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Primitivism, an Illusion with No Future

Zerzan the psychoanalyst puts industrial society on the couch. We have Zerzan the critic of culture, Zerzan the Phenomenologist, Zerzan the Heideggerian Existentialist, Zerzan the Postmodernist cynic. Which of them is real? Peeling off the layers, somewhere near the core of it, we find Marcuse.

By Steven Booth, Editor of the original (UK) Green Anarchist magazine
Primitivism, an Illusion with No Future
Primitivism, an Illusion with No Future
Primitivism, an Illusion with No Future

This is a heavily edited version, for brevity. The full text, with extensive footnotes and references, is available on the UK Green Anarchist website.

By Steven Booth, Editor of the original (UK) Green Anarchist magazine.

Presently burning out in the US, Primitivism is a mess of bankrupt ideological illusions. As radical theory it is worthless. As the pretended path out of the globalized torture house, it offers us nothing more substantial than a mirage for our final destination.

Lacking ethics, Primitivist initiatives have stalled. Primitivists are eager to claim ideological influence over the Black-Bloc militant anti-globalization protesters, but do the Black-Bloc activists see it the same way? Are they being hijacked? Just who is taking whom for a ride? This pamphlet is written in seven sections; explaining the background for why this is being written and then moving on to define Primitivism. Primitivism is related to Modernism and Postmodernism. The thinking of John Zerzan, the Unabomber and John Moore is analysed.

Ten Primitivist themes are discussed - Civilization, primitive affluence, Primitivist spirituality, hostility to leftism, Zero Work, technology as an enmeshed system. Primitivist denials that it is an ideology are followed by more discussion of Postmodernism, symbolization, and then Primitivist poetry and myth. Section six looks at legitimate and illegitimate criticisms of Primitivism, including Home's Green Apocalypse, David Watson's 'Swamp Fever' and possible Primitivist links with the 'Darker Side of Romanticism' are examined in detail. Lastly radical alternatives to Primitivism are offered.

This booklet conclusively shows how Primitivist ideology is empty, irrelevant and unable to bring any lasting benefit to the radical protest movement, nor to the wider society. Anyone pushing Primitivism is doomed to political failure. Readers of this booklet are urged to have nothing to do with it.

Primitivism is not a single, unitary entity, but a group of competing or complementary ideologies which express hostility towards, or are critical of civilization, technology, science and industry. Within this loose grouping of beliefs, Anarcho-Primitivism, the central focus of this pamphlet, is an individualistic, Postmodern form of anarchist political theory.

In answer to the question 'What is wrong with society?'Primitivists focus on technology. Technology, following Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, is understood as an interconnected, unified whole. "Technology cannot be otherwise than totalitarian." - Ellul, Technological Society, p 125. We cannot separate the bad parts from the good, and consequently, it all has to go. No single part of it can be left, for otherwise, this slavery would soon reassert itself. The Luddites are looked up to as having a correct appreciation of the implications of technology.

A recurring theme is the 'primitive affluence' material drawn from the work of the radical anthropologists Marshall Sahlins and Richard Borshay Lee, about the San and !Kung bushmen. Here, Primitivists claim that human beings lived without authorities, in a non-violent, vegetarian, pastoral life-way, in a non-hierarchical relationship with each other and the environment, through thousands of years. Then, at some point in the Upper Palaeolithic era, the catastrophe of agriculture, or of symbolization and language, art and hierarchies took hold. The egalitarian Eden was destroyed.

There are two problems with their use of anthropology. The first is that of the ideological presuppositions of the anthropologists themselves; and the second is the ideological assumptions of writers like Zerzan and Black, when they make political use of this in the present. Thus, the anthropology is brought to us through two layers of distortion. And yet, from this doubly shaky leverage point, the Primitivists demand we seek an unmediated experience of the primal world.

Like a spent fire, the Primitivist movement is collapsing under its contradictions, and burning out, helped on by its lack of meaning, the decline accelerated by their intellectual dishonesty, corruption and bankruptcy. Belief in Primitivism arises out of contemporary urban alienation, but these alienated individuals are the last people capable of building a dynamic resistance movement able to oppose oppression, and globalization.

Alienation begins with a generalised discontent with urban society, mass man, the shallow, vacuuous culture of fast food, soap operas, TV quizes, synthetic pop groups. There is discontent over crime, drug taking, boredom, Post-modernism.

Then there are the ecological horrors like global-warming, Chernobyl, organo-phosphates, endocrine modifying chemicals in water, asthma plagues, obesity. Nothing said in this pamphlet is intended to deny or diminish the reality of these problems. The individual's response to these could be to internalise all this negativity, turn inwards on oneself, and go mad. This reaction does nothing to address the problem. Then again, it is possible to join any one of the myriad protest groups, and engage in political activity to challenge all this. This is a positive response. It is within that area that we must place Primitivism.

Primitivism is a politics of histrionics, of grand but entirely artificial gestures - 'let us sweep it all away!' or 'For the Destruction of Civilization!' and the waging of its war of words against language and abstractions. Primitivism is a politics of artificial gestures, of pointlessness, postures, futility and the picking over of old scabs again and again and again. It is not forwards looking.

Primitivism will never heal. It is a type of archaeology, an attempt at digging down into the dim and distant past. What is the Primitivist attitude to the past? The problems of the present are insurmountable - what is needed is transcendence, something with the capacity to leap right out of the framework. If origins are all so important, because they supposedly tell us something fundamental about our own past, what we need is archaeology. How do Primitivists relate this to the future though? What do they really want? These are straight questions, but it is a pig of a job to try to get any answer.

Borrowing from Heidegger they use the theme of a 'homecoming': History is understood as cyclic, following Nietzsche. Similarly, this quest for the primitive core of 'our' being is likewise problematic, unless one accepts reincarnation, a doctrine of Apostolic Succession, or some sort of genetic path of transmission. We need to consider the Primitivist believer, sandwiched between the past and the future, living in the intolerable present, looking backwards to the palaeolithic. There is a split attitude here. Now you see it - now you don't. Do they seek the primitive affluence life way, or don't they?

