An apology to gutter-punks, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love anarcho-primitivism
I’ve been intending to write this essay for months, but things always got in the way. And now that I have elected to use some time to write it, I am somewhat at a loss. So to begin, I thought I will cite a recent review in the New Yorker of a history of the demise of the passenger pigeon.
In their wake, passenger pigeons left behind denuded fields and ravaged woods; descriptions conjure up those First World War photographs of amputated trees in no man’s land. “They would roost in one place until they broke all the limbs off the trees,” one old-timer recalled, “then they would move to Joining timber & treat it likewise, then fire would break out in the old Roost and Destroy the remainder of the timber.” Their droppings, which coated branches and lay a foot thick on the ground, like snow, proved toxic to the understory and fatal to the trees…If anything, the passenger pigeon is a bracing corrective to notions of a natural world detached from its fecund terrors. The bird’s propensity for eating everything and taking over earth and sky makes it seem, frankly, a little like us. As Greenberg notes, “a widely held view is that this species could not sustain itself without a giant population,” so that decline itself became a cause of further decline. In other words, passenger pigeons lived by collaboration on a giant scale, and may have died by it. Yet what Greenberg sees is not the clash of two irreconcilable species with gargantuan needs but a story of victimizers and victims.
There is rich irony in this text viz. my own current readings in the past year, which have included contemporary authors of the U.S. anarcho-primitivist school (John Zerzan, Kevin Tucker, Fredy Perlman, Derrick Jensen, and various Christian “anti-civ” authors). There, humans are the bete noire that is destroying the nature and the cute animals and idyllic plants are the victims. I suppose it ain’t necessarily so. I have come across this argument elsewhere: that other animals such as ants and related invasive creatures can also destroy their environments and drastically alter their landscapes. But that isn’t all. Even “innocent peoples” in their Edens were great killers of nature. As Rosen points out: “It was paleo-Indians who helped hunt megafauna like the mammoth to extinction, the Maori in New Zealand who ate the flightless moa to death, and prehistoric Pacific Islanders who extirpated more than a thousand species of birds.” Sure, I suppose, one can and should admit that. But that doesn’t preclude an argument from scale. It is one thing to endanger a given forest or even a region of the world. What we are talking about in our context is the extinction of life on earth. Or to paraphrase a Dilbert cartoon: it is natural to kill, but destroy life itself, you need civilization. But we can return to that idea later.
(And as for the definition of “civilization”, I assume people are just being facetious when positing that this term is vague.)
One of the club’s members, Madison Grant, went further, moving the club toward a more strictly preservationist attitude, and the radical idea that unspoiled nature itself is the trophy. Arguably the most important environmentalist of his age, Grant created vital hunting laws, built the New York Zoological Society, and helped save the bison. That he was also a biological racist of such extreme convictions that Hitler sent him a fan letter is, however, also part of the story. So is the fact that William Hornaday, who helped Grant reintroduce bison into Oklahoma, displayed a Congolese Pygmy in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo in 1906.
One of the tropes I keep returning to when arguing about these issues is that people posit that their own desires are eternal and spring from the head of Zeus ex nihilo. If I want a long life in an air conditioned house, a modified robotic penis, and the ability to fly to the moon on holiday, everyone must want that, right? Why wouldn’t you? So right from the start, the conversation is rigged: “You must want us all to return to caves and for 99% of the population to die off”. Sure, okay, let me just crawl back under the rock I came from… but seriously, isn’t this the reasoning behind the Western conquest of the world: If you don’t want what we want, you must be backward and are standing in the way of “history”. So back away, give us your land, and go down into those mines to get that precious metal for us. We promise it’ll trickle down to you, or to your children, or their children, or their children (ad infinitum) will also get a chance to acquire the much coveted robotic genitals. You must want what I want, what we want, you can’t want anything else, and you can’t stand in the way of us getting it. Honestly, the leftist is just as guilty of this as the neoliberal sleazy bureaucrat.
But let’s turn this around and complicate it a bit. Could it not be said that the concept of nature as used in anarcho-primitivist / anti-civ literature is itself a product of a civilization of violence and exploitation? Perhaps I am channeling too much Pierre Hadot’s unfolding of the aphorism of Heraclitus, “Nature loves to hide itself” in his book, The Veil of Isis, but I also have recourse to the idea of “Mother Nature” as the unsullied feminine. How then did we, as her children, become corrupted in the first place? And how is nature still “mother”? (Here also resonates Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar and his idea of the Church as casta meretrix – chaste whore.) I would stipulate here that civilization first emerged because a few thought that nature was NOT mother, and if she was, she was a negligent one. Our way of life is posited on no longer trusting “the world”, nature, or what have you, to get us what we need. In that sense, Jesus’ sayings appear to us to be the worst heresy in our way of life:
Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O men of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, `What shall we eat?’ or `What shall we drink?’ or `What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day. (Matthew 6: 24-34) – Jesus as the first Black Bloc anarcho-primitivist
But nature as mother does not treat us one way or another precisely because it does not exist. Or rather, it by definition cannot be significantly distinguished from “non-nature” to mean anything meaningful. On the other hand, what Rosen is describing here is an example of people creating a definition of the natural from the racist violence of colonialism and imperialism. What they are missing are the “natural” things that they would like to exploit which are disappearing for one reason or another. Can the anarcho-primitivist separate this history from her own ideas of what nature and “anti-civilization” mean? I am quite skeptical on this point. I think they often exaggerate how much “primitive” peoples actually “resist” civilization in the current context. In some ways primitive people like new gadgets very much, precisely because that which has been used as convenient, time-saving, durable, cannot be “unused”. As it stands, modern civilization has produced so much junk that it will probably be with us for a very long time, if not to say forever.
