Note that I'll be adding to this regularly. All told I have 61 points so far to "respond" to and that list will likely grow as necessary. Consider this a work in progress.
Debunking commonly uttered, half-baked rhetorical arguments.
Anarcho-primitivism is an ideology.
An ideology is a worldview, a packaged perspective formulated upon a set historical and social critique that has a vision about where everything will fall back in place and a plan of action for how to get from here to there.
Anarcho-primitivists, like many post-left anarchists, have included ideology into the myriad reasons why the revolutionary movements of the past have failed. In the unification of vision and action it becomes far too easy to simply push differences aside and fall in line with a common goal. With a single, unified vision, you fall into the utilitarian trap where the created ends justify the means.
Anarcho-primitivism is a critique of civilization. This isn’t meant to neuter the implications of that critique, but it’s an intentional move to avoid the trappings of group think and, even worse, group justifications to create and maintain platformist notions of “what is to be done”, as Lenin so aptly put it.
This might sound like a nuance, but it’s easy to forget that every fascist movement, every act of suppression began with a seemingly simple ideology. Would a young Lenin ever have imagined a world where he was personally signing off on the suppression and execution of the very Proletariat that carried the revolution he helped orchestrate? Never would be the simple answer, but that’s obviously not what happened.
Ideologies are dangerous. They are, by their very nature, a means of simplification. Ideologies are a placeholder, a party line, a manifesto; they become the unquestionable basis of faith in revolutionary fervor. They start as propaganda, but if they become successful, they become the justifications at the gallows when the party line and the interests of the revolution are questioned.
An anarchist world, one that is truly egalitarian and worthy of the name, not just the notion, can never be based on blueprints or stagnant notions of how things must be done. In an ecological sense, that which doesn’t adapt to its surroundings and flux in its environment has no long-term chance for survival.
And this is where we are. Faced with the world encompassing, techno-industrial nightmare the last thing that we need, the last thing the earth needs, is another failed movement based on stagnant, unified and methodologically driven ideology. The world is larger than each of us. The problems that we, as individuals, communities, bioregions, all face are going to be different, and the responses will never be the same.
If there is anything to take away from the anarcho-primitivist critique, it’s that the most egalitarian societies to have ever existed were built on adapativity, flux, movement and quick thinking. There was no place for groupthink to override what each individual experienced on a day-to-day basis. These are societies that could tolerate individual action, thought, expression, and movement.
An egalitarian future won’t be the result of meetings, leaders, and ideological purity. It will be the result of individuals free to think and act on their own behalf and capable of seeing, expressing and partaking with the world around them, without having to run that vision through ideological binds.
We are animals. We have all the senses, skills, and ability that we need to engage this world as animals, as humans. There crux of domestication is making us believe that we are not capable of understanding the world around us without socio-political-religious structuring, without work, without stability, without constant human intrusion into our landscapes; that is what makes civilization work. Domestication itself is the ideology of civilization.
If we seek to change the nature of civilization, then we need another ideology. That is what has happened and the results have never been less successful at suppressing the soul than its predecessors.
If we seek to challenge the nature of civilization itself, to shake the bedrock of all that we’ve learned through the domestication process, than we need to start with reclaiming our ability to think, act and interact as animals, as humans.
Our goal, as anarcho-primitivists, is not to indoctrinate. Unlike the utopias proposed by communists, capitalists, anarcho-syndicalists, and the like, the world we speak of, the world of wildness, is not some distant notion that will be attained through ideological purity or revolutionary uprising, it exists now as it always has. It isn’t a place; it’s a state of being that must constantly be under assault by the ideologies and functions of domestication.
We aren’t here to talk about ideological purity or force a vision. There is no anarcho-primitivist plan to destroy civilization. We’re here to contextualize and call out the consequences of civilization. As anarchists, we are proactive. There are actions that can be taken, but we’re not here to tell you what they are. If we knew, then we wouldn’t have to have this discussion and I wouldn’t be typing these words on a computer.
