Bookchin on the Absurdity of “Primitivism”

So-called “primitivsm” (an admittedly problematic term, yet one that is useful simply in how widely it is used) has become an increasingly popular trend among (white, cisgender, middle-class) radical environmental activists, yet it is not a strictly 21st-century phenomenon.

“Primitivism” has been an asinine fashion plaguing Western leftist movements for many decades, from the early-19th-century Luddites to today, inspiring late-19th-century writer and socialist Jack London (a leftist who wrote extensively of the importance of preserving the natural world, I might add) to write, in his 1908 dystopian novel The Iron Heel,

Let us not destroy those wonderful machines that produce efficiently and cheaply. Let us control them. Let us profit by their efficiency and cheapness. Let us run them for ourselves. Let us oust the present owners of the wonderful machines, and let us own the wonderful machines ourselves. That, gentlemen, is socialism, a greater combination than the trusts, a greater economic and social combination than any that has as yet appeared on the planet. … Come on over with us socialists and play on the winning side.

In 2003 Brian Oliver Sheppard penned a masterful extended essay titled “Anarchism vs. Primitivism,” addressing and exposing “The Demonology of Primitivism: Electricity, Language, and other Modern Evils”; the “Ignoble Savage”; the romanticization of no language, no technology, and no agriculture; the “Realities of Tribal Lifeways”; “Primitivist Attacks on Anarchism”; methods to decode “Primitivist Babble”; and, most important, “The Bloody [Genocidal] Side of Primitivism.”

Several years before, nonetheless, juggernaut Murray Bookchin most adeptly and succinctly took primitivism—what essentially amounts to a genodical, racist, ableist, and transphobic ideology—to task in his 1995 extended essay “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.” That Bookchin chose to criticize the ideology in a work about lifestylism should come as no surprise. His historically- and anthropologically-detailed dissection of Zerzan’s patently preposterous positions should serve the final nail in the coffin of anyone who truly seeks justice for human and non-human life on this planet (for the numerous footnotes Bookchin has embedded in the below passages, visit the original document here).

Mystical and Irrationalist Anarchism

The Bey’s T.A.Z. hardly stands alone in its appeal to sorcery, even mysticism. Given their prelapsarian mentality, many lifestyle anarchists readily take to antirationalism in its most atavistic forms. Consider ‘The Appeal of Anarchy,’ which occupies the entire back page of a recent issue of Fifth Estate (Summer 1989). ‘Anarchy,’ we read, recognizes ‘the imminence of total liberation [nothing less!] and as a sign of your freedom, be naked in your rites.’ Engage in ‘dancing, singing, laughing, feasting, playing,’ we are enjoined — and could anyone short of a mummified prig argue against these Rabelaisian delights?

But unfortunately, there is a hitch. Rabelais’s Abbey of Thélème, which Fifth Estate seems to emulate, was replete with servants, cooks, grooms, and artisans, without whose hard labor the self-indulgent aristocrats of his distinctly upper-class utopia would have starved and huddled naked in the otherwise cold halls of the Abbey. To be sure, the Fifth Estate’s ‘Appeal of Anarchy’ may well have in mind a materially simpler version of the Abbey of Thélème, and its ‘feasting’ may refer more to tofu and rice than to stuffed partridges and tasty truffles. But still — without major technological advances to free people from toil, even to get tofu and rice on the table, how could a society based on this version of anarchy hope to ‘abolish all authority,’ ‘share all things in common,’ feast, and run naked, dancing and singing?

This question is particularly relevant for the Fifth Estate group. What is arresting in the periodical is the primitivistic, prerational, antitechnological, and anticivilizational cult that lies at the core of its articles. Thus Fifth Estate’s ‘Appeal’ invites anarchists to ‘cast the magic circle, enter the trance of ecstasy, revel in sorcery which dispels all power’ — precisely the magical techniques that shamans (who at least one of its writers celebrates) in tribal society, not to speak of priests in more developed societies, have used for ages to elevate their status as hierarchs and against which reason long had to battle to free the human mind from its own self-created mystifications. ‘Dispel all power’? Again, there is a touch of Foucault here that as always denies the need for establishing distinctly empowered self-managing institutions against the very real power of capitalist and hierarchical institutions — indeed, for the actualization of a society in which desire and ecstasy can find genuine fulfillment in a truly libertarian communism.

Fifth Estate’s beguilingly ‘ecstatic’ paean to ‘anarchy,’ so bereft of social content — all its rhetorical flourishes aside — could easily appear as a poster on the walls of a chic boutique, or on the back of a greeting card. Friends who recently visited New York City advise me, in fact, that a restaurant with linen-covered tables, fairly expensive menus, and a yuppie clientele on St. Mark’s Place in the Lower East Side — a battleground of the 1960s — is named Anarchy. This feedlot for the city’s petty bourgeoisie sports a print of the famous Italian mural The Fourth Estate, which shows insurrectionary fin de siècle workers militantly marching against an undepicted boss or possibly a police station. Lifestyle anarchism, it would seem, can easily become a choice consumer delicacy. The restaurant, I am told, also has security guards, presumably to keep out the local canaille who figure in the mural.

