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Civilisation, Primitivism and anarchism

Civilisation, Primitivism and anarchism

http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=1451

This is an interesting article.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
teapolitik
Oct. 12th, 2005 06:33 pm (UTC)
Part I of II
The usual disclaimer: I am not a primitivist.

The primitivist critique of anarchism is based around the claim to have discovered a contradiction between liberty and mass society.
Primitivism isn't, in itself, a critique of anarchism at all. It is a suppliment to anarchism, just as syndicalism or communism would be. The primitivist critique (and that of anti-civilization generally) of certain schools of thought in anarchism is not necessarily that "liberty" and "mass society" are irreconcilable, except in broadening "liberty" to mean the right for all life to experience the integrity and continuity of their ecosystem.

The argument is that civilization (and for some, technology, agriculture, language, and other products of human society) is not compatible with ecological sustainability--and that the persistence of civilization, whether feudal, capitalist, socialist or anarchist, would lead to the eventual destruction of the life-sustaining qualities of this planet. While I'd dispute some of the arguments against technology (which, if taken so broadly, is an argument against sentience), agriculture (which can be sustainable, depending upon certain methods), language and abstract thought, the argument that civilization is ecologically destructive has a historical basis.

One can follow that argument to the conclusion that repression is a natural enforcement mechanism of any system that destroys the ecosystem--eco is derived from the Greek word oikos, meaning house or habitation. In the expansion of civilization, sustainable, egalitarian societies were either destroyed or civilized by force. This process was followed by deforestation, soil erosion, soil depletion, salination, and eventually desertification. Repression is necessary to convince any living being to destroy its home. This is true regardless of social organization, and an anarchist society would need to be severely auto-repressive in order to maintain civilization.

The author, of course, conflates anti-civlization with anti-agriculture, anti-technology and anti-thought, and therefore with hunting and gathering, which isn't necessary. It's widely agreed that the planet can ecologically sustain about one billion humans in agricultural societies. This would require a significant change to our social and economic relationships. It would also require the elimination of certain technologies: the processes necessary to fuel or build most modern technogical wonders are environmentally destructive, regardless of who "controls the means of production" or their consciousness in doing so. Mining, mass monocultural farming, large-scale electricity leave too large a footprint.
englishpigdog
Oct. 14th, 2005 06:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Part I of II
The problem with your commentary is that there is not a distinct, specific definition of civilisation. You've repeatedly stated that you're not a primtivist and ergo not anti-technology, anti-agriculture, or anti-language, -thought, -art, -whatever. You don't mean techology, agriculture, language, etc. when you say civilisation (which is what the majority of primitivists do mean) So by civilisation do you just mean things like states, market economies, patriarchs, etc that developed around the time of the dawn of civilisation? (If so, all anarchists are anti-civilisation) Or do you mean you're just opposed to people congregating in cities? (That seems like an absurd notion to me, and it seems like it would require an authoritative force to kick people out or deny people access to a community to keep it small) Do you mean that technology, agriculture, language, etc. aren't bad, they should just be used sparingly? If so, who will enforce this? It just seems impractical to me. No one would choose to use a farm only sometimes for some unseen ideal.

"One can follow that argument to the conclusion that repression is a natural enforcement mechanism of any system that destroys the ecosystem [...] In the expansion of civilization, sustainable, egalitarian societies were either destroyed or civilized by force. [...] Repression is necessary to convince any living being to destroy its home. This is true regardless of social organization, and an anarchist society would need to be severely auto-repressive in order to maintain civilization."

I'm not following you. Early civilisions expanded and killed or forcibly assimilated non-civilised societies, so an anarchist society will do the same for some reason? "destruction of the eco-system" is used by anti-civilisation and anti-technology types as if we were somehow independent from the ecosystem. You "destroy" part of the ecosystem no matter what. You have to eat animals and/or plants to live. You have to leave your waste somewhere. You have to move, which requires the destruction of hundreds of thousands of microscopic creatures in your footsteps and sometimes up to dozens of ants. You have to shelter yourself from the cold, that involves using furs or fauna to warm yourself. Primitive societies destroyed the ecosystem. They hunted various species to death. Non-human animals "destroy" the ecosystem, they hunt each other to extinction all the time. A prerequisite for being part of the ecosystem is destroying part of it. So human life will always involve destroying something. Yes, chopping down a forrested area to make a town is destroying something, but destroying something is inevitable. It doesn't mean we can't try to limit the number of things we destroy, but we destroy things. Things get destroyed.

"It's widely agreed that the planet can ecologically sustain about one billion humans in agricultural societies. This would require a significant change to our social and economic relationships. It would also require the elimination of certain technologies: the processes necessary to fuel or build most modern technogical wonders are environmentally destructive, regardless of who 'controls the means of production' or their consciousness in doing so. Mining, mass monocultural farming, large-scale electricity leave too large a footprint."

