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Primitivism: An Illusion with No Future

By Stephen Booth - ca. January 1, 2005

Web Editor's Note - This very lengthy article was originally written for an anarchist audience as a critique of the so-called "green"-anarchist (i.e. anarchism with a strong ecological orientation) marriage to primitivism. However, this critique can easily be extended to all varieties of primitivism (anarchist or not) and can be useful to anarchists and non-anarchists alike.

Anarchism vs. Primitivism

By Brian Oliver Sheppard - 2003

Web Editor's Note: - This article was written for an anarchist audience. The IWW is not explicitly or exclusively anarchist in its orientation (though it does share a good deal of commonalities with anarcho-syndicalism, in particular). Likewise, neither are "primitivists" exclusively anarchist, nor are anarchists for the most part primitivist. In spite of that, this critique adequately addresses a general anti-capitalist, revolutionary working class critique of the primitivism, and/or "anti-civ" tendency so prevalent among radical environmentalists.

1. The Demonology of Primitivism

“No one has ever been so witty as you are in trying to turn us into brutes: to read your book makes ode long to go on all fours. Since, however, it is now some sixty years since I gave up the practice, I feel that it is unfortunately impossible for me to resume it: I leave this natural habit to those more fit for it than are you and I.”

— Voltaire, letter to Rousseau, August 30, 1755.

Bakunin vs. the Primitivists

By Brian Oilver Sheppard - Originally published at Zabalaza Books, September 27, 2011

In Bakunin’s day, those who longed for pre-capitalist, feudal social relations were the aristocracy. Those who took it even further and hearkened back to the days before feudalism, before slavery and to the days of free nomadic peoples, were the romanticists. They were inspired in the main by the political writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and by much romantic poetry and literature that indicted industrial civilization. They regarded intuition at least as important as rational deliberation, but usually more so.

The values held by these romantic socialists are very similar to those held by anarcho-primitivists [sic.]. Bakunin often spoke against the romanticist socialists; he felt they held individualist values that could only develop in a very privileged milieu and which reflected that privilege and its latent elitism. What Bakunin condemned in the thinking of the political followers of Rousseau are largely the same things found in modern primitivism. It is this commonality between the political romanticism of the Rousseauists and the beliefs of modern anarcho-primitivists that makes Bakunin’s statements applicable to the present state of the anarchist movement, especially to the anti-worker, primitivist element within it.

“In every Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association,” Bakunin lamented in the late 1860’s, “we have fought the individualists or false-brother socialists who say that society was founded by a free contract of originally free men and who claim, along with the moralists and bourgeois economists, that man can be free, that he can be a man, outside of society.” Bakunin’s refers here to the followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and his criticism carries weight to this day. In the anarchist movement, the romantic, anti-society sect are the primitivists.

Against Green Reactionaries: Writings on eco-fascists and exterminationists

By various - Green Antifascist - Spring 2020

A compilation of writings against ecofascist infiltration of revolutionary ecology and green anarchist milieus, includes:

  • Confronting the Rise of Eco-Fascism Means Grappling with Complex Systems - by Emmi Bevensee and Alexander Reid Ross
  • There’s nothing anarchist about Eco-Fascism - by Scott Campbell
  • On No Platform and ITS - by William Gillis
  • ITS, or the rhetoric of decay - a Joint statement of insurrectional groups in Mexican territory

Web editor's note: we highly recommend the first three sections of this document. As for the last chapter, we vehemently disagree with their anti-organizational and anti-structural dogma as well as their sectarian denunciations of "the left", but welcome their distancing from ITS and similarly minded eco-fascists. In any case, the document is a package deal. Plus, note our standard disclaimer:

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author.

Download (PDF).

The Ableist Logic of Primitivism: A Critique of “Ecoextremist” Thought

By Conor Arpwel - Protean Magazine, December 30, 2018

In his recent article for New York MagazineChildren of Ted, John H. Richardson ruminates on the recent rise of a fringe political movement centered on the writings of Ted Kaczynski, the ecoterrorist widely known as “the Unabomber.” On its face, Richardson’s article amounts to an eccentric human-interest story for a mainstream publication. Yet, in typical liberal fashion, Richardson approaches his subject with a dangerous combination of cynicism and naiveté. He frivolously mischaracterizes much of modern anarchist thought by describing the article’s main subject, John Jacobi, as an (idiosyncratic and largely mythical) type of leftist radical who is “sure that morality is just a social construct that keeps us docile in our shearing pens.” Richardson goes on to assert that “Kaczynski was Karl Marx in modern flesh, yearning for his Lenin”—a highly misleading and facile assertion. Due in part to this semi-implicit disregard for the potential for fundamental social change, Richardson does little to present alternatives to Kaczynski’s fascistic “solution” to our climate catastrophe that has already begun.

