Hobbes Among the Savages: Politics, War, and Enmity in the So-called State of Nature

In: Hobbes Studies
Allan M. Hillani Philosophy Ph.D. candidate, The New School for Social Research, New York, NY, USA

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In this article I argue that Thomas Hobbes’s theory of the “state of nature” should be understood as describing a thoroughly political situation. Hobbes’s exemplification of the state of nature by resorting to the “savages” of America should be taken in its ultimately paradoxical character, one that puts in question the stark opposition between a prepolitical natural state and the properly political state resulting from the “social contract.” Through the lenses of ethnographic studies and anthropological theory, I propose a reinterpretation of Hobbes’s characterization of the state of nature as a state of war. In the first section, I present my interpretation of Hobbes’s understanding of war, arguing that war is characterized not by actual battle but by the uncertainty of conflict, already entailing a social dimension to it. In the second section, I engage with Pierre Clastres’s theory of the society against the State to discuss how, for Amerindian peoples, war not only has a social character but is itself the basis of sociality. In the last section, I discuss Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s theory of potential affinity to propose that Hobbes’s state of nature is also a form of schematization of alterity as enmity. I conclude by showing how this provides an understanding of peace as a precarious situation, one that is the outcome of ethical practices ultimately independent from the State.


In this article I argue that Thomas Hobbes’s theory of the “state of nature” should be understood as describing a thoroughly political situation. Hobbes’s exemplification of the state of nature by resorting to the “savages” of America should be taken in its ultimately paradoxical character, one that puts in question the stark opposition between a prepolitical natural state and the properly political state resulting from the “social contract.” Through the lenses of ethnographic studies and anthropological theory, I propose a reinterpretation of Hobbes’s characterization of the state of nature as a state of war. In the first section, I present my interpretation of Hobbes’s understanding of war, arguing that war is characterized not by actual battle but by the uncertainty of conflict, already entailing a social dimension to it. In the second section, I engage with Pierre Clastres’s theory of the society against the State to discuss how, for Amerindian peoples, war not only has a social character but is itself the basis of sociality. In the last section, I discuss Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s theory of potential affinity to propose that Hobbes’s state of nature is also a form of schematization of alterity as enmity. I conclude by showing how this provides an understanding of peace as a precarious situation, one that is the outcome of ethical practices ultimately independent from the State.


Based on Hobbes’s account, no one in their right mind would choose to live in the state of nature. As famously described, life in it is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”1 Yet, supposedly, so was the life of “the savage people” of the Americas, the only ones in Hobbes’s time who he thought actually lived in such brutish manner.2 This characterization of life in the Americas was far from accurate, of course.3 Nonetheless, this image of savages struggling without the benefits of civilization ended up shaping not only the imaginary regarding native peoples in America and elsewhere,4 but the whole of political philosophy, which since has taken for granted a prepolitical state to be overcome by the institution of a proper political society.

There is an evident paradox in the association of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and a prepolitical state of nature. As the early colonizers reported, the Natives were “faithless, lawless, and kingless.”5 Despite being clearly societies – “primitive,” “savage,” or otherwise – they lacked everything that would characterize political associations, most notably, the security established by a common “power able to over-awe them all.”6 If it is true that Hobbes’s intention in portraying a terrifying image of the state of nature as a concrete and existing example was more a rhetorical effort to remind his readers of what was jeopardized by rebellious action than really an attempt to theorize about the peoples across the Atlantic,7 the paradox still remains unanswered. How could sovereignty and the institution of the State not be a condition for social life? How could the State be ultimately contingent? And if that is so, then what is its real place in social and political relations?

In this article I address this apparent paradox by arguing that Thomas Hobbes’s theory of the “state of nature” should be understood as describing a thoroughly political situation, one that puts in question the stark opposition between a prepolitical natural state and the properly political state resulting from the “social contract.”8 This results in a quite different understanding of the state of nature when compared to the common picture of a hostile situation to be overcome by the institution of sovereignty, where violence can give way to peaceful political relations. When it is taken into consideration that Hobbes’s state of nature was exemplified by real human groups – the Indigenous societies of the New World – the absolute opposition between war and politics, savage and civilized, violence and State starts to become questionable.

In doing so, the article has a larger aim of presenting a way to bridge the gap between political anthropology and political philosophy. Political anthropologists tend to dismiss Hobbes as just an authoritarian version of ethnocentric racism, whereas political philosophers tend to dismiss non-Western social formations as being of no use to address the complexities of modern society. My reinterpretation of Hobbes proposes a double shift in this relation. On the one hand, it proposes to change the common interpretation of Hobbes (and all that comes with it, as the justification of our modern States) in order to recognize the political character of the relations that were relegated to the state of nature – and of all the peoples that were ascribed to it. On the other hand, this alternative reading of Hobbes allows a Hobbesian interpretation of the relations among Indigenous peoples, peoples thought to be in a state of nature, one that is compatible with his larger picture of social and political life as being marked by conflict, fear, and the difficulty of establishing peace – thereby renewing the pertinence of dedicating oneself to Hobbes’s philosophy. My aim in thinking a Hobbes among the savages – instead of against the savages, which is often taken to be the case – is to be a translator or a diplomat mediating the conflict between those that downgrade Indigenous political relations in order to support Hobbesian ideas and those who disparage Hobbes in order to account for Indigenous realities.

Given the centrality of the Indigenous peoples of South America to the imaginary of the “savage” in Europe and in the work of Hobbes9 – and the similarity between contemporary Indigenous societies and the peoples who had contact with the Europeans in the 16th and 17th centuries – I will base my analysis on the work of two major figures of Americanist anthropology:10 Pierre Clastres and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. This choice is based on Clastres’s and Viveiros de Castro’s ability to theorize about the Amerindian peoples at an abstract level, allowing for a clearer comparison between Hobbes’s and the Western view of certain topics and the differences one finds in Native thought and practice. In this sense, they assume the risk of generalizing certain features in order to go beyond the endless typology of different societies and understand something new about them – and, consequently, about ourselves.11

Their generalizing endeavor, however, is far from arbitrary. It is the outcome of a reflective and comparative effort ultimately based in their and others’ ethnographic work, which in the past decades has been supported by many other ethnographies of the American lowlands.12 Pierre Clastres’s theories are based on the historical accounts of the ancient Tupi of the Brazilian coast at the time of the conquest, as well as on his fieldwork with four Amerindian peoples during the 1960s and 1970s: the Aché-Guayaki and the Guarani-Mbyá (two Tupi-Guarani speaking groups from Paraguay), the Nivacle-Chulupi (inhabitants of the hostile region of Chaco, also in Paraguay), and the Yanomami of the northern Amazon rainforest.13 Viveiros de Castro’s work, on the other hand, starts with an ethnography of the Araweté of Amazonia,14 but extends to several other peoples across space and time, including other Amazonian societies, the ancient Tupi and Guarani of Brazil, the inhabitants of the Brazilian cerrado, and even certain groups from the Caribbean and the Northwestern coast of Canada and the US.15

Therefore, despite the inferential quality of the generalizations of the present work, their employment is based on their capacity to oppose a different conception to our Western forms of conceiving topics such as war, enmity, sociality, and alterity. In the first section, I present my interpretation of Hobbes’s understanding of war, arguing that war is characterized not by actual battle but by the uncertainty of conflict, what already entails an understanding of warfare as a social phenomenon. In the second section, I engage with Pierre Clastres’s theory of the society against the State to discuss how, for Amerindian peoples, war not only has a social character but is itself the basis of sociality. In the third and last section, I discuss Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s theory of potential affinity to propose that Hobbes’s state of nature is also a form of schematization of alterity as enmity. I conclude by showing how this affects the understanding of peace as a precarious situation that is the outcome of ethical practices, themselves independent from the State. Therefore, by engaging with the ethnographic data and the anthropological theory resulting from the study of Amerindian societies, I propose not only a new reading of Hobbes, but also a questioning of our own thoughts and doings more generally – politically and philosophically. By bringing the point of view of the “other” of Western political philosophy, we become able to articulate a new perspective on ourselves – one that is often made inaccessible by our narcissistic tendency to mock anything that is not our own reflection.

