By Enrique Lescure
“why can’t we fight and win, Mommy?”
“Because they have
weapons and technology.
we just have love.” ~ Quote from Wizards, 1977.
Sometimes, it feels like I shouldn’t need to write some posts. Yet, evidently, some posts have to be written, since there apparently are ideas floating around that can be picturesque and charming when applied to arts, morality tales, philosophy and spirituality, but would undoubtly sow confusion the moment someone starts to seriously advocate these ideas as a correct way of thinking, not only for oneself but for all of society, we will start to get into trouble.
I am of course referring to an ideology known as “anarcho-primitivism”, which from a shallow glance can appear deeply sympathetic, but which intellectually and ideologically is a dead end.
Culturally however, anarcho-primitivism has had influence both within academia and within popular culture. My personal take on the issue is that anarcho-primitivism is interesting as an intellectual experiment, but an actual programme to change the world based from anarcho-primitivism would resemble a trainweck without a wheel on the swamps – which I suspect is one of the deeper meanings.
Reason and passion
Culturally speaking, European civilization (which later would evolve into the western civilization) stood at a crossroads in the early 19th century, with one boot in the feudal past and one in the industrial future. It is probably well-known by everyone that the 19th century saw two political conflicts erupt – one regarding ancient privileges contra increased political representation (semi-egalitarian), and another regarding the economic rights of workers and poor people, leading to the evolution of parliamentarism and trade unions respectively.
One struggle which however also was highly visible (though decidely less bloody) than the other two was fought in the realm of culture, and formed around whether the world should be conceptualised through reason or emotion. During the 18th century, following the collapse of medieval Christendom during the wars of religion of the preceding two centuries, the Age of Reason blossomed. This trend in science, literature and aesthetics was partially a result of the end of the Reformation in 1648 and the mechanical/scientific revolution spearheaded by the likes of Galileo and Newton.
The Age of Reason cultivated several literary and cultural concepts still in use today. The foundation of the enlightenment was the idea that the methodologies of the mechanical revolution could be applied on social and political issues of the day. Instead of viewing states as mystical entities ruled by God-ordained sovereigns, the 18th century philosophers increasingly came to see the state as a social contract and as a machine devised to achieve certain aims, much like a clockwork.
This was a culmination of a trend which began with the likes of Descartes, Newton and Locke, who transformed the view of the world from the work of an inscrutable Creator who worked through miracles into a clockwork, de-mystifying reality, replacing mysteries with science and reducing the world from a living embodiment of God’s creation into matter which reacted and worked according to predictable mathematical and chemical patterns.
When the de-mystification had destroyed the ideology of Divine Right which governed Europe’s absolutist
monarchies, it was just a matter of time before France flared up. During the late 18th century, a trend towards embracing passion and the storms of the heart had flared up within enlightenment thought, embodied both by the philosophy of Rousseau and by the growing “noble savage” genre which celebrated triumphs on both sides of the English channel.
During the Revolutionary Era of 1776 to 1815 and beyond (towards the Greek Revolution of 1823 and the French July Revolution), the ideology of Liberalism (a product of Age of Reason-thought) was fuelled by a deep-seated passion. Leaders like Robespierre and poets like Byron were all burning with indignant passion and defiance, and struggled for largely the same ideals, namely the overthrowing of tyrants and the expression of the will of the people. As late as during the latter half of the 19th century, revolutionary leaders like Garibaldi were still drawing air from the same tendencies.
During the period immediately following the Bourbon restoration in France (1815), reactionary and conservative authors, composers and painters started to create a discourse where reason and enlightenment was seen as depriving the world from its true meaning – a spiritual and mystical meaning which could not be understood with intellect, only with emotions. The Middle Ages, previously seen as “the dark ages”, were glorified and seen as an age when magic, honour and spirituality prevailed. This trend affected most of Europe deeply, and resonated deepest of all in Germany.
It should be noted here already that it is not to me intrinsically a matter of reason versus passion, as for example this anti-nazi cartoon tried to convey, but rather that there have been historical periods when people due to technological and social trends have come to view reason and passion as being in conflict with one another. This today holds true for example for the New Atheists, of whom some tend to view passion in itself as a negative thing, and for some sci-fi authors who tend to hold predominantly the same worldview (one example is Robert Sawyer’s Quintaglio and Hominids trilogies).
Speaking of nazis, the second time when movements started to emerge that questioned reason and progress was during the 1910’s, 1920’s and 1930’s. The second half of the 19th century was not only a golden age for technological innovations, economic growth and urbanisation (and also for colonialism, racism, growing social inequality and genocides not to forget), but also for a conviction that the world was definetly moving towards a better, more advanced and more progressive society. Sci-fi authors like Jules Verne and H.G Wells were highly popular.
