A primary problem with anarcho-primitivism is that it is both maligned in ignorance and promoted with ideals of zealous purity. As the years have went by, and after constantly having the primitivist critique at my disposal (at least in the back of my mind), it is clear to me that it is often misunderstood by both critics and proponents alike. And, after garnering some much deserved attention around the turn of the century, I worry now that the philosophy may be getting lost amidst amidst the growing struggle to meet basic immediate needs and the growing number of distractions in a culture of banalities and spectacle.
In an effort to convey the particulars and subtleties of primitivism, pedantic definitions will (perhaps ironically) be necessary. For those versed in the terminology and who understand the basic concepts of the philosophical positions promoted by primitivism… these definitions may seem over-wrought and excessive. However, part of the problem with anarcho-primtivism is (as with many philosophical schools of thought) that each thinker writing on the subject will have their own particular idiosyncratic nuances in regard to the meaning of particular words and phrases. When dealing with a subject that partly criticizes the development and implementation of basic language… the task of clarifying these subjects and terms becomes even more tedious. Nevertheless, intellectual honesty and a need for thoroughness requires effort on the part of any who would seriously like to ponder complex and intricate subjects. Efforts will be taken in that regard as this article proceeds.
So… what is primitivism? Using the modern communication devices currently at our disposal, it should come as little surprise that first definitions of the subject one will find when searching online are… simplistic, unflattering, or both. Since primtivism offers up one of the strongest critiques of those modern communication devices, it is understandable that such mediums will lead prominently to biased and particularly unhelpful definitions. I believe it was Jacques Ellul who wrote of the difficulty one might encounter in getting a book published that criticized the publishing industry… and a similar phenomenon can undoubtedly be found at play here. The point isn’t that more flattering and edifying definitions can’t be found, but simply that they are, to some extent, buried in literary pablum — whether that be in the form of pulp at the bookstores and universities or in the so-called cyberspace of the internet.
But finding practically edifying philosophical terms regarding primitivism isn’t simply a problem in an academic sense — the whole of modern civilized culture is somewhat at odds with the practical ideas of primitivism being spread. The subtle biases against primitivism are necessarily engrained within techno-industrial mass society for its own continued existence. Were that not the case… we might instead be living in primitivist society (as humanity did for the vast majority of its existence). The simplistic prejudices many show against anything wild, or against any chemically unsterilized domicile, can run deep. Even when some of those prejudices are consciously understood to be irrational… we still may sometimes find them within us — because we have been born into a culture that is fundamentally hostile to things which the proponents of primitivism hold in high regard.
Hopefully, by means of juxtaposition, we have now started to clarify what primitivism is. But the philosophical position of anarcho-primitivism is more than a critique of the things which it sees as being problematic. For example… it would be quite impossible to find any well-known primitivist proponent who was opposed to the general concept of preserving bio-diversity. That is to say… primitivists are for the general preservation of biological diversity on Earth. But some confusion on this point may begin by the way such a position is often presented — not as merely being for bio-diversity, but against the anthropocene mass extinction of species across every phylum. It’s a subtle point, to be sure, but either way it should still open the door to analysis of why the current mass extinction is taking place — and that is where the primitivist critique effectively presents itself.
Another point of confusion is how anarcho-primtivism relates to other anarchist tendencies. For example… the Industrial Workers of the World might be an anarchist group that is often at odds with anarcho-primitivists — for obvious reasons. While anarcho-primitivists might want to stop the practice of genetic engineering, nuclear experimentation, and other more overtly detrimental techno-industrial practices… many anarcho-syndicalists would merely want to try and control the processes and results of such activity. In the final analysis… these juxtaposed groups are going to be at odds. Honest civil debate, however, can currently be had between these two schools of thought. And it should be noted that both groups are far from achieving their goals. This being the case… both groups can currently, possibly, in a pragmatic way, work together against rapacious corporations that make little reasonable pretense about any supposed humanitarian good that comes from their activities.
