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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