An Anarchist FAQ - What is anarcho-primitivism?
As discussed in section A.3.3, many anarchists would agree with Situationist Ken Knabb in arguing that "in a liberated world computers and other modern technologies could be used to eliminate dangerous or boring tasks, freeing everyone to concentrate on more interesting activities." Obviously "[c]ertain technologies -- nuclear power is the most obvious example -- are indeed so insanely dangerous that they will no doubt be brought to a prompt halt. Many other industries which produce absurd, obsolete or superfluous commodities will, of course, cease automatically with the disappearance of their commercial rationales. But many technologies . . ., however they may presently be misused, have few if any inherent drawbacks. It's simply a matter of using them more sensibly, bringing them under popular control, introducing a few ecological improvements, and redesigning them for human rather than capitalistic ends." [Public Secrets, p. 79 and p. 80] Thus most eco-anarchists see the use of appropriate technology as the means of creating a society which lives in balance with nature.
However, "Green anarchists" disagree. Writers such as John Zerzan, John Moore and David Watson have expounded a vision of anarchism which aims to critique every form of power and oppression. This is often called "anarcho-primitivism," which according to Moore, is simply "a shorthand term for a radical current that critiques the totality of civilisation from an anarchist perspective, and seeks to initiate a comprehensive transformation of human life." [Primitivist Primer]
How this current expresses itself is diverse, with the most extreme elements seeking the end of all forms of technology, division of labour, domestication, progressive mythology, industrialism, what they call "mass society" and, for some (Zerzan), even symbolic culture (i.e. numbers, language, time and art). They tend to call any system which includes these features "civilisation" and, consequently, aim for "the destruction of civilisation". How far back they wish to go is a moot point. Some see the technological level that existed before the Industrial Revolution as acceptable, many go further and reject agriculture and manyforms of technology beyond the most basic.
Thus we find the primitivist magazine "Green Anarchy" arguing that those, like themselves, "who prioritise the values of personal autonomy or wild existence have reason to oppose and reject all large-scale organisations and societies on the grounds that they necessitate imperialism, slavery and hierarchy, regardless of the purposes they may be designed for." They oppose capitalism as it is "civilisation's current dominant manifestation." However, they stress that it is "Civilisation, not capitalism per se, was the genesis of systemic authoritarianism, compulsory servitude and social isolation. Hence, an attack upon capitalism that fails to target civilisation can never abolish the institutionalised coercion that fuels society. To attempt to collectivise industry for the purpose of democratising it is to fail to recognise that all large-scale organisations adopt a direction and form that is independent of its members' intentions." Thus, they argue, genuine anarchists should question industry and technology for "[h]ierarchical institutions, territorial expansion, and the mechanisation of life are all required for the administration and process of mass production to occur." For primitivists, "[o]nly small communities of self-sufficient individuals can coexist with other beings, human or not, without imposing their authority upon them." Such communities would share essential features with tribal societies, "[f]or over 99% of human history, humans lived within small and egalitarian extended family arrangements, while drawing their subsistence directly from the land." [Against Mass Society]
While such tribal communities, which lived in harmony with nature and had little or no hierarchies, are seen as inspirational, primitivists look (to use the title of a John Zerzan book) forward to seeing the "Future Primitive." As John Moore puts it, "the future envisioned by anarcho-primitivism . . . is without precedent. Although primitive cultures provide intimations of the future, and that future may well incorporate elements derived from those cultures, an anarcho-primitivist world would likely be quite different from previous forms of anarchy." [Op. Cit.]
For the primitivist, other forms of anarchism are simply self-managed alienation within essentially the same basic system we now endure, minus its worse excesses. Hence John Moore's comment that "classical anarchism" wants "to take over civilisation, rework its structures to some degree, and remove its worst abuses and oppressions. However, 99% of life in civilisation remains unchanged in their future scenarios, precisely because the aspects of civilisation they question are minimal . . . overall life patterns wouldn't change too much." Thus "[f]rom the perspective of anarcho-primitivism, all other forms of radicalism appear as reformist, whether or not they regard themselves as revolutionary." [Op. Cit.]
In reply, "classical anarchists" point out three things. Firstly, to claim that the "worst abuses and oppressions" account for 1% of capitalist society is simply nonsense and, moreover, something an apologist of that system would happily agree with. Secondly, it is obvious from reading any "classical" anarchist text that their authors would disagree with Moore's assertions. "Classical" anarchism aims to transform society radically from top to bottom, not tinker with minor aspects of it. Do primitivists really think that people who went to the effort to abolish capitalism would simply continue doing 99% of the same things they did before hand? Of course not. In other words, it is not enough to get rid of the boss, although this is a necessary first step! Thirdly, and most importantly, Moore's argument does not elaborate how the drastically lower human population in his vision of a good society could be achieved in a non-authoritarian manner.