Safe, privatistic, hedonistic, and even cozy, lifestyle anarchism may easily provide the ready verbiage to spice up the pedestrian bourgeois lifeways of timid Rabelaisians. Like the ‘Situationist art’ that MIT displayed for the delectation of the avant-garde petty bourgeoisie several years ago, it offers little more than a terribly ‘wicked’ anarchist image — dare I say, a simulacrum — like those that flourish all along the Pacific Rim of America and points east’ward. The Ecstasy Industry, for its part, is doing only too well under contemporary capitalism and could easily absorb the techniques of lifestyle anarchists to enhance a marketably naughty image. The counterculture that once shocked the petty bourgeoisie with its long hair, beards, dress, sexual freedom, and art has long since been upstaged by bourgeois entrepreneurs whose boutiques, cafés, clubs, and even nudist camps are doing a flourishing ‘business, as witness the many steamy advertisements for new ‘ecstasies’ in the Village Voice and similar periodicals.

Actually, Fifth Estate’s blatantly antirationalistic sentiments have very troubling implications. Its visceral celebration of imagination, ecstasy, and ‘primality’ patently impugns not only rationalistic efficiency but reason as such. The cover of the Fall/Winter 1993 issue bears Francisco Goya’s famously misunderstood Capriccio no. 43, ‘Il sueno de la razon produce monstros’ (‘The sleep of reason produces monsters’). Goya’s sleeping figure is shown slumped over his desk before an Apple computer. Fifth Estate’s English translation of Goya’s inscription reads, ‘The dream of reason produces monsters,’ implying that monsters are a product of reason itself. In point of fact, Goya avowedly meant, as his own notes indicate, that the monsters in the engraving are produced by the sleep, not the dream, of reason. As he wrote in his own commentary: ‘Imagination, deserted by reason, begets impossible monsters. United with reason, she is the mother of all arts, and the source of their wonders.'[10] By deprecating reason, this on-again, off-again anarchist periodical enters into collusion with some of the most dismal aspects of today’s neo-Heideggerian reaction.

Against Technology and Civilization

Even more troubling are the writings of George Bradford (aka David Watson), one of the major theorists at Fifth Estate, on the horrors of technology — apparently technology as such. Technology, it would seem, determines social relations rather than the opposite, a notion that more closely approximates vulgar Marxism than, say, social ecology. ‘Technology is not an isolated project, or even an accumulation of technical knowledge,’ Bradford tells us in ‘Stopping the Industrial Hydra’ (SIH), that is determined by a somehow separate and more fundamental sphere of ‘social relations.’ Mass technics have become, in the words of Langdon Winner, ‘structures whose conditions of operation demand the restructuring of their environments,’ and thus of the very social relations that brought them about. Mass technics — a product of earlier forms and archaic hierarchies — have now outgrown the conditions that engendered them, taking on an autonomous life. . . . They furnish, or have become, a kind of total environment and social system, both in their general and individual, subjective aspects. . . . In such a mechanized pyramid . . . instrumental and social relations are one and the same.[11]

This facile body of notions comfortably bypasses the capitalist relations that blatantly determine how technology will be used and focuses on what technology is presumed to be. By relegating social relations to something less than fundamental — instead of emphasizing the all-important productive process where technology is used — Bradford imparts to machines and ‘mass technics’ a mystical autonomy that, like the Stalinist hypostasization of technology, has served extremely reactionary ends. The idea that technology has a life of its own is deeply rooted in the conservative German romanticism of the last century and in the writings of Martin Heidegger and Friedrich Georg Jünger, which fed into National Socialist ideology, however much the Nazis honored their antitechnological ideology in the breach.

Viewed in terms of the contemporary ideology of our own times, this ideological baggage is typified by the claim, so common today, that newly developed automated machinery variously costs people their jobs or intensifies their exploitation — both of which are indubitable facts but are anchored precisely in social relations of capitalist exploitation, not in technological advances per se. Stated bluntly: ‘downsizing’ today is not being done by machines but by avaricious bourgeois who use machines to replace labor or exploit it more intensively. Indeed, the very machines that the bourgeois employs to reduce ‘labor costs’ could, in a rational society, free human beings from mindless toil for more creative and personally rewarding activities.

There is no evidence that Bradford is familiar with Heidegger or J’nger; rather, he seems to draw his inspiration from Langdon Winner and Jacques Ellul, the latter of whom Bradford quotes approvingly: ‘It is the technological coherence that now makes up the social coherence. . . . Technology is in itself not only a means, but a universe of means — in the original sense of Universum: both exclusive and total’ (quoted in SIH, p. 10).

In The Technological Society, his best-known book, Ellul advanced the dour thesis that the world and our ways of thinking about it are patterned on tools and machines (la technique). Lacking any social explanation of how this ‘technological society’ came about, Ellul’s book concluded by offering no hope, still less any approach for redeeming humanity from its total absorption by la technique. Indeed, even a humanism that seeks to harness technology to meet human needs is reduced, in his view, into a ‘pious hope with no chance whatsoever of influencing technological evolution.’ [12] And rightly so, if so deterministic a worldview is followed to its logical conclusion.

