Civilisation, primitivism and anarchism - Andrew Flood

A primitivist vision of offices in the future

Andrew Flood's critique of the primitivist and anti-civilisation trends which have become popular in some anarchist circles since the 1980s.

Over the last decade a generalized critique of civilization has been made by a number of authors, mostly based in the USA. Some of these have chosen to identify as anarchists although the more general self-identification is primitivist. Their overall argument is that 'civilisation' itself is the problem that results in our failure to live rewarding lives. The struggle for change is thus a struggle against civilization and for an earth where technology has been eliminated. This is an interesting argument that has some merits as an intellectual exercise. But the problem is that some of its adherents have used primitivism as a base from which to attack all other proposals for changing society. Facing this challenge anarchists need to first look to see if primitivism offers any sort of realistic alternative to the world as it is.

Our starting point is that the expression 'life is hard' can always receive the reply that 'it is better than the alternative'. This provides a good general test of all critiques of the world 'as it is', including anarchism. Which is to ask if a better alternative is possible?

Even if we can't point to the 'better alternative', critiques of the world 'as it is' can have a certain intellectual value. But after the disaster of the 20th century when so-called alternatives like Leninism created long lasting dictatorships that killed millions, the question 'is your alternative any better then what exists?' has to be put to anyone advocating change.

The primitivist critique of anarchism is based around the claim to have discovered a contradiction between liberty and mass society. In other words they see it as impossible for any society that involves groups much larger than a village to be a free society. If this was true it would make the anarchist proposal of a world of 'free federations of towns, cities and countryside' impossible. Such federations and population centers are obviously a form of mass society/civilisation.

However the anarchist movement has been answering this very so-called contradiction since its origins. Back in the 19th century liberal defenders of the state pointed to such a contradiction in order to justify the need for one set of men to rule over another. Michael Bakunin answered this in 1871 in his essay on 'The Paris Commune and the Idea of the State"[1].

"It is said that the harmony and universal solidarity of individuals with society can never be attained in practice because their interests, being antagonistic, can never be reconciled. To this objection I reply that if these interest have never as yet come to mutual accord, it was because the State has sacrificed the interests of the majority for the benefit of a privileged minority. That is why this famous incompatibility, this conflict of personal interests with those of society, is nothing but a fraud, a political lie, born of the theological lie which invented the doctrine of original sin in order to dishonor man and destroy his self-respect.
.... We are convinced that all the wealth of man's intellectual, moral, and material development, as well as his apparent independence, is the product of his life in society. Outside society, not only would he not be a free man, he would not even become genuinely human, a being conscious of himself, the only being who thinks and speaks. Only the combination of intelligence and collective labor was able to force man out of that savage and brutish state which constituted his original nature, or rather the starting point for his further development. We are profoundly convinced that the entire life of men - their interests, tendencies, needs, illusions, even stupidities, as well as every bit of violence, injustice, and seemingly voluntary activity - merely represent the result of inevitable societal forces. People cannot reject the idea of mutual independence, nor can they deny the reciprocal influence and uniformity exhibiting the manifestations of external nature."

What level of technology?

Most primitivists evade the question of what level of technology they wish to return to by hiding behind the claim that they are not arguing for a return to anything, on the contrary they want to go forward. With that in mind a reasonable summary of their position is that certain technologies are acceptable up to the level of small village society sustained by hunting and gathering. The problems for primitivists start with the development of agriculture and mass society.

Of course civilization is a rather general term, as is technology. Few of these primitivists have taken this argument to its logical conclusion. One who has is John Zerzan who identifies the root of the problem in the evolution of language and abstract thought. This is a logical end point for the primitivist rejection of mass society.

For the purposes of this article I'm taking as a starting point that the form of future society that primitivists argue for would be broadly similar in technological terms to that which existed around 12,000 years ago on earth, at the dawn of the agricultural revolution. By this I do not claim that they want to 'go back', something that is in any case impossible. But rather that if you seek to go forward by getting rid of all the technology of the agricultural revolution and beyond what results will look quite like pre-agricultural society of 10,000 BC. As this is the only example we have of such a society in operation it seems reasonable to use it to evaluate the primitivist claims.

A question of numbers

Hunter-gatherers live off the food they can hunt or gather, hence the name. Animals can be hunted or trapped while fruits, nuts, greens and roots are gathered. Before about 12,000 years ago every human on the planet lived as a hunter gather. Today only a tiny number of people do, in isolated and marginal regions of the planet including deserts, artic tundra and jungle. Some of these groups like the Acre have only had contact with the rest of the planet in recent decades(2), others like the Inuit(3) have had contact for long periods of time and so have adopted technologies beyond those developed locally. These later groups are very much part of the global civilization and have contributed to the development of new technologies in this civilization.

In marginal ecosystems hunter-gathering often represents the only feasible way of producing food. The desert is too dry for sustained agriculture and the arctic too cold. The only other possibility is pastoralism, the reliance on semi-domesticated animals as a food source. For instance in the Scandinavian artic the Sami(4) control the movement of huge reindeer herds to provide a regular food source.

Hunter gathers survive on the food they hunt and gather. This requires very low population densities as population growth is limited by the need to avoid over hunting. Too much gathering of food plants can also serve to reduce the number of plants that are available in the future. This is the core problem with the primitivist idea that the whole planet could live as hunter gathers, there is not nearly enough food produced in natural ecosystems for even a fraction of the current population of the world to do so.

It should be obvious that the amount of calories available to humans as food in an acre of oak forest will be a lot lower then the amount of calories available to humans in an acre of corn. Agriculture provides far, far more useful calories per acre then hunter gathering in the same acre would. That is because we have spent 12,000 years selecting plants and improving agricultural techniques so that per acre we cram in lots of productive plants that put their energy into producing plant parts that are food for us rather then plant parts that are not food for us. Compare any cultivated grain with its wild relative and you will see an illustration of this, the cultivated form will have much bigger grains and a much larger proportion of grain to stalk and foliage. We have chosen plants that produce a high ratio of edible biomass.

