Anarchist FAQ/What is Anarchism?/3.9

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A.3.9 What is anarcho-primitivism?

As discussed in section A.3.3, most anarchists would agree with Situationist Ken Knabb in arguing that "in a liberated world computers and other modern technologies could be used to eliminate dangerous or boring tasks, freeing everyone to concentrate on more interesting activities." Obviously "[c]ertain technologies -- nuclear power is the most obvious example -- are indeed so insanely dangerous that they will no doubt be brought to a prompt halt. Many other industries which produce absurd, obsolete or superfluous commodities will, of course, cease automatically with the disappearance of their commercial rationales. But many technologies . . ., however they may presently be misused, have few if any inherent drawbacks. It's simply a matter of using them more sensibly, bringing them under popular control, introducing a few ecological improvements, and redesigning them for human rather than capitalistic ends." [Public Secrets, p. 79 and p. 80] Thus most eco-anarchists see the use of appropriate technology as the means of creating a society which lives in balance with nature.

However, a (very) small but vocal minority of self-proclaimed Green anarchists disagree. Writers such as John Zerzan, John Moore and David Watson have expounded a vision of anarchism which, they claim, aims to critique every form of power and oppression. This is often called "anarcho-primitivism," which according to Moore, is simply "a shorthand term for a radical current that critiques the totality of civilisation from an anarchist perspective, and seeks to initiate a comprehensive transformation of human life." [Primitivist Primer]

How this current expresses itself is diverse, with the most extreme elements seeking the end of all forms of technology, division of labour, domestication, "Progress", industrialism, what they call "mass society" and, for some, even symbolic culture (i.e. numbers, language, time and art). They tend to call any system which includes these features "civilisation" and, consequently, aim for "the destruction of civilisation". How far back they wish to go is a moot point. Some see the technological level that existed before the Industrial Revolution as acceptable, many go further and reject agriculture and all forms of technology beyond the most basic. For them, a return to the wild, to a hunter-gatherer mode of life, is the only way for anarchy is exist and dismiss out of hand the idea that appropriate technology can be used to create an anarchist society based on industrial production which minimises its impact on ecosystems.

Thus we find the primitivist magazine "Green Anarchy" arguing that those, like themselves, "who prioritise the values of personal autonomy or wild existence have reason to oppose and reject all large-scale organisations and societies on the grounds that they necessitate imperialism, slavery and hierarchy, regardless of the purposes they may be designed for." They oppose capitalism as it is "civilisation's current dominant manifestation." However, they stress that it is "Civilisation, not capitalism per se, was the genesis of systemic authoritarianism, compulsory servitude and social isolation. Hence, an attack upon capitalism that fails to target civilisation can never abolish the institutionalised coercion that fuels society. To attempt to collectivise industry for the purpose of democratising it is to fail to recognise that all large-scale organisations adopt a direction and form that is independent of its members' intentions." Thus, they argue, genuine anarchists must oppose industry and technology for "[h]ierarchical institutions, territorial expansion, and the mechanisation of life are all required for the administration and process of mass production to occur." For primitivists, "[o]nly small communities of self-sufficient individuals can coexist with other beings, human or not, without imposing their authority upon them." Such communities would share essential features with tribal societies, "[f]or over 99% of human history, humans lived within small and egalitarian extended family arrangements, while drawing their subsistence directly from the land." [Against Mass Society]

While such tribal communities, which lived in harmony with nature and had little or no hierarchies, are seen as inspirational, primitivists look (to use the title of a John Zerzan book) forward to seeing the "Future Primitive." As John Moore puts it, "the future envisioned by anarcho-primitivism . . . is without precedent. Although primitive cultures provide intimations of the future, and that future may well incorporate elements derived from those cultures, an anarcho-primitivist world would likely be quite different from previous forms of anarchy." [Op. Cit.]

For the primitivist, other forms of anarchism are simply self-managed alienation within essentially the same basic system we now endure, minus its worse excesses. Hence John Moore's comment that "classical anarchism" wants "to take over civilisation, rework its structures to some degree, and remove its worst abuses and oppressions. However, 99% of life in civilisation remains unchanged in their future scenarios, precisely because the aspects of civilisation they question are minimal . . . overall life patterns wouldn't change too much." Thus "[f]rom the perspective of anarcho-primitivism, all other forms of radicalism appear as reformist, whether or not they regard themselves as revolutionary." [Op. Cit.]

