Abolish the Automobile

In 1997 my aunt and her partner were driving in their car a few miles from their home, when an oncoming driver hit them head on. My aunt sustained some moderate injuries, but her partner of nearly thirty years died that day. This story is hardly unique. According to Wikipedia there were an average of 93 deaths per day on USA roadways in 2009, approximately 2% of all deaths that year. Of these about 1/10 were pedestrians. So while automobile-related fatalities pale in comparison to those caused by cancer, heart disease or infectious disease, they still outnumber those caused by suicide or (intentional) interpersonal violence.

I don’t cite these figures in an attempt to give some sort of quasi-objective account of human suffering. I’m sure most people reading this are familiar with the Mark Twain quip about “lies, damn lies and statistics”. What I do hope to illustrate is how common-place and acceptable human suffering caused by a very specific technological artifact has become in this society.

Contemporary USA culture is determined by nothing as much as the automobile. Unlike airplanes, automobiles were not invented in North America. Even the Interstate highway system was an appropriation of the Nazi Autobahn. But in the United States cars achieved apotheosis. The post-WWII economic boom can be largely attributed to the positive feedback loop in the development, sales, use and investment in cars. Many of the hallmarks of contemporary capitalism came out of the auto industry: the assembly line, planned obsolescence, bought union leadership, wholesale destruction of poor and non-white neighborhoods, suburban sprawl and mega-store chains. And despite the signs that oil extraction has begun to decline, the system continues to chug along.

At some point in my adolescence i decided that i never wanted to own a car. I do not remember my initial motivation, but the intervening years have only reinforced my resolve on this matter. As a teenager, i got my learner’s permit and then my full license along with the rest of them. But while many of my classmates were gifted cars, or even took on part-time jobs to get them, i remained aloof from this rite of passage. My conscientious rejection of car culture became starkly apparent in my senior year when i was almost the only white person to ride the bus and i rarely took part in the supposed privilege of being able to go off campus for lunch at the local fast food establishments. The city i was living in then was the worst i have ever experienced. My family’s house was far removed in the suburbs, and cut-off from everything else by two interstates and a busy four lane street. But even the “downtown” area, 15 miles away, had a distinctly suburban feel. The bus system may well have not existed for how few and infrequent routes it ran.

When i applied for college one of my major criteria was a campus that would not require me to commute by car. As a child i was not particularly interested in bicycles, but at 18 i quickly learned how to ride. I was lucky that the city i lived in had a vibrant bike culture, where i soon became a regular in the monthly Critical Mass rides. The downtown area, with it’s narrow thoroughfares, had been laid out longer before the rise of the automobile. I learned to be very cautious, but also confrontational as well. Several of my cycling acquaintances were injured in those years, but fortunately none very grievously. I also learned how to respect pedestrians, and what defensive walking looks like.

I am honing these survival skills once again. With each new location i make my temporary home, i adapt to different traffic patterns, different levels of visibility for non-cars. Ironically, the most difficult for me have been the small towns where pedestrians are expected to have the right of way. My habit is to wait for car traffic to clear before crossing a street, which confuses drivers who actually respect pedestrians and cyclists. In big cities i always stare at the driver when i cross an intersection, until they notice me. Most drivers will only look for cars in the direction they intend to turn, and don’t even know i am crossing their path until i am directly in front of them. Many drivers idle in a designated crosswalk or drive through an intersection just as i am about to cross. Sometimes i smack the rear of their cars, hoping against hope that they will take more care in the future. Sidewalks are rare in rural areas, and can be lacking even in dense urban areas. When walking in the street i always stick to the left, so i will be seen by oncoming cars. It would be wise to wear reflective material at night, but i haven’t taken this step yet.

that’s what i call crossing guards

My choice to remain car-free has had certain disadvantages, but i find that the pros greatly outweigh them. I get exercise. I don’t have to pay for gas, insurance, repairs, parking or auto loans. I don’t have to sit around on the “free”way in rush hour. I don’t have as much of the green guilt of being worried about climate change while directly contributing to it (though as a participant in the economy i still indirectly add to the problem). I am more aware and present in my surroundings, which are often not aesthetically pleasing, but may benefit me in other ways. Most of all, i just don’t find driving to be a pleasant experience.