Our focus is on understanding the roots of domestication so that they can be undone. And like the unfolding collapse of civilization, it’s a process. Our focus is constantly expanding and being built upon. There is no endpoint here, only movement.
As our nomadic gatherer-hunter ancestors and relatives have taught us; life, not just survival, is dependent upon adaptability.
John Zerzan and/or anarcho-primitivists are against expression/communication.
This is the line where critique and ideology have split.
The anarcho-primitivist critique has its direct roots in the questioning that John Zerzan pointed into an anarchist context in the 1970s and opened with a discussion about the roots of civilization. That is to say, the questions about how civilization came to exist. That question was hardly easier to ask in the 70s then it is now. How far back does the reign of authoritarianism lie? How is it possible that we have hundreds of thousands of years where human society was entirely egalitarian and then you have the oppressive pyramid of systemic ecocide that we are all a part of?
Those were the questions that broke party lines within left-anarchist thought. It was obvious that the nature of oppression stems beyond capitalism. The questioning turned to how far and why.
The result of that question took root in structuralist, post-structuralist, existential philosophy and beyond, but what it lead to was a deeper question about the nature of symbolic thought and, even more so, to a critique of symbolic culture.
But ultimately a series of questions, even ones that were meant to be a bit jarring to get a conversation started, have been mistaken for an ideological underpinning. So while you have someone like Zerzan questioning the ways in which language, specifically the prevalence of language over all other means of expression, have impacted our communication, the ideological perspective says that any question must be a rhetorical part of an ideological perspective.
At no point has Zerzan or any other anarcho-primitivist given some damning position against the use of language, but the questions remain. We’ve seen that one of the first motives of a colonizing force is to supplant native or rooted languages with the language of the colonizer. Language is the necessary bastion of ideology. It defines and limits a worldview not only in the words that are used, but the words that aren’t.
The critique of the symbolic is equally rooted in what is and what is not expressed. If our languages and our means of communication were as tied to place as the languages of gatherer-hunter or horticultural societies, would it be possible to create or maintain the framework of a globalized civilization? If we, like our forager relatives, relied more on sight, smell and touch than abstract thought, would it be possible to consciously use technology that is directly created by the destruction of the earth?
Words have meanings, not only in and of themselves, but also in the way that they shape the mind. And words are a product of the society that makes their definition possible. The domesticator’s mind is the colonizer’s tool. By calling the symbolic into question, the intent is not to chastise those that speak, paint, dance, or sing, but to understand the methodology of domestication. It’s a part of the quest to understand how deep the roots of civilization have gone into our own minds.
And only by fixating on those questions and refusing to acknowledge their context can those within the left, that is those whose ideology is fully encompassing of the vision civilization, refuse to acknowledge the failures of Progress.
Civilization cannot be defined. It is a reductionist concept.
Merriam-Webster defines civilization as: “a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically: the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained”. That’s a fairly specific definition, but it is, to say the least, a loaded definition.
The problem with History is that it is almost always written by and for the colonizers, the bloody victors of Progress. Not only do they write the texts, they create and direct the language and mediums by which our world is historicized and deciphered.
Languages themselves are not neutral. They are tools. Language is the means by which the symbolic isolation of our senses becomes rooted in our minds. It didn’t start that way, but it is the most important act of the domesticator. That is why colonizers struck languages first. If you root out the perceived means of connection and depth with the world around you or wild communities that you live amongst, then you start to disassemble the culture. This is what colonizers have and continue to do on a daily basis.
That is why the first act of a missionary is to translate the bible, to introduce foreign concepts of control and domination, to become the emissary for the language of the soulless cannon fodder of Progress. That is why the colonizers tore apart indigenous communities by punishing them for speaking their native tongue. Connectedness, ties to the land that surround you, will always undermine the dependency that the domesticators have fostered, and they will always be the enemy.
If you want to take this argument to its final conclusion, all language is, by definition, reductionism. All the words that we know carry the belief of Progress at their heart. We can spend an eternity nit picking at those terms or just find a certain point at which we can suck it up and move onto more important conversations.
