Where the sane fear to tread: anarcho-primitivism
Anarcho-primitivism, according to advocate John Moore, is “a shorthand term for a radical current that critiques the totality of civilization from an anarchist perspective, and seeks to initiate a comprehensive transformation of human life.” In essence, it is a form of anarchism that is against the very foundations of civilisation itself.
It is for this reason that it is perhaps the most obscure and (to outsiders) bizarre form of anarchism that exists today. “For anarcho-primitivists,” writes Moore, “civilization is the overarching context within which the multiplicity of power relations develop,” and “it is in civilization that power relations become pervasive and entrenched in practically all aspects of human life and human relations with the biosphere.” Thus dismantling civilisation is the only way toward “the abolition of all power relations – e.g., structures of control, coercion, domination, and exploitation – and the creation of a form of community that excludes all such relations.”
From the perspective of the primitivists, other forms of anarchism “want to take over civilization, rework its structures to some degree, and remove its worst abuses and oppressions.” This means that “99% of life in civilization remains unchanged in their future scenarios, precisely because the aspects of civilization they question are minimal.” As such, “overall life patterns wouldn’t change too much” and “mass society would essentially continue, with most people working, living in artificial, technologised environments, and subject to forms of coercion and control.”
From this, Moore postulates that “radical ideologies on the Left seek to capture power, not abolish it” and “organizations, for anarcho-primitivists, are just rackets, gangs for putting a particular ideology in power.”
Primitivism is an extremely tiny fringe movement. Nonetheless, it offers a position which challenges the very basis of radical libertarian philosophies and cannot simply be written off as the fantasies of crackpots without valid reasoning. If we are to reject the anti-civilisation ideology as a valid strand of anarchist thought, as I would argue that we should, then we must justify this. What follows is my attempt to do precisely that.
The necessity of civilisation
The focal point of primitivism is this idea that civilisation itself is inherently hierarchical and must be abolished. But what is civilisation?
It is hard to find a concrete definition of this concept from those so adamantly opposed to it. However, it seems likely that they mean the shift from a time when humanity was part of nature to the present, when we are largely detached from it. This, they argue, is the root of mass warfare, the subjugation of women, population growth, private property, entrenched hierarchies, and the spread of disease.
As Emily Schultz and Robert Lavenda put it in The Consequences of Domestication and Sedentism;
Sedentism and domestication represent not just a technological change but also a change in worldview. Land was no longer a free good, available to anyone, with resources scattered randomly across the landscape; it was transformed into particular territories, collectively or individually owned, on which people raised crops and flocks. Thus, sedentism and a high level of resource extraction (whether by complex foraging or farming) led to concepts of property t[h]at were rare in previous foraging societies. Graves, grave goods, permanent housing, grain-processing equipment, as well as the fields and herds, connected people to places. The human mark on the environment was larger and more obvious following sedentization and the rise of farming; people transformed the landscape in more dramatic ways–building terraces or walls to hold back floods.
From this, we see an increase in fertility rates, a decline in diet, an increased “precariousness,” environmental degradation, and the increase of labour. In other words, the woes that define our world were created and are maintained by civilisation itself, not a particular way of organising civilisation.
Alongside this, the technology born of civilisation earns particular scorn. John Zerzan throws “liberals, Marxists, members of left parties, Noam Chomsky, the anarchist left, the syndicalists, the Wobblies” together as “all those people who think technology is fine and it just depends on how you use it and that there’s nothing wrong with development and the industrial system, it just depends who’s running it.”
In Civilisation, Primitivism, and Anarchism, Andrew Flood notes that “the primitivist critique of anarchism is based around the claim to have discovered a contradiction between liberty and mass society.” In essence, it is “impossible for any society that involves groups much larger than a village to be a free society,” which makes “the anarchist proposal of a world of ‘free federations of towns, cities and countryside’ impossible” as “such federations and population centers are obviously a form of mass society/civilisation.” However, Flood points out that “the anarchist movement has been answering this very so-called contradiction since its origins,” and cites Mikhail Bakunin’s response to such an argument being used to justify hierarchy and domination;
It is said that the harmony and universal solidarity of individuals with society can never be attained in practice because their interests, being antagonistic, can never be reconciled. To this objection I reply that if these interests have never as yet come to mutual accord, it was because the State has sacrificed the interests of the majority for the benefit of a privileged minority. That is why this famous incompatibility, this conflict of personal interests with those of society, is nothing but a fraud, a political lie, born of the theological lie which invented the doctrine of original sin in order to dishonour man and destroy his self-respect.
