Correspondence: Anarcho-Primitivism

Correspondence on primitivsm. Green Anarchist reply to letters in Subversion #22. Steve from Hastings replies to them.

From 1997.

Submitted by Fozzie on August 18, 2021

NB: The two letters below did not appear in issue #23 of Subversion but were published on its website.

A letter from Green Anarchist

Dear Subversion,

Good to see anarcho-primitivism provoked so much debate last issue, although it's a shame to end it now, since so much progress (if you'll forgive the phrase!) is being made. There's more agreement between us than you think. We took it for granted that "social organisation' was pretty much synonymous with class organisation and JM would almost certainly agree with your work I play distinction as it's the same as Bob Black's in Abolition of Work. That's not the same as saying people get to dance round the steel mill after hours, as S from Hastings suggests -- that's leisure, separated from labour and a palliative for it.

From our last letter, you'll know S is wrong to say "a digging stick is technology from an anarcho- primitivist perspective, it's just a tool because it's under the unalienated control of an individual without the mediations of a division of labour. Some apes, beavers, sea otters &C are tool-users. That doesn't make them "technological species" and the fact that our species lived free of technology for the vast majority of its existence shows we re not either As Zerzan argues in The Case Against Art, technology and culture are intimately interrelated magic being the first technology

We agree with S that communism will make "life ….. richer, more pleasurable, more creative and fulfilling" but the technological means he cites for achieving this show s/he has little idea what communism will be like. We won't "give up recorded music and the cinema", we'll be liberated from them. Even under capitalism, it's possible to participate in creating such artefacts but in future, as now, they basically condemn the majority to being a passive audience separated from the creative process. Taking occasional turns is not the same as full communal participation. This is as much to do with the complex, technical infrastructure involved in such specialist 'creativity' as economic factors in the narrow sense. 'Creativity' will be in the hands of the upper of S's 'two level system of production", the one beyond community control. S knows this is problematic or s/he'd have been upfront enough to include television in this technocultural triumvirate. Although we're arguing over Culture here, the same principles apply across the board to all other 'benefits of Civilisation' usually cited.

What'll really make life richer will be the recreation of unalienated community, Camatte's Gemeinwesen, and that's obviously not the same as reducing humanity to herd animals" or atomised ideology4odder, as in hierarchical society. It's about empathising with others and understanding them as yourself, as part of yourself, not objectifying them as others fit only for domination. It's not a question of "how much people will be individuals and how much they will be social beings" -- there is no distinction in primitive society, the dualism that plagues modern Western minds so doesn't exist for them and didn't exist at the start of human history, and one of the problems we have about it now is our hierarchical mindset and the analytically disabling language derived from it.

We should make clear at this point that as it must be reciprocated collectively, this consciousness must be achieved through struggle, not mystical contemplation. Farley Mowat's description of the Ilhumiut's 'law of life' illustrates this doesn't extinguish the individual (little 'i'), in fact it extends this respect to animals and the Earth. Think about primitive attitudes to property. In The Ecology of Freedom, Bookchin has them as usufructary - something belongs to someone when they're using it and to everyone as soon as they're not, and so things go round, usually respectfully, sometimes humorously (the 'theft' South Sea explorers complained so bitterly of, though their selfishness offended the South Sea islanders equally and taking the explorers stuff was their way of expressing their communal disapproval), but always without possessive hoarding, without accumulation. Doesn't this sound like communism to you - of the future as well as the past? Only anoraks totally colonised by Prometheanism could argue gadgets will make life better, freer and more equal than authentic human community! This wholeness and liberation from alienation are what we sacrifice by arguing for 'moderation' and a 'middle way' between communism and technocracy, as S does.

In arguing for this "two level system", S also ignores the extraction of surplus value as the motor of History. S argues mining, building railways and working in steel mills "would only get done if people did find them enjoyable" , but doesn't suggest what would become of the technological infrastructure of this proposed future society if they didn't. The lesson of History is that they would have to be forced to do such unpleasant tasks, leaving those doing the forcing in control of the 'commanding heights of the economy', our technocratic masters. People have to be forced into specialisation because it makes them dependant, Other.

