This is a much belated response to an article by anarcho-primitivist blogger Nihilo Zero, who was writing in response to an essay I wrote about anarchy and the BP oil spill.
I must say, first and foremost, that the response will hopefully spark something seemingly uncommon in the anarchist milieu: civil discourse amongst those who reach different anti-authoritarian conclusions. To be sure, there should be a healthy pluralism; homogeneity has more than simply authoritarian connotations. What still attracts me so, to anarchism/ anarchy, is that it has evolved into a macro critique of domination. And delegated boxes of homogeneity, to which we are confined, are a big part of this critique. Hence, when we speak of all-encompassing financial markets, spaces where we are permitted to do certain things but not others, with orders from above, it’s more than analogous to being delegated to gender binaries, or sexual orientations as Jamie Heckert has so wonderfully articulated, or people who perceive the world or move around in space differently than the majority being delegated to certain normative behaviors, etc.
So, if anarchism becomes a space in which certain tendencies are tolerated, and others are determined fraudulent by an informal leadership, I suppose you can count me out, and this philosophy has become antithetical to itself.
I still argue it isn’t anything of the sort. I must mention I’m relatively new to anarchist thought; I came to the conclusion that I identify with anarchist principles only a few years back, after dabbling briefly with Marxism. So maybe I lack many of the preconceived notions that individuals who’ve been in the movement 20-plus years have.
As Deric Shannon points out, there should obviously be some disqualifying elements to individuals who identify with the broader anarchist movement; he mentions the racist wingnuts who call themselves national anarchists, and the so-called “anarcho”-capitalists, with the latter already being discussed ad nauseam within the milieu. I would go a step further and say that reduction would disqualify someone from being anti-authoritarian; if one can’t acknowledge queer struggle, or female-bodied individual’s struggle, or disregard people with so-called disability’s struggle, and merely acknowledge capitalism as the only form of oppression, or the State, it’s questionable, in my view, as to whether this is anarchism. And vice versa. If one completely writes off class-struggle as old hat leftism, I see this too, as highly problematic. But again, I’m not the gatekeeper, and there seems to be room under the tent for any genuine anti-authoritarians / people concerned with “power-over” social relations, and hierarchy, on a macro scale.
But whether or not we prefigure a world which utilizes a certain amount of technology, or continues some degree of civilization, to me these are questions concerning the larger role of domination. Is civilization per se domination, or is it a natural development of human organization? Is civilization synonymous with exponential growth? And if we quell exponential growth in some way, so as to acknowledge that civilization growing outwards like a cancer is not compatible with finite ecosystems, will this then be a post-civilization society?
While I cannot offer easy answers to these loaded questions, I can say this: as someone who still doesn’t have a problem identifying as a social anarchist, I see merit in some of the primitivist critique. There’s no need for me to denounce folks like Nihilo, based on the merit that we reach different conclusions. Before I address some of the specific points Nihilo makes, I want to bring up the point that not all social anarchists are simply techno-optimists; we are not entirely ambivalent about technology, industrial agriculture, or civilization. Anti-civilization critiques, too, are useful to me, insomuch as I can deconstruct it and pull out what’s useful. After all, isn’t this the best we can do with any social theory/ philosophy? To accept any theory in the hard or social sciences, or any philosophy hook, line, and sinker, smacks of dogmatism, which is why I’m thankful for thinkers like Derrida and Foucault, and postanarchist thought. Anarchism, or anything else for that matter, shouldn’t be sacred.
Hence, I am skeptical about any techno-solutions, technology proper, big civilization, and downright oppose industrial agriculture, in favor of ultra-decentralized permaculture, functioning within localized gift economies (if we want to slow down the death of the planet in any meaningful sense). The expansion of urban areas with no end in sight, essentially turning the planet into a parking lot, even if it’s covered with solar panels and windmills, won’t benefit any life form, from prokaryotes to primates, on the planet. And while we’re currently living in ecological crisis, at the rate we’re going, we are certainly fucked. If we do not move backwards while looking forward, we’re going to rely on the same Western-centric, Enlightenment principles-soaked fetishization of “science” and “rationality” that got us into this mess in the first place. And if we do not start listening to people who, for thousands and thousands of years, have had a spiritual connection with the land and the planet, and in most ways, a much more sophisticated understanding of ecology, we’re doomed to repeat the Industrial Revolutions’ mistakes over, and over, and over again.