I’m not convinced that most anarchists aren’t more interested in wasting time pontificating on the structured authoritarianism of the Dictionary, but I’m not losing sleep when the endless circles spill countless words to say nothing.
Civilization, as myself and most anarcho-primitivists and green anarchists have used the word, points towards the more literal definition: the culture of cities. That is the city and the conditions which make it possible; the totality of psychological control and physically structured domination, agriculture, waterways, the hierarchy of politics and structured division of labor, property, and on.
It is true that domestication is a trickier term. It’s hard to pin point that exact moment where a society, plant, animal, or human qualifies as domestication, but a city is fairly simple to identify. State level societies are fairly simple to identify.
The problem typically has less to do with civilization, but the discussion of origins, or how deep the roots of civilization really go. But that is a different conversation. The sooner we can accept the loaded definitions of civilization and focus on the concrete and psycho-social elements of this fairly straight forward definition, the more that we can focus on those deeper questions.
That said, the reason that there are so many green anarchists who are unquestionably anti-civilization, but not particularly set on anarcho-primitivism has to do with differences over the origins of civilization and their impacts. You’ll be hard pressed to find anarcho-primitivists trying to make the hard sell to get those folks to identify as anarcho-primitivists because we simply agree on a primary point: civilization itself is the problem, no matter how we got there, that is what is killing the earth, suffocating wildness, and demolishing human lives and communities.
Anarcho-primitivists believe language implies civilization.
This is a common misconception and one that the Leftist anarchists are more than happy to use to attempt to write off the anarcho-primitivist critique. And it is also flat out wrong.
There are many points here where you can expect this mantra to be reiterated: anarcho-primitivism is a critique, not an ideology. The reason is not that I feel you, as a reader, aren’t capable of understanding such a simple notion. It’s that this point is just stated over and over again by people who would rather not confront whatever uncomfortable truths anarcho-primitivism has brought to the table.
Unfortunate as that situation may be, it’s also one of the many reasons why this needed to be written.
That said there is a huge difference between recognizing the role language plays in interpreting the world and flatly stating that all language demands a recontextualization of the world. Civilization without language, so far as we know, would be impossible. Language is an immediate means of communication for conveying lofty and often dangerous ideas. The first written words came from accountants, not poets.
On the flipside, language without civilization is not only possible, but also unquestionably existent. Of the hundreds of thousands of languages spoken throughout time, it’s really only a handful that have been so virulently filled with the uprooted seed of conquerors. And that’s really telling.
The question, again, comes down to how the domestication process functions. It comes down to trying to understand how certain languages have given rise to unthinkable concepts in societies without civilization. Ideas about politics, hierarchy, religion, property, sexism, nationalism, and the like are only possible when the terminology exists.
The problem here isn’t that anarcho-primitivists have stumbled upon some hidden gem of knowledge; it has to do with questioning core assumptions. It was the linguists and future programmers of computers who recognized that language is the gateway to civilization. When John Zerzan began writing about language and the impacts of symbolic thought it was a response, a reaction to the notion that the breakdown of communication into binary coding would usher in a new era of technology and civilization. The question begged to be asked, if our pride in civilization was wrong, what does that say about the tools used to create it? Anarcho-primitivists were hardly the first to ask it, but the line between questioning and ideology was too easy to make in the slew of radicalism and unfortunately it has stuck around.
But that doesn’t make it true.
Anarcho-primitivists use a reductionist perspective of history.
This little jab is particularly worthless. The anarcho-primitivist critique is, like most critiques, not simple. There are larger discussions that have been had, will continue to be had, and have yet to begin, and for the sake of brevity, not all arguments can be all inclusive.
So the problem here is that the reductionist claim is usually followed by a whimsically short-winded version of how civilization came to be and why it’s bad. It is entirely possible to make a reductionist version of history if you’re paraphrasing, and it’s true, no one wants to go the full ten yards on every discussion just to prove a related point, so we all give a reductionist version of our backstory from time to time.
But that doesn’t mean the critique isn’t there.
