6. The Bloody Side of Primitivism

Submitted by Jacques Roux on January 8, 2007

Simple theoretical ineptitude is one thing. But there is also a far darker side to primitive thought.

On December 11, 1985, California store owner Hugh Scrutton tried to remove what he thought was a road hazard from his store's parking lot. As he picked up the object, which resembled a piece of wood with nails driven through it, an explosion drove metal shards into his heart and ripped off his right hand, killing him. Scrutton was the first of three victims to die from Unabomber attacks.

"They ain't innocent," Zerzan told a reporter. "Which isn't to say that I'm totally at ease with blowing them to pieces. Part of me is. And part of me isn't." In Running on Emptiness, Zerzan evinces his sympathy differently: "I offered the hope, if not the prediction, that TK [Ted Kaczynski] might at some point also be considered in a more positive light for his resistance to industrial civilization." Kaczynski, Zerzan claims, "decided he had to kill people to bring up this suppressed point of view. And he forced them [the media] to publish it. The point here is not whether he was justified or not, but merely the level of denial [that culture and technology are bad.]"

According to Kaczynski at primitivism.com, "When things break down, there is going to be violence and this does raise a question. I don't know if I exactly want to call it a moral question, but the point is that for those who realize the need to do away with the techno-industrial system, if you work for its collapse, in effect you are killing a lot of people." In the article "When Non-Violence is Suicide," Kaczynski urges activists to prepare for combat, painting a hypothetical scenario to compel us towards this end: In Kaczynski-Land, the parable goes, post-revolutionary farmers (i.e., cropdomesticators) are confronted by marauders, who wish to rape a primitivists' female friend. "Mick, grab that bitch over there before she gets away. She got [sic] a nice ass," Kaczynski has the imaginary bandits saying. "We'll all screw her tonight." Lovely stuff.

In A:AJODA, which published Kaczynski's first prison interview, Lawrence Jarach complains, "There are many prejudiced caricatures and objections concerning primitivism; for example that its proponents want to 'go back to the Stone Age' ...." In fact, Jarach says, "[a]s far as I can tell, most primitivists only want to go back as far as the Iron Age," putting the primitivist golden era at around 1000 B.C.E., well after the establishment of the written word and crop surpluses, and when Middle Eastern kingdoms held sway. According to the non-partisan Population Resource Bureau, "Estimates of average life expectancy in Iron Age France have been put at only 10 or 12 years. Under these conditions, the birth rate would have to be about 80 per 1,000 people just for the species to survive." That's some Golden Age.

Jarach delineates a depressingly diverse number of primitivist theories currently in circulation: some are associated with Zerzan and "green anarchism"; another revolves around the misanthropy of Earth First!-style Deep Ecology 1 ; and yet at least one more comes from the Perlman/ Bradford/Fifth Estate sector. Jarach says the criticism that constructing a primitivist society "would result in an immediate mass die-off of thousands - if not millions - of humans" is a mere "dismissal" from those who do not want to spend time trying to understand the many forms of primitivism he has laid out for us. Jarach then asks Zerzan if, in fact, "millions will die immediately" if primitivists had their way. "Perhaps the key word in your question is 'immediately,"' Zerzan carefully responds. "In other words, if the whole prevailing apparatus vanished instantly somehow, millions probably would die." The solution is apparently to slowly dismantle technology-something that would not bring about mass death immediately, it is true, but gradually. The rest of Zerzan's answer is a non-answer. ("People are already dying," he says - a fact known to most, and in fact the reason many of us are anarchists, as we wish to prevent widespread death!)

Tragically, the most fanatic segments of the primitivist movement welcome human death. Though they do not practice Kaczynski-style homicide in mass numbers, they thrill at large-scale epidemics that might reduce the population of the earth. In a May 1, 1987 edition of the Earth First! paper, for example, "Miss Ann Thropy" argued that AIDS is a "good" thing, and said that if that "epidemic didn't exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one."

That a hunter-gatherer or even an Iron Age society could not support massive population centers is a fact recognized by most primitivists. To achieve their objective of a primitive society, therefore, like the Khmer Rouge, they hold that the population must be more evenly distributed across the earth. As Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto, revolutionaries should work to establish a "gradual abolition of the distinction of town and country, by a more equitable distribution of the population over the country." 2 Marxist-style population dispersal advocated by "post-left" thinkers is an odd thing indeed, not to mention an old thing - a prime example of their borrowing from past authoritarians.

In "Notes on Primitivism," Zerzan and the Green Anarchy Collective repeat deep ecologist-style warnings that within "the last 200 years the human population growth curve has shifted from the normal mammal 's' shape to the more viral 'j' shape." The association of humanity with a "viral" infection is common to deep ecology, which regards humanity as a disease upon the planet. (To wit: Earth First! co-founder David Foreman's statement "We are a cancer on nature.") Playing with the analogy further, the primitivists warn that "this increase is much like that of viruses (which is to consume the host until both the virus and the host are dead)."

Wisely, primitivists usually stop short of actually advocating mass killing, even if individual primitivists like Ted Kaczynski have already attempted it. "[W]e aren't suggesting a strategy to deal with this [population growth]," the Green Anarchy Collective wisely adds. "[W]e just think there is data about the situation that should be known" - presumably so that others, too, may ruminate and also not suggest a strategy to deal with it.

