Peter Harrison’s book The Freedom of Things: An Ethnology of Control is a challenging education in the anthropology of political organisation — from the nature of pre-state societies to the seemingly interminable pitfalls of modern revolutionary movements. I lack Peter’s deep immersion in political theory and activism, but we share a great deal of reference points and areas of interest — especially the work of anarchist anthropologist Pierre Clastres, and the relevance of indigenous societies to our modern dilemmas. Peter’s insistence in The Freedom of Things on avoiding ‘solutionism’ is a tough sell in these urgent times; but sympathetic internal critiques of leftism seem essential these days, despite (or sometimes because of) the rabid attacks on egalitarian politics from reactionary circles. We conducted this email via interview during late 2017 and early 2018.
The Freedom of Things was the first work of yours I’ve encountered. It mentions your previous book, Nihilist Communism (2003), on the back cover. Could you describe that project briefly? ‘Nihilism’, especially, is a word with a lot of scope and potential nuance. How does it intersect with communism for you, and what in the tradition of nihilism do you draw on?
The book, Nihilist Communism, was, of course, a product of its time. It was the result of our involvement in, and observations of, the trajectory towards what has been termed the downturn in class struggle that apparently wended its way through the seventies, eighties and nineties. Very little of it was, in fact, written by me. For us, this trajectory towards, and into, downturn had specific implications for those who claim to advocate class struggle as a means of advancing the ‘revolutionary’ overthrow of things as they are, by which I mean, here, capitalism.
Two problems set us thinking. The first was that whatever one did beyond or before the momentary cessation of work, in the workplace and its wider environment, only helped refine capitalism. The second problem lay in the question of what class consciousness actually was, and how ‘revolutionary’ consciousness might, or might not, be formed.
By nihilism we simply meant not believing in communism. We soon became aware that the title of the book, Nihilist Communism, was difficult and absurd, which then became a good reason to keep it. We had no connection with any ‘tradition of nihilism,’ and so do not draw on anything in that tradition, and we have never described ourselves as nihilists. We have more of a connection with Monty Python. There is no such thing as ‘nihilist communism’. We did not think that communism was a matter of belief, and we thought that it could only emerge at a different level to the one of human consciousness. We perceived the dogma of hope and the required faith of militants that is essential to ‘revolutionary’ praxis as a kind of summoning of a Russell’s Teapot circling the Sun between Earth and Mars.
People such as John Gray (Black Mass) have made much of communism’s inheritance from Christianity. Do you think (as Gray does) that the religious streak in humans is irreducible, to be managed rather than eradicated?
I have not read Black Mass, so cannot comment on that, though I have read his Straw Dogs, which, for me, was strangely weightless and appeared to wind up as a programme for self-help that perhaps anticipated the current vogue for Seneca. I am not engaged in any modern struggle against religion, and am not interested in the atheist debunking of religion, or attempting to manage or eradicate any traits or tendencies within humans.
Religion, as we know it, is a product of, and effect of living within a State. As is utopianism. This is the reason it is possible to see interesting similarities between the chronicle of Christianity and the record of communism — a movement that ended, and must always end, in Stalinism: a consciousness-raising (Jesus said, ‘I initially bring not peace but division’), empire-building, recruiting racket, that culminates, if ‘successful,’ in controlling the state. Jesus is a product of the state, as is Lenin, as is Bakunin, as you and I are.
The only evidence I can find for prophets (people who are ‘revolutionary’ or anti current society) perhaps existing outside states, or just prior, is the example of the karai prophets amongst the Amazonian Tupi-Guarani written up by the anthropologist Pierre Clastres in Archeology of Violence.
But the phenomenon of the karai was founded on pressures on that society (such as population growth and the emergence of powerful chieftains) to form a state.
The karai emerged in a society he describes as changing for the worse, becoming directed by ‘social division’ and ‘inequality.’ The karai saw the way things were as evil and wanted to go to a better world, toward where the sun rises, and they found that their ideas resonated with others. They took ten thousand people with them eastwards at the beginning of the 16th century, and ten years later, unable to traverse the obstacle of the sea, only three hundred were left alive to limp into Spanish occupied Peru. As Clastres elaborates in Society Against the State, however, this prophetic movement, triggered by the imminence of a state forming, ‘managed to carry out the whole [unifying] “program” of the chiefs with a single stroke.’