The Primitivist vacillates between wanting this, and denying it, knowing deep inside that the wish is untenable. There is no clear answer to the question What do Primitivists want? Implicit within Primitivism is the notion of sacrifice. 'We must give up our mobile phones...' but this extends from individual benefits such as washing machines and the internet, out to cover technology as a whole. Unfortunately the rest of society is not ready to give up its cars and televisions.

Therefore, the Primitivist has three choices: (1) To try to coerce them using eg bombs, rioting, revolution, computer viruses, or other violent means. (2) To try to persuade them using reason and an appeal to facts, or emotional propaganda masquerading as persuasion. (3) To become irrelevant and seek the consolations of the political wilderness, in a windy and inward looking mysticism.

The individual must make the sacrifice as a substitute for the whole. Because Primitivism is ignored, their rhetoric becomes shrill and hysterical. The image of Ted Kaczynski, as the emblem of Primitivist self-sacrifice par excellence, becomes iconic here.

Kaczynski rejected civilization, and went to live in a wooden hut out in the woods near Lincoln Montana, but was then arrested as the 'Unabomber', and is now incarcerated in the US supermax prison. Such a result was an inevitable outcome of his publishing the manifesto - in some way he courted his capture. As the ultimate emblem of Primitivist self-sacrifice, the status of the figure of Kaczynski within Primitivism becomes analogous to that of Jesus Christ within Christianity. Primitivist magazines, stickers and posters urge true believers to 'Be Like Ted'. Another picture makes the linkage even more explicit. 'He Tried to Save Us', with the white suited Kaczynski image assuming a Christ-type symbology.

Most Primitivists have taken the third option outlined above, and sought the consolations of mysticism. Part of the basic belief framework draws on 'Deep Ecology' - the idea of nature having a distinctive value of and for itself. No surprise at all then, that some activist-Primitivists should be involved with the radical ecology of the Earth First! milieu.

Others are involved with the anti-globalization movement, the strand of which they have been most identified with being the 'Black-Bloc' - violent, confrontational protesters who wear black clothing and hoods, seen at Seattle in November 1999, and in Genoa in August 2001, the protest where Carlo Giuliani was killed by Italian riot police.

Primitivism is a dead end. Because, in their vanity, they seek to address all our problems, they attack none. They are incapable of addressing our problems. With this absolutist all or nothing posture, Primitivists portray themselves as radicals and could potentially attract many converts.

Yet by refusing to define their goals in concrete terms, the nebulous utopia they profess to seek exists only in the minds of true believers, and thus can be all things to all people, all promise, no delivery. Primitivism is in essence a chimera, a mirage. Primitivism is an illusion with no future What exactly are the core beliefs of Primitivism? What sort of a future society / world do the Primitivists want? How do Primitivists intend to bring it into being? and even if they could, would anybody want this? When we answer these questions, I believe that people will come to see that Primitivism is a dead end, and hopefully they will not want to waste further time on it.

Reportedly, the low point of the 23rd September 2000 John Zerzan talk in London was when Theresa Kintz, one of the meeting organisers, called for a campaign against electricity.

If our enemies wanted to create something to make radical politics look utterly ridiculous and stupid, and prevent people from supporting us, or joining the struggle for positive change, they could do no worse than 'Primitivism'.

To give a complete history of Primitivist ideas lies far beyond the scope of this modest pamphlet. Instead, I would like to give a brief outline of the area, the context, the ground from which it springs. Wherever there has been 'civilization' and technology, there has probably been unease about these, from the time of the 'Epic of Gilgamesh' (c 2000 BC) onwards.This anxiety started to really cut about the time of the Industrial Revolution; Rousseau, particularly in his Reveries of the Solitary Walker (1776-78) is one example. The Luddites (1812-14) are another.

Primitivism died shortly after midnight on the 31st December 1999, when this anticipated collapse of industrial society did not happen. At its core, Primitivists have a kind of schadenfreude, a glorying in the crises of industrial society. We know that civilization has many problems, among them; alienation, crime, insanity, drugs, violence, state oppression, secret police actions, pollution, global warming, gmos, capitalist exploitation, the nuclear industry and atomic weapons, the war machine, advertising, consumerism and propaganda. Primitivist critiques of such are marred by their rejection of technology as a whole.

What is needed is to untwist the knots. It serves no useful purpose to stand at the side blaming the cable, or abstractly to complain about the 'totality of the intertwined configuration of wires.' So to with civilization. The answer is to get involved with the problems, and try to put them right. The answer is a different, sustainable, practical and realisable appropriate technology society, not this false hope of an unrealistic Primitivist utopia.

September 11th teaches another. It is one thing to criticise injustices and problems in society, but we should always remember that these people are our neighbours, and that we owe them a duty of care. We need practical work towards solutions, an honest, not a cynical, disdainful politics. Within Primitivism, there is the hope that civilization might crash down, but this is not the same thing as the knowledge that it will. The confusion between these two is particularly clear in the Millennium Bug example. The many problems of civilization have particular causes, particular effects and consequences.

These can be studied and tackled. Rather than trouble themselves with the problems individually and in detail, the Primitivist blames civilization itself, a wider abstraction. Everything is wrong. It is 'easier' to throw the baby out with the water than to change the water.

Primitivism could only be the product of spoiled Western college kids sitting in the middle of a sea of plenty, and cursing it. Primitivism is a developed-world counsel of despair We need to examine Primitivists, not just for what they say, but also for what Primitivists do, for what they are. A strong criticism of Primitivism is that hitherto they have been unable to cohere into a positive political grouping. It is anti-social in tendency. Without this social aspect it is powerless to bring about change. The UK 'Primitivist Network' and its journal, The Missing Link soon folded.

In the introductory section of this pamphlet, I have already mentioned GA's spiral of decline. Similarly, in the USA, John Zerzan, for example, counsels the refusal of community: 'The refusal of community might be termed a self-defeating isolation but it appears preferable, healthier than declaring our allegiance to the daily fabric of an increasingly self-destructive world.' [14] But this is a false dilemma, it is not an either/or choice, with just these two alternatives.