…. We are convinced that all the wealth of man’s intellectual, moral, and material development, as well as his apparent independence, is the product of his life in society. Outside society, not only would he not be a free man, he would not even become genuinely human, a being conscious of himself, the only being who thinks and speaks. Only the combination of intelligence and collective labour was able to force man out of that savage and brutish state which constituted his original nature, or rather the starting point for his further development. We are profoundly convinced that the entire life of men – their interests, tendencies, needs, illusions, even stupidities, as well as every bit of violence, injustice, and seemingly voluntary activity – merely represent the result of inevitable societal forces. People cannot reject the idea of mutual independence, nor can they deny the reciprocal influence and uniformity exhibiting the manifestations of external nature.
From the broader question of “civilisation” we move to the Primitivist objection to technology. In their foreword to Flood’s essay, LibCom make the point that “even given the most cursory glance it is clear that abolishing technology would have devastating consequences for humankind and the planet;”
For starters, the 50% of the UK population who need glasses or contact lenses (which rises to 97% over the age of 65) would soon be left severely impaired. Tens of millions of people dependent on drug treatments for illnesses would quickly die. Radioactive nuclear waste needs to be monitored and controlled with high-tech equipment for tens of thousands of years. Without it, even if buried deep underground, climate changes and tectonic plate movements will eventually cause it to leak out and wreak ecological devastation on the planet. This aside from the all the other obviously unattractive prospects of this idea – no more books, recorded music, medical equipment, central heating, sewage systems… – means that almost everyone would reject this idea immediately.
This explains why primitivism would never catch on in practice. But it also tells us why it would be very bad for it to do so. The existence envisaged by anarcho-primitivists would lead to, indeed would require, a mass die-out on behalf of most of the human race.
Jason Godesky, on the Anthropix Network, tries to refute “the single most common, and the single most powerful attack launched against primitivists by the progressivist camp;”
It is undeniably true that the world’s population cannot be sustained without modern civilization. Of course, it is abundantly clear that modern civilization is not sustainable, either. Given those two facts, then some kind of massive die-off is inevitable. It might be through genocide, but since primitvists are a fringe of a fringe (and will always be so) it’s unlikely to come from us. There are many other parties with a much greater interest in genocide for its own sake, who are far closer to power than we will ever be. Ultimately, genocide might be the kindest method, just as it is kind to deliver a coup de grace to a dying animal. The alternative is to waste away by hunger or disease. But ultimately, genocide on such a scale would be nigh impossible, and though die-off is guaranteed, it is almost as guaranteed not to come by way of genocide.
Rather, collapse is more likely to occur as it always has. The diminishing returns of complexity lead to the breakdown of civilization, until some minor turbulence that might have been easily overcome in a former time, instead ends our civilization–the way an AIDS victim dies not of AIDS, but of some minor disease a healthy person would have easily shrugged off. Perhaps Peak Oil, perhaps global warming, whatever the proximate cause, our ability to produce food will be cut off. Starvation will lead to food riots, until, in the end, the survivors will turn to cannibalism. The cities will be killing fields, but those who can look at the wilderness and call it home, those who can find their food without having someone grow it for them–those who are rewilded–will have access to vast resources that no others will even think to exploit.
This answers the suggestion that anarcho-primitivists would kill off a huge swathe of the population. But that was never “the single most common, and the single most powerful” objection to the movement. It was that, too get to it, we would need to see a mass die-out. This is what Godesky is unable to refute, and in fact admits to immediately.
Alongside this admission, we have what almost amounts to Schadenfreude. Godesky seems to take pleasure in the fact that, in his chosen vision of future apocalypse, society will eat itself and masses of people will suffer for that. The idea that “genocide might be the kindest method” to end civilisation is an obscenity, demonstrating in a throwaway comment precisely the mentality for which people criticise primitivism.