In other words a pine tree may be as good or better then a lettuce at capturing the solar energy that falls on it. But with the lettuce a huge percentage of the captured energy goes into food (around 75%). With pine tree none of the energy produces food we can eat. Compare the amount of food to be found in a nearby woodland with the amount you can grow in a couple of square meters of garden cultivated in even an organic low energy fashion and you'll see why agriculture is a must have for the population of the planet. An acre of organically grown potato can yield 15,000 lbs of food(5). A a square that is 70 yards wide and 70 yards long measures just over an acre.

The estimated population of human on the earth before the advent of agriculture (10,000 BC) varies with some estimates as low as 250,000 (6) Other estimates for the pre-agricultural hunter gather population are more generous, in the range of 6 to 10 million.(7). The earth's current population is nearing 6,000 million.

This 6,000 million are almost all supported by agriculture. They could not be supported by hunter gathering, indeed it is suggested that even the 10 million hunter gathers who may have existed before agriculture may have been a non sustainable number. Evidence for this can be seen in the Pleistocene overkill(8), a period from 12,000 to 10,000 BC in which 200 genera of large mammals went extinct. In the Americas in this period over 80% of the population of large mammals became extinct.(9) That this was due to over hunting is one controversial hypothesis. If correct than the advent of agriculture (and civilisation) may even have been due to the absence of large game which forced hunter gathers to 'settle down' and find other ways of obtaining food.

Certainly in recorded history the same over hunting has been observed with the arrival of man on isolated Polynesian islands. Over hunting caused the extinction of the Dodo in Mauretania and the Moa in New Zealand not to mention many less famous species.

Living in the bog in winter

Another way of looking at the fact that primitivism cannot support all of the people of the planet is more anecdotal and uses Ireland (where I live) as an example. Left to itself the Irish countryside would consist mostly of mature oak forest with some hazel scrub and bogs. Go into an oak forest and see how much food you can gather - if you know your stuff there is some. Acorns, fruit on brambles in clearings, some wild garlic, strawberries, edible fungi, wild honey, and the meat from animals like deer, squirrel, wild goat and pigeon that can be hunted. But this is much, much, much fewer calories then the same area cultivated as wheat or potatoes would yield. There is simply not enough land in Ireland to support 5 million, the current population of the island, as hunter gatherers.

Typically hunter gathers live at a population density of 1 per 10 square km. (Irelands present population density is around 500 per 10 square km or 500 times this). By extending this standard calculation from elsewhere on the planet the number that could be supported in Ireland would be less then 70,000. Probably a lot less as only 20% of Ireland is arable land. Blanket bog or Burren karst provide little in the way of food useful for humans. In winter there would be very little food to be gathered (perhaps small caches of nuts hidden by squirrels and some wild honey) and that even 70,000 people living off hunting would eradicate the large mammals (deer, wild goat) very quickly. The coastal areas and larger rivers and lakes would be the main source of hunting and some gathering in the form of shellfish and edible seaweed.

But being generous and assuming that somehow Ireland could sustain 70,000 hunter gatherers we discover we need to 'reduce' the population by some 4,930,000. Or 98.6%. The actual archaeological estimates for the population of Ireland before the arrival of agriculture is around 7,000 people.

The idea that a certain amount of land can support a certain amount of people according to how it is (or in this case is not) cultivated is referred to as its 'carrying capacity'. This can be estimated for the earth as a whole. One modern calculation for hunter gathers actually give you 100 million as the maximum figure but just how much of a maximum this is becomes clear when you realize that using similar methods gives 30 billion as the maximum farming figure.(10) That would be six times the worlds current population!

But let's take this figure of 100 million as the maximum rather then the historical maximum of 10 million. This is generous estimate, well above that of those primitivists who have dared to address this issue. For instance Miss Ann Thropy writing in the US Earth First! magazine estimated, "Ecotopia would be a planet with about 50 million people who are hunting and gathering for subsistence." (11)

The earth population today is around 6000 million. A return to a 'primitive' earth therefore requires that some 5900 million people disappear. Something has to happen to 98% of the world's population in order for the 100 million survivors to have even the slightest hope of a sustainable primitive utopia.

Dirty tricks?

At this point some primitivist writers like John Moore cry foul, dismissing the suggestion "that the population levels envisaged by anarcho-primitivists would have to be achieved by mass die-offs or nazi-style death camps. These are just smear tactics. The commitment of anarcho-primitivists to the abolition of all power relations, including the State with all its administrative and military apparatus, and any kind of party or organization, means that such orchestrated slaughter remains an impossibility as well as just plain horrendous."(12)

The problem for John is that these 'smear tactics' are based not only on the logical requirements of a primitivist world but are also explicitly acknowledged by other primitivists. Miss Ann Thropy's 50 million has already been quoted. Another primitivist FAQ claims "Drastic population reductions are going to happen whether we do it voluntarily or not. It would be better, for obvious reasons to do all this gradually and voluntarily, but if we don't the human population is going to be cut anyway."(13)

The Coalition Against Civilization write "We need to be realistic about what would happen were we to enter a post-civilized world. One basic write-off is that a lot of people would die upon civil collapse. While being a hard thing to argue to a moralistic person, we shouldn't pretend this wouldn't be the case"(14)

More recently Derrick Jensen in an interview from Issue #6 of The 'A' Word Magazine[15] said civilization "needs to be actively fought against, but I don't think that we can bring it down. What we can do is assist the natural world to bring it down..... I want civilization brought down and I want it brought down now." We have seen above what the consequences of 'bringing down' civilization are.

In short there is no shortage of primitivists who recognize that the primitive world they desire would require "mass die-offs". I've not come across any who advocate "nazi-style death camps" but perhaps John just threw this in to muddy the water. Primitivists like John Moore can therefore refuse to confront this question of die off by upping the emotional ante and by accusing those who point the need for die-off out as carrying out 'smear tactics'. It's up to him to explain either how 6 billion can be fed or to admit that primitivism is no more then an intellectual mind game.

