29 September 2006


In the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
The Tempest, II.i., William Shakespeare

Anarcho-primitivism (A-P) is a tendency of Anarchism founded on a repudiation of the origins of civilization, or (conceivably) our specific civilization. While there is no political movement that proposes to implement the aims of A-P, it remains an extremely influential ideology.

Many of my readers may share my bemusement at the way anarchism has different tendencies; the Wikipedia post on anarchism lists twelve different tendencies, of which primitivism is one; a 13th is "anarchism without adjectives," which apparently sensed the illogic of hyphenated disciplines of anarchism. The surmise that one would have, that people opposed to any form of hierarchy whatever are unlikely to form a serious challenge to state authority, is indeed born out by experience. In the 19th century, the tragic life of Sergei Nechayev exemplified the problems faced by the early anarchists: paranoia, unrealistic strategies of political action, petty factional quarrels, widespread contempt, profound alienation from the social lives of virtually everyone, and so on.

With A-P, the goals have shifted away from a direct abolition of the state (because that is not possible) to a critique of all forms of power structure. A-P being a critique, rather than an ideological goal, is necessary for several reasons:
  1. The A-P critique of actually-existing society is more extreme than any other; other extreme ideologies, such as Fascism or Communism, claim that their triumph would lead to well-being under prosperity and modern technology.
  2. A critique of a thing does not preclude using it or being it. It is not necessarily so that a person has to have a viable alternative to the thing she criticizes. For example, Christianity holds that all humans are sinful and require redemption by Jesus. It is absurd to demand that the Christian supply an alternative to being human; the lack of an alternative to being sinful is beside the point.
  3. Requiring a critic of a thing to be logically consistent by refusing to use or benefit from that thing imposes a Catch-22 on criticism generally: someone who points out the shortcomings of cars as transportation might object to the lack of alternatives to cars, but if she refuses to use cars she couldn't show up to defend her views. If A-P were a bona fide ideology (as opposed to a critique), no sincere proponent could appear to discuss it.
At its most intellectually rigorous, A-P amounts to the most radical exploration of possible alternative human possibilities that could occur.

My initial exposure to A-P stimulated utter disgust and contempt. It is common to praise the lot of the aborigines as "noble savages," but these people were taking the idea of nostalgia to absurd extremes. I was particularly irritated by the confidence of some of my pseudo-hippie classmates that people like the !Xung of Botswana were somehow happier than (say) we were. How could they know the relative "happiness" of people? They might surmise they could possibly be happier not knowing the conveniences of modern life, but how could they claim to be certain? It didn't help that the A-P philosophy was suddenly thrust into the public eye by the Unabomber. A disturbing aspect of A-P was that it seemed improbable that adherents would be content to remain a philosophical critique. The Unabomber, who claimed to act on behalf of a "Freedom Club," and whose manifesto (linked below) repeatedly invoked "freedom," insisted that he was fighting for freedom. But if so, it was the terrifying delusion of one insisting that our obvious preference cannot possibly be a "free" choice. Humans could only be free his way.

A-P philosophers mostly disavowed the Unabomber; it was obvious that his campaign of random assassinations was totally counterproductive. And indeed, the Unabomber's own manifesto has little by way of explanation for what he hoped to accomplish. However, it is true that A-P enthusiasts frequently have an apocalyptic view of society; they look forward (perhaps with the cheerfulness that phrase implies) to a massive die-off of humanity. That was a fairly common experience I had in college, when I encountered A-P's. In private, they maintained that virtually all humanity was going to die off, and they regarded this as a positive good. But they also insisted that this won't their fault, or, less trivially, that it wouldn't be a consequence of widespread acceptance of A-P; a lot of the more extreme peak oil theorists, while not remotely anarchists of any type, and visibly distressed by the prospect, also anticipate a massive crisis leading to a die-off of tens of millions. Likewise, they can always point out the non-human, or non-Usonian, population of the earth, suffers immensely from our lifestyle; it's unreasonable to complain about A-P's mordant world view when our country slaughters 100 million pigs annually [*]. What about increased mortality among humans caused by secondary water consumption of the US economy?

A-P critiques usually target technology as representing an insidious and necessarily coercive trend that is alien to wholesome human society. One of the problems of A-P is explaining how civilization became so pervasive if it is alien to human nature; and if it is not alien, but a natural tendency of humans to organize and develop tools, then how can such a bad thing be prevented? In response to this, many A-P thinkers have conceded that they don't wish to abolish civilization, so much as to radically transform it through analysis and example (Moore).

This has led to one major rift in A-P, between lifestyle anarchists who seek to replicate pre-industrial modes of living, and radicals who ignore the paradox of civilization's origins. The latter may be accused of not being thinkers so much as ranters, since they also tend to reject scientism as a feature of technology and civilization. Unfortunately, without the theoretical underpinnings of science, A-P ceases to be anything but a negation. There can be no philosophy of A-P since it lacks anything like an experimental or deductive method, and as a set of goals it is based on a romantic abstraction of actual social organization. The idea that human actions are aimed at addressing needs significant to the individual is incompatible with radical, normative A-P.

It is my observation that A-P tends to be a materialist analogue to chiliastic theology. The movement is impossibly fragmented and rejects any goal of creating a new society, yet the idea of a philosophical critique of civilization without any constructive action at all is rather pointless. So the result is that adherents tend to anticipate the obliteration of civilization by a crisis of its own making, such as a nuclear war or peak oil.
Aborigine: literally, "forest dweller"; nowadays, applied almost exclusively to the indigenous people of mainland Australia. Initially, the term referred to a primary category of socio-economic organization, that of the hunter-gatherer. The other categories were pastoralists (shepherders) and agrarians (farmers). There is an erroneous impression in some circles that "aborigine" is an ethnic slur, although this term is used by the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (something that would be unlikely if it were pejorative).

"Aborigine" is not a synonym for "Indian"; although it would be an accurate description of some Native American peoples at some periods of their history. Also, aboriginal peoples are not necessarily primitive; for example, many of the Pacific Northwestern peoples had highly advanced crafts, but remained hunter-gatherers. Many Inuktiut peoples are aboriginal while engaging in high-tech activities, such as cinematography. (I recently watched a movie made by an all-Inuktiut crew).

Secondary water consumption: every year the USA imports millions of tons of cattle feed from other countries, such as Guatemala. One point of view has it that this is a case of the free market making it easier for the agricultural sector to meet US domestic demand for beef, pork, and poultry. Naturally, if a population eats a lot of meat, then the livestock also must consume water and grains grown with water. As the populations of industrialized countries replace plants with meat, they increase their secondary water consumption by a very large amount. Typically, ranchers respond to the limits imposed on local supplies of water by importing feed from 3rd world countries, where ownership of water may be highly concentrated. Hence, the consumption of water by the US farming sector includes very large amounts that fell onto distant lands.

Another point of view maintains that the "overflow" of water demand, or effective importation of water from countries with undervalued currencies, sharply restricts the ability of Third world farmers to meet the demands of their own people for food. First world consumption of cash crops may supply the elites with foreign exchange reserves, but the need of the population for water is an absolute that no amount of increased GDP will replace; no amount of economic orthodoxy can change that fact.
ADDITIONAL READING & SOURCES: "A Primitivist Primer," John Moore; "Industrial Society & Its Future," Theodore Kacsinsky (AKA the Unabomber)

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