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The anarchic institution

Recently in a waiting room, perusing a copy of Glamour magazine, I was drawn to an article entitled ‘Would you change your face? Two writers have their say’. The page was split into two columns – on one side was a piece entitled ‘No’ by Radhika Sanghani, and on the other a piece entitled ‘Yes’ by Joanna McGarry, who at the age of 34 has had Botox three times ‘having tentatively dipped my toes in on my 30th birthday…’. The thing is, she argues, ‘…to inject Botox into my face is my choice…’. But then, a slight admission:

‘Yet, each time, I’ve been hit with a niggle in my stomach. As if, by intervening in the narrative of my face I’ve let down the sisterhood. Leaving the dermatologist’s office I’d ask myself; had I succumbed to the expectations of a patriarchal society? The answer is always, quite viscerally, no. In fact, that’s what patriarchal society would want me to think –  that the choices concerning my own body are not my own, but driven by someone else. That I’d augment my appearance purely to meet a societal beauty criteria is insulting – like the time-worn adage that we only wear make-up to attract men.’

There is something in this style of reasoning which is, to me, curiously paradigmatic of our age. As Zygmunt Bauman once proposed, moderns and perhaps more parochially ‘Westerners’ tend to be vociferous valuers of personal freedom (1988: 28-9). In 1986, Mary Douglas published her book ‘How Institutions Think’, partly in an attempt to address or at least query our instinctive discomfort with any suggestion that we are not the sole authors of the choices we make. In her preface she notes the hostility that greeted Emile Durkheim and his followers when they talked about institutions or social groups as if they were individuals and notes that ‘the very idea of a suprapersonal cognitive system stirs a deep sense of outrage’ (1986: X). At least since the 1980s and particularly under the influence of interpretivism and post-modernism, anthropology as a discipline has been overwhelmingly concerned to emphasise human agency. Despite many varied and elegant attempts by different theorists over the years to resolve the question of whether human self-determination is located in the collective or the individual, the very idea of the collective perhaps continues to stir in us a ‘deep sense of outrage’. Since the interpretivist turn in anthropology, we have been working hard to explain our connectedness without resorting to the notion of the collective. We have swapped structures for networks, class for precarity, and social institutions for ethical processes. So passionately committed are we to self-interpretation that ‘agency’ has come to stand virtually in opposition to the notion of ‘culture’ itself (Keane 2003). There is a salutary sense of freedom about this kind of writing, a sense that helps to overcome any unsavoury insinuation that choices, behaviours, and events might be caused by forces beyond our conscious control or immediate perception.

For anyone out there who, like McGarry, would reject any notion that social institutions could be determining their choices, Matthew Carey’s Mistrust is a stimulating read. Drawing on fieldwork in Morocco’s High Atlas Mountains, it explores the possibilities of a world in which self-determinism is the only option because widespread mistrust of institutions means that there are few if any institutional channels to tread. By examining the positon of mistrust in social relations, Carey’s book constitutes a provocative challenge to the widely accepted notion that society is built on trust in, and capitulation to, institutional ‘norms’ and organized structures. Mistrust, he argues, does not necessarily corrode social relations. Some of its effects, he argues ‘may at times even be enviable’ (13) but most importantly, they are worthy of sustained attention.

Carey is a confident scholar, unafraid of staking out big theory via a bold, comparative approach. ‘I would like very seriously to stress’ he writes at the start ‘that this book is not primarily intended as an ethnography of a place or people; it is an ethnography of a hypothesis’ (13). The grounds for this hypothesis are laid out in a particularly brilliant ‘Introduction’ which synthesises, with impressive ease, a gigantic body of literature on trust, charting its development from the birth of sociology onwards. Across this vast territory there exist distinctions between psychological and sociological approaches to trust, and between personal and impersonal relations of trust. All such distinctions, acknowledges Carey, are hard fought, but what they all have in common is the idea that trust is more than simply a matter of choice; it is also a way of viewing the world. Whether or not we consider ourselves to be living in times when there is less and less trust, or more and more of it, ‘everyone agrees’ he writes ‘that there is more need for it than ever.’ (7).