My expectation is that just about everyone when confronted with this requirement of mass death will conclude that 'primitivism' offers nothing to fight for. A very few, like the survivalists confronted by the threat of nuclear war in the 1980's, might conclude that all this is inevitable and start planning how their loved ones will survive when others die. But this latter group has moved far, far beyond any understanding of anarchism as I understand it. So the 'anarcho' prefix such primitivists try to claim has to be rejected.

Most primitivists run away from the requirement for mass death in one of two ways. The more cuddly ones decide that primitivism is not a program for a different way of running the world. Rather it exists as a critique of civilization and not an alternative to it. This is fair enough and there is a value in re-examining the basic assumptions of civilization. But in that case primitivism is no substitute for the anarchist struggle for liberation, which involves adapting technology to our needs rather then rejecting it. The problem is that primitivists like to attack the very methods of mass organization that are necessary for overthrowing capitalism. Reasonable enough if you believe you have an alternative to anarchism but rather damaging if all you have is an interesting critique!

Other primitivists however take the Cassandra path, telling us they are merely prophets of an inevitable doom. They don't desire the death of 5,900 million they just point out it cannot be prevented. This is worth examing in some detail precisely because it is so disempowering. What after all is the use of fighting for a fair society today if tomorrow or the day after 98% if us are going to die and everything we have built crumble to dust?

Are we all doomed?

Primitivists are not the only ones to use the rhetoric of catastrophe to panic people into accepting their political proposals. Reformists such as George Monbiot, use similar 'we are all doomed' arguments to try and stampede people into support for reformism and world government. In the last decade's acceptance that the world is somehow doomed has become part of mainstream culture, first as the cold war and then as looming environmental disaster. George Bush and Tony Blair created a panic over Weapons of Mass Destruction to give cover to their invasion of Iraq. The need to examine and dismantle such panics is clear.

The most convincing form the 'end of civilisation' panic takes is the idea of a looming resource crisis that will make life as we know it impossible. And the best resource to focus on for those who wish to make this argument is oil. Everything we produce, including food, is dependant on massive energy inputs and 40% of the worlds energy use is generated from oil.

The primitivist version of this argument goes something like this, 'everyone knows that in X number of year the oil will run out, this will mean civilization will grind to a halt, and this will mean lots of people will die. So we might as well embrace the inevitable'. The oil running out argument is the primitivist equivalent of the orthodox Marxist 'final economic crisis that results in the overthrowal of capitalism'. And, just like the orthodox Marxists, primitivists always argue this final crisis is always just around the corner.

When looked at in any detail this argument evaporates and it becomes clear that neither capitalism nor civilization face a final crisis because of the oil running out. This is not because oil supplies are inexhaustible, indeed we may be reaching the peak of oil production today in 1994. But far from being the end of capitalism or civilization this is an opportunity for profit and restructuring. Capitalism, however reluctantly, is gearing up to make profits out of developing alternative energy sources on the one hand and on the other of accessing plentiful but more destructive to extract fossil fuel supplies. The second path of course makes global warming and other forms of pollution a lot worse but that's not likely to stop the global capitalist class.

It is not just primitivists who have become mesmerized by the oil crisis so I intend to deal with this in a separate essay. But in summary, while oil will become more expensive over the decades the process to develop substitutes for it is already underway. Denmark for instance intends to produce 50% of its energy needs from wind farms by 2030 and Danish companies are already making vast amounts of money because they are the leading producers of wind turbines. The switch over from oil is likely to provide an opportunity to make profits for capitalism rather then representing some form of final crisis.

There may well be an energy crisis as oil starts to rise in price and alternative technologies are not yet capable of filling the 40% of energy generation filled by oil. This will cause oil and therefore energy prices to soar but this will be a crisis for the poor of the world and not for the wealthy some of whom will even profit from it. A severe energy crisis could trigger a global economic downturn but again it is the world's workers that suffer the most in such times. There is a good argument that the world's elite are already preparing for such a situation, many of the recent US wars make sense in terms of securing future oil supplies for US corporations.

Capitalism is quite capable of surviving very destructive crisis. World War 2 saw many of the major cities of Europe destroyed and most of the industry of central Europe flattened. (By bombers, by war, by retreating Germans and then torn up and shipped east by advancing Russians). Millions of European workers died as a result both in the war years and in the years that followed. But capitalism not only survived, it flourished as starvation allowed wages to be driven down and profits soared.

What if?

However it is worth doing a little mental exercise on this idea of the oil running out. If indeed there was no alternative what might happen? Would a primitivist utopia emerge even at the bitter price of 5,900 million people dying?

No. The primitivists seem to forget that we live in a class society. The population of the earth is divided into a few people with vast resources and power and the rest of us. It is not a case of equal access to resources, rather of quite incredible unequal access. Those who fell victim to the mass die off would not include Rubert Murdoch, Bill Gates or George Bush because these people have the money and power to monopolise remaining supplies for themselves.

Instead the first to die in huge number would be the population of the poorer mega cities on the planet. Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt have a population of around 20 million between them. Egypt is dependent both on food imports and on the very intensive agriculture of the Nile valley and the oasis. Except for the tiny wealthy elite those 20 million urban dwellers would have nowhere to go and there is no more land to be worked. Current high yields are in part dependent on high inputs of cheap energy.

The mass deaths of millions of people is not something that destroys capitalism. Indeed at periods of history it has been seen as quite natural and even desirable for the modernization of capital. The potato famine of the 1840's that reduced the population of Ireland by 30% was seen as desirable by many advocates of free trade.(16) So was the 1943/4 famine in British ruled Bengal in which four million died(17). For the capitalist class such mass deaths, particularly in colonies, afford opportunities to restructure the economy in ways that would otherwise be resisted.