As I will discuss below, there is a Stirnerite tendency within Primitivism (Feral Faun) and a Nihilistic strand. Critics of Primitivism have rightly rounded on their long-windedness, their obtuse, opaque language. Primitivism, as a political cult, reaps the rewards of its non-committed ambiguity. Here, Primitivism expresses a severe form of radical paralysis. Connected with this, others see Primitivists adopting postures of barbarism while secretly holding ambitions to insinuate themselves inside the humanities departments of the universities.

When we consider these two aspects together, the scientific and the religious, again we understand the way Primitivism is an attempt both to have the cake and to eat it. There is a constant switch taking place between the two. If we have to find a place for Primitivism, it really belongs to the register of affectation, of putting on fakery, of postures, of theatrical insincerity. All this double-mindedness has a price, a grave cost to the understanding. Primitivists are doomed continually to fight the retreat from the last ditches of ambiguity back towards the high ground of meaninglessness.

So how do Modernism and Postmodernism relate to Primitivism? Here I offer several hypotheses which will be examined in more detail later. One theory about Primitivism is that it expresses an alienated, rather angry dialectical inversion of Modernism. Another route to understanding it is to consider that in the same way that po-mo is an outgrowth of Modernism, in turn, Primitivism is a development of Postmodernism.

A dialectical opposite of Modernism could be to, not just stand outside and sneer at the purchasing process (while rushing into Ikea) but go one better and reject all that by calling for a 'return' to something else, the hunter-gatherers of the Stone Age. The fact human beings lived this way for thousands of years has some sort of static permanence, an eternal validity. Could Primitivism be an Archimedian Point outside the swirling Modernist Inferno?

In 1930, Sigmund Freud published Civilization and its Discontents, [36] Here, Freud wrote of the 'oceanic feeling', a concept of a mental condition or spiritual state which is important in Primitivism, of consciousness merging with the primal wilderness, perhaps somewhat akin to Nirvana in Buddhism. Freud linked the 'oceanic feeling' with limitless narcissism. [37] In Chapter 3, Freud wrote of the people who want to escape from what society has become: "What we call our civilization is largely responsible for our misery, and that we should be much happier if we gave it up and returned to primitive conditions." [38]

Zerzan the psychoanalyst puts industrial society on the couch. We have Zerzan the critic of culture, Zerzan the Phenomenologist, Zerzan the Heideggerian Existentialist, Zerzan the Postmodernist cynic. Which of them is real? Peeling off the layers, somewhere near the core of it, we find Marcuse.

The derivative character of Zerzan's view on this is apparent: for example the references to Junger, Adorno, Horkheimer and Ellul, as an appeal to authority. Zerzan is utterly dependent on others for his thoughts. Similarly defective is the attempt to brow-beat us into agreement through suggestions of stupidity; 'have not yet begun to consider...' and through value judgements 'deeper approach...' and suggestions of duplicity 'biggest lies...' 'It is obvious why...' Marcuse, by contrast, describes the situation.

'FC', or the Unabomber, was perhaps one of the very few sincere Primitivists. The Unabomber at least lived out his ideal, rejecting modern technology, and tried to bring about a wider appreciation of the mess we are all in, and suggest a way out. The Unabomber may have been an egotist and a killer, but he was not a hypocrite. On the other hand, the figure of the Unabomber has become somewhat of an Icon to the Poor Bloody Primitivist Infantry, a silken banner to hold aloft as they sally forth on their crusades. The symbol of the Unabomber has become a counter, valued somewhat between a Bishop and a Rook, to be moved at will around the Primitivist political chess board. Then again, to non-Primitivists, the Unabomber is a figure personifying evil itself.

Despair is what drove the Unabomber into his bombing campaign - despair at the destruction of nature, on the one hand, and despair at the lack of an effective movement to counteract this. FC's intemperate material against Leftists illustrates the point. Ellul, and others in the same vein stress the inevitability of the onward march of the Forces of Mordor, and so have contributed to that atmosphere of despair.

A visible, active, and effective protest movement, on the other hand, would prevent that despair. Resistance is not futile, but necessary, a duty enjoined on all beings who aspire to the condition of being sentient, and moral. As a small fish swimming in a very small pool, John Moore is the leading UK Primitivist. In Anarchy and Ecstasy (1988) Lovebite (1991) and Book of Levelling (1995) he has taken the New Age spiritual cast of Primitivism about as far as it can go. More openly than Zerzan, Moore is clearly part of, and displays his Postmodernism, and is unhappy with the 'anarcho-primitivism' label, perhaps wishing to relaunch the current as 'anarcho-futurism'.

Some of John Moore's religious thought has already been shown in the section on 'Primitivist Spirituality' above. Similarly, Moore is sympathetic to art; both of these themes are anathema to Zerzan. For Zerzan, religion is implicated in hierarchical society, and the sacred was used to justify oppression. Rituals were an upper-palaeolithic safety valve, all about the management of loss. [64] The Shamens imposed agriculture and the subjugation of women. [65] "thanks to magic, man takes the offensive against the objective world." Similarly with art, Zerzan believes that we would have no need of art, but for the fact that we are alienated. Art is about controlling loss. [66]

Moore is so tantalizingly close to being the strongest Primitivist writer of all, but somehow contrives to fall short. The reason for this relates to his Postmodernism. How can what he believes become reality when there is no reality? He writes of direct action, communities of resistance, but because of the Postmodern element, one is left doubting that he really wants to physically change it at all.

Now you see it, now you don't. In what sense does he believe in it? Is it merely a posture? Consider the status of the 'Primitivist Primer', perhaps the clearest definition of Primitivism and for that reason the most attacked [67] Is the Primer a programme for real political action or the setting out of abstract and irrelevant doctrines, a pseudo-programme with no practical consequences? Primitivism consistently evades the issue of whether we could really want this return to the Stone Age. (the sincerity versus posturing issue) Once the novelty of it wore off, and the techniques of evading all the lions, insects, crocodiles, bears or hyenas were mastered, western people would find this a living death.