The bigger issue is that most of the time that this particular claim comes across, it’s coming from someone who does stand behind another ideology. They don’t feel their view is reductionist because it is sanctioned. We fortunately don’t have a Little Red Book or manifesto to point to that lays everything out, because, and this is intentionally done, the purpose of the AP critique is to show how not simple things really are.
Civilization is a big messy subject. The origins of civilization are even larger and messier. The purpose of this critique is to expand into that ocean of past, present and future to challenge the assumptions that have been instilled within us. Since AP is not an ideology, the only time the term is used is to draw on that growing anarchist critique of how deep the tentacles of power go into our past and psyche. We are adding to that questioning, not closing the book on it.
Our current crisis is not simple. Our solutions to it cannot be simple either.
At no point has there been an AP critique that claims, as critics have complained, that there was a universal and monumental movement between the stages of gatherer-hunter to post-industrial capitalism with a textbook commonality at each stage. That’s not the point of the AP critique and that particular myth is the lineage of the civilized thought that anarcho-primitivists have been working to undermine.
An anarcho-primitivist narrative is like a religious fall from grace and salvation.
It’s hard to control what is and isn’t read as a religious narrative, in part because there are religious folks who do push variations of anarcho-primitivist critiques as doctrine.
As much as I’d like to, I can’t stop them. But the problem here comes down to simplicity. Told quickly, the story of civilization sounds easy: civilization is a sin and salvation comes from its dissolution. It could appear as though civilization simply appears and it’s like a light switch that you could conceivably turn on and off.
But the truth is never really that simple right? Look at the timeline we’re dealing with. The origins of plant domestication goes back about 12-13,000 years. That’s on a vastly small scale, but in what would eventually become the origins of civilization. However, you don’t see civilization actually popping up until thousands of years later.
So between nomadic gatherer-hunters partially settling in areas where masses of grains could be cultivated, the origins of domestication appearing, and full blown cities existing, we’re talking thousands of years in a handful of places. That says nothing even about the continued existence of nomadic gatherer-hunter societies then or now.
Domestication, and civilization by extension, are not or were not monolithic events. There are variations and forms, but there is not, nor will the ever be a single point at which all of humanity will chose, force, or coincidentally shift gears from one means of existence to another. It simply has not happened and it simply will not happen.
The origins and existence of civilization are complicated matters. Civilization works in the same way at all times by attempting to control and divert our needs as humans through the domesticating process, but the timeline is scattered throughout human populations and its grasp is not universal. In an ecological timeline, we are talking about a very short amount of time between where civilization exists and where it doesn’t, but on a human timeline, there are thousands of centuries in some areas between where it exists and where it doesn’t.
The flipside of this question is an implication that all of those living within the grasp of civilization are demons and those living without it are saints. From the standpoint of the domesticators, the opposite is true. Coming from a world where religion indoctrinates people to think that there are the saved and the wicked, it’s easy to see how this all comes about.
But reality is never that simple. Neither are humans.
We are all born nomadic gatherer-hunters in heart, mind, spirit, and body. This is a biological adaptation. Yet we are not all born in the same circumstances. You can’t control where you were born or what society you were born into. That is a reality we are placed into to.
There is nothing innately different at birth about a !Kung forager 10,000 years ago and you aside from where and when you were born. Being born into this culture and a part of the problem makes you personally a sinner no more than it makes that !Kung person a saint.
We are humans. We are not saints. We are not sinners.
We are capable of great acts of destruction and construction. We can contribute to an unthinkable level of devastation and we can live in ways that have absolutely limited impacts on the world around us. To reduce any and all of this to simply good and evil is a cop out. It’s easier to think of the world in terms of good and bad. In doing so, it makes it easier to brush off personal responsibility. It makes it easier to just shrug and accept our reality for reality’s sake.
The truth is more complicated. We are individuals. We were thrust into a civilization in decline, but we are still capable humans. None of us has created this, but we are unquestionably a part of it.
