Édouard Jourdain: The savage and the political

Over a series of video recorded interviews, the lundimatin collective has recently engaged with a number of writers to explore the relationships between philosophy, anthropology and anarchism. The series began with Catherine Malabou and her critical reflection on the fragility or absence of any serious philosophical inquiry into anarchism – while some later 20th century philosophers gave considerable attention to the concept of anarchy. With the intuition that anthropology could provide a missing link between the two, the collective then set out to interview anthropologists or writers, philosophers, who work at the borders of anthropology. These include Jean Vioulac (of the series, the only interview recorded only in text), Barbara Glowczewski, Nastassja Martin, Philippe Descola and Alessandro Pignocchi, Patrice Maniglier. And the most recent interview of the series is with Édouard Jourdain (lundimatin, #374, 14/03/2023).

The interviews are in french, but the significance of the effort is such that we felt that the possible language barrier was not reason enough to not try to share something of what has been registered and we can only commend the lundimatin collective for this endeavour.

Below, we share the last interview with Édouard Jourdain (an author who, among other things, has written extensively on Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), along with a translation of a review-summary of his recently published essay that is the occasion for the interview: Le Sauvage et le Politique, PUF, 2023.

GINO: Come off it! Human beings are bad by nature, and if there weren’t laws, judges, soldiers and carabinieri to hold us in check, we would devour each other like wolves.

GIORGIO: If this was the case, it would be one more reason for not giving anybody the power to command and to dispose of the liberty of others.

Errico Malatesta, At The Café

Édouard Jourdain has just published a synthesis of Proudhonian, anarchist, anti-Weberian political anthropology of diamond-like density: Le Sauvage et le Politique.[1] In Politics as a Vocation (1919)[2], Max Weber posited the coalescence of politics and the state. Politics’ task was to determine a grouping for the “direction for” or “influence over” the state. Weber’s lecture offers the following well-known, minimal definition: the state as territorial dehiscence of the monopoly of legitimate physical violence.[3] Violence is not only its ultima ratio; it is its reason for being, it is its condition of possibility, its base and its last instance. Weber wrote beautifully:

‘Every state is founded on force,’ said Trotsky at Brest-Litovsk. That is indeed right. If no social institutions existed which knew the use of violence, then the concept of ‘state’ would be eliminated, and a condition would emerge that could be designated as ‘anarchy,’ in the specific sense of this word. Of course, force is certainly not the normal or the only means of the state – nobody says that – but force is a means specific to the state. (Politics as a Vocation)

Édouard Jourdain, by dissociating state and politics and therefore politics and violence, contributes to savagery, marooning or the feralisation: the weak political dialectic of human groups is no longer that of struggle for the conquest of the state apparatus; it is that of domestication on the one hand, and “wild conjurations” (384) on the other. Conjuration and domestication become the categories of a savage political theory. For Édouard Jourdain, following Clastres (Society against the State) and Deleuze (Anti-Oedipus, ch. 3; A Thousand Plateaus, 13th Plateau) the state is taken, from the bases of societies without a state, and throughout the processes of its emergence, in the tangle of a multiplicity of mechanisms (and even rather of “stratagems”[4]) which anticipate and ward it off and which, paradoxically, at the very rhythm of its twilight “ambivalent” conjuration , also allow it to chip away at and gradually penetrate the balance of the groups which nevertheless repress it. Sacrifice, prophets, shaman, priests, sacralisation, divinisation, war, cannibalism, magic, slavery: everything is equivocal, everything can do more or less, everything differs and carries with it, for example, the nightmare of the state.

What makes for the theoretical specificity of Jourdan’s essay is his Proudhonism. Whether in the Misère de la philosophie or in the Introduction générale à la critique de l’économie politique,  and regularly throughout his work, Marx never really stopped mocking the superficial nature of Proudhon’s “selective sorting” or his research into the good and bad sides of things, of the more and less in all things, to which he devoted himself during his “historical-philosophical” analyses, based on a burlesque ersatz of serious dialectic. Today, it is the Marxist dialectic which is dialectically becoming the laughable ersatz of radical Proudhonism.