Happily, however, Bradford provides us with a solution: ‘to begin immediately to dismantle the machine altogether’ (SIH, p. 10). And he brooks no compromise with civilization but essentially repeats all the quasi-mystical, anticivilizational, and antitechnological clich’s that appear in certain New Age environmental cults. Modern civilization, he tells us, is ‘a matrix of forces,’ including ‘commodity relations, mass communications, urbanization and mass technics, along with . . . interlocking, rival nuclear-cybernetic states,’ all of which converge into a ‘global megamachine’ (SIH, p. 20). ‘Commodity relations,’ he notes in his essay ‘Civilization in Bulk’ (CIB), are merely part of this ‘matrix of forces,’ in which civilization is ‘a machine’ that has been a ‘labor camp from its origins,’ a ‘rigid pyramid of crusting hierarchies,’ ‘a grid expanding the territory of the inorganic,’ and ‘a linear progression from Prometheus’ theft of fire to the International Monetary Fund.’ [13] Accordingly, Bradford reproves Monica Sj’o and Barbara Mor’s inane book, The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth — not for its atavistic and regressive theism, but because the authors put the word civilization in quotation marks — a practice that ‘reflects the tendency of this fascinating [!] book to posit an alternative or reverse perspective on civilization rather than to challenge its terms altogether’ (CIB, footnote 23). Presumably, it is Prometheus who is to be reproved, not these two Earth Mothers, whose tract on chthonic deities, for all its compromises with civilization, is ‘fascinating.’

No reference to the megamachine would be complete, to be sure, without quoting from Lewis Mumford’s lament on its social effects. Indeed, it is worth noting that such comments have normally misconstrued Mumford’s intentions. Mumford was not an antitechnologist, as Bradford and others would have us believe; nor was he in any sense of the word a mystic who would have found Bradford’s anticivilizational primitivism to his taste. On this score, I can speak from direct personal knowledge of Mumford’s views, when we conversed at some length as participants in a conference at the University of Pennsylvania around 1972.

But one need only turn to his writings, such as Technics and Civilization (TAC), from which Bradford himself quotes, to see that Mumford is at pains to favorably describe ‘mechanical instruments’ as ‘potentially a vehicle of rational human purposes.’ [14] Repeatedly reminding his reader that machines come from human beings, Mumford emphasizes that the machine is ‘the projection of one particular side of the human personality’ (TAC, p. 317). Indeed, one of its most important functions has been to dispel the impact of superstition on the human mind. Thus:

In the past, the irrational and demonic aspects of life had invaded spheres where they did not belong. It was a step in advance to discover that bacteria, not brownies, were responsible for curdling milk, and that an air-cooled motor was more effective than a witch’s broomstick for rapid long distance transportation. . . . Science and technics stiffened our morale: by their very austerities and abnegations they . . . cast contempt on childish fears, childish guesses, equally childish assertions. (TAC, p. 324)

This major theme in Mumford’s writings has been blatantly neglected by the primitivists in our midst — notably, his belief that the machine has made the ‘paramount contribution’ of fostering ‘the technique of cooperative thought and action.’ Nor did Mumford hesitate to praise ‘the esthetic excellence of the machine form . . . above all, perhaps, the more objective personality that has come into existence through a more sensitive and understanding intercourse with these new social instruments and through their deliberate cultural assimilation’ (TAC, p. 324). Indeed, ‘the technique of creating a neutral world of fact as distinguished from the raw data of immediate experience was the great general contribution of modern analytic science’ (TAC, p. 361).

Far from sharing Bradford’s explicit primitivism, Mumford sharply criticized those who reject the machine absolutely, and he regarded the ‘return to the absolute primitive’ as a ‘neurotic adaptation’ to the megamachine itself (TAC, p. 302), indeed a catastrophe. ‘More disastrous than any mere physical destruction of machines by the barbarian is his threat to turn off or divert the human motive power,’ he observed in the sharpest of terms, ‘discouraging the cooperative processes of thought and the disinterested research which are responsible for our major technical achievements’ (TAC, p. 302). And he enjoined: ‘We must abandon our futile and lamentable dodges for resisting the machine by stultifying relapses into savagery’ (TAC, p. 319).

Nor do his later works reveal any evidence that he relented in this view. Ironically, he contemptuously designated the Living Theater’s performances and visions of the ‘Outlaw Territory’ of motorcycle gangs as ‘Barbarism,’ and he deprecated Wood’stock as the ‘Mass Mobilization of Youth,’ from which the ‘present mass-minded, over-regimented, depersonalized culture has nothing to fear.’

Mumford, for his own part, favored neither the megamachine nor primitivism (the ‘organic’) but rather the sophistication of technology along democratic and humanly scaled lines. ‘Our capacity to go beyond the machine [to a new synthesis] rests upon our power to assimilate the machine,’ he observed in Technics and Civilization. ‘Until we have absorbed the lessons of objectivity, impersonality, neutrality, the lessons of the mechanical realm, we cannot go further in our development toward the more richly organic, the more profoundly human’ (TAC, p. 363, emphasis added).

Denouncing technology and civilization as inherently oppressive of humanity in fact serves to veil the specific social relations that privilege exploiters over the exploited and hierarchs over their subordinates. More than any oppressive society in the past, capitalism conceals its exploitation of humanity under a disguise of ‘fetishes,’ to use Marx’s terminology in Capital, above all, the ‘fetishism of commodities,’ which has been variously — and superficially — embroidered by the Situationists into ‘spectacles’ and by Baudrillard into ‘simulacra.’ Just as the bourgeoisie’s acquisition of surplus value is hidden by a contractual exchange of wages for labor power that is only ostensibly equal, so the fetishization of the commodity and its movements conceals the sovereignty of capitalism’s economic and social relations.

