Toward a Stronger Primitivism: Logical & Linguistic Failures in the Primitivist Critique and the Effort to Remedy Them
Before I jump into this piece, I want to establish concretely, for the sake of those who don’t know me or my work, that I am an ardent primitivist. I’m not some disgruntled outsider, some snarky critic bent on discrediting or dismissing the primitivist critique. I despise the hydra called Civilization, and while I stab at the heart of the Beast, so too do I seek to hack off each of its insidious heads: Patriarchy, Capitalism, Statism, Institutionalized Hierarchy, Mediation, Ecocide, and so on.
The anthropology underlying primitivism is solid, and the majority of arguments within the primitivist critique are coherent and hard to dispute. Even so, within the contemporary anti-civ milieu, there remain some glaring errors, oversights, and sketchy logic. The purpose of this piece is to address these mistakes and move toward remedying them. I offer these criticisms and suggestions as a means of honing the primitivist edge that it might better cut through the lies, delusions, and bullshit of civilization. I offer this piece as a gift and a labor of love, NOT as an attack against any person or their work, nor as an indictment against anarcho-primitivism itself. With that in mind, let’s continue.
The first topic I’d like to discuss, and one that irks me to no end, is the near-ubiquitous presence of the naturalistic fallacy in just about all the anti-civ literature I’ve read and many of the in-person dialogues I’ve had with other primitivists. The naturalistic fallacy, for folks who don’t know, is this line of reasoning: ”nature” is good, therefore that which is “natural” is good; anything that is against nature or is “unnatural” is bad. Almost every essay, book, blog post, lecture, podcast (ad nauseam) I’ve read or heard from an AP perspective suffers from this fallacy.
So much of the language we primitivists use – and I’m even guilty of this myself, when I slip up from time to time – further embeds this fallacy in our hearts, minds, and arguments. Just take a brief look at some of the words anti-civ arguments employ on the regs: we’ve already visited “Nature” and “natural”, but there’s also “wild”, “wilderness” and “wildness”, “rewilding”, “feral”, and a score of other nebulous words that fall into the naturalistic fallacy.
Worse yet, in my opinion, is the tacit underlying moral dualism in this fallacy that so regularly rears its head in political discussions. That is, even in trying to “re-wild” and un-domesticate themselves, primitivists still subscribe to the good-vs-evil, right-and-wrong morality that is a cornerstone of Civilized religion and jurisprudence. Civilization is EVIL and we anarcho-primitivists are the warriors of all that is righteous and good!
Now, I’m not making some nihilist argument here that all morality and/or ethics are undesirable. I’m simply saying that to fall into the cesspool of moral dualism, of good-vs-evil thinking, is to remain dichotomous, to remain mired in Civilized patterns of thinking, and, ultimately, to remain alienated from our desires via moral justification for our philosophy and actions.
Rather than hold fast to dichotomous, alienating morality, I maintain that we should argue against Civilization and all its horrors from our own experiences, desires, thoughts, and feelings. I don’t need “Nature” and what is “natural” to justify the slurry of raw horror, compassion, and rage I feel when I witness a clear cut. Nor do I need to look at “wild” human communities and their relationships to validate the visceral disgust I experience when I witness the misogyny toward and oppression of women on a daily basis.
It is enough for me, and should be enough for others, that we desire a healthy, functioning biosphere, that we want to nurture maximum biodiversity, that I love trees and non-human animals and value their lives. It should be sufficient that I respect female people and want a world in which they are not battered, raped, and killed for their sex, that I value their animal existence, and that I desire healthy interactions and communities in which women are equally valued. I cherish the Oak Savannahs of Northern California, and devoted years of my life to developing a relationship with the rainforests, valleys, and mountains of Cascadia; I love these landbases, want them to thrive, and would kill to defend them because we mutually enrich one another. I don’t need to vindicate these relationships by arguing that ecocide is “unnatural” and therefore “bad”.
To be clear, in pushing for an embrace of individual and collective desires rather than referral to fallacious moral dichotomies, I’m definitely NOT arguing against coherent language. Quite the opposite, really. In addition to re-framing AP arguments in terms of desires and relationships, I also think there are improvements to be made in regards to the actual words we utilize.
For example, when we say we want to protect the “wilderness” or return to a “wild” or “feral” way of life, what do these terms actually mean? In practice, the term “wilderness” is turbid and abstract. So too is the word “Nature”. These words describe lofty concepts, complex symbols that are deeply anchored in the Civilized psyche. How about “technology”? What symbols and imagery does that word evoke in your mind? Again, a relatively meaningless and highly symbolic word, but a word upon which many primitivists and their arguments rely.