Natural Politics

The usual interpretation of the Hobbesian state of nature deems it as either a mythical past or a thought experiment; in any case, an unreal scenario that serves only to justify the State’s authority.16 This situation would result in a destruction of all social ties, leaving the individual in an absolutely lonely position. The major problem with the reduction of the state of nature to an abstract state of mutually hostile individuals is that it fails to see how, in Hobbes’s account, the state of nature does not disappear with the social contract – and, consequently, how the very opposition between the terms is potentially misleading – as well as how it describes an already social interaction.17 Social relations do not become possible only after the state of nature is overcome, for the state of nature is already a “social” state. That this is the case becomes clear once we analyze Hobbes’s association of the state of nature with the state of war:

Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man against every man. For Warre, consisteth not in Battel onely, or the act of fighting, but in a tract of time wherein the Will to contend by Battel is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is Peace.18

This passage from Leviathan has been endlessly cited, but not so often examined in detail.19 Hobbes’s argument is the following: a state of war is a situation where there is no common power – for only the sovereign could overpower all other individual powers.20 Such state of war is initially described as a “war of all against all,” but this war is not strictly characterized by the existence of actual conflict: it describes a tract of time defined by the uncertainty concerning the other’s will to engage in actual battle. Finally, it is relevant to notice how Hobbes defines peace negatively, as a situation in which there is no known disposition from others to engage in battle.

Hobbes’s argument derives from three presuppositions: the natural equality among humans, their capacity for anticipation, and the conflictual consequences of their coexistence. The three, of course, are interrelated, for the natural equality among humans is what makes the capacity of anticipation relevant and coexistence potentially conflictive. As Hobbes famously claims, “Nature hath made men so equall in the faculties of body, and mind” that the strength of the strongest will never be so great as to avoid that the weakest could kill them, “either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himself.”21 But it is not equality that necessarily drives humans into conflict. The problem is that when there is a conflict of interests – say, two people want the same object, or simply one person wants the other dead and the other wants to survive22 – equality makes the result of such conflict unpredictable. It is the unpredictability of social life resulting from equality that requires anticipation, meaning not just the anticipatory violence of preventive strikes – indeed a crucial tool in the art of war, though not always the best option – but also the protective actions one takes in anticipation of the potential violence of others.

This difference is often overlooked. Gregory Kavka, for instance, criticizes Hobbes on these very grounds.23 When Hobbes claims that “there is no security in any other man of his own defence but anticipation,”24 what he means is that it is necessary to anticipate the violence of others, but not that one should opt necessarily for anticipatory violence.25 It is this understanding of anticipation that explains the centrality of fear in Hobbes’s philosophy. Fear is the inevitable consequence of the uncertainty resulting from potentially conflictive relations among equals constantly trying to anticipate each other’s actions. Or, as Hobbes himself claims in De Cive against his critics:

The objectors believe, I think, that fearing is nothing but being actually frightened. But I mean by that word any anticipation of future evil. ln my view, not only flight, but also distrust, suspicion, precaution and provision against fear are all characteristic of men who are afraid. On going to bed, men lock their doors; when going on a journey, they arm themselves because they are afraid of robbers. Countries guard their frontiers with fortresses, their cities with walls, through fear of neighbouring countries. Even the strongest armies, fully ready for battle, open negotiations from time to time about peace, because they fear each other’s forces and the risk of being beaten. Men take precautions because they are afraid – by running away and hiding if they see no alternative but most often by using arms and instruments of defence; the result is that when they do risk an advance, each tries to probe the other’s mind.26

So what is crucial in Hobbes’s postulate of natural equality – and the mutual fear that necessarily results from it – is not some kind of pre-determined equality between the parties but the uncertainty created by the fact that even the stronger is incapable of being fully sure that he is indeed stronger than the weaker. They are equal insofar that any possible inequality is never unequal enough to assure to both parties what would be the inevitable outcome of a conflict between them. It is this situation that inevitably produces a potentially conflictive reality.

Thus, Hobbes’s account of the state of war has two critical consequences. The first is that if this state of war exists over time, this means that the “war of all against all” should not be thought as a black-and-white scenario – either everyone is in actual war against everyone or they are living under a common power. We could think of several intermediate states in which there is alliance and partnership without suppressing the possibility that these alliances be broken, and conflict take place once more. The state of war between States is enlightening in this sense. Hobbes’s famous dictum that “Man is a wolf to Man” describes not the relation between individuals, but between commonwealths. It is “between commonwealths” that “the wickedness of bad men compels the good too to have recourse, for their own protection, to the virtues of war, which are violence and fraud, i.e. to the predatory nature of beasts”.27

Yves Charles Zarka argues that the state of war among States is different from the state of war among individuals because there there is no natural equality between States, for some are already more powerful than others.28 But from the standpoint of actual war this is a misguided view. States are subject to the same uncertainty regarding actual conflict and tend to avoid it for the very same reasons as individuals. One does not even need to include nuclear power to make the argument sound,29 for as Hobbes claims, “in the condition of mere Nature, the inequality of Power is not discerned, but by the event of Battel”30 and “[e]ven the strongest armies, fully ready for battle, open negotiations from time to time about peace, because they fear each other’s forces and the risk of being beaten.”31 In order for States to prove their inequality they would need to actually wage war – just like individuals.

Moreover, even the internal peace supposedly achieved by the sovereign is only relatively stable, for rebellion and sedition persist as concrete possibilities of every political institution. This brings us to the second consequence: by defining peace negatively, Hobbes opens up the possibility of war being understood as a permanent possibility lurking beneath the appearance of peace – including the one established by the commonwealth. As Michel Foucault has claimed, “even when the State has been established, the threat of war is there,”32 either in the possibility of a war against another State or in the possibility of sedition within the State itself. Peace is never assured indefinitely. War is a constant threat to peace; peace is just a precarious and temporary suspension of war, either within the commonwealth or outside of it.

