Anthropology and Anarchy

About this site

This site is for the presentation of a general theory of anarchy, as opposed to social organization. Data on  communities that make do without government, and how, have been more systematically gathered by ethnographers, travelers, missionaries, and  administrative officials since the second part of the 19th century. In spite of a large body of evidence, concerning in particular groups of hunters and gatherers, a conceptual framework accounting for the existence and sustainability of such groups has not yet been  formulated.

In the introduction of a new volume on egalitarian people in Southeast Asia (in press, Gibson and Sillander eds.) the present state of the question is well described:

The precise mechanisms by which societies can function without formal political offices, corporate kinship groups or the assertion of long-term rights to productive resources were first described by ethnographers working among nomadic hunter-gatherers in Africa and South Asia during the 1950s and 1960s such as Lorna Marshall, Colin Turnbull, James Woodburn, Richard Lee, Peter Gardner and a few others.  The values of these societies were so different from those of the classic exemplars of this mode of subsistence in Australia, the Andaman Islands and the Northwest Coast of North America that the ethnographies were at first rejected as deficient, or the peoples being described were dismissed as enclaved remnants of more conventional societies and so irrelevant to general social theory.  It was only as the pioneering work of the first generation of ethnographers was corroborated by a second generation working in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and South America that a new school of thought began to emerge in which this way of life appeared not only as an entirely coherent way of organizing social relations, but perhaps even as one of the oldest and most stable ways of doing so.(Introduction to Anarchic Solidarity, T. Gibson & K. Sillander ed.,Yale University Southeast Asia Studies, 2011)

Peaceful, egalitarian, nomadic bands of foragers,  and other similar communities, were until recently seen as "simple" and "primitive", and were defined by a lack or absence of certain traits present at a more advanced stage of social evolution. They were seen, in other words, as an incipient stage in the development of society.
In the following essays I refute this view and I present a paradigm of human collective life based on two diverging models. One is the open-aggregated and anarchic model, the other one is "social". Both are viable solutions to the problem of collective living, but possess widely diverging properties. Humans are capable of living gregariously and of living socially, but most probably the gregarious and anarchic solution is the more ancient one and has been deeply imprinted in the human brain. The social option, more recent, has proved to be more efficient in terms of physical expansion and control over natural  resources, but at very high costs otherwise.

This approach opens up a window on the future. Charlie Keil writes:
If homo sapiens are ever going to get past "us" and "them" thinking and the deep psychopathologies of denial, splitting, displacement, and projection fostered constantly by big state nationalisms that have given us two world wars, assorted "administrative massacres," and the stark promise of a war to end all wars in the future, then many of us, especially those privileged white folks who have been profiting most from planet rape, will have to develop at least two, probably three, layers of cultural awareness and loyalty....

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In  ten different essays included in the attachments below, I have outlined a theory regarding what I call "non-social organization", "non-structural communality", or "anarcho-gregarious regime" of collective living,  that is, a radically different form of human collective living. Different here is meant as  "different  from a society conceived as made of corporate groups, hierarchies and driven by competition and coercion". This form is characterized by several basic features, like equality, sharing, a high degree of personal autonomy, flexible ego-centered networks, cooperation, an ethos marked by humility, usually (not always) peaceful and non-confrontational manners, bonding through humor and laughter, fission-fusion, a kinship system allowing for bilaterality, etc. This kind of arrangement has been described and analysed for hunters-gatherers and foragers. I propose to consider this arrangement as having a larger field of application limited by, but not dependent upon, specific technological and economic
conditions. I am trying to prove that this kind of "anarcho-gregarious" communality is not only the foundation of collective living for some  tribal populations --and could have been crucially important in hominids' past--, but is at heart one --albeit radically different-- way to organize interpersonal relations. It remains a focus of a number of collective activities and group actions within modern state societies, for instance communes based on libertarian ideas, but also a number of phenomena and associative forms like carnivals, the Japanese tea ceremony, sociality among deaf-mutes, Alcoholics Anonymous, post-disater spontaneous communities, "temporay autonomous zones" (H. Bey), and others.

In each essay I remind the reader that an epistemological shift is required to understand this type of "anarchic" regime of (non)sociality. Instead of a mechanistic approach that looks at human organizations as machines made of cogs and wheels, one needs to use the concepts of complexity, stochastic arrangements, non-linear processes, and truly organic order whereby totality is non-holistic. Unlike
social organizations made of corporate entities, open-aggregated communities cannot be represented by a series of nested boxes. Network analysis is a more adequate tool than social-structural analysis, and aggregative processes do not result in closed sets, but in temporary aggregates in a state of flux. One way to look at it is to say they form lumps or "dyadic molecules" in a "soup of weak ties" (quoting R. Gianno -personal communication).

The first paper "Order versus Harmony" (Published in Suomen Anthropologi, Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society,
33, 2 : 5-21, August 2008) offers a general and tentative blueprint of this project. It analyses some of the most important dimensions of the notion of "anarcho-gregarious" regimes of communality. I develop the idea of harmony as the "vertical dimension of sociality" and as a conceptual opposite of "order". Harmony is inherently associated with another concept, that of "complexity", which the French thinker Edgar Morin has shown to be a central albeit neglected notion in the social sciences.

