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Other Ideologies: Primitivism

Updated: Aug 8, 2020

by Brian Click

Socialists and liberals dream of making progressive change in society. Conservatives speak of preserving past glories. Champions of organized Green politics want to build a sustainable future for us all. Unspoken in all these goals is one basic assumption: that a human civilization is a nice thing to have.

For some dedicated anarchists, though, the costs of a technologically advanced mass society aren’t worth the benefits. Civilization inherently involves the loss of personal freedom, the unfair subjugation of non-human forms of life, or resource consumption on a scale that will doom the planet. The only solution is to abandon it all in favor of a feral society of hunter-gatherers.

This is a fringe idea even by the standards of this series. Sure, there’s a bit of an intellectual tradition behind it: imagining primitive states of nature is a habit as old as political philosophy and has given us some of its best one-liners. Likewise, thinkers from Thoreau to Gandhi have questioned whether technological progress is synonymous with human well-being. Primitivism in the sense we’re talking about here, though, doesn’t really appear until the late twentieth century, and it’s remained on the margins since then. But that doesn't mean it lacks alternate history potential.

In 1972, University of Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins published a paper on “The Original Affluent Society.” Sahlins was a man of his times; he was a Vietnam War tax protester, had been present in Paris during the revolutionary upheaval of May 1968, and is credited with coining the term “teach-in.” He was also fascinated by hunter-gatherer cultures.

Anthropologists of the time, inspired primarily by the !Kung of southern Africa, were coming around to the idea that a pre-agricultural lifestyle need not be one of constant toil and starvation. Sahlins went a step further. He argued that not only were hunter-gatherers’ lives not desperate, they were downright abundant. In the cases he studied, the food supply was consistent and bountiful, and questing for it took up little time – as little as “three to five hours per adult worker per day.” Starvation was not a concern and leisure was a way of life. To Sahlins, the notion that scarcity was a new ill posed a challenge to contemporary capitalist society.

A revisionist anthropological treatise is an unlikely starting gun for a movement, but “The Original Affluent Society” came at just the right moment. This was the tail end of the Sixties, and for many people, technological society had become synonymous with war, pollution, and the nuclear Sword of Damocles hanging over the planet. In the UK, a group of leading scientists and economists co-signed a text called A Blueprint for Survival. Drafted by conservationist Edward Goldsmith, it suggested that deindustrialization and population control might be the only way to prevent ecological collapse. Goldsmith was inspired by hunter-gatherer anthropology, and his work became a foundational text of a new, misanthropic brand of environmentalism known as “deep ecology.”

In this zeitgeist, low-tech or no-tech movements began to spring up independently. The most infamous of these is probably MOVE, a political cult based in West Philadelphia that combined black power with militant animal-rights activism and a total rejection of anthropocentrism. Under the instruction of leader John Africa, MOVE members swore off meat and drugs, demolished driveways to “let the earth breathe,” and taught their children from a homemade curriculum that excluded literacy. They soon became locked in a cycle of violent confrontations with neighbors and the authorities, culminating a fatal police siege in 1985.

MOVE was not inspired by the new scholarly consensus on hunter-gatherers, but it’s an illustration of what was in the air during the 1970s. As the Revolution failed to materialize and the New Left went the way of the Old, some disillusioned activists concluded that civilization was beyond saving.

Green Parties were beginning to emerge by this point, and deep ecologists like Edward Goldsmith and Norway’s Arne Næss were intimately involved in their foundation. Goldsmith himself stood for Parliament in 1974 as a candidate for PEOPLE, a party based largely on A Blueprint for Survival. However, despite a colorful campaign involving hippies dressed up as camel-riding Arabs, PEOPLE was a flop, and its successor the Ecology Party eventually struck Goldsmith’s tribal society from the program.

In 1980, the German Greens promulgated their Four Pillars – social justice, ecological wisdom, grassroots democracy, and non-violence – and set the template for similar groups around the globe. Primitivism and deep ecology slowly faded from partisan Green politics. Today, almost every Green Party of significance has adopted a variation on the electorally successful German model: positioned on the liberal left, theoretically focused on social justice and sustainability, and committed to the peaceful reform of civilization rather than its demise.

Alternate historians may wonder what would have happened if the German Greens had never taken off. There were deeply suspect people involved in the party early on, including ex-Nazis and apologists for pedophilia. If Die Grünen had been sunk by scandal, would we see a broader array of Green thought represented in politics today?

Instead, things took an extra-parliamentary route. In the American West, a group called Earth First! began to make headlines with their calls for “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth.” EF! principles held that “All life forms, from virus to the great whales, have an inherent and equal right to existence” and that human domination of the planet was illegitimate. Members engaged in direct action against the timber industry, occupying treetops and driving spikes into trunks – intending to dissuade logging through the threat of hideous mill accidents. These extreme tactics achieved some real goals: they brought international attention to the plight of old-growth forests and made other environmentalists look moderate by comparison. EF! contributed to a sea change in American forest policy, away from farming timber as a commodity and towards protecting ecosystems. Copycat groups sprung up worldwide.

The Earth First! insignia: a monkey wrench for industrial sabotage, crossed with a stone mattock.

EF!’s leaders didn’t call themselves primitivists, but they made no secret of their take on civilization. Founder Dave Foreman spoke of the Pleistocene Epoch as a time when human beings “knew their proper place in the world,” and coined the term “rewilding” to describe their goals. Many of the rank and file, however, tended to identify with anarchism rather than deep ecology. Foreman and his intellectual godfather Edward Abbey were staunch neo-Malthusians and opposed immigration (in Abbey’s case, in nastily racist terms), among other positions anathema to the left, and the group was riven by internal dissent. Foreman was ousted in 1990, and under Judi Bari’s leadership EF! abandoned tree spiking and oriented itself towards broader left-wing politics as well as wilderness defense.