The stasis and silence of that world would drive most of us mad. The eternal sameness of the paleolithic, long periods of sleep and inactivity after the mere 3-5 hours of hunting would become unbearably tedious. This eternal dream-like state was how human beings lived for millennia, but during that period they did not develop. It would be an eternal night, never a becoming.

During his 1925 Kenyan tour, Jung tells of his impression of deja vu at the sight of an Athai Plains African with a spear, still and statuesque, standing by a cactus, watching the dawn come up. This is how it must have been for aeons, eternally dawn, eternally night. Jung declares that if human consciousness had not created the objective world, forever this 'would have gone on in the profoundest night of non-being, down to its unknown end.' [90] Primitivism is an invitation to return to that profound night of non-being, a return to sleep, to deep oblivion.

The problem is that under Primitivism, we also get an ideological view. The negatives are played down. The bushmen could count the moons of Jupiter with the naked eye, or hear a small aeroplane 60 miles away. The sexes were equal, women were not dependent on the men, meat eating was a late innovation. We do not find the negatives - primitives did not have property because they had to carry everything they had in a small skin bag. These criticisms are voiced by Marielle and and Alain C in their pamphlet 'John Zerzan and the Primitive Confusion'. [92] who focus on Zerzan's use of the anthropological material. Zerzan is seen to be projecting back his own ideology on to palaeolithic culture, with his claims about the non-sexual division of labour, and disputes over evidence of meat eating. [93] The pamphlet accuses Zerzan of 'proof by selective example' and later, of propaganda. Zerzan's habit of amassing an intimidatory 'wall of quotations' is an example of the 'terrorism of evidence' [94] but ultimately unconvincing. The evidence is being ripped out of its context.

Buried within Primitivism is a religious underlay, especially a tendency towards pan-psychism, belief in a unified 'world-soul', that I am in the rock, the stone, the blade of grass, and they are in me. Monism - this belief in the essential unity of all things, has a long and distinguished pedigree and was expressed in neo-Platonism, Giordano Bruno, Meister Eckhart (1260-1327) Pseudo-Dionysius, and Spinoza. It was put forwards by Fichte, Hegel, Schelling, Schleiermacher, (1768-1834) Ludwig Feuerbach, and Marx. Pan-psychism is found in Leibniz, and also in the philosophy of John McTaggart. A more proximate influence to Primitivism might be Edmund Husserl, who wrote of the 'crisis' in European thought. [95]

Such a trendy spirituality harmonises with New Age movements, but also takes in areas like Starhawk and North American tribal beliefs. In itself, quite aside from Primitivism per se, the interest in these types of spirituality is a response to the closed character of the western scientific cultural system. People feel alienated in the modern world, and so seek an out from it through religions. It is a kind of 'inner immigration' or escapism. In the North American context, part of the reason for the popularity of this type of spirituality is a reaction against the colonial history of America. Believers feel guilt at the foundations of their own society; the genocide against Native Americans - the typhoid infested blankets given to the Indians. This type of spirituality is a form of psychic compensation.

Primitivists may well disagree on the place this syncretistic spirituality should have within their ideology. Indeed, it could well be the fault line which eventually breaks the Primitivist facade to pieces. Feral Faun's pamphlet, The Quest For the Spiritual, [97] is one point where the fault-line is clearest. On the one hand, Feral Faun seeks an unmediated, ecstatic, experience of creativity, passion and freedom, but on the other hand his model for the activist / believer is individualistic, Stirnerite, Nietzschean, isolated. Social roles are to be completely rejected, as is morality, 'The cops in our heads'. The ecstatic is to be sought in the wilderness, in the lycanthropic.

Holding to this type of spirituality is a double-edged sword. To some it will be attractive - a positive selling feature. To other, more rationalistic people, it could prove a big turn off. For if the ultimate 'truth' of Primitivism is something you learn spiritually, not through reason, then it is not a belief system which someone can be argued out of. [99]

What is interesting about the Primitivist use of anthropology is that outwardly it is in essence an appeal to scientific prestige. (believe me because the research confirms it). Its status within Primitivist thought, however, is as scripture; the anthropological material is used as religious text. It is sacred, hence the opprobrium heaped on those who doubt the prophets Sahlins and Lee. As this thought system has hardened, Primitivism has developed other characteristics which mark it out as an incipient religious cult.

The tenets of Primitivism are like its sacred beliefs; the prohibition on questioning, the imposition of the categories of orthodoxy and heresy, the anathematization of heretics - all these confirm its religious character. Impotent, unable to match or counter the power of the technological / industrial society, the Primitivist believer turns inwards to myths and dogmatism, of dreams about mana, the totem power of Primitivist religion overturning Leviathan in a spiritual but not a real, sense. The conflict is spiritualised. [100]

It is also ironic (in the full Postmodern sense) that Primitivism draws on the work of leftists like Karl Marx, Weber, Lukacs, Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse, the Situationists and others to mount this critique of the contemporary world, and yet Primitivists are so hostile to leftists.

Partly, it is a politics of confrontation thing. As Primitivism is in ideological competition with Marxism, Socialism, Syndicalism (the old tired Left) these systems have to be criticised, declared bankrupt. Sometimes, the argument of the herd is deployed as in 'Primitivists now numerically exceed leftists'. ('the crowd is untruth' - Kierkegaard) Primitivism defers to Leftist categories, and thinkers. Yet can citing the fact of its eclecticism be a valid objection? A parallel point to make here is the conceptual dependency of Primitivism, not just on leftism but also on Deep Ecology.

It is also necessary to give some account of the Primitivist hostility to collectivism. Within Primitivism there is a certain misanthropist strand, for example, some of the Eugeniard pronouncements come fairly close to despair and nihilism: There are broader implications of the rejection of work, which need to be criticised.

Firstly, it is necessary to oppose and to reject the condition of slavery, the demand of working for capitalism, which the state / system imposes over everyone. I go further than this though, and say that it is necessary, morally and politically to sabotage capitalism, to subvert, to undermine the state / system wherever possible. This does not imply though, that it is wrong or unnecessary to work for ourselves, to feed ourselves. We must provide for ourselves and for each other. We need to follow and fulfil our various existential needs, to be fully committed, to push forwards and promote our own interests and our radical projects. It is necessary, as far as we can, to withdraw from the state / system.