I don't know who it's widely agreed by. I lay the burden of proof that civilisation, any form is dooming us all, on the people who want me to get rid of it. I like living in cities, I like having television and books and food I don't have to scavenge for, so I'm not goping to agree it's bad just because someone says it is. I want to know why a collective of stationary people, living in permanent structures, in a libertarian socialist society, either farming their own food or trading with other collectives, and using solar, wind, or hemp or vegetable oil power to generate the power for things such as electricity, to fuel their wants and needs, is somehow less ecologically sustainable than whatever the alternative is. And I want to know why a large collective of 5 million people doing that would be worse than a hundred thousand small collectives of five million people scattered across the countryt side doing that.
teapolitik
Oct. 12th, 2005 06:34 pm (UTC)
The author is sure to recognize that human populations are far too high for ecological integrity, but is quick to retreat to accusations of genocidal intent, apparently arguing that ecocide is necessary as a prevention of genocide. What the author must fail to recognize is that humans die every day (making a natural progression towards a sustainable human population possible), and that an eventual product of ecocide will be mass human deaths. Arguing that requiring a dramatic reduction in human populations is unrealistic is dishonest, because Earth is finite, and the reduction will happen eventually, be it from a gradual return to balance that comes with a conscious rejection of civilization, or from a cataclysmic collapse of the ecosystem.

The article makes so many assumptions that can't be true. A "tiny wealthy elite" could not possibly continue to control vast natural resources in the event of collapse--when one elite can no longer hold a carrot in front of thousands of poor, those poor will revolt. And much of the article is predicated on the domination of the environment which led to the ecological crisis we are facing.

The author argues that, given the chance to start over on "some Earth like planet", "the few primitivists amongst us might head off to run with the deer," but the "next time the primitivists wandered through the area we settled they'd find a landscape of farms and dams" (nevermind that farms require deforestation and dams destroy water life), "domestication" (enslavement) of large mammals, mining of coal and iron (destroying mountain ecosystems), "felling a lot of lumber to turn into charcoal to extract whatever iron or copper we could from what could be found" (deliberate deforestation and conscious destruction of finite resources), purification of water (which somehow would have been contaminated, the author doesn't explain how...), "sewage removal systems" (to where? Now "water purification" makes more sense...), "large-scale mining and construction" (large-scale habitat destruction), concrete (!).

We need to really come to terms with with the word "unsustainable." It is not an abstract concept, the world is finite, and that will never change. The death of salmon and large mammals, the disappearance of bird populations and most of the planet's vegetation, are not only aesthetic losses to be mourned as unfortunate (though they are obviously that, too), but they are signs of a planetary illness. If we don't deal with sustainability, we are effectively driving towards a brick wall, either accelerating or maintaining pace. Even if we simply slow down, the brick wall will remain. The world is finite.

The world is finite.

No human social arrangements can change this, and we will continue on our charge towards the brick wall until we reevaluate our inter-species social relations.
syphilis_jane
Oct. 13th, 2005 06:49 pm (UTC)
purification of water (which somehow would have been contaminated, the author doesn't explain how...), "sewage removal systems" (to where? Now "water purification" makes more sense...)

Well, with or without humans or sewage systems, things piss, shit, fuck, and do pretty much anything else you can think of in water. So I'm definately in favor of at least boiling it. Especially if the only readily available water needs to be desalinated.

The author, of course, conflates anti-civlization with anti-agriculture, anti-technology and anti-thought, and therefore with hunting and gathering, which isn't necessary

There are forms of primitivism that do say that though--for example, in the book Ishmael, agriculture is seen as the exact thing that severs humans from the environment--which does make it a relevant critique.
teapolitik
Oct. 13th, 2005 07:24 pm (UTC)
Well, with or without humans or sewage systems, things piss, shit, fuck, and do pretty much anything else you can think of in water. So I'm definately in favor of at least boiling it. Especially if the only readily available water needs to be desalinated.
If "things" (I'm sure you must mean animals) are contaminating water by expelling bodily fluids, how could any of them survive? How did humans survive until the development of water "purification"? There must have been sanitary water, and it must have been known where to find it.

There are forms of primitivism that do say that though--for example, in the book Ishmael, agriculture is seen as the exact thing that severs humans from the environment--which does make it a relevant critique.
Fine, but criticizing some primitivists for conflating anti-civilization with all these other things is not an effective critique of anti-civilization itself, which this article attempted to accomplish (rather poorly, I might add).
syphilis_jane
Oct. 13th, 2005 08:44 pm (UTC)
If "things" (I'm sure you must mean animals) are contaminating water by expelling bodily fluids, how could any of them survive? How did humans survive until the development of water "purification"? There must have been sanitary water, and it must have been known where to find it

By "things", I actually meant animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. They and we survive largely through adaptation--including developing antibodies to fight some things ingested, moving away from over-contaminated supplies, or purifying the water--but you still have limits to how much bad stuff you can take in. It's like arsenic in the water-supply, some won't hurt you, but you still want as little arsenic as possible.

criticizing some primitivists for conflating anti-civilization with all these other things is not an effective critique of anti-civilization itself, which this article attempted to accomplish
"For the purposes of this article I'm taking as a starting point that the form of future society that primitivists argue for would be broadly similar in technological terms to that which existed around 12,000 years ago on earth, at the dawn of the agricultural revolution."