Hobbes’s argument is that there is a primacy of war and uncertainty over peace and security in human relations. In fact, because he ascribes primacy to the former he is so obsessed with the latter, constantly emphasizing the artificiality of the commonwealth and the need to preserve it at all costs due to its inherent vulnerability. To propose the primacy of war in political relations is not to claim that these are always based in actual conflict. It involves emphasizing that conflict is always a possibility. As Foucault rightly argues, Hobbes’s state of war is less a “state of bestial savagery in which living individuals devour one another” than a situation of “unending diplomacy between rivals who are naturally equal.” 33

Foucault’s reference to an “unending diplomacy” to describe this state of war is interesting because it reveals how Hobbes articulates a historically new form of thinking about politics. Isabelle Stengers has proposed that politics should be thought as a fundamentally diplomatic practice, in opposition to the (hegemonic) deliberative model we inherited from the Greeks.34 The latter is always grounded on a bounded political community from which everything else must be excluded – and the criterion for deciding who is in and who is out brings all sorts of problems – whereas the diplomatic model is defined by the necessity of dealing with radically different actors, actors that are not previously known. Although Hobbes is commonly associated with an authoritarian version of the first model – he is, after all, the founder of modern sovereignty – it is the second that is at stake in the centrality of war in his thought. To speak about diplomacy, after all, is to speak about the possibility of war.

What must be noted, then, is that the state of nature in Hobbes is not a prepolitical condition, but a political condition without the State. The “natural condition” he wants to highlight is that humans are indeed political animals, not because we are naturally cooperative, but because we naturally engage in political relations that are always potentially conflictual. What makes the state of nature political is the intrinsic indetermination of politics. If Hobbes calls it a state of war it is because politics, for him, is indeed the continuation of war by other means – and vice-versa.

War Against the State

Yet, to claim that, for Hobbes, the state of war is political or social is not the same as claiming that war can be the basis of a social state. The aim of any belligerent actor, for Hobbes, would still be to put an end to it through the institution of sovereignty. And despite the peace established by sovereignty being somehow precarious, it would still be capable of dramatically reducing the possibility of conflict and enabling the development of all that is associated with “civilization,” from buildings to the arts.35 That war itself could be at the base a social organization was, for Hobbes – and several others who came after him – simply inconceivable. Nonetheless, this was the situation in the Americas, where war was widespread even when the usual causes for it were absent.

It is in this sense that Pierre Clastres’s theory of the society against the State enacts a Copernican revolution in political thought.36 Against the premise that societies with States would be inherently superior to societies without it, Clastres proposes to understand Stateless societies in their own terms – and, in doing so, to question the Hobbesian assumption that the institution of sovereignty would be a necessary outcome of social existence. By decentering the State he could break away from the “centripetal narcissism” of Western political thought, that could only recognize Indigenous society as being marked by the “lack” of State institutions. Instead, what he realized is that they called for a reconceptualization of politics itself.37 Clastres’s political anthropology was “political” because it addressed political topics, for sure, but also because it proposed that “the State and all that to which it gave rise (in particular, social classes) is a historical contingency, ‘misfortune’ rather than ‘destiny’.”38

Clastres claims that if we want to understand the internal logic of Amerindian societies, we must understand war in positive terms. He realizes that war is not simply a situation that exists because the State is not present, but one that can be actively deployed to prevent the emergence of the State – in other words, that these are societies against the State, not simply without it.39 With the thesis of the society against the State, Clastres was proposing that Amerindian warfare can only be explained by its political purposes. Researchers had long been perplexed by the widespread conflict among Amerindians, especially given that the usual explanations for warfare were not applicable in their case.40 For Clastres, this fact couldn’t be explained by any biological, economic, or transactional reasons. Biologism ignores that war is a social and cultural practice, economic justifications rely on a scarcity of resources that is not true in their case, and the structuralist thesis that war and commerce are opposed – reciprocal exchange avoiding conflict, war being the outcome of unsuccessful exchange – is debunked by the presence of conflict even among exchange partners.41

Clastres’s thesis has a double aspect, one internal and one external. The first consists in laying out the Amerindian philosophy of chiefship that prevents the concentration of political power in the hand of chiefs, who for this reason are incapable of enforcing commands; the second concerns the political autonomy of the group guaranteed by warfare. If the accumulation of power is a centripetal force, agglutinating members of the community together, warfare is a centrifugal force affirming multiplicity against unification.42 The restriction of the chief’s power and the enactment of war work simultaneously to establish a “modality of collective life based on the symbolic neutralization of political authority and the structural inhibition of ever-present tendencies to convert power, wealth and prestige into coercion, inequality and exploitation.”43

The nature of this war (and the reasons for its suppression) becomes clearer once we analyze a contemporary report. Davi Kopenawa, a shaman and political activist, describes contemporary warfare among the Yanomami44 in the following terms:

We do not like what the white people call ‘war’ in their language. They reproach the Yanomami for arrowing each other, but they are the ones who really wage war. We certainly do not fight with the same hardness as they do. If one of our people is killed by arrows or sorcery blowpipes, we only respond by trying to kill the enemy who ate him and is in an õnokae homicide state. This is different from the wars with which the white people constantly mistreat each other. They fight in great numbers, with bullets and bombs that burn all their houses. They even kill their women and children. And it is not to avenge their dead, because they do not know how to mourn them the way we do. […] We inhabitants of the forest only go to war to avenge ourselves, out of anger for the mourning we feel because one of our people has been killed. We do not arrow each other about just anything, without good reasons! We lament our dead at great length, for several moons, for we carry their grief deep inside us and we are truly dedicated to avenging them.45

Therefore, the Indigenous warfare Clastres had in mind is not characterized by a series of battles between clearly distinguished parties fighting until victory is acquired. It is closer to vengeance and the private enactment of justice than to a battle between armies.46 This, however, should not diminish its status of “war,” at least not from the Hobbesian standpoint. As we have seen, a state of war is characterized by the uncertainty of hostility and the absence of a common power to prohibit this this kind of vengeful action.47 In fact, it is because it is a Stateless form of war that Indigenous warfare is not the same as a war between States.

At first, Amerindian warfare would seem to be antithetical to the Hobbesian account given how the dynamics of revenge can only take place because there is no sovereign to overawe them all. Yet, what is remarkable is how both Hobbes and the Amerindians follow a similar logic. The State, for both of them, is the product not only of a rational avoidance of war, but of a suppression of war between subjects. It is not by chance that when Clastres engages with Hobbes at the end of his life,48 he does so in relatively positive terms. What Hobbes offers him is a way to think about politics in terms of war instead of exchange, alliance, and reciprocity.49 The primacy of war found in Hobbes allows Clastres to present warfare as a mechanism that prevents the foundation of the State rather than justifying it. In fact, just as anticipation characterized war for Hobbes, it also characterizes the war against the State found in Clastres: not only actually waging war against States, but also preventing its emergence in the first place.50

At stake in war is the assurance of the group’s political autonomy from any kind of sovereign. The enactment of autonomy through war, for Clastres, is crucial yet dangerous. The fact that war is waged by warriors, who accumulate prestige and power when they are successful, would always bring with it the danger of creating internally the division between rulers and ruled that warfare supposedly avoided.51 That this is not what happens has to do not only with the specific character of Amerindian warfare mentioned above, but also with the internal dynamic of such political groups. The moment a leader becomes too powerful he actually loses power; the very people that would be expected to follow him start to boycott his authority.52 The only possible destiny for the unbounded warrior is the solitary death in the battlefield. The same “society-for-war” is a society against the warrior.53

