Saturday, February 8, 2014

Society against the state

[Approximate Reading Time: 10 minutes]
[Mood: Contemplative] 

When, in primitive society, the economic dynamic lends itself to definition as a distinct and autonomous domain, when the activity of production becomes alienated, accountable labor, 1evied by men who will enjoy the fruits of that labor, what has come to pass is that society has been divided into rulers and ruled, masters and subjects--it has ceased to exorcise the thing that will be its ruin: power and the respect for power. Society's major division, the division that is the basis for all the others, including no doubt the division of labor, is the new vertical ordering of things between a base and a summit; it is the great political cleavage between those who hold the force, be it military or religious, and those subject to that force. The political relation of power precedes and founds the economic relation of exploitation. Alienation is political before it is economic; power precedes labor; the economic derives from the political; the emergence of the State determines the advent of classes.
 Other notable excerpts:
Primitive societies are societies without a State. This factual judgment, accurate in itself, actually hides an opinion, a value judgment [...] What the statement says, in fact, is that primitive societies are missing something - the State - that is essential to them, as it is to any other society: our own, for instance. Consequently, those societies are incomplete; they are not quite true societies--they are not civilized--their existence continues to suffer the painful experience of a lack--the lack of a State--which, try as they may, they will never make up. Whether clearly stated or not, that is what comes through in the explorers' chronicles and the work of researchers alike: society is inconceivable without the State; the State is the destiny of every society. One detects an ethnocentric bias in this approach; more often than not it is unconscious, and so the more firmly anchored.
It has already been remarked that archaic societies are almost always classed negatively, under the heading of lack: societies without a State, societies without writing, societies without history. [...] One is content to observe an additional lack and continues to use our own world as the reference point: those societies without a State, without writing, without history are also without a market. But common sense may object - what good is a market when no surplus exists? Now, the notion of a subsistence economy conceals within it the implicit assumption that if primitive societies do not produce a surplus, this is because they are incapable of doing so, entirely absorbed as they are in producing the minimum necessity for survival, for subsistence. The time-tested and ever serviceable image of the destitution of the Savages. And, to explain that inability of primitive societies to tear themselves away from the stagnation of living hand to mouth, from perpetual alienation in the search for food, it is said they are technically under-equipped, technologically inferior.
What is the reality? If one understands by technics the set of procedures men acquire not to ensure the absolute mastery of nature (that obtains only for our world and its insane Cartesian project, whose ecological consequences are just beginning to be measured), but to ensure a mastery of the natural environment suited and relative to their needs, then there is no longer any reason whatever to impute a technical inferiority to primitive societies: they demonstrate an ability to satisfy their needs which is at least equal to that of which industrial and technological society is so proud.
There is a stubborn prejudice in that notion, one which oddly enough goes hand in hand with the contradictory and no less common idea that the Savage is lazy. While, in our culture's vulgar language, there is the saying 'to work like a nigger," there is a similar expression in South America, where one savs "lazy like an Indian." Now, one cannot have it both ways: either man in primitive societies (American and others) lives in a subsistence economy and spends most of his time in the search for food; or else he does not live in a subsistence economy and can allow himself prolonged hours of leisure, smoking in his hammock. That is what made an unambiguously unfavorable impression on the first European observers of the Indians of Brazil . Great was their disapproval in seeing that those strapping men glowing with health preferred to deck themselves out like women with paint and feathers instead of perspiring away in their gardens. Obviously, these people were deliberately ignorant of the fact that one must earn his daily bread by the sweat of his brow. It wouldn't do, and it didn't last: the Indians were soon put to work, and they died of it. As a matter of fact, two axioms seem to have guided the advance of Western civilization from the outset: the first maintains that true societies unfold in the protective shadow oft he State; the second states a categorical imperative: man must work.
The Indians devoted relatively little time to what is called work. And even so, they did not die of hunger. The chronicles of the period are unanimous in describing the fine appearance of the adults, the good health of the many children, the abundance and variety of things to eat. Consequently, the subsistence economy in effect among the Indian tribes did not by any means imply an anxious, full-time search for food. It follows that a subsistence economy is compatible with a substantial limitation of the time given to productive activities. Take the case of the South American tribes who practiced agriculture, the Tupi-Guarani, for example, whose idleness was such a source of irritation to the Urench and the Portuguese. The economic life of those Indians was primarily based on agriculture, secondarily on hunting, fishing, and gathering. The same garden plot was used for from four to six consecutive years, after which it was abandoned, owing either to the depletion of the soil, or, more likely, to an invasion of the cultivated space by a parasitic vegetation that was difficult to eliminate. The biggest part of the work, performed hy the men, consisted of clearing the necessary area by the slash and burn technique, using stone axes. This job, accomplished at the end of the rainy season, would keep the men busy for a month or two. Nearly all the rest of the agricultural process--planting, weeding, harvesting--was the responsibility of the women, in keeping with the sexual division of labor. This happy conclusion follows: the men (i.e., one-half the population ) worked about two months every four years! As for the rest of the time, they reserved it for occupations experienced not as pain but as pleasure: hunting and fishing; entertainments and drinking sessions; and finally for satisfying their passionate liking for warfare.