Any attempt to simplify, short of ease of conversation, is cutting ourselves short. Simply imposing a religious event on a 12,000 year trajectory helps to point the finger, but that finger isn’t pointed toward an exit. We are, in the end, all human. There are no free passes, there is no damnation, and, for better or for worse, there is no salvation.
There is only us, our actions, and our decisions.
Hobbes was right: pre-civilized life was nasty, brutish and short.
It’s sad that this idea still exists, but it’s not surprising.
The problem with the domestication process is that it is, to a certain degree, voluntary. If we simply chose to stop supporting this society, it would cease to exist. Civilization is an idea enforced by a reality. Power isn’t real until you give it a physical form. Money is worthless until you assume it’s value. A machine is worth nothing without an energy supply.
The entirety of our civilization and all of it’s destruction relies on ideas. On myths. On narratives. On hopes and fears. I don’t say that to make light of the physical, psychological, and ecological consequences of civilization, but it doesn’t change the root issue: domestication is an ongoing sales pitch for civilization and its virtues and perceived benefits.
We have the myths of Progress. We are told that we are the products and embodiment of a curve of thinking, technology, and discovery that brings us to new heights of human knowledge and experience. While few or none of us possess the ability to create any one of our techno-gadgets, we take it as our collective knowledge and skill that we create and use these things.
We have to believe that our lives are better than the lives of those before us. While domestication rids our sense of community, belonging and purpose, it supplants a new purpose, a new goal, a new path. If we question those virtues, then we question our worth and we start to feel our belonging crumble and isolation creeps in. The domestication process is meant to keep us in line. It is obvious that this veneer of reality is weak and constantly crumbling, but there is a narrative that underpins it and it is pervasive in all forms of civilization.
The story that we have to tell ourselves is that without civilization, without domestication, we are lost, useless, isolated, and vulnerable. That over 70% of people in the United States are on prescription medication is a testament to the fact that this ground is weak. But there is nothing new about this narrative, it goes back to the origins of domestication. To act contrary to what our bodies and minds tell us takes work and convincing.
What Thomas Hobbes wrote nearly four centuries ago echoes in irony. While he was writing about life in a “state of nature” being nasty, brutish and short, the English empire that he was a part of was just throwing itself into the ocean to find new populations to slash, burn, kill, and enslave to support it’s own need for growth.
Living in cities that were just barely starting to understand sanitation, or taking part in long term colonizing processes, or being a largely agrarian society using simpler technology at a higher human cost, the nasty, short and brutish aspects of life had little to say towards the indigenous societies that the British, like Hobbes, were speaking of. But the responsibility was to propagate a myth to justify a miserable reality. It mattered less that it was a lie, than the fact that it gave a purpose.
And yet half a millennia later, these words are still uttered.
The reality is that the situation in nomadic gatherer-hunter societies has rarely changed until colonizers start attacking them. The contemporary lifespan amongst first world populations has risen, but it has done so on the backs of the rest of the world who are forced to remain at the forefront of ecological destruction and socio-political exploitation. We make ourselves look good by burying and burning our trash in other parts of the world.
Meanwhile, we have races for cures, products as benefits, suicide helplines, piles of medications, laws in place, rackets in action, and political careers based around maintaining an artificially inflated sense of self and Progress. Our lives might be less nasty, brutish and short than the lives of 17th century British, but technological change has allowed us to bury ourselves in denial on a different level than was otherwise possible. And even still, our primary causes of death are preventable, lifestyle based diseases. Considering the overall psychological well being, it’s better to consider our current modernized life as bored, uneventful and artificially prolonged.
The reality of nomadic gatherer-hunter life doesn’t matter to those of us left regurgitating the narrative of domestication. It doesn’t matter that the average life expectancy of nomadic gatherer-hunters are on a steeper curve based on mortality rates including a more trying first year of life. It doesn’t matter that it’s beyond reasonable to think that unafflicted societies regularly have members living into their 60s and 70s. It doesn’t matter that there is a qualitative difference between life as a gatherer-hunter and a worker. It doesn’t matter that there is a huge chasm between living in a community and living alone with a technological network.