The enactment of war and the mechanisms controlling the accumulation of power thus feed back into each other, avoiding “both the temptation to control and the risk of being controlled.”54 These preventive mechanisms are a form of preserving the autonomy of the political community from any sovereign, either arising from within or coming from without. But this enactment of autonomy should not be understood as protecting a previously existing “society” against the State. It is in the enactment of war itself that such “society” is constituted.55 War, therefore, must be conceived itself as the principle of a social relation. This is the point where Hobbes and the Amerindians really diverge. What Hobbes could not tolerate is that sociality could be on the side of war, and not of sovereignty; that there could be a sociality beyond the State. Not simply that war would have a social character, but that it could constitute itself a stable and intentionally reproduced form of sociality that is fundamentally antithetic to the unifying sociality of the State.56

Potential Hostility and the Ethics of Peacemaking

The understanding of how warfare can be a form of sociality entails a different conception of enmity. If State societies affirm their internal unity against a common enemy,57 for the Amerindians the enemy cannot be understood as someone completely outside of established relations, an absolute “other” that is invariably included in a political community by means of its very exclusion.58 The Amerindian conception of the enemy would entail a social relation of enmity, one that is preserved and consciously enacted by those involved. This is what is behind paradoxical claims such as that “the enemy par excellence of a Tupi is another Tupi, or at least, an other who can become Tupi.”59 Instead of “domesticating” and “civilizing” the other so that they can share a culture, the Amerindians “civilize” the other so that they can wage war against them.

This is because, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro observes, no difference is “indifferent” for the Amerindians: “every difference is immediately a relationship endowed with positivity.”60 Difference is constitutive of Amerindian social relations, not the remnant of relations based on similarity. It is this emphasis on the centrality and positivity of difference that characterizes Viveiros de Castro’s account of Amerindian sociality and the role war and enmity play in it. The enemy is conceived as an active part of a relation of alterity, a relation grounded itself on difference and not on similarity against difference. More important than the “animism” of Amerindian peoples is their “enemyism,” which follows a wider “schematization of alterity.”61

If war assumes a primordial role in Amerindian sociality it is because the logic of war is itself a logic of differentiation, something that is true both from the Hobbesian and the Amerindian standpoints. But if for Hobbes this logic of differentiation results in the establishment of a victor and a defeated (a vertical differentiation), in the Amerindian case, war is what guarantees the differences between endlessly warring parties (a horizontal differentiation).62 In the former, horizontal difference is suppressed by the vertical differentiation of State institution; in the latter, vertical difference is prevented by the horizontal differentiation of warring enemies.

Thus the Amerindian conception of enmity is completely at odds with the Schmittian dogma that what constitutes the political is the antithetical opposition between friends and enemies. For Schmitt, the enemy “need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger.”63 The Amerindian conception of enmity is precisely the reverse: it is not that despite possible advantages the enemy is still the absolute other; it is because the enemy is “other” that there are reasons to establish relations with it in the first place. War is not the “existential negation of the enemy,”64 but the existential affirmation of it. Consequently, if the Amerindian enemy is another enemy, then also the equivalent of “friend” must be thought in other terms. In the Western tradition, at least since Aristotle, the friend is always an “other self,” an extension of self-identity.65 Among the Amerindians, however, the opposite of enmity is not conceived in terms of identity but as a different kind of difference. Instead of the “other self,” we find in such position the ally, both in the political and in the kinship senses. It is the ally who “permits the conversion of an internal indivision into an external fragmentation, modulating indigenous warfare and transforming it into a full social relation.”66

Viveiros de Castro’s discussion of alliance follows the centrality ascribed to it in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s theory of kinship. Lévi-Strauss countered those theories that defined kinship as being solely based on descent by arguing that, in fact, the defining element of kinship is the necessity of establishing marriage alliances outside of the family group – and to call it an “alliance” is not an exaggeration, given how marriages are a fundamental form of establishing political alliances in Indigenous societies (and not only in them). Kinship is a social relation, one that cannot be reduced to the “natural” relation of consanguinity. This account results in two different kinds of kinship bond: siblings are bound by common descent and consanguinity; affines (siblings-in-law), by alliance and marriage. Affinity and consanguinity then constitute two complementary yet mutually exclusive principles of kin relations.67 What must be noted, however, is how consanguinity is based on sameness, on the “sharing of blood” as the etymology of the term indicates, whereas affinity characterizes a relation that is ultimately based on difference. What “unites” two affines is also what distinguishes them, i.e., the fact that one’s wife is the other’s sister, and vice-versa. Their relation is based on their difference as brother or husband – in fact, their difference is produced by the marriage of the sister/wife.68

However, what Viveiros de Castro finds in many Amerindian societies is that the relation between consanguinity and affinity, between “natural” and “cultural,” between “given” and “made” is actually inverted. If, for us, consanguinity is “given” and affinity is constructed by marriage relations, what is found in the Amerindian context is the reverse: affinity is “given” whereas consanguinity is “constructed.” This, of course, results in a reconceptualization of what affinity and consanguinity mean.69 As Viveiros de Castro explains,

relations of affinity become the object of a collective disinvestment that allows relations of consanguinity (siblinghood and filiation) to camouflage it. Terminological affines […] are conceived as types of cognates – in this case, cousins and cross-cousins – rather than as affines; true affines are treated consanguinally in both reference and address (my brother-in-law becomes my maternal uncle and so on); the specific terms of affinity are avoided in favor of consanguinal euphemisms or technonyms that express a transitive cognation (“maternal uncle and my son” rather than “brother-in-law,” and so on again); […]. [But] as soon as one leaves the village, whether real or ideal, the camouflage is inverted, and affinity becomes the non-marked form of social relation… Affines are enemies, and enemies are thus affines.70

This inversion of the standard model according to which affinity is constructed and consanguinity is given might be puzzling, but it is worth recalling that we are constantly facing inversions of this kind in our own kinship relations. Affinity assumes a “given” character when we consider how one’s affines are not really chosen – to marry someone is to become related to their whole family, whether one likes it or not. On the other hand, consanguinity can be “constructed” when the bond one has with biological parents and siblings is extended in cases of adoption, for instance – an adopted son is as much a son as a biological one.71 Similarly, in the kinship model found in many Amerindian groups, parallel cousins (one’s father’s brother’s children and one’s mother’s sister’s children) are not cousins but brothers for all purposes – they are considered consanguineous and marriage with them is strictly prohibited.72 On the other hand, “affinity” characterizes relations with strangers even if no marriage takes place – in fact, it applies especially if no marriage takes place – which are interpreted to be “given.” Hence the generic usage of “brother-in-law” to describe people with whom one is not related, especially enemies.73