As part of this, because attack is the best form of defence, it is necessary to put effort into radical politics. It is here where the 'Zero Work' ethos breaks down, because if we do not work for the revolutionary changes in society, it is unlikely that they will ever come about. We do not want a zero work ethic, we need an anarchist work ethic.

The seeds of global warming, Aids, Chernobyl etc were implicit in the switch from hunter gathering to agriculture. When the caveman picked up the stone axe, we were all doomed. A typical Primitivist slogan says 'you don't use tools, tools use you.' This criticism resembles and relates to the Primitivist claim that it is not an ideology. If all our techniques are implicitly flawed, there is no escape. If all our tools are automatically tainted, there is no answer, no action we can possibly take.

Without technology, (eg phones, computers, the internet and printing) how can social change come about? What are we supposed to think, to do, to use? The anti-technology doctrine of Primitivism brings with it certain consequences which weaken the revolutionary movement. The issue is really the way that technology is used, control, the power complexes behind this; vested commercial interests, political elites, social forces. It is necessary to unpack all this, to challenge it, to really change things.

This implies a wide and far-ranging social movement. To build this is a complex and difficult task. What techniques will such a protest movement use? What facilities will it have? What levers will it take up to prise apart the edifice? By eschewing technology, Primitivists would make such a political movement that much weaker. The revolutionary task is hard enough already, without hobbling ourselves. Primitivists adopt a complete counsel of despair and their ideas are ultimately disempowering.

We can all agree among ourselves that Ideology is a bad thing, eh? Were it to be shown that Primitivism itself is an ideology, then this in itself would be fatal to it. Ergo, this is one admission that the Primitivist can never make. This refusal is in itself ideological.

Such hostility to ideology is by no-means unique to Primitivism, but common currency in radical circles. Primitivist apologetics recognize this, and believe that by showing themselves to be non-ideological, they can get ahead in their competition with the other -isms.

An ideology firstly contains such features as dogma, a general, wide-ranging belief system explaining the world and society; and secondly a programme to effect social and political changes upon that wider world through the activity of its members / adherents. In this sense, 'Ideology' has a thoroughly negative connotation, that people see the beliefs are distorted, its presuppositions warp its responses to the situation, skew them.

In the round, it is quite clear that the doctrines of Primitivism constitute a belief system, an attempt to give a broad account of how things are - Technology is bad, global warming and the coalescing World Reich are the results of technology. It is also clear that the activities of the Primitivist 'true believers' are an attempt to change the world, putting into effect the Primitivist programme by persuading people to reject technology and return to the stone age or to go back to Croatan. Thus, Primitivism shares the features, it conforms to the description of ideology offered above. There is a prima facie case to answer. Primitivism is an ideology.

If ideology is seen as A Bad Thing, and Primitivism is an ideology, then Primitivism must be bad. The Primitivists try to outflank this type of objection by admitting that ideology is or seems inescapable. The task is that we must somehow break out of the dominant paradigm. As people making a bold, wide and far-ranging critique, Primitivists aim to transcend the prevailing culture. In fact, their beliefs are merely another expression of it. Primitivists fail to get beyond that orthodoxy. They can't run fast enough to get away because their pockets are weighed down with the same ideological baggage of presuppositions. The hermeneutic circle remains unbroken.

Here is a paradox - When we see for ourselves that something is wrong with a particular belief system, we ourselves stand outside that ideology. Yet the counter-move made by someone inside the ideology, to denounce our criticism as 'ideological' is in itself ideological. The problem is that such name calling does not address the issue of whether or not a particular criticism is true or false. Somebody who holds to a false ideology could still be telling the truth on this one point.

Postmodern culture is vacuous, but Primitivist culture is - ??? With no symbolization, language, no art, are they even allowed to have a culture? Postmodern life is a cold struggle for existence; mortgages, clothing bills on credit cards, economic cycles, redundancy, while the creditors hover.
Primitivists sit in the cold with no shelter and little clothing, watching the vultures circle, fighting off the hyenas with stones.

The type of defective thinking exemplified by Postmodernists hates boundaries, hates making distinctions, hates commitment. True / false, reality / language, right / wrong, body / mind - these divides are anathema. Postmodernists seek a unified field; ontologically their world must ultimately be all one thing. Po-mo is Monistic. [167] We have already seen its attack on the self - Postmodernists have a special disdain for Cartesianism; the view that there are ultimately two types of things, physical bodies and minds. [168] Similarly, because it is such a mess of falsehood and pseudo-problems, Postmodernists have a problem with reality itself. [169]

The Zerzanian themes of his critique of time, number, language, art and culture all have Postmodern resonances. Symbolization leads to domestication, the slavery of civilization. These themes were explored in his Elements of Refusal [174] and they perhaps come to an apex in his essay 'Running on Emptiness' [175] Zerzan turns his polemical firepower on symbol. As with Postmodernism itself, always there is this dispiriting gulf between the signified and the sign. How awful is this gap! "the extent to which thought and emotion are tied to symbolism is the measure by which absence fills the inner world and destroys the outer world." (the primacy of text over reality)

To Zerzan, representation is like a biblical fall, the place where humanity lost its initial innocence. Though he does not like this at all, Zerzan accepts this standard po-mo assumption of the priority of language. "At present we live within symbols to a greater degree than we do within our bodily selves or directly with each other." Symbols dominate our perceptions, they weaken our sense of the immediate, the intuitive.

Here, I want to distinguish between the Hardcore Primitivists, who take the call literally, as the central part of a project to move away from civilization and technology; and the Softcore Primitivists, who understand the call in a metaphorical, spiritual or existential sense. I think it would be a grave mistake to try to classify these thinkers in a hard and fast way, as either on one side of the line or the other. Each contains aspects of both, but the practical types are rare, and on the whole, Softcore Primitivism predominates.

