The Original Political Society

original-political-society

Marshall Sahlins is one of the most respected living anthropologists. His 1972 essay ‘The Original Affluent Society’ was seminal in beginning to shift our ideas of hunter-gatherer cultures away from the naive perspective typified by Thomas Hobbes: that their lives were ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.’1 Sahlins lived in Paris during the late ’60s, absorbing the radical ambience of the May ’68 protests, and back in the States became one of the academics to take a bold stand against the Vietnam war. During the ’70s, he began an ongoing defence of the importance and complexity of culture as a formative force, against the rising and seductive influence of over-simplistic sociobiological theories. Learning that he was to deliver the inaugural lecture for the Centre for Ethnographic Theory at SOAS here in London (on 29 April 2016), I was both excited to catch him in the flesh, and a bit apprehensive – since the core idea of this eminent figure’s talk on ‘The Original Political Society’ directly undermined one of the core ideas of my North. Armed with my notebook and open mind, I headed to SOAS to see how it went.

‘The Original Political Society’ and Thomas Hobbes

‘The Original Affluent Society’ countered the Hobbesian view partly with raw facts, highlighting the fact that many hunter-gatherers seem to only ‘work’ (i.e. put effort into subsistence activities) a few hours a day, and enjoy diets far more varied and nutritious than many if not most agricultural societies. But it also exposed the view of foraging as a ‘poor’ way of living as ethnocentric. Sahlins argued that hunter-gatherers simply took a different route to affluence from industrial societies: instead of producing more and more to meet ever-expanding desires, they kept their gross material desires in check, and thus fulfilled them relatively easily, leaving plenty of time for the deeper pleasures of conviviality.

The title ‘The Original Political Society’ harks back to this riposte to Hobbes, but in a more complex way it also seeks to both extend Hobbesian theories into the hunter-gatherer sphere and once again undermine Hobbesian thinking. Central to this is a perspectivist take on indigenous cosmology. By taking seriously the animist view of the world, seeing it ‘from the inside’, some important consequences for our views of animist societies follow. The general lack of a dualism between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ phenomena means that aspects of their worldview which to us look superfluous should really be held within our analysis of their social structures. And the fact that for animists the category of ‘person’ extends far past humanity again means that their cosmos is a much more complex and sophisticated one than that which presents itself to the eyes of a naive materialist. For Sahlins, all this has radical implications for our assessment of the role of power hierarchies in animist forager societies that are ostensibly egalitarian.

Now, Hobbes insisted that the formation of governments and states was necessary because humanity’s ‘state of nature’ was a chaotic ‘war of all against all’. A social contract was made wherein certain powers are ceded to a sovereign authority (most notably in the state’s monopoly on violence). A steep hierarchy is willingly embraced in exchange for a general protection against the potential for ubiquitous conflict. Hobbes was to an important extent plain wrong on this. Since his time anthropologists have found that many indigenous societies – especially ones that are deemed to be rough matches for the type of society that would have been prevalent through much of our early history – are egalitarian and relatively peaceable.2 What Sahlins does with his idea of ‘The Original Political Society’ is to complexify our image of such societies with animist perspectivism. Even though egalitarianism often prevails between humans in these societies, there are significant, operative hierarchies between human and other-than-human persons. The strictly human sphere fundamentally conditions our modern secular image of social life, but if one seriously enters into the cosmos of animists, one sees that the state of nature has the nature of a state. Law and order prevail, not because of a human authority, but because of the authority vested in various ‘metapersons’ – the ancestors, and various other gods and spirits. Considering the widespread notion of ‘species masters’ – spirits which preside over particular species of animals, relations with which are central in the etiquette and conduct of hunting – Sahlins gave his view a Marxist slant by stating that spirits own (or are) the means of production.

Clastres’ society against the state

There are quite a few interesting implications to this take on animist societies. One, which Sahlins acknowledged explicitly, is that it potentially solves one of the mysteries embedded in Pierre Clastres’ sidelined but quietly influential concept of ‘society against the state’. Clastres insisted that early humans and contemporary indigenous societies actively resisted the formation of the state, and the hierarchical oppression it brought with it. In a weird reversal of Hobbesian doctrine, he thought that low-level intertribal conflict was one of the main vectors of this resistance, to prevent large social units forming in which directly democratic power was impossible, and in which alienated, exploitable representation took hold. For Hobbes, the state was needed to resist violence; for Clastres, violence was needed to resist the state. One of the main criticisms levelled at Clastres was: how can societies resist something (i.e. the state) which they’ve never experienced? To this Sahlins answers: they have experienced something like a state, if we get inside their cosmologies which contain powerful metapersons.3