Now, these qualitative and impressionistic pieces of information find a striking confirmation in recent research-- some of it still in progress--of a rigorously conclusive nature, since it involves measuring the time spent working in societies with a subsistence economy. The figures obtained, whether they concern nomad hunters of the Kalahari Desert, or Amerindian sedentary agriculturists, reveal a mean apportionment of less than four hours daily for ordinary work time.  Lizot, who has been living for several years among the Yanomami Indians of the Venezuelan Amazon region, has chronometrically established that the average length of time spent working each day by adults, including all activities, barely exceeds three hours.  Although I did not carry out similar measurements among the Guayaki, who are nomad hunters of the Paraguayan forest, I can affirm that those Indians, women and men, spent at least half the day in almost total idleness since hunting and collecting took place (but not every day) between six and eleven o'clock in the morning, or thereabouts. It is probable that similar studies conducted among the remaining primitive peoples would produce analogous results, taking ecological differences into account.
Thus we find ourselves at a far remove from the wretchedness that surrounds the idea of subsistence economy. Not only is man in primitive societies not bound to the animal existence that would derive from a continual search for the means of survival, but this result is even bought at the price of a remarkably short period of activity. This means that primitive societies have at their disposal, if they so desire, all the time necessary to increase the production of material goods. Common sense asks then: why would the men living in those societies want to work and produce more, given that three or four hours of peaceful activity suffice to meet the needs of the group? What good would it do them? What purpose would be served by the surplus thus accumulated? What would it be used for? Men work more than their needs require only when forced to. And it is just that kind of force which is absent from the primitive world; the absence of that external force even defines the nature of primitive society. The term, subsistence economy, is acceptable for describing the economic organization of those societies, provided it is taken to mean not the necessity that derives from a lack, an incapacity inherent in that type of society and its technology; but the contrary: the refusal of a useless excess, the determination to make productive activity agree with the satisfaction of needs. And nothing more. [...]
The advantage of  a metal ax over a stone ax is too obvious to require much discussion: one can do perhaps ten times as much work with the first in the same amount of time as with the second; or else, complete the same amount of work in one-tenth the time. And when the Indians discovered the productive superiority of the white men's axes, they wanted them not in order to produce more in the same amount of time, but to produce as much in a period of time ten times shorter. Exactly the opposite occurred for, with the metal axes, the violence, the force, the power which the civilized newcomers brought to bear on the Savages created havoc in the primitive Indian world.
Primitive societies are, as Lizot writes with regard to the Yanomami , societies characterized by the rejection of work: "The Yanomami's contempt for work and their disinterest in technological progress per se are beyond question." The first leisure societies, the first affluent societies, according to M. Sahlin's apt and playful expression.
For man in primitive societies, the activity of production is measured precisely, delimited by the needs to be satisfied, it being understood what is essentially involved is energy needs:  production is restricted to replenishing the stock of energy expended.  In other words, it is life as nature that--excepting the production of goods socially consumed on festive occasions--establishes and determines the quantity of time devoted to reproduction. This means that once its needs are fully satisfied nothing could induce primitive society to produce more, that is, to   alienate its time by working for no good reason when that time is available for idleness, play, warfare, or festivities.
In primitive society--an essentially egalitarian society--men control their activity, control the circulation of the products of that activity: they act only on their own behalf, even though the law of exchange mediates the direct relation of man to his product. Everything is thrown into confusion, therefore, when the activity of production is diverted from its initial goal, when, instead of producing only for himself, primitive man also produces for others, without exchange and without reciprocity. That is the point at which it becomes possible to speak of labor: when the egalitarian rule of exchange ceases to constitute the "civil code" of the society, when the activity of production is aimed at satisfying the needs of others, when the order of exchange gives way to the terror of debt. It is there, in fact, that the difference between the Amazonian Savage and the Indian of the Inca empire is to be placed. All things considered, the first produces in order to live, whereas the second works in addition so that others can live, those who do not work, the masters who tell him: you must pay what you owe us, you must perpetually repay your debt to us.

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