I’ve come to think of the anarcho-primitivism as more of an ideal rather than as practicing tendency that can immediately make its results seen. Anarcho-primitivists are concerned about the long term health of humanity and the biosphere — and that’s why they are concerned about what’s happening today. But anarcho-primitivists, like many other groups, can’t offer a sure-fire way to immediately bring about their idealized vision. Rather… it is up to individuals and small groups to decide what they think will be the most effective action for the long and near term. Some primitivists are influenced by the ideas of insurrectionary anarchism while others are more Gandhian — and both may have valuable things to offer at different times.
For the sake of simple clarification and brevity… I will now do my best to outline the basic positions of anarcho-primitivists on a point by point basis.
1. Humanity can live healthy, happy, sustainable lives — without the bureaucratic governmental apparatus which inhibits those aspirations.
2. Contrary to an abundance of revisionist history (often written by ignorant or overtly biased historians) the structure of primitive societies was usually not rigidly hierarchical, was not dominated by patriarchy, and was not at constant war with neighbors.
3. Life in primitive societies is not “nasty, brutish, and short.” Consider that when the Europeans invaded (and brought civilization to) the “new world” they were riddled with the plague and fighting horrible wars between kingdoms and opposing religious adherents. The healthiest and most peaceful people on the planet were invaded by civilized Europeans who had the shortest life expectancies on Earth. While modern medicine may offer some advantages (along with some disadvantages)… primitive people often had healthier lifestyles and diets, produced and lived with less pollution, didn’t suffer from technological accidents associated with cars or industrial workplaces, and often had a thorough understanding of medicinal plants and the medical practices they needed to survive. And the types of wars they fought were not nearly as brutal or comprehensive as is the case with modern civilized warfare.
4. Primitive societies were not (and are not) comprised of foolish and unintelligent people. On the contrary. That many primitive societies were destroyed by the military devices and diseases brought down upon them by civilized societies does not change that fact.
5. The widespread implementation of many harmful technological devices and processes were brought about by early implementation of restrictive and unhealthy regimentation — this includes the development of agriculture (beyond basic horticulture) and the development of formal written languages. These processes, in turn, have continued to facilitate the development of more harmful technological devices and processes. Many technicians today are often separated from the results of their labors so that they don’t comprehend when their research is used in a manner that is unrelated to the project they were working on. Classic examples of this would include Alfred Nobel (who was trying to make mining easier when he invented dynamite) and Albert Einstein (who did not initially realize his work would lead to the atomic age and release the potential for nuclear warfare).
6. The use of technology against techno-industrial civilization should be undertaken on a pragmatic basis. In some instances it may be that some people in modern society have no choice but to use technological means to get by in their daily lives. While flippant casual use of technology should probably be criticized more than it is… glancing at a television or occasionally using a computer is not the greatest crime against humanity. Purity is for drinking water and, often, is impractical to look for in individuals. The point is, generally, that technology is best used against the worst aspects of techno-industrial society. This usage, in many instances, is why anarcho-primitivists are often correctly referred to as neo-luddites.
7. Beyond the immediate physical dangers posed to humanity and the biosphere by techno-industrial civilization… there is a constraining and harmful psychological aspect that comes from living within such a society. Even if civilization wasn’t leading to mass extinction, and even if a billion people weren’t currently facing issues of hunger, starvation, and warfare… it would still be reducing the quality of life for those living within it. Living in close proximity to an unpolluted natural world offers psychological benefits that are contrary to the effects of being in a traffic jam, working on an assembly line, or staring at a computer or television all day. Civilization stifles our mental health, our creativity, and our understanding of the world around us. Direct contact and interaction with the natural world offers more benefits than simulations or filtered representations of life.
More points might be added later, or corrected if necessary, but I hope this primer works to clarify the positions of anarcho-primitivists. If you wish to leave a comment in any forum where this is presented… I will try contribute to any sincere discussion of these topics and, again, I am open to expanding or correcting any mistakes which may have been included in this article. If you take issue with any particular section or phrase in this article… please be specific and quote what you are referring to. While I appreciate the liveliness of some trolls/critics, as a regular contributor to various forums I am not inclined to respond to anything that is obviously being misrepresented, has already be clarified, or which is taken out of context. My hope is that the discourse on this subject can be elevated and I look forward to a lively discussion on the topic at hand.