3. What is the primitivist ideal?

Submitted by Jacques Roux on December 26, 2006

No Language
"Words are very unnecessary/they can only do harm," the pop group Depeche Mode sing in "Enjoy the Silence." This is a romantic notion, but without words the songs of Depeche Mode and others couldn't be performed by anyone.

According to the Green Anarchy collective, language is out. That is, people (primitivists wildly conjecture) were psychologically healthier when they stood in mute awe - or fear - of everything, unable to communicate with one another. The obnoxious primitivist Feral Faun (less pretentiously, David Watkins, not to be confused with Fifth Estate editor David Watson) hisses at "language with its conceptual limits," presumably preferring the conceptual limitlessness enjoyed by the dumb and the mute. Alternatively, as Zerzan infers at his wildest, "we should instead communicate telepathically." "Only a politics that undoes language and time and is thus visionary to the point of voluptuousness has any meaning," Zerzan muses at primitivism.com.

Of course, it is unlikely that anatomically modern homo sapiens - that is, humanity as it has anatomically existed since about 100,000 years ago - has ever gone without speaking. According to anthropologist Kenneth Feder, it is likely that approximately 1.8 million years ago homo erectus first developed the capability to talk:

[T]he base of the erectus cranium -the basicranium - is far more like that of modern humans than of homo habilis or apes. Because the muscles involved in the production of speech are connected to the basicranium, this may indicate that the physical capability for human or human like speech production was present in homo erectus. From this, [Mt. Sinai School of Medicine anatomist Jeffrey] Laitman has concluded that homo erectus could produce speech at the level of a modem six-year-old."

There is no way to tell absolutely, of course, as no other records exist from such a time to substantiate any rival hypotheses. There are no audio recordings from 1.5 million B.C.E., in other words, to indicate whether people spoke then. Nevertheless, Zerzan, unencumbered by facts, writes in Running on Emptiness that humans once existed in a "non-linguistic state," but have "declined" since then thanks to acquiring language. He adds, "Literacy ushered us into the society of divided and reduced senses." "Verbal communication," he continues in a line of pure conjecture, "is part of the movement away from a face-to-face social reality, making feasible physical separateness."

Primitivist musings like this have all the character of "someone riffing ideas off the top of his head who has done no actual research into what he's talking about," John Johnson points out in a recent Imagine article. (Note, incidentally, that Bradford of Fifth Estate admires the primitive "outlook [that was] linguistically complex and conceptually profound yet simple and accessible to all," revealing that there is much ideological inconsistency among the primitivists-and let's not even bother with how Bradford could "know" this.) In fact, much primitivist theory relies on wild speculation about how humans organized social life in eras fiom which we have no written records. Because the least is known about such eras, primitivists can project their wildest fantasies onto them and never worry about being proven wrong.

Of course, anarchists have traditionally cited language as evidence of man's social nature. "What is speech?" Bakunin asked. "It is communication. It is the conversation of one human individual with many other individuals. Only through this conversation and in it can animalistic man transform himself into a human being, that is, a thinking being. His individuality as a man, his freedom, is thus the product of the collectivity." . Chomsky and other linguists have posited an innate human predisposition to the use of language, despite Zerzan's impassioned insistence that a theory of innate language is "a grave and reactionary error." In fact, in 2001 National Geographic reported that scientists had discovered a gene, FOXP2, "linked to language and speech, suggesting that our human urge to babble and chat is innate, and that our linguistic abilities are at least partially hardwired."

To most people, language seems the last thing worthy of abolition. Many of us enjoy the work of poets, who use language as their paintbrush to enrich--not impoverish-our cultural experience. Singing and storytelling are cultural forms valued by most humans, as well. Other examples abound, too numerous to mention.

No Technology
No technology above simple tools is to be allowed in the primitivist utopia, either: "Technology is distinct from simple tools in many regards," primitivists claim. Primitivists define technology in a manner that suits their ends, however: it is "more of a process or concept than a static form," they explain. "It is a complex system involving division of labor, resource extraction, and exploitation for the benefit of those who implement its process."

Now, a "system of division of labor, resource extraction, and exploitation for the benefit of those who implement its process" is actually a description of the workings of capitalism. Technology, however, which existed long before capitalism, is defined by most scientists as the practical application of knowledge towards problem solving; alternately, most anthropologists agree, it is a manner of accomplishing a task using technical methods. Despite the protestations of primitivists, most anthropologists also classify stone tools as a type of technology. Other technology includes the construction of crude wells for securing water as well as the most advanced equipment used to save human life. Deprived of such things, countless humans would immediately die.

Primitivists say they fear that, like the Skynet computer in the movie Terminator, technology will develop its own sentience and work to eradicate humanity. "It's questionable whether the ruling class (who still benefit economically and politically from the Technological System) really have any control over their 'Frankenstein monster' at this point," Zerzan and the Green Anarchy collective warn, dramatically suggesting that perhaps technology already works by virtue of its own prerogatives!