However, as with Clastres’ theory, question marks still hang over this issue of the post-forager origins of the state. If the state began, not in the strictly human sphere, but as an arrangement of power between humans and metapersons, what happened to elevate some humans onto the level of power previously reserved for spirits and gods? And, bearing Clastres’ anarchist instincts in mind, if societies resisted the formation of the human state, why did they not also resist the cosmic state? To the extent that perspectivism levels the relationship between humans and metapersons (by refusing a distinction between natural and supernatural), does this not also open up the possibility that accepting the dominion of metapersons becomes something of a choice rather than a vertical compulsion? Sahlins didn’t address the issue of the transition from the cosmic state to the human state, and looks to me like the major issue to be tackled if this theory is to take root.

Graeber and perspectivism

David Graeber – former pupil of Sahlins, and another anthropologist with a strong interest in activism – offered some summing-up comments after Sahlins’ talk. He was entertaining and shrewd as ever, but while he undercut the talk very slightly by framing it as a ‘provocation’, he offered less critique than I anticipated. Maybe there was an element of cordial decorum in sharing the bill with his former mentor which even an anarchist would be churlish to ignore. I’m hoping he’ll write something in greater depth in due course.

I’ve not fully followed his dispute with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (one of the seminal proponents of anthropological perspectivism), but one aspect of his problem with perspectivism rings true for me. That is the realisation, earned through sensitive fieldwork, that in many indigenous societies there is – beneath the surface – a lot of slippage between the apparent consensus beliefs of a people and the actual, operative beliefs of individuals. Of course this is true for every society, to some extent. But it’s especially important to bear it in mind when studying a foreign culture – even more so when one is committed to respecting it. Graeber’s contention seems to be – from my brief reading on this issue – that anthropologists who react against Eurocentric prejudice by respecting indigenous cosmologies, while generally making a laudable move, run the risk of respecting these cosmologies more than the people who inhabit them.

I guess I was disappointed Graeber didn’t explore this line in his comments because it’s one of the main lines of defence against the impact of Sahlins’ ideas on the narrative of North. My approach was self-consciously heuristic (or simplistic, depending how generous you feel), and my framing of the book’s concept of history as a story acts to a certain extent as a pre-emptive defence. But the critique of North implied in Sahlin’s ideas isn’t nothing. I contended that the late Palaeolithic saw the gradual emergence of social hierarchies that were subsequently entrenched by the Agricultural Revolution. In terms of cosmology, my focus was less on the broad anthropological sense of ‘the way the world works’ and more on the aspect of this that relates to our perceptions of the sky, and how these perceptions were conditioned by how society worked. I saw a correspondence between social structure and cosmology that was complex in its details but easy to outline: hierarchical societies tended to envision the cosmos as being hierarchical, with the chief or king frequently related to the lofty, central pole star, while egalitarian hunter-gatherers tended to have a less formal, more landscape-oriented view of the world, which reflected their social relationships. The forager cosmos of horizontal relationships between persons of all kinds, human or not, was displaced by cultures which saw the separation of Heaven and Earth as their starting point, and directly intertwined their subservience before elite rulers and their subservience before remote sky gods. If Sahlins is right, then it was wrong of me – even when I’m given some slack for the fact that I was trying to sketch a broad outline – to draw such simple correspondences between social and cosmic structures. There’s an extent to which the cosmic structure has always been hierarchical – and thus there’s a different dynamic going on between society and cosmos. Indeed many – including some radical Christians – see cosmic hierarchy as necessary for social egalitarianism, where we’re all equal brethren before our Father.

But at the same time, I think the leads I followed in my anthropological investigation still amount to something – something which mitigates this easy extension of the authoritarian ‘state’ as a cosmic structure back into the ostensibly more egalitarian Palaeolithic. I think there are still good arguments to be made about the structural organisation of the hunter-gatherer cosmos being less ‘centralised’ and systematic than the worlds staged by civilisation. And even when there are metapersons with vertical authority over human behaviour, there are – as Graeber’s questioning of perspectivism suggests – crucial ways in which forager attitudes complexify this relationship.

This is an area I need to research more fully. Here it’ll suffice to mention that the extensive research in Morris Berman’s 1981-2000 trilogy – especially the final instalment, Wandering God4 – was instrumental in convincing me of the significance of the difference in forager attitudes to the world of metapersons. Also critical were two particular case studies, which I’ll describe in turn.

