The virtues of cosmopolitics

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons | © Marc Abélès. ISSN 2049-1115 (Online). DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.14318/hau7.2.015


The virtues of cosmopolitics

Marc ABÉLÈS, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales

Comment on Sahlins, Marshall. 2017. “The original political society.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 7 (2): 91–128.

Being a French anthropologist, I am of course supposed to be a Cartesian, according to the good old stereotype. Sahlins affirms that he is a Hocartesian, and I should be shocked by this assertion: Wouldn’t it be some provocation in this Hocartesianism which mixes the proper symbol of rationalism with a theologico-political perspective? However, I remember that one of my French professors, Louis Dumont, was a great admirer of Hocart and heartily recommended Kings and councillors to his students. He was especially interested in Hocart’s statements which could support his own theory of the hierarchy.

Sahlins develops a different orientation, and my first observation concerns the reading of Hocart that he proposes in this text. If he takes the views of Hocart as a starting point, it is to develop a very sophisticated reflection on what he calls “the original political society. ” In the genealogy of politics as sketched by Hocart, the gods precede the kings. This first point is extremely important: it means that, since the beginning, human societies have been regulated by cosmic powers, by a governmentality system which includes divinities and ancestors, what Sahlins calls “metapersons endowed with life-and-death powers over the human population” (p. 91). In the original political society, politics is synonymous with cosmopolitics: human and nonhuman participate together in the government of the world.

The second point concerns the definition of this cosmopolitics as a hierarchy of powers applying to any kind of group. Even acephalous societies are regulated by this hierarchy of powers. Thus Sahlins’ statement, “There are kingly beings in heaven where there are no chiefs on earth” (ibid.). Underlying the factual and comparative analysis developed in this essay, there is a philosophical thesis. Sahlins actually rejects the idea of a state of nature characterized by the lack of any kind [130]of political regulation. Any society for him is already a political one, and he goes even further when he writes that “something like the state is the general condition of humankind ” (ibid.). Following a comparative approach, he illustrates this thesis by refering to a number of ethnographic descriptions, including Central Inuit, Highland New Guineans, Australian Aboriginals, and native Amazonians. From the Malaysian Chewong to the Central Min of New Guinea, all the societies appear to be endowed with a structure of government. According to Sahlins, the ethnographic literature reflects the consistency and the complexity of a political order which articulates humans, nonhumans, and metahumans. It generates rules, and any transgression of these rules is punished by penalties. For example, the “rules of life” (p. 98) of the Iglulik reported by Rasmussen, the transgression of which was punished by the spirit Sedna, “mother of humankind.”

The title of Sahlins’ essay, “The original political society,” evokes his famous essay dedicated to the economy of the hunter-gatherers: “The original affluent society” (1972). I imagine that it was not by chance that he chose this title which clearly reminds us of the incisive and critical mode of thinking that characterized his first works. I think that the evocation of the origin in the two titles is not incidental. It does not mean that Sahlins has come back to the state of nature as described by classical political philosophers. Indeed, his essay concerns a native society which is not a state of nature, but which contains certain specific features that can be found in very different geographical contexts. Sahlins (2008) deconstructed and criticized the metaphysics of the state of nature that became established in the West and which fed capitalist thought and its legitimation of possessive individualism. In contrast to these concepts, “the original political society” provides a completely different problematization that introduces a methodological opposition between indigenous worlds and our own societies. Playing with this opposition between “them” and “us,” Sahlins’ contribution does not only consist in enlightening the native social order; it is also a theoretical device aimed to produce a critique of the reign of modern capitalism. When Sahlins analyzed the original tributary society, he criticized the way economists had depicted the hunter-gatherer mode of production. Threatened by starvation, it was asserted that people had to work ceaselessly to accumulate scarce resources. Confronted with this ethnocentric vision, however, Sahlins showed that, far from spending all their time working, hunters and gatherers were content with meeting their needs and dedicated most of their time to leisure activities and to rites. His essay was not only a remarkable contribution to the knowledge of hunter-gatherers, it also offered a perspective on contemporary societies. And so he was read far beyond the anthropological microcosm. Primitive tributary society appeared as an alternative paradigm to consumer society. Sahlins set against the “Galbraithean way”—where “wants are great, not to say infinite, ” and where “the gap between means and ends can be narrowed by industrial productivity”—“the Zen road to affluence,” which considers that “human material wants are finite and few, and technical means unchanging but on the whole adequate” (1972: 2). Facing the hegemony of market societies and the expansion of capitalism, anthropology proposes another theoretical and political possibility.