Having acknowledged the great variety of approaches and implications of trust-centred theories Carey goes on to point out that mistrust, as a counter-hypothesis, has been curiously neglected. In the Moroccan High Atlas, however, it is mistrust – not trust – that has a pervasive presence. And rather than indicating a lack of sociality, it is richly generative of social life. This assertion sets the scene for what turns out to be a highly original series of chapters in which Carey explores different groundings and implications of mistrust as an attitude, from language ideologies and concepts of friendship to witchcraft and conspiracy theories. Mistrust, we learn along the way, has its virtues: it respects individual autonomy and generates tolerance for others’ mistakes. Mistrustful friends, for example, are quick to forgive one another for wrongdoings, perhaps because they are quicker to recognise that given half a chance, they’d do just the same.

While Carey’s central idea – that mistrust may be more generative of social life than previously recognised – is clear and persuasive, the book itself is slim and a little tantalizing: readers might be left wanting more. Although part of the HAU short monograph series and therefore perhaps always intended more as an amuse bouche than an intellectual main course, the overall brevity of this text, notwithstanding Carey’s careful disclaimers about the limited scope of the book, makes it feel somehow insufficient in relation to the scale of the theoretical intervention he wants to make. What is there in the book is food-for-thought and definitely worthy of our attention; the problem is not, as is often the case, with what he says, it is more with what he does not say, or was perhaps not allowed space to say, given the ‘short book’ format. As a result, the very phenomena Carey seeks to downplay or deny altogether (institutional formations and collective values) proceed to stare back at us unapologetically from the text, like silent spectres.

This essay is an exploration of those silent spectres. It is inspired by Carey’s insistence that mistrust as a constitutive force has been underexplored, an insight particularly germane to my own research on the Catholic Church and the role of mistrust and dissent in constituting its elasticity and longevity as an institution (Mayblin 2018a; 2018b). In what follows, I suggest not only that institutions (in one form or another) are indeed present in the ethnographic context that Carey describes, but also that mistrust itself plays a central part in their constitution. I advance this alternative take on mistrust in two main ways, firstly, by defining institutions as sets of relations and agreed-ideas (or ‘values’) that may intersect with, but do not necessarily depend on physical locations, organized bureaucracies, or even conscious forms of objectification in order to exist. And secondly, and as a kind of extended case study of this alternative approach, by considering patriarchy itself as an institution constituted through mistrust.

The Anarchic Institution

According to Carey there are two broad scholarly approaches to traditional political practice in the Atlas Mountains: the anarchic Anglo-Saxon one and the institution-heavy Franco-Moroccan one (65). In the Anglophone tradition of ethnographers such as Gellner (1969), politics is done via kinship, through the segmentary lineage system, meaning that there are no clearly differentiated political institutions. In the Francophone ethnography exemplified by authors such as Montagne (1930) and, more recently, Amahan (1998), attention has been more focused on the role of political councils as local seats of bureaucracy and sovereignty. Carey offers the following summary of such councils:

‘The precise composition and functioning of these councils seems to vary, but in broad brushstrokes, it comprised (and in many cases still comprises) all adult men of a village, who assembled in a set location on a Friday after midday prayer to decide on village affairs. Attendance was compulsory, procedures tightly regimented, there was an elected president (amin), and the council was mandated to fine those who stepped out of line…’ (67)

Carey’s description of life in the High Atlas seems to fit somewhere orthogonally in relation to these two dominant approaches. Councils (ljmã) do exist, but these take the form of sporadic meetings attended only by males and based loosely on blood ties and residence. Rather than dependable and enduring forms of political organisation, ljmã’ are ‘highly ephemeral outfits’ ‘destined like mayfly to die with the day’ (73). Meetings proceed in an ad hoc manner, there are no fixed offices, there are no leaders, and whatever they achieve seems to be down more to accident than intention. For example, one ljmã‘ is called to settle a water dispute between neighbours, another to deal with a school teacher from the plains accused of slandering the mountain villagers. In each case, notes Carey, nothing is resolved, or at least resolved in a particularly effective manner. In short, the ljmã‘ is an institution with ‘no durability, no ability to project itself through time.’ (73).