What is Jourdain’s conceptual framework? First, he makes a major distinction between “le politique” and “la politique”. “La politique” defines the maintenance of a balance of forces against the threat of the dismantling of society: “it is always a question of preserving it from civil war”. “La politique” is a self-institution warding off self-destruction.(22) “La politique” therefore cuts across both primitive and modern societies. “Le politique“, on the other hand, is “the movement which, in a dialectic of conflict and cooperation, leads to transforming the coordinates of politics [la politique].”(22) It is the “engine of history” through imbalance and the advent of new configurations.[5][4] This tension between conservative politics [la politique] and transformative politics [le politique] is used by Jourdain to frame the definition of a “just politics”: a politics will be just that allows “the politician to do her/his work by granting full and complete autonomy to collective forces, so that they can come to terms with otherness/alterity in a balance conducive to the expansion of a common world”(22-23).

From this framework, Jourdain develops what could be called a “theory of breaches or gaps”. This theory is twofold: living breaches on the surface of the mobile crystal of the community (“savage” or modern) through which the spectre of the state as much as that of the commons arrives. From time to time, in Jourdain’s text, the “breaches” are those of the emerging state through the apparatuses which, in a normal situation, should push it away from social life. For example, regarding prophetism in societies without a state, Jourdain writes, following Clastres[6]: “In his discourse, the prophet transgresses the order of words by subjecting them to a slight alteration which will nevertheless change everything. This transgression is worth a promise, but this promise is an illusion that actually opens in fact a breach in the savage conception of politics, by bringing with it the personalisation of power.” (100, my emphasis) Here, prophetism (that of the Tupi-Guarani) serves as a state-creating breach – a breach of savage and undisciplined autonomisation of a future bureaucrat: “the prophet would thus constitute a kind of intermediary figure between the shaman and the priest conceived as a civil servant. These characters are all part of the constitution of a given order or of an order in the process of being created.”(101) The slow victory of the statist breach of the primitive socius, allowing shamans to mediate the collective imagination,[7] priests whose ministry duplicates the ancient sacrificial function of the sacred king, prophets speaking instead and in the name of the collective, all more or less ventriloquists of the other, was systematically contingent and mixed up in contradictory struggles.

To the statist or state-generating breach, Jourdain endeavours to oppose an anarchising breach. The statist breach has accelerated the historical dimension of collective time: with the state, reality vanishes in the name of the future in motion; “everything becomes virtually possible” in the course of history. But it is not the state that makes history possible, it is society that posits the state to make history, that is to say, to open up the virtually possible becoming of action. “It is not so much the state however that began to make history as society which, by creating the state, represented itself through it as a historical actor, with tensions and even conflicts always between the state and society.” (379) Paradoxically, though, writes Jourdain, the modern state, which was based on the idea of “perfectibility”, and therefore on that of a historical becoming through progress, led in the end to a fetishism novelty and of the event which, instead of bringing out something new, can only renew its eternal presentism. The “belief in History” has changed into “belief in the Event”, according to François Hartog, leaving it awash in “floods of tautological comments” (cited 380) and perfectly ignorant of the archives of the time. Where the state once presented itself as a figure for the historical action of the masses, it now presents itself as a mineral fence, a frozen coprolite of becoming, a last statum, there is no alternative, barely capable of postponing and holding back a perpetually announced catastrophe, a savage conjuration of politics [le politique] by politics [la politique], and, consequently, no longer holds firm except as a vestige, cracked right through, of the paleo-possibilities that it served, yesterday, to fertilise. This is where Jourdain’s anarchising breaches – which we would gladly call “destituent breaches” if, in reality, they did not challenge, precisely the constituent-destituent dichotomy in the debate between the devotees of Antonio Negri and Tiqqun – come into play: “it is possible to find in any society flaws or breaches that cut across” the two dimensions of time and history.(382) “The breaches are both (and paradoxically) always radically new and dependent on the faults lines that preceded them”. They function in the manner of “selective and analogical associations”, well illustrated by Daniel Colson when the events of the commune of Paris flood the Spanish revolution, or when the rebels of Boston put on the trappings of the Mohawk Indians to throw overboard their cargo of tea. “Beyond the objectivity of History and the subjectivity of stories, there are gaps that open onto future worlds rich in past potential. These breaches, which are so many calls to the possible, then introduce the chaos necessary to rethink the order of time, and thereby the order of things.” (383)

