2. An Ignoble Savage

I am as free as Nature first made man,
Ere the base laws of servitude began,
When wild in woods the noble savage ran.
- John Dryden, The Congum of Granada, 1670.

Primitivists emphasize how good ancient humans had it. In this, they strongly echo Rousseau's ruminations upon the Noble Savage. Rousseau stated in Discourse on Inequality that the era of primitive man "must have been the happiest and most durable of epochs. The more we reflect on it, the more we shall find that this state was the least subject to revolutions, and altogether the very best that man could experience." Rousseau stated further that "[t]he example of savages, most of whom have been found in this state, seems to prove that men were meant to remain in it, that it is the real youth of the world, and that all subsequent advances have been apparently so many steps towards the perfection of the individual, but in reality towards the decrepitude of the species." Primitive man enjoyed a simple, bliss full life, he said: 'The produce of the earth furnished him with all he needed, and instinct told him how to use it. Hunger and other appetites made him at various times experience various modes of existence; and among these was one which urged him to propagate his species - a blind propensity that, having nothing to do with the heart, produced a merely animal act."

In Against His-story, Against Leviathan, Fredy Perlman acknowledges the debt to Rousseau - and even to John Zerzan - reporting that they are "among contemporaries whose lights I've borrowed." Perlman tells us that prehistoric humans "lived in a condition J.J. Rousseau called 'the state of nature.'" In fact, urges Perlman, "Rousseau's term should be brought back into common use" because it "makes the armor [of civilization] visible." "Insist that 'freedom' and 'state of nature' are synonyms," Perlman writes, "and the cadavers [that is, apologists of civilization] will try to bite you." Furthemore, "the state of nature is a community of freedoms," he writes. A state of freedom "was the environment of the first human communities, and such it remained for thousands of generations."

In fact, evidence about how the first human communities fared, or around what principles social life was organized, is sparse. What evidence we do have should caution us from projecting our own fantasies onto them, however, or asserting them as desirable alternatives for the future. It should also go without saying that at all times humanity has lived in "a state of nature," including right now. That is, the natural world is still here and ensconces us, even if aspects of it are modified. Perlman's "state of nature" also, by the way, includes hurricanes, loathsome diseases, life-threatening elements, and other unpleasantness. It is doubtful that any primitivist would run headlong into a tornado in order to experience the "state of nature"; if he held his or others' well being in any regard, he might wish for a weather tracking system (for example) to tell us when tornadoes were coming, so that we could avoid them.

In his book Future Primitive, John Zerzan agrees with Rousseau and Perlman: Human "life before domestication/ agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health." Zerzan, Eric Blair, and the Green Anarchy Collective issued a joint statement furthering the point: "Prior to civilization there generally existed ample leisure time, considerable gender autonomy and equality, a non-destructive approach to the natural world, the absence of organized violence and strong health and robusticity." George Bradford (David Watson), editor of the primitivist Fifth Estate, writes that primitive man's society is "affluent because its needs are few, all its desires easily met. Its tool kit is elegant and lightweight, its outlook linguistically complex and conceptually profound yet simple and accessible to all. Its culture is expansive and ecstatic. It is propertyless and communal, egalitarian and cooperative....It is anarchic...free of work....It is a dancing society, a singing society, a celebrating society, a dreaming society."

In short, not only were pre-technological societies pleasant places in which to live, they closely approximated the anarchist ideal. How true is this, really?

Conservatives often fixate upon an idealized-and unrealistic-notion of the past, lamenting that society has grown far away from it. Starting with Christianity, which agonizes over humanity's expulsion from its idyll in the Garden of Eden, backwards-looking ideologies have hoped to restore society to an imagined Golden Age, when things were better. The Nazi Party presented a story of a once-great Teutonic civilization in decline, the victim of Jewish parasites and communist forces; contemporary U.S. conservatives hearken to the wholesome values of America's Puritan past, and so on. The primitivists simply trump them all by going back the farthest, proposing to reconstruct prehistory (or, alternately, "the Iron Age") in our modern midst. The problem with such ideas is that they posit a romanticized vision of an earlier era, inconsistent with the often unpleasant realities that existed.

