The anthropologist Bernard Arcand passed away last Friday at the age of 63. He was one of my favorite professors at Laval, probably because he was among the least ideological ones. He avidly read the works of different Marxist writers but never considered himself to be one. In fact, he often criticized the unconscious Marxism that had seeped into much of anthropology, particularly the tendency to classify different populations by their mode of subsistence, notably hunter-gatherers versus agriculturalists. He would point out to us the artificiality of this distinction, and how there was just as much difference within these two categories as between them. In comparison to most agriculturalists, some hunter-gatherers were actually more sedentary, others more densely populated, and others still less egalitarian.
The Calusa of southern Florida formed a society divided into classes, lived in villages that could hold over 2,000 people, built temples, and kept an army that ensured the payment of tribute needed for a hierarchical system of local chiefdoms. This social complexity and these unequal social relations were supported by a hunting and gathering economy. (Arcand, 1988, p. 43)
According to Bernard, this unconscious Marxism reflected an economic determinism that was equally popular on the left and the right.
… an emergent industrial ideology … succeeded, mainly in the 19th century, in postulating that the economy has an autonomous status and should be seen as the ultimate determinant of society and culture. The argument is already well known and need not be repeated. Industrial capitalism and its socialist critics affirmed the crucial determining role of the development of productive forces, which would ensure rising productivity and be a key condition for progress and happiness. Despite the radical contrast between their political programs and goals, capitalism and socialism wanted to take over the same producing machine. More humbly placed, the anthropology of hunter-gatherers could not easily claim that everyone was wrong and that this was all just secondary. So it went on pretending that the mode of subsistence was what mattered. (Arcand, 1988, p. 52)
Bernard was also a man of letters who wrote not only academic articles but also readable essays for the public at large, such as Abolissons l’hiver and an essay on pornography called Le jaguar et le tamanoir. His analysis was striking in its originality. To be sure, his works suffered from one shortcoming: very few of them have been translated into English.
He will be missed.
Arcand, B. (1988). Il n’y a jamais eu de société de chasseurs-cueilleurs. Anthropologie et Sociétés, 12, 39-58.