The real result of an 'end of energy' crisis would see our rulers stock piling what energy sources remained and using them to power the helicopter gunships that would be used to control those of us fortunate enough to be selected to toil for them in the biofuel fields. The unlucky majority would just be kept where they are and allowed to die off. More of the 'Matrix' than utopia in other words.

The other point to be made here is that destruction can serve to regenerate capitalism. Like it or not large scale destruction allows some capitalist to make a lot of money. Think of the Iraq war. The destruction of the Iraqi infrastructure may be a disaster for the people of Iraq buts it's a profit making bonanza for Halliburton and co[18]. Not coincidentally the Iraq war, is helping the USA, where the largest corporations are based, gain control of the parts of the planet where much future and current oil production takes place.

We can extend our intellectual exercise still further. Let us pretend that some anarchists are magically transported from the Earth to some Earth like planet elsewhere. And we are dumped there without any technology at all. The few primitivists amongst us might head off to run with the deer but a fair percentage would sit down and set about trying to create an anarchist civilisation. Many of the skills we could bring might not be that useful (programming without computers is of little use) but between us we'd have a good basic knowledge of agriculture, engineering, hydraulics and physics. Next time the primitivists wandered through the area we settled they'd find a landscape of farms and dams.

We'd at least have wheeled carts and possibly draft animals if any of the large game were suitable for domestication. We'd send out parties looking for obvious sources of coal and iron and if we found these we'd mine and transport them. If not we'd be felling a lot of lumber to turn into charcoal to extract whatever iron or copper we could from what could be found. The furnace and the smelter would also be found on that landscape. We'd have some medical knowledge, most importantly an understanding of germs and medical hygiene so we'd have both basic water purification and sewage removal systems.

We'd understand the importance of knowledge so we'd have an education system for our children and at least the beginnings of a long-term store of knowledge (books). We could probably find the ingredients for gunpowder, which are quite common, which would give us the blasting technology need for large-scale mining and construction. If there was any marble nearby we could make concrete, which is a much better building material then wood or mud.

Technology did not come from the gods. It was not imposed on man by a mysterious outside force. Rather it is something we developed and continue to develop. Even if you could turn the clock back it would just start ticking again. John Zerzan seems to be the only primitivist capable of acknowledging this and he retreats to the position of seeing language and abstract thought as the problem. He is both right and ludicrous at the same time. His vision of utopia requires not only the death of the mass of the worlds population but would require the genetically engineered lobotomy of those who survive and their off spring! Not of course something he advocates but a logical end point of his argument.

Why argue against it?

So why spend so much space demolishing such a fragile ideology as primitivism. One reason is the embarrassing connection with anarchism some primitivists seek to claim. More importantly primitivism both by implication and often in its calls wants its followers to reject rationalism for mysticism and oneness with nature. They are not the first irrational ecological movement to do so, a good third of the German Nazi party came from forest worshipping blood and soil movements that sprung up in Germany in the aftermath of World War One.

This is not an empty danger. Within primitivism a self-proclaimed irrational wing has developed that if not yet advocating "nazi-style death camps" has openly celebrated the deaths and murder of large numbers of people as a first step.

In December 19971 the US publication Earth First wrote that "the AIDS epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population."(19) Around the same period in Britain Steve Booth, one of the editors of a magazine called 'Green Anarchist ', wrote that

"The Oklahoma bombers had the right idea. The pity was that they did not blast any more government offices. Even so, they did all they could and now there are at least 200 government automatons that are no longer capable of oppression. The Tokyo sarin cult had the right idea. The pity was that in testing the gas a year prior to the attack, they gave themselves away. They were not secretive enough. They had the technology to produce the gas but the method of delivery was ineffective. One day the groups will be totally secretive and their methods of fumigation will be completely effective."(20)

This is where you end up when you celebrate spirituality over rationality. When the hope of 'running with deer' overcomes the need to deal with the problem of making a revolution on a planet of 6 billion people. The ideas above have only reactionary conclusions. Their logic is elitist and hierarchical, little more that a semi-secular version of gods chosen people laying waste to the unbelievers. It certainly has nothing in common with anarchism. We need more not less technology.

Which brings us back to the start. Civilisation comes with many, many problems but it is better than the alternative. The challenge for anarchists is in transforming civilization to a form that is without hierarchy, or imbalances of power or wealth. This is not a new challenge, it has always been the challenge of anarchism as shown by the lengthy Bakunin quote at the start of this essay.

To do this we need modern technology to clean our water, pump away and process our waste and inoculate or cure people of the diseases of high population density. With only 10 million people on the earth you can shit in the woods providing you keep moving on. With 6 billion those who shit in the woods are shitting in the water they and those around them will have to drink. According to the UN "each year, more than 2.2 million people die from water and sanitation related diseases, many of them children". Close to one billion urban dwellers have no access to sustainable sanitation. Data for "43 African cities .... shows that 83 percent of the population do not have toilets connected to sewers"(21).

The challenge then is not simply the construction of a civilization that keeps everyone's standards of living at the level they are now. The challenge is raising just about everyone's standard of living but doing so in a manner that is reasonably sustainable. Only the further development of technology coupled to a revolution that eliminates inequality across the planet can deliver this.

It is unfortunate that some anarchists who live in the most developed, most wealthy and most technological nations of the world prefer to play with primitivism than getting down to thinking about how we can really change the world. The global transformation required will make all previous revolutions fade into insignificance.

The major problem is not simply that capitalism has been happy to leave a huge proportion of the world's population in poverty. The problem is also that development has been aimed at creating consumers for future products rather then providing what people need.

Transport provides the simplest example. A variety of forms of mass transport exist that can move huge numbers of people from place to place at great speed. Yet in the last decade capitalism has concentrated on the form that uses the greatest resources per traveller both in terms of what goes into making it and what is required to keep it running. This is the individual car.