My choice is hard for most people to understand, even many anarchists. The incentives to conform to automobile ownership in this society are very strong. So much of just getting by is premised on it. Employers often shamelessly discriminate against the car-free (“must have reliable transportation”). Acquiring a car is a major step in establishing one’s credit. Even many personals ads list car ownership as a requirement for a potential date. My intentional rejection of the automobile way of life has constantly reaffirmed my total rejection of this society’s values and priorities. Cars get associated with freedom, independence and autonomy. My experiences have exposed these ridiculous pretensions for the platitudes they are. My personal freedom is not contingent on procuring a large machine or buying into the massive system it is built upon!

Last Winter a family friend and several of her family members were visiting relatives in India, when her uncle lost control of the vehicle and veered into the path of a large truck. Everyone was killed in the collision but the truck driver; an entire household obliterated in an instant. Through this personal grief i was reminded that the cancer of car culture is now rapidly infecting the populous, developing Asian states. And unlike in North America where there is something of a regular generational turnover of experienced drivers, in India and China most individuals operating motor vehicles have been doing so for only a few years, if that long. Even religious shrines are being dismantled as obstacles to the proliferation of roadways. As a consummate green anarchist i could take some consolation in the finitude of fossil fuels and the unlikelihood of suitable replacements ever being developed – but i am impatient and pissed off and selectively confrontational. I am sick of seeing people and other beings i care about sacrificed to the idol on four wheels. I want the car culture to end, and i want it gone now.

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Somewhere

“We all know when we wake up that this is all we get.”
— YACHT, “Utopia”

“Utopia” itself describes a tension. It is the good-place, but it is no-place. The term is a literary pun that has come to stand for a real world paradox. Throughout human history utopias have been conceived and sought after. Early civilizations hearkened to Heaven or the Pure Land. Modern ideologies have given us the Worker’s State and the American Dream. Whatever the name, utopias have always promised and never followed through.

The good-place always exists outside of the margins of reality. The no-place is the standard plot device of escapist fantasies. We are lulled into passivity toward the existent by the poetry of the non-existent. Dreams of that which does not exist numb our senses of how to survive and overcome that which does exist.

Anarchist utopias vary greatly in their imaginal outlines, from post-catastrophic tribalism, to post-human mass-mechanization. But the most frightening of all anarchist utopias is the land of the endless meetings. The wide variety of anarchist-conceived utopias further demonstrates that one person’s utopia is another’s dystopia.

The conclusion seems unavoidable: utopia is itself an authoritarian construct. For a utopia to exist in the mind, the myriad of living individuals, human and non-human, must be subject to the designs of the thinker. They are constrained by the limits set, even unconsciously, by the utopian schemer. When one strives to bring their vision of the no/good-place into the real world, they reproduce these autocratic relations. How much more so those who perch atop the mountains of misery?

The longing for utopia is the distorted desire to negate this society. The healthy attitude of revulsion against the present is supplanted by fixation upon Nowhere. We would not choose this ground, but it is what we have. What we can choose is to ascertain the territory in which we find ourselves and how to utilize it to our advantage. The same imaginal powers which are wasted in utopian speculation are our strength when we apply them to the terrain of conflict. The defenders of order always leave important details off their maps. It is by seeing what they cannot that we might outwit them. We can be certain that we will never see our respective ideal societies to come to fruition, but why should that deter us from strategic incursions against this quotidian nightmare?

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Internet Revolution in Retrospect

The first time i saw a URL was on a TV spot. I was transfixed by the strange string of characters. They were normal letters and punctuation, but their form was not that of “real” words – they had a different, somewhat esoteric meaning which neither i, nor most people were familiar with. In those days personal computing was still a novelty. Computer retail was not dominated by sleek sales-pods, epitomized today by the Mac Store, but warehouses of electronic bric-a-brac, for hobbyists and by hobbyists. I cut my e-teeth in these dusty emporia, first witnessing the functioning of a modem (one of the old coupler modems that connected with a regular telephone receiver, now, too a “retro” technology. It was here that i was told of a revolutionary new mode of communication, which used the hardware of phone lines and PCs to communicate with people from all over the world.