Thoreau, in a mysteriously beautiful passage in his 1862 essay “Walking,” likens the diminishing numbers of passenger pigeons in New England to the dwindling number of thoughts in a man’s head, “for the grove in our minds is laid waste.” Thinking of the birds as missing thoughts is a good way to honor them. Martha and her billions were undone by the complicated, pitiless tangle of our modern industrialized world, but Thoreau’s nineteenth-century protest—“Simplify, simplify”—will not help us in the twenty-first. Indeed, when it comes to our relationship to nature, the wish for simplicity may be the most destructive thing in the world.
One of the insightful points that Henry Flynt makes in his 2011 talk, Autopsy of the Left talk, is that the existence of nuclear weapons will mean that we will have a state as long as nuclear weapons exist. That is because all of the complex junk that we produce posits a social order that requires a certain amount of complexity. In a sense, we passed the point of no return. The choice can often then be between existence and freedom: hierarchy and regimentation will continue to exist or the human race will not. Just leave a nuclear reactor unattended for a few days and see what happens. Those more patient and less flippant will thus conclude that we need to keep working at the liberal / Marxist / conservative, etc. solutions to the problem, and ultimately it will probably boil down to who gets thrown under the bus. Who gets sacrificed? Indeed, are not large tracts of Marx merely a litany of valiant martyrdoms of various peoples so that capital could mature to lead the whole human race into a brave new techo-utopia?
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. -Marx, The Communist Manifesto
All of this was supposed to have a happy ending, but evidently it won’t. So now what?
So here I begin my apology to gutter punks. When I first arrived in Berkeley in the mid-1990’s, gutter punks were a repulsive phenomenon to me. After all, my family came to this country to work, and work hard. They started out in the fields, and worked their way up into the upper-working class to lower middle class. My uncle was the first in his family to go to college. So I had little sympathy for those white layabouts with their mangy dog begging for change for beer on Telegraph Avenue. The last thing one should do is drop out and give up on society. My own upbringing would give no quarter to such an attitude. But after having been tossed about by life and beaten up quite a bit intellectually… and having achieved very precariously the “American dream” which I have to fight every day to maintain the bare semblance of, I feel far less sanguine in my contempt for these people. I will probably never, ever “drop out”, but I now know that if there is a solution to this mess, it has nothing to do with doing more, or even doing something. Two words keep coming to mind in contemplating these issues: Just. Stop. Don’t do it anymore. When you can’t find your way out, don’t run around frantically like a madman until you drop dead. Stand still, and stand your ground.
That may seem like a quietist solution, but I don’t perceive it to be so. There are a thousand struggles one must engage in even when you are living a relatively easy life in a First World situation. How many more are there for the rest of the world? I suppose in that case one needs to still struggle for everything, but one must do so wisely. Taking into consideration what has been said above, I think the primary principle to keep in mind is that it is simply not worth it to sell out anything or anyone: the system, civilization, etc. can’t deliver anything it promises, so ask for your “daily bread” and trust your “Father in heaven” to deliver the rest, because what other choice do you have? That isn’t necessarily a solution, but is it meant to be? Aren’t “solutions” the problem in the first place?
So that is why, at the end of the day, this day, I consider myself an anarcho-primitivist, even though reading Bakunin or Kropotkin are near the bottom of my list of things to do, and I have very little faith that an actual “primitive” exists. If there is any hope for humanity, it exists in the small, the simple, and the immediate. Stalin formulated this premise best (oddly enough) in the paraphrased quip: “One death from hunger is a tragedy, one million deaths is a statistic.” As long as we play the game that anarcho-primitivists call “civilization”, all we are doing is shuffling numbers around. The trick is to not shuffle the numbers to begin with. I don’t see an alternative.
[Postscript: Is human nature itself a reification? If most humans lived in a ten mile radius, say, and only saw at most 50 to 100 people at any given time, are we at all the same in any meaningful way, living in a world with almost eight billion people, and seeing thousands of people in our life time, and knowing that there are billions of others who we will never see? Sure, we have the same anatomy and the same brain as our ancestors, but at what point does quantity change into quality in the "measure of man" and our way of life?]