There is an important, indeed crucial, point to be made, here. Such concealment shields from public purview the causal role of capitalist competition in producing the crises of our times. To these mystifications, antitechnologists and anticivilizationists add the myth of technology and civilization as inherently oppressive, and they thus obscure the social relationships unique to capitalism — notably the use of things (commodities, exchange values, objects — employ what terms you choose) to mediate social relations and produce the techno-urban landscape of our time. Just as the substitution of the phrase ‘industrial society’ for capitalism obscures the specific and primary role of capital and commodity relationships in forming modern society, so the substitution of a techno-urban culture for social relations, in which Bradford overtly engages, conceals the primary role of the market and competition in forming modern culture.

Lifestyle anarchism, largely because it is concerned with a ‘style’ rather than a society, glosses over capitalist accumulation, with its roots in the competitive marketplace, as the source of ecological devastation, and gazes as if transfixed at the alleged break of humanity’s ‘sacred’ or ‘ecstatic’ unity with ‘Nature’ and at the ‘disenchantment of the world’ by science, materialism, and ‘logocentricity.’

Thus, instead of disclosing the sources of present-day social and personal pathologies, antitechnologism allows us to speciously replace capitalism with technology, which basically facilitates capital accumulation and the exploitation of labor, as the underlying cause of growth and of ecological destruction. Civilization, embodied in the city as a cultural center, is divested of its rational dimensions, as if the city were an unabated cancer rather than the potential sphere for universalizing human intercourse, in marked contrast to the parochial limitations of tribal and village life. The basic social relationships of capitalist exploitation and domination are overshadowed by metaphysical generalizations about the ego and la technique, blurring public insight into the basic causes of social and ecological crises — commodity relations that spawn the corporate brokers of power, industry, and wealth.

Which is not to deny that many technologies are inherently domineering and ecologically dangerous, or to assert that civilization has been an unmitigated blessing. Nuclear reactors, huge dams, highly centralized industrial complexes, the factory system, and the arms industry — like bureaucracy, urban blight, and contemporarymedia — have been pernicious almost from their inception. But the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries did not require the steam engine, mass manufacture, or, for that matter, giant cities and far-reaching bureaucracies, to deforest huge areas of North America and virtually obliterate its aboriginal peoples, or erode the soil of entire regions. To the contrary, even before railroads reached out to all parts of the land, much of this devastation had already been wrought using simple axes, black-powder muskets, horse-driven wagons, and moldboard plows.

It was these simple technologies that bourgeois enterprise — the barbarous dimensions of civilization of the last century — used to carve much of the Ohio River valley into speculative real estate. In the South, plantation owners needed slave ‘hands’ in great part because the machinery to plant and pick cotton did not exist; indeed, American tenant farming has disappeared over the past two generations largely because new machinery was introduced to replace the labor of ‘freed’ black sharecroppers. In the nineteenth century peasants from semifeudal Europe, following river and canal routes, poured into the American wilderness and, with eminently unecological methods, began to produce the grains that eventually propelled American capitalism to economic hegemony in the world.

Bluntly put: it was capitalism — the commodity relationship expanded to its full historical proportions — that produced the explosive environmental crisis of modern times, beginning with early cottage-made commodities that were carried over the entire world in sailing vessels, powered by wind rather than engines. Apart from the textile villages and towns of Britain, where mass manufacture made its historic breakthrough, the machines that meet with the greatest opprobrium these days were created long after capitalism gained ascendancy in many parts of Europe and North America.

Despite the current swing of the pendulum from a glorification of European civilization to its wholesale denigration, however, we would do well to remember the significance of the rise of modern secularism, scientific knowledge, universalism, reason, and technologies that potentially offer the hope of a rational and emancipatory dispensation of social affairs, indeed, for the full realization of desire and ecstasy without the many servants and artisans who pandered to the appetites of their aristocratic ‘betters’ in Rabelais’s Abbey of Thélème. Ironically, the anti’civilizational anarchists who denounce civilization today are among those who enjoy its cultural fruits and make expansive, highly individualistic professions of liberty, with no sense of the painstaking developments in European history that made them possible. Kropotkin, for one, significantly emphasized ‘the progress of modern technics, which wonderfully simplifies the production of all the necessaries of life.’ [15] To those who lack a sense of historical contextuality, arrogant hindsight comes cheaply.

Mystifying the Primitive

The corollary of antitechnologism and anticivilizationism is primitivism, an edenic glorification of prehistory and the desire to somehow return to its putative innocence. Lifestyle anarchists like Bradford draw their inspiration from aboriginal peoples and myths of an edenic prehistory. Primal peoples, he says, ‘refused technology’ — they ‘minimized the relative weight of instrumental or practical techniques and expanded the importance of . . . ecstatic techniques.’ This was because aboriginal peoples, with their animistic beliefs, were saturated by a ‘love’ of animal life and wilderness — for them, ‘animals, plants, and natural objects’ were ‘persons, even kin’ (CIB, p. 11).

Accordingly, Bradford objects to the ‘official’ view that designates the lifeways of prehistoric foraging cultures as ‘terrible, brutish and nomadic, a bloody struggle for existence.’ Rather, he apotheosizes ‘the primal world’ as what Marshall Sahlins called ‘the original affluent society,’ affluent because its needs are few, all its desires are easily met. Its tool kit is elegant and light-weight, its outlook linguistically complex and conceptually profound yet simple and accessible to all. Its culture is expansive and ecstatic. It is propertyless and communal, egalitarian and cooperative. . . . It is anarchic. . . . free of work . . . It is a dancing society, a singing society, a celebrating society, a dreaming society. (CIB, p. 10)

Inhabitants of the ‘primal world,’ according to Bradford, lived in harmony with the natural world and enjoyed all the benefits of affluence, including much leisure time. Primal society, he emphasizes, was ‘free of work’ since hunting and gathering required much less effort than people today put in with the eight-hour day. He does compassionately concede that primal society was ‘capable of experiencing occasional hunger.’ This ‘hunger,’ however, was really symbolic and self-inflicted, you see, because primal peoples ‘sometimes [chose] hunger to enhance interrelatedness, to play, or to see visions’ (CIB, p. 10).