Turnbull and the Mbuti

First up we have the classic 1961 work on the Mbuti pygmies of the Congo, The Forest People by Colin Turnbull5 (which I was delighted to find a second-hand first edition of on a street stall on Holloway Road). The picture Turnbull paints of what we would call the pygmies’ ‘spiritual’ beliefs and practices reveals a sense of the world far removed from our traditional conceptions of spirituality and religion (although it definitely chimes with modern magical practice, in its less bombastic and uptight variations):

The Pygmies are not a ritualistically minded people; to them the important thing about any festival is that they should openly express their emotions and accept the realities of whatever situation the festival marks. Instead of living in constant fear of the spirits of the dead, performing elaborate rituals to remove the souls of the departed as far away as possible and as quickly as possible, the Pygmies sing in their memory for months on end, during the molimo [a kind of ritual marking a death, and the name of a wooden trumpet used during the ritual, which is otherwise stored in the forest].6

The forest itself is indeed seen as a kind of overarching metaperson, like a parent to everyone, but the way in which it is related to seems radically different from our usual impressions of monotheism or reflexive, fearful ‘superstition’:

The complete faith of the Pygmies in the goodness of their forest is perhaps best of all expressed in one of their great molimo songs, one of the songs that is sung fully only when someone has died. At no time do their songs ask for this or that to be done, for the hunt to be made better or for someone’s illness to be cured; it is not necessary. All that is needful is to awaken the forest, and everything will come right. But suppose it does not, suppose someone dies, then what? Then the men sit around their evening fire, as I had been doing with them for the past month, and they sing songs of devotion, songs of praise, to wake up the forest and rejoice it, to make it happy again. Of the disaster that has befallen them they sing, in this one great song: ‘There is darkness all around; but if darkness is, and the darkness is of the forest, then the darkness must be good.’7

This may be a relationship with a metaperson more powerful than any human, but it looks like no relationship I know of between subjects and authorities of a human state. Even granting that human authorities would naturally aim to appropriate this kind of trust and devotion, it’s hard to see how that would be achieved without serious social ruptures.

It should also be mentioned that the Congo pygmies are one of many mobile foraging peoples (also including the !Kung and the Hadza) whose ‘spirituality’ doesn’t necessarily entail that usual mainstay of religious thought, life after death. A Baka person once remarked: ‘When you’re dead, you’re dead, and that’s the end of you.’ When a Christian missionary tried to persuade the Mbuti about the afterlife, one of them replied: ‘How do you know? Have you died and been there?’8 There’s a refreshing modernity to these pragmatic attitudes, which again suggests that Sahlins’ image of a primeval ‘cosmic state’ may be an over-simplistic projection of ancient ideas into very ancient times. At the same time, as Turnbull’s observations above show, this is no ‘nihilism’ – more a here-and-now-centric infusion of spirituality into the living present.

There is mention in Turnbull’s account of ‘supernatural retribution’ for some terrible offences, but they are said to be ‘rarely committed’. For the most part,  ‘like everything else in Pygmie life the maintenance of law was a co-operative affair.’9 Even the most romantically inclined must admit that human societies have always contained seeds, however tiny, of the grosser power struggles and oppressive structures we witness in civilisation. But the wider context is important – and the wider context is what North‘s image of history in three parts attempts to sketch. Even if the Mbuti are formally related to the spirit of the forest as subordinate subjects, their interaction with it is one of such informal light-heartedness, it’s hard to draw a clear line connecting this and the intra-human hierarchies of civilisation.

The casual observer might have thought the youngsters were playing a game when they went around from hut to hut with a fishing line and a basket, collecting food from everyone. There was certainly nothing about their demeanour to indicate that this was an essential part of some great act of communion. And if the same observer were told that this was so, he would probably form the opinion that the molimo, whatever it was, could not mean very much if it was treated so lightly and casually.10

Laughing at the spirits

Another important catalyst for the image of hunter-gatherer life I use in North was Danish anthropologist Rane Willerslev’s recent reconsideration of animism among Siberian hunters.11 Like Graeber, Willerslev acknowledges the good intent and often useful results of perspectivism, taking indigenous cosmologies seriously. But also like Graeber, he wonders if we’re overdoing it.