The First World War shattered this reality, and fragmented the ordered world indefinetly moving towards greater prosperity. In its stead came a world which was highly contested between various groups, ranging from ultra-progressives to ultra-reactionaries. Fascism and National Socialism had different roots, but came to be expressed through similar rhetoric, namely a sense of abandoning “bourgeois individualism” and becoming as one with the Nation, to be able to be released from alienation.
Alienation as a concept started to become popular in the 19th century, but its usage exploded in the early 20th century. A sense of being lost dominated many societies, and entire cultures searched for new identities to be re-baptised and reborn in. These tendencies are however not excluded to the industrial era, and has been prevalent in all high cultures (otherwise religions like Buddhism and Christianity would not have emerged).
The United States liberated Western Europe from Fascism, and in many ways came to inherit the Western World. A society more culturally cohesive than Europe, which had sustained far less damage by the world wars, had managed to preserve the optimism of the late 19th century, and even build on it.
The breakthrough of mass media, the successful social revolts of the 1960’s and the inability of the US army to win the Vietnam War did however lead towards questioning of the ideology of constant progress. In Europe, this questioning had led to the birth of totalitarian, far-right and far-left movements. In the US, the response was a loose libertarian-leftist subculture more directed by fashion and by memes than any political leaders or even political movements.
The green wave, which came to influence Europe during the 1970’s and 1980’s, began in the US during the 1960’s. The green wave, like any other wave, was of course influenced from many roots, and its seeds were taken up by many movements and individuals. Awareness grew that industrialism and emissions had many negative effects on the environment. Two books worth mentioning from this era are Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, which both have been hugely influential.
The roots of anarcho-primitivism can be found in the US.
The anarcho-primitivist case
Anarcho-primitivists argue that the main problem in the world is human civilization itself. With that, they mean that civilization is intrinsically opposed to life on Earth and is only capable of destroying and wrecking eco-systems. Human development is a hubris that will end with civilization exhausting Earth and then collapsing, hopefully leading to a humans yet again embracing nature and establishing egalitarian societies.
According to anarcho-primitivism, pre-civilisationary societies are generally egalitarian, have little violence and healthy social environments characterised by inclusion and no sense of alienation. Like in some forms of marxism, alienation is a tremendously important concept within anarcho-primitivism, and denotes the human sense of being alienated from the genuine natural existence.
Anarcho-primitivists are divided into two factions. While being a small movement (or rather trend, since anarcho-primitivists tend to be organised in mainstream green organisations or in leftist organisations), most anarcho-primitivists are peaceful and claim that civilization will collapse by its own right. A small minority are doing violent direct action, either individually or through groups, though it is significantly rarer today than in the 90’s, which were a sort of heyday for violent direct activism.
The case against anarcho-primitivism ~ Why we need a civilization
Anarcho-primitivists are correct in the matter that our current civilization is unsustainable. However, there is a broad generalisation on their part that civilization in itself will automatically develop along a linear course towards collapse, and that there is nothing we can do apart from abandoning civilization as a concept that can salvage us. I will address this point later, but now I will move towards anarcho-primitivists who argue for violent resistance in order to overthrow civilization and establish an egalitarian gatherer society.
Firstly, there will soon be nine billion human beings on this planet. When agriculture and civilization was first born in the Middle East 12.000 years ago, there were around 10 million human beings on the planet. For all what it was worth, that was probably the upper limit during that time. If we are generous, we can say that the planet is warmer today and therefore (if we disregard environmental destruction) we can perhaps feed 25 million people today would we all live as hunter-gatherers.
This would mean that most of humanity today would starve, and while a few humans always will be suicidal, humans in general want to maximise their own chances at survival. Therefore, even if we disregard the ignorant (or worse; callous) assumption that the abolishment of civilization will usher in a golden era of tribal egalitarianism, we can safely presume that humans in general will try to survive.
Therefore, no matter if civilization is overthrown by anarcho-primitivist revolutionaries or “collapses” as predicted by anarcho-primitivist philosophers and ideologists, billions of humans will die, and humans will actively struggle against the abolishment of their infrastructure (which provides non-lethal water, warmth, cooling, healthcare, vaccinations, food and – to paraphrase Zizèk, and so on and so on).