The counterpoint to the ljmã‘, we are led to assume, is a more bureaucratized or tightly organized corporate group with a specific territorial base. As an employee of just such an institution (a British university) I am tempted to point out that, like the ljmã‘ Carey speaks of, nothing is ever resolved, or resolved in a particularly effective manner, but that would take us off point. The point is that when Carey uses the word institution, he seems to have something fairly specific in mind: a set of formal offices, abstract charters, and effective means of coercion. Coercion, he rightly notes, is a key element of durability. Temporal extensibility only becomes possible when institutions enact justice; that is, when propositions and agreed ideas are able to catch-up with perpetrators by extending themselves through time. According to Carey, however, the ljmã‘ lacks coercive power. There is no one to collect the fines, no one to enforce the orders, much to the chagrin of ordinary villagers who find themselves unable to extract compensation for the misdeeds of neighbours. But again, here Carey seems to be working with quite a specific idea of coercion, related mainly to fines, and to the threat of court orders. The question of how we define coercion is one to which I shall return.

According to Carey, the opposite of durable, institutional, coercive societies are anarchic ones. Anarchism, whose origins are often traced to the Enlightenment thought of Rousseau, is generally assumed to function through trust. As Dunn puts it ‘at its most optimistic anarchism simply consists in the universalization of trust toward all humans who are not themselves bearers of concentrated power’ (1988: 76). Within anthropology, anarchism describes politics organized around expressions of what David Graeber calls ‘counterpower’ (2004:35). Classic work in this vein includes the work of Pierre Clastres (1987), who argued that certain Amerindian societies were not merely stateless, they were societies against the state. The famous example he gave was the powerless chief, whose leadership is wholly symbolic because he is the only polygamous person in the village, and this leaves him insurmountably indebted to his subjects for the women he has received from the group. In terms of brute power, he is effectively impotent, he has no grounds or technologies through which to coerce anyone. For Clastres then, as for authors such as Scott (2009) and Graeber (2004), anarchism describes a peculiar set of practices designed to resist authority and undermine technologies which would deposit and sediment power in one place. This makes anarchism a consciously held value; an object a society strives actively towards.

Carey is critical of the way anthropologists such as Clastres, Scott and Graeber have leant on European philosophical traditions of thinking about the subject. Such traditions tend to be abstract and idealistic, construing anarchism as a deliberate political project – much like communism. Carey contrasts these depictions with the lived, ‘accidental’ anarchism he encountered in the High Atlas which, he argues, had nothing to do with any overarching political ideology, but was simply the sum of many piecemeal displays of interpersonal mistrust. Organizational counterpower in the Moroccon High Atlas, he concludes, ‘is not some pollyannaish utopianism, but a political practice born of unflinching pragmatism’ (83).

If the point here were actually to produce a fair and detailed critique of authors such as Clastres, Scott, and Graeber, Carey might have wanted to slow down a little in order to reflect on subtle but important distinctions between such things as acephalous and anarchist societies, or ‘stateless’ and anti-state societies, and even between politics as an ethnographic category and politics as a pervasive explanatory form in anthropological discourse (cf. Candea 2011). The fact that he does not may in part be because his wider move, at this juncture, appears to be a critique of anthropological theories which foreground ‘notions of the good’. This kind of foregrounding is classic in political theory, but is also to be found in anthropological projects that seek a comparative focus on the ‘ways in which different societies strive to create the good in their lives’ (Robbins 2013:457). For Carey, anarchism is too often rationalised as a particular version of ‘the good’.  A good which, ‘very often embraces ideals related to trust, such as conviviality and unanimity’ (78). More worryingly, the anarchism anthropologists have described to date always seems, he says, ‘very serendipitously to overlap with that of the anarchist anthropologist’ (78). Not only does this ideological overlap risk being ethnocentric, it obscures the ineluctable power of the contingent. It cannot account for the fact that in some anarchic societies – for example, the High Atlas – individuals lament out loud the absence of tighter institutional frameworks. As Carey notes:

‘It is quite simply inordinately difficult to get anything done in such a fragmentary institutional environment…the simple matter of clearing the road of snow can takes several days to organize and this difficulty is multiplied for more complex undertakings…In sum, the non-coercive nature of local political councils is not a matter of collective agreement, let alone design.’ (78)

Carey has a point here. Anarchism has its down sides, and it is hard to believe that those living in an anarchist society never experience frustration as a result. But it is equally hard to believe that pervasive mistrust does not, in its own oblique way, service or index a set of collective values. Carey’s quarrel with anthropological approaches oriented toward ‘the good’ is in fact terribly slippery. Throughout the chapter and the book more widely Carey gestures towards what many scholars would recognize as ‘values’ in the sense of specific qualities routinely cherished by people living in the Moroccan High Atlas such as ‘aligned speech’ (80); ‘radical autonomy’ (82), and personal inscrutability (32-35). These collectively admired qualities – whether we want to call them ‘values’, ‘goods’ to be striven for, ‘cultural ideologies’ or non-corporate social institutions – are spectral but very much present in the ethnography, and doubtless contribute to lived anarchism, whether this be via or alongside attitudes of mistrust.

At least some of the slipperiness of Carey’s argument, particularly in Chapter Three, derives from his loose and unspecified use of terms such as idealism, values, ideologies, and institutions. For example, it is asserted that political institutions in the High Atlas have no relation to ideology, but it is never made clear in what sense the term ideology is being deployed. As the ljmã‘ is not undergirded by formal charters or written manifestos, it can be deduced that it is not ideological in the sense of the word used by old-fashioned Marxist thinkers who regard ideologies in a narrow, political, and explicitly articulated sense. But as post-Althusser Marxists and many anthropologists understand the term, ideology can be pervasive and implicit, such that even seemingly apolitical institutions and types of practices may serve an ideological function.

The Awkward Institution

Institutions are awkward things, there’s no denying it. Frequently taken for granted by anthropologists yet poorly understood, institutions are assumed to be incredibly central to things, but we rarely bother to spell out what we mean by them in our writing. Carey is no exception here, but he is in good company, because anthropologists frequently refer to institutions without really defining what they mean by them. This is problematic when we consider that the word institution can refer to anything from an entity such as the Catholic Church, the police, or the Bank of England, to a network of signifiers and agreed assumptions which, combined, comprise a set of ‘norms’ which are collectively intended and thus reproduced (marriage, democracy, witchcraft, property, and so on). Roy D’Andrade describes the kaleidoscopic potential of institutions in the following way:

‘Institutions can be corporate, like Microsoft, or non-corporate, like chess and property. They may be temporally based, like the 4th of July, or territorially based, like the state. They may be assigned to people, like roles, or to physical objects, like money and property, or to events, like an election. They may be general to the entire society, like a constitutional right, or specific to a small group like the secret handshake of the Masons. They may be formal or informal. They may be rigid in definition and assigning powers, or quite vague….’ (2006: 32, emphasis original)

All these separate phenomena are demonstrably institutions of one sort or another, but without further specification, the term institution remains far too broad to provide us with any real analytical traction. We need greater conceptual elaboration of what an institution actually is, and for this we might look to John Searle’s (1995; 2006) body of work on social ontology which, for being exceptionally precise in its definitions, provides a useful grounding framework. In Searle’s definition, institutions arise, at the most basic level, from particular kinds of relations between speech acts, intentions, and consciousness. Above all, institutions are created from collective intentions rather than singular cognitions. To paraphrase Searle’s slightly more complex formulation: institutions are composed of ‘status functions’, which are the human capacity to count things as having a certain status, and in virtue of the collective acceptance of that status, to perform functions that could not be performed without that collective acceptance. Thus, what we call norms need to be shared and publicly articulated if they are to be socially real. An institution, as D’Andrade points out: ‘is more than just an idea, it is something both agreed upon and an idea. Neither has causal priority’ (2006: 34). The fact that ideas and agreed-ideas can overlap and co-exist together in a complex kind of choreography means it is possible for whole institutional complexes to exist, embedded with value criteria nobody believes in but everyone must act in accordance with (ibid.).