Metalworkers were amongst the first specialists -- they were outcasts forced to live separately from 'their' communities, lamed to prevent them fleeing to a more authentic fife elsewhere. The situation is much worse in more recent and complex societies based on an intense division of labour. There, specialist management is necessary to co-ordinate all this, each of us being 'lamed' by lacking all the skills and resources necessary to be self-sufficient at this level of production. We were pleased you agreed there was as dialectical relationship between technology and social organisation because this implies that attacks on technocracy and the mega-machine culture have as much revolutionary potential as more conventionally understood class struggle, and that the class struggle is not revolutionary unless it rejects technology, as S does not.

We were also much encouraged that you agree other forms of power preceded capital and state", that 'different forms and combinations of domination' exist within Civilisation, and that they could have been ended by communism at any point in History. By attacking hierarchical society on any point patriarchy, racism, Prometheanism &C - we must eventually come to attack it at every point if our approach is revolutionary, if it criticises the underlying basis of hierarchy and not just particular 'branches' of that "fatal Tree". This must include anti-capitalist struggle but, by this same argument, it cannot just be anti-capitalist struggle or other forms of domination allied to it will simply assert themselves in post~capitalist society, cheating us of communism. The revolutionary potential of struggles should be judged by their likelihood of achieving Gemeinwesen, which implies a rejection of the principles of moderation, mediation and mass which so handicapped revolutionary politics in the 1980s, and so should encompass (for anti-capitalists) 'peripheral' full-on struggles such as those of militant Greens and animal liberationists as well as work resisters &C. Our struggle should be about actively rejecting Civilisation as a whole, not seeking to seize control of or preserve any part of it in any manner, and it should be about hitting Civilisation where it is weakest now rather than eternally delaying revolutionary action in the hope consciousness will rise where it is strongest through pathetic revolutionary callisthenics' around reformist demands.

A footnote on the 'where would we go?' question. We agree with you that a forager lifestyle is not a majority option given current population densities, even if that's most desirable for achieving Gemeinwesen. Given there's land enough to feed everyone in the world even now, we need rear no 'die off' when Civilisation falls beyond the social dislocation that occurs with any revolution. Then there'll be an end to artificial scarcity, allotment agriculture is more efficient in terms of yield I acre than agree-business (and it's sustainable), and as production will be unalienated, everyone will be doing their bit on the land (which is why cities, that "eat but produce nothing" in Cobalt’s words, will end--don't these people want to be self-determining?!). S is wrong to suggest there should be "trading through barter Systems" - as noted in Green Communism, capitalism, in part, started that way! As anthropologists and colonialists everywhere know, primitives are loath to trade because producing surpluses means more effort and (subject to variables of climate and ecology world-wide) their neighbours will have grown pretty much what they have, for their own use. if you have to trade for something, it means you haven't got it, so the trader can ask whatever they want for it --as Fredy Perlman showed in Against His-Story, empires have been built this way. Given the 'least work' principle discussed above, d/evolution in production would set in, as the more ancient the method of production, the less effort was involved for the same yield (production was intensified by coercion, remember?), so those that could get to a forager lifestyle this way would, as in the celebrated case of the Ranoake settlers (Gone To Croatan, pp.95-98). An anarcho-primitivist revolution is certainly practically achievable -- indeed, we'd argue it's the only one worth achieving.

Of course there is a great deal more to discuss here, particularly on this idea of totality and revolution on the periphery, but the debate can continue in future issues, surely?

Yours, for the destruction of Civilisation,

Oxford GA’s

Steve's Reply to Green Anarchist

Regarding the letter from 'Oxford G.A 's' to Subversion dated 18.8.97

This letter is a very disappointing contribution to what is potentialy a very interesting and useful debate My original letter to Subversion was a serious attempt to initiate discussion amongst anti-capitalists as to how a free and equal communist society could organise its maintenance and it's relationship to the rest of the natural world. G.A.'s response overemphasises the common ground between themselves and Subversion and at the same time responds to my letter not with reasoned debate but with bad-tempered,dishonest sniping.