In reply, "classical anarchists" point out three things. Firstly, to claim that the "worst abuses and oppressions" account for 1% of capitalist society is simply nonsense and, moreover, something an apologist of that system would happily agree with. Secondly, it is obvious from reading any "classical" anarchist text that Moore's assertions are nonsense. "Classical" anarchism aims to transform society radically from top to bottom, not tinker with minor aspects of it. Do primitivists really think that people who went to the effort to abolish capitalism would simply continue doing 99% of the same things they did before hand? Of course not. In other words, it is not enough to get rid of the boss, although this is a necessary first step! Thirdly, and most importantly, Moore's argument ensures that his vision of a good society would never be achieved without genocide on an unimaginable scale.

So, as can be seen, primitivism has little or no bearing to the traditional anarchist movement and its ideas. The visions of both are simply incompatible, with the ideas of the latter dismissed as authoritarian by the former. Unsurprisingly, the ideas of primitivism and other anarchists are hard to reconcile. Equally unsurprisingly, other anarchists question whether primitivism is practical in the short term or even desirable in the long. While supporters of primitivism like to portray it as the most advanced and radical form of anarchism, other anarchists are less convinced. They consider it as a confused ideology which draws its followers into absurd positions and, moreover, is utterly impractical. They would agree with Ken Knabb comments that primitivism is rooted in "fantasies [which] contain so many obvious self-contradictions that it is hardly necessary to criticise them in any detail. They have questionable relevance to actual past societies and virtually no relevance to present possibilities. Even supposing that life was better in one or another previous era, we have to begin from where we are now. Modern technology is so interwoven with all aspects of our life that it could not be abruptly discontinued without causing a global chaos that would wipe out billions of people." [Op. Cit., p. 79]

The reason for this is simply that we live in a highly industrialised and interconnected system in which most people do not have the skills required to live in a hunter-gatherer or even agricultural society. Moreover, it is extremely doubtful that six billion people could survive as hunter-gatherers even if they had the necessary skills. As Brian Morris notes, "[t]he future we are told is 'primitive.' How this is to be achieved in a world that presently sustains almost six billion people (for evidence suggests that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is only able to support 1 or 2 people per sq. mile)" primitivists like Zerzan do not tell us. ["Anthropology and Anarchism," pp. 35-41, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, no. 45, p. 38] Most anarchists, therefore, agree with Chomsky's summation that "I do not think that they are realising that what they are calling for is the mass genocide of millions of people because of the way society is now structured and organised . . . If you eliminate these structures everybody dies . . . And, unless one thinks through these things, it's not really serious." [Chomsky on Anarchism, p. 226]

This means that any "primitivist" rebellion has two options. Either it produces a near instant transformation into a primitivist system and, as a consequence, kills billions of people by hunger as well as causing extensive ecological destruction or it involves a lengthy transition period during which "civilisation" and its industrial legacies are decommissioned safely, population levels drop naturally to an appropriate level and people regain the necessary skills required for their new existence.

Sadly, option one, namely an almost overnight transformation, is what appears to be implied by most primitivist writers. Moore, for example, talks about "when civilisation collapses" ("through its own volition, through our efforts, or a combination of the two"). This implies an extremely speedy process, over which mere mortals have little say or control. This is confirmed when he talks about the need for "positive alternatives" to be built now as "the social disruption caused by collapse could easily create the psychological insecurity and social vacuum in which fascism and other totalitarian dictatorships could flourish." [Op. Cit.] A revolution based on "collapse," "insecurity" and "social disruption" does not sound like a recipe for a successful social revolution based on mass participation and social experimentation.

Then there is the anti-organisation dogmas expounded by primitivism. Moore is typical, asserting that "[o]rganisations, for anarcho-primitivists, are just rackets, gangs for putting a particular ideology in power" and reiterates the point by saying primitivists stand for "the abolition of all power relations, including the State . . . and any kind of party or organisation." [Op. Cit.] Yet without organisation, no modern society could function. There would be a total and instant collapse which would see not only mass starvation but also ecological destruction as nuclear power stations meltdown, industrial waste seeps into the surrounding environment, cities and towns decay and hordes of starving people fighting over what vegetables, fruits and animals they could find in the countryside. Clearly an anti-organisation dogma can only be reconciled with the idea of a near overnight "collapse" of civilisation, not with a steady progress towards a long term goal. Equally, how many "positive alternatives" could exist without organisation?