Behind this theory of state-generating and anarchising breaches is hidden the “lesson of the savages”: “there is no idyllic natural condition and every society must come to terms with that which belongs to it, but which lies in the shadows.” (384). In other words: the question is not, and could not be, from a Proudhonian point of view, that of destitution in general. But nor is it that of constitution, nor the ridiculous “General state”, defended by Frédéric Lordon. The question is to know: how mechanisms of conjuration (of a priori destitution of a still absent evil) erode so as to become mechanisms of domestication (of constitution, of limitation of an always excessive and surplus actual power[8][ 7]); how these domestications and conjurations reverse themselves by becoming savage and becoming autonomous from their conjurers and domesticators, in order, in return, to dominate them, and how, then, to conjure and domesticate them again.

“We saw in our developments the processes that led to such relationships, but also the mechanisms of their conjuration. These conjurations have partly failed with the monopolisation of political and economic power, and of the power of the imaginary. The state, private property and religion are not natural institutions but the product of a history. They have carried their share of oppression and servitude, while contributing to certain forms of emancipation that led to modernity. Hence their ambivalence that now needs to be rethought in the light of new savage conjurations. In a way, the human species has transposed into these institutions the savage character that characterises it, leading them to become autonomous and thus escaping their instituting subject. The challenge is to domesticate them by regaining power over them. They will then no longer be quite what they have been.” (385)

For Jourdain, there is not only the “crises of presence” and of the apparatuses designed to remedy them in the maximal circulation of an eternalised present (cf. Tiqqun) that pose a problem for the collective: just as dangerous and limiting are the “crises of indifferentiation” of the social, that is to say, the crises of the One – crises in which, starting from chaos to then proceed to processes of differentiation within it, people cause an authority to emerge which tends towards the One and thereby returns to the initial lack of differentiation.

“There may be a first movement of differentiation where an authority, such as that of the sacred scapegoat king, will organise order. But this authority, by taking itself for the One and denying the plurality of social forces their autonomy, risks leading back to a crisis of lack of differentiation. In reality, there is always a tension between the immanent movement of the forces which themselves organise differentiation (notably through a balance of power preventing the contamination of violence) and the transcendent movement of the sovereign who organises from their own point of view that which they conceive of as differentiation.”

And Jourdain adds, quoting Proudhon, that what is called “unity and centralisation is nothing other than eternal chaos, serving as the basis for an endless arbitrariness; it is the anarchy of social forces taken as an argument of despotism, which without this anarchy would not exist.” (cited 77) In other words, the back and forth between chaos and order which changes into chaos to unify and centralise, accompanies, from crisis of indifferentiation to crisis of indifferentiation, the dialectical breaches of the savage and of the political, bringing into play the cosmological coordinates in which we wander towards a “just politics”.