KACZYNSKI ADVOCATES A PRELAPSARIAN “RETURN TO NATURE” IN ORDER TO ALIGN OUR SOCIAL REALITIES TO GENETICALLY PRESCRIBED HUMAN BEHAVIOR. HOWEVER, IT IS CRUCIAL TO UNDERSTAND THAT THIS PERSPECTIVE IS FAR MORE INSIDIOUS THAN SOME ROMANTIC YEARNING FOR THOREAU’S WALDEN POND.

Although Richardson prefers to refer to this type of thought as “ecoextremism,” Kaczynski and his groupies are better understood as advocates for a callous strain of primitivism. This ideology is grounded in a belief that technological development must be stopped—even reversed. From Kaczynski’s perspective, industrialization and technological progress are responsible for societal instability and immense psychological suffering. To remedy this, Kaczynski advocates a prelapsarian “return to nature” in order to align our social realities to genetically prescribed human behavior. However, it is crucial to understand that this perspective is far more insidious than some romantic yearning for Thoreau’s Walden Pond. Kaczynski takes an artificially “constrained,” as Thomas Sowell describes it, view of humanity—namely, that we are defined by a “bedrock of selfishness,” over which altruism and cooperation manifest on occasion but remain mere exceptions to the cynical rule. This reflects the polemics of other reactionaries, such as white supremacist “race science” sophists and “intellectual dark web” charlatans like Jordan Peterson. Such ideologies all serve the same end: to foreclose the possibility of any systemic change to the status quo and dismiss any societal structure not predicated on hierarchy and subordination.

How to change the course of human history

By David Graeber and David Wengrow - Eurozine, March 2, 2018

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

EGOMANIA! A Response to My Critics on the Post-Left

By Alexander Reid Ross - Anti-Fascist News, April 5, 2017

The Left-Overs: How Fascists Court the Post-Left

By Alexander Reid Ross - Anti-Fascist News, March 29, 2017

The Anthropocene Myth: Blaming all of humanity for climate change lets capitalism off the hook

By Andreas Malm - Jacobin, March 30, 2015

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

Last year was the hottest year ever recorded. And yet, the latest figures show that in 2013 the source that provided the most new energy to the world economy wasn’t solar, wind power, or even natural gas or oil, but coal.

The growth in global emissions — from 1 percent a year in the 1990s to 3 percent so far this millennium — is striking. It’s an increase that’s paralleled our growing knowledge of the terrible consequences of fossil fuel usage.

Who’s driving us toward disaster? A radical answer would be the reliance of capitalists on the extraction and use of fossil energy. Some, however, would rather identify other culprits.

The earth has now, we are told, entered “the Anthropocene”: the epoch of humanity. Enormously popular — and accepted even by many Marxist scholars — the Anthropocene concept suggests that humankind is the new geological force transforming the planet beyond recognition, chiefly by burning prodigious amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas.

According to these scholars, such degradation is the result of humans acting out their innate predispositions, the inescapable fate for a planet subjected to humanity’s “business-as-usual.” Indeed, the proponents cannot argue otherwise, for if the dynamics were of a more contingent character, the narrative of an entire species ascending to biospheric supremacy would be difficult to defend.

Their story centers on a classic element: fire. The human species alone can manipulate fire, and therefore it is the one that destroys the climate; when our ancestors learned how to set things ablaze, they lit the fuse of business-as-usual. Here, write prominent climate scientists Michael Raupach and Josep Canadell, was “the essential evolutionary trigger for the Anthropocene,” taking humanity straight to “the discovery that energy could be derived not only from detrital biotic carbon but also from detrital fossil carbon, at first from coal.”

The “primary reason” for current combustion of fossil fuels is that “long before the industrial era, a particular primate species learned how to tap the energy reserves stored in detrital carbon.” My learning to walk at the age of one is the reason for me dancing salsa today; when humanity ignited its first dead tree, it could only lead, one million years later, to burning a barrel of oil.

Or, in the words of Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill: “The mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species, that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene.” In this narrative, the fossil economy is the creation precisely of humankind, or “the fire-ape, Homo pyrophilus,” as in Mark Lynas’s popularization of Anthropocene thinking, aptly titled The God Species.