Do you ever think that ‘giving up hope’ is a luxury that some can’t afford? Or is that a misunderstanding of your rejection of ‘hope’?
My critique of hope is not set within some kind of Stoic framework. No matter what the Stoics and others might say it is, in my opinion, next to impossible to relinquish hope, or anticipation, or expectancy, in general terms, if one lives in a mass society of complex dependence, as we do, without sinking into absolute despair.
My critique of hope is aimed directly at its use as a dogma within radical left (by this term I mean to include anarchist and left communist) discourse. The radical left sledgehammer of hope serves not only to mirror the logos of progress, which in turn validates civilisation, it also, ironically, destabilises the materialist notion that it is the escalation of productive forces that creates the necessary conditions for communism (which is set within the historical materialist contention from Marx that while people make history, they make it not of their own choosing). The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, unwittingly it would seem, encapsulates this dilemma at the heart of Marxian discourse — its vacillation between materialism and idealism, between materialism and a moral imperative, utilitarianism, and ideology — when he writes that, in order for people to rebel they need to have acquired a ‘basic belief and hope in the future.’ How will they acquire this crucial element needed for the apparent transformation of society? They will acquire it by taking to heart the tenets of progress and civilisation and by allowing their consciousness to be raised, or awoken, by the evangelists of the radical left. The materialism contained in the materialist conception of history (historical materialism) is here abandoned in favour of recruitment, conversion, and building up the numbers of believers. Marx has bequeathed the radical left a contradiction that neither he nor his followers have been able to resolve without descending into vague and mystical articulations and, as I noted above, conjuring up a Russell’s Teapot, to be used as a focus for belief and a truncheon to be used on the doubters, somewhere out there in space.
There is a plethora of books that have come out in recent years that warn readers of our impending doom. But they all begin and end with the perspective that there is hope, that people will be able to find a way out of these global difficulties. These books offer, if not properly thought-out solutions to our malaise at least an indication of the arenas in which solutions may be found or generated. What purpose does an underlying faith that everything will be OK have for these writers? And what effect does it have on their readers? I want someone to write a book in this vein that is not underpinned by faith in the future. I want to hear the author being interviewed on the radio and answering the question: ‘So, do you have any ideas how we can get ourselves out of this mess?’ with, ‘No, I have no idea. My thought is that we are fucked.’ People may find my view here irksome, but if we want people to think for themselves then maybe we should stop doing their thinking for them.
I wrote in my review of The Freedom of Things that your position seemed to be suspended between accelerationism and primitivism. What you’ve said there (the critique of civilisation and progress) obviously pushes things closer to primitivism — though of course, dubious as it is, this is still a ‘solution’, so presumably not something you’re that interested in. I don’t really know Jacques Camatte’s work, but I’m aware that his pessimism about the scope for transforming or overthrowing capitalism led him to become an inspiration for both accelerationism and anarcho-primitivism. Could you say a bit about this odd juxtaposition, about Camatte’s significance, and your relationship to these two divergent currents flowing from his work?
After the elusive Sam Moss, and the text The Impotence of the Revolutionary Group, it was Jacques Camatte who perhaps best exposed the pitfalls of political organisation, the praxis of ‘repressive consciousness’ in regard to the myth of proletarian virtue, and the racket that all political groups become. However, Camatte, despite his departure from Marx, but still following his mentor, Amadeo Bordiga, was unable to eradicate all his magical thinking.
Thus, in 1972, he was able to write, or, better, unable not to write: ‘One awaits the revolution in vain, for it is already underway.’ Which is simply a restating of Marx’s own magical thinking: ‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’
For this reason, I take the perception of Camatte as a pessimist to be directly related not to pessimism about ‘revolution’ but pessimism about ‘revolutionary’ groups and ‘revolutionary’ evangelism. Camatte endeavours to deflate the self-aggrandising postures of ‘revolutionaries’ and their groups, and for this he is, naturally, to be spurned and dismissed by them. It does not feel nice when someone suggests that what you are doing is meaningless and counter-productive.