During the 1990s, the group faded in prominence, but it continued to spin off more militant splinters. Members of the Earth Liberation Front and other eco-saboteur cells torched new-build McMansions, firebombed fast-food franchises, cut power lines, and destroyed ski lifts. The ELF found sympathizers, and a venue to post their communiques, in the nascent primitivist movement.

As Earth First! planted their spikes, a writer named John Zerzan had been converting Marshall Sahlins’s anthropological work into an “anarcho-primitivist” manifesto. Zerzan had been a Haight-Ashbury hippie and had gone on to a career as a social worker, union organizer, and polemicist, but his enthusiasm for politics had begun to falter. His discovery of hunter-gatherer anthropology was a revelation. Synthesizing Sahlins’s writings with dozens of other anthropological studies, Zerzan concluded that not only were hunter-gatherers affluent, their lives were downright utopian.

A hunter-gatherer’s life was “largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health,” he argued. “This was our human nature, for a couple of million years, prior to our enslavement by priests, kings, and bosses.” Global rewilding and a reversion to a feral state – done gradually, of course, to avoid billions of people dying at once – could restore this idyllic world. The loss of modern medicine would be no loss at all, since most of our contemporary ailments such as heart disease spring from our sedentary habits and poor diet. (Primitivists struggle to answer what would happen to people whose illnesses or disabilities aren’t lifestyle-related.)

Even among green anarchists, this was obscure and easily dismissed stuff. Then came the Unabomber.

In 1969, a young geometry professor named Theodore Kaczynski had decided that a future in academia offered nothing but miserable confinement. Quitting his job, Kaczynski escaped to an off-grid cabin in rural Montana and settled into a life of hunting and foraging in the woods. Within a few years, however, his blessed solitude was impinged upon by real estate development, and he concluded that it was impossible to live free in industrial society.

The famous FBI composite sketch of the Unabomber.

For seventeen years, Kaczynski waged a one-man bombing campaign against technology. He became known as the Unabomber after his first two targets – universities and airlines. By 1995, the Unabomber had killed three people, and the FBI was no closer to tracking him down. When he offered to cease his campaign if his manifesto was printed, law enforcement jumped at the opportunity. Industrial Society and Its Future appeared on newsstands across America.

Kaczynski’s primitivism drew more on Nietzsche than on anthropology. Today’s epidemic of mental illness and self-loathing, he claimed, is a consequence of our “oversocialized” and overly comfortable lives. Because we don't struggle for survival, we pour the energy and drive that once was directed towards obtaining food and shelter into frivolous “surrogate activities” like consumerism, sports, and writing alternate history. None of these satisfy our innate need for power over our own destiny. Reforming the industrial machine is impossible and it will continue to grow more complex and repressive. The only choice we have is to destroy all organization-dependent technology, leaving behind nothing that cannot be maintained by a small village community.

Kaczynski’s brother recognized his idiosyncratic writing style and turned him in. The long manhunt and the surprising lucidity of his manifesto made his trial a sensation, and he received a flood of letters from admirers. The “Unabomber Political Action Committee” drafted him as a write-in candidate for President. Inevitably, he was contacted by the anarcho-primitivists.

John Zerzan admired the Unabomber’s principles but expressed some discomfort with deadly violence. For his part, Kaczynski rejected the term “anarcho-primitivism” and the vision of an idyllic life of leisure and equality before civilization. Not only were such notions bound to attract – ugh – leftists into the movement, they were probably ahistorical. Primitive life was nasty, brutish, and short, but it was free, and that made it all worthwhile. Nevertheless, the two had enough in common to establish a working relationship, and Kaczynski’s jailhouse essays began to appear in the anarcho-primitivist press.

The arrest of the Unabomber corresponded with the height of eco-terrorist paranoia. Future histories and techno-thrillers of the period, such as Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, portrayed radical environmentalists as the new threat to Western capitalism. The authorities concurred. In March 2001, the FBI designated the Earth Liberation Front as the top domestic terror threat. Primitivist authors were among those surveilled and subpoenaed in the hunt for ELF.

In a world where 9/11 never took place, would eco-terrorists rather than al-Qaeda continue to be America’s boogeyman? Conversely, might primitivism be seen by civilization’s discontents as the only hope for change in the endless End of History?

Today, anti-civilization ideas are incredibly marginal. Outside a small handful of authors and academics it can barely be said to exist as a movement. We’ve never come close to abandoning civilization, and barring nuclear war, we probably never will. But fringe ideologies can shape history in their own subtle ways.

Along with their cousins the deep ecologists, primitivists have introduced once-radical ideas into the popular imagination. Large-scale rewilding projects have gained traction with mainstream environmentalists and conservation biologists as a model for climate change mitigation. The notion that agriculture meant worse food is now well-known, and the paleo diet, which allegedly reproduces hunter-gatherer cuisine, is a staple of lifestyle magazines and daytime TV.

The past few years have seen a growing awareness that massive social change will be needed in order to prevent climate catastrophe and biosphere collapse. In our timeline, this seems to be taking the route of state investment in clean power and transit – witness the proposed Green New Deal in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn’s call for a “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” both of which draw rhetorically from the German Energiewende. If things had gone differently, could we be hearing proposals for rewilding and de-growth instead? For the dedicated alternate historian, there are ideas everywhere, even in the most wild and wooly corners of political ideology.



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