We may ask whether the new animist studies are overstating the seriousness of the indigenous peoples’ own attitudes toward their spirited worlds. … I am no longer convinced that seriousness as such lies at the heart of animism. Quite the contrary, it seems to me that underlying animistic cosmologies is a force of laughter, an ironic distance, a making fun of the spirits which suggests that indigenous animism is not to be taken very seriously at all. I think that we are facing a fundamental yet quite neglected problem here…

He relates an experience out hunting bears with some Yukaghir people (who are far from being egalitarian hunter-gatherers, but whose nomadism and reliance on hunting leaves them with many overlaps with such cultures). As in many subarctic societies, the bear is regarded with extreme reverence, surrounded by taboo. When they kill one, they treat the incident very carefully:

Hunters generally try to disguise the killing as an unfortunate accident for which they are not to be blamed. They will bow their heads in humility before the dead animal and say, “Grandfather, who did this to you? A Russian [or a Sakha, a neighboring people] killed you.” Before removing its skin, they will blindfold it or poke its eyes out while croaking like a raven. This will persuade the bear that it was a bird that blinded it. Moreover, while skinning the bear they will say, “Grandfather, you must feel warm. Let us take off your coat.” Having removed its flesh, the hunters then deposit its bones on a raised platform, as the Yukaghirs used to do with an honored deceased relative. If the ritual is violated, all sorts of terrible misfortunes are said to be triggered. Yukaghir myths are replete with stories about hunters who fail to obey the ritual prescriptions and lose their hunting prowess as a result, so that the entire camp starves to death.

Because of this, Willerslev was deeply – and understandably – confused when the following incident occurred:

I was out hunting together with two Yukaghirs, an elderly and a younger hunter, and they had succeeded in killing a brown bear. While the elderly hunter was poking out its eyes with his knife and croaking like a raven as custom prescribes, the younger one, who was standing a few meters away, shouted to the bear: “Grandfather, don’t be fooled, it is a man, Vasili Afanasivich, who killed you and is now blinding you!” At first the elderly hunter doing the butchering stood stock-still as if he were in shock, but then he looked at his younger partner and they both began laughing ecstatically as if the whole ritual were a big joke. Then the elderly hunter said to the younger one, “Stop fooling around and go make a platform for the grandfather’s bones.” However, he sounded by no means disturbed. Quite the opposite, in fact: he was still laughing while giving the order. The only really disturbed person was me, who saw the episode as posing a serious threat to my entire research agenda, which was to take animism seriously.

Once he stepped back from the prejudice inherent in his well-meaning agenda, Willerslev began a sensitive and fascinating analysis of this seeming paradox, which he details in his article. He sees both ‘old’ and ‘new’ animism (in Western scholarship) as being naive in assuming that indigenous people are naively taking their beliefs at face value – the difference between them being that old animism scoffed at their beliefs, but new animism allows them respect. Both miss the great sophistication involved. Again, as with pragmatic pygmy attitudes to life after death, this doesn’t imply a wholly ‘profane’ belief system, in which ‘spiritual’ elements are simply not believed in. It’s just that our hangover from the polar era’s divide between Heaven and Earth, spirit and matter, supernature and nature, has left us unprepared for dealing with the subtleties involved in experience where these dichotomies are flexible or absent.

Willerslev concludes:

I want to make clear that I do not mean to suggest that through joking, hunters question the reality of the existence of spirits. Rather, their joking reveals that they do not take the authority of the spirits as seriously as they usually say they do or as their mythology tells them to. Joking and other types of ridiculing discourses about spirits play a prominent role in the everyday life of hunters, but not because they entail resistance to or subversion of the dominant cosmological values of the sharing economy. … Hunters’ playful relationships with the spirits thus allow them to escape from the latent dangers of total spiritual domination.


We can’t take contemporary ethnographies as concrete evidence of life in the Palaeolithic. However, they contain excellent pointers, which if nothing else act as useful bulwarks against our lazy reflexes – which tend to silently project our habitually civilised ideas of ‘ancient religion’ into the deep past.

As with Graeber and Wengrow’s new theory of the origins of hierarchy,12 Sahlin’s vision of an original cosmic state preceding the secular state is an important challenge to North‘s narrative (not to mention being an important contribution to anthropological theory!). However, even when we accept that the Palaeolithic was never as simplistically ‘horizontal’ in its sociocosmic relations as my story is sometimes in danger of suggesting, I think there’s still good mileage in approaching that world as an exemplar of some very different attitudes to power than those which characterise religious civilisation. The bottom line is always: ‘it’s complex’. But wise rules of thumb and broad narrative visions – handled lightly – are invaluable tools for navigating the chaos.

Playfulness and subversion did not, of course, die out when the first field was ploughed, or when the first city arose around a temple. We should tease these things out of the historical narrative – and out of the present remnants of congealed vertical authoritarianism – whenever we can. And what we’ve learned from the indigenous people we’ve failed to wipe out is an important source of inspiration for this work.

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