Transition to a "future primitive" society would be difficult simply because we live in a highly industrialised and interconnected system in which most people do not have the skills required to live in a hunter-gatherer or even agricultural society. Moreover, it is extremely doubtful that six billion people could survive as hunter-gatherers even if they had the necessary skills. As Brian Morris notes, "[t]he future we are told is 'primitive.' How this is to be achieved in a world that presently sustains almost six billion people (for evidence suggests that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is only able to support 1 or 2 people per sq. mile)" primitivists like Zerzan do not tell us. ["Anthropology and Anarchism," pp. 35-41, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, no. 45, p. 38]
Two possibilities for a primitivist rebellion are conceivable. Opponents of primitivism assert that a near instant transformation into a primitivist system would kill billions of people by hunger as well as causing extensive ecological destruction. Another possibility involves a lengthy transition period during which civilisation and its industrial legacies are decommissioned safely, population levels drop naturally to an appropriate level and people regain the necessary skills required for their new existence.
Problematically, an almost overnight transformation, is what appears to be implied by most primitivist writers. Moore, for example, talks about "when civilisation collapses" ("through its own volition, through our efforts, or a combination of the two"). This implies an extremely speedy process, over which mere mortals have little say or control. This is confirmed when he talks about the need for "positive alternatives" to be built now as "the social disruption caused by collapse could easily create the psychological insecurity and social vacuum in which fascism and other totalitarian dictatorships could flourish." [Op. Cit.]
Some primitivists have also incorporated anti-organisation ideas. Moore is typical, asserting that "[o]rganisations, for anarcho-primitivists, are just rackets, gangs for putting a particular ideology in power" and reiterates the point by saying primitivists stand for "the abolition of all power relations, including the State . . . and any kind of party or organisation." [Op. Cit.] Without organisation, no modern society could function. Anti-organisationalism may appear to be compatible with the idea of a near overnight "collapse" of civilisation, rather than steady "progress" towards a long term goal. Critics question how many "positive alternatives" could exist without organisation.
Faced with the horrors that such a "collapse" could entail, the primitivists who have thought the issue through end up accepting the need for a transition period. John Zerzan, for example, argues that it "seems evident that industrialisation and the factories could not be gotten rid of instantly, but equally clear that their liquidation must be pursued with all the vigour behind the rush of break-out." He even accepts the existence of cities during the transition period, for "[c]ultivation within the cities is another aspect of practical transition." [On the Transition: Postscript to Future Primitive]
Zerzan's acceptance of the necessity of a transition period makes his primitivism somewhat unlcear. He notes that "the means of reproducing the prevailing Death Ship (e.g. its technology) cannot be used to fashion a liberated world." He ponders: "What would we keep? 'Labour-saving devices?' Unless they involve no division of labour (e.g. a lever or incline), this concept is a fiction; behind the 'saving' is hidden the congealed drudgery of many and the despoliation of the natural world." How this is compatible with maintaining "industrialisation and the factories" for a (non-specified) period is unclear. Similarly, he argues that "[i]nstead of the coercion of work -- and how much of the present could continue without precisely that coercion? -- an existence without constraints is an immediate, central objective." [Op. Cit.] How that is compatible with the arguing that industry would be maintained for a time is left unasked, let alone unanswered. And if "work" continues, how is this compatible with the typical primitivist dismissal of "traditional anarchism", namely that self-management is managing your own alienation and that no one will want to work in a factory or in a mine and, therefore, coercion will have to be used to make them do so? Does working in a factory somehow become less alienating and authoritarian during a primitivist transition? And how will this work be done in a libertarian manner unless under self-management?
A transition period means that agriculture and most industries will have to continue for some time. Similarly with large cities and towns as an instant and general exodus from the cities would be impossible. This implies a drastic reduction of population will take decades, if not centuries, to achieve voluntarily. Given that it is unlikely that (almost) everyone on the planet will decide not to have children, this time scale will almost certainly be centuries. The most accessable, reliable contraceptives are a product of modern technology and, consequently, the means of producing them would have to maintained over that time.
Primitivists have also failed to address the legacy of industrial society, and the problems that may arise if left to decay on its own. To take just one obvious example, leaving nuclear power plants to melt down would hardly be eco-friendly. Moreover, it is doubtful that the ruling elite will just surrender its power without resistance and, consequently, any social revolution would need to defend itself against attempts to reintroduce hierarchy.
Thus the key problem with primitivism can be seen. Thus far no practical means of achieving its goals in a libertarian manner has been elaborated. Moore argues that the "kind of world envisaged by anarcho-primitivism is one unprecedented in human experience in terms of the degree and types of freedom anticipated ... so there can't be any limits on the forms of resistance and insurgency that might develop." [Op. Cit.] Non-primitivists reply by saying that this implies primitivists don't know what they want nor how to get there. Equally, they stress that there must be limits on what are considered acceptable forms of resistance. This is because means shape the ends created and so authoritarian means will result in authoritarian ends. Tactics are not neutral and support for certain tactics betray an authoritarian perspective.
