Our starting point is that the expres-sion ‘life is hard’ can always receivethe reply that ‘it is better than the al-ternative’. This provides a good gen-eral test of all critiques of the world‘as it is’, including anarchism. Whichis to ask if a better alternative is pos-sible?Even if we can’t point to the ‘betteralternative’, critiques of the world ‘asit is’ can have a certain intellectualvalue. But after the disaster of the20th century when so-called alterna-tives like Leninism created long last-ing dictatorships that killed millions,the question ‘is your alternative any better then what exists?’ has to be putto anyone advocating change.The primitivist critique of anarchismis based around the claim to have dis-covered a contradiction between lib-erty and mass society. In other wordsthey see it as impossible for any soci-ety that involves groups much largerthan a village to be a free society. If this was true it would make the an-archist proposal of a world of ‘freefederations of towns, cities and coun-tryside’ impossible. Such federationsand population centers are obviouslya form of mass society/civilisation.However the anarchist movement has been answering this very so-calledcontradiction since its origins. Back in the 19th century liberal defendersof the state pointed to such a contra-diction in order to justify the need forone set of men to rule over another.Michael Bakunin answered this in1871 in his essay on ‘The Paris Com-mune and the Idea of the State’.
“It is said that the harmony and uni-versal solidarity of individuals withsociety can never be attained in prac-tice because their interests, being an-tagonistic, can never be reconciled. Tothis objection I reply that if these inter-est have never as yet come to mutualaccord, it was because the State hassacriﬁced the interests of the majority for the beneﬁt of a privileged minority.That is why this famous incompatibil-ity, this conﬂict of personal interestswith those of society, is nothing but a fraud, a political lie, born of the theo-logical lie which invented the doctrineof original sin in order to dishonor manand destroy his self-respect. .... We areconvinced that all the wealth of man’sintellectual, moral, and material devel-opment, as well as his apparent inde-pendence, is the product of his life insociety. Outside society, not only wouldhe not be a free man, he would not evenbecome genuinely human, a being con-scious of himself, the only being whothinks and speaks. Only the combina-tion of intelligence and collective laborwas able to force man out of that savageand brutish state which constituted hisoriginal nature, or rather the startingpoint for his further development. Weare profoundly convinced that the en-tire life of men - their interests, tenden-cies, needs, illusions, even stupidities,as well as every bit of violence, injus-tice, and seemingly voluntary activity- merely represent the result of inevita-ble societal forces. People cannot rejectthe idea of mutual independence, norcan they deny the reciprocal inﬂuenceand uniformity exhibiting the manifes-tations of external nature.”
What level of technology
Most primitivists evade the ques-tion of what level of technology theywish to return to by hiding behind theclaim that they are not arguing for areturn to anything, on the contrarythey want to go forward. With that inmind a reasonable summary of theirposition is that certain technologiesare acceptable up to the level of smallvillage society sustained by huntingand gathering. The problems forprimitivists start with the develop-ment of agriculture and mass soci-ety.Of course civilization is a rather gen-eral term, as is technology. Few of these primitivists have taken this ar-gument to its logical conclusion. Onewho has is John Zerzan who iden-tiﬁes the root of the problem in theevolution of language and abstractthought. This is a logical end pointfor the primitivist rejection of masssociety.For the purposes of this article I’mtaking as a starting point that theform of future society that primi-tivists argue for would be broadlysimilar in technological terms to thatwhich existed around 12,000 yearsago on earth, at the dawn of the ag-ricultural revolution. By this I do notclaim that they want to ‘go back’,something that is in any case impos-sible. But rather that if you seek togo forward by getting rid of all thetechnology of the agricultural revo-lution and beyond what results willlook quite like pre-agricultural socie-ties of 10,000 BC. As this is the onlyexample we have of such a society inoperation it seems reasonable to useit to evaluate the primitivist claims.
A question of