The implication here is that institutions constitute a superordinate reality that has enormous power over us as individuals, as Durkheim argued, but we must add to this an important caveat. How consciously aware we are of this enormous external power, how far we are willing to go in objectifying it by labelling it as ‘society’, ‘the system’, ‘tradition’, or whatever, varies widely between groups and, within groups, between persons. In addition to this, those institutions we perceive as powers external to ourselves may be ascribed different kinds of agency. Institutions may be conceptualized as nefarious entities, duping and oppressing us, or as venerable agents, forces for good, repositories of wisdom, and so forth. These differing values become, themselves, part of the institution’s modus operandi; how individuals evaluate institutions as external forces does, over time, effect the capacity of institutions to reproduce themselves successfully.

All the same, institutions do not depend on our conscious awareness of them (or even our conscious ethical alignment with them) in order to exist. This is the part that as modern, free-thinking agentive individuals we find particularly hard to swallow (recall McGarry’s visceral rejection of the niggling thought that patriarchy might have prompted her desire to inject poison into her face). When ‘agreed-ideas’ and ‘ideas’ are closely in-synch, institutions become insensible – harder to perceive as entities that are both part of and superordinate to the self, but this is not to say that insensible institutions are destined to remain insensible forever. At any point in an interaction agreed-ideas and ideas may pull away from one another. Webb Keane (2016) describes this separation of ideas from agreed-ideas as a breaking into the ‘third-person’ perspective. Third-person perspectives, he argues, facilitate different human efforts to change existing norms. Whatever we choose to call this continually shifting movement between ideas and agreed-ideas, (ethics, conscience, dissent, contingency) it clearly supports the argument that institutions, even the most immutable ones, can and do change. Thus, in order to speak intelligently about institutions we need to make a minimal distinction between social institutions as analytical constructs used by social scientists to explain social process, and – where these exist –  folk perceptions of institutions as bodies of power, or as visible/invisible sources of external authority.

If the ljmã‘ gestures toward or echoes, albeit in a disorganized fashion, certain High Atlas notions of ‘the good’, it might also be described, for analytical purposes, as a durable political institution of sorts. But this would take us some distance from Carey’s concept of what a durable institution looks like (by deduction: a highly bureaucratized corporate organization); and possibly also from native perceptions about external sources of power and legitimacy. It would require us to proceed with a much more layered and complex understanding of institutions as simultaneously conscious and unconscious sets of ‘agreed ideas’ working through the embodied social fabric via a range of coercive modes. Doing this allows us to account not merely for what ad-hoc, disorganized ljmã‘ councils don’t achieve, but also for what they do achieve, a subject probed further below.

The Pragmatic Institution

Up until now I have suggested that despite Carey’s insistence on the absence of ideology and the ephemerality of institutions, certain kinds of durable, ideological institution loom spectre-like in the background. In this final section, I take the presence of a particular kind of institution (patriarchy) as an example of how this might be the case, and furthermore, of how mistrust, rather than being opposed to the institution/ideology, is very much part and parcel of it.

On page 81 there is a description of a particular council meeting concerning a proposal, by an external NGO, to build a public bathhouse. What we gather, in this instance, is that the proposal is rejected. Carey posits that the reason for rejecting the bathhouse is collective mistrust of the person who would manage it, because he is too fond of power (cf. classical anthropological narratives on anarchist societies in which intuitive machinations keep power from sedimenting), but the reasons verbalised in the context of the meeting are of a more ‘practical’ and ‘contingent’ nature. Among such practical objections are concerns about whether there is enough water in the region to support a bathhouse, the difficulty of establishing some kind of system by which to run it and, also, the fact that it would lead to ‘women walking the streets of the village at night’. So far, so practical. Or perhaps ideological? It is odd, that the objection to do with women draws no further comment from Carey, as many anthropologists would immediately recognize such a statement as indicating the presence of a particularly enduring and coercive kind of political institution: patriarchy.

