced this theory.

The anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown or “Anarchy Brown,” as he was called in his school days was one such scientist. He studied kin relationships in South Africa and found that joking was one way to diffuse potentially disruptive behavior. He wrote, “The show of hostility, the perpetual disrespect, is a continual expression of that social disjunction which is an essential part of the whole structural situation, but over which, without destroying or even weakening it, there is provided the social conjunction of friendliness and mutual aid” (Perry 1975: 63). He got the term mutual aid from Peter Kropotkin, an anarchist who wrote during the early half of the 20th century, around the time that Radcliffe-Brown was a student at Trinity College. Kropotkin wrote in his book Mutual Aid on the subject of human societies as well as animal social organization and found their history to be one of cooperation. This cooperation, according to Kropotkin, gave these species evolutionary advantage. Kropotkin writes:

"As soon as we study animals -- not in laboratories and museums only, but in the forest
and the prairie, in the steppe and the mountains -- we at once perceive that though there is
an immense amount of warfare and extermination going on amidst various species, and
especially amidst various classes of animals, there is, at the same time, as much, or
perhaps even more, of mutual support, mutual aid, and mutual defence [sic] amidst
animals belonging to the same species or, at least, to the same society (1902)."

He goes on to state, “The animal species, in which individual struggle has been reduced to its narrowest limits, and the practice of mutual aidhas attained the greatest development, are invariably the most numerous, the most prosperous, and the most open to further progress” (1902). He cites a study done by a Russian zoologist by the name of Kessler in which Kessler concludes that “All classes of animals, especially the higher ones, practise [sic] mutual aid” using empirical evidence collected from burying beetles, birds and mammalia (Kropotkin 1902). Humans are no exception. Kropotkin states, “It is evident that it would be quite contrary to all that we know of nature if men were an exception to so general a rule: if a creature so defenceless [sic] as man was at his beginnings should have found his protection and his way to progress, not in mutual support, like other animals, but in a reckless competition for personal advantages, with no regard to the
interests of the species.” (1902).

Radcliffe-Brown applied these concepts to his ethnological and ethnographic work. He wrote, “A social relation does not result from a similarity of interests, but rests either on the mutual interest of persons in one another, or on one or more common interests, or on a combination of both of these” (Perry 1975: 63). Radcliffe-Brown also proposed that the primary factor in the maintenance of society is not governmental pressure, but social pressure. He writes, “…what is called conscience is thus in the widest sense the reflex in the individual of the sanctions of society” (Perry
1975: 63). This means that the skeptical analysis of anarchism, that people would just kill each other, is wrong. Social pressure, instead of coercive pressure would enforce the norms and values of society. The difference between coercive pressure and social pressure is akin to the difference between the two kinds of law described by Roderick Long: “Law may be subdivided into voluntary and coercive law, depending on the means whereby compliance is secured. Voluntary law, as the name implies, relies solely on voluntary means, such as social pressure, boycotts, and the like, in order to secure compliance with the results of adjudication. Coercive law, on the other hand, relies at least in part on force and threats of force” (Long 1994). Thus, the inherent violence of the state can be illustrated. Long is not an anarchist, in fact he advocates laissez-faire capitalism, but his principle still applies.

Other anthropologists have taken the idea of reciprocity further. The French anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote on gift-giving economy in his book The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. In it he writes, “In Scandinavian civilization, and in a good number of others, exchanges and contracts take place in the form of presents; in theory these are voluntary, in reality they are given and reciprocated obligatorily” (1950: 3). He describes the process of gift giving as potlatch, using the Chinook term. In the Maori culture all goods possess a spiritual power that is exchanged along with the gift. This spiritual power is called hau and the physical gift is called tonga. A Maori juridical expert explains it best:

"The tonga and all gods termed strictly personal possess a hau, a spiritual power. You give me one of them, and I pass it on to a third party; he gives another to me inturn, because he is impelled to do so by the hau my present possesses. I for my part, am obliged to give you that thing because I must return to you what is in reality the effect of the hau of your tonga (Mauss 1950: 11)."