The starry-eyed optimism of those old school geeks was infectious. It must have been 1993 when my family first signed up with an ISP. With the wondrous World-wide Web was at my fingertips I had access to the conversations taking place over BBS, newsgroups and chatrooms. Like many, i was struck by the simultaneous sense of freedom and relative anonymity. On the Internet, no one knew i was a child. I could feel awfully sophisticated as i discussed Clintonian era politics with total strangers. I quickly picked up basic HTML and made various websites on the numerous free hosting sites which then existed. I shared my geeky literary and digital interests with the world, and was exposed to others’ interests in return. Like the vast majority of Americans i was already programmed for a media experience, but unlike TV, the Internet made the screens interactive. There was no advertising and very little prepackaged content; just a bunch of enthusiasts sharing things with one another.

Or so it seemed. The WWW is a product of capitalism (as well as the military and academia), and as the Internet grew in popularity, so too did the businesses that profited from it. I knew that much of what i cherished about this medium was on its way out when I first encountered ads, first the innocuous banner ads that appeared at the very top of some websites, then the notorious pop-ups, quickly followed up by pop-unders which still occasionally manage to circumvent my attempts to block them. The small, local dial-up ISPs disappeared, slowly at first, and then quickly with the appearance of expensive broadband networks, maintained by large centralized companies. The spam in my email inbox from small time scammers became overshadowed by the junk CDs that appeared in the physical mailbox courtesy of AOL. Now that people knew there was the potential to make big money on the Internet, it was sure never to be the same. Naturally, following the recognized pattern of capitalist history, there was a minor boom in the late 90’s followed by a minor bust, now all but forgotten in the Great Recession.

The ratio of signal to noise has dropped pretty considerably over the years. So has the autonomy. “Social media” are now some of the most trafficked websites, yet i feel more disconnected with those around me than i did in the basement nerddom of my youth. When i first used the Internet it was a toy, a hobby-horse. I could pick it up and put it down at will. Now it is ubiquitous and inescapable. I have to use it for work. I am bombarded with intimate details about the lives of people i have scarcely interacted with. I run into people watching hardcore porn everywhere, especially libraries. I am treated as a social outcast for not having a “smart” phone. As the Internet has become increasing integrated into the social fabric, i have become increasing anti-social.

But is it anti-social to be wary of a medium that comes with apparently inherent socially-debilitating qualities? It’s not just the participants in the famously anarchic AnarchistNews.org comments section, the medium itself promotes unaccountable behavior. Social psychologists who have studied this phenomenon call it “online disinhibition”. But it doesn’t take an academic to realize something is amiss. This society was an unhealthy mess before the advent of the Internet, how much worse will it get as “social media” become the default mode of interaction?

Like it or not, the Internet is not going away, so long as the industrial technological system remains intact. As with any civilized technological system, we are not allowed to opt out. Your house must appear on Google Street View, or you will suffer the consequences. Many employers will check the social network profiles of applicants, some even require it to be submitted with the application. Even the US Postal service, going bankrupt thanks to the Internet, no longer offers paper change of address forms. You will be assimilated.

But the Internet has also been leveraged by Iranian and Arab rebels, Wikileakers, Occupistas, anti-authoritarian hackers and flash robbers. Phone-captured videos of police brutality have brought about waves of resistance. The increasing capabilities and sheer success of file sharing networks seem poised to effectively end the legal pretense of intellectual property altogether. The Internet has been and will continue to be used by groups that are roughly “with us” in one or more dimensions of liberation.

My challenge has become to use of this technology more judiciously. Prolonged Internet usage creates information overload. The human processor can only overclock so much. And as with just about anyone on the Internet at one point or another, i have written some things that i have regretted. But i have also experienced the rush of being part of Web-based projects of which have had tangible, real world results. I look forward to furthering the IRL output.

I like many aspects of the Internet, but i also like many aspects of cutting myself off of mass media. In retrospect, the Internet revolution does seem similar to political revolutions, in that it opened up social space outside of the systems of control. Technological innovation generally can create fissures in the social matrix, but the forces of control can easily buy into these channels, once opened. The challenge is to figure out how to create niches in the social space that we can, in time and in place, and to be ready for these breaks when they occur. No particular technology is neutral, and every technology has an embedded ideology. The Internet runs on its own particular logic, but we have some choices on how to approach it. Be smart, be safe.