It would take a full-sized essay in itself to unscramble, let alone refute, this absurd balderdash, in which a few truths are either mixed with or coated in sheer fantasy. Bradford bases his account, we are told, on ‘greater access to the views of primal people and their native descendants’ by ‘a more critical . . . anthropology’ (CIB, p. 10). In fact, much of his ‘critical anthropology’ appears to derive from ideas propounded at the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium, convened in April 1966 at the University of Chicago. [16] Although most of the papers contributed to this symposium were immensely valuable, a number of them conformed to the naive mystification of ‘primitivity’ that was percolating through the 1960s counterculture — and that lingers on to this day. The hippie culture, which influenced quite a few anthropologists of the time, averred that hunting-gathering peoples today had been bypassed by the social and economic forces at work in the rest of the world and still lived in a pristine state, as isolated remnants of Neolithic and Paleolithic lifeways. Further, as hunter-gatherers, their lives were notably healthy and peaceful, living then as now on an ample natural largess.

Thus, Richard B. Lee, coeditor of the collection of conference papers, estimated that the caloric intake of ‘primitive’ peoples was quite high and their food supply abundant, making for a kind of virginal ‘affluence’ in which people needed to forage only a few hours each day. ‘Life in the state of nature is not necessarily nasty, brutish, and short,’ wrote Lee. The habitat of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert, for example, ‘is abundant in naturally occurring foods.’ The Bushmen of the Dobe area, who, Lee wrote, were still on the verge of entry into the Neolithic, live well today on wild plants and meat, in spite of the fact that they are confined to the least productive portion of the range in which Bushmen peoples were formerly found. It is likely that an even more substantial subsistence base would have been characteristic of these hunters and gatherers in the past, when they had the pick of African habitats to choose from. [17]

Not quite! — as we shall see shortly.

It is all too common for those who swoon over ‘primal life’ to lump together many millennia of prehistory, as if significantly different hominid and human species lived in one kind of social organization. The word prehistory is highly ambiguous. Inasmuch as the human genus included several different species, we can hardly equate the ‘outlook’ of Aurignacian and Magdalenian foragers (Homo sapiens sapiens) some 30,000 years ago, with that of Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo erectus, whose tool kits, artistic abilities, and capacities for speech were strikingly different.

Another concern is the extent to which prehistoric hunter-gatherers or foragers at various times lived in nonhierarchical societies. If the burials at Sungir (in present Eastern Europe) some 25,000 years ago allow for any speculation (and there are no Paleolithic people around to tell us about their lives), the extraordinarily rich collection of jewelry, lances, ivory spears, and beaded clothing at the gravesites of two adolescents suggest the existence of high-status family lines long before human beings settled down to food cultivation. Most cultures in the Paleolithic were probably relatively egalitarian, but hierarchy seems to have existed even in the late Paleolithic, with marked variations in degree, type, and scope of domination that cannot be subsumed under rhetorical paeans to Paleolithic egalitarianism.

A further concern that arises is the variation — in early cases, the absence — of communicative ability in different epochs. Inasmuch as a written language did not appear until well into historical times, the languages even of early Homo sapiens sapiens were hardly ‘conceptually profound.’ The pictographs, glyphs, and, above all, memorized material upon which ‘primal’ peoples relied for knowledge of the past have obvious cultural limitations. Without a written literature that records the cumulative wisdom of generations, historical memory, let alone ‘conceptually profound’ thoughts, are difficult to retain; rather, they are lost over time or woefully distorted. Least of all is orally transmitted history subject to demanding critique but instead easily becomes a tool for elite ‘seers’ and shamans who, far from being ‘protopoets,’ as Bradford calls them, seem to have used their ‘knowledge’ to serve their own social interests. [18]

Which brings us, inevitably, to John Zerzan, the anti’civiliza’tional primitivist par excellence. For Zerzan, one of the steady hands at Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, the absence of speech, language, and writing is a positive boon. Another denizen of the ‘Man the Hunter’ time warp, Zerzan maintains in his book Future Primitive (FP) that ‘life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of a leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health’ [19] — with the difference that Zerzan’s vision of ‘primality’ more closely approximates four-legged animality. In fact, in Zerzanian paleoanthropology, the anatomical distinctions between Homo sapiens, on the one hand, and Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and the ‘much-maligned’ Neanderthals, on the other, are dubious; all early Homo species, in his view, were possessed of the mental and physical capacities of Homo sapiens and furthermore lived in primal bliss for more than two million years.

If these hominids were as intelligent as modern humans, we may be naively tempted to ask, why did they not innovate tech’no’logical change? ‘It strikes me as very plausible,’ Zerzan brightly conjectures, ‘that intelligence, informed by the success and satisfaction of a gatherer-hunter existence, is the very reason for the pronounced absence of ‘progress.’ Division of labor, domestication, symbolic culture — these were evidently [!] refused until very recently.’ The Homo species ‘long chose nature over culture,’ and by culture here Zerzan means ‘the manipulation of basic symbolic forms’ (emphasis added) — an alienating encumbrance. Indeed, he continues, ‘reified time, language (written, certainly, and probably spoken language for all or most of this period), number, and art had no place, despite an intelligence fully capable of them’ (FP, pp. 23, 24).