Atlas men’s concern about women walking around at night is about women’s wellbeing and therefore counts as a ‘practical’ rather than an ideological concern. In many societies it is deemed ‘impractical’ for women to expose flesh or walk around by themselves at night because it facilitates adultery and encourages men to sexual violence. And yet, as many women know, avoiding walking the streets alone at night often feels both like a forced decision and a pragmatic one. Capitulating to the practicalities of a given situation (staying in rather than going out, for example) does not obviate the fact that a social institution has structured that situation into existence in the first place. 

Carey argues that mistrust is a positive disposition in the sense that it foments tolerance, which in turn leads to a non-punitive, non-coercive form of politics. Tolerance is supposedly clearly in evidence in the enduring friendship of Rachik and Ali, whose betrayal of one another is, after a year or so, forgiven and forgotten. Friends, we are told, are expected to act unpredictably, they are expected to betray one another, but because of this ripe expectation, grudges wear off quickly and punishments are rarely applied. I buy this point, or I would do, were it clearer to me exactly how tolerance, in such a context, was being defined. Perhaps what Carey describes here could be interpreted as tolerant: locking the friend you suspect of attempting to seduce your sister in a room, allowing him to sweat under the menacing threat of violence. Perhaps this is a ‘tolerant’ response to a perceived betrayal, but I, for one, am not entirely convinced. Not least because at various points in the book Carey mentions ‘shame’ (35,43,55), which could indicate that interpersonal mistrust and responses to betrayal may be quite punitive in the High Atlas, at least in certain contexts and particularly in relation to gender.

As a Latin Americanist with little working knowledge of the High Atlas as an ethnographic region, I can only really guess at what the ‘shame’ discourse Carey alludes to throughout the book looks like in practice. From my own work, I know that ‘shame’ is often linked to ‘honour’ and that commodities such as ‘honour’ tend to be built, extolled and controlled through practices and ideologies related to sex and gender (Perystiany 1965; Stewart 2015). Patriarchy is a key institution in ‘honour and shame’ contexts, as it encompasses other institutions such as the lineage, marriage and perduring patterns related to property and inheritance. In my own field-site, where patriarchy structured life at various levels – not all of which would be immediately or obviously apparent to an ethnographer – mistrust was fairly pervasive, particularly between men and women. However, that mistrust was buffered by an under-the-counter sort of honour-shame complex which, far from generating tolerance in the face of betrayal, prescribed violent retaliation and sometimes even death (cf. Mayblin 2010). From Carey’s description of the frightened Rashik, duped by his best friend’s sister, one gets the sense that relations between High Atlas men that involve women may be similarly constrained and even, quite possibly, violent. If this is true, what we should really be striving for, when appraising the role of mistrust, is a more balanced and complex understanding of its role in the formation and reproduction of institutions.

Patriarchy is many things; matters of intersectionality mean that it will be felt and experienced in diverse ways, by different people in differing contexts. But for the sake of argument, allow me to generalise for a moment: it fits the definition of a non-corporate institution; it is ideological, enduring, and punitive. In its legalistic and juridical instantiations, it generates ‘deontic powers’ in the form of rights and responsibilities which regulate sexual relations and it, apparently, protects us (albeit through tautological logics) from the worst effects of gender antagonism, sexual jealousy, uncertain paternity and economic confusion. Why is such a system needed in the first place, we might ask? In answer, it might be said that the system is needed because men and women are fundamentally mistrusting. What is the best way of dealing with largescale mistrust? Institutions. Consider the ‘unflinching pragmatism’ of a medieval chastity belt, the practicality of chaperones for women, the automatic ‘protection’ of rights assumed to be contained in a marriage certificate. Mistrust, we have to conclude, is not a disincentive for institutions, it is a key ingredient. Thus, the vaunted ‘trust’ that so many theorists would posit to be at the heart of sociality is not really a ‘generalized trust’ of others or an illusion of generalized trust produced by many individuals’ commitment to an abstract value, it is nothing more than a societal miasma produced by ‘we-dimensions’ which bond us, sometimes quite comfortably via routinized unreflexive practice, sometimes uncomfortably, but always inexorably to those institutions.