I do not think the whole of technology is something for which we can sensibly be ambivalent, or agnostic about. The notion that technology proper is something that can be utilized for either noble endeavors, or for tyrants to kill people, is a bit too simplistic. This misses the point that the overwhelming majority of what’s called “science” in the West, and what is determined technology, involves environmental extractions of finite resources. Hence, whether we’re doing wonderful things like curing cancer, or wretched things like dropping nuclear bombs on innocent people, we’re still extracting from the finite environment.
That said, I’m not about to make an argument that we should have some kind of zero-sum ecological footprint, as if such practices are possible. So, while I’m certainly skeptical of civilization as we currently know it, and hyper-techno advances in the name of “humanity,” I’m also skeptical of the notion that it’s even possible to entirely move away from using technology, but civilization? In regards to the latter, I would argue we must quell exponential expansion to sustain the planet, and this is essentially what “civilization” refers to. So it seems low-tech (but “tech” to a certain degree, to be sure), coupled with decentralization and local autonomy, could, in fact, quell this growth. It seems only natural that as anti-capitalists we would naturally be skeptical of civilization, but this isn’t always the case.
Moving back to anarcho-primitivism, it has never quite been homogenous; there’s been internal debates about the use of art, mathematics, and other symbolism, as well as the question of agriculture. So the critique that most social anarchists seem to make about primitivism is troublesome to begin with, since it’s not exactly a monolith (nor is social anarchism).
The bottom line is that, for the majority of folks that call themselves anarchists, the market and the State and governmental bureaucracies and prisons and centralization, are viewed as oppressive, totalitarian components of the society in which we live (there are exceptions in regards to markets; I acknowledge this). So, let’s see: a decentralized society, no bureaucracy, no markets, no currency, no governments, and localized autonomy. What this implies to me is that most anarchists want a, for lack of a better term, simplified society. Industrialization is something that, even for the non-primitivists, we would by default slow down tremendously. For this reason, one would think we wouldn’t completely write off all anarchists that are anti-civilization, or who reject technology in its totality. For folks who want a decentralized, non-bureaucratic stateless society without markets, i.e., a “simplified” life (not to mention the anarchist critique of work in itself), one would think we all might find useful elements of a theory that suggests re-wilding, or abolishing more than the State and the economic apparatus in which it keeps on life support. Think about the endless analysis anarchists have found useful from Marxism, without, of course, becoming Marxists.
I wanted to preface the issues I take with Nihilo’s analysis before I get into it vis-a-vis the article to which he initially responded. I also hope this assures the reader that this is not another banal critique of primitivism with the usual suspects, i.e., it’s irrational, it’s genocidal, etc. While I should make it perfectly clear primitivist thought ain’t my bag, it’s also not my bag to use hackneyed criticisms that seemingly have little merit.
Specific Issues Nihilo Brings Up
Nihilo starts off by saying that the conditions for which I speak are “somewhat ideal.” I find this surprising. In fact, the article gained praise from fellow primitivist John Zerzan; he seemed to understand that I wasn’t making a traditional anarcho-communist argument, or as a leftist, or a social anarchist argument, but an argument for anarchy, i.e., a classless, self-managing society, without any rulers or hierarchy, in a more general sense. Primitivists, at least that I’ve read, make similar anthropological arguments that I might make to defend anarchism/ anarchy: most of human history has consisted of stateless societies, self-organizing autonomous communities that governed themselves (and many that still do) in a decentralized manner. While this may sound perfectly ideal, it’s also a historical observation about the way in which people organize without rulers or markets to dictate their lives.
I wasn’t saying what we need is a rigid plan to save all of humanity; I was making the point that the majority of the population, who without rulers, would likely have more autonomy over their lives, and make decisions about the land they use, rather than CEOs or politicians. And I was making the argument that those that own the means of production can afford to act suicidal and destroy the communities of others, when it doesn’t directly affect them in real time. In a true state of anarchy, obviously people would be incapable of such things. Otherwise, if there were some kind of warlords, or bullies who were bruiting abroad, doing as they wish to other folks’ communities, then this certainly wouldn’t be anarchy.