In short, hominids were capable of symbols, speech, and writing but deliberately rejected them, since they could understand one another and their environment instinctively, without recourse to them. Thus Zerzan eagerly agrees with an anthropologist who meditates that ‘San/Bushman communion with nature’ reached ‘a level of experience that ‘could almost be called mystical. For instance, they seemed to know what it actually felt like to be an elephant, a lion, an antelope” even a baobab tree (FP, pp. 33-34).

The conscious ‘decision’ to refuse language, sophisticated tools, temporality, and a division of labor (presumably they tried and grunted, ‘Bah!’) was made, we are told, by Homo habilis, who, I should note, had roughly half the brain size of modern humans and probably lacked the anatomical capacity for syllabic speech. Yet we have it on Zerzan’s sovereign authority that habilis (and possibly even Australopithecus afarensis, who may have been around some ‘two million years ago’) possessed ‘an intelligence fully capable’ — no less! — of these functions but refused to use them. In Zerzanian paleoanthropology, early hominids or humans could adopt or reject vital cultural traits like speech with sublime wisdom, the way monks take vows of silence.

But once the vow of silence was broken, everything went wrong! For reasons known only to God and Zerzan.

The emergence of symbolic culture, with its inherent will to manipulate and control, soon opened the door to the domestication of nature. After two million years of human life within the bounds of nature, in balance with other wild species, agriculture changed our lifestyle, our way of adapting, in an unprecedented way. Never before has such a radical change occurred in a species so utterly and so swiftly. . . . Self-domestication through language, ritual, and art inspired the taming of plants and animals that followed. (FP, pp. 27-28, emphasis added)

There is a certain splendor in this claptrap that is truly arresting. Significantly different epochs, hominid and/or human species, and ecological and technological situations are all swept up together into a shared life ‘within the bounds of nature.’ Zerzan’s simplification of the highly complex dialectic between humans and nonhuman nature reveals a mentality so reductionist and simplistic that one is obliged to stand before it in awe.

To be sure, there is very much we can learn from preliterate cultures — organic societies, as I call them in The Ecology of Freedom — particularly about the mutability of what is commonly called ‘human nature.’ Their spirit of in-group cooperation and, in the best of cases, egalitarian outlook are not only admirable — and socially necessary in view of the precarious world in which they lived — but provide compelling evidence of the malleability of human behavior in contrast to the myth that competition and greed are innate human attributes. Indeed, their practices of usufruct and the inequality of equals are of great relevance to an ecological society.

But that ‘primal’ or prehistoric peoples ‘revered’ nonhuman nature is at best specious and at worst completely disingenuous. In the absence of ‘nonnatural’ environments such as villages, towns, and cities, the very notion of ‘Nature’ as distinguished from habitat had yet to be conceptualized — a truly alienating experience, in Zerzan’s view. Nor is it likely that our remote ancestors viewed the natural world in a manner any less instrumental than did people in historical cultures. With due regard for their own material interests — their survival and well-being — prehistoric peoples seem to have hunted down as much game as they could, and if they imaginatively peopled the animal world with anthropomorphic attributes, as they surely did, it would have been to communicate with it with an end toward manipulating it, not simply toward revering it.

Thus, with very instrumental ends in mind, they conjured ‘talking’ animals, animal ‘tribes’ (often patterned on their own social structures), and responsive animal ‘spirits.’ Understandably, given their limited knowledge, they believed in the reality of dreams, where humans might fly and animals might talk — in an inexplicable, often frightening dream world that they took for reality. To control game animals, to use a habitat for survival purposes, to deal with the vicissitudes of weather and the like, prehistoric peoples had to personify these phenomena and ‘talk’ to them, whether directly, ritualistically, or metaphorically.

In fact, prehistoric peoples seem to have intervened into their environment as resolutely as they could. As soon as Homo erectus or later human species learned to use fire, for example, they seem to have put it to work burning off forests, probably stampeding game animals over cliffs or into natural enclosures where they could be easily slaughtered. The ‘reverence for life’ of prehistoric peoples thus reflected a highly pragmatic concern for enhancing and controlling the food supply, not a love for animals, forests, mountains (which they may very well have feared as the lofty home of deities both demonic and benign). [20]

Nor does the ‘love of nature’ that Bradford attributes to ‘primal society’ accurately depict foraging peoples today, who often deal rather harshly with work and game animals; the Ituri forest Pygmies, for example, tormented ensnared game quite sadistically, and Eskimos commonly maltreated their huskies. [21] As for Native Americans before European contact, they vastly altered much of the continent by using fire to clear lands for horticulture and for better visibility in hunting, to the extent that the ‘paradise’ encountered by Europeans was ‘clearly humanized.’ [22]

Unavoidably, many Indian tribes seem to have exhausted local food animals and had to migrate to new territories to gain the material means of life. It would be surprising indeed if they did not engage in warfare to displace the original occupants. Their remote ancestors may well have pushed some of the great North American mammals of the last ice age (notably mammoths, mastodons, longhorn bison, horses, and camels) to extinction. Thickly accumulated bones of bison are still discernible in sites that suggest mass killings and ‘assembly-line’ butchering in a number of American arroyos. [23]

