Red Feminism in the Age of Neoliberalism – Part 5: On Anarcho-primitivism

By Emily Eisner

Continued from Part 4: Rejecting Anarchism

Followed by Part 6: A Marxism Against Gender

On Anarcho-Primitivism

More and more we are immersed in a postmodern ethos of appearances, images, and veneers. Everyone can feel the nothingness, the void, just beneath the surface of everyday routines and securities.

John Zerzan, Elements of Refusal [118]

Anarcho-primitivism encompasses the most totalizing criticism of current human society. It argues that the beginning of history and civilization, with the key development of agriculture, marks the start of human oppression, patriarchy, and all social hierarchy. Like liberal anarchists, primitivists value individual liberty and autonomy, but realize that the actualization of a stateless communism requires the abandonment of complex, globalized industrialism and the readoption of a primitive human society. Unlike “promethean” anarchists who believe there is “a contradiction between technology’s positive nature in principle and its dominating nature in practice, that is, . . . inserted into capitalist relations of production,” anarcho-primitivists criticize technology as part of a “‘maximalist’ anarchist critique of hierarchical civilisation, and of its His-story of domination and destruction from the beginnings of domestication, agriculture and the state.” [119] Anarcho-primitivism rarely offers a prescription for its actualization beyond the rejection of approbation of various primitivist actions against “the Leviathan.” [120] However, many theorists have deep insights into the nature and origins of systems of domination that cannot be ignored or dismissed by contemporary communists. Not all anticapitalists who endorse a critique of civilization support primitivism, despite all this. This is a line we will pick up shortly.

As Uri Gordon describes in his summary of anarcho-primitivist ideology, there is are “very strong political, ecological and emotional concerns over industrialism, technology and hyper-modernity.” [121] This is true. Anti-civ anarchists emphasize the emotional damage that domination and hierarchy inflict on human beings, more so than traditional Marxists. “Marxists have, by way of contrast, historically been far too preoccupied with the labor process and productivism as the center of their theorizing,” wrote David Harvey, “often treating the politics of realization in the living space as secondary and daily life issues as contingent and even derivative of the mode of production.” [122] For anarcho-primitivists, the politics and emotional bankruptcy of modern industrial and postindustrial daily life are one of the primary and most easily identifiable symptoms of “the pathology of civilization.” John Zerzan, a prominent anarcho-primitivist theorist, lamented the “pathological state of modern society: outbursts of mass homicide, an ever more drug-reliant populace, amid a collapsing physical environment.” [123] The pathological descriptor is not merely a metaphor. He added that tuberculosis, malaria, and diarrheal disease did not emerge until agriculture, that plagues and pandemics require cities, nutritional diseases are caused by the restricted diets brought by staple-food agriculture, and that dental degeneration, cancer, and anemia are all “hallmarks of agriculture.” [124]

This is not alienation and degeneracy that can be solved by communalizing anything. Zerzan broadens his criticism of civilization to a critique of the origin of human disembodiment and removal from nature, according to him: symbolic thought, written language, ritual, and religion.

Problems introduced by complexity or hierarchy have never been resolved by symbolic means. What is overcome symbolically remains intact on the non-symbolic (real) plane. Division of labor for instance, eroded face-to-face interaction and eroded people’s direct, intimate relationship with the natural world. . . Life becomes fragmented; connections to nature are obscured and dissolved. . . . Symbolic thought turns people in the wrong direction: toward abstraction. . . Symbolic culture demands that we reject our “animal nature” in favor of a symbolically defined “human nature”. [125]

Our species-alienation cannot be fully solved with a decrease of daily labor as Kropotkin hoped, or with a collectivization of production. “Daily labor–routine, repetitive motions for long hours at a time–is at the heart of [the worker’s] being,” “there is a central core of nonlivingness in [the worker.]” [126] Animals in farms, cages, and corrals get depressed. Horses in stables can develop harmful habits out of boredom if left without toys for too long. Humans are animals, too. Primitivism takes a rejection of human exceptionalism to its logical conclusion. We must be animals again.

Criticizing civilization does not need to entail a primitivist goal or idealization. Anarchist Wolfi Landstreicher catches the inherent hypocrisy and amaterialism of primitivism as a political program.

The ideology of a past Golden Age is at best pure speculation. . . Although [primitivists] may avoid the accusation of a hypocritical use of science for their own convenience in this way, they do not escape the problem of basing their perspective on an external ideal. In fact, these primitivists have simply revived the humanist ideology with a twist: “primal” human nature becomes the “real” self we must discover and strive to attain. Being a form of humanism, this perspective is moral in its essence. It attempts to provide a basis for revolution without class struggle by replacing this with “primal war”, but since the latter has its basis in our alleged “primal nature”, and not in our actual confrontation with the circumstances the present world has imposed on us, it is simply a moral ideal of how revolution “should” come about. [127]

In the same anti-civilization anthology containing Zerzan’s rejection of all agriculture, James Axtell praises the open, communal, plant-based agricultural practices of Native Americans from the northeast. [128] Selective praise by Westerners of indigenous practices to reinforce idealist politics is not uncommon.

In a similar vein, radical feminism criticizes as colonialist the contemporary transgender movement’s co-optation of various indigenous gender practices from around the world and lumping of them under their own constructed banner of “trans”. Landstreicher is a voice of reason:

However, there is one very significant lesson we can learn from examining what is known about non-civilized people. Civilization has shown itself to be a homogenizing process. This becomes especially clear now that a single civilization has come to dominate the globe. It could even lead one to believe in a set human nature. But looking at what we know about non-civilized people, it becomes clear that there are vast varieties of ways that humans can live in this world, endless possibilities for relating with oneself, each other and the surrounding environment. [129]

Primitivism is lambasted and loathed by communists partly because of this abandonment of class struggle, and partly because of the implications of a deep ecological or animalistic viewpoint. The latter was apparent when the Austin based Maoist collective Red Guards Austin condemned anyone who promoted “one of the most vile theories that flies under the flag of anarchism,” because it is “in practice trans-antagonistic and antagonistic to the struggle for an end to disability.” [130] Primitivism’s ability or desire to abandon class struggle is also both a symptom and cause of its popularity in the West. For the materially oppressed, no matter how psychologically miserable modern life is, waiting for the apocalypse to free them of civilization is not an appealing option. Like insurrectionism, this is both unproductive and idealist. “Much of the rhetoric these days about the ‘coming insurrection’ (announced by The Invisible Committee (2009) in 2007 in France but yet to materialize) is just that: rhetoric.” [131] To paraphrase David Harvey, self-liberation through adoption of a primitivist lifestyle is “all well and good, but what about everyone else?” [132]

Some anti-civ anarchists reject Zerzan and primitivists’ amaterialism and lack of analytical depth. It is from this position that a materialist, Marxist analysis can take hold. “Declaring [time, language, and symbolic thought] to be the source of our problem involves forgetting that they originate in social relationships, in real or perceived needs and desires developing between people” under economies of accumulation and market exchange. [133] While it is refreshing to see that these words came from another self-described anarchist under the pen-name Wolfi Landstreicher, it still does not address anarchism’s fundamental lack of feasible means for altering social relationships and its over-valuation of the individual.

Landstreicher understands that how the fact that the capitalist mode of production organizes society into groups relative to one another (although he still emphasizes the individual) lies behind and alongside all oppressions, especially the primitivist foci of ecocide, patriarchy, modern misery and decadence, etc.

These social relationships make us dependent upon a massive technological system over which we have no control. And the physical harm of this system — the poisoning of rivers, the irradiating of food, the spread of toxic chemicals and engineered genetic material everywhere — is integral to its existence. [134]

He calls out the evangelism and moralism of primitivist theorists, upholding fantastical Christian ideology under a new banner–replacing Eden with primitivism, the moral ideal with humanity’s true animal nature, Armageddon with the fall of civilization. “Defining wildness as a model turns it into a moral value that stands above us and our daily struggles.”[135] This is an easy trap to fall into when exploring the origins of domination and oppression, the fantasy of an ideal world that once was, that can give us a model for our future. Especially for feminists, we must remind ourselves to step out of the fantasy and acknowledge that even though patriarchy has not always been this severe everywhere, a perfectly feminist world has never existed. And if it did, it would be as much a construction of contemporary anthropologists’ minds as it was based on fact.

Landstreicher’s push for a revolutionary anti-civilization politics bridges an incredible amount of ground between the seemingly polar extremes of primitivism and Marxism, without going all the way. He remains enamored with anarchism’s everyday decentralized revolution. He sees that materialism and a basis of the social relations of production are necessary for revolution, without venturing to embrace a historical materialist praxis for changing those social relations. He even speaks to the necessity of education about revolutionary history, presumably speaking about the numerous Marxist-Leninist revolutionary successes and not merely the few anarchist revolutions of modern history that upon closer inspection function in a rather authoritarian manner. “A critical encounter with the revolutionary past is too useful a tool to give up in the battle against this civilized world. Each of these struggles can be seen as part of an unfinished social war,” or in Marxist terms, the material dialectic of history, “in which knowledge of the aim and the enemy become gradually clearer, but only if we encounter and wrestle critically with this past, rather than seeking a mythical past to use as an ideal.” [136] Despite this assertion, he goes on to admit that anarchism does not have any past revolution to base their strategy on, but that this is a good thing. Despite calling for the rearrangement of social relations to full communism, which is the end goal of Marxist socialism when it is free to progress unantagonised by Western capitalist imperialist competition, and despite its historical successes to learn from, he refuses to entertain Leninist revolution as a viable strategy. After reprimanding the primitivists for their wanton fantasization about the decay of civilization, and being aware of the level of technology and production which the Earth’s population currently depends on, he wrote that it is unfathomable to “talk of seizing the current means of production for any purpose other than destroying them.”[137] He does not mean to destroy the bourgeois state apparatus, but the factories and farms themselves. How vast of a difference can there be between men who wait for the decay of civilization and those who go make it decay faster by blowing up the means of production?

Teresa Ebert, criticizing contemporary ecofeminist writers heavily influenced by the poststructuralist philosophy of our neoliberal era, explained that

They essentialize technology and growth as in-and-of-themselves destructive, not seeing that it is a question of the uses of technology and growth for profit, rather than to meet human needs, that is the fundamental problem. As a result it is technology that is said to be the problem, rather than capitalism. . .[138]

The fact that technology has been alienating and oppressive to laborers since it has been used to maximize extracted surplus value in slave-owning, feudal, and capitalist societies is lost on critics of technology. Subconsciously, however, primitivists must be aware of this difference, because they simultaneously decry all agriculture while praising indigenous societies that used sustainable agriculture in the context of egalitarian social relations. This brings us to a necessity of a political framework beyond primitivism while learning from its concerns.


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Endnotes for this section: [118-138]

118. Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal. Columbia MO: Columbia Alternative Library, 1999. 1.

119. Gordon, Uri, “Defining a broad-based anarchist politics of technology,” Anarchism and political theory: contemporary problems. The Anarchist Library. 2007. Web. Emphasis mine.

120. Perlman, Fredy. Against His-story, against Leviathan!: An Essay. Detroit: Black & Red, 1983.

121. Gordon, Uri, “Defining a broad-based anarchist politics of technology.”

122. Harvey, David. “Listen, Anarchist!” June 10, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2016.

123. Zerzan, John. Twilight of the Machines. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House, 2008. vii.

124. Zerzan, John. “Elements of Refusal.” Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House, 2005. 72.

125. Zerzan, John. Twilight of the Machines. 7.

126. Shepard, Paul. “Nature and Madness.” Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House, 2005. 78.

127. Landstreicher, Wolfi. “What is a revolutionary critique of civilization in the realm of ideas?” Barbaric Thoughts: On a Revolutionary Critique of Civilization. The Anarchist Library. Web. February 10, 2010.

128. Axtell, James. “The invasion within: the conquest of cultures in colonial North America,” Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections. Los Angeles, CA: Feral House, 2005.

129. Landstreicher, Wolfi. “What is a revolutionary critique of civilization in the realm of ideas?” Barbaric Thoughts: On a Revolutionary Critique of Civilization.

130. Red Guards Austin. “Criticism of the Unprincipled Actions of the MonkeyWrench Books Collective.” Red Guards Austin. WordPress. July 22, 2016. Accessed November 20, 2016.

131. Harvey, David. “Listen, Anarchist!”

132. Ibid.

133. Landstreicher, Wolfi. “What is a revolutionary critique of civilization in the realm of ideas?” Barbaric Thoughts: On a Revolutionary Critique of Civilization.

134. Ibid.

135. Ibid.

136. Ibid.

137. Ibid.

138. Ebert, Teresa. “Toward a Red Feminism.”