The left accelerationists share with Camatte a desire to see the emergence of a human community (don’t we all?), and they have both abandoned the Marxian perspective which states that capitalism will force conditions to such an extent that the proletariat will revolt and save humanity. Camatte still hangs on to the idea of revolt, but claims that it cannot be a revolt of the domesticated proletarians as proletarians, but must be a revolt of the human being against its domestication. Camatte replaces ‘the proletarian’ as the agent of revolution with ‘the human.’
Left accelerationists, if I have understood them correctly, agree with Camatte that capital has ‘domesticated’ human beings, but they disagree with Camatte’s notion that only a total revolt, based not on class, but on a visceral human response to their domestication, will bring about the human community. The accelerationists suggest that the human community can only come about through, not against, capitalism. It will emerge in post-capitalism. It is contended that present-day capitalism is holding back socio-technical advance and that it would be beneficial to have a movement demanding that limits on socio-technical progress should be challenged and removed. This strategy, ironically perhaps, reminds me of the Gramsci-influenced ‘long march through the institutions.’
Anarcho-primitivists, if I understand them correctly — and I presume we are talking about the folk around the journal Fifth Estate? — liked Camatte as filtered through the work of Fredy Perlman and John Zerzan because there was a shared critique of civilisation that differed to Marx’s. Marx effectively insisted that civilisation, and capitalism, was necessary for the accomplishment of global communism. This is despite Marx’s late recognition that the Russian mir system might be a means of skipping the capitalist period of proletarian misfortune. The anarcho-primitivists argued at that time, like good economic determinists, that it was the domestication of plants and animals, which process also served to domesticate humans (see also, Yuval Noah Harari and Rousseau, for example), that led to the rise of the state.
The anarcho-primitivist ‘programme,’ however, offers nothing else but a continuation of the consciousness-raising racket, and they appear, in my reading, to be as patronising and misguided, or teleological, about the conditions extant within non-state societies as the standard civilizational narrative. ‘Hunter-gatherer’ societies are not ‘egalitarian’ or ‘anarchic.’ These are radical Enlightenment terms and perspectives. Neither do they practice ‘social control.’ Like all ‘anti-statists’ the anarcho-primitivists misunderstand the simplicity of what the state actually is: a necessary managerial solution for a large population.
Therefore, like previous attempts to get rid of the state, they will simply be forced to establish a transitional state and, instead of a red terror, theirs will be an anarcho-primitivist terror. Interestingly, the accelerationists might avoid the extended bloodbath if successful, since by their method we would achieve our humanity in symbiosis with productive machines.
So, yes, I was intrigued that you seemed to position my approach in the book as being somewhere between accelerationism and primitivism.
I think what I was getting at by placing you ‘between’ accelerationism and primitivism was less a comparison of positions (since you don’t offer a position in the sense of a programme for action) and more a sense that you share with them a mutual point of departure: the inescapability of capitalism in terms of classic Marxism. Only you seem to linger at and deepen this point, rather than depart at right angles towards an apparently radical new position.
Yes, although there appears to be a shared recognition that ‘classic Marxism’ does not offer an escape, my critique of the radical left is made in an attempt to show that these theorists (for example, the accelerationists, or the anarcho-primitivists, as well as all the rest) have not gone deep enough into their own praxis in order to reveal the character of Marxism that they have internalised. This character has immense power because it is the standard civilisational, or statist, discourse, and it is this that prevents them from making a more radical intellectual break. Whether this break, that I indicate the possibility of, has any value, apart from merely serving as an easily-dismissed objection to the continuation of ambiguous, deceitful, and self-defeating theory, is another matter.