Zerzan, too, admits that the reduction of human population is a necessity. For him, a population’s growth “is no more a natural or neutral phenomenon than its technology.” However, he counters the idea of millions dying out with “the vast numbers of people who would be freed from manipulative, parasitic, destructive pursuits for those of creativity, health, and liberty.” He says that “the picture of humanity starving if a transformation were attempted may be brought into perspective by reference to a few other agricultural specifics, of a more positive nature.”
However, his approach to agriculture is confused. On the one hand, it “must be overcome, as domestication, and because it removes more organic matter from the soil than it puts back.” On the other, a specific form of it in permaculture offers “an agriculture that develops or reproduces itself and thus tends toward nature and away from domestication.” This, along with growing our own food and cultivation within cities, offers “promising interim ways to survive while moving away from civilization.” It seems, then, that the objective is not a radical overhaul of the world but a gradual, steady decline in population and civilisation.
This is no better than a genocide perpetrated in death camps. Either way, there is a deliberate design to drastically reduce the amount of people on the planet. As Flood notes, “just about everyone when confronted with this requirement of mass death will conclude that ‘primitivism’ offers nothing to fight for.” The extreme minority who don’t, “like the survivalists confronted by the threat of nuclear war in the 1980’s, might conclude that all this is inevitable and start planning how their loved ones will survive when others die.” But the “we’re all doomed” justification for primitivism is full of holes;
The most convincing form the ‘end of civilisation’ panic takes is the idea of a looming resource crisis that will make life as we know it impossible. And the best resource to focus on for those who wish to make this argument is oil. Everything we produce, including food, is dependant on massive energy inputs and 40% of the worlds energy use is generated from oil.
The primitivist version of this argument goes something like this, ‘everyone knows that in X number of year the oil will run out, this will mean civilization will grind to a halt, and this will mean lots of people will die. So we might as well embrace the inevitable’. The oil running out argument is the primitivist equivalent of the orthodox Marxist ‘final economic crisis that results in the overthrowal of capitalism’. And, just like the orthodox Marxists, primitivists always argue this final crisis is always just around the corner.
When looked at in any detail this argument evaporates and it becomes clear that neither capitalism nor civilization face a final crisis because of the oil running out. This is not because oil supplies are inexhaustible, indeed we may be reaching the peak of oil production today in 1994. But far from being the end of capitalism or civilization this is an opportunity for profit and restructuring. Capitalism, however reluctantly, is gearing up to make profits out of developing alternative energy sources on the one hand and on the other of accessing plentiful but more destructive to extract fossil fuel supplies. The second path of course makes global warming and other forms of pollution a lot worse but that’s not likely to stop the global capitalist class.
It is not just primitivists who have become mesmerized by the oil crisis so I intend to deal with this in a separate essay. But in summary, while oil will become more expensive over the decades the process to develop substitutes for it is already underway. Denmark for instance intends to produce 50% of its energy needs from wind farms by 2030 and Danish companies are already making vast amounts of money because they are the leading producers of wind turbines. The switch over from oil is likely to provide an opportunity to make profits for capitalism rather then representing some form of final crisis.
There may well be an energy crisis as oil starts to rise in price and alternative technologies are not yet capable of filling the 40% of energy generation filled by oil. This will cause oil and therefore energy prices to soar but this will be a crisis for the poor of the world and not for the wealthy some of whom will even profit from it. A severe energy crisis could trigger a global economic downturn but again it is the world’s workers that suffer the most in such times. There is a good argument that the world’s elite are already preparing for such a situation, many of the recent US wars make sense in terms of securing future oil supplies for US corporations.
Written sixteen years ago, as stated, the observations within are very acute given what has occurred since. Indeed, over the last two years alone we saw that “capitalism is quite capable of surviving very destructive crisis.” The poor suffer immensely, but this serves to shore up the profit and privilege of the ruling class at their expense.