Go outside.

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To Profess Progress

The recent Kaczynski-style attacks aimed at Mexican nano-technology researchers has lead to another wave of anti-primitivist rhetoric on the internet. Condemning targeted bombings of scientists is one thing, but insulting a wide range of people holding techno-skeptical views is quite another. I’ll leave off the relevant distinctions between anarcho-primitivism and the Individuals Tending Toward Savagery for another time, because right now I want to focus on something of larger scope.

Some claim that primitivism and anarchism are mutually exclusive tendencies. The primitivist fixation on searching out the origins of hierarchy, oppression and alienation easily belie this claim. There is at least a strong overlap between the two, but where do they part ways? “Primitivism” implies a conservative ethos, a harkening back to the good ol’ days. Though primtivists rarely speak of “returning to the caves” as the anti-primitivists claim, they do tend to maintain an Edenic mythological worldview.

If anarchism is conceived as a Left movement, then it must be construed as a champion of the novel, of progress. Indeed, much of historical anarchism has positioned itself in such a manner. Anarchists have echoed the progressive rhetoric of Leftism in describing various liberatory trajectories. But the mythology of progress is not merely the domain of Leftists. Imperialists, Fascists, and Capitalists all speak of progress when advancing their programs. The vaunted rhetoric of technological progress is susceptible to appropriation by any of these political tendencies.

I look askance at all myths of a purported Golden Age, whether that age is located in the past or the future. The positions of uncritical pro- and anti-technologists are alike simplistic and facile. Some older forms of society, culture, technology, or what-have-you are worth preserving or resurrecting, while others deserve to be abolished. Likewise some new forms are emancipatory and others are not. We do ourselves a disservice by maintaining such myopic views. We should form our own mythologies of liberation, rather than relying on the detritus of Christianity and the Enlightenment.

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Non-authoritarian Leadership

Leadership is a concept that anarchists shy away from, and rightly so. Most phenomena that fall under the term run counter to our principles. From the Left, no less than from the Right, leaders (usually self-appointed) have risen up to mold their groups to conform to their own agendas. History is replete with examples of individuals stifled and crushed in the name of the Leader.

Yet, I hesitate to totally discard the concept of leadership. I have witnessed social phenomena in the anti-authoritarian milieu that could be described by that word. I refer here not to the official and unofficial heads of various anarchist sects. Rather, I mean that certain individuals manifest a non-coercive influence upon others, a capacity to inspire their fellow anarchists to achieve. In a milieu based more on small, independent groups than large organizations this looks like individuals and small groups taking the initiative to build up various projects. They may then encourage others to help them in their projects, or inspire them to start up projects of their own devising.

This style of “leadership” (if we wish to use the term) is based on informal and spontaneous social relations, not predetermined social roles. Colin Ward in his Anarchism as a Theory of Organization quotes John Comerford’s description of this process happening in an experimental health facility:

Because they [leaders] were not consciously appointed, neither (when they had fulfilled their purpose) were they consciously overthrown. [...] They followed his [sic] guidance just as long as his guidance was helpful and what they wanted. They melted away from him without regrets when some widening of experience beckoned them on to some fresh adventure, which would in turn throw up its spontaneous leader, or when their self-confidence was such that any form of constrained leadership would have been a restraint to them. A society, therefore, if left to itself in suitable circumstances to express itself spontaneously works out its own salvation and achieves a harmony of action which superimposed leadership cannot emulate.

Authoritarian leadership is not restrained just to official positions of power. As both Cathy Levine and Jason McQuinn have asserted in responding to Jo Freeman’s The Tyranny of Structurelessness, oppressive social behavior can occur in both informal and formal groups. The difference is that in formal organizations the power dynamics favor entrenched leadership. Self-appointed leaders can crop up in informal groups, but in these cases there is no structural obligation to let them remain in leadership positions. In either case, the social dynamics of any group should be critically attended to.