Most primitivist anarchists rather than being primarily anti-technology and anti-civilisation (to use David Watson's expression) believe it is a case of the "affirmation of aboriginal lifeways" and of taking a far more critical approach to issues such as technology, rationality and progress than that associated with Social Ecology. These eco-anarchists reject "a dogmatic primitivism which claims we can return in some linear way to our primordial roots" just as much as the idea of "progress," "superseding both Enlightenment and Counter-Enlightenment" ideas and traditions. For these eco-anarchists, Primitivism "reflects not only a glimpse at life before the rise of the state, but also a legitimate response to real conditions of life under civilisation" and so we should respect and learn from "palaeolithic and neolithic wisdom traditions" (such as those associated with Native American tribes and other aboriginal peoples). While we "cannot, and would not want to abandon secular modes of thinking and experiencing the world. . . we cannot reduce the experience of life, and the fundamental, inescapable questions why we live, and how we live, to secular terms. . . Moreover, the boundary between the spiritual and the secular is not so clear. A dialectical understanding that we are our history would affirm an inspirited reason that honours not only atheistic Spanish revolutionaries who died for el ideal, but also religious pacifist prisoners of conscience, Lakota ghost dancers, taoist hermits and executed sufi mystics." [David Watson, Beyond Bookchin: Preface for a future social ecology, p. 240, p. 103, p. 240 and pp. 66-67]
Such "primitivist" anarchism is associated with a range of magazines, mostly US-based, like Fifth Estate. For example, on the question of technology, such eco-anarchists argue that "[w]hile market capitalism was a spark that set the fire, and remains at the centre of the complex, it is only part of something larger: the forced adaptation of organic human societies to an economic-instrumental civilisation and its mass technics, which are not only hierarchical and external but increasingly 'cellular' and internal. It makes no sense to layer the various elements of this process in a mechanistic hierarchy of first cause and secondary effects." [David Watson, Op. Cit., pp. 127-8] For this reason primitivist anarchists are more critical of all aspects of technology, including calls by social ecologists for the use of appropriate technology essential in order to liberate humanity and the planet. As Watson argues:
"To speak of technological society is in fact to refer to the technics generated within capitalism, which in turn generate new forms of capital. The notion of a distinct realm of social relations that determine this technology is not only ahistorical and undialectical, it reflects a kind of simplistic base/superstructure schema." [Op. Cit., p. 124]
Thus it is not a case of who uses technology which determines its effects, rather the effects of technology are determined to a large degree by the society that creates it. In other words, technology is selected which tends to re-enforce hierarchical power as it is those in power who generally select which technology is introduced within society (saying that, oppressed people have this excellent habit of turning technology against the powerful and technological change and social struggle are inter-related -- see section D.10). Thus even the use of appropriate technology involves more than selecting from the range of available technology at hand, as these technologies have certain effects regardless of who uses them. Rather it is a question of critically evaluating all aspects of technology and modifying and rejecting it as required to maximise individual freedom, empowerment and happiness. Few Social Ecologists would disagree with this approach, though, and differences are usually a question of emphasis rather than a deep political point.
Few anarchists, including primitivists, hold the position that, as Brian Morris notes, dismisses the "last eight thousand years or so of human history" as little more than a source "of tyranny, hierarchical control, mechanised routine devoid of any spontaneity. All those products of the human creative imagination -- farming, art, philosophy, technology, science, urban living, symbolic culture -- are viewed negatively by Zerzan -- in a monolithic sense." While there is no reason to worship progress, there is just as little need to dismiss all change and development out of hand as oppressive. Nor are they convinced by Zerzan's "selective culling of the anthropological literature." [Morris, Op. Cit., p. 38] In addition some aboriginal societies are very anarchistic, not all are. As anarchist anthropologist David Graeber points out, "we know almost nothing about life in Palaeolithic, other than the sort of thing that can be gleaned from studying very old skulls . . . But what we see in the more recent ethnographic records is endless variety. There were hunter-gatherer societies with nobles and slaves, there are agrarian societies that are fiercely egalitarian. Even in . . . Amazonia, one finds some groups who can justly be described as anarchists, like the Piaroa, living alongside others (say, the warlike Sherentre, who are clearly anything but." [Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, pp. 53-4] Even if we speculate, like Zerzan, that if we go back far enough we would find all of humanity in anarchistic tribes, the fact remains that certain of these societies did develop into statist, propertarian ones implying that a future anarchist society that is predominantly inspired by and seek to reproduce key elements of prehistoric forms of anarchy is not the answer as civilisation may develop again due to the same social or environmental factors.
Ultimately, we are faced with the fact that a revolution will start in society as it is. Anarchism recognises this and suggests a means of transforming it. Primitivism has yet to suggest such tactics.
This is not to suggest, of course, that non-primitivist anarchists think that everyone in a free society must have the same level of technology. Far from it. An anarchist society would be based on free experimentation. Different individuals and groups will pick the way of life that best suits them. Those who seek less technological ways of living will be free to do so as will those who want to apply the benefits of (appropriate) technologies. Similarly, all anarchists support the struggles of those in the developing world against the onslaught of capitalist civilisation and the demands of capitalist progress.
For more on "primitivist" anarchism see John Zerzan's Future Primitive, John Moore's Primitivist Primer, as well as David Watson's Swamp Fever, Primitivism & the “Ideological Vortex” and Against the Mega-Machine. The best critiques of primitivism include Jason McQuinn's Why I Am Not a Primitivist, Wolfi Landstreicher's A Critique, Not a Program, Ran Prieur's Beyond Civilized and Primitive.