At stake in this is the precise status of Primitivist doctrine. Is the Return to Croatan a literal call, or metaphorical? Is it the goal of a practical political and social programme, or a Postmodern simulacrum? What is strange here is the attempt to use scientific research (archaeology and anthropology) about primitive life-ways to support a project which ultimately rejects science. The literal Primitivists seek to appropriate the prestige of science to bolster up their claims about primitive lifeways. The Existential Primitivists on the other hand double-mindedly interpret this as a type of irony (or evade / ignore the issue). The Call to Croatan is not literal, but an image, to be played about with; the anthropology is just part of the texture.

One of the criticisms levelled against Heideggerian Existentialism was this emphasis on decision, decision alone divorced from any social context. Thus one could just as well commit oneself to Communism, Marxism, Catholicism, or (as with Heidegger himself) Fascism; the commitment itself was what counted, Existentialists were blind to the context of that commitment, they offered no specific guidance Existential content becomes the trendy pagan mysticism of Starhawk, Zen Buddhism, hallucinogenics, Tantric Yoga sex rites, New Age material. These practices are of dubious political value as the means to the end of political liberation from the Megamachine.

Moore proposes a neologism, 'bewilderness' to try to circumvent the negative connotations. Wilderness was a 'pathless place' with no Roman roads, nor Islamic merchant's trade routes to cut across it. It was: a state inhabited by wilful, uncontrollable natural energies. In such states, humans surrendered their individuality, renounced personal volition to the will-of-the-land, and merged individuated desire within the expansive needs of the wild. [189] This merging is understood as an ecstatic surrender of the ego, through initiation into the mysteries, the experience having features such as terror, wonder, merging with the Cosmic All. It is achieved using hallucinogenics, tantric sex rites, bringing the individual to the very edge of personal dissolution, and swamping it as a psychological, physical, social and ethical entity. [190] "The experience denoted by bewilderness remains crucial for all proponents of anarchy, who recognize that syncopating the spiral dance could facilitate total revolution."

Taking Nietzschean Perspectivism (itself Postmodern orthodoxy) a stage further, we find the Stirnerite tendency within Primitivism in Zerzan's rejection of community: "The refusal of community might be termed a self-defeating isolation but it appears preferable, healthier, than declaring our allegiance to the daily fabric of an increasingly self-destructive world." [226] - note the value judgements like - 'healthier', "preferable', and 'increasingly self -destructive'.) Instead, the Primitivists have bought into the Postmodern social atomisation thesis big-time, taken it to its end point, and have applied it to the social form of their own revolution. John Filiss, for example, responding to ethical criticism of Rogers/Kintz $3750 from Penthouse, denies an invocation of the ethical: "You seem to imagine some kind of commonality of interest that doesn't exist." [227]

This is precisely the point. We do not have, with Primitivism, any sense of community. For if ethics is to be rejected, what is to stop me ripping you off, doing you down, exploiting you? How will you criticise my actions? There is no call to be honest with each other, no ethical capacity to condemn wrongdoing. Why would any prospective member of such a movement [228] be so stupid as to join? Under these terms? Primitivists do not offer any genuine sense of community, they are merely an expression of po-mo alienation, the most alienated of all alienated forms. Primitivism, sans morality, is essentially a mass of Stirnerite little shits, each pushing the other out of the way to be the King or the Queen of the primeval midden. In this, praxis, Primitivist deeds become their own, best, refutation.

There are two basic common objections to Primitivism. The first is the accusation that Primitivists are hypocrites; that they condemn technology, but they also use mobile phones, cars, the internet. When American Primitivist John Zerzan came to London to speak, in August 2000, Michel Prigent barracked him with the question "Did you fly here?" It is a fair question. Primitivists do themselves no favours by sidestepping this issue. Some Primitivists point to the remarks about not wanting a literal return to the Palaeolithic, but this response is undermined by the Appeal to Anthropological Fact defence, in assertions that "this is the way humanity lived for millions of years." Spiritual Primitivists see nothing wrong in starting with the Stone Age as a pattern, but stress that they do not know, nor would they want to prescribe the shape of our ultimate Destination Frustratingly, these answers are pure sophistry. If Primitivists want their ideas to be taken seriously, they should start to live them out in practice, and stop eating the chocolates. In evading the question, in asserting they only seek a 'spiritual' or 'metaphysical' "return" Primitivists prove their fundamentally Postmodern posturing. They have had long enough to work it out. In refusing to give details of what they want, the Primitivists proclaim their radical meaningless.

The second common objection, a development of the first, objects to John Zerzan's use of language to criticise language. Zerzan tells us that language is not neutral, but imposes itself. He compared it to ideology

The 'Noble Savage' concept is seen as bound up with colonialism and imperialism, and also as patronising towards native cultures, and thus for reasons of political correctness, the Primitivists wish to dissociate themselves from this. Yet, it would seem to be a useful starting point from which the Primitivists' idealization of primitive cultures could be analysed.I believe that this could be a fruitful area of research for a future attack on Primitivism which would cut right to the core of their belief system

Primitivism's rejection of 'leftism' could be taken to indicate that it was rightist in orientation,n and here some Primitivists' common ground with libertarians might be used as evidence. There is also the matter of their anti-democratic tendencies in the rejection of Bookchin's Municipal Assemblies, and repudiation of community. Where the charge of 'Reactionary Modernism' is weakest is that there is no nationalistic element in Primitivism. However, there was an internationalist sub-set of Reactionary Modernism - the attempt to unify European currencies, unify right wing youth movements, 'Personalism' was international in its influence, and again, there was the Uriage staff college in Vichy France. Various early features of the thinking and policies espoused by Otto Strasser, Goebbels, and Arthur Seys-Inquart were internationalist in scope. (these were later eclipsed).

The Nazis forced technology into their mould, and pushed Neo-Classicism, but on the other hand, the Nazis also mounted mock Medieval pageants with Teutonic Knights on horseback and German maidens, they had an interest in such things as Tibetan mysticism, their racist theories about their own so-called 'Aryan' origins, or the SS shrine at Himmler's castle are other aspects. In their art, they idolized the primitive peasantry, (see the paintings of Martin Amorbach eg), and exalted blood and soil mysticism.

Where the case for linking Primitivism with Reactionary Modernism is strongest is here, in the Mysticism of Primitivism. I have already discussed how Primitivists could be taking the blood and soil mysticism stuff a stage further, back into Junger's Urwald, Heidegger's clearing in the forest, or the primal homecoming described in C G Jung's Kenya.

Primitivists repudiate science, distrust science, dislike science, yet the Sahlins 'Primitive Affluence' material is used to appeal to the prestige of science. Primitivism above has been likened to a religion, with Sahlins as sacred text, and all challenges to the High Priest's interpretation thereof considered blasphemy. Such a view sits well with the characterization of Primitivism as an ideology. We could consider Primitivism a bastardised form of pseudo-radicalism. Why affect to despise science, while attempting to adopt its prestige? Here, Zerzan's extensive citations of other thinkers are a valuable pointer. Contrary to Zerzan's critique of specialization, the 'Radical' Archaeologists [302] have scientific prestige which they can use to convince people.

Do Primitivists want a literal return to Croatan, or is their spiritual Croatan a lot like something else - Hobbes' 'Nightmare' or Freud's 'Primal Scene', or some sub Abiezer Coppe Ranter's Bacchanalia? Primitivists are long on criticism of the present, but short on detail about what they really want for the future. When it comes down to it, Croatan is indescribable, because it is without content (or perhaps hiding behind sophistry, bloody-mindedness or a facile appeal to Saussurean linguistics?)

So perhaps Primitivism is simply a meaningless proposal. Under this charitable understanding Primitivists are misguided. Another, less charitable interpretation relegates this down to the register of conscious deception, seeing the cleverness of what they are about. In leaving the detail of their future utopia open, it cannot be criticised, while at the same time, it can be all things to all people. Potential believers are free to draw in their own particulars. Following on from these points (the vagueness of the proposal, the radical meaninglessness of Primitivism) we can see why Primitivists are incapable of taking any real practical steps to get us out of this mess.


Full Text, footnotes and References:

homepage: homepage: http://www.greenanarchist.org.uk/Prim.htm

Crushing molehills with D9s 23.Jul.2002 00:06

Just another postmodernist

Buried within this lengthy diatribe are some useful arguments. Too bad they are mostly buried. Since you have chosen to edit the pamphlet for length and give the link to the full argument, why not edit it for clarity also?
Re: Zerzan. Ask him to go without his glasses. Either he believes his own arguments or he is a hypocrite. Should be an easy debate.

What drivel 23.Jul.2002 12:08


An amazing lack of substance and not even worthy of being called a critique ... of anything. Might as well just say "I don't like primitivism I don't like primitivism I don't like primitivism I don't like primitivism I don't like primitivism I don't like primitivism I don't like primitivism I don't like primitivismI don't like primitivism I don't like primitivismI don't like primitivism I don't like primitivismI don't like primitivism I don't like primitivismI don't like primitivism I don't like primitivism" ... over an over again.

It would be just as informative.

Drivel? Try reading the whole pamphlet 23.Jul.2002 13:04

green syndicalist

Primitivist Responses to this Pamphlet

Experience of political disputes has shown me that they progress along similar trajectories. First, the Primitivists will try to ignore this. To refuse to acknowledge the existence of something is a form of censorship and disparagement. Second, when it becomes obvious to them that the wide world knows of this booklet, will come ridicule: "Booth's view of Primitivism is laughable.", "The charge is absurd." Next, comes the more direct ad hominem (against the person) material - "It's all sour grapes", along the lines Rogers has already taken. Fourthly comes attempted criticism of the content, either by objecting to the form of it, false claims about the content "he accuses us of being fascists" perhaps, misrepresentation or trivialization of the argument. We will see the 'Straw Man Retreat', where the Primitivists will say "Booth has an incorrect grasp of Primitivism", "He misrepresents us", or make accusations of quoting the sages out of context, "Primitivism is non-ideological..." etc etc etc, or various attempts to redefine Primitivism. Like New Labour, the Primitivists are already attempting to change the name of their ideology and re-launch its image - all window dressing and spin. One variation of this sort of technique already being deployed in the USA against criticisms of Primitivism being made there is the claim that John Moore (the author of the 'Primitivist Primer') is no longer a Primitivist. This is hardly news: Moore was expressing disatisfaction with the term at least as far back as GA 40/41, Spring 1996, in his 'Commentary on the Anarcho-Futurist Manifesto'. In all this, what I do not expect to see is any serious questioning of Primitivist fundamentals, such as Why does technology necessarily pollute, waste resources, and exclude human autonomy? Why is Zerzan's critique of language disproven by his capacity to make it? (Disregard this sentence inside the brackets - it is a lie!) Why does the poverty of the Primitivist imagination exclude technologies which could enhance human freedom, eliminate waste, or destroy capitalism? Why exclude the subversive potential of everlasting lightbulbs, infinite strike matches, the clockwork radio, personal CCTV camera pulse-disruptors, wads of perfectly forged banknotes being given out to pensioners, secret news of government misdeads being posted comprehensively on the internet?

Modern Primitivist 23.Jul.2002 13:26

Nihil Allahntin ysab@efn.org

It's either primitivism or Mad Max. Which would you prefer? A post apocalypse free for all where it is everyone for themself, or, people who know how to live off the land without the use of technology, because it will have mostly been destroyed. As a modern primitivist it is alright to use technology as long as you smash it up when you are done! FIST! P.S. Just by reading this I have downloaded a virus into your computer through your eyes! It's Snow White!


from the Southern Oregon IMC? 23.Jul.2002 16:25


So you guys got together and wrote this up?
Whats up down in S Oregon.
Why is this grabbing all your attention when there are thousands of other things to be concerned with
starting with the corporate owned farms and rural poverty.

This must be a side project.

whatever.. 24.Jul.2002 02:53

irritated green anarchist from eugene

as a green anarchist from eugene, i'll tell ya that i can be annoyed as anybody with much of the antisocial bs that comes out of the mouths and pens of some of my associates, but i'll be damned if any of them are as bad as ANDROID9, whom I assume is the one and only person behind this post, if not the entire southern oregon "pod". If that's not the case, then y'all down south have some bigger accountability/individualism issues than we do up here cause for whatever that guy has to contribute, he's a giant pain in the ass to communicate with.

i'm up for a discussion of primitivism. i try not to be dogmatic, etc. but when someone complains that
"The stasis and silence of that world would drive most of us mad. The eternal sameness of the paleolithic, long periods of sleep and inactivity after the mere 3-5 hours of hunting would become unbearably tedious. This eternal dream-like state was how human beings lived for millennia, but during that period they did not develop. It would be an eternal night, never a becoming."

well, beyond being alienated and ignorant beyond belief ...I'd also call that kind of talk downright RACIST.

besides, it reminds me of my boss at the first job I ever had, who once said, "well, shit, if i didn't have a job, I don't know what I'd do, I guess I'd fix my house up, but then I'd just sit around and watch tv."

LIFE -- tedious? sorry to hear that's been your experience.

I'd say tedium more aptly describes reading your posts.


IndyMedia or Somewhat IndyMedia 24.Jul.2002 10:04

a subscriber

IndyMedia or Somewhat IndyMedia

While most in the mainstream might think my interest ridiculous, I am curious about the ideas of primitivism. So, when a post went up called "Primitivism, an illusion with no future" I was quick to devour what was being said. One of the best ways to sharpen my own ideas is to understand an issue from as many perspectives as possible. I liked this post and especially the photo. When I saw it on the side bar, I clicked on it to get a counter-balance to the primitivism ideas I've seen floating around. When someone then moved the post and the photo to the feature section, I thought "Great! People at indymedia have enough guts to call into question some of the ideas of their own contributers and supporters, not just the opposition." I was looking forward to a healthy discussion. Then someone removed the post as a feature story. I thought my browser's cache might be displaying an old version of the site, so I reloaded. Nope. Someone took it down. So my questions are who and why. It seems to me the story has relavence for this community and based on the number of follow up posts there are people responding. Beside, even if there is no interest, who make the decision to remove features? What is the criteria? Doesn't this seem a little contridictory to the idea of a "free" media? I'm looking forward to learning the story behind this story.

a comment 24.Jul.2002 10:34

rag man sam

Sure the ideals and goals of the primitivist folks might not be completely realistic in all aspects. But these ideas create a needed counterbalance to all the people out in this world who seem to think recycling their trash and donating to the Sierra club will solve the world problems. One of their major points they raise it that industry is killing us-I would agree-industry is so intermeshed with capitalism,it would be hard to see any future for the planet and it's species with the industrial system still around. Can the megamachine be reformulated into a more user friendly thing? Probobly not. Sure 6 million people are not going to be able to run around hunting and picking berries,but alot of the ideas primitivism brings forward are great food for thought-nothings perfect-hardly any forms of idealogical thought are.

response to 'IndyMedia or Somewhat IndyMedia' 24.Jul.2002 11:18

pdx indy editorial guy fellowtraveler@riseup.net

A poster named "subscriber" wrote: "someone removed the post as a feature story. I thought my browser's cache might be displaying an old version of the site, so I reloaded. Nope. Someone took it down. So my questions are who and why. It seems to me the story has relavence for this community and based on the number of follow up posts there are people responding. Beside, even if there is no interest, who make the decision to remove features? What is the criteria? Doesn't this seem a little contridictory to the idea of a "free" media? I'm looking forward to learning the story behind this story."

I'm on the editorial team for portland indymedia and can attempt to answer these concerns. This is not an "official" editorial team missive; it's just my interpretation of events. For primary documentation, anyone can view the archives of the editorial listserve, which can be found at:
It's a bit to wade through, since not all the posts there relate to this issue, but if you want the full unadulterated story, that's where to go.

Here's the story: portland indymedia features are uploaded by several different people on the editorial team. usually, one person is more or less the person most responsible for any given feature, though additions/edits are sometimes made by other editorial folks. this post was uploaded as a feature and then removed as a feature by the same person on the editorial team. why? because the person who uploaded the feature received comments from other editorial people saying that this post was not enough to make a feature out of, and that the text of the feature on the front page was inconsistently formatted and unclear. basically, though, this post didn't fit enough criteria to become a feature on portland indymedia.

what are some of the criteria that the editorial team looks for in a post, to decide if it should be a feature.

first, is it original to indymedia? this was a repost from another publication. that doesn't count it out immediately, but it's a big one.

second, is it of local interest? this post talks about Zerzan, who is a local personality, so that's there. it's not the strongest connection but it counts for something.

third, is it timely or connected to a particular event? not in this case, no.

a post that becomes a feature doesn't have to fit all these criteria, but it must be really strong in at least one of them. emma goldwoman's posts, for example, don't have a local tie-in, and are not connected to a particular news event, but they are original writing that really has no other venue than indymedia. also, her work has been showing a real growth from essay to essay, and the series-aspect of it is great. portland indymedia didn't feature her first essay, but started with the second one, when it became clear that she was developing her ideas and inspiring a lot of discussion.

there were other issues with the primitivism feature, too, besides criteria. if an editorial team member wants to upload a feature based on a newswire post that's about a topic that's been featured before (forest activism, labor, a protest, "the f'n cops", health care, etc.) then all they must do is alert the list that the feature is on the way. if, however, the topic has not been explicitly covered before -- as was the case here -- then a discussion is required before it can go up. that did not happen with this feature. an announcement went out that it would be going up and then it was just there.

in my opinion, primitivism is certainly a relevant topic worthy of discussion, and a feature about it would be cool. however, there would need to be more to that feature than just one article that's a repost from another publication. an original essay that cites a bunch of articles and makes links to various websites, etc., is really what needs to happen for this topic to be featured.

in other words, the subject of primitivism deserves better coverage (or critique, if you don't like primitivism) than this essay, above, gives it.

i hope that clears things up a bit.