Just so, I feel it’s crucial to rethink and re-imagine these terms such that we strengthen and reinforce the primitivist position. Let us not appeal to “nature”, that tired and dried out husk of abstraction. Instead, let us speak of the biosphere, of the intricate interconnectedness, the web of relationships that is all life – this is a concrete, physical, and tangible thing, to which we belong and of which we are a part. Let us not argue that ecocide and urbanization are “bad” because they are “unnatural”. Let us rather exult in our love of healthy, functioning landbases and egalitarian communities, and of our desire to see what we love thrive!
TOKENIZING & FETISHIZING GATHERER-HUNTERS
I witness this obnoxious tendency all the time, and the dishonesty and subtle racism embedded in this practice annoy me to no end. Usually this comes in the form of sweeping generalizations. “Native Americans were blah blah blah,” “all hunter-gatherers lived in egalitarian bands”, “no division of labor and very little sexism exist in hunter-gatherer cultures”, etc. Even among those primitivists I meet who don’t generalize, and who use particular cultures and peoples as examples in their arguments, there is a tendency to fetishize gatherer-hunters, to portray them as virtuous, as immaculate, as “good”.
This is simply dishonest, and it is untrue. Few generalizations can be made about pre-contact “Native Americans”, as there were thousands of distinct peoples, languages, cultures, customs, traditions, stories, technologies, and lifeways. Some indigenous Americans were indeed primarily hunter-gatherers, some pastoralists, some agriculturalists, some a mix of all of these. Some groups were matrilineal, and some patrilineal. Some peaceful, and some warlike. Some, like the Coast Salish and Haida peoples of Cascadia, were downright civilized – they were stationary, domesticated dogs, engaged in protracted and brutal warfare, had slaves, had centralized, hierarchic leadership, and so on.
Likewise, even among those peoples who primitivists love to reference, there’s sometimes “trouble in paradise”. The Hadza, for example, who are and have been hunter-gatherers in Tanzania since the dawn of humanity, are a favorite idol of many contemporary primitivists. They are roughly egalitarian, subsist on gathering and hunting, and live in an ecologically responsible and respectful way, much as they have forever. And yet, as Frank Marlowe describes in The Hadza: Hunter-Gatherers of Tanzania, these primal peoples practice female genital mutilation in the form of clitorectomy. This is not only a grave manifestation of misogyny and patriarchy among an otherwise “ideal” hunter-gatherer people, but it also represents a significant form of specialization in a society that is broadly anarchic and egalitarian.
These very brief and wholly incomplete examples concerning indigenous Turtle Islanders and the Hadza people serve to demonstrate the folly in tokenizing, fetishizing, and making generalizations about gatherer-hunters. In my experience, this happens quite regularly among anarcho-primitivists. I would like it to be my future experience that it stops happening, and that those with a critique of civilization speak honestly and factually about such peoples.
In fact, I’d really rather primmies speak from their own experiences and desires rather than allude to hunter-gatherers at all. Whatever the Hadza do, however various indigenous Turtle Island groups lived, whatever the behaviors of the !Kung happen to be, ultimately these things are useful to consider but are irrelevant. I want to live as a hunter-gatherer, I want to abolish the civilized death machine, I want a vibrant and fecund biosphere. That’s valid, and it’s enough. I don’t need the Hadza or Pirahã to corroborate my desires.
THE SEARCH FOR EUROPEAN INDIGENEITY & IDOLIZING IRON AGE CULTURES
In recent years, as green anarchism and anarcho-primitivism have gained acceptance in radical undercurrents, I have noticed an increasingly popular and bothersome trend. As a growing number of anarchists adopt the critique of civilization, so too do they begin to look to the past for guidance and methodologies for decolonizing and rewilding (i.e.: un-domestication). This, in itself, is a praiseworthy pursuit.
However, the destination at which many anarchists arrive on this ideological journey is, unfortunately, still civilization. I’m talking about the Iron Age. The Celts. The Vikings. The Gauls, Goths, Vandals, and other Iron Age “barbarians”. European paganism, witchcraft, Scandinavian runes, and proto-Germanic polytheism. You name the Iron Age European culture, and I’ll wager there’s some well-intentioned but ignorant primitivist who’s trying to resurrect and relive it.
To a certain extent this is understandable. The hunter-gatherer peoples and cultures of Europe are eradicated – their languages are destroyed, they kept no records, and they’ve all been conquered or enslaved or raped out of existence by civilized shitbags. With little to no information remaining regarding European hunter-gatherers, and an overwhelming abundance of information about the Iron Age, it is unsurprising that many primitivists end their historical search a tad shy of the Stone Age.
Don’t get me wrong: I love viking metal and folk metal just as much as the next person. I just don’t think that’s the trajectory or end point of primitivism. I don’t want to be a Celt, I spit on my Viking heritage, I don’t want to practice European agriculture or pastoralism or insane religions full of dude-bro gods who rape and pillage. And I sure as hell don’t want to be a part of a culture that routinely and as an integral means of its existence raids, pilfers from, conquers, and rapes its neighbors. Fuck that. Fuck the Iron Age, and fuck replicating it!
For those well-intentioned and historically ignorant primitivists I mentioned (and I know there are many, because I’ve had this conversation a thousand times), please!, if you want to discover more about your European heritage, don’t stop at the Iron Age! Look into the Paleo peoples of Europa. Watch Ray Mears’ fantastic Bushcraft series, the first episode of which is entitled Aboriginal Britain. Read Tacitus’s ancient and propagandistic accounts of the Sami people of Northern Europe in his Germania. Hell, read about the Sami today, and about their forced transition between hunting-gathering and reindeer pastoralism; read about how said transition and their forced Christianization has caused the cancerous blight of patriarchy and sexist abuse to spring up in their society. There’s so much to be gleaned, so much that affirms the primitivist stance in that people’s ancient and recent history. Study the Ahrensburg culture of Paleolithic Scandinavia, the Aurignacian, then Solutrean, then later Magdalenian cultures that spanned much of mainland Europe and southwest Asia.
To be fair here, I’m not suggesting that there’s nothing to be garnished from Iron Age European cultures. As far as symbols go, I think the Germanic runic futhark (alphabet) and its associated symbolism is intriguing, fun, and cool. I think Celtic metalworking and knotwork is beautiful. I like re-purposing civilized detritus to cobble together piecemeal post-apocalyptic renditions of Iron Age armors. I like swords and scalemail, longships and fire arrows. I LOVE mead, wine, and beer! And I especially like historical accounts of “barbarians” resisting and defeating the forces of empire. Vercingetorix, the Gallic warrior-king, and Boudica, the Celtic warrior-queen who avenged the rape of her two daughters, both led their people into fierce open rebellion against Rome. I hella respect that and it inspires me, even if these were bloodthirsty, land-destroying, slave-taking civilized grain-munchers.
That’s about it for now. I have other criticisms I’d like to level at contemporary anarcho-primitivism at some point, but these are the most bothersome among them. In the hopes that this piece doesn’t spark some factious flame-war on the internet or drive ideological wedges between myself and others, I want to stress again that this is meant to be constructive criticism. Some of it is even a reminder to myself to avoid certain pitfalls of logic and discourse.
So yeah, don’t take this personally, take it proactively. With love and rage, let’s tear this monolithic shitheap down!
In a recent post on his blog Uncivilized Animals, the author, Ian, quotes from John Zerzan’s piece in the current Fifth Estate. He writes:
“There is an understandable, if misplaced, desire that civilization will cooperate with us and deconstruct itself. This mind set seems especially prevalent among those who shy away from resistance, from doing the work of opposing civilization.” [emphasis added]
Like Ian, I too was struck when I first read this phrase. So many times in countless discussions and debates, I’ve heard people agree with the primitivist stance against civilization, but resign themselves to inaction and despair. Yes, civilization sucks and all that, but what can be done? What can WE do?! Even among those close friends and allies whose vitriolic hatred of civilization rivals my own, this resignation is often deeply rooted.
This isn’t a new question, nor a particularly difficult task to analyze. And yet, as the anti-Civilized critique grows broader, fuller, and stronger with every passing day, the question remains unacknowledged and unaddressed. If we, as primitivists, accept that Civilization and its toxic lifeway are destroying the biosphere and immiserating all life, if we accept that Civilization and its systems of oppression are the greatest obstacle to self-actualization, autonomy, and healthy community, is this not, then, the most important question ever asked?
I hold that it is.
What does it mean to oppose Civilization? How can we set about dismantling and destroying Civilization?
This essay is concerned with these questions, with beginning to address them and to initiate dialogue about them. I by no means think that I have all the knowledge, all the answers, or that my path is singular or the “correct” way. However, being true to my animal self, I do feel that I’ve made significant inroads in answering this question and in radically transforming myself toward healthy animal being and away from the shackles of civilized life. Just so, by sharing my thoughts, feelings, and experiences regarding this question, I hope to inspire others to tackle this most daunting and pivotal of questions.
In order to properly answer this question, we must first look at Civilization itself, at its structures and methods of domination, hierarchy, and control, at its myths and narratives. The second part of this essay will do just that. Then, in each of the subsequent parts, we’ll take the information discussed in Part 2 – the structures and methods of Civilized power, i.e., the shit that makes Civ function- and explore how best to oppose, destroy, and supplant those structures.