Faced with the horrors that such a "collapse" would entail, those few primitivists who have thought the issue through end up accepting the need for a transition period. John Zerzan, for example, argues that it "seems evident that industrialisation and the factories could not be gotten rid of instantly, but equally clear that their liquidation must be pursued with all the vigour behind the rush of break-out." Even the existence of cities is accepted, for "[c]ultivation within the cities is another aspect of practical transition." [On the Transition: Postscript to Future Primitive]

However, to accept the necessity of a transition period does little more than expose the contradictions within primitivism. Zerzan notes that "the means of reproducing the prevailing Death Ship (e.g. its technology) cannot be used to fashion a liberated world." He ponders: "What would we keep? 'Labour-saving devices?' Unless they involve no division of labour (e.g. a lever or incline), this concept is a fiction; behind the 'saving' is hidden the congealed drudgery of many and the despoliation of the natural world." How this is compatible with maintaining "industrialisation and the factories" for a (non-specified) period is unclear. Similarly, he argues that "[i]nstead of the coercion of work -- and how much of the present could continue without precisely that coercion? -- an existence without constraints is an immediate, central objective." [Op. Cit.] How that is compatible with the arguing that industry would be maintained for a time is left unasked, never mind unanswered. And if "work" continues, how is this compatible with the typical primitivist dismissal of "traditional" anarchism, namely that self-management is managing your own alienation and that no one will want to work in a factory or in a mine and, therefore, coercion will have to be used to make them do so? Does working in a factory somehow become less alienating and authoritarian during a primitivist transition? And how will this work be done in a libertarian manner unless under self-management?

It is an obvious fact that the human population size cannot be reduced significantly by voluntary means in a short period of time. For primitivism to be viable, world population levels need to drop by something like 90% as it is impossible for 6 billion people to live the lives of hunter-gatherers (as Zerzan stresses, "Agriculture itself must be overcome" [Op. Cit.]). This means that agriculture and most industries will have to continue for some time. Similarly with large cities and towns as an instant and general exodus from the cities would be impossible. This implies a drastic reduction of population will take decades, if not centuries, to achieve voluntarily. Given that it is unlikely that (almost) everyone on the planet will decide not to have children, this time scale will almost certainly be centuries. Likewise, reliable contraceptives are a product of modern technology and, consequently, the means of producing them would have to maintained over that time -- unless primitivists argue that along with refusing to have children, people will also refuse to have sex.

Then there is the legacy of industrial society, which simply cannot be left to decay on its own. To take just one obvious example, leaving nuclear power plants to melt down would hardly be eco-friendly. Moreover, it is doubtful that the ruling elite will just surrender its power without resistance and, consequently, any social revolution would need to defend itself against attempts to reintroduce hierarchy. Needless to say, a revolution which shunned all organisation and industry as inherently authoritarian would not be able to do this (it would have been impossible to produce the necessary military supplies to fight Franco's fascist forces during the Spanish Revolution if the workers had not converted and used their workplaces to do so, to note another obvious example).

Then there is another, key, contradiction. For if you accept that there is a need for a transition from 'here' to 'there' then primitivism automatically excludes itself from the anarchist tradition. The reason is simple. Moore asserts that "mass society" involves "people working, living in artificial, technologised environments, and [being] subject to forms of coercion and control." [Op. Cit.] So if what primitivists argue about technology, industry and mass society are all true, then any primitivist transition would, by definition, not be libertarian. This is because "mass society" will have to remain for some time (at the very least decades, more likely centuries) after a successful revolution and, consequently from a primitivist perspective, be based on "forms of coercion and control." There is an ideology which proclaims the need for a transitional system which will be based on coercion, control and hierarchy which will, in time, disappear into a stateless society. It also, like primitivism, stresses that industry and large scale organisation is impossible without hierarchy and authority. That ideology is Marxism. Thus it seems ironic to "classical" anarchists to hear self-proclaimed anarchists repeating Engels arguments against Bakunin as arguments for "anarchy" (see section H.4 for a discussion of Engels claims that industry excludes autonomy).