Nihilo also claims that what I suggest in the article in question, is that all people would get along, and vote similarly in an egalitarian society. Not so. First, I’ve been candid about majoritarian voting: I do not perceive it to be compatible with anarchism. I know this is contentious, and the details of this can be hashed out later, but I wanted to make the point that I am of the mind that majoritarian “democracy” is hierarchical and, in fact, authoritarian (you may send your hatemail directly to me, by the way). So, I didn’t mention anyone voting on anything.
There are a number of different techniques groups can informally reach consensus. Decentralized groups without social hierarchies, typically make decisions using some variant of consensus. I couldn’t give a good reason to romanticize one way to do it in particular, but there are some commonalities that differentiate consensus from voting: (1) the process doesn’t assume there will be a competition between radically different factions within a group, with whatever majority wins deciding things, (2) and consensus also assumes that a compromise will be made between participating members. Most consensus processes also include the power for one individual to block the decision, insofar as the decision stands diametrically opposed to the community or organization. Hence, this process, in all of its various forms, from completely informal to highly formalized, empowers group dynamics and the individual, unlike majoritarian voting.
Nihilo also says that “even free people in a far more egalitarian society could make horrible mistakes.” I certainly wouldn’t suggest otherwise. I guess the connotation here is that I suggested this in the article in question, which is a misunderstanding if so. What I suggest is that, from the bottom-up, self-managed communities that share responsibilities and decision-making power, are more likely to make decisions that do not destroy said communities and the surrounding environments. Take the example of Somalia, the failed state in Africa. The global bourgeoisie is treating the coastal waters like an aqua-landfill, dumping toxic waste off the coastal waters of Somalia, in turn killing off fisheries and destroying the means by which many Somalis make a living (i.e., fishing).
Western economic elites certainly wouldn’t do this in their own communities. In turn, their wealth is being expropriated by de-facto anarchist pirates, large vessels being hijacked by grassroots ex-fishermen in speedboats with AK 47s. If this isn’t poetic justice, I don’t know what is. But it’s doubtful that Somalis would choose this fate for themselves. While they are showing self-governance by taking part in direct action and expropriating the millions of dollars of ransom money from Western corporations and governments (and much to their admirable self-restraint, mostly nonviolently), it also shows communities with autonomy making more conscientious decisions for themselves, i.e., taking on the people who are destroying their community, instead of being complicit in the destruction.
But yes, certainly, it’s true, that self-governing communities are capable of re-establishing oppression, and environmental degradation. Again, I never implied this wasn’t a possiblity.
While I actually agree with a great deal of what Nihilo says in the article otherwise, the question of technology was bound to arise in Nihilo’s critique. Again, while not a primitivist, I primarily looked at societies that have “operated outside of what is called civilization.” Certainly a primitivist wouldn’t take issue with this, as the societies I mentioned largely live off of the land, do not operate in the authoritarian confines of markets, and lack industrialization. I chose to look at these stateless societies because they are still seemingly the best examples of self-governing, decentralized communities, that reach decisions without hierarchy or authority.
Yet, what I also mentioned is something I stand by: in a post-state/ capitalist society, in which communities had control over their own lives, some would choose to use technology en masse, whilst others would choose a more ecologically compatible existence, i.e., hunting and gathering, coupled with decentralized permaculture, or communes akin to eco-villages of present day (the writer acknowledges here that the ecovillage movement doesn’t seek to challenge capital in any meaningful way—there are anarchist connotations, however, like consensus decision-making, and real sustainability, coupled with autonomy). I must clarify here, and this is where the conversation gets tricky: when I speak of technophiles, the connotations are that I speak of people who will create weapons of mass destruction, and the like. Obviously, such a community would not be compatible with anarchy. There are certainly pro-technology anti-authoritarians that are against the existence nuclear weapons.