Across large areas of the most developed parts of the globe this is pretty much the only way to get around in an efficient manner. The car has created the sprawling mega city of which Los Angeles is perhaps the most infamous example. There a city has been created whose urban layout makes individual car ownership almost compulsory.

This form of transport is simply not a solution for most of the world's population. And it's not simply that most people cannot afford a car at the moment. The resources consumed in the construction of the 3 billion odd cars needed for every adult inhabitant of the globe are simply not available. Nor are the resources (petrol) to run these 3 billion cars available.

So taking hold of existing technologies and developing new ones cannot simply mean carrying on capitalist production (or production methods) under a red and black flag. Just as a future anarchist society would seek to abolish the boring monotonous work of the assembly line so it would need to radically change the nature of the products that are produced. At a simple level in terms of transport this would perhaps begin with greatly reducing the production of cars and greatly increasing the production of bicycles, motorbikes, trains, buses, trucks and mini-buses.

I'm neither a 'transport expert' nor a worker in the transport industry so I can do no more then guess at what these changes might be. But we should be aware that outside of the west the need for transport is often solved in far less individualistic ways. Only the wealthy can afford a car but the mass of the population can often move almost as quickly from one location to another making use not only of bus and rail but also of systems of long distance collective taxis and mini-buses that run between towns whenever they are full.

This is the challenge for anarchism. Not simply to overthrow the existing capitalist world order but also to see the birth of a new world. A world that is at least capable of delivering the same access to goods, transport, healthcare and education as is accessible to the 'middle class' in Scandinavian countries today.

It is that new society that will decide what new technologies are needed and how to adopt existing technologies to the challenge of a new world. It is quite likely that some technologies, if not discarded, will be very much downgraded. It's hard to believe we would happily decide to build new nuclear power stations for instance. GMOs would need to prove something beyond the possibility of GMO's meaning greater profits and monopolies for corporations, not least that the benefit was greater than the dangers.

As long as capitalism exists it will continue to reek environmental havoc as it chases profits. It will only effectively respond to the energy crisis once that becomes profitable and because there will be a lag of many years before oil can be replaced this might mean worsening poverty and death for many of the poorer people in the world. But we cannot fix these problems by dreaming of some lost golden age when the world's population was low enough to support hunter gathering. We can only sort it out by building the sort of mass movements that can not only overthrow capitalism but also introduce a libertarian society. And on the way we need to find ways to halt and even reverse some of the worst of the environmental threats capitalism is generating.

Primitivism is a pipe dream - it offers no way forwards in the struggle for a free society. Often its adherents end up undermining that struggle by attacking the very things, like mass organization, that are a requirement to win it. Those primitivists who are serious about changing the world need to re-examine what they are fighting for.

1 http://flag.blackened.net/daver/anarchism/bakunin/paris.html

2 http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,5673,234225,00.html

3 http://www.heritage.nf.ca/aboriginal/inuit.html

4 http://www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/~agraham/nost202/norwaysami.htm

5 http://www.gardensofeden.org/04%20Crop%20Yield%20Verification.htm

6 http://biology.queensu.ca/~bio111/pdf%20files/lect9-human-demography-1.PDF

7 http://qrc.depaul.edu/lheneghan/ENV102/env102Lecture8.htm

8http://geography.berkeley.edu:16080/ProgramCourses/CoursePagesFA2002/
geog148/Term%20Papers/Anita%20Lee/THEPLE~1.html

9 http://qrc.depaul.edu/lheneghan/ENV102/env102Lecture8.htm

10http://www.google.ie/search?q=cache:SC6WTwBCazUJ:
library.thinkquest.org/C003763/index.php%3Fpage%3Dterraform03
+maximum+hunter+gather+population&hl=en&ie=UTF-8

(sorry for the long URL but the page is not directly accessible)

11 "Miss Ann Thropy," Earth First! Dec. 22, 1987, cited at
http://www.processedworld.com/Issues/issue22/primitive_thought.htm

12 http://www.eco-action.org/dt/primer.html A Primitivist Primer
By John Moore

13 http///www.eco-action.org/spellbreaker/faq.html

14 the Practical Anarcho-Primitivist: actualizing the implications
of a critique -Coalition Against Civilization, online at
http://www.coalitionagainstcivilization.org/speciestraitor/pap.html

15 Issue #6 of The 'A' Word Magazine, this interview online at
http://www.infoshop.org/inews/stories.php?story=04/02/11/5876278

16 http://struggle.ws/ws95/famine45.html

17 http://www.abc.net.au/rn/science/ockham/stories/s19040.htm

18 For a reasoned critique of collapism from a Green anarchist
perspective see
http://pub47.ezboard.com/fanarchykkafrm1.showPrevMessage?topicID=372.topic

19 Earth First!, Dec. 22, 1987, cited at
http://www.processedworld.com/Issues/issue22/primitive_thought.htm

20 Green Anarchist, number 51, page 11, a defense of these remarks was published in Number 52. The author Steve Booth was a GA editor (and the treasurer) at the time

21 http://www.unhabitat.org/global_water.asp

  • 1. libcom note: it has been pointed out in the comments below that this was actually December 1987

Comments

saya-jin
Jan 22 2010 21:47

Despite that I agree on the necessary critique of the primitivism of any kind I have strong opinion against the basis that was used by Andrew Flood. First there is the problem of the cited primitivist or wannabe primitivist standpoints. I'm really deep expert of primitivism but these opinions are hardly representative. I saw much more practical-theoretical works in the Camatte inspired views. And with all of my concerns, I found very useful ideas in his works.
On the other hand the critique is mostly made on the following topics: population decreasing - ways and means and "practical" issues.
Now the point is that none of these are related to the class-content of the question. It would be easy to say, not everything has to do with it, but in order to understand the counter-revolutionary content of this movement, we need use our analysis through our historical experiences. As we know, the primitivist tendency has a long history within the workers' movement. As we already saw in many cases there were a frozen state of the critique lead to birth of a reformist, which is to say counter revolutionary cell, movement or entire ideology. Adaptation of a certain level of critical theory without developing a practice of critique causes a break with all the realities of the proletariat. The economism as you already mentioned it, stop where the Marx's critique of the political economy determined an aspect of the social collapse of the capitalism. What we need to see here, that is not only the fact that these theories are having similar characteristics to each other in a counter-revolutionary sense, but we need to see how does these related to our movement; what critique wait for us to transform it to a proletarian mean. As many Stalinist hard-liner works proved to be useful for analysing the economical apparatus (reading these texts certainly need a lot of re-processing for us!) so those theories that these groups built up in their own could be a fruitful ground to use them up after some transformation. I really missed that from this text.

