- Voltaire, letter to Rousseau, August 30, 1755.
The Demonology of Primitivism: Electricity, Language, and other Modern Evils
Gar Smith, editor of the Earth Island Institute journal, The Edge, and critic of modem technology, recently complained to journalists, "I have seen villages in Africa that had vibrant culture and great communities that were disrupted and destroyed by the introduction of electricity." He added: "I don't think a lot of electricity is a good thing. It is the fuel that powers a lot of multi-national imagery." When asked why lack of electricity - a hallmark of poverty - ought to be considered advantageous, Smith said, "The idea that people are poor doesn't mean that they are not living good lives." He added, "there is a lot of quality to be had in poverty."
John Zerzan, a leading modem primitivist, writes in a similar vein, but claims those living in societies before electricity enjoyed higher standards of mental well-being: "Being alive in nature, before our abstraction from it [through modern civilization], must have involved a perception and contact that we can scarcely comprehend from our levels of anguish and alienation. The communication with all of existence must have been an exquisite play of all the senses, reflecting the numberless, nameless varieties of pleasure and emotion once accessible within us." Zerzan, the Green Anarchy Collective, and other primitivists regularly reminisce over an ideal past where "the wheat and corn, pigs and horses were once freely dancing in the chaos of nature." In fact, through their activism primitivists hope to deliver society into this primal chaos, so that the "wheat and corn, pigs and horses" - and the rest of us, presumably - may freely dance once more.
On web sites like primitivism.com, primitivists tell us how the Internet should not exist. In printed magazines like Green Anarchy, they condemn printing presses and typesetting technology. And in events like the Green Anarchy Tour of 2001, they complain of the roads that enable them to travel, the electricity that powers the instruments of their tour's musical acts, and of the existence of the facilities that host their events. Primitivists enjoin their audience to live like early hominids, though they certainly don't lead by example.
When analyzing primitivist musings, two mysteries immediately confront the reader. The first: how can such ideas be seriously entertained by anyone? Electricity, advanced medical care, information technologies, artificial heating and cooling, water purification, and countless other modem innovations are regarded by primitivists as undesirable. One would think that the lifespan of such notions would be as short as that of a Palaeolithic tribesman's. Yet, primitive thinking is currently enjoying a kind of vogue among the radical left.
The second perturbation: how to begin to make sense of all the rubbish primitivists write? Some of their screeds, on the one hand, ape (no pun intended) the most obnoxious, opaque phraseology of post-modernism: "Symbolizing is linear, successive, substitutive," John Zerzan delicately informs us in Running on Emptiness. "It cannot be open to its whole object simultaneously." On the other hand, many primitive rants drop any pretense of sophistication and' devolve (again, no pun intended) into infantile histrionics: "WHY SHOULD I TOLERATE THIS INSANITY?" a writer at insurgentdesire.co.uk bloviates. "NED LUDD WAS RIGHT! The machine is the enemy. SMASH IT WITHOUT MERCY!"
Indeed, why should we tolerate this insanity? How can we understand some of the genuinely bizarre ideas that litter the pantheon of our primitive romantics? And how is that the primitivist cocktail of mysticism, pseudo-science, and wild speculation has serious adherents in the full light of the 21st century?
Unfortunately for anarchists, plunging into the primitivist miasma has become necessary. Over the past few decades, primitivists have successfully assimilated themselves into the anarchist movement. Within the U.S., their influence has grown so strong that anarchists can no longer afford to ignore it. The corporate media, in its infinite wisdom, has often decided to present primitivism as "the new anarchism," blissfully ignoring the classical strand of anarchist thought that agitates for worker and community control within a stateless society. Unfortunately, this generous free advertising ensures that many new members of the anarchist movement will arrive through primitivism's feral gates.
The primitivists' stated aim is to reorient anarchism towards the wholesale destruction of civilization and its attendant technologies. Their analysis asserts that civilization estranges humanity from its true, feral nature-a regrettable situation, they say, since humans, as the Steppenwolf song goes, are born to be wild. Like Christian evangelists, they maintain that modem living results in spiritual and emotional poverty--a kind of soullessness that Mammoth hunters did not experience, and often hint that pagan belief systems are superior to rational thought. Technology, too, is inherently oppressive, no matter who wields it or to what uses it is put. In addition, primitivists warn of the dangers of population growth while Zerzanites even claim language to be a type of alienation. (Such statements alienate us with their language, incidentally). Although classical anarchists like Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakunin spoke of eliminating the state by transferring ownership of the means of production into the public's hands, primitivists have a different agenda: they wish to destroy, not redistribute, industry and technology.
The problem of primitivism in the anarchist movement is new only in scope. There have always been those on the fringes of the left who have hoped to return society to some type of idyllic, Garden of Eden-like existence. The idea of a noble savage at peace with himself, the pristine wilderness, and his fellow humans before modem civilization is as old as the plays of John Dryden in the 17th century. Many before our modern primitive romantics have advocated bucking it all and getting back to nature. As the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould counsels in The Mismeasure of Man, "the same bad arguments recur every few years with a predictable and depressing regularity. No sooner do we debunk one version than the next chapter of the same bad text emerges to ephemeral prominence."
Today, for example, tomes like Future Primitive and primitive sounding-boards such as Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed (A:AJODA), Green Anarchy, and Fifth Estate abound. The Rainbow Gathering, nominally non-anarchist, attracts all manner of tree folk, Middle Earthers, permaculture fanatics, and mystics to its primitivist-type festivals. At few points since the 19th century, however, have "primitive man" fantasists attempted to identify with anarchism. Indeed, a prominent strain of utopian socialists - romantics wishing to escape the modem world through communal living - have been a fixture on the left since the early 1800s, tagging along on the margins of anti-capitalism much like the apocalyptic Christian cults that gather on society's fringe. Marx and Bakunin differentiated this type of utopian socialism from forward-thinking socialism, which values science and its benefits; indeed, Bakunin hoped for a revolution in which science "would become the property of everybody." And although Marx, for example, recognized that hunter-gatherer clans did indeed practice a type of "primitive communism," neither he nor his anarchist opponents advocated turning back the clock to relive such times. Anarchists did not consider the living standards of the Neanderthal worthy of modern humans. The only ones who felt that people should live like primitives were those capitalists whose desire to keep business costs down resulted in primitive living conditions for their wage slaves.
Utopian, "get-back-to-nature" sects attracted anarchist criticism from the beginning. It was in response to such backwards-thinking romantics that Mikhail Bakunin affirmed in the late 1800s, "It is not in the past, nor even in the presnt that ye should seek the freedom of the masses. It is in the future." Anarcho-syndicalist veteran Sam Dolgoff, speaking of life at the Stelton Colony of New York in the 1930s, noted with disdain that it, "like other colonies, was infested by vegetarians, naturists, nudists, and other cultists, who sidetracked true anarchist goals." One resident "always went barefoot, ate raw food, mostly nuts and raisins, and refused to use a tractor, being opposed to machinery, and he didn't want to abuse horses, so he dug the earth himself." Such self-proclaimed anarchists were in reality "ox-cart anarchists," Dolgoff said, "who opposed organization and wanted to return to a simpler life." In an interview with Paul Avrich before his death, Dolgoff also grumbled, "I am sick and tired of these half-assed artists and poets who object to organization and want only to play with their belly buttons."
This has been a problem seemingly for as long as anarchism has existed. Writing nearly a century ago, Malatesta's comrade Luigi Fabbri noted in Bourgeois Influences on Anarchism that the anarchist movement has always been overrun with flakes, parasites, and outright crazies. He wrote that these "empty-headed and frivolous types...are not repelled by the absurd, but...on the contrary, engage in it. They are attracted to projects and ideas precisely because they are absurd; and so anarchism comes to be known precisely for the illogical character and ridiculousness which ignorance and bourgeois calumny have attributed to anarchist doctrines."
With the rise of the anti-corporate globalization movement in recent years, the primitivist problem has assumed a new urgency: Whereas in the past primitive thinkers were consigned to the margins of the movement by virtue of the absurdity of their ideas, a recent absence of lively, mass class struggle activism has allowed primitive thinkers to exert greater influence. The onus is on traditional anarchists to take the movement back, and force primitive thinkers to their previous place on the sidelines.
Not to be discounted, either, is the influence of the corporate media, which has taken primitivism and situated it front and center, presenting it to the public as the lifeblood of a 2lst-century anarchist resurgence. Primitivism, the corporate media tells us, is the "new" anarchism - and young adults, hungry for any ideas that point to a way out of the capitalist ghetto, sometimes believe it, and sign up. The popularity of the anti-corporate globalization movement holds much promise for anarchism; the media's attempts to associate it with primitive ideas, however, does not.
Time magazine, for example, ran two articles in 2001 on John Zerzan and the cult-like following he has attracted in his home town of Eugene, Oregon (among other places). And a few years prior, Time bestowed the title "king of the anarchists" upon primitivist/Unabomber Ted Kaczynski in one of the more than 30 articles they devoted to him. The December 13, 1999, issue of Newsweek featured a picture of anarcho-syndicalist Noam Chomsky with images of Zerzan and convicted murderer Kaczynski beside him; the publication associated all three as leading lights of modem anarchist thought. NPR, 60 Minutes, and other news outlets have given air time to the absurd proclamations of John Zerzan even as the unofficial media ban of Noam Chomsky and other more capable analysts continues. Again, as Fabbri, noted: "[A]nd so anarchism comes to be known precisely for the illogical character and ridiculousness which ignorance and bourgeois calumny have attributed to anarchist doctrines."
The effect of the media's focus on anarchism's most embarrassing side has been advantageous for elites; by focusing laser like on the looniest elements of anarchism, the entire movement can be marginalized and discredited. This follows a historical pattern in which anarchist activists are ignored by the establishment until one does something so antisocial or outlandish that elites can score cheap points by reporting it. If the public sees only the primitivist wing of anarchism, it will be unlikely to support anything associated with anarchism. Understandably, few people want to support something that is hostile to the life-saving medical care, information technology, and electronic entertainment they enjoy.
The media's gravitation towards primitivism has pressured other parts of the anarchist movement to accept it as well. The University of Michigan's Joseph A. Labadie collection, commonly regarded as an "archive of record" for the anarchist movement, recently decided to admit the papers of unabomber Theodore Kaczynski into its vaults. This includes interviews where Kaczynski reports on attempts to have a dialogue with terrorist Timothy McVeigh, dragging again the shadiest figures of modem politics into anarchist history. The shelving of Kaczynski's murderous Unabomber Manifesto alongside classics by Emma Goldman and others is presumably something the anarchist community will have to live with. The acquisition is of further irony, given that the figure for which the University of Michigan's archive is named, labor activist Joseph Labadie, favored public control over industrial society, not a Kaczynski-style mail bombing of it. As well, Kaczynski admirer John Zerzan works with a self-styled "Green Anarchy" collective in Oregon. When Z Magazine editor Michael Albert approached John Zerzan to debate primitivism, Zerzan ultimately sniffed, "As an anarchist, I'm not interested."
The waxing influence of primitive thinkers threatens to redefine the character of the anarchist tradition for future generations. It also threatens to divert eager new activists into its theoretical cul-de-sac where nothing revolutionary can ever be accomplished. Worst of all, the primitivist agenda would result in mass scale atrocity if its objectives were ever met: society would be stripped of the medical can, shelter, food supplies, distribution networks, and even language (!) that humans depend upon for life. That primitivists play casually with such globally catastrophic notions speaks volumes about their real concern for human well being.