For me, now, Marxism is another capitalist, or managerial, project, based, as it is, on the productivist ethos developed within state society in which the difference between humans and other animals — what makes humans apparently special — is the assumption that ‘the human’ is the labouring beast. The radical left (accelerationists, anarcho-primitivists, left communists, anarchists, communisers, etc,) have been unable to critique the productivist ethos effectively, despite all their recent mystical exploration of the value form, since they are, like everyone else, ensnared in an economistic and survivalist view that universalises the motivations of the human being over vast periods of time and through different epochs or social forms. While it is possible to begin to recognise the economistic, survivalist, and productivist essence of our logos (as Max Weber did in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), which apparently informs us of what human beings are, and to then use this recognition to point out myopias across cultural, intellectual, and academic discourse, it is not possible to use this critique (or any critique) to ‘leave this world’ or create another.
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 Lordan, 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 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.’ (Viveiros de Castro, Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere…, 2012, p. 112). 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.’
You discuss near the end of The Freedom of Things the problems — perhaps the impossibility — of modern culture being able to really learn anything from Indigenous cultures. What are the problems involved, and what is the significance of these cultures to us if we can’t learn anything from them?
I guess I am saying that while we can learn things from a comparison of cultures we are unable to use that ‘knowledge’ to change anything effectively, or ‘for the better,’ whether we are ‘Western’ or ‘Indigenous.’ Although there is perhaps one thing we can do for ‘uncontacted’ peoples… and that is to try to make sure they are left alone by everyone. There is a small island off India inhabited by people named by India as the Sentinelese. There is an iconic photo of one of these people firing an arrow at an Indian coastguard helicopter flying over, after the 2004 tsunami in the region — the photo is taken from the helicopter. There have been a few instances of recorded contact with outsiders since the 1880s, but most have proved hostile. Apparently, the Indian government tried to encourage reciprocal relations with these people in the 1990s, depositing gifts and such. But the people began repelling them and the government gave up visiting because they became relentlessly hostile. Elements within the authorities also questioned whether these people needed to be investigated or ‘protected’ by India since they were clearly very healthy and wholly self-sufficient. Survival International has a campaign demanding these people be left alone, and the Indian government has stated that no further contact attempts will be made.
I think one can imagine that these people are aware of the danger posed by foreign intruders, and this is perhaps tied in with the traditional maintenance of ‘autonomy’ through general enmity, or vengeance, as I have explored in the book. Of course, they are right to resist foreign intrusion because we all know how their integration with the Indian, or any, State will end. These people, and others in a similar position, are for me, and romantically speaking, the last humans. The best thing we could do for them, as people who have no perspective beyond that of the economy, is to try to make sure that these peoples remain isolated and undisturbed. Anthropologists who go there to seek ‘the original human’ are poisonous idiots. Apparently, the documentary film director of one of these anthropological expeditions in the 1970s was shot in the leg while in their boat, just off the beach, with a two-and-a-half metre long arrow. We cannot live as they live; we cannot create a movement to try to live as they live; and once they are dragged into our world they are forever banished from their past life.
In the last part of the book we investigate the notion of knowledge as comprehended in Western and recent Indigenous discourse. The usual binary is conceptualised as Western knowledge systems versus Indigenous knowledge systems. But anthropological work, as done by anthropologists such as Paul Nadasdy for the Yukon region, indicates that the conception of a ‘knowledge system’ for either culture is a misleading approach to understanding what is really going on. By adopting the idea of knowledge systems Indigenous peoples are able to construct a possible reconciliation and a joint ‘going forward’ between the two broad cultures. And this is exactly the gloss that is put on the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge within Western science or economic practice. But there appears to be a slowly growing awareness that the combining of knowledge systems does not do what it promises.
The inclusion of Indigenous knowledge (cultivation of plants, for example, or the sustaining of fauna) within Western knowledge (how to farm, for example) is part of the process of struggle between two entirely different ways of living. And it is not possible, if we know anything about capitalism or the imperatives of States, for both ways of living to co-exist. The, often feigned and deceitful, inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and practice within Western science is simply part of the process of the final eradication of Indigenous ways of living.