By way of conclusion, we can say that the present collapse of our society is due to a return of the “crisis of lack of differentiation”. As Jourdain affirms: “if we feel that ours is on the verge of collapse, it is because we have not succeeded in redefining the givens of the political [le politique] through a new balance of forces induced by a cosmogony whose challenge consists of evaluating and selecting what the past carries with it thanks to the imaginary forces that reality bears in order to envisage a more just future.” (389). If we accept that insurrection is not a finished science and that it enriches its imaginary party with the tattered remains of devastated and bygone worlds, perhaps we will find with Jourdain an arsenal of new weapons – bizarre, limited, sometimes unsure – , but that bring to the issues that concern us a kaleidoscope of past practices and their supposed functions, in order to recapture revolution not as something which cleans a slate, but as Péguy says, as something analogous to

“an excavation, a deepening, an overstepping in depth.” (cited 390).

Ut Talpa

[1] [Translator’s Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all page references in the body of the text are to Édouard Jourdain’s essay, Le Sauvage et le Politique.

[2] Max Weber, The Spirit of Work and Vocation, “Second Lecture: Politics as Vocation”. Verlag Duncker & Humboldt, 1919.

[3] We often forget in his definition that this “monopoly” has a territorial extension, that it is closed by this extension; which should pose a problem: extraterritoriality of international pursuits, rogue actions on the seas, under the seas and beyond the Kármán line, “special” and preventive operations, “Reasons of State” and “Deep States” where the monopoly of violence is “legitimate” only because of its obscurity…

[4]Sacrifice is a stratagem to deflect violence so as to avoid revenge which, though ritualistically regulated in societies without scapegoats, remains a profound danger.” (Ch. II – “Du sacrifice en clair-obscur”, “du chaos au rite”, p. 81 – my emphasis)

[5] The tension between these two forms of politics and the dynamic of the theories of social balance and imbalance is found in the heterodox structural-dynamist Edmund Leach. A humorous and acerbic critic of the “collectors of anthropological butterflies”, the functionalists, Leach rejects the idea according to which society tends to balance, favouring the fundamental contradictions of competitive rivalry for the seizure of power. Jourdain, with his concept of ambivalent “politics”, could recognise himself in a dynamic theory of transformations according to a double movement of conjuration changing into domestication and making-savage of the domesticated, ending with the conjuring of the conjurers.

[6] “In the discourse of the prophets there may Iie the seeds of the discourse of power, and beneath the exalted features of the mover of men, the one who tells them of their desire, the silent figure of the Despot may be hiding.” Pierre Clastres, Society Against the State. New York: Zone Books, p. 218.

[7] Charles Stépanoff distinguishes between the hierarchical shamanism of the white tent where the shaman serves as a mediator but also as an interpreter of the relations of a group with its own invisible imagination, hierarchical shamanism of pure spectacle where the shaman replaces the imaginative power of the group by mimicking it and appropriating it; and the heterarchical shamanism of the black tent where the shaman, invisible in the half-light, is only there, withdrawn, to accompany the ecstatic processes of his comrades – in these heterarchical societies, everyone is a bit of a shaman. I add in this idea that in the period of the first rituals of incubation at the Sanctuary of Asclepius, in Epidaurus, the caste of oneirocrites and of the priests of Asclepius, Isis or Trophonios, had not yet been constituted: the sick who came to lie down on the skins of animals of the sanctuary, in the middle of the vapors of incense, and between the harmless yellow snakes of the region, could dream directly of their own remission by the oneiric intervention of Asclepius. Over time, the priests and the oneirocrites ended up becoming the mediators and interpreters of increasingly equivocal and indecipherable therapeutic dreams for patients given over to the passivity of the hermetic image, to the point where certain oneirocrites began to dream for others and therefore in their place.

[8] For example, when dealing with the emergence of a ruler (which is consistent with statelessness, as is the case among the Nilotic Shilluck of South Sudan), the best way to limit her/his divine becoming (tyrannical, arbitrary and violent) is to sanctify it, to render it sacred; to corset it with the sacred by limiting it to a number of rituals, ceremonies and taboos. (37) As Arthur Maurice Hocart writes in Kings and Councillors: “the king is not master but captive of the institution”. “…the Constitution is not a recent invention: it is the very essence of royalty.”

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