Nor, among those peoples who did have agriculture, was land use necessarily ecologically benign. Around Lake P’tzcuaro in the central Mexican highlands, before the Spanish conquest, ‘prehistoric land use was not conservationist in practice,’ writes Karl W. Butzer, but caused high rates of soil erosion. Indeed, aboriginal farming practices ‘could be as damaging as any pre-industrial land-use in the Old World.’ [24] Other studies have shown that forest overclearing and the failure of subsistence agriculture undermined Mayan society and contributed to its collapse. [25]

We will never have any way of knowing whether the lifeways of today’s foraging cultures accurately mirror those of our ancestral past. Not only did modern aboriginal cultures develop over thousands of years, but they were significantly altered by the diffusion of countless traits from other cultures before they were studied by Western researchers. Indeed, as Clifford Geertz has observed rather acidly, there is little if anything pristine about the aboriginal cultures that modern primitivists associate with early humanity. ‘The realization, grudging and belated, that [the pristine primality of existing aborigines] is not so, not even with the Pygmies, not even with the Eskimos,’ Geertz observes, ‘and that these people are in fact products of larger-scale processes of social change which have made them and continue to make them what they are — has come as something of a shock that has induced a virtual crisis in the field [of ethnography].’ [26] Scores of ‘primal’ peoples, like the forests they inhabited, were no more ‘virginal’ at European contact than were the Lakota Indians at the time of the American Civil War, Dancing With Wolves to the contrary notwithstanding. Many of the much-touted ‘primal’ belief-systems of existing aborigines are clearly traceable to Christian influences. Black Elk, for example, was a zealous Catholic, [27] while the late-nineteenth-century Ghost Dance of the Paiute and Lakota was profoundly influenced by Christian evangelical millennarianism.

In serious anthropological research, the notion of an ‘ecstatic,’ pristine hunter has not survived the thirty years that have passed since the ‘Man the Hunter’ symposium. Most of the ‘affluent hunter’ societies cited by devotees of the myth of ‘primitive affluence’ literally devolved — probably very much against their desires — from horticultural social systems. The San people of the Kalahari are now known to have been gardeners before they were driven into the desert. Several hundred years ago, according to Edwin Wilmsen, San-speaking peoples were herding and farming, not to speak of trading with neighboring agricultural chiefdoms in a network that extended to the Indian Ocean. By the year 1000, excavations have shown, their area, Dobe, was populated by people who made ceramics, worked with iron, and herded cattle, exporting them to Europe by the 1840s together with massive amounts of ivory — much of it from elephants hunted by the San people themselves, who doubtless conducted this slaughter of their pachyderm ‘brothers’ with the great sensitivity that Zerzan attributes to them. The marginal foraging lifeways of the San that so entranced observers in the 1960s were actually the result of economic changes in the late nineteenth century, while ‘the remoteness imagined by outside observers . . . was not indigenous but was created by the collapse of mercantile capital.’ [28] Thus, ‘the current status of San-speaking peoples on the rural fringe of African economies,’ Wilmsen notes, can be accounted for only in terms of the social policies and economies of the colonial era and its aftermath. Their appearance as foragers is a function of their relegation to an underclass in the playing out of historical processes that began before the current millennium and culminated in the early decades of this century. [29]

The Yuqu’ of the Amazon, too, could easily have epitomized the pristine foraging society extolled in the 1960s. Unstudied by Europeans until the 1950s, this people had a tool kit that consisted of little more than a boar claw and bow-and-arrows: ‘In addition to being unable to produce fire,’ writes Allyn M. Stearman, who studied them, ‘they had no watercraft, no domestic animals (not even the dog), no stone, no ritual specialists, and only a rudimentarycosmology. They lived out their lives as nomads, wandering the forests of lowland Bolivia in search of game and other foods provided by their foraging skills.’ [30] They grew no crops at all and were unfamiliar with the use of the hook and line for fishing.

Yet far from being egalitarian, the Yuqu’ maintained the institution of hereditary slavery, dividing their society into a privileged elite stratum and a scorned laboring slave group. This feature is now regarded as a vestige of former horticultural lifeways. The Yuqu’, it appears, were descended from a slave-holding pre-Columbian society, and ‘over time, they experienced deculturation, losing much of their cultural heritage as it became necessary to remain mobile and live off the land. But while many elements of their culture may have been lost, others were not. Slavery, evidently, was one of these.'[31]

Not only has the myth of the ‘pristine’ forager been shattered, but Richard Lee’s own data on the caloric intake of ‘affluent’ foragers have been significantly challenged by Wilmsen and his associates. [32] !Kung people had average lifespans of about thirty years. Infant mortality was high, and according to Wilmsen (pace Bradford!), the people were subject to disease and hunger during lean seasons. (Lee himself has revised his views on this score since the 1960s.)

Correspondingly, the lives of our early ancestors were most certainly anything but blissful. In fact, life for them was actually quite harsh, generally short, and materially very demanding. Anatomical assays of their longevity show that about half died in childhood or before the age of twenty, and few lived beyond their fiftieth year. They were more likely scavengers than hunter-gatherers and were probably prey for leopards and hyenas. [33]

To members of their own bands, tribes, or clans, prehistoric and later foraging peoples were normally cooperative and peaceful; but toward members of other bands, tribes, or clans, they were often warlike, even sometimes genocidal in their efforts to dispossess them and appropriate their land. That most blissed-out of ancestral humans (if we are to believe the primitivists), Homo erectus, has left behind a bleak record of interhuman slaughter, according to data summarized by Paul Janssens. [34] It has been suggested that many individuals in China and Java were killed by volcanic eruptions, but the latter explanations loses a good deal of plausibility in the light of the remains of forty individuals whose mortally injured heads were decapitated — ‘hardly the action of a volcano,’ Corinne Shear Wood observes dryly. [35] As to modern foragers, the conflicts between Native American tribes are too numerous to cite at any great length — as witness the Anasazi and their neighbors in the Southwest, the tribes that were to finally make up the Iroquois Confederacy (the Confederacy itself was a matter of survival if they were not to all but exterminate one another), and the unrelenting conflict between Mohawks and Hurons, which led to the near extermination and flight of remanent Huron communities.