I do in fact part agree with the anarcho-primitivists that civilization can collapse. It has evidently happened before that many high cultures have experienced a collapse, or what scientists call a loss of complexity. This is the key however, a collapse of a civilization does not mean that all technology and infrastructure disappears. Most of us who are alive now have experienced the collapse of a civilization during our lifetime, namely the fall of the Soviet Union (which thankfully was a relatively bloodless collapse). While infrastructure, industry and buildings indeed started to suffer decay in a few regions, what happened was instead a transition towards new economic and political modes.
Maybe the anarcho-primitivists rather have a situation where the infrastructure suffers collapse as a vision or model? I would argue that experiences from that type of collapse, which we also have modern examples of, rather resembles Mel Gibson’s The Road Warrior than Kevin Costner’s Dances with the wolves.
Nowadays, there is a growing club of failed states, where infrastructure is helplessly decaying, where hospitals are turned into fortresses and where the market for AK47’s are growing. Somalia. Yemen. Congo. Libya. Syria. All countries where society has fractured and where a massive loss of complexity is experienced.
Anarcho-primitivists perhaps would argue that this kind of collapse is symptomatic of “Civilization”. However, according to anarcho-primitivists, the fall of “Civilization” is in itself symptomatic for “Civilization”.
There are indeed examples of societies where economic collapses and crises led to a greater deal of solidarity between the citizens, like for example in Argentina when workers during the 2002-2003 currency crisis occupied factories and continued to produce goods. The type of collapse envisioned by anarcho-primitivists however is in itself a far more reaching variation of the type of collapse experienced in countries in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa.
A summary of the practical arguments against the feasibility of anarcho-primitivism could be that anarcho-primitivism ignores the population issue (a population in the billions are dependent on a high-tech civilization to provide for them) and also that the collapse of civilization won’t mean that people suddenly lose knowledge of technology – especially not martial technology. This all means that a collapse will rather mean that the current civilization will be replaced by a less complex culture characterized by more brutish social relations.
However, this answer – while it repudiates anarcho-primitivism as a practical answer – does little to deprive the primitivists of the moral high ground. After all, are not anarcho-primitivists defining “Civilization” in terms of how it distorts human nature rather than the buildings and infrastructure?
The allure of Eden
The human being lived in blissfull ignorance, sheltered in a bountiful garden where everything was flowing with abundance. Alas, she ate the forbidden fruit and was cast out of Eden, judged to toil and suffer within the shackles of human society.
Eden. The lost world, and the lost innocence.
The moral claim of anarcho-primitivism is alike that of the myth of that fabled garden. The lost unity with God’s presence is replaced with the lost unity with one another and with Nature. The moral imperative is that we are impure because we are believed to have rejected our animalistic roots and embraced enlightenment.
Very much alike fire-and-brimstone preachers, anarcho-primitivists are condemning humanity, that we need to suffer so a few elect shall be able to turn to their natural sense of unity and wholeness with nature. This longing is as much an internal psychological need as an ideological conviction. The problem with primitivism is that the primitivist does not only believe that they themselves would be happier living in a cottage collective without electricity and running water, but that everyone would be happier with that, and that all humans deep inside want that.
This idea is not unique for anarcho-primitivism. The longing for lost innocence and childhood follows throughout human history and have formed the basis for many teachings.
Apotheosis – the answer of EOS
The anarcho-primitivists do not really believe that we can stop destroying our planet, nor do many of them really want to try. The reason why is that if we humans prove capable of doing so, the hated concept of civilization will also survive, and thus negate the core tenets of anarcho-primitivism (that we must repent).
We, The Earth Organisation of Sustainability, on the other hand, believes in the human race. We believe that we have the power to take control over the situation and transition towards a sustainable future. We believe that humanity can and will ascend towards a Type-1 civilization, and that we will accept that what we do today will affect the evolution of Life on Earth for millions of years. We believe that we will transcend towards a civilization where we have grown to realize that what truly matters in the Universe is Life, and Life-bearing Earths.
There is nothing which we cannot do.
We can and we will solve the social problems on the planet. We can and we will end the wars. We can and we will create a world where all human beings and all communities can live in dignity, liberty and diversity within what the Earth can provide. In this world, anarcho-primitivists can and will have the freedom to live in their communities according to their ideals, and also have the freedom to choose to leave their communities.
Anarcho-primitivism rejects human culture, human curiousity, human questioning and human personality, instead opting for us abandoning our humanity and returning to nature. But is not our humanity ultimately derived from nature itself, and a testament to nature’s ingenuity and diversity?
What we want is for humanity to make a choice.
A choice to form a sustainable civilization on Earth, that can provide all humans with a good quality of life, autonomy, diversity, human rights and freedom to realise themselves. And we believe that humanity is ultimately capable of transcending, and that we will continue to transcend, beyond the stars.
And our light will reach the farthest star.