Affinity is then “given” because “it is lived and conceived as an ontological condition underlying all ‘social’ relations.”74 It is potential affinity, “affinity without affines,” so to speak. It does not describe actual brothers-in-law, but expands the strange bond between brothers-in-law to all non-specified social relations. More than the description of a specific kinship tie, affinity names the general framework of relationality at large in a context in which “non relation” is unthinkable and everyone – and sometimes things and animals too – is thought to be already “related” like brothers-in-law.75 Consequently, it is affinity that is the background for “consanguinity” to be established – for proper kin groups to be created.76 “Consanguinity” no longer refers to a sharing of substance; it is defined negatively, as “non-affinity before being anything else.”77

A consequence of potential affinity is that “affinity” and “consanguinity” (i.e. non-affinity) can no longer be conceptualized as absolute opposites. Their relation only expresses differential values on a single scale of sociality, like “hot” and “cold” appear to be opposites but are just different measures in a heat scale. “Consanguinity” is just a case of relative less affinity and can itself have several different degrees. For instance, the moment I marry someone and become relative of an actual brother-in-law, this concrete relation is a step away from unqualified potential affinity towards the concreteness of consanguinity, even if our relation is one of “actual” affinity. My relation with my wife, on the other hand, would still be more characterized by affinity then my relation with my mother, or my daughter, etc. A determinate kinship relation (i.e. a state of non-affinity) is just a snapshot in a potentially endless process of de-affinization, of “actively extruding affinity from itself.”78 In this sense, an actual relation of kinship is just a section of a scale that stretches from absolute alterity (complete affinity) and absolute identity (complete non-affinity). The process can be displayed in the following diagram, showing how the process of internal differentiation of non-affinity into affinity and a more concrete degree of non-affinity (i.e “consanguinity”) operates along two different lines: one that goes “down,” towards consanguinity, and that characterizes the active production of less affinity in the social bond; and an other that, in reverse, “goes up,” revealing the context of already existing potential affinity in which such action of de-affinization takes place. What matters for our purposes here is how, in the diagram, each “level” of non-affinity is the outcome of an action of de-affinization, of establishing a relation further away from “absolute” affinity.

Figure 1
Figure 1

The Amerindian schematization of alterity as potential affinity, according to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro

Citation: Hobbes Studies 36, 1 (2023) ; 10.1163/18750257-bja10057

source: viveiros de castro, “gut feelings about amazonia,” 29.

Thus, because of this generalization of affinity, the Amerindian social model cannot fit into a holistic description of society in which differences are subsumed by a social totality ultimately based on sameness.79 Unity and difference are also just points in the scale of sociality – a unity is just a relative unity in reference to difference. There is no totality encompassing Amerindian “society,” no border that divides the internal friend and the external enemy. Alliance, both in politics and in kinship, “impedes a ‘generalized reciprocity’ (a fusion of communities and a superior sociological unity) as much as generalized warfare (the suicidal atomization of the socius).”80 This is why Viveiros de Castro’s theory of potential affinity is a supplement to Clastres’s theory of war.81 In both cases, it is difference and not similarity that constitutes the Indigenous relational schematism.

It is the association of enmity and affinity as forms of alterity that allows us to understand how war can become the basis of Amerindian sociality. The enemy is always a potential affine, an other with whom I am already inscribed in a relation of difference just by the fact of being other, and whose existence is a condition for my non-affine relations. What is astonishing in all this is how it resonates with the reading of the Hobbesian state of war I have presented so far. The Indigenous inversion of what is from our standpoint given and constructed, natural and social, throws new light into what is at stake in Hobbes’s characterization of the state of nature as a state of war. There is a parallel between the Amerindian schematization of alterity as enmity and Hobbes’s account. For the latter, too, enmity is the framework through which alterity is conceived. In the state of nature, everyone is a potential enemy – and the relations between these enemies is a social one, given the inherently social dynamic of warfare described above. So instead of a “potential affinity” as the virtual background of social relations, what we find in Hobbes is a potential hostility characterizing the general schema of relationality of the state of nature.

This opens the possibility for several other parallels between the Hobbesian and the Amerindian accounts of sociality. Just as kinship ties are a concrete form of non-affinity, we can interpret the constitution of the commonwealth as a concrete form of establishing a non-hostility, one that is also constructed – “artificial,” as Hobbes say82 – like the consanguinity of the Amerindians. Also like affinity and non-affinity, the relation between hostility and non-hostility should not be reduced to the binary friend-enemy, for hostility and non-hostility are also disposed along a scale of sociality. A state of non-hostility is always a reduction of hostility; hostility is the context out of which non-hostility can be constructed. So, if a state of non-affinity is the outcome of a process of de-affinization taking place in the context of generalized affinity, then the Hobbesian state of nature can be interpreted as the contextual background out of which non-hostile social relations can be established – the precarious outcome of a process of de-hostilization, of establishing less hostile relations with others.

It is this notion of de-hostilization that is the most fruitful outcome of understanding Hobbes’s state of war as a description of the generalized hostility out of which social relations can be constructed. It allows us to understand peace in completely different terms than what we are used to. More than simply a precarious suspension of always possible warfare, peace becomes the result of actions that strive to produce social bonds that are ultimately less hostile, even if we can never be completely certain that they will not become so in the future. Peace can start to be thought as an ethical practice, one that reveals itself as structurally independent from the existence of the State. The state of nature is characterized by a precarious situation in which the establishment of peace is always possible immanently, even if there is no guarantee from a higher power. If peace, as Samantha Frost has defined it, names a situation in which “individuals manage to convey to and assure one another that they do not intend to fight one another,” a tract of time when “individuals’ relations with one another are characterized by the effort to convey peaceable dispositions now and into the future,”83 then it means that peace can be enacted even without the State.

To think about peace without the State is to highlight how peace is a possibility in social interaction that need not be based on the threat of coercion – precarious, delicate, but nonetheless possible. Hobbes’s diplomatic model of politics as based on the primacy of war cannot be separated from the ultimate diplomatic aim of pursuing peace. By removing the State, what is left is not necessarily a degeneration of sociality, but the possibility of seeing peace relations as the possible product of our actions of de-hostilization. That this is also the way the Amerindians conceptualize peace should no longer surprise us. As Davi Kopenawa describes it:

It is true that our elders of the past could be sometimes bellicose, but after a time, once the most aggressive warriors on both sides had been killed, they tried to send words of appeasement to their enemies through other houses. They told them they would no longer attack them and encouraged them to make friendship. So, tired by relentless raids, these enemies finally risked visiting our elders’ house to attempt to be reconciled. We also call this rimimuu. Despite suspicion, minds regained their calm and people were able to get along. Yet after several moons, bad talk could sometimes come back and someone else could be arrowed again. New incursions were then launched for a while and finally stopped in the same fashion as before. Once all the great warriors in õnokae homicide state were dead, the other men, less aggressive ones, always wanted to make peace in the end. […] Then fear came to an end on both sides and people started to think: ‘Awe! This is a good thing! I will be able to acquire their goods and we will become friends.’ They started bartering hammocks, pots, machetes and axes, knives, glass beads, cotton, tobacco, and dogs. After this first contact, they continued to visit each other and generously exchange their goods. This lasted for some time, then they eventually arranged marriages between young people of their houses and never stopped being friends.84

What the shift from war to peace allows us to see is that the centrality of war and enmity – both in Hobbes’s thought and in Amerindian practice – must not result in an image of society permeated by endless violence. It can also enable us to imagine a society oriented towards peace and towards other forms of resolving conflict, one that does not necessarily erase relations of difference – just like the establishment of kinship ties among the Amerindians do not weaken their characterization of alterity as enmity. This immanent pursuit of peace in relations without the State is already present in our own everyday forms of solving conflict, which often do not involve calling the police or any other State institution. The moment that peace is detached from the violent assurance of sovereignty, it allows us to reconsider what is at stake in our everyday political relations. It also allows us to imagine other forms of peace that are independent of State coercion. This might have been Hobbes’s greatest and unexpected contribution, one that is intriguingly shared with the Amerindians but that got lost in the Western obsession with the savagery of others.


Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. C.B. Macpherson (London: Penguin, 1985), 186 [62].


Hobbes, Leviathan, 187 [63].


As Ioannis Evrigenis claims, “there was plenty of evidence, both in explorers’ narratives and in visual representations, of social hierarchies, government, and even of commodious living on the other side of the Atlantic” (Images of Anarchy: The Rhetoric and Science in Hobbes’s State of Nature [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014], 220). In the twentieth century, the view that life among the Native peoples of American was dreadful became simply inadmissible. Marshall Sahlins has shown how life in supposedly “primitive” societies is far from poor and brutish, it is just based on different standards of affluency and welfare (Marshall Sahlins, “The Original Affluent Society,” in Stone Age Economics [London: Routledge, 2017]). Even in objective terms such as caloric ingestion, the peoples of the Americas were much better off than the average Europeans of the time. It is estimated that the native inhabitants of New England, for instance, had a daily ingestion of 2,500 kcal (M.K. Bennett, “The Food Economy of the New England Indians, 1605–75,” Journal of Political Economy 63, no. 5 [1955]: 369–97), a much better situation than that of the often starving European masses, who on average ingested 2,000 kcal daily (Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life: The Limits of the Possible, vol. I of Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century [London: William Collins Sons & Co., 1985], 130).


Carlos Fausto, “Da guerra à inimizade: forma e simbolismo da Guerra indígena,” in A outra margem do ocidente, ed. Adauto Novaes (São Paulo: Cia. das Letras, 1999), 257.


Pierre Clastres, “Society Against the State,” in Society Against the State (New York: Zone Books, 1989), 205.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 185 [62].


Evrigenis, Images of Anarchy, 224, 83. This is epitomized by the opposition between a civilized imperium and a savage libertas in the original frontispiece of De Cive.


The very term “state of nature,” despite being deeply associated to Hobbes, is not really compatible with his thought. Hobbes never uses the sentence “state of nature” or “natural state” in the Leviathan, and titles the famous chapter xiii as “On the natural condition of mankind” (the title in the Latin edition is De conditione generis humani, translatable simply as “On the condition of the human kind”). In De Cive, Hobbes uses versions of in statu naturae or in statu naturali, translable equally as “state of nature,” “natural condition,” or simply “natural situation.” In the Elements of Law, he employs a few times the expressions “state of nature” and “estate of nature” as synonyms, but he seems to already mean by it not an extra-social state of affairs that would be overcome by the social contract. In fact, such overcoming would be completely at odds with Hobbes’s materialism, where everything is natural – everything is matter in relation, bodies in motion, including mind and ideas.


See Evrigenis, Images of Anarchy, 218–24. Montaigne played a major role in this, especially the portrait of Brazilian Indians in “On Cannibals.” Montaigne’s account of the Native peoples of Brazil, however, did not have the intention of portraying them as barbarous, quite the contrary: “there is nothing barbarous or savage about them, except that we all call barbarous anything that is contrary to our own habits” (Michel de Montaigne, “On Cannibals,” in Essays [London: Penguin, 1993], 108). Nonetheless, as Evrigenis points out, Montaigne’s “descriptions and language gripped the minds of his English readers and became a part of the folklore surrounding the New World” (Evrigenis, Images of Anarchy, 205).


When referring to “Americanist” or “Amerindian,” the anthropological literature excludes American Indigenous societies with State formations, such as the Inka of the Andes and the triple alliance ruled by the Mexica (wrongfully referred to as the “Aztec Empire”). Also, despite interesting similarities between native peoples of North and South America, it is usually employed in anthropological discourse to refer to the lowlands of the southern continent, most especially the native peoples that still live in Amazonia and other parts of tropical South America.


See Marshall Sahlins, The New Science of the Enchanted Universe: An Anthropology of Most Humanity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022), 14–15.


For a systematic account of the relevance of Clastres’s theories to Americanist anthropology and its pertinence in light of contemporary ethnography, see Renato Sztutman, O profeta e o principal: a ação política ameríndia e seus personagens (São Paulo: Ed. USP, 2012). Viveiros de Castro himself also has an interesting account of Clastres’s relevance for him and Americanist anthropology in general (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” introduction to Pierre Clastres, Archeology of Violence [Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2010]). Ethnographic works that engage with Viveiros de Castro’s theories include Philippe Descola, The Spears of Twilight: Life and Death in the Amazonian Jungle (New York: The New Press, 1993); Aparecida Vilaça, Strange Enemies: Indigenous Agency and Scenes of Encounters in Amazonia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010); and Carlos Fausto, Warfare and Shamanism in Amazonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), to name a few that are available in English.


Renato Sztutman, O profeta e o principal, 44. Pierre Clastres’s monograph on the Aché-Guayaki is published under the title Chronicle of the Guayaki Indians (New York: Zone Books, 2000).


Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, From the Enemy’s Point of View: Humanity and Divinity in an Amazonian Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).


See, for instance, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics (Minneapolis: Univocal, 2014); “Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere,” in The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds (Chicago: Hau, 2015).


Ioannis D. Evrigenis, Fear of Enemies and Collective Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 112; Images of Anarchy, 111; Kinch Hoekstra, “Hobbes on the Natural Condition of Mankind,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes’s Leviathan, ed. Patricia Springborg (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 118. Examples of this view include Leo Strauss, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes: Its Basis and its Genesis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 104; J.W.N. Watkins, Hobbes’s System of Ideas (London: Hutchinson University Library, 1973), 47–48; and Michael Oakeshott, Hobbes on Civil Association (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1975), 161–62.


F.S. McNeilly, The Anatomy of Leviathan (London: MacMillan, 1968), 5. As Samantha Frost claims, “in [Hobbes’s] view, we cannot properly conceive of individuals having thoughts and passions absent in such contexts; it is only through individuals’ continual and varied engagement with other and with the material world that thinking and desiring are possible. […] we become who we are – we come to think, feel, and to know ourselves – only through our encounter and engagement with others. Hobbes’s insight here – that individuals are profoundly and ineluctably socially embedded – entails that when we conceive of individuals, we do so in terms of their intersubjective existence, that is, in terms of their relations to others over time” (Samantha Frost, Lessons From a Materialist Thinker: Hobbesian Reflections on Ethics and Politics [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008], 108).


Hobbes, Leviathan, 185–6 [62].


Samantha Frost being a notable exception (Lessons from a Materialist Thinker, 117).