I have an other objection too. You are providing a mind-game to imagine how the primitivist ideas would or more importantly wouldn't work in practice. And at that point you lost ground from the programme of the social subversion. Where you stating that the anarchist way of life cannot go on in the ways of capitalistic production with changing the flag only contradicts with what you are guessing on the behalf of the necessary steps of a communist/anarchist society. Certainly, the very expression of technology is a result of deep break in our reality carried through the distribution of labour. In all class divided society, including our current curse, there was a generic separation of the intellectual and the physical labour. The planning over the production and therefore design its structures weren't always focused on the tools and machinery of the labour but this design work was waged to the "social design" (well, not in the modern sense of the word but most of the cases the know-how of owning the land, that is to say how to put workers in to some project) by priests, by army, by political sciences. The most industrial societies were mostly the ones that used to sail for trading - and for grabbing the goods/slaves from external communities. The "technology" as it comes a matter of interest coming along with the industrialisation, because the agriculture and feudalistic framework provided a certain "autonomy" for the peasantry (the antique slavery was indeed the extensive agriculture design by the already mentioned "social design") to develop its own means of production.
Historically the question of technology was always the matter of the social arrangement therefore there is a valid critique of the current ways of technology and it has to go deeper than you suggest. Where the primitivists see an urge to destroy the civilisation, or a blessed coming ecologic catastrophe to abolish this civilization, they are still trapped in the alienated relationship with our environment. They express themselves through terms that are stuck in the ideas of the commodity society. As you, the author with the "practical" objections does the same. In order to move forward to our social project we need to see that our world as it is, can be abolished only through its constructive use. This means, that the specific products of technology that is given could be treated as an external object that need to be communised. Certainly it doesn't mean to not use our creative ability to transform our environment but as it gets a different goal developing from its current use, it cannot move on as a separated part of our social existence. Therefore what is known as technology today will be a part of the everyday practice within our other parts of the world community. As locally, as personally, and as world-wide community. So it's not an adjustment, not a development towards to a green technology in order to keep the planet sustainable but a radical change with our relationship with the world. I don't want to get lost in the details in your individual visions about the future technology, but how you treated the question was originally counter-productive. We can't learn our means of production from the current science forecasts without having our definite objections with the standpoint of that science, in fact the very existence of such sciences. But we got the chance to learn how can we use up the current environment which contains the theories of the current science as much as the condition of our population or of our planet.

satawal
Apr 10 2016 14:06

Please correct Date attribution mistake/slur in Flood article

Re http://libcom.org/thought/approaches/primitivism#footnoteref22_do5u27t

Hi All,

I think the article overall is rather weak, but never the less thought this correction was in order.

In the article Flood says:

"In December 1997 the US publication Earth First wrote that "the AIDS epidemic, rather than being a scourge, is a welcome development in the inevitable reduction of human population."(22) Around the same period in Britain Steve Booth, one of the editors of a magazine called 'Green Anarchist ',..."

Actually this was in 1987 - not 1997 - in the US Earth First! Journal (and caused a major rukus in the movement). The reference in the article actually confirms this "22: Earth First!, Dec. 22, 1987, cited at http://www.processedworld.com/Issues/issue22/primitive_thought.htm".

It's not a libcom typo as in the above quote Flood gets mixed up himself and says for the sake of his narrative that it and the horrific crap about by Steve Booth about the Tokyo Sarin attacks were "around the same period" - which they were not – Booth was writing 11 years later (in UK Green Anarchist #51, Spring 1998).

While the mistake is Floods not Libcoms I think it deserves correction as it smears the Earth First! Journal editors of the late 90s (and by implication the wider movement), who were pushing an increasingly anti-capitalist line and for good or bad were many of the same folks that organised the 1999 N30 at Seattle etc. In fact their political orientation (and that of most of US EF!ers at the time) was in reaction against much of the ideas of the 80’s Journal editors who left the movement with the bit split in part sparked by the AIDS quote.

Whatever one's thoughts on primitivism I feel the correction is worth putting in.

Steven.
Apr 10 2016 14:14

Many thanks for the correction. Because we are hosting the writing of another individual, I won't amend the article, however I will add a libcom footnote.

Black Badger
Apr 10 2016 15:04

A partial response to Flood's bad faith screed:
Prominent and vocal anti-primitivist anarcho-syndicalist Andrew Flood confidently avers in his essay “Civilsation, Primitivism and anarchism” (available at Anarkismo.net) that “there is no shortage of primitivists who recognize that the primitive world they desire would require ‘mass die-offs’.” Flood cites four sources: Miss Ann Thropy (not an anarchist or even a primitivist, but an old-school Earth First!er[13]); an anonymous FAQ writer (possibly an anarchist[14]); Derrick Jensen (also not an anarchist or a primitivist[15]); and the Coalition Against Civilization (the only actual self-described anarcho-primitivist project on that list). Leaving aside the actual content of the quotations, the immediate problem with these citations is that there are primitivists who are not anarchists, just as there are those who declare themselves to be against civilization who do not identify themselves as anarchists or primitivists. Refusal to recognize and acknowledge those distinctions (which, admittedly, can be quite subtle) is simply dishonest.[16]