So if, as seems likely, any transition will take centuries to achieve then the primivitist critique of "traditional" anarchism becomes little more than a joke -- and a hindrance to meaningful anarchist practice and social change. It shows the contradiction at the heart of primitivism. While its advocates attack other anarchists for supporting technology, organisation, self-management of work, industrialisation and so on, they are themselves are dependent on the things they oppose as part of any humane transition to a primitivist society. And given the passion with which they attack other anarchists on these matters, unsurprisingly the whole notion of a primitivist transition period seems impossible to other anarchists. To denounce technology and industrialism as inherently authoritarian and then turn round and advocate their use after a revolution simply does not make sense from a logical or libertarian perspective.

Thus the key problem with primitivism can be seen. It offers no practical means of achieving its goals in a libertarian manner. As Knabb summarises, "[w]hat begins as a valid questioning of excessive faith in science and technology ends up as a desperate and even less justified faith in the return of a primeval paradise, accompanied by a failure to engage the present system in any but an abstract, apocalyptical way." To avoid this, it is necessary to take into account where we are now and, consequently, we will have to "seriously consider how we will deal with all the practical problems that will be posed in the interim." [Knabb, Op. Cit., p. 80 and p. 79] Sadly, primitivist ideology excludes this possibility by dismissing the starting point any real revolution would begin from as being inherently authoritarian. As any transition period towards primitivism would involve people working and living in "mass society," it condemns itself as utterly impractical.

Given that a hierarchical society will misuse many technologies, it is understandable that some people can come see "technology" as the main problem and seek its end. However, those who talk about simply abolishing all forms of injustice and oppression overnight without discussing how it will be achieved may sound extremely radical, but, in reality, they are not. In fact they are building blocks to genuine social change by ensuring that no mass movement would ever be revolutionary enough to satisfy their critique and, as such, there is no point even trying. As Ken Knabb puts it:

   "Those who proudly proclaim their 'total opposition' to all compromise, all authority, all organisation, all theory, all technology, etc., usually turn out to have no revolutionary perspective whatsoever -- no practical conception of how the present system might be overthrown or how a post-revolutionary society might work. Some even attempt to justify this lack by declaring that a mere revolution could never be radical enough to satisfy their eternal ontological rebelliousness. Such all-or-nothing bombast may temporarily impress a few spectators, but its ultimate effect is simply to make people blas�." [Op. Cit., pp. 31-32] 

Then there is the question of the means suggested for achieving primitivism. Moore argues that the "kind of world envisaged by anarcho-primitivism is one unprecedented in human experience in terms of the degree and types of freedom anticipated ... so there can't be any limits on the forms of resistance and insurgency that might develop." [Op. Cit.] Non-primitivists reply by saying that this implies primitivists don't know what they want nor how to get there. Equally, they stress that there must be limits on what are considered acceptable forms of resistance. This is because means shape the ends created and so authoritarian means will result in authoritarian ends. Tactics are not neutral and support for certain tactics betray an authoritarian perspective.

This can be seen from the UK magazine "Green Anarchist," part of the extreme end of "Primitivism" and which argued in favour of a return to "Hunter-Gatherer" forms of human society, opposing technology as being hierarchical by its very nature. Due to the inherent unattractiveness of such "primitivist" ideas for most people, it could never come about by libertarian means (i.e. by the free choice of individuals who create it by their own acts) and so cannot be anarchist as very few people would actually voluntarily embrace such a situation. This led to "Green Anarchist" developing a form of eco-vanguardism in order, to use Rousseau's expression, to "force people to be free." This reached its logical conclusion when the magazine supported the actions and ideas of the (non-anarchist) Unabomber and published an article ("The Irrationalists") by one of the then two editors stating that "the Oklahoma bombers had the right idea. The pity was that they did not blast any more government offices . . . The Tokyo sarin cult had the right idea. The pity was that in testing the gas a year prior to the attack they gave themselves away." [Green Anarchist, no. 51, p. 11] A defence of these remarks was published in the next issue and a subsequent exchange of letters in the US-based Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed magazine (numbers 48 to 52) saw the other "Green Anarchist" editor (at the time) justify this sick, authoritarian nonsense as simply nonsense as simply examples of "unmediated resistance" conducted "under conditions of extreme repression." Whatever happened to the anarchist principle that means shape the ends? This means there are "limits" on tactics, as some tactics are not and can never be libertarian.