Hobbes, Leviathan, 150 [41].


Hobbes, Leviathan, 183 [60].


As McNeilly points out, Hobbes tends to “write as if all desire were for things (specific physical objects), although many desires, whose existence he not only acknowledged but even considered important, such as the desire for power, or, for that matter, benevolence itself, were not desires simply for (the possession of) physical objects” (Anatomy of Leviathan, 160–61). In the limit case, conflict is always based on divergent interests, and conflict seems to be indeed inevitable in any kind of long-term social interaction.


Gregory Kavka, “Hobbes’s War of All Against All,” Ethics 93, no. 2 (1983): 294–98. As he points out, “it is likely that in some state of nature situations, pursuing a strategy of lying low, staying alert, and fighting only when and if attacked will be more likely to promote one’s interests than would anticipation. […] Lying low is not, however, the most attractive alternative to anticipation. Joining with others in a defensive coalition promises to yield much greater benefits” (Kavka, “Hobbes’s War of All Against All,” 298). The problem of Kavka’s argument is that he sees it as a criticism of Hobbes’s account, which, as I argue, implicitly includes Kavka’s objection.


Thomas Hobbes, The Elements of Law, ed. J.C.A. Gaskin (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 103 [ch.19 §1].


As McNeilly puts it, “the point of the argument of anticipation, then, is not so much merely that each individual must face the possibility of competitive violence, and the only security against this is for him to anticipate if there should be an opportunity of successful anticipation, as rather that each individual must face the possibility of others contemplating anticipatory violence, so that his own reason for anticipating derives not merely from the possibility of competitive violence but from the possibility of the anticipatory violence of others” (Anatomy of Leviathan, 166).


Thomas Hobbes, On the Citizen, ed. and trans. Richard Tuck and Michael Silverthorne (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 25 [ch. 1 §2].


Hobbes, On the Citizen, 3–4 [ep. ded], emphasis omitted.


Yves Charles Zarka, Hobbes and Modern Political Thought (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018), 111.


See, for instance, Kavka, “Hobbes’s War of All Against All,” 306.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 200 [70].


Hobbes, On the Citizen, 25 [ch. 1 §2], emphasis omitted.


Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France (1975–76), ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003), 90.


Foucault, “Society Must Be Defended,” 92.


Isabelle Stengers, “The Challenge of Ontological Politics,” in A World of Many Worlds, ed. Marisol de la Cadena and Mario Blaser (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 83–87.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 186 [62], 190 [64].


Pierre Clastres, “Copernicus and the Savages,” in Society Against the State (New York: Zone Books, 1989).


Miguel Abensour, “Le contre Hobbes de Pierre Clastres,” in L’Esprit des lois sauvages, ed. Miguel Abensour (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1987), 118. As Clastres put it, “it is imperative to accept the idea that negation does not signify nothingness; that when the mirror does not reflect our own likeness, it does not prove there is nothing to perceive” (Clastres, “Copernicus and the Savages,” 20).


Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” 21.


Clastres, “Society Against the State”; “Power in Primitive Societies,” in Archeology of Violence, 168–69.


As Carlos Fausto summarizes the problem: “how to explain this omnipresence of war in an egalitarian society, living in small villages scattered over a vast strip of forest? Why would warmongering be so prevalent there where population density was so low, land availability so great, and society undivided: no classes, no private property, no rulers and ruled?” (Fausto, “Da guerra à inimizade,” 254).


Pierre Clastres, “Archeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies,” in Archeology of Violence, 243–55.


Tânia Stolze Lima and Marcio Goldman, “Pierre Clastres, etnólogo da América,” Sexta-Feira 6 (2001): 305; Renato Sztutman, “Religião nômade ou germe do Estado?: Pierre e Helène Clastres e a vertigem tupi,” Novos Estudos 83 (2009): 152; Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” 32. These are respectively the topics of Clastres’s first and last contributions: the first, “Exchange and Power” (in Society Against the State), originally written in 1962, where he introduces the figure of the powerless chief, and “Archeology of Violence: War in Primitive Societies” (in Archeology of Violence), written in the year of his death, 1977.


Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” 12.


The Yanomami have been accused of being a specially bellicose Indigenous group, mostly due to Napoleon Chagnon’s work (see, for instance, Napoleon Chagnon, Yanomamö: The Fierce People [New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968]). This account had terrible effects for the Yanomami people and has been widely discredited by other ethnographers of the Yanomami (see, for instance, Bruce Albert, “Yanomami ‘Violence’: Inclusive Fitness or Ethnographic Representation?,” Current Anthropology 30, no. 5 [1989]: 637–40; “On Yanomami Warfare: Rejoinder,” Current Anthropology 31, no. 5 [1990]: 558–63; Jacques Lizot, “On Warfare: An Answer to N.A. Chagnon,” American Ethnologist 21, no. 4 [1994]: 845–62). Those studies, however, do not deny that the Yanomami indeed wage war; it is what “war” entails that demands a reconceptualization.


Davi Kopenawa and Bruce Albert, The Falling Sky: Words of a Yanomami Shaman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), 359–60. This vengeance, that in Kopenawa’s account is reduced to a minimalist form, was a defining trait of the ancient Tupinambá. Vengeance, for them, was not only the basis of their sociality, but the very assurance that there was a future to come: to avenge someone is to keep their memory alive; to be victim of vengeance means that you yourself will be avenged in the future. As Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Viveiros de Castro argue, vengeance is the “nexus of Tupinambá society,” a “link between what was and what will be, between the dead of the past and of the future, or, which amounts to the same thing, between those who lived in the past and those who will live in the future. To say that its nexus is vengeance is to say that Tupinambá society exists within time, that it thinks itself as constituted in time and by time” (Manuela Carneiro da Cunha and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Vingança e temporalidade: os Tupinambás,” Anuário antropológico 10, no. 1 [1986]: 70–71).


Consequently, the casualties of these wars tend to be very low. Descola mentions a war among the Achuar of Amazonia in the end of the 1960s, which in the course of several years mobilized only 60 warriors from 7 different local groups and resulted in the death of 21 people in total (Philippe Descola, “As afinidades seletivas: aliança, guerra e predação no complexo Jivaro,” Sexta-Feira 6 [2001]: 86).


Hobbes, for instance, explicitly opposes revenge and punishment for these very reasons (Leviathan, 354 [162]).


See Clastres, “Archeology of Violence.”


Abensour, “Le contre Hobbes de Pierre Clastres,” 125. Hobbes is often associated with the latter tradition, especially given Marcel Mauss’s and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s accounts of gift exchange in reference to social contract theory. A great example of this is found in Sahlins’s “The Spirit of the Gift,” which presents the reciprocity of gift exchange as producing the same effect of pacification as Hobbes’s institution of sovereignty (Marshall Sahlins, “The Spirit of the Gift,” in Stone Age Economics [London: Routledge, 2017], 152–67).


See, for instance, Sztutman, O profeta e o principal, 37. It is the same impetus against the State that characterized the actual wars against an actual State waged by the Native inhabitants of Brazil during the process of Portuguese colonization, something that should be recognized as a proper form of political action and not just the inevitable outcome of a bellicose cultural trait (Beatriz Perrone-Moisés, “Verdadeiros contrários: guerras contra o gentio no Brasil colonial,” Sexta-Feira 6 [2001]: 31–2).