Now, the ability to manipulate fire was surely a necessary condition for the commencement of large-scale fossil fuel combustion in Britain in the early nineteenth century. Was it also the cause of it?

Capital Blight - The Root of the Problem

By x344543 – October 8, 2013

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are not the official position of the IWW (or even the IWW’s EUC) and do not necessarily represent the views of anyone but the author’s.

I really would rather not be writing this; I honestly wish that I didn’t feel that it was necessary. However, some things simply cannot be left unaddressed.

As one of the half dozen or so charter members of the IWW’s Environmental Unionism Caucus, I comb through a good deal of class struggle and/or environmental news sources, since one of our goals is raising awareness. These sources come from a variety of directions, including syndicalist, socialist, anarchist, progressive environmentalist, and deep green (though not Deep Green Resistance, because of the latter’s transphobia and rigid primativist tendencies). Naturally, one of the most logical sources for this last tendency is Earth First!. Rarely is any source 100% in line with what I and my fellow “Green Wobblies” think represents our position (loosely defined though that may be), and Earth First! is no exception. That which doesn’t fit is generally ignored, and we “stand aside” as they say in the language of modified consensus process. Sometimes, however, our sources will publish something so egregiously wrong, in our opinion, that we feel compelled to respond.

Saturday, October 5, 2013, Earth First! re-published just such a story, called Thanks A Lot, Nebraska, by the Tucson chapter of Root Force (TURF).

What is Root Force you ask? Here’s their mission statement:

Root Force (Fuerza Raíz) is a campaign that recognizes the fundamental connection between the oppression of the Earth and the oppression of its people. The precursor to ecocide and genocide is the separation of people from the land so that both can be exploited. Thus Root Force is a biocentric campaign, asserting that no oppression can be overcome without addressing the relationship a society has with the Earth. To achieve either social or ecological justice, we must achieve both.

Therefore, Root Force aims to help dismantle the system that is killing and enslaving our planet and its people. This will be achieved by (1) identifying the system’s strategic weak points, and (2) targeting those points, thus providing an offensive component to existing ecodefense, international solidarity, and anti-colonialist efforts.

One strategic weak point is the U.S. dependence on the resources of Latin America. The exploitation of these resources is dependent on transportation, energy, and communications infrastructure. Hence this U.S.-based campaign focuses its efforts on opposing infrastructure expansion projects in Latin America, such as Plan Puebla Panama (PPP) and the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration Initiative (IIRSA).

The campaign provides a framework for people to take effective action in solidarity with local resistance to these projects without traveling to Latin America. It is structured to allow for a diversity of tactics, to be undertaken by a wide network of autonomous individuals and groups.

This seems reasonable enough; in fact, I cannot find any really objectionable position in this mission statement at all. Much of it could easily mesh with the Preamble to the IWW Constitution, so having established that, I find the content of the article itself to be quite disturbing.

Essentially, TURF is miffed that a coalition including Nebraska ranchers and farmers, the Nebraska Farmer’s Union, Bold Nebraska, 350.org, Sierra Club, Credo, and billionaire Tom Steyer are protesting the impending construction of the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline by constructing a wind- and solar- powered barn in its projected pathway.

Granted there are many criticisms one could make of this action, such as the fact that a great many of these folks are capitalists or enablers of capitalists, the fact that Keystone XL is not the only pipeline we need to worry about, or the obvious fact that Keystone could simply build the pipeline somewhere else (there are enough rural counties sufficiently beholden to corporate fossil fuel interests to ram through the permits barn or no barn), but in spite of these shortcomings, there are lot of good things that could be said about the project as well, including—in my opinion at least—the advocacy of renewable energy, such as wind and solar which could allow a state such as Nebraska which has a fairly good abundance of both to potentially generate all of its own electricity and perhaps even export a bit.

No doubt doing so would lessen that state’s reliance on fossil fuels, and though some of those are extracted and refined locally, the impact of those on the environment effects us globally in ways that greatly outweigh any significant impact from wind and solar. Certainly that would seem to fit the mission of Root Force would it not? Evidently the answer is a resounding “no”. Root Force is overwhelmingly opposed to renewable energy arguing that it simply props up the existing system and perpetuates the destruction of the Earth (and to be certain, the Earth First! Journal published Root Force's position paper on renewables in February 2009).

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