Towards the end of his book Carey briefly addresses ‘two obvious lacunae’ in the book’s thesis: religion and economics (107), either of which would seem to demand a more central role for trust. With a few brief words, religion and economics are despatched. In neither case, we are reassured, is trust essential to models of personhood, and yet either case may serve as a prelude ‘to an exploration of the contours of trust in a trustless world’ (190). But this leaves one rather portly fly in the ointment: gender. The organization of gender not to mention its attendant topics: sexuality, kinship and reproduction, gets no mention at all, and the word itself does not feature in the book’s index. This is not a ‘where are the women?’ question, but a ‘where is the institution of gender?’ question. Why do religion and economics constitute ‘obvious lacunae’ and gender, kinship, and reproduction not?

It is possible that I am being a little unfair here: after all, a monograph cannot do everything; all representation can only ever be partial. I am also bashfully aware of my own positionality in all of this. If I am provoked by the absence of the word gender in an index it is probably because I have been formed into a particular sort of woman academic over the course of my career, one who has been told on many occasions that her writing about social life is or should be about gender and therefore more of a footnote to bold, androcentric, descriptions of society. If this is the case, I apologize.

All the same, and from my peculiarly gender-riven positionality, I cannot help noticing a slight symmetry between Carey and Clastres, both of whom want to make far reaching claims about the nature of egalitarianism and the possibilities of true anarchism, whilst relegating to the margins, whether strategically or accidentally, the nature of the socio-sexual hierarchies that are also, very evidently, at play in their ethnographies. Where Clastres famously defined ‘primitive’ society as an essentially egalitarian society that lacked hierarchical authority and state-like power relations, he pointed, all the same, to strict rules and taboos that separated and opposed men and women in everyday Guayaki life (cf. Butler 1990). Where Carey describes the High Atlas as a place where mistrust reigns, in a positive sense, producing a kind of accidental anarchism, he does not explore his own proclamations in relation to the institution of gender. This is unfortunate in my opinion, for it is precisely in relation to gender, kinship, desire and reproduction that some of the most critical questions arise. For example, is the ‘aesthetics of mistrust’ Carey describes between male peers cut from the same cloth as the mistrust that generates patriarchy? Does the widely-studied mistrust of the female sex that seeps through centuries of Christian, Judaic and Islamic practice derive from the same place as that which casts a slight opacity over the everyday to-ings and fro-ings of a man’s male friends? Are all types of mistrust in the High Atlas of the same consequence? Possibly not, but as the book’s argument depends almost exclusively on data about men, and male-male friendships, it is impossible to know. This in itself would present no particular problem had the book been marketed as a gendered ethnographic theory of social relations, but of course it was not, qua the invisible pragmatism of certain institutional forms like patriarchy. As De Beauvoir (1949) wrote, ‘Man is defined as a human being and a woman as a female’ which, in contemporary academia seems to mean that theories of sociality derived from data about men are allowed to stand for women in a way that rarely, if ever, occurs in reverse.

One might reasonably ask of a book purporting such a radical rethink of social life, that religion, economics, gender, and kinship be granted a little more attention. All the same, I hope it will be clear from this discussion that I am essentially on board with Carey’s central call. A renewed attention to mistrust has the capacity to reveal many things. In my view, there are three important things it can show us: firstly, that institutions reproduce themselves as much through mistrust as they do through trust, and secondly – perhaps most importantly – that the trust so many theorists have posited as the ‘glue’ of society is an overdetermined concept. After all, trusting an individual person and gambling on the predictability of group-think, norms, and socially acceptable patterns of behaviour are different sorts of operation involving different configurations of conscious and mechanistic action. Perhaps ‘trust’ is too broad and clumsy a term to account for it all. Finally, and as Carey’s book provokes us to recognize, mistrust (which, in its turn, may also be found to be too generalizing a term) is probably far more present in all forms of social life than is commonly assumed; it is simply the level of conscious emphasis trust has received that has caused mistrust to recede from view.


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