However, few eco-anarchists take such an extreme position. Most "primitivist" anarchists rather than being anti-technology and anti-civilisation as such instead (to use David Watson's expression) believe it is a case of the "affirmation of aboriginal lifeways" and of taking a far more critical approach to issues such as technology, rationality and progress than that associated with Social Ecology. These eco-anarchists reject "a dogmatic primitivism which claims we can return in some linear way to our primordial roots" just as much as the idea of "progress," "superseding both Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment" ideas and traditions. For these eco-anarchists, Primitivism "reflects not only a glimpse at life before the rise of the state, but also a legitimate response to real conditions of life under civilisation" and so we should respect and learn from "palaeolithic and neolithic wisdom traditions" (such as those associated with Native American tribes and other aboriginal peoples). While we "cannot, and would not want to abandon secular modes of thinking and experiencing the world. . . we cannot reduce the experience of life, and the fundamental, inescapable questions why we live, and how we live, to secular terms. . . Moreover, the boundary between the spiritual and the secular is not so clear. A dialectical understanding that we are our history would affirm an inspirited reason that honours not only atheistic Spanish revolutionaries who died for el ideal, but also religious pacifist prisoners of conscience, Lakota ghost dancers, taoist hermits and executed sufi mystics." [David Watson, Beyond Bookchin: Preface for a future social ecology, p. 240, p. 103, p. 240 and pp. 66-67]

Such "primitivist" anarchism is associated with a range of magazines, mostly US-based, like Fifth Estate. For example, on the question of technology, such eco-anarchists argue that "[w]hile market capitalism was a spark that set the fire, and remains at the centre of the complex, it is only part of something larger: the forced adaptation of organic human societies to an economic-instrumental civilisation and its mass technics, which are not only hierarchical and external but increasingly 'cellular' and internal. It makes no sense to layer the various elements of this process in a mechanistic hierarchy of first cause and secondary effects." [David Watson, Op. Cit., pp. 127-8] For this reason "Primitivist" anarchists are more critical of all aspects of technology, including calls by social ecologists for the use of appropriate technology essential in order to liberate humanity and the planet. As Watson argues:

   "To speak of technological society is in fact to refer to the technics generated within capitalism, which in turn generate new forms of capital. The notion of a distinct realm of social relations that determine this technology is not only ahistorical and undialectical, it reflects a kind of simplistic base/superstructure schema." [Op. Cit., p. 124] 

Thus it is not a case of who uses technology which determines its effects, rather the effects of technology are determined to a large degree by the society that creates it. In other words, technology is selected which tends to re-enforce hierarchical power as it is those in power who generally select which technology is introduced within society (saying that, oppressed people have this excellent habit of turning technology against the powerful and technological change and social struggle are inter-related -- see section D.10). Thus even the use of appropriate technology involves more than selecting from the range of available technology at hand, as these technologies have certain effects regardless of who uses them. Rather it is a question of critically evaluating all aspects of technology and modifying and rejecting it as required to maximise individual freedom, empowerment and happiness. Few Social Ecologists would disagree with this approach, though, and differences are usually a question of emphasis rather than a deep political point.

However, few anarchists are convinced by an ideology which, as Brian Morris notes, dismisses the "last eight thousand years or so of human history" as little more than a source "of tyranny, hierarchical control, mechanised routine devoid of any spontaneity. All those products of the human creative imagination -- farming, art, philosophy, technology, science, urban living, symbolic culture -- are viewed negatively by Zerzan -- in a monolithic sense." While there is no reason to worship progress, there is just as little need to dismiss all change and development out of hand as oppressive. Nor are they convinced by Zerzan's "selective culling of the anthropological literature." [Morris, Op. Cit., p. 38] Most anarchists would concurr with Murray Bookchin:

   "The ecology movement will never gain any real influence or have any significant impact on society if it advances a message of despair rather than hope, of a regressive and impossible return to primordial human cultures, rather than a commitment to human progress and to a unique human empathy for life as a whole . . . We must recover the utopian impulses, the hopefulness, the appreciation of what is good, what is worth rescuing in yumn civilisation, as well as what must be rejected, if the ecology movement is to play a transformative and creative role in human affairs. For without changing society, we will not change the diastrous ecological direction in which capitalism is moving." [The Ecology of Freedom, p. 63] 

In addition, a position of "turning back the clock" is deeply flawed, for while some aboriginal societies are very anarchistic, not all are. As anarchist anthropologist David Graeber points out, "we know almost nothing about like in Palaeolithic, other than the sort of thing that can be gleaned from studying very old skulls . . . But what we see in the more recent ethnographic records is endless variety. There were hunter-gatherer societies with nobles and slaves, there are agrarian societies that are fiercely egalitarian. Even in . . . Amazonia, one finds some groups who can justly be described as anarchists, like the Piaroa, living alongside others (say, the warlike Sherentre, who are clearly anything but." [Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, pp. 53-4] Even if we speculate, like Zerzan, that if we go back far enough we would find all of humanity in anarchistic tribes, the fact remains that certain of these societies did develop into statist, propertarian ones implying that a future anarchist society that is predominantly inspired by and seek to reproduce key elements of prehistoric forms of anarchy is not the answer as "civilisation" may develop again due to the same social or environmental factors.

Primitivism confuses two radically different positions, namely support for a literal return to primitive lifeways and the use of examples from primitive life as a tool for social critique. Few anarchists would disagree with the second position as they recognise that current does not equal better and, consequently, past cultures and societies can have positive (as well as negative) aspects to them which can shed light on what a genuinely human society can be like. Similarly if "primitivism" simply involved questioning technology along with authority, few would disagree. However, this sensible position is, in the main, subsumed within the first one, the idea that an anarchist society would be a literal return to hunter-gatherer society. That this is the case can be seen from primitivist writings. Some primitivists stress that they are not suggesting the Stone Age as a model for their desired society nor a return to gathering and hunting, yet they seem to exclude any other options by their critique.

So to suggest that primitivism is simply a critique or some sort of "anarchist speculation" (to use John Moore's term) seems incredulous. If you demonise technology, organisation, "mass society" and "civilisation" as inherently authoritarian, you cannot turn round and advocate their use in a transition period or even in a free society. As such, the critique points to a mode of action and a vision of a free society and to suggest otherwise is simply incredulous. Equally, if you praise foraging bands and shifting horticultural communities of past and present as examples of anarchy then critics are entitled to conclude that primitivists desire a similar system for the future. This is reinforced by the critiques of industry, technology, "mass society" and agriculture.

Until such time as "primitivists" clearly state which of the two forms of primitivism they subscribe to, other anarchists will not take their ideas that seriously. Given that they fail to answer such basic questions of how they plan to deactivate industry safely and avoid mass starvation without the workers' control, international links and federal organisation they habitually dismiss out of hand as new forms of "governance," other anarchists do not hold much hope that it will happen soon. Ultimately, we are faced with the fact that a revolution will start in society as it is. Anarchism recognises this and suggests a means of transforming it. Primitivism shies away from such minor problems and, consequently, has little to recommend it. It is for this reason that most anarchists actually argue that such forms of "primitivism" are not anarchist at all, as the return to a "Hunter-Gatherer" society would result in mass starvation in almost all countries as the social infrastructure collapses so that the "lucky" few that survive can be "wild" and free from such tyrannies as hospitals, books and electricity.

This is not to suggest, of course, that non-primitivist anarchists think that everyone in a free society must have the same level of technology. Far from it. An anarchist society would be based on free experimentation. Different individuals and groups will pick the way of life that best suits them. Those who seek less technological ways of living will be free to do so as will those who want to apply the benefits of (appropriate) technologies. Similarly, all anarchists support the struggles of those in the developing world against the onslaught of (capitalist) civilisation and the demands of (capitalist) progress.

For more on "primitivist" anarchism see John Zerzan's Future Primitive as well as David Watson's Beyond Bookchin and Against the Mega-Machine. Ken Knabb's essay The Poverty of Primitivism is an excellent critique of primitivism as is Brian Oliver Sheppard's Anarchism vs. Primitivism.