As Chris Crass notes, denying the presence of informal leaders can actually play into inequitable power relations. His experience was situated in the particulars of a group lead by white, middle class males that denied their own actual, though informal, leadership to the detriment of group cohesion. I once belonged to a consensus-based group spearheaded by mostly white, middle-class females. Due to our unwillingness to acknowledge our leadership roles, we unwittingly allowed a dissident male parliamentarian to sabotage our consensus process, which contributed to the dissolution of our group.

Building up non-authoritarian leadership practices seems like a Sisyphean task. In actuality, as the example cited by Ward seems to suggest, the natural inclination against authority, even among those unaware of anarchist theory, can provide the impetus.

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Authority and Civilization

Within the greater anti-civilization milieu, two major factions have been vocally distinguishing their approaches from one another: the anarcho-primitivists and the Deep Green Resistance movement. Occasionally this effort towards differentiation has been based on honest disagreement about theory and practice. More commonly, it has been a tit-for-tat based mostly on personality conflict. During the brief period of its existence the Internet has often proved to be a safe haven for mean-spirited personal attacks. Insofar as concerns are raised about the actions of certain public persons in a critical spirit, they can contribute to a critical discourse. This is my intention, not to sling mud simply for cursory amusement.

Anarchists have voiced a number of legitimate criticisms of the Deep Green Resistance crowd. Among these are the cult of personality and careerist methods of Derrick Jensen and the anti-trans prejudice and cop-calling of Lierre Keith. Other potentially problematic aspects of Deep Green Resistance are not necessarily so obvious and are in need of careful critical inspection. For their part the DGR have called into question several aspects of anarchist thought and practice. But how salient are these criticisms? Are they based in honest disagreements on theoretical and tactical differences?

One of the main theoretical points of contention is authority. John Zerzan and Kevin Tucker have accused DGR of having authoritarian aspects. While the quotes they draw from can certainly be interpreted as authoritarian, notably Lierre’s injunction for anti-civ folks to “think like field generals”. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jMRXT4Rg1p0), it makes for spare evidence of authoritarianism. For my part as skeptical, anti-civilization anarchist i will not come to a conclusion about DGR as a whole until i have seen what they have to say in their tome of a manualfesto. Nonetheless the topic of authority is of utmost urgency to discuss.

To at least get a point of reference we must ask ourselves what is meant by “authority”. Mikhail Bakunin described authority as “the eminently theological, metaphysical and political idea that the masses, always [...] must submit at all times to the benevolent yoke of a wisdom and a justice [...] imposed on them from above.” (http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Michail_Bakunin__Marxism__Freedom_and_the_State.html#toc5) In this conception authority is a way of thinking that leads to hierarchy and oppression. Bakunin seems to imply that authority is derived from religious institutions. And “hierarchy” is etymologically derived from ancient Christian social structure (literally “rule by priests”). Hierarchy and authority are much more ancient, however. While complex hierarchy is only conceivable in a civilized context, there are plenty of examples of oppression and authoritarian behaviour in non-civilized societies. Bakunin differentiated between the non-coercive “natural influence” individuals can have on one another, versus the authoritarian “artificial, privileged, lawful, and official influence” (http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Michail_Bakunin__Writings.html#toc2). This is a key distinction underlying anarchist theory of authority.

Derrick Jensen began to distinguish his differences with anarchism on the question of authority:

“indigenous peoples have an entirely different relationship with authority. It doesn’t mean that there is no authority. It’s different because there aren’t what we consider bosses. I don’t want to speak for all indigenous peoples, because there are as many kinds of authority relationships as there are indigenous peoples. Some of which are pretty nasty.”