I think that we could read “The original political society” from the same perspective. Here egalitarian and acephalous societies are presented as encompassed in a cosmic polity. While in the contemporary capitalist world there is a split between [131]nature and society, the latter imposing its domination on the former, among these groups, on the contrary, it is nonhuman beings and metapersons who govern. In their own way, these cosmic theocracies present one alternative paradigm and incite us, in the context of the global ecological crisis, to rethink our political categories. Cosmopolitics entails an “ontological pluralization of politics” (de la Cadena 2010: 360), a “new pluriversal political configuration” (ibid.: 361) between “partially connected heterogeneous worlds negotiating their ontological disagreements politically” (ibid.: 360). Just as “The original affluent society” incited us to reconsider liberal economic ideology, so today Sahlins’ text invites to take into account a cosmopolitical paradigm repressed by hegemonic thought.

There is, however, a point in Sahlins’ analysis which seems problematic to me. It concerns the meaning he gives to “cosmopolitics, ” by reference to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. For the latter: “Animals and other spirits are conceived as so many kinds of ‘people’ or ‘societies,’ that is, as political entities. . . . What we call ‘environment’ is for them a society of societies, an international arena, a cosmopoliteia” (Danowski and Viveiros de Castro 2017: 68–69, emphasis in original). If we observe, as Sahlins does, “the coexistence of humans with such metapersonal powers in the same ‘intersubjective and personalized universe’” (p. 102), can we say that the spirits, the divinities, the ancestors, and so on, to which the indigenous traditions attribute these powers really exercise them? In the ethnographies quoted by Sahlins, I don’t find any clue as to the agency of these metapersons, or simply of the nonhuman beings dear to Viveiros de Castro’s perspectivism. We can certainly reconstruct a posteriori chains of causality of the type: a rule was broken, and so-and-so was punished, thus it proves the power of the spirit which ensures the achievement of the rule. But it is no more than a human interpretation: its coherence can be demonstrated or denied. However, nothing indicates that any action has been or has not been performed by the spirit. Also, we find no data on the organization and the functioning of the cosmic polity. If one can admit the influence of the “spirits” in the daily life of these groups, this does not mean that these entities are involved in their political management. And I observe that Bruno Latour (2004 : 454), when he refers to the concept of cosmopolitics, considers that “the presence of cosmos in cosmopolitics resists the tendency of politics to mean the give-and-take in an exclusive human club” (emphasis in original). The fact of taking into account the complexity of indigenous representations of their relation with human being does not entail any assumption concerning the political agency of nonhumans and metapersons. I can agree with the idea that in political debates, as in decision-making, the reference to the cosmos is an important variable “becoming an issue . . . going from a matter of fact to being a matter of concern” (Blaser 2016: 562). But does it mean that these entities are part of a governmental system? If I remain a bit skeptical, I will be considered a stubborn Durkheimian. I would just make the point that since I agree with the idea of a cosmic polity, my main divergence concerns politics as power and action. We will have to carry on this discussion, and I am grateful to Marshall Sahlins not only for providing such an impressive picture of the original political society and engaging in a deep reflection on the relation between governmentality, religion, and nature, but also for suggesting the necessity of an alternative to our dominant way of dealing with economy and politics.[132]


Blaser, Mario. 2016. “Is another cosmopolitics possible?” Cultural Anthropology 31 (4): 545–70.

Danowski, Déborah, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. 2017. The ends of the world. Trans lated by Rodrigo Guimaraes Nunes. Cambridge: Polity.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond ‘politics’.” Cultural Anthropology 25 (2): 334–70.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Whose cosmos? Which cosmopolitics? Comments on the peace terms of Ulrich Beck.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 450–62.

Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age economics. New York: de Gruyter.

———. 2008. The Western illusion of human nature. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.


Marc ABÉLÈS is Professor of Anthropology at the école des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales, Paris. His research and teaching are primarily in the area of politics and institutions in transnational and global contexts (fieldwork on the European Commission and the World Trade Organization). His most recent book is Thinking beyond the state (Cornell University Press, 2017).


Marc Abélès
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