Unfortunately for Flood (and others who wish to rely on his points), two of those authors do not profess to be anarchists, so their discussions/admissions/desires are irrelevant, unless Flood wishes to add the use of guilt by (his) association to his rhetorical armory. A further complication arises: who are we to choose as representative of a particular tendency? In order to discredit specific tendencies within anarchism, or anarchism in general, it is always possible to quote ridiculous anarchists (Christians, pacifists, anti-imperialists...pick your least favorite). But what would be the point, other than to prove that there are ridiculous anarchists? It is difficult enough for all anarchists to agree about the relative importance of various anarchist theorists, let alone to decide that they are the real representatives of an authentic or traditional anarchism. Given that anarchism is a complex and contradictory philosophy, it is usually better to avoid such exercises.[17] Flood’s decision to make certain writers into typical primitivists is not credible; choosing to elevate any marginal writer into some allegedly average representative of anarchism in general — or any of its sub-tendencies (like primitivism) — is the epitome of bad faith, and is especially annoying coming from someone who has taken it upon himself to defend anarchism from fake anarchists and other distractions.

In addition there’s an enormous difference between acknowledging that a speculative non-industrial lifeway would most likely necessitate a lower population density and saying that those who acknowledge it are the ones who are going to set up a genocidal system whereby the population gets culled (à la Pol Pot, the famous anarcho-primitivist[?!] often cited by anti-primitivists). The problem for anti-primitivists is that they only ever interpret an acknowledgment as meaning that anarcho-primitivists want millions to die so that their utopia can be realized. No anarcho-primitivist I know of has suggested doing that; insisting that they do necessitates creating a strawman. Ignoring and denying the subjectivity of others is an old authoritarian trick, and is therefore especially unfortunate when used by anarchists.

The imputation that any and all primitivists and/or anti-civvers are promoters of genocide is absurd on its face. The statement “millions will die” is an empty slogan, taken on faith — as if its continuous repetition by so many different anti-primitivists makes it that much more credible. It is nothing but a knee-jerk position against which it is impossible to argue; indeed it is invoked and repeated precisely in order to shut down any possibility of discussion. “Millions will die” is not an argument or even a simple opinion, because there’s no way to counter or challenge it. It is a non-factual assertion, held and promoted as dogma. Any and all dogmas are decidedly unattractive for any self-described anarchist to cling to.

Flood states further on that “primitivism is no substitute for the anarchist struggle for liberation, which involves adopting technology to our needs rather then rejecting it.” This even less substantiated assertion leaves no room for a reassessment of what sorts of technology are (or might be) appropriate for a self-managed culture. At a time when industrialism, and what can be understood as modern technology, started to make inroads in the economic field (the period roughly between the Paris Commune and the Spanish Revolution), such a statement coming from anarchists might have sounded forward-looking and exciting, but at the beginning of the 21st century such an assertion sounds hopelessly naïve. Flood’s use of technology throughout his oeuvre is divorced from any sort of critical appraisal; it belongs to the discredited and discarded idea that technology is some kind of neutral system that arises out of good intentions and unseen economic forces.[18] The complication of the interconnectedness of various beneficial technologies with less-than-beneficial effects completely escapes those who adhere to this simplistic position. The intertwined and expansionist aspects of modern technology are part of the condition of domination and exploitation that we are forced to endure; the dream of the technocrat is that there be no escape for the rest of us. What alternatives exist for those of us whose desires include not wanting to be so intimately connected to various kinds of technology?

“The problem is that primitivists like to attack the very methods of mass organization that are necessary for overthrowing capitalism,” is the last of Flood’s claims that I’ll deal with. Countering this assertion has nothing to do with primitivism; I hereby claim that attack on behalf of post-left anarchists.[19] The organizational questions for anarchists have always been, and remain: what kind? for what purpose? with whom? Flood’s assertion is, once again, not based on any sort of critical examination, this time of actual and specific radical/anarchist history. The main attack on his assertion is historical: so far, there’s never been a successful overthrowing of capitalism, so there’s no way to test the validity or accuracy of his opinion. We simply don’t know whether mass anarchist organizations will be a help, a hindrance, or completely irrelevant to a definitive overthrowing of capitalism. We have no examples to cite.[20] At the very least it behooves honest and thoughtful anarchists to remain skeptical of the alleged benefits and indispensability of every sort of organization (mass or otherwise) to achieving the goals of an anarchist revolution. But skepticism and critique are beside the ideological point for fans of mass organization. Just like the “mass die-off” mantra, the mass organization mantra has the force of dogma, a True Belief; its appeal resides in the power of endless repetition.

Flood’s three assertions rely on the exact opposite of critical thinking and a dispassionate examination of the historical data. Such ideological limitations make for good rants, but wishful thinking elevated into a blinkered political position and organizational goal just doesn’t cut it as a decent anarchist strategy.

[13] The controversial (semi-serious?) article extolling AIDS as population control was written in the mid-1980s, prior to the famous hippie versus redneck split in EF!; after this split (which the article in question did much to foment) and the departure of redneck co-founder Dave Foreman, many EF! locals became more friendly toward direct action oriented anarcho-activists. Earth First! has never been an exclusively anarchist project; from the mid-80s through mid-90s anarchist-oriented radical environmentalists in the US and Canada gravitated toward the journal Live Wild or Die.

[14] Do or Die, the now-defunct publication/activist project of the British branch of Earth First! had a continuously tenuous relationship to anarchism, entirely separate from the question of primitivism; EF! in the US has an even more incoherent analysis and practice.

[15] Despite having penned numerous repetitive and increasingly tedious jeremiads against civilization, his opportunistic, and half-hearted, commitment to anarchism is nicely summed up here — as far as I know the first time he’s publicly accepted the label: “I get called an anarchist a lot, and I don’t mind. Do I self-identify as an anarchist? Sometimes... I guess I’ll use it when it feels right, and I won’t when it doesn’t feel right... So yeah, I’m a writer, I’m an anarchist, I’m an anarcho-primitivist, whatever you want to call me, whatever, but then I’m a capitalist for that matter... and damn proud of it. Whatever...” Mythmakers and Lawbreakers (AK Press, 2009, pp 29–30, my emphasis.) At the time Flood wrote his critique, Jensen was indeed cozy with a few anarcho-primitivists who continually tried to enlist him involuntarily; recently there has been a thorough falling out, due in large part to Jensen’s monumental ego and accompanying inability to deal with even the slightest criticism, constructive or otherwise.

