7. Appendix: On Decoding Primitivist Babble

Submitted by Jacques Roux on January 8, 2007

Notes on the Conflations of Primitive Thought (A Guide to Decoding Primitivist Babble)

Conflation of Civilization and Coercive Social Relations
"Civilization is the fountainhead of all dominations: patriarchy, division of labor, domestication of life, warfare, on down the line to its present ghastly fullness," Zerzan, Blair, and the Green Anarchy Collective assert.

In fact, patriarchy, warfare, and forms of division of labor existed before civilization - not to mention irrational page/religious thought. See Keeley's War Before Civilization, for example, or anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton's Sick Societies.

Conflation of Technology and Coercive Social Relations
"Technology is more of a process or concept than a static form. It is a complex system involving division of labor, resource extraction, and exploitation for the benefit of those who implement its process," Zerzan, Blair, and the Green Anarchy Collective inform us.

This view was addressed earlier. Needless to say, the primitive view that technology constitutes an array of coercive relations is not shared by anthropologists, who define technology as the application of science or technical methods to problem-solving. That is not to say that coercive relations involving the use of technology don't exist, only that technology isn't the source of them. Humans are. The onus is on primitivists to demonstrate that technology is invariably predicated on coercive or environmentally hostile relations.

Conflation of "Industrialism" and Capitalism
Primitivists generally ascribe to their concept of "industrialism" all the features of statist capitalism - but additionally (and incredibly) attribute to it a sovereign will, suggesting that it acts independent of human control. The "industrial system" would work to destroy humanity and the earth even if it were the collective property of an anarchist society ("self-managed"), in their view.

Conflation of Poverty and Freedom
Primitivists wish humanity to live like earlier hominids - that is, in poverty, by today's standards. They confer praise on those who live "down-shifted" lifestyles (much like Kalle Lasn and his Adbusters troupe) and approve of those who choose to become squatters and dumpster-divers. They dispute the notion that primitive living amounts to a poverty lifestyle because, they claim, early hominids enjoyed a type of "primitive affluence" (in radically different conditions than our own, of course).

This brings to mind a Saturday Night Live sketch in which comedian Jon Lovitz complained that he couldn't get a date, whereupon he turned to the camera and urged women, "Lower your standards!" That is what primitivists urge for the rest of us - not just for the super rich, mind you, but for modest working class families. Traditionally, of course, anarchists have sought a collective raising of living standards, with redistribution from the rich downward to the rest of us.

Radically reducing living standards to meet a primitivist notion of "affluence" seems Orwellian. While it is true that some non-industrial peoples, such as the Chumash Indians of California, were lucky enough to happen upon a naturally abundant environment (whereupon they ceased to be hunter-gatherers, settled, and began crop-domestication), other pre-civilized peoples did not fare so well, and roamed endlessly in search of food, driven by a base need for survival. That all primitive peoples for over two million years enjoyed "affluence" is not only wildly speculative, it plainly contradicts anthropological knowledge.

Conflation of Group Decision Making and Statecraft
Primitivists and post-leftist allies (note: not all post-leftists are primitivists) often sneer at anything "organizational." They falsely associate decision making structures of groups with the running of the state, often conflating, for example, union democracy with statecraft.

This ignores the essence of the state: coercion and violence. Anarchists argue that organization is essential to social survival, but that coercion and violence are not, and that organizations can and do exist that are not coercive or authoritarian. Primitivists ignore this essential distinction and argue that all organizations are authoritarian, thought they're hard put to say why. Thus, by their own logic, the Green Anarchy and Fifth Estate collectives are statist and authoritarian and should be disbanded. Why they have thus far not followed their own logic is a mystery.

Conflation of Organization and Authoritarians (or "Leninism")
Statist capitalists have often said that "anarchist organization" is an oxymoron. Statists are unable to imagine any type of organization that is not authoritarian, steeped as they are in authoritarian ideas about how groups must be run. Amazingly, many primitivists agree, and so hope to do away with organization! Echoing the worst of post-leftist rhetoric, some primitivists have incredibly suggested that no institution should be allowed to exist for more than a decade or so, even if members of the institution democratically decide they'd like the operation to continue (and even if the rest of the community has no problem with the institution continuing). A collectively run farm would in this case have to be shut down after several years, lest it become an evil "entrenched institution" - even if the community and farm workers objected.

It's also worth mentioning that primitivists routinely ignore the well known distinguishing characteristics of Leninism (vanguard parties, retention of the government in the form of a "workers' state," a controlling party central committee, government control of all aspects of life, especially work life, etc., etc.) and throw the term around merely as a form of abuse, as a form of name calling, much in the manner of right-wingers who label anyone who disagrees with them as a "communist."

Conflation of Unions per se with "Mediating Structures of Oppression"
A common primitivist canard is that all unions are simply mediating structures of exploitation ("the left-wing of capital") between bosses and wage slaves. This notion owes much to postmodern theory, which asserts that any social relation arising in a hegemonic system is automatically "tainted" by virtue of its birth there. That is, anything brought about in an oppressive society will be oppressive, no matter what its actual character is. Some radical Maoists have extended this to include sexual relations between men and women. (All sex is exploitative of women in capitalism, they say, no matter what.) In fact, there is much truth to the notion that capitalism (or any authoritarian system) skews relations between human beings. But the idea that all groups in capitalism "mediate" capitalist oppression would have to apply to primitivist groups as well. Eventually, one ends up with a pessimistic picture in which every progressive organization is innately oppressive, thereby eliminating hope for meaningful social change!

Of course, I’m not denying the fact that business unions of the AFL-CIO variety often act in ways that are extremely detrimental to workers. The labor aristocracy of the AFL-CIO does tend to create a caste of officers who live at the expense of dues-paying workers, and who develop class interests in opposition to them. But this does not mean all forms of working class mutual aid in the workplace merely "mediate" exploitation! Radically democratic unions are possible, as the IWW, early CIO, CNT, and many independent unions have shown.

Even the primitivists who concede that some types of unions are revolutionary (and they usually concede this only when they're absolutely pressed) are rarely to be found actually supporting such unions or organizing for them. Most primitivists instead choose a "zero-work" attitude and leave labor organizing to others.

Conflation of Economics and Competition
"It seems evident that industrialization and the factories could not be gotten rid of instantly, but equally clear that their liquidation must be pursued with all the vigor behind the rush of break-out. Such enslavement of people and nature must disappear forever, so that words like production and economy will have no meaning."
- John Zerzan, "On the Transition - Postscript to Future Primitive."

Even hunter-gatherer social groups had economic systems-that is, systems of production and distribution. They produced tools and weapons, and distributed the foods they gathered or killed. There is in fact an implied primitivist type of economy in all primitivist works, whether they choose to acknowledge this or not. Fredy Perlman, for example, refers to Marshall Sahlins' "Stone Age Economics." Economics will continue to exist as long as human beings exist.

In the end, the question boils down to what kind of economy we want - one that's controlled by those spending their work lives in it, or one controlled by insatiable parasites (capitalists).

Likewise, the question that we as anarchists are faced with is what kind of anarchist movement we want - one that looks often-ugly, authoritarian social reality in the eye, with the aim of transforming it into something better, something that will result in freer, happier lives for ourselves and all of our brothers and sisters on planet Earth, or one that wastes its time fantasizing about a non-existent Golden Age, and that would result in the deaths of billions if its precepts were followed.

The choice is ours.