The ‘West’ prides itself on its apparent generation of knowledge, and its ability to spread enlightenment. But knowledge and enlightenment are fantasy concepts used to justify and promote a way of living. The West is a pedagogical society, since the ‘pedagogical imperative’ is necessary for a State. Indigenous society is anti-pedagogical.
From the time of Herodotus, ‘the father of history,’ it is the norm, and expectation, that any written analysis of human social life should serve either as a panegyric or a warning, or as both. It is only within the convention of fiction that one is permitted to refuse to offer a solution for particular or general ills, and this is why fiction remains the truest kind of writing.
The Freedom of Things might appear to end on an optimistic note. The last line of the book is: ‘The critique of society has, once again, only just begun.’ But all this means is that I think the book provides a slightly different way of approaching an analysis of present conditions and that I think this could be taken up by others. It does not mean that I think that through such a critique we can tunnel our way out, or build the means to leave this world. The essence of the critique is that all such apparently practical objectives are ensnared and made impossible by the very conditions that we find ourselves in. The prime one being the size of the human population.
The simple fact that it is population numbers that makes the State (hierarchy, domination, slavery) necessary, creates a wealth of contradiction. It might be possible for readers to go away from this book thinking that ‘the solution’ is to reduce the numbers of humans on the planet drastically and then set up autonomous groups that defend their autonomy against other groups and keep their respective population numbers down. But, as the book indicates, such a ‘solution,’ is not only horrific, it is impossible. We cannot act against ourselves and decide on a new way to live that is wholly in opposition to the way we live now. We are products of the State who, as has been historically demonstrated, function to recreate the State. And we can do nothing else in the final analysis, even when we claim to want to abolish the State, since the population is too big, and has been for 5000 years, and, added to this, we want, naturally, as people formed by and born into a State, peace and harmony and enlightenment for all.
All serious movements that seek to radically alter, abolish, or escape State societies are millenarian movements. Millenarianism is a product of the critique of the State. The State, that which oppresses us, whatever it is, will always be critiqued. The State necessarily, or naturally, creates the conditions for this critique, and, therefore, millenarians, that is, revolutionaries, are functions of the State. They do not appear where there is no State. They do not appear in non-State societies. But, counter-intuitively, the critique of the State or ‘present conditions’ is not harmful to the State (though it may prove so for particular elements in the State hierarchy). In fact, it is necessary to its development, as recorded examples beginning with the English Civil War, at least, attest.
Yuri Slezkine, in his intelligent book about the Russian Revolution, The House of Government,1 traces physical outbreaks of millenarianism from Moses to Soviet Russia, and outbreaks of millenarian critique from Zoroaster to Marx. It would have been useful to me if this book had been published before mine, as the clarification of the fact that revolutionaries are not just dogmatists of a certain religion (dogmatists of a Russell’s Teapot) but actual millenarians would have given my own perspective in the book a sharper focus. I abandoned my millenarianism, completely, soon after writing the book, through a series of informal written engagements and reflection. Slezkine’s clarifications have given me more words and analogies to use. It is also interesting for me to review my answers above in the light of reading Slezkine. There was a significant time break before the last three questions, and it was in that time that I read and processed The House of Government. If I had read the Slezkine before embarking on the interview, references to his analyses would have appeared much earlier, probably right at the beginning.
Slezkine suggests that the Russian Revolution is probably the most successful expression of millenarianism the world has witnessed. He writes that, ‘It was as if the Fifth Monarchists had won the English Civil War.’2 In general terms, ‘Millenarianism is the vengeful fantasy of the dispossessed, the hope for a great awakening in the midst of a great disappointment.’3 He also writes that, ‘All millenarianisms are cargo cults at heart.’4
It is with the ‘cargo cult’ analogy that Slezkine comes closest in the book to my own assertion that ‘revolutionism’ is shaped and contained by life in a State. ‘Cargo cults’ are a reaction to, or function of, the State, they appeared in the Pacific amongst people who had become dispossessed by colonising forces. The belief was that State bureaucrats and petty despots had diverted the fabled wealth and happiness that should rightfully have been delivered after the arrival of the colonisers. So, for example, in the classic image, it was decided that if the people built an airstrip then the wealth, the ‘cargo,’ would arrive.