This system of reciprocity is an alternative to the system of capitalist exchange. In his conclusion Mauss is very optimistic about the elevation of the social over the individual. He writes, “The brutish pursuit of individual ends is harmful to the ends and the peace of all, to the rhythm of their work and joys – and rebounds on the individual himself” (1950: 77). He then critiques capitalism saying that men have not been machines for very long, exchanging their labor for less than it is really worth. He says that the worker expects to be fairly rewarded for his efforts, and that the individualistic type of economy does not do this. He states that there is self interest in gift giving, but it is only self interest in the sense that what is good for the whole is good for the individual (Mauss 1950). This elevation of the social over the individual is an essential element of anarchist thought. The voluntary nature of gift giving maintains an economy that is not coercive.

Another French anthropologist, Pierre Clastres, wrote about the institution of the chief and his role in mutual aid and gift giving. In his book Society Against the State he writes that the chief in so-called “Indian” societies is required to give most of what he has for the greater good of the community. There are no societies without political power, but there is a difference between coercive power and non-coercive power. He states, “The model of coercive power is adopted… only in exceptional circumstances when the group faces an external threat” (Clastres 1987: 30). Normal civil power is based on consensus and its function is pacification. The chief exists to maintain the peace and harmony of the group (Clastres 1987). The chief must also give of his belongings to help the greater good of the community. Therefore, greed and power are incompatible (Mauss 1987). In this way the chief is not so much a ruler, but a servant of the people.

This is similar to David Graeber’s concept of counterpower. Counterpower, according to Graeber, “stands guard over what are seen as certain frightening possibilities within the society itself: notably against the emergence of systematic forms of political or economic dominance” (2004: 35). He states that all societies are to some extent at war with themselves and this war is the playing out of the relationship between power and counterpower. He gives the example of Joanna Overing’s work with the Piaroa, who have what she describes as an anarchist society. However, despite their emphasis on egalitarianism and simultaneous individual autonomy they insist that their culture was the creation of an evil god. They believe that their war is one that plays itself out in the cosmos where wizards have to fend off evil spirits who seek to gain power (Graeber 2004). Thus, counterpower is imagined as a spiritual concept. Freedom is a constant struggle between power and counterpower, or between the individual and the evil spirits.

The argument is also influenced by Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemony and counter-hegemony. Gramsci argues that there are two factors in society: 1)the state and 2) civil society. The state is a coercive apparatus represented by dictatorship + hegemony. Civil society is dominated by the hegemony of the state, or the ruling class, and thus legitimates the state (Mastroianni 2002). However, there is another force, that of counter-hegemony, that exists in the realm of the proletariat. This kind of hegemony exists to subvert the state. This view differs from the anarchist view, however. Gramsci says that a permanent proletarian hegemony must exist to oust the bourgeois, which he demonizes (Pozo 2007). In the anarchist paradigm there is a constant interplay between power and counterpower that must perpetually exist, without one winning over the other. Gramsci’s concept of hegemony, therefore, is flawed in that he believes that a hegemony of the proletariat will ultimately lead to a successful egalitarian revolution. Put another way, a “dictatorship of the proletariat” is necessary for everyone to have an equitable share. This is contradictory.

Clastres states, “It is in the nature of primitive society to know that violence is the essence of power. Deeply rooted in that knowledge is the concern to constantly keep power apart from the institution of power, command apart from the chief” (1987: 154). In his conclusion he writes, “…what the Savages exhibit is the continual effort to prevent chiefs from being chiefs, the refusal of unification,
the endeavor to exorcise the One, the State” (1987: 218) He also describes marriage relationships as the way of establishing kinship ties to avoid warfare in “Indian” societies. Each community has a certain level of autonomy, but they are also interconnected through the process of exogamy.
The crux of his argument is that the assumption that primitive societies lack something is essentially wrong. He opposes the unilinear evolutionary notion that primitive societies are in an embryonic state and that the state is in the adult phase (Clastres 1987). Thus, the unilinear evolutionary model is wrong. There are many things that are desirable about so-called primitive society that we can learn from.