There’s no need to speak about what kind of technology might be utilized in a post-capitalist society; this would be decided by autonomous communities. But I imagine that with all of the hardware and residual crap developed through research and development, and then utilized by the bourgeoisie in order to earn surplus value, people will be tinkering with these gadgets, whether in pirated, off-the-grid ways, or creating new devices out of parts of all of this accumulated stuff, for a very long time to come. I’m not arguing that this is a good thing; there’s debris floating around in space, for god’s sake. There is litter, goods which have have built-in obsolescence and pieces of goods with built-in planned ob Hence, the notion that we could ever inhabit a world in which all of these techno gadgets disappear is, with respect, a bit idealistic.
So, I take the approach that technology will always be with us, whether utilized for wretched things, or noble endeavors. Now comes the differentiating factor from myself and a primitivist like Nihilo: I do perceive that horizontally-organized, autonomous communities, could harness a certain amount of technology, without destroying themselves, or the planet in the process. When I speak of “techno-topias,” this may consist of a community that harnesses solar energy, and utilizes all the leftover junk from market society to build elaborate networks of communication, etc. We might think of savvy, anti-authoritarian hackers voluntarily associating together. It’s doubtful that with all the knowledge they’ve acquired to combat the spectacle via the internet, or tapping into information systems to acquire information and sabotage the State, that they’ll completely jettison these tendencies in some hypothetical non-capitalist society. Should autonomous communities be free to be authoritarians? I would argue no. I guess Nihilo doesn’t see a possibility for a community of techno-geeks ever being benign, whereas I do.
Communities who are skeptical towards technology, which may embody individuals like Nihilo and hyper-techno-pessimists-who-aren’t-primitivists, myself included, and communities skeptical towards civilization, would be the assurance that tech junkies wouldn’t get out of control.
Nihilo correctly points out that it was the technologically-based society “ which has brought us Chernobyl, Nagasaki, and the potential for global thermonuclear war.” Certainly true. From here, many primitivists, including Nihilo, reach the conclusion that since technological advance could potentially destroy the entire planet, all technology should be abolished. We must remember how broad a category we’re discussing here. If a guitar is produced, or a toothbrush, or an abortion performed, is this anywhere near the same category as nuclear proliferation? Is the assumption that, in order to have a free society, we must abolish even those things in which we desire, even after planned obs disappears (which is only necessary if profit potential is available)? Might we be able to differentiate in some technology that has consequences (i.e., environmental degradation), but has beneficiaries for communities, insofar that this technology be utilized responsibly in a horizontal manner? Will a community be able to develop tools they need and desire, produce certain services like healthcare devices that assist in surgeries, without completely demolishing their environment, or developing weapons that could destroy the entire planet? I tend to be optimistic in this regard, another differentiating factor between primitivists like Nihilo and non-primitivists (not to be confused with anti-primitivists) like myself.
In this line of thinking, Nihilo mentions that seemingly harmless research can be utilized by tyrants and power to cause destruction and death. Here he discusses a recurring theme in the article: self restraint. Relying merely on self-restraint is not what I’m suggesting. Of course technological experimentation can be devastatingly dangerous. Here Nihilo seems to misunderstand my perceptions of communal autonomy. The connotation seems to be that I have suggested, per the article, that“the freedom to experiment in innate ignorance is more important to society than the grave threats potentially unleashed upon society.” Not so. I couldn’t think of a free society that would let individual groups do whatever they want, not considering the larger consequences of their actions.
This is, to me, what has been so attractive about the anarchist notion of autonomy, local control, coupled with federalism. From outside the milieu, many misunderstand local control and autonomy with no formal, federal government to suggest that communities could do whatever the hell they want, i.e., there may be fascist communities, warlords who plan to conquer surrounding communities, etc. This is, of course, not the case at all, and because webs of federalism would be promoted, such a community wouldn’t be tolerated. Hence, a community of technophiles that seeks to expand exponentially, or as Nihilo puts it, needs to extract more resources and dissect more things, wouldn’t be tolerated in such a hypothetical society. There would be no reason to tolerate them.