But the ‘cargo’ is really a metaphor for recreating the society — or Eden — that has disappeared, or is rapidly falling through their fingers. The karai prophets (see above) tried to escape the encroaching State by journeying to Eden. The ‘cargo cultists’ tried to connect with the ancestors, or the spirit world, or the gods, so that they would see what was happening and establish heaven on earth for those who deserved it, the members of the cult. As it says in the New Testament, while Christianity was still a sect, still a ‘cargo cult,’ before it had dispensed with its millenarianism and ‘was adopted by Babylon as an official creed’:5 He who has ears, let him hear.6
But, as Clastres suggests, the simple formation of such cults or sects does the unification work of the State for it, and in double-quick time. The transformation of Russia under Soviet rule — the rule of the Bolshevik sect — was probably the swiftest and most amazing, and most terrible, historical example of State unification and industrialisation possible.
So, back to your question. We are caught in a bind now. The world is bad. What can we do about it? The problem is that everything we do acts against us. We could, as Voltaire’s Candide advises us, retreat and concentrate on tending our own gardens, thereby, apparently, reducing the active harm we may do to others. But we don’t have this choice all the time, and maybe we only have the choice after our youth is gone. We are, anyway, at whatever age, forced to act when events find us. In the era of the State — a result of reaching the tipping-point of population — millenarianism is one of the features of our eternal return. It is as impossible to be for revolution — the establishment of equality and freedom on Earth — as it is to be against it.
But my comparison of State and non-State societies reveals another frustrating problem. We are conditioned as subjects of States to desire peace and harmony upon the earth. The State really does ‘want’ peace. It really does aim to acquire the monopoly of violence (despite the current anomalous resistance of the NRA in the United States). We are led into the passionate desire for peace and harmony because we have become increasingly, globally, dependent. Just as trade is seen as a mechanism to promote peace (by everyone from Kant to Lévi-Strauss) — because one trader’s wealth is dependent upon the cooperation of other traders, and vice versa — so it is that we understand peace (and prosperity) to depend upon the cooperation of all.
So, the aim and vision of all millenarian movements is eventual peace, despite the fact that they must first bring a sword between family members in order to begin to destroy the old allegiances and the old unhealthy traditions.
And eventual peace is also the aim of all our non-millenarian thinkers and philosophers, from Hobbes, to Kant, to Douglas Fry, to Steven Pinker, and R. Brian Ferguson, as I have indicated above, and explain in the book. Just as it is for me. We all want eventual peace. How could we not? Some of us want freedom too, and the elimination of oppression. For these (amongst whom I count myself) the problem is that analysis of non-State society reveals that the, for want of a better word, freedom that people enjoyed relied on the constant generation of enmity and the pursuance of vengeance, in order to prevent the unification of peoples. It is the unification of peoples, however it happens, that is the death knell of the non-State way of life. Peace is servitude. Peace is dependence. Peace is the imperative of a mass society. The idea of peace began 5000 years ago, and was a goal shared by both servant and master.
Christopher Boehm, an anthropologist who has written extensively on the feud and vengeance in pre- or proto-States argues, as others do, that feuding is a means of social control. But I think, as I explain in the book, that this universalising or teleological, and patronising, assumption in regard to human behaviour in societies that are not States is not only shallow, but wrong. Analysing non- or proto-States in terms of how they accomplish social control presumes, right at the outset, that peace is the goal of these societies. It also tells us that they weren’t very good at achieving it and therefore reinforces the idea that non-State societies or, indeed, any past society is backward, or primitive, compared to our own.
Your question was ‘What now?’ My book could have been given this title. My observation, as explained in the book, is that all roads out are blocked. What should we do when there is no solution that we can ever lay our hands on? What should we do when there is nothing we can actively do for ourselves that doesn’t work against us as humans? Carry on regardless? Do we have a choice? The difficulty here is immense.
Photo (c) copyright Peter Harrison