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  • All Good in Theory
  • Jack Boulton (bio)
John Protevi, Edges of the State, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press, 2019, 118pp; paperback, $7.95, ISBN 978-1-517-90796-9.

Edges of the State may be short, but to misquote Hobbes’ Leviathan this well-formed text is certainly not solitary, poor, nasty or brutish. The thesis of the text is a simple one: that where the state is not, rather than violence there is not necessarily peace but prosociality. In chapter one, Protevi uses a well-known latter day example: hurricane Katrina, or rather the disaster it caused in and around New Orleans in August 2005. Protevi points out that the overtly empathic response to that event undermined somewhat the media-hyperboled expectation that humanity would, as a result of ‘lack of regular governance’, fall into a pit of iniquity. Yet, as the author elaborates, ‘it’s not that the state is needed to keep a precarious social contract together […] it’s that the state is needed to enforce policies that foreclose the prosocial behaviour that would otherwise emerge’ (p2).

As I will discuss, these are not points which have gone completely without critical thought within other disciplines; most notably anthropology, from which Protevi openly borrows here. Yet what follows then is an optimistic reflection on human sociality, optimistic enough that even Protevi himself describes it as ‘admittedly speculative’ (p3). Building on the successful Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic, a bridge is constructed between human emotion and experience: here, emotion is seen as a quotidian analytical tool which can be aimed at the body politic, with emotion and cognition being mutually constitutive.1 It is a refreshing take on contemporary politics– given the current political climate and the Many Bad Things happening in the world– and Protevi’s text is a pleasure to read; of course human beings are kind, of course they work together, possibly even more so without the interference of the ever-looming machinery of the state. Prosociality, however, and the empathy that Protevi focusses on, is not simply ‘being kind’ or ‘nice’; ‘it also motivates punishment of wrongdoers’ (p3). It is perhaps fitting that such a message does not require a huge amount of prose; as mentioned this is a slip of a book, indicative of Protevi’s usual writing efficiency.

In keeping with former work, subsequent chapters take on the age-old question of Hobbes v. Rousseau, war vs. peace as a ‘natural state of mankind’, with the latter receiving particular favour. The second chapter concentrates on outlining this preference for Rousseau’s theorisation; Rousseau is preferred over Hobbes and Locke because of his tendency to incorporate both change over time and individual difference between people. [End Page 174]

While Hobbes and Locke appeal to history and travel accounts to provide depth and breadth to the evidence for their notion of human nature, it’s remarkably static; the accounts they adduce go to show that humans are basically the same, with the observed variation being reasonable adaptation to circumstances


Instead, an evolutionary route is taken, via Darwin and Rousseau, with the suggestion made that peaceful, sharing behaviour is an evolutionary development nullified by state politics and revealed through disaster. This is then related to Protevi’s earlier connection between emotion and the body politic: perhaps humans are wired in such a way that we gain pleasure from tranquility and interpersonal distribution. The feeling, as they say, is mutual.

The third chapter, ‘Warding Off the State: Nonstate Economies of Violence’ is described as the ‘ethnographic’ chapter– as an anthropologist by training certainly the one I was most fascinated by among a compelling quintet. Perhaps the most daring for political economic theory, this section reverses the usual balance of power by shifting focus away from the state as the bearer of legitimate violence. Instead, the chapter pivots around those societies which exist outside of state regulation; particularly those towards which attempts have been made by state powers to incorporate them into larger economies of violence, sometimes with violent retaliation and resistance. I am reminded here (favourably) of the work of anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli (2006, 2011, 2016), and the ongoing discussion of Indigenous Karrabing persons...


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pp. 174-177
Launched on MUSE
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