Finally, Marshall Sahlins writings in his book Stone Age Economics have fueled neo-primitivist critiques of society, although he never associated himself with the neo-primitivist movement. Sometimes called “green-anarchism,” neo-primitivism asserts that agriculture was the beginning of the downfall of society. John Zerzan is one proponent of “green-anarchy.” He points to the fact that
it seems that for about two and a half million years there was little technological development. He writes, “It strikes me as very plausible that intelligence, informed by the success and satisfaction of a
gatherer-hunter existence, is the very reason for the pronounced absence of ‘progress’” (Zerzan). Zerzan writes of Sahlins’ work, “A nearly complete reversal in anthropological orthodoxy has come about, with important implications. Now we can see that life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health. This was our human nature, for a couple of million years, prior to enslavement by priests, kings, and bosses” (Zerzan).

In the opening chapter of Stone Age Economics Sahlins argues that capitalism is built around scarcity, but that Neolithic cultures had economies based on abundance. Perhaps his most surprising claim is that the average amount of time spent in the procuring of food for the Bushmen of Africa was about four to five hours a day. The rest of their time is spent in leisure and sleep activities (Sahlins 1972). This shows how inefficient capitalism is and how much more “affluent” hunter-gatherers were. Affluence is described by Sahlins as the ability to have one’s needs fulfilled. When
you eliminate the need for useless commodities that has been manufactured by capitalist interests, then your needs are more easily met. Anarchists believe in a system based on egalitarian principles and reject the capitalist claim of scarcity.

As we’ve seen from the anthropologists mentioned above, anthropologists have taken as much from anarchists as anarchists have taken from anthropologists. Although anarchist-anthropology is not yet an established theoretical framework, “fragments,” as Graeber calls them, are there. After all, it can be said that 99.5% of human history has been anarchy, or society without inequality and a State (Azat 2000). The origins of authority and inequality are unclear, but an anarchist-archaeology may be able to help answer this question. One hypothesis is that hierarchy develops when we see people proclaiming that there is one supreme God and that they are the only ones who can communicate with God. This gives them transcendent power, which gives an apparent legitimacy to their claim to authority (“Absolute” 1997). John Zerzan reflects this thesis when he writes, “When specialists alone claim access to such perceptual heights as may have once been communal, further backward moves in division of labor are facilitated or enhanced. The way back to bliss through ritual is a virtually universal mythic theme, promising thedissolution of measurable time, among other joys. This theme of ritual points to an absence that it falsely claims to fill, as does symbolic culture in general” (Zerzan). This “regression” is what the “society-centric” paradigm calls “progress.”

There are anarchists in the academy today. The linguist Noam Chomsky, archaeologist Theresa Kintz as well as David Graeber, mentioned above, are three prominent anarchist academics. However, many academics fear openly espousing anarchist rhetoric, for fear of repercussions. Yale did not renew David Graeber’s contract in 2005, possibly for political reasons (“David” 2009). For now anarchist theoretical discourse is not sanctioned by the academy, even though anarchism has a lot to offer it. Theresa Kintz states:

"As far as what a revolutionary perspective has to offer archaeology, well, a sense of purpose. It could/should be so much more than elites satisfying the intellectual curiosity of other elites. Radical archaeologists are now pushing the discipline to acknowledge the role our narratives play in society, highlighting the role of the past, the politics of the past, in the present. I’ve always been at odds with archaeology over its lack of self-awareness, its reluctance to make our work relevant in the real world. It’s funny, my fellow archaeologists see me as a radical green anarchist, someone who comes
to do archaeology with an overtly political agenda, an outsider who has infiltrated the ivory tower, really. On the other side, because I study and work in the profession, my comrades the radicals will often see me as part of an academic establishment that defends the status quo, sort of an outsider here, too. I try to walk a fine line in order to bring these two camps together as I do see they can help each other, even if I get bashed from both sides (“Artifacts”)."

Thus, there is distrust of academia coming from the anarchist community as well as distrust of anarchism coming from the academic community. However Theresa Kintz says, “So yes, I do believe the study of the past, through archaeology, has the potential to enlighten and provoke thought, even action, and I insist this doesn’t require an academic setting. It is the core idea of learning as much as one can about the world you live in that’s important to promote” (“Artifacts”) . There is the possibility of rapprochement between anarchism and academia, but until then anarchism will remain a rouge theory that is marginalized by the academy. 

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