Jean Baudrillard is quoted here as saying, ‘Marxist anthropology thus seeks from beginning to end to preserve materialist orthodoxy against the heresy of primitive societies.’1 This book is a sustained attempt to explore the implications of this heresy for leftist ideology.
It’s a whirlwind tour through political, anthropological, archaeological, and economic theory. By the end I felt it might be best thought of as much as a collection of essays as a book-length argument. Not that there’s no through-lines here. Just that the major one is a powerful opposition to ‘solutionism’:
It is an important rigour of the book that no solutions are offered to serve as supposed practical means by which to supposedly improve of change our situation. This is because whenever such solutions are taken up, they always end badly, or in a mess, sooner or later. It is also because solutionism impedes and closes down thinking. … ‘Have faith…’ ‘This has got to change’; ‘Our task is to…’; ‘What we need to do is…’; ‘If we all just…’; or, and perhaps most significantly: ‘You mustn’t lose hope.’ These are the siren calls of those who wish to control us.2
This stance is indeed pursued with rigour, meaning that the most important fuel for coherence and ‘graspability’ in political writing is absent. No calls to arms, no sense of pieces of puzzle falling into place and engines of change revving up. Harrison’s wryly self-aware of this, as can be seen in a note at the start of chapter 4:
When you wonder in places if the chapter will ever end, or if there is even any purpose in continuing … that is the point when you are probably starting to understand what I am attempting to claim.3
Of course, utter abandonment of ‘solutions’ is as idealist as any solution, and would probably lead to a similar mess. It’s perhaps more a case of loosening solutionism up a bit, allowing its edges of fanaticism and utopian rigidity to soften and become less damaging. I’m always wary of too-easily applying perceptions and strategies that seem important on the personal scale to social scales, but for me an analogy with therapeutic attitudes seems apt. Donna Haraway recently rallied this kind of transposition from therapy to society or culture in the title of her book Staying with the Trouble. There’s less scope at the social level for just ‘letting things be’. But given the appalling history of much solutionism, perhaps Harrison’s attempt to inject some refusal of solutions into political discourse should be heeded.
Certainly, along with his anarchist leanings, his refusal of solutions means that his thinking is very clear, even when it lacks superficial coherence. He’s very well-read, and catholic in his range, drawing on up-to-date popular writing (for example Yuval Hariri’s Sapiens) as well as hard-headed academic work. He obviously has a long-standing engagement with political radicalism behind him (no doubt a large factor in his distaste for much political radicalism). But he’s blessedly lacking in obscurantism, and allows his passion for communication to steer his style between jargon and excessive abstraction on the one hand, and dumbing-down or patronising on the other.
Harrison draws on the work of a couple of anthropologists I’ve not yet read, Eduardo Kohn (How Forests Think) and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (Cannibal Metaphysics). It’s interesting to find through Harrison how much this much-discussed contemporary anthropological work owes to the ideas of a figure I assumed remained in the discipline’s remote fringes: Pierre Clastres.4 Clastres’ anarchism gave him a certain perspective in his ethnographic work in the Amazon, which led to ideas which provocatively counter the modern binaries of left vs. right and Hobbes (our natural state is nasty and brutish, and we need the State to keep order) vs. Rousseau (our natural state is freedom, and the State brutalises us). On the one hand, he affirmed the egalitarianism and autonomy of primitive societies, while denying the denigration implicit in the word ‘primitive’ by arguing that they do not lack a State because they’re ‘unevolved’ — they lack a State because they don’t want one. On the other hand, he saw the engine of their refusal of the State in the hostility they cultivate between villages or tribes, in their culture of vengeance and interminable warring. This is an unholy (in the sense of being heretical to orthodox discourse) blend of Hobbes and Rousseau: a somewhat brutish state of nature which ensured autonomy and egalitarianism.
The major issue I have with Harrison’s analysis here is that his rigorous opposition to solutions leaves perhaps too many loose ends. It’s a complex but valid debate within the sphere of ethnography: looking at other cultures (for the most part Amazonian, though he introduces some Australian examples too) with a view to how they function, trying to see them on their own terms and shedding the prejudices of both Hobbesian and Rousseauian anthropology. The chapter on violence will challenge many people, but it’s mostly carefully argued, and should inspire productive disagreement at worst. However, there’s a sense in which the ‘positive’ values of inter-group violence are abstracted from these indigenous contexts and — because of the lack of discussion of solutions for our present world — there’s little consideration of how violence may or may not function in other contexts. I’m thinking here of the context of a globalised society of nation-states, most armed with weaponry which would be the envy, then the tragedy, of an Amazonian warrior, and some armed with weaponry fit for brutal gods. The idea that ‘peace enslaves’ (through the imposition of central authority) has much mileage in the pre-modern world, but things are now far more complex; the possible trade-offs between the restriction of peace and the destruction of war seem radically different. I think some of this complexity could have been addressed without violating the ‘no solutions’ strategy. As it stands, Harrison risks his assessments of pre-State societies drifting into the modern discourse in which his book is clearly situated saddled with some dangerous connotations and scope for misapplication.
There’s a strong element here of Harrison’s respect for the reader, an assumption that people are capable of steering clear of crass conclusions by themselves. But we’ve also arrived at the central tension of the book, between the compelling efforts to see primitive societies on their own terms, and the implicit challenges posed by the nature of these societies to modern attempts to understand society in general, and our society in particular. And in the case of these challenges: what use are they?
I ask this question as someone who asks it all the time, of my own writing and thinking. My general motto here is provided by Hakim Bey’s call for a return of rather than a return to the Palaeolithic. However, Harrison presents an important critique of this kind of thinking. He makes the case that indigenous knowledge — indeed all knowledge, but most clearly in the case of indigenous knowledge — is ‘non-transferable’, i.e. in an important sense it can’t be abstracted and transplanted out of its lived context. This is a critique of simplistic (though well-meaning) liberal attempts to encourage the West to learn from indigenous cultures. And of course it feeds directly into the refusal of ‘solutions’. But doesn’t it edge this refusal away from strategic avoidance of too-easy optimism, and towards plain pessimism? Or is the sense that we’re edging towards pessimism here just another artefact of the ‘solutionist’ mindset that Harrison is trying to avoid? Assessing dynamics like this is devilishly hard in the context of personal therapy, trying to accept difficult emotions and situations. Magnify things to a social, even global scale, and there can be no final assessment.
Harrison hovers here at the point of divergence between accelerationism and primitivism. Both see no ‘solution’ within the present order, the hole we find ourselves in. Accelerationists think we need to keep digging, harder and faster, right through to the other side. Primitivism advocates the dubious prospect of climbing out, back where we came. Harrison advocates neither — while also agreeing that we’re in a hole. There’s an admission that we’re unable to really step backwards or forwards out of capital’s all-consuming grip, together with a refusal to capitulate to capital, a refusal to offer solutions, and a refusal of ‘giving up’. It’s an impossible position, leaving us facing an uncomfortable unknowingness, bereft of the crutch of idealist yearning and the blinkers of realist resignation. It’s not — by definition — a place to take up permanent residence in (i.e., it’s not a solution). But perhaps it’s a vital place to face up to, and Harrison’s book is a sincere, provocative, and highly intelligent contribution to this impossible task.