John Proveti | On the Boomerang Effect and Savage War

By John Protevi

I’d like to make two comments here.

First, about the “boomerang effect” (SD 103): seminar participants [Jean Cohen, Nadia Urbinati, Ann Stoler, Alex Gil, Neni Panourgià] mentioned several names, including that of Césaire and the Discourse on Colonialism where Nazi genocide is seen as a return from the colonies. Here are some others.

I would point out, following Professor Stoler in discussion after the seminar, the work of Sidney Mintz in Sweetness and Power (also mentioned by Thomas Holt in his selection from the recommended readings), which looks at, among other things, productivity enhancing discipline in New World sugar plantations coming back to European factories.

The connection with biopower is here noticeable, as, following Robin Blackburn’s work, we can point to the awareness of the relation of death rates to work output to purchase and importation rates of “fresh” enslaved people. (See here for remarks on why I’ve come to believe that “enslaved people” is preferable to “slaves.”)

Another boomerang effect is of course the thesis of CLR James’s The Black Jacobins, the radicalization of the French Revolution by the action of the rebels of Saint-Domingue. (James’s mention of suicide and infanticide as resistance techniques among the enslaved population brings us back to the above point.)

Second, on the relation to notions in Deleuze and Guattari on two points: the notion of “savage war” in the context of Foucault’s treatment of Hobbes (SD 90), and on the distinction of savage and barbarian in Boulainvilliers (SD 194-199).

About the sketch of the “barbarian” presented in indirect discourse as Foucault ventriloquizes Boulainvilliers (SD 194-199). The barbarian is opposed by Boulainvilliers to the “savage” of social contract theory and classical economics, the man of exchange (of rights or of goods, i.e., homo politicus or homo economicus). The savage exists before or outside history (and hence must be opposed by Boulainvilliers’s radically historical discourse). For jurists, the savage exists before history and comes to exchange rights to found the social body, while for economists, the savage is without history, motivated only by self-interest in exchange. The barbarian, by contrast, is essentially historical, dominating, and free. He is always in an exterior relation to pre-existing civilization. He is essentially dominating; he takes and enslaves rather than exchanges. And he is essentially free: he never trades freedom for security.

One of the participants [Rosalind Morris] mentioned here the tripartite division in Anti-Oedipus of savages, barbarians, and civilized. However, in AO, “barbarian” refers to imperial state formations; the exterior, anti-state forces or “war machine” is not developed until A Thousand Plateaus; the point of highest intensity of the war machine is the steppe nomads (as in the quote from Desnos at SD 198-199).

I don’t want to make any strong claims about influence here, but I’m struck by the resonances between Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the war machine and what Foucault writes about in his brief sketch of the centralization of the power of war in the European State. Foucault writes “what was actually called ‘private warfare’ was eradicated from the social body… gradually, the entire social body was cleansed of the bellicose relations that had permeated it through and through during the Middle Ages” (SD 48). (On the twists and turns in the notion of “war” in Foucault, here is my entry on the subject in the Cambridge Foucault Lexicon.)

About the notion of “savage war” in Foucault’s treatment of Hobbes, another of the participants [Stathis Gourgouris]  mentioned Pierre Clastres, suggesting that his work in Society Against the State [French publication of this essay collection was in 1974, but his articles were well-known before then] could clarify Foucault’s formulation of the reference to the savage peoples of America cited by Hobbes. Foucault writes “First, what is this war that exists before the State, and which the State is, in theory, destined to end? What is this war that the State has pushed back into prehistory, into savagery, into its mysterious frontiers, but which is still going on? And second, how does this war give birth to the State?” (SD 90).

Things are very complex here (I’m confident the seminar participant [Gourgouris] mentioning Clastres knows all this, so I’m just expanding on what he would have said had he had more time), so I’d like to mention this essay of mine that goes into some detail.

Briefly, however, I can make the following points.

As detailed in a fine recent book by Guillaume Sibertin-BlancPolitique et État chez Deleuze et Guattari (Paris: PUF, 2013), Clastres can’t determine the conditions for the emergence of state; he can only state the conditions of its non-emergence: “savage war” as anti-State mechanism relies on keeping chiefs from becoming kings by trapping them in a prestige-war cycle: to maintain prestige they must wage war from the front lines but in doing so they condemn themselves to high risk of death so they won’t survive long enough to consolidate sovereign power.

Sibertin-Blanc lets us see what Deleuze and Guattari are doing with their notion of the Urstaat and the “auto-presupposition” of the state: it needs a surplus to feed its specialists but it needs specialists to produce and other specialists to monitor and confiscate that very surplus. This is a rewriting of Wittfogel (1957), who himself rewrites the Marxist “Asiatic mode of production.” The state is not the instrument of a pre-existing dominant class: it is itself the direct organization of society enabling surplus production which it then immediately appropriates; it is therefore itself what produces the dominant and subordinate classes. It is to address this problem of auto-presupposition that Deleuze and Guattari have recourse in Anti-Oedipus to Nietzsche’s idea of the break into history of the immediately arriving conquerors.

Leaving Sibertin-Blanc to the side, we could contrast Clastres’s anti-State mechanism of inter-group war with Christopher Boehm’s recent ethnography of nomadic foragers revealing intra-group mechanisms of ridicule, exile, and “capital punishment” aimed at maintaining radical egalitarian structures. Boehm’s Moral Origins also speaks of vendetta as an inter-group mechanism that is both anti-State and anti-war. His work can be connected with that of Raymond Kelly, whose Warless Societies and the Origin of War discusses the lack of a “logic of social substitution” that keeps personalized vendetta as inter-group violence below the threshold of “war.” (See here for Kelly’s paper upon induction into the National Academy of Sciences.)