Because of this, it is unlikely that self-restraint would be the only motivating action influencing individuals, or individual groups, not to ravage the environment, build weapons that could destroy the planet, or attempt to expand civilization or technology exponentially. As I see it, it’s hard to imagine there wouldn’t be sanctions for such actions, even though we want a society without prisons or police (surely Nihilo and I would agree here!). What power-sharing, horizontalist, community would tolerate such actions? And if the community consists entirely of individuals who would want to perpetuate such models of endless expansion, nuclear warfare, and hyper technological advance (which I’m not naïve enough to think wouldn’t exist after some kind of revolutionary event), it would be surrounding communities’ responsibilities to combat this authoritarian convergence (this answers Nihilo’s question of what a primitivist segment of society must do to assure they do not become this). Different communities would, of course, create different means of resistance; it’s meaningless for me (or anyone, I’d argue) to tell us what resistance looks like, as groups of oppressed people have shown that they are adept at defining this themselves.
Nihilo critiques technology as being incompatible with anarchy for the reason it needs bureaucracy, leaders, and hierarchy. Science-fetishizing, techno-crazed societies certainly do require these things. But I’m not talking about this. Our main point of disagreement in the article can be summed up as this: I see it as a possibility that certain communities will utilize a certain amount of technology without destroying themselves or others, with respect for ecology, whereas Nihilo doesn’t see this as a possibility. I certainly think technology can be harnessed without leaders, hierarchy, or the division of labor. If we learn to harness solar energy in a meaningful way, for example, solar energy is doing most of the work. If solar panels are built to last, they are rarely built. An entire community could easily shape the way in which solar energy is utilized, how devices that harness solar energy is produced, and also has the final say in the decision-making process through face-to-face meetings, where details are hashed out. There’s no need for hierarchies, permanent divisions of labor, or leaders in this process.
Nihilo seems comfortable enough describing what will be the path to a “healthy and sustainable future,” i.e., insurrectionary anarchist tactics leading to a transition to primitivism. Insurrection as a tool in the toolbox is certainly something I’m enthusiastic about. But an assumption that successful insurrection would lead to a homogenous society is, again, idealistic. I wouldn’t want to assume that if insurrections coupled with general strikes, occupations, sabotage, social revolution, and general self-liberation, brings the spectacle to its knees, that the result would be one kind of society. I won’t make that assumption. This was my general creed in the article coming back to the premise of this essay: some communities will, without a doubt, reject the primitivist program outright, while some will be enthusiastic about it. Moving towards a more ecumenical anarchy, a more “big tent” program seems to be the way to go. This dialogue is important, as it allows us to explore the possibilities of life after capitalism, and compare different ideas and prefigurations.
I was initially attracted to Marxism after I realized that social democracy and liberalism was a dead-end; capitalism, I discovered, was an ominous machine that sees us, the international proletarian, as so much fodder.
I eventually moved to the left of Marx, finding an anarchism a more well-rounded critique of authority, including the State, capital, patriarchy, familial relations, prisons/ police, heteronormativity, etc. Whereas anarchism seeks the no national borders, my hope is that this project rejects philosophical or theoretical borders, as well. We should not only question how we do politics or economics; we should question how we have sex, gentrification and race, how people are confined to groups with norms in regards to their age or how they perceive the world (i.e., people with so-called disabilities), how we interact with children, how we love each other, what to do about biodeterminism in regards to gender binaries, and how exactly we will transform ourselves and find liberation in real time. This is my hope for anarchism, that we can move beyond the so-called great thinkers and theorists, thrive off of our diversity, and not settle for official ideology. In this regard, comrades can dialogue about anti-civilization solutions and the Platform, or primitivism vis-a-vis social ecology. If you look at the big picture of both CrimethInc and the IWW, they’re both ultimately trying to create the new world in the here-and-now, whereas some try to paint them as being lifestylists and class struggle anarchists (i.e., syndicalists), respectively.
And I’ll close by saying I’m not a social anarchist in the traditional sense, so as to differentiate myself from the “lifestylist”; the late Murray Bookchin’s vitriol seems a bit unprecedented. Drop-outs, freaks, and pagans have plenty to offer, as do primitivists. We need a robust critique of capital and the State; we need class struggle. But equally important, we need a critique of endlessly expanding cityscapes, endless technological development, and environmental destruction, not to mention bourgeois, puritan concepts of morality. Green anarchists, anti-civ thinkers, and primitivists, comrades like Nihilo Zero, are invaluable here. Hopefully the civil dialogue can continue; I feel it’s a necessity in the anarchist milieu.