In his "Primitive Thought" supplement to Listen, Anarchist! Chaz Bufe says that the idea that "population lies at the root of every environmental problem" is on "a par with the simplistic belief that 'technology' is the sole cause of environmental destruction." The Malthusian doctrine that asserts population growth will, at some point in the future, outstrip available resources has been used to justify the most callous government policies against the poor. Better to let people die off if they will be a burden on the planet or others, the logic goes. In fact, if the global population is increasing at an alarming rate, we already know several of the reasons why this is so: 1) Religious authoritarianism that urges people in poorer countries to marry young and be fruitful, and to avoid sinful contraceptives. 2) Right-wing policy makers that outlaw abortion (even though, for the poor, there is always a de facto ban on expensive abortion procedures), "morning after"-type abortion pills, and sex education in schools. 3) Destructive neoliberal globalization policies that keep the third world in poverty, leading families to produce more offspring so that they may gain more income-earners for their household. Malthus' notion that there is a "surplus population" sadly merits a reminder that there is no human being that is surplus to his or her family, or to the human project. It is disappointing that some have to be reminded that no human being is superfluous.

If a primitive life is so desirable, be it of a Stone Age or Iron Age type, then why haven't primitivists attempted to live this way? In fact, the failure of primitivists to pursue the establishment of hunter-gatherer societies reveals how clearly undesirable many primitivists really feel such societies are. "Does Zerzan live like that?" Peter Fenton asked in a 1999 issue of Scope magazine. "No way. 'It's too daunting a task,' he admits." Likewise, some primitivists live off public assistance and/or the generosity of friends, never attempting a break with civilized comforts.

Unlike anarcho-syndicalists or anarcho-communists, primitivists could attempt to live their preferred lifestyle in our world now. Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild presents academician Gene Rosellini's attempt to live a primitive lifestyle in the wilds of Canada. "I was interested in knowing if it was possible to be independent of modem technology," he told Anchorage Daily News reporter Debra McKinney. "I began my adult life with the hypothesis that it would be possible to become a Stone Age native." He "purged his life of all but the most primitive tools, which he fashioned from native materials with his own hands," Krakauer writes. For ten years, Rossellini toughed it out. Eventually, however, he gave up: "I would say I realistically experienced the physical, mental and emotional reality of the Stone Age. But to borrow a Buddhist phrase, eventually came a setting face-to-face with pure reality. I learned that it is not possible for human beings as we know them to live off the land." In 1991, Rosellini was found dead in his shack, a suicide victim.

Ted Kaczynski's attempt at primitive living is well known, as well. Kaczynski's situation, however, presents the reality that many primitivists are in fact not content simply to live in isolation, but seek to strike out at the civilization that is around them. Primitivists claim that "techno-industrial civilization" would inevitably encroach on their enclaves due to its ceaseless, internal drive to expand outward. This is why primitivists do not want anarcho-syndicalists or others to enjoy a high-tech society - their contention is that if any remnants of "techno-industrial civilization" remain - even if it is in anarchist hands - they and the Earth will still be threatened. Again, primitivists ascribe "techno-industrialism" a will of its own, proclaiming its ability to do things independent of human agency (see the "Frankenstein monster" and "Earthwrecker" comment made by primitivists cited [in chapter 3]). Latent in this assertion is also the unproven belief that "techno-industrial society" would always be ecologically unsustainable. This is the logic that impels primitivists to strike out violently against those they see as "technologism's" advocates. In the primitive mindset, such people literally threaten their lives; therefore, killing them is a type of self-defense.

Interestingly, primitivists have also worked it out to have things both ways. On the one hand, some say "it will do no good" to leave civilization at this point, because civilization would eventually encroach upon them. This provides them carte blanche to enjoy the Internet, microwaved food, cell phones, and medical care. But at the same time they ruminate on how much better life would be without such amenities. Again, it seems primitivists want everyone else to go primitive first. The notion that "there is no place to go now that is free of civilization" provides an excuse to indulge in hi-tech gadgets and other luxuries until "society breaks down." Like Marxist determinists, primitivists seem to believe that sooner or later society will crash under its own weight, with or without them, so there's no harm in indulging themselves in its pleasures in the meantime.

However, one is led to a bloody conclusion once one adopts the flawed premises of primitive thought. In conflating "industrialism" or "techno-industrial civilization" with the market forces of capitalism, primitivists insist it is a matter of ecological survival to destroy all machinery, whether humans require it for life (as in medical care or water purification devices) or not. For primitivists, elimination of capitalist profit motives still leaves the Frankenstein monster of technology unharmed; they preach that the monster will continue to grow blindly, like a cancer, even if no capitalists control it. In the end, the primitivist imperative is an all-out war not so much against coercive social relations, as anarchism is, as against physical structures that they say have their own prerogatives. Replacing authoritarian social relations with egalitarian social relations will do no good, they believe; physical infrastructure must be ruined as well. This is a major part of their broader aim of destroying all civilization.

In contrast, let us as anarchists propose the establishment of a civilization worthy of the name. As Kropotkin once noted, "Competition is the law of the jungle, but cooperation is the law of civilization." We should seek to establish a society and culture that is, in every sense of the word, civilized. Statist capitalism provides no civility for billions the world over. Wars, poverty, the eradication of native peoples, unjust distribution of workers' produce, debt bondage, and crime - this is the legacy of our authoritarian era. Instead, anarchists should work to create a society that replaces such widespread incivility with a world that is thoroughly, and to every degree, civil.

  • 1Many, probably most, Earth Firsters have abandoned the misanthropic "deep ecology" views expounded by Earth First! co-founder, "Republican environmentalist" Dave Foreman, in the 1980s.
  • 2Point 9 of the 10-point program recorded at the end of Section 2 of the Manifesto.