In fact, even if some crisis did bring down civilisation, it remains likely that capitalism would still profit;
The primitivists seem to forget that we live in a class society. The population of the earth is divided into a few people with vast resources and power and the rest of us. It is not a case of equal access to resources, rather of quite incredible unequal access. Those who fell victim to the mass die off would not include Rubert Murdoch, Bill Gates or George Bush because these people have the money and power to monopolise remaining supplies for themselves.
Instead the first to die in huge number would be the population of the poorer mega cities on the planet. Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt have a population of around 20 million between them. Egypt is dependent both on food imports and on the very intensive agriculture of the Nile valley and the oasis. Except for the tiny wealthy elite those 20 million urban dwellers would have nowhere to go and there is no more land to be worked. Current high yields are in part dependent on high inputs of cheap energy.
The mass deaths of millions of people is not something that destroys capitalism. Indeed at periods of history it has been seen as quite natural and even desirable for the modernization of capital. The potato famine of the 1840’s that reduced the population of Ireland by 30% was seen as desirable by many advocates of free trade.(16) So was the 1943/4 famine in British ruled Bengal in which four million died(17). For the capitalist class such mass deaths, particularly in colonies, afford opportunities to restructure the economy in ways that would otherwise be resisted.
The real result of an ‘end of energy’ crisis would see our rulers stock piling what energy sources remained and using them to power the helicopter gunships that would be used to control those of us fortunate enough to be selected to toil for them in the biofuel fields. The unlucky majority would just be kept where they are and allowed to die off. More of the ‘Matrix’ than utopia in other words.
Thus, as we have seen for ourselves, “destruction can serve to regenerate capitalism.” This means that primitivism as a “prophet of doom” is wrong in its analysis, and utterly sadistic in its hoped-for outcome. On the other hand, if it is “not a program for a different way of running the world” but “exists as a critique of civilization and not an alternative to it,” then we can say that although “there is a value in re-examining the basic assumptions of civilization,” this is “no substitute for the anarchist struggle for liberation, which involves adapting technology to our needs rather then rejecting it.”
A revolution or a lifestyle?
The term “lifestyle anarchism” comes from Murray Bookchin’s essay Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. It was not coined as a complimentary term.
Bookchin reserves particular scorn and ridicule, amongst those he dubs as “lifestylists,” for the primitivists. “Zerzan’s simplification of the highly complex dialectic between humans and nonhuman nature reveals a mentality so reductionist and simplistic that one is obliged to stand before it in awe;”
For lifestyle anarchists, particularly of the anticivilizational and primitivistic genre, history itself becomes a degrading monolith that swallows up all distinctions, mediations, phases of development, and social specificities. Capitalism and its contradictions are reduced to epiphenomena of an all-devouring civilization and its technological ‘imperatives’ that lack nuance and differentiation. History, insofar as we conceive it as the unfolding of humanity’s rational component — its developing potentiality for freedom, self-consciousness, and cooperation — is a complex account of the cultivation of human sensibilities, institutions, intellectuality, and knowledge, or what was once called ‘the education of humanity.’ To deal with history as a steady ‘Fall’ from an animalistic ‘authenticity,’ as Zerzan, Bradford, and their compatriots do in varying degrees in a fashion very similar to that of Martin Heidegger, is to ignore the expanding ideals of freedom, individuality, and self-consciousness that have marked epochs of human development — not to speak of the widening scope of the revolutionary struggles to achieve these ends.
If the primitivists wish to dismiss all of history as a decline towards the monolithic ogre of civilisation, then that is of course up to them. What is quite clear, however, is that their movement has no merit either as an abstract critique or as a recipe for revolution. In the former sense, it lacks any significance. In the latter, it is a recipe for misery, suffering, and death.
All that remains is a hippy lifestyle, withdrawn from the evils of technology and mass society. Again, anybody who wishes to withdraw into their own neolithic commune should be free to do so. But we should not pretend that this is anything other than a withdrawal from humanity.
Anarchism is the idea of and the movement towards a society free from hierarchy and coercion. If it is to remain true to that, it cannot reject the means to fight for such a society on the grounds that organisation is a “racket.” It certainly cannot advocate an idea which would lead to a mass die-off on the part of the human race. Thus, the final reason why anarchists should reject anarcho-primitivism is quite simple. It is not anarchism.