[16] Complaints about conflating neo-Platformists and anarcho-syndicalists abound as well, with those making the equation refusing to take seriously what members of either tendency say about themselves.

[17] Virtually all anarchists everywhere agree that Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as the first person to call himself an anarchist proudly, was an important early figure of anarchist theory; not all find his insights or plans particularly relevant, however. Similar problems arise when we examine other famous or not-so-famous anarchist thinkers. There is a tension — and therefore a challenge for honest anarchists — between needing to acknowledge someone’s presence within the anarchist tradition even when we may disagree with her ideas and analysis. Bakunin and Kropotkin are less problematic than Proudhon, but are no less impervious to criticism. For a bizarre exercise in sectarianism and rewriting of history (complete with what may be the first full repudiation and excommunication of Proudhon), see Black Flame (reviewed elsewhere in this issue).

[18] “[F]ew adhere to the neutrality of technology thesis.” Tyler Veak, writing in the famous anarcho-primitivist [sic!] journal Science, Technology and Human Values: Journal of the Social Studies of Science (25.2, 2000), published through the auspices of that bastion of anti-Enlightenment thought, the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

[19] The rejection of mass organizations is one of the core issues that has prompted what can be loosely labeled post-left anarchist discourse. That there are overlaps and similarities among anarcho-primitivist and post-left anarchist discourse is undeniable, but they remain distinct tendencies. The editors of this journal have taken it upon ourselves to be among the primary theoreticians and commentators of this tendency that aims to reclaim some neglected aspects of traditional anarchism while embracing some of the more recent relevant insights of — among others — post-structuralists, radical feminists, and the Situationists and other Left critics of Marxism and Party Communism.

[20] The usual examples of actually existing anarchy (parts of the Ukraine, 1918–21 and parts of Spain, 1936–37) are not actually applicable. Not because they were not successful, but because for as long as anarchists were supposed to have been in charge, there was no definitive abolition of either the state or capitalism (although it can be argued that the Makhnovists were able to go farther in that direction than the cenetistas), no matter how hard the anarchist militants tried — and clearly many tried as hard as they could. In both examples the anarchists faced similar problems. The major internal obstacle was an incomplete and/ or incoherent analysis of both the state and capitalism, which inevitably led to many strategic mistakes. The major external obstacle for each was the constraint of imperialist war plus their numerically and militarily stronger enemies on the Left and the Right — the anarchists had to fight both at the same time. The lesson of Makhno’s defeat was to suggest the cadre-based Organizational Platform as a corrective, while ten years later in Spain, the mass organization helped to bury the very revolution they said they were supporting.

https://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/lawrence-jarach-why-i-am-not-an-anti-primitivist

AndrewF
Apr 11 2016 11:52

I'm not normally described as an anarcho-syndicalist. I wouldn't bother to point that out except that much of Black Badgers reply is based around an accusation of bad faith misattribution of people political positions so its a very odd claim to open with. Its all the odder as the very bit he quotes from I describes the people I quote as primitivists (not anarcho-primivitists), its BB who introduces the false idea I'd claimed they were anarchists in order to then denounce me for the mischaracterisation they created. And in the context of the original piece its just a way of avoiding answering the detailed section that precedes it as to why primitivism of whatever variant requires the death of most of the human population to be a runner (thats billions, not millions). It's not stated as 'an empty slogan' but explaind in depth and in detail (which is avoided in BBs reply).

The 1987 / 97 thing was a genuine error on my part, I've no idea who the editors of EF were in the 90s so would have no interest in smearing them one way or the other. I'd certainly acknowledge that EF has come on a long way since then although I think partially by not addressing the population question. BTW I hosted an EF discussion in Dublin about 4 years back including putting the editor up in my house so th assumed hostility to the journal rather than that particular quotation is misplaced.

Rather obviously as I'd mistakenly thought it was 1997 that is indeed 'around the same time' as Spring 1998 so part of the same error rather than a creation for narrative purposes. Of course they focus on that single error is a rather good way of trying to inoculate people against the piece without actually dealing with the substance.

The stuff on technology I already replied to at length back in the 2005 follow up essay, based on responses like the one above. It might make sense to link to that piece 'Is primitivism realistic? An anarchist reply to John Zerzan and others'

"The technology question causes a huge amount of confusion with primitivists mixing up a particular form or consequence of technology with the technology itself. I had tried to deal with this in the original essay using the example of motorised transport. Yet some replies were from people in the USA who couldn't get their heads around the idea of the technology of motorised transport being used in any other way than the way it is used in the USA. There it is perhaps more reasonable for someone to believe that “car culture could not be likely eliminated without destroying civilisation” (14). US culture and urban geography means that right now there are huge areas of the country where owning a car is pretty essential to survival.

But this isn't typical of the rest of the world, not even of parts of the US. If you lived in Manhattan for instance, for day-to-day life a car is more of a problem then a requirement. People across huge areas of the planet have a very low percentage of car ownership - in the most part because people are too poor to afford individual cars. Yet those with money still have access to mass transportation. If you go anywhere in North Africa you can travel long distances rapidly and at ease, reaching even quite small towns because the lack of individual car ownership has created a market for an incredibly sophisticated network of collective taxis. They leave from fixed points in each town whenever a vehicle is full. Really busy routes also have trains and buses. The point is that even under capitalism alternative ways of dealing with the need for transportation already exist - there is nothing inevitable about the 'car culture' that is a feature of how the technology of the internal combustion engine has been used in the USA."