In Against His-story, Against Leviathan, Perlman offers a similar idea, refering to the "Frankenstein monster" as the "Earthwrecker," which "does have a body, a monstrous body, a body that has become more powerful than the Biosphere. It may be a body without any life of its own. It may be a dead thing, a huge cadaver. It may move its slow thighs only when living beings inhabit it. Nevertheless, its body is what does the wrecking." Perlman presents the possibility that humans may control the "Earthwrecker"- but then again, he suggests, maybe they don't! ("It may [my emphasis] move its slow thighs only when living beings inhabit it'-a pretentious sentence in which itis difficult to find any real meaning.)

It's interesting that primitivist activists regularly employ the "Frankenstein monster" to make mass-produced journals (viz., Green Anarchy Magazine, electronically reproduced on the web) and web sites (viz., www.insurgentdesire.co.uk), and to participate in e-mail discussion lists. Anecdotally, this author can vouch for having met many primitivists who enjoy their Playstations in their heated apartments, rent DVDs (Fight Club, Instinct, Matrix, Terminator), and otherwise gladly partake in privileges unavailable to real-world tribes people. Delicately shielded from "robusticity"-causing conditions (the elements, in other words), they pontificate on how everyone else ought to give up their amenities. Presumably, primitivists are waiting for everyone else to go primitive first. When asked by a reporter if the fact that he watches television might make him a bit of a hypocrite, John Zerzan weakly offered, "Like other people, I have to be narcotized."

Elsewhere, George Bradford refers to the "Frankenstein monster" of technology as "the industrial hydra"; Zerzan dubs it the "everywhere-triumphant Megamachine"; and Theodore Kaczynski simply cites the "technological system" as if it were a social order unto itself. The intellectual laziness of these concepts is apparent in how they gloss over the particular class relations of statism/capitalism. In the capitalist system, it is true that capitalists direct much technology towards misanthropic ends-demonstrating that it is class rule that determines how technology is applied, and not vice versa. Due to the poverty of their analysis and intellectual sloppiness, however, primitivists cannot make even such obvious distinctions, and condemn technology wholesale.

Of course, harmful technology is just that - harmful. It is hard to imagine a positive use for nuclear weaponry, for example, or for biological and chemical weapons. But primitivists have a long way to go to convince the public that technology invariably entails coercive social relations ("invariably" is a word that merits some reflection here). They also have a long way to go to convince us that people like physicist Stephen Hawking should be left to die (in Social Darwinian fashion) simply because they require technology to live. As well, John Zerzan's reading glasses would have to be cast aside in a primitivist society, as would the lens-crafting technology that enables others with eyesight as bad as his to see.

Let us not play around with these concepts idly. When primitivists advocate eliminating technology, they advocate the wholesale slaughter or starvation of billions, of humans worldwide.

No Agriculture
Zerzanite and Green Anarchy primitivists would prevent the domestication of food and animals as well. Domestication of crops began around 12,000 years ago in the Near East, marking the shift from nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyles - which most primitivists like - to more sedentary, settled social formations, which most primitivists dislike. According to the Green Anarchy collective, growing crops "was the first mistake in the series leading to modernity."

"Agriculture must be overcome, as domestication," Zerzan writes in "On the Transition: Postscript to Future Primitive." Rather than enjoy huge, equitably distributed agricultural surpluses, as classical anarchists like Peter Kropotkin would have for humanity, primitivists would have people form into hunter-gatherer units and forage for wild, naturally occurring fruits and vegetables. This immediately presents a dilemma, as John Johnson notes in Imagine in "Zerzan-Buffoon": what if a rebellious hunter-gatherer "thought, 'Hey, I like strawberries; I sure wish there was a way to get them more regularly than just having to stumble across them in the wild'"? In order to preserve primitivist society, primitivist police would have to root out this kind of dissidence immediately. Cultivation of crops would have to be banned.

Again, let us reflect soberly on the consequences of the belief that agriculture ought to be eliminated: Deprived of agriculture, the majority of the global population would immediately perish.

Given these three criteria alone, it is clear that no existing society could be called primitivist. In fact, it is not clear that any culture we have knowledge of accords to such strict ideals. Societies lacking language, agriculture, and technology are few and far between. Even the living, non-industrial tribes that primitivists regularly cite in their analyses-such as the !Kung Bushmen of Africa (see Future Primitive, Perlman's Against His-story, or Bob Black's "Primitive Affluence," for example)-speak a type of language. And even if the !Kung do not employ technology as primitivists define it (an important distinction, since primitivists define it to suit their agenda), or domesticate animals, there are other respects in which aspects of theirs and other tribal lifestyles are not anarchistic or desirable for others.