The second paper, entitled "The gift without a donor", constructs  sharing (as opposed to the kindred notions of gift, exchange and reciprocity) as a basic key-concept in understanding this kind of communality. Sharing is neither exchange nor pure giving and the subtle but profound difference between these transactions leads directly to the heart of an anarchic regime of sociality, characterized by complexity and a tension between group solidarity and personal autonomy.

In the  third paper, I look at the "conditions of felicity" in human organizations. Certain values and types of behavior, such as anonymity, equality, humor and humility create a desirable human environment and characterize interpersonal relations in a broad range of human activities and associations. I study Alcoholics Anonymous rules of self-presentation, the ritual of the Japanese Tea Ceremony, Bakhtin's theory of carnivals, and the comic dimension in the cultures of  the Palawan (Insular Southeast Asia) and the Inuit (Arctic regions).

In a  seminar at the IAS, Princeton, I presented some of the same ideas with a view to tie them in with an anarchist approach to human sociality. This provides for a fourth essay ("The Anthropology of Anarchy" -Occasional paper No. 35 of the School of Social Science, IAS) where I examine some of the anarchist ferments present in anthropological discourse. I sketch briefly the beginning of an ethnography of anarchy.

A fifth essay ("Anarchic Solidarity, an Overview"), serves as an introduction to a collective volume (Gibson and Sillander ed.) on Southeast Asian societies (entitled Anarchic Solidarity. Autonomy, Equality and Fellowship in Southeast Asia, published as Monograph 60, Yale Southeast Asia Studies, New Haven, 2011, pp. 17-39). It looks at the organization of egalitarian and peaceful populations in Southeast Asia. Epistemological as well as factual considerations are presented; the concept of fellowship is suggested as a valid alternative to the concept of corporate group. 

The sixth paper was also prepared for the volume mentioned above (Gibson and Sillander, 2011, pp. 119-140). In this paper on kinship, I try to assess the function of this all-pervading dimension in human relations, how it helps bring order within an anarchic type of organization. The paradox is that it introduces an element of asymmetry in a strictly egalitarian system. The relationship between the asymmetric element in kinship with the essential symmetry of  an egalitarian open-aggregated community, points to the profound logical complexity of the whole system.

The paper entitled "the Filipino as Libertarian" has been prepared for Profesor Kikuchi's Festshcrift. It looks at a situation availing in Philippine society today and at its roots in the more distant past. I argue that  an open-aggregated and anarchic value system accounts for the lack of a rigid social structure, something  Kikuchi called an "uncrystallized" society. The article that has been downloaded below is the updated version of this essay, as published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal Philippine Studies.

The essay entitled "Can anarchism be a critical point in the new anthropological imagination?" has been presented at the EASA Conference in Maynooth in August 2010. In this paper I take up the same argument but I show briefly and tentatively how the model can be used to interpret some basic representation and political realities in our condition of modernity, and how it illuminates notions like democracy, nationalism and the state. This paper has been published under the title "Primitive Anarchs: anarchism and the anthropological Imagination", in the Journal Social Evolution and History, Vol. 10, No. 2, Sept. 2011, pp. 67-86.

The paper on "friendship" (still very much a draft in its present form) has been presented during a conference at the IIAS, Leiden, in September 2010. I take up, again, the thread of the "weak tie" and suggest that it is with this thread that the fabric of friendships has been sewn together. I present the view that social organization in its two major cultural configurations, religion and warfare, has tampered with the tie of friendship and has systematically striven to pass a weak (albeit intense) and immanent tie for  a strong and transcendent one. Social scientists and philosophers alike have been, with a few exceptions, the gullible victims of this hoax.

One last note is a preliminary version of piece entitled "Anarchs and Social Guys"
published in the Journal Society ( No. 48, 2011).   It gives a simplified summary of my thinking framed in a comment about Robin Fox's last book The Tribal Imagination. When trying to define our still surviving 'tribal imagination' I suggest to consider two different sources of ancestry, the gregarious (anarchic) and the social, with the gregarious being the more ethical of the two.

Many people have helped but the one who has been most supportive and a real mentor is my dear friend and colleague Bob Dentan whose work on the Semai has proved to be a beacon in our anthropological thinking. My debt to him is immense but as a good anarch I am not going to say thank you!   I am Indebted also to colleagues who have  inspired me and who took the time to read and discuss my essays, provide useful references and comments, and contribute to my limited understanding of what is out there: Olivier Herrenschmidt, Tom Gibson, Kenneth Sillander, Peter Gardner, Robin Fox, Rosemary Gianno, Charlie Keil, and many others.

Charles J‐H Macdonald is a French anthropologist. He holds a Ph. D. and a Doctorat d’Etat from
the Sorbonne and has done extensive periods of fieldwork in the Philippines (mostly in
Palawan island) and South Central Vietnam among the Raglai. He is a senior research fellow
Emeritus (Directeur de Recherche Emérite) at the French National Center for Scientific
Research (CNRS) and is attached to the University of Aix‐Marseille II (“Université de la
Méditerranée”). He has in recent years published several books and articles on the topics of
suicide, Christianization in Asia, naming practices, anthropological theory, and anarchy. He is
currently writing a book on open‐aggregated, anarchic communities. Prior to that he has
extensively published on Palawan and Raglai ethnography, on mythology, social structure,
religion and rituals, kinship, and various other topics. Email:


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