Here, Derrick seems to be attempting the same distinction between legitimate and illegitimate influence as already attempted by Bakunin and other anarchists. In this quotation there is no clear difference between his position and that of anarchists, but later in the same interview Derrick states,

“I got in a big disagreement with some young anarchists not very long ago, who said they couldn’t see the need for a larger, more hierarchical organization system than the leaderless cell. I disagreed. Part of the problem with our notion of authority in this culture is the assumption that all authority is oppressive. That’s a toxic mimic of real authority. You can have authority and leadership that are fluid and based on effectiveness. You can do small-scale actions with leaderless cells, but you can’t do a large-scale one. You can’t do actions spread out all over the country and the world with leaderless cells. You have to have people who are making decisions like those.” (http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Various_Authors__The_A_Word.html#toc37)

Here we begin to see some clear disagreement between anarchism and Deep Green Resistance, tho Derrick seems still to be using the term “authority” to refer, in some instances, to “natural influence”. The more salient point is the advocacy of hierarchy and centralized power. Anti-authoritarian analysis contends that hierarchies can never be trusted, and the history of resistance movements tends to justify this analysis. As Alfredo Bonanno succinctly put it, “The superior aims of the revolution no longer exist when it is betrayed by the authoritarians.” (http://theanarchistlibrary.org/HTML/Alfredo_M._Bonanno__Revolution__Violence__Anti-authoritarianism___A_few_notes.html#toc5)

It may be the case that for some people anti-authoritarianism is a dogma (as some DGR folks contend: http://fightciv.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/a-critique-of-anarchism-and-its-effectiveness-as-a-strategy-to-bring-down-oppressive-power-systems/), but for many – probably most – anarchists the rejection of authority (or “unnatural influence”) is based on the lessons that history has taught us the hard way. Authority always acts against the liberatory impulses of humanity.

I get the impression that the folks in the DGR movement are sincere about wanting to end the destruction of human and non-human life caused by civilization. It disheartening that they are so quick to dismiss anarchist theory and practice as ineffective. Is a resistance movement effective when it reproduces the same fucked up social relations that it (allegedly) seeks to abolish? Admittedly much of the anarchist movement remains mired in authoritarianism. No anarchist could honestly deny the significant disjunction that remains between theory and practice. DGR seems unwilling to even contend with the critique of authoritarianism.

The major difference i see is that whereas anarchists do not shy away critiquing their own movement, and even listening to criticism from outside their movement, thus far the leadership of DGR, Derrick Jensen especially, have been loathe to listen to anyone that raises concerns about DGR. Critics are consistently shut out of the conversation. Probably any concerns i raise will be ignored by the DGR leadership, but hopefully the rank-and-file of the movement will remain open to the words of those in other resistance movements. Otherwise DGR risks becoming just another insular ideology, maladapted to the constantly shifting terrain of struggle. The same also applies to anarchists that seek to prematurely dismiss DGR.

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Why I Do Not Call Myself “Primitivist”

When i was a teenager i identified as a democratic socialist. I was decidedly anti-capitalist in outlook, and harbored suspicions of the functioning of the state, but was not yet critical of the state itself. My “socialism” was not really a positive identification with any sort of Leftist tradition so much as a negative response to the prevailing political trends in the overdeveloped countries as well as the dictatorial orientation of former communist states. Though i identified this way for many years, i continued to search out alternative political viewpoints. I flirted briefly with pro-labor anarchism and even “libertarianism,” but found them both ultimately deficient in some way i could not quite put my finger on. It was not until i encountered the anti-civilization writings that i truly found a political orientation i could embrace. I recognized immediately what i now perceive to be glaring deficiencies in Leftist ideology. No Leftist theory coherently contextualizes the oppression of women or the ecospheric holocaust or the perpetuation of cultural antagonisms to the degree that anti-civilization theories do. At best, Leftisms can only clumsily address the oppressions that have existed before 1700 C.E., excepting a few devastating attacks on Christianity. They can’t even acknowledge the simple, nearly universally-recognized perception that work sucks.

Over the period of a few months i voraciously read every anti-civilization text i could find. My mind opened to previously unconceivable new vistas of insight and possible struggles for liberation. And then, being a reflexive skeptic, i sought out every criticism of these theories i could find. I was swiftly disappointed. Naturally, i started out with Murray Bookchin’s idiotic diatribes, and only after months of research did i find those texts worthy of being called “critiques”. Even then, the criticism offered insights that nuanced my perspective, but did not offer any challenge to the thesis that civilization itself is one of, if not the, main structure of oppression of humans and non-humans. Coupled with my own insights, I find myself at a significant enough divergence to not identify as primitivist. The primary reasons include:

Mediation

Though I find the critiques of mediation present in the writings of John Zerzan, David Abrams, and others to be insightful, and a beneficial contribution to the anti-civilization discourse, it seems a greatly overemphasized point compared to the more blatant anti-life features of civilization. When compared to hierarchy, imposition of labor, patriarchy, and wanton destruction of the ecosphere, mediation doesn’t seem all that bad. This has had polemical consequences as red anarchists have dismissed primitivism out of hand as irrelevant to workers and other oppressed classes. Moreover, i remain unconvinced that, as Abrams seems to contend, alphabetic literacy and being able to “read” the landscape are necessarily antagonistic, as well as Zerzan’s contention that “symbolic culture” is a relatively recent innovation. Do the various vocalizations of birds or the sophisticated dances of honeybees count as symbolic systems?

Technology

I have yet to thoroughly investigate the issue of technology as discussed by primitivists and their theoretical forebears. Perhaps owing to my unfamiliarity with the thought of Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, the distinction between “technology,” “tools,” and “technics” seems contrived and arbitrary. Regardless, I find it easy to judge the desirability of technologies based merely on their effects upon humans and non-human nature. Anyone not beholden to so-called “conservative” prejudices will admit that fossil fuel technologies are almost certainly devastating the world, from climate change to the crude oil, bits of plastic and “dead zones” in the oceans. Rarer is the realization that “green” technologies like solar panels necessitate mining, which always poisons the land and water and forces the loss of habitat of humans and other animals. Or more fundamentally, the realization that agriculture, from its very inception in Mesopotamia, has degraded the land upon which it is based. Though “sustainability” is given much lip service, it as yet very far from being realized.

“Ideology”

Some of the best critics of primitivism have been the folks at Anarchy: a Journal of Desire Armed. Informed by Theodor Adorno’s theory on and use of the term, they oppose “ideological” thinking and have critiqued primitivism on this basis. Unfortunately much of the anti-civilization has already ossified into dogma (or “ideology” if you prefer), but i find this is more true of the movement around Derrick Jensen than the anarchist primitivists. For all of my life i have identified as a skeptic, and therefore opposed to dogma. Skepsis in ancient Greek means “searching,” or “inquiring,” thus the school of philosophers that originally took on the name Skeptikoi found themselves to never be permanently settled upon any particular notion. Thus, though i find anti-civilization theory to be the best for explaining the world around me. I am open to new insights and may even one day reformulate my entire basis for thinking about civilization. I long for a day when more truly critical inquiries into primitivist thought are advanced, and the dogmatic Leftist invective is abandoned.

Primitive Societies

If one opposes civilization it seems only natural to valorize non-civilized cultures. Primitivists have gone so far as to name their philosophy after the catch-all term for these peoples. Anti-primitivists often accuse them of wanting to go “back to the caves.” It is actually unclear in the works of most primitivists what their goals are, but to call oneself a “primitivist” invites such assumptions. Though i agree with primitivists that respect should be given to non-civilized and indigenous peoples, i find that their approach is problematic in some ways. Other critics have thoroughly discussed the pitfalls of romanticizing primitive cultures, so i will not repeat this problem here. Besides this point, there is the sheer diversity and great span of (pre-)historical development among such societies across the world. Something that most anti-primitivists and some primitivists do not realize is that non-civilized peoples have developed a multiplicity of approaches to all aspects of life, especially as concerns the specifics of the local ecologies in which they are/ were situated. This begs questions such as: How applicable are the lifeways of the !Kung of to the current residents of the Pacific Northwest? Further complicating the issue is the curious lack of critical questioning of the reports of civilized anthropologists about non-civilized societies. The issue of epistemology, specifically as regards knowledge about the lifeways of primitive peoples, is in need of much elaboration in the anti-civilization movement. What does seem clear is that in contrast to non-civilized societies, civilized societies are incredibly similar. All have been been hierarchical, imperial, patriarchal, dependent on coerced (slave and/ or wage) labor and destructive to non-human nature. Some primitive societies are alleged (by archaeologists) to have caused extinction of other species, some primitive societies are alleged (by anthropologists) to have practiced slavery, and so forth, but these tendencies are by no means universal.

