The break-up talk
“Sorry, anarcho-primitivism. It’s not you, it’s me.”
I have the nasty habit of flirting with various ideological tendencies, going through a myriad of variations of each, and seemingly changing colors with each of them like a demented chameleon. The end result is usually the same: I tend to cast them off but keep the good memories from my encounters. This time around, anarcho-primitivism is the victim of unrequited love on my part. Though it has been central to my reflections in the past few months, I am fast coming to the conclusion that as a theoretical framework, it too has some seriously fatal flaws. The catalyst for this decision was my reading of Kevin Tucker’s essays in Species Traitor #4, the most recent and perhaps last edition of that journal. In general, while I found the essays convincing concerning many aspects of the “anti-civ” critique, the ethical foundations and praxis found in these essays were highly tendentious and problematic. If anything, I have concluded that anarcho-primitivism needs much more convincing and eloquent proponents than Kevin Tucker, John Zerzan, Derrick Jensen, and the rest. Perhaps it is the occupational hazard of the anarcho-primitivist that no such spokesperson will ever be forthcoming.
As usual, I am not going to go over the play-by-play version of what I found hard to accept in Species Traitor #4. Once I got to the essay about how to physically train for the coming civilizational collapse, I really just thought to myself that, yes, most of what Tucker was advocating had to do with lifestyle choices. To get down to brass tacks, anarcho-primitivism assumes that, given the choice between not living in civilization and not living period, everyone would prefer the former. But perhaps most people living in “civilization” would prefer not to go on if the lights went out tomorrow. After all, it is all that they have known. How would they live and how would they survive? And how ethical would it be to “train” oneself for when human life becomes a Hobbesian nightmare before going back to “pristine wilderness”. And it is also materially the case that we can’t go back. How much nuclear material has the human race produced at this point capable of destroying the planet a thousand times over? How much sheer plastic and metallic crap have we manufactured that we really could never, ever get rid of? And it is highly unlikely that “collapse” would happen all at once: no doubt there would be a super-bloody, super-authoritarian period of decline that would make the world of Mad Max look like a four year old’s birthday party. To all of this, Tucker has no reply other than to exhort people to learn how to forage for mushrooms. That’s not a plan, it’s not a critique, and it’s not much of anything, really.
That’s not to say that they aren’t right, more that they don’t even know how to be right. The main thing that anarcho-primitivism has going for it is its arguments against the sustainability of civilization. Also, the critique of domestication is a highly potent tool against all levels of reactionary nostalgia. Namely, for every voice that would exhort us to “go back to the land” and “think globally but act locally”, anarcho-primitivism (which may have stole this from Marxism) can focus in and state that all societies based on domestication, even the most “egalitarian-looking” ones, have deep and oppressive inequalities at their core. The only real liberation in that regard is the liberation from division of labor, sedentary living, and technology: the order of gatherer-hunter societies. To those of us with a more modern bent, it tells us that we can have our nifty gadgets or we can have freedom, but we can’t have both. To those who protest that the anarcho-primitivist (anti-) solution would deprive us of modern medicine, running water, and Grumpy Cat memes, the obvious reply would be, “Yeah, all of those people in Mississippi, the Congo, and Naxalite-controlled rural India sure are going to miss that stuff. Oh wait…” So far, all of those B-average art history Marxist grad students haven’t explained how they are going to bestow the privilege of First World suburban living on all of the oppressed and impoverished masses of the world while “saving the planet” at the same time. They may tell me after watching the latest Dr. Who episode. I’ll be waiting right here while they figure that part out.
Obviously, then, I agree with large parts of the “anti-civ” critique, and even had a semi-inspirational moment when reading Tucker’s call to arms: “No war but primal war!” Part of me wants to learn how to forage for mushrooms. Part of me still agrees with famous Biblical exegete Ched Myers when he said that the reason we don’t care about the environment is because we don’t live in it: we live on Facebook, on TV shows, and on blogs. At some point, the external world will intervene, just as I imagine the old Thomist socking a Kantian in the face when asked to prove the existence of an objective reality. The only problem is: Are we so sedated by modern civilization, so much the product of our alienated existence, that we wouldn’t even notice, or would we just die in our slumber? Tucker, Zerzan, and Co. to their credit would prefer to think that this is not the case, but they are under no illusions that we, as a mass society, can all come to a real awakening so that “all will be saved”. But if this is the case, then who are we, and who am I? Is there any “there there” to be saved?
Zerzan, Tucker, and Co. rightly point out that civilization is already killing the planet and vast numbers of people as we speak. Anarcho-primitivism presents a choice that is not really a choice. Tucker can wax nostalgic about how much healthier gatherer-hunters are; Zerzan can talk about the pitfalls of symbolic thought and language; Layla Abdul Rahim can portray attempts to “civilize” children as barbarism, but this all strikes me as “not finding the one you love but loving the one you’re with”. None of their “looking on the bright side” or seeing the anti-civ critique as inherently liberating will change the fact that these utopian projections will not be our future. Our future will probably be far more grim, and there might not be much of a bright side. In that sense, I am not willing to buy into any of their solutions that are not solutions or hopes for a better tomorrow that are rooted in a non-existent past that we have never shared. I suppose that I am just a realist that way. I have a zero tolerance policy for bullshit.
Don’t get me wrong. Anarcho-primitivism and I can still be friends. But as for going steady with that sort of ideology, I have to say that I am ready to move on. Maybe I am still holding out for a better way so that my children, and definitely my grandchildren, won’t live in a world that is a wakeful nightmare. But the first duty is towards reality, and the reality doesn’t look promising. The embrace of our apocalyptic future, and the rejection of facile panaceas, whether they be primitivist, Marxist, etc., are in my opinion the first steps towards the only human (and humane) approach to dealing with the world with which we are stuck. As one eloquent essay put it recently:
To adopt an apocalyptic worldview is not to abandon hope but to affirm life. As James Baldwin put it decades ago, we must remember “that life is the only touchstone and that life is dangerous, and that without the joyful acceptance of this danger, there can never be any safety for anyone, ever, anywhere.” By avoiding the stark reality of our moment in history we don’t make ourselves safe, we undermine the potential of struggles for justice and sustainability.
As Baldwin put it so poignantly in that same 1962 essay, “Not everything that is faced can be changed; but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
It’s time to get apocalyptic, or get out of the way.