If the ‘desires’ of prehistoric peoples ‘were easily met,’ as Bradford alleges, it was precisely because their material conditions of life — and hence their desires — were very simple indeed. Such might be expected of any life-form that largely adapts rather than innovates, that conforms to its pregiven habitat rather than alters it to make that habitat conform with its own wants. To be sure, early peoples had a marvelous understanding of the habitat in which they lived; they were, after all, highly intelligent and imaginative beings. Yet their ‘ecstatic’ culture was unavoidably riddled not only by joy and ‘singing . . . celebrating . . . dreaming,’ but by superstition and easily ‘manipulable fears.

Neither our remote ancestors nor existing aborigines could have survived if they held the ‘enchanted’ Disneyland ideas imputed to them by present-day primitivists. Certainly, Europeans offered aboriginal peoples no magnificent social dispensation. Quite to the contrary: imperialists subjected native peoples to crass exploitation, outright genocide, diseases against which they had no immunity, and shameless plunder. No animistic conjurations did or could have prevented this onslaught, as at the tragedy of Wounded Knee in 1890, where the myth of ghost shirts impregnable to bullets was so painfully belied.

What is of crucial importance is that the regression to primitivism among lifestyle anarchists denies the most salient attributes of humanity as a species and the potentially emancipatory aspects of Euro-American civilization. Humans are vastly different from other animals in that they do more than merely adapt to the world around them; they innovate and create a new world, not only to discover their own powers as human beings but to make the world around them more suitable for their own development, both as individuals and as a species. Warped as this capacity is by the present irrational society, the ability to change the world is a natural endowment, the product of human biological evolution — not simply a product of technology, rationality, and civilization. That people who call themselves anarchists should advance a primitivism that verges on the animalistic, with its barely concealed message of adaptiveness and passivity, sullies centuries of revolutionary thought, ideals, and practice, indeed defames the memorable efforts of humanity to free itself from parochialism, mysticism, and superstition and change the world.

For lifestyle anarchists, particularly of the anticivilizational and primitivistic genre, history itself becomes a degrading monolith that swallows up all distinctions, mediations, phases of development, and social specificities. Capitalism and its contradictions are reduced to epiphenomena of an all-devouring civilization and its technological ‘imperatives’ that lack nuance and differentiation. History, insofar as we conceive it as the unfolding of humanity’s rational component — its developing potentiality for freedom, self-consciousness, and cooperation — is a complex account of the cultivation of human sensibilities, institutions, intellectuality, and knowledge, or what was once called ‘the education of humanity.’ To deal with history as a steady ‘Fall’ from an animalistic ‘authenticity,’ as Zerzan, Bradford, and their compatriots do in varying degrees in a fashion very similar to that of Martin Heidegger, is to ignore the expanding ideals of freedom, individuality, and self-consciousness that have marked epochs of human development — not to speak of the widening scope of the revolutionary struggles to achieve these ends.

Anticivilizational lifestyle anarchism is merely one aspect of the social regression that marks the closing decades of the twentieth century. Just as capitalism threatens to unravel natural history by bringing it back to a simpler, less differentiated geological and zoological era, so anticivilizational lifestyle anarchism is complicit with capitalism in bringing the human spirit and its history back to a less developed, less determinate, pre’lapsarian world — the supposedly ‘innocent’ pretechnological and precivilizatory society that existed before humanity’s ‘fall from grace.’ Like the Lotus Eaters in Homer’s Odyssey, humans are ‘authentic’ when they live in an eternal present, without past or future — untroubled by memory or ideation, free of tradition, and unchallenged by becoming.

Ironically, the world idealized by primitivists would actually preclude the radical individualism celebrated by the individualist heirs of Max Stirner. Although contemporary ‘primal’ communities have produced strongly etched individuals, the power of custom and the high degree of group solidarity impelled by demanding conditions allow little leeway for expansively individualistic behavior, of the kind demanded by Stirnerite anarchists who celebrate the supremacy of the ego. Today, dabbling in primitivism is precisely the privilege of affluent urbanites who can afford to toy with fantasies denied not only to the hungry and poor and to the ‘nomads’ who by necessity inhabit urban streets but to the overworked employed. Modern working women with children could hardly do without washing machines to relieve them, however minimally, from their daily domestic labors — before going to work to earn what is often the greater part of their households’ income. Ironically, even the collective that produces Fifth Estate found it could not do without a computer and was ‘forced’ to purchase one — issuing the disingenuous disclaimer, ‘We hate it!’ [36] Denouncing an advanced technology while using it to generate antitechnological literature is not only disingenuous but has sanctimonious dimensions: Such ‘hatred’ of computers seems more like the belch of the privileged, who, having overstuffed themselves with delicacies, extol the virtues of poverty during Sunday prayers.