I took this to mean that the article is specifically concerned with this interpretation of primitivism rather than general anti-civilization beliefs.
teapolitik
Oct. 13th, 2005 09:26 pm (UTC)
By "things", I actually meant animals, fungi, bacteria, etc. They and we survive largely through adaptation--including developing antibodies to fight some things ingested, moving away from over-contaminated supplies, or purifying the water--but you still have limits to how much bad stuff you can take in. It's like arsenic in the water-supply, some won't hurt you, but you still want as little arsenic as possible.
Which brings us, full-circle, back to my point that, short of dumping massive amounts of human waste into water sources, natural filtration would be sufficient to "purify" water. The problem with drinking water from a spring is not that "things" excrete bodily fluids in it, if that were the case, every living thing would die. The problem is that we are contaminating the water sources by putting more waste in than they can handle. Part of this is an obvious side-effect of overpopulation, but otherwise it can be dealt with pretty simply by not dumping waste into water sources.

I took this to mean that the article is specifically concerned with this interpretation of primitivism rather than general anti-civilization beliefs.
The article is not specifically concerned with one particular tendency in primitvism, as evidenced by the fact that it opens by stating that "a generalized critique of civilization has been made by a number of authors", and that "there[sic] overall argument is that 'civilisation' itself is the problem that results in our failure to live rewarding lives." The article is specifically concerned with anti-civilization, and immediately goes on to conflate that with a whole arsenal of other critiques which can, but don't necessarily, go together.

I responded particularly because I wanted to draw that distinction, because whatever the intentions of the author, it's clear that the distinction needs to be drawn. It's counter-productive for me to explain that I am not anti-agriculture nor entirely anti-technology each time I share a critique of civilization.

Nonetheless, you seem to have focused on one of the least compelling points in my response. What do you think of the rest?
syphilis_jane
Oct. 13th, 2005 09:44 pm (UTC)
Ah, I see your point that it's meant to critique anti-civ in general, I was wrong about that.

you seem to have focused on one of the least compelling points in my response. What do you think of the rest?

That was mostly just nit-pickiness. I thought you made good points and I agreed with a lot of them.
englishpigdog
Oct. 14th, 2005 06:58 pm (UTC)
"The author is sure to recognize that human populations are far too high for ecological integrity, but is quick to retreat to accusations of genocidal intent, apparently arguing that ecocide is necessary as a prevention of genocide. What the author must fail to recognize is that humans die every day (making a natural progression towards a sustainable human population possible), and that an eventual product of ecocide will be mass human deaths. Arguing that requiring a dramatic reduction in human populations is unrealistic is dishonest, because Earth is finite, and the reduction will happen eventually, be it from a gradual return to balance that comes with a conscious rejection of civilization, or from a cataclysmic collapse of the ecosystem."

Err...HOW would we return to balance. That's a question I've never gotten out of an anti-civilisation type.

The world is finite insomuch as nothing lasts forever or goes on forever. Everyone realizes that. But nature is built so that things make more things and those more things make more things and those things can be eaten by other things. I don't think anyone here is against ecological insustainability. It has just yet to be proven beyond a benefit of a doub tthat what primitivists and other critiquers of "civilisations" point to as the cause of ecological insustainability is actually the cause of ecological insustainability. To me, ecological insustainability is the obvious consequence of a capitalistic, production-geared society. A society that promotes the consumer model of everything as a piece of merchandise that can be bottled and sold and used up and bottled and sold again creates these problems. I think a switch to a [libertarian] socialistic model WOULD solve most of these problems
(Anonymous)
Dec. 1st, 2005 01:28 pm (UTC)
Follow up article
I've put a follow up article online which replies to some of the points made on this thread amongst others. It is at http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=1890

Is primitivism realistic? An anarchist reply to John Zerzan and others

A reply to primitivist critiques of 'Civilisation, Primitivism and Anarchism'
One of the major confusions in the anarchist movement in the USA and parts of Europe arises out of primitivism and its claim to be part of the anarchist movement. But primitivism is not a realistic strategy for social revolution and it opposes the basic purpose of anarchism - the creation of a free mass society. Primitivists have attempted to reply to these criticisms but these replies are easily exposed as more to do with faith then reality.

It is at http://www.anarkismo.net/newswire.php?story_id=1890
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