The old adage holds that “you can’t go home again.” Many primitivists contend that we can, indeed, return to primitive lifeways. I find this highly doubtful. World ecosystems have been so thoroughly destroyed, human conscious has been so universally degraded, that it seems unlikely that humanity will ever return to the same sort of societies that existed before civilization. I do not think that humanity will “go back” to the “good old days” (assuming such ever existed). Rather, I am confident, given the current evidence, that the next major human epoch will be more similar to the pre-civilized than the civilized.

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Décroissance and yurts

Much of French theory flies right over my head. I find the Situationists insightful, the post-structuralists interesting and Sartre and Beauvoir relevant, but when I read Tiqqun and the Invisible Committee I pass page after page without absorbing any information. There is a rather different theoretical paradigm that shows promise for addressing the situations we find ourselves in.

The discourse of décroissance (“de-growth”) has steadily been gaining traction in Franophone countries, but little has yet to be translated into English. The existent Anglophone discourse of degrowth seems more colloquial and upstaged by related, but more constrained concepts such as voluntarily simplicity, neo-Luddism, Slow Food, social ecology, DIY, permaculture, new communitarianism and primitivism. Perhaps décroissance could provide a unified arena of discourse for these atomized ecological movements. As in North America, the French degrowth movement seems to appeal to a lot of liberals with vague and disparate ideas about consumerism, but not necessarily capitalism itself. Alternative Libertaire has begun a dialog between radicalism and the décroissance movement, by pointing out that “A non-class-based vision of décroissance is nothing but a new ideological flavor of the month, and libertarian communists can’t subscribe to it. It would lead, in the worst case, to a policy of rationing for the working class or, at best, to various individual solutions of ‘voluntary simplicity’ with no global impact.” Though I find much of Alternative Libertaire’s position to be contingent on productivist and industrial assumptions, the concept of degrowth has opened up a bridge for discourse, and maybe even for cooperative action.

Many within the French décroissance movement have taken to living in yurts, thereby eschewing the environmental and financial impacts of typical housing. “Protest will erupt this month as yurt dwellers try to block a law they say will put them in the same sack as Romanian and Bulgarian travellers singled out by President Nicolas Sarkozy as a public menace.” The collapse of the capitalist economy has seen a rise in the utilization of alternative housing methods. As an increasingly larger world populace is squeezed out of the real estate market, this trend will increase. Though some will unthinkingly belittle this as merely lifestylism, the disenfranchised will do what they have always done; survive as best they can. They will be joined by those “privileged” people that perceive the insanity of ideologies of economic growth and want to do something outside of the ivory towers. Radical theory and degrowth theory have a lot to offer one another in terms of clear analysis of the present ecological and social crises. Let us begin this conversation.

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Finding Clay

I have recently been wondering about local sources of (free) clay. So I googled it.

One recommendation was to go out to construction or street work sites to find exposed clay. Another said that clay can be found two feet below the surface in most places in the world.

My ultimate goal is an earthen oven, so I was glad to find these tips:

We have found that clay of some sort can be found almost anywhere. However, finding clay that will meet stove construction requirements is demanding. Ideally, it should be easy to dig and to separate from other unwanted materials, e.g., sand, gravel, roots, leaves, and the like. An ideal clay would be quite plastic when moist, would dry and fire with a minimum shrinkage, would fire successfully to high temperatures and should retain its strength and integrity when subjected to repeated severe thermal shock. That’s a lot to ask and even in the finest commercially available clays, the combination of these traits is a compromise.

We have found that the most promising places to find clay are in exposed ditches, the banks and bottoms of
ponds, road cuts, excavated foundations, exposed roots of blown down trees, and the subsoil of marshy, poorly drained areas.

A spade, pick ax, and a small soil auger are useful in securing samples that can be tested. While it is satisfying to find your own clay, you can save a lot of time and effort by making friends with local potters. They can tell you where to dig or to buy the clay they use. Ceramic supply outlets are also very helpful in sharing information on the clays they sell.

I find that clay deposits can vary wildly in the space of mere feet. Being familiar with local geology is also helpful, but that usually requires staying in one place long enough to know the land.

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