What matters to us is that we have to believe that we’re doing better. That is why Hobbes is non-ironically being toted about as a common theme of our day to day lives.
If the domesticators left room for us to question the qualitative and quantitative differences between nomadic gatherer-hunter lifeways and modernity, then we would have an out. We would have a thought and a path to conceive of life without civilization, without domestication.
If you had the choice between going to a job you hate or hunting and foraging with friends and family, which would you chose? If you had the freedom to move between bands or buy a house only to deal with the neighbors you don’t know, like or trust, which would you chose? If you had the choice between mounting debt and a world without currency, what would you chose? This can go on and on, but the reality is the same: since domestication shapes our worldview, it’s foundation must eliminate all other options from the outset. If we accept that we have no other options, then we will concede to the reality at hand.
Hunter-gatherer societies had slaves and warfare, but anarcho-primitivists refuse to recognize this.
In a relatively short amount of time, the anthropological and social understanding of the concept of hunter-gatherer societies has come a long way. A huge part was realizing that the real world prevalence of gathering over hunting merits a flopping of words (hence my usage of gatherer-hunters over hunter-gatherers). But in my opinion, the greatest contribution to understanding the variations of gatherer-hunter societies comes from the anthopologist James Woodburn.
In his essay, ‘Egalitarian Societies’, he laid out the differences between immediate and delayed return societies. Essentially, the way to help understand the immense differences in gatherer-hunter societies was to understand what their form of hunting and gathering entailed. On the one hand, you have immediate return societies, which are largely nomadic gatherer-hunter bands and, to a lesser degree some semi-sedentary horticulturalists. These are societies without surplus. Essentially everything was hunted and gathered for relatively immediate consumption. These societies are the most egalitarian societies to ever exist and typify historically, pre-historically, and contemporarily what I call “primal anarchy”. That is societies that are anarchist in form and function rather than deploying ideas and ideology.
On the other hand, you have delayed return societies, which are largely comprised of sedentary hunter-gatherers (or as cultural archaeologist Lewis Binford wonderfully put it, hunter-collectors) or mounted gatherer-hunters (who use pack animals).
This might sound minor, but in practice the difference is great. On the one hand, you have a template for egalitarian societies, while on the other you warring societies with power structures and social stratification from priests to slaves. And yet along the spectrum, these are technically gatherer-hunter societies.
So what’s the difference? Surplus.
While nomadic gatherer-hunters individually might have possessions, they are built off of collective knowledge and personal ability. Members of nomadic gatherer-hunter societies are self sufficient individuals who have chosen community (I would argue this is human nature, but the point remains). Property, as a construct and a reality, does not exist.
Delayed return societies, on the other hand, are built around surplus. The degree of dependence upon a stored grain or protein is exponentially replicated in social stratification. Even though individuals all contribute to the collection of a surplus, it becomes property. In a historical sense, this is first owned communally (“primitive communism”) and then as the society grows it is ordained by higher powers and are controlled by individuals.
The societies that would eventually form the basis of our current civilization were started by hunter-cultivators, or collectors. In the Fertile Crescent, you had gatherer-hunter bands that settled around fields of wild grains and eventually propagated them. Wild grains are not hard to find, but this is why the first domesticated plant was a gourd. Not for eating, but for use in storing grains.
These points will be elaborated further in upcoming sections, but the point is this: as soon as it became apparent that the term hunter-gatherer was no longer adequate to describe such huge swaths and variations of societies, it became a huge step for the AP critique to incorporate the particulars. In my opinion, the keys to understanding the domestication process aren’t in finding the line whereby civilization suddenly exists, but in understanding the complex middle ground where the roots of domestication make civilization possible.
So, in my opinion at least, there is no point in trying to deny the existence of gatherer-hunter societies with extreme social stratification. I don’t wish to make excuses nor to attempt to magically create a new idea for society despite historical reality, but I want to look at the dirty laundry here to understand why more than when. And I think this distinguishment between immediate and delayed return societies is a huge part of that.