Pierre Clastres, “Sorrows of the Savage Warrior,” in Archeology of Violence, 304.


Renato Sztutman gives a contemporary example of how this works. The example does not concern warfare as such, but it follows a similar logic. The Tenetehara of Maranhão (Brazil), who were very active in the local elections of 2008, refused to support their own chiefs as representatives either of the city hall or the governmental agencies responsible for Indigenous populations. The aim was not to undermine the authority of those chiefs, but to strengthen chiefship itself. By blocking the attempt of the chief to also become a State representative, chiefship itself was preserved as a source of local authority (Renato Sztutman, “Metamorfoses do contra-Estado,” Ponto Urbe 13 [2013], available at:


Clastres, “Sorrows of the Savage Warrior,” 314.


Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” 13.


Gustavo Barbosa, “A socialidade contra o Estado: a antropologia de Pierre Clastres,” Revista de Antropologia 47, no. 2 (2004): 557.


Abensour, “Le contre Hobbes de Pierre Clastres,” 137–38. The Amerindian horror against “the One” is especially relevant in this refusal of political unity (see Pierre Clastres, “The One Without the Many,” in Society Against the State.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 225 [86].


Agamben proposes such model of “exclusive inclusion” in his description of the homo sacer (see Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life [Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998], 21, 82–85).


Sztutman, O profeta e o principal, 89. This is far from restricted to the Tupi or any other specific Amerindian ethnicity. Philippe Descola mentions the case of the Jivaro, the largest ethnic group of Amazonia (around 70,000 people living in a territory of the size of Portugal), who despite their cultural homogeneity refuse to recognize themselves as a single group. He finds among them a difference between two kinds of warfare: “intratribal” warfare, conceived as a the degradation of a social relation, usually taking the form of vendetta between persons who share kin ties (and that is necessarily contained); and “intertribal” warfare, in which the enemy is anonymous and generic, but close enough to share a cultural identity (often they are members of other Jivaro groups that speak different dialect and do not share a kin relation, but they can be members of other ethnic groups as well) (Descola, “As afinidades seletivas,” 78). However, as he also points out, intertribal and intratribal warfare are not truly different. In fact, one is the outcome of the other: “the repeated conflicts between allied nexus blocks can only consolidate antagonistic regional identities, therefore contributing to the continued process of tribal differentiation” (83).


Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “The Problem of Affinity in Amazonia,” Hau: Journal of Ethnography 8, no. 1–2 (2018): 380.


Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics, 176, 194.


Fausto, “Da guerra à inimizade,” 260; Abensour, “Le contre Hobbes de Pierre Clastres,” 133.


Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 27.


Schmitt, Concept of the Political, 33.


Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Immanence and Fear: Stranger-Events and Subjects in Amazonia,” in The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds (Chicago: Hau, 2015), 186 (see Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009], 1166a, 30–35).


Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” 42–43.


See Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Elementary Structures of Kinship (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969); “Structural Analysis in Linguistics and in Anthropology,” in Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963).


Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “gut Feelings about Amazonia: Potential Affinity and the Construction of Sociality,” in Beyond the Visible and the Material: The Amerindianization of Society in the Work of Peter Rivière, ed. Laura M. Rival and Neil L. Whitehead (Oxford: Oxford: University Press, 2001), 26.


Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “The Gift and the Given: Three Nano-Essays on Kinship and Magic,” in The Relative Native: Essays on Indigenous Conceptual Worlds (Chicago: Hau, 2015), 165.


Viveiros de Castro, “Cannibal Metaphysics,” 174–75.


Viveiros de Castro, “The Gift and the Given,” 159–65.


See Viveiros de Castro, “The Problem of Affinity in Amazonia,” 350–51.


Viveiros de Castro, “gut Feelings about Amazonia,” 20. As Viveiros de Castro recalls, “tovajar, the Tupinambá word signifying ‘brother-in-law’ and ‘enemy,’ expressed both friendly alliance within and deadly enmity without, and very probably vice-versa. It approximated and opposed in one fell swoop” (Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, “Along the Spider Thread: Virtuality, Actualization, and the Kinship Process in Amazonia,” in The Relative Native, 101).


Viveiros de Castro, “The Gift and the Given,” 163.


It is not possible to develop it here, but associated to potential affinity is Viveiros de Castro’s account of Amerindian perspectivism, “the indigenous theory according to which the way humans perceive animals and other agencies that inhabit the world differs profoundly from the way in which these beings see humans and see themselves. Perspectivism is ‘cosmology against the State’” (“The Untimely, Again,” 48; see also Cannibal Metaphysics, chapter 2).


Viveiros de Castro, “gut Feelings about Amazonia,” 19–20. This is what enables collective groups to constitute themselves locally as collective groups: “local groups are defined and constituted in relation not to some global society, but to an infinite background of virtual sociality. Moreover I suggest that these collectives are made local, that is, actual, by extracting themselves from this infinite background and making, literally, their own bodies of kin. And these processes correspond to the concepts of affinity and consanguinity, respectively, in the Amazonian world” (Viveiros de Castro, “Along the Spider Thread,” 109).


Viveiros de Castro, “gut Feelings about Amazonia,” 27.


Viveiros de Castro, “gut Feelings about Amazonia,” 28.


Viveiros de Castro, “gut Feelings about Amazonia,” 27.


Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” 43–44.


Viveiros de Castro, “The Untimely, Again,” 40–41.


Hobbes, Leviathan, 81 [1]. If Amerindian non-affinity is what allows the construction of “bodies of kin” (Viveiros de Castro, “gut Feelings about Amazonia,” 25), in Hobbes’s case it creates a proper “body politic” (Hobbes, Elements of Law, 109 [ch. 20 §1]).


Frost, Lessons From a Materialist Thinker, 117.


Kopenawa and Albert, The Falling Sky, 363. For a detailed account of how peace relations are established among the Yanomami, see Jacques Lizot, “Words in the Night: The Ceremonial Dialogue – On Expression of Peaceful Relations Among the Yanomami,” in The Anthropology of Peace and Nonviolence, ed. Leslie E. Sponsel and Thomas Gregor (Boulder: Lynne Renner Publishers, 1994). This account of Indigenous practices of war and peace is not restricted to the Southern part of the continent. David Graber’s account of the North American Iroquois during the 19th century presents all the elements of Indigenous warfare presented so far: the schematization of alterity, the dynamic of vengeance, and also the immanent enactment of peace: “the Iroquois did not see the danger of violence as arising from the fact that humans were solitary individuals competing over scarce resources, but because they assumed them to already be enmeshed in relationships with others – relations which were in fact so intense, and so intimate, that the death of a loved one could cause them to descend into paroxysms of destructive fury. The way of creating society, in turn, was through establishing long-term open-ended commitments: whether to bury one another’s dead or to be willing put aside principles of property rights when faced with a sufficiently profound need, as revealed in another’s dream” (Toward and Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of our Dreams [New York: Palgrave, 2001], 231).

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