It probably won't surprise G.A. to learn that I have read Bob Black's Abolition of Work and whole-heartedly endorse it. Work, in the sense in which Bob Black calls for it's abolition, is activity performed under duress. My point is that if people can cook, make clothes, grow food etc without being coerced into doing so then I don't see why they shouldn't be able to, occasionally, operate a steel plant, for example, without being coerced into it. My letter explicitly states that this activity could be carried out by volunteers. Perhaps G.A. do not understand what this word means - it means that people do things voluntarily, without being coerced,of their own free will.

'Primitive' people engage in both productive activity, hunting, gathering, building, gardening etc and celebratory activity,dancing, singing etc. I see no reason why this should not be the case in a communist society whatever its technological level. I don't suppose G.A. would consider hunting people who dance and sing to be experiencing 'leisure' 'after hours'.

I am not 'wrong' to say that "a digging stick is technology. . . . " as G.A. state, I am simply using the word differently from them. Many words can be used in a variety of ways by different people to mean very different things - think of the words 'Communism' 'Anarchy' and 'Democracy' for example. So it is as well to be clear about what we mean. Generally the word technology is taken to mean advanced industrial activities and their organisation. However,modern industrial technology has not sprung from nowhere it has developed over a long period of time from simple to complex. So I think it is valid to use the word technology to mean all the ways in which people manipulate the world. In prehistoric times people had a simple technology based on wood, stone, plant products, leather etc. As G.A. point out it utilised simple tools which did not require a 'division of labour' to produce. As I use the word this does not mean that it was not a technology it means that it was a simple technology.

People are, of course, quite entitled to use a word like technology in different ways. The technology that G.A. define as being bad is that which involves a 'division of labour' and this is an interesting point. Despite the assertions of many 'primitivists' we simply don't know enough about life in prehistoric times to make a definitive judgement as to what extent, if any, there was any 'division of labour'. However, many hunting people in modern times use a 'division of labour' in their hunting practices with one group opperating as a line of beaters while another group kill the prey for example. The reason I use this example is that here the 'division of labour' concerns an activity not the production of an artefact - is this o.k. with G.A ?

Anyway why is the 'division of labour' considered to be an absolute evil in all circumstances ? If people are drawn towards certain activities ,wish to develop certain skills, is there something wrong with this ? In my view a genuine human community can only be organised around the principle "from each according to their abilities(and desires), to each according to their needs (and desires). "If a community is genuinely commited to the well-being of all its members I can't for the life of me see why people shouldn't choose to do (a variety of) different things and in the process add to the well-being and richness of the community and all its members, The free development of each being the precondition for the free development of all. For some reason G.A. seem to hold as a dogma the view that people can only exist as a genuine community if every individual is capable of performing every activity ever performed by any member of the community.

I would also suggest that G.A. might find it interesting to study Chris Knight's book 'Blood Relations' (Yale University Press(New Haven and London - 1991). While I cannot possibly do justice to the scope of this book here part of his argument suggests that what was probably the initial 'division of labour', that between men and women, far from being a negative thing was in fact part of the process by which our ancestors became fully human and acquired the possibility of solidarity and communism. Female power organised around the 'home base' and its activities broke the power of the male 'dominance hierarchies' and sexual competition which characterise primate societies and forced (freed) males to collectively take part in the provisioning of the whole group.

Whether or not we accept all of what Knight says at least he offers a materialist account of human origins which challenges capitalist notions of 'human nature' without romanticising some particular moment in our species existence

Incidently G.A. are right the fact that apes, beavers, sea otters etc use tools does not make them technological species it just shows that our technological ability has emerged from the process of biological evolution,which is unsurprising.

G.A. should read my letter again I never did cite any technological means that would "make life richer,more pleasurable, more creative and fulfilling". I speculated as to what sort of technology a communist society emerging now might want to use.

G.A. allege that in the sort of society I was speculating about 'creativity' will be in the upper" (G.A.'s emphasis) of the 'two level system of production'. I honestly don't see why this should be the case. In a communist society creativity will be generalised it will not be 'in the hands' of anyone to the exclusion of anyone else. I don't happen to think that making a film, recording music or helping to organise a telephone system, for example, are more creative than gardening, craft production, woodland management etc they are just different activities. I happen to believe that human beings are capable of organising themselves and their creativity autonomously and without hierarchy in a wide variety of settings. How about you ,G.A. what do you think? As to your jibe about television actually I don't see any reason why a communist society should not employ video technology. The problem with broadcast television is that it is in the hand' of a tiny minority,controlled by the rich and powerful and deployed against the vast majority. This is because we live in a capitalist society. A communist society would organise things differently.

G.A. say that I have 'little idea what communism will be like' - well, I suppose none of us will know until we get there, if we do. But I think it is G.A. who seem to have a limited idea of what communism could be - they think that Hollywood, Disney, T.V. soaps and The Spice Girls etc mean that people aren't capable of using or developing cinema, video or recording technology in any authentic human way. None of us can possibly have any idea what a communist culture would be like, how can anyone claim in advance that it would not want to use moving images or recorded sound?

Do members of G.A. really never go to the cinema or listen to recorded music? I am prepared to be 'upfront' enough to admit that I do and! yes, I even watch T.v. sometimes. Perhaps G,A. would be 'upfront' enough to state clearly and without equivocation what is implicit throughout this letter - that they want everyone in the world to live using only simple tools made from wood, leather, bone and stones which they happen to find lying around on the ground.

I agree entirely that what will make life richer in communism is the establishment of a genuine human community.G.A. should read my letter again I never did say that 'gadgets will make life better, freer and more equal than authentic human community'. I was attempting to look seriously at what sort of technology ('gadgets' if you must) a communist society might choose to use. I wasn't aware that I was arguing for 'moderation' or a 'middle way' between anything least of all communism and 'technocracy' It is an example of G.A.'s dishonesty that they use the word 'technocracy' when what they mean is technology - which I think they will find Subversion are no more eager to abolish than I am. It is a shame that G.A. would rather engage in stupid name-calling than genuine debate. I have been called many things in my time but 'an anorak totally colonised by Prometheanism' takes the biscuit!!

I do not ignore the extraction of surplus value as the motor of History. In fact I would have thought that was one of the things all communists could agree on. I don't really see what that has to do with the following but here we come to another example of G.A. refusing to understand what my letter says. I did argue quite clearly that tasks in the advanced technology sector 'would only get done if people did find then enjoyable' .G.A. accuse me of not suggesting 'what would become of the technological infrastructure if they did not'. I would have thought that this was clear enough from what I wrote but obviously not so let me spell it out: If there was a revolution which destroyed capitalism and all forms of domination and alienation and led to a situation where people were genuinely in control of their own lives and it was somehow decided that it wasn't worth maintaining any technology beyond the simplest tools of stone and wood then that is what would happen. The point is that I think this is, to put it mildly, highly unlikely.

I did not suggest there should be 'trading through barter systems' What I suggested was that that was part of the primitivists vision of the future.

Incidently it is quite wrong to suggest that 'Primitives were loath to trade'. Trading is very important to many modern 'primitives' and there is convincing evidence that extensive exchange of goods took place over hundreds of miles in prehistoric Europe and Australia centuries before the emergence of agriculture/civilisation/class-society. 'Trade' is presumably one of G.A.s swear words but the mere exchange of goods does not imply relations of inequality and dominance as presumably it did not in prehistoric times.

Contrary to what G.A seem to think communism is not something which can only exist at some particular level of technology; a very simple level or as they would put it no technology. Communism is a potential which exists within our species as is evidenced by our capacity for empathy, solidarity, cooperation, collective struggle etc and its fulfilment would be the conscious unification of our species on a global level.

The essence of communism is full human community, the abolition of the conflict of interest between individual and society, 'Gemeinwesen' if you like. Once this has been achieved we are free to organise our lives as we see fit - and because we will be a conscious part of nature it will go without saying that part of that will be not reducing the autonomy and richness of the rest of the natural world. Just because the history of the last 5,000 years, the history of class-society from Ur to the New World Order, has been a nightmare of exploitation, oppression and alienation that does not mean that that is all that human beings are capable of once we go beyond the hunteri gatherer mode of reproduction.

all the best