Likewise, conservatives often maintain that "poor people really have it good," much as primitivists do. Gar Smith's assurance that "there is a lot of quality to be had in poverty," for example, echoes much of the anti-welfare rhetoric one hears coming from the right (viz., the poor are really not bad off because they have television or fast food; and besides, being poor builds character, etc.). Certainly, anyone who wants to live in a shack and go it alone without electricity or heating, as primitivist idol Ted Kaczynski did, should be free to do so; but the poor blacks of the, Mississippi Delta, where Kaczynski's choice of living conditions are day-to-day reality whether it is preferred or not, should have access to many of the amenities (medical care, heating, better choice of foods, etc.) that Kaczynski chose to abandon. Anarchists have traditionally favored such a redistribution of society's wealth and benefits - and it is in fact the ruling class, much like Zerzan Company, that prefers to see its workers living primitively.

Primitivists' fixation upon the imagined mental vigor and "robusticity" of pre-technological peoples is old hat as well. Again, this notion gained much currency among the European far right in the early 20th century, which conceived of, for example, the Anglo-Saxon race as a hardy, earthy (volkish) people softened by liberal, effeminate notions of welfare statism and progress. Germans, in fact, enacted racial hygiene laws to preserve the most robust strains of the species. Murray Bookchin has noted this ideological tendency in the reactionary romanticism of Nazi sympathizer Martin Heidegger. As well, Janet Biehl and Peter Staudenmaier have explored the problem in-depth in the excellent Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience. There is in fact a contemporary right wing school of thought that claims modern medicines and even environmental protections are bad because they contribute to the "softening" of humans; that is, funding for medical care or environmental regulation should not be increased because it is through such means that humans trade in "robusticity" for diminished racial resilience. Experts who assert that there is a kind of metaphysical wholesomeness in living a rugged, difficult lifestyle can be found sitting in some of the nation's most odious conservative think tanks, reaping large salaries from environmentally destructive (or simply misanthropic) corporations. Good medical care, subsidies to help with home heating costs-these amount to mollycoddling, business owners assert. Real Americans, thcy maintain, realize that hardship builds moral fiber and physical stamina-an idea that conveniently justifies business in behave as irresponsibly as it wants. In insisting upon the physical and moral "robusticity" that is supposed to accompany primitive living conditions, primitivists echo this dubious strain of reactionary thinking.

However, primitivists, unlike the corporate elite, claim to oppose environmental ruin. Indeed, environmental degradation is one of the central primitivist grievances with "civilization." The "strong health and robusticity" of primitive man arose not through struggle and hardship, primitivists tell us, but through "ample leisure time," "affluence," and other perks that primitives enjoyed. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, primitive humans had all their needs provided for, but they also stayed fit.

So, who were the peoples that primitivists seek to emulate? What were their lives really like? This is, in fact, where the fraud of primitivist thought reveals itself most clearly.

One of the central flaws in primitivist logic is the conflation of millennia of various cultures and societies into one entity - "primitive man." In fact, in books like Future Primitive or the recent Running on Emptiness, Zerzan dances across disparate eras and continents wildly, selectively noting features of this or that radically different tribal, non-industrialized, or prehistoric people to build his case that there was a common and wiser way of life that all humans once shared. Much like ethnocentric Europeans who can distinguish between European cultures but can not do the same for the many cultures within Africa, Asia, or the at-least 500 nations of native North America, primitivists often use the "primitive man" concept as a catch-all into which they insert their favored virtues.

A composite of "primitive man" is erected in primitivist thought; glossed over in this process are the less-than-ideal aspects of most tribal societies. For example, primitivists conveniently fail to mention the religious notions, patriarchal structures, or strict traditions (like clitoridectomy, painful coming-of-age rituals, etc.) present in some non-industrial clans. Perhaps they are aware that most would find these undesirable. As Hoxie Neale Fairchild wrote in the study Noble Savage, "The [European notion of the] true Noble Savage arises from a combination of disillusion about the here and now with illusion about the there and then."


Apr 24 2015 10:30

This is excellent. Primitivists fail to understand the most basic thing: That "primitive" societies are as varied and sometimes unpleasant as "civilised" ones. Within a few hundred kilometres you may find societies based upon non-hierarchical principles, and ones based on the rule of an absolute headman. How on earth do they define "primitive"? How do they not realise how insulting it is to assume ignorant bliss of the people who live differently than they do? People in hunter-gatherer communities have complex political debates about how to organise their resources, especially in a time of change and flux. They also sometimes have to fight being turned into a rural proletariat by their neighbours, and that battle is constant. They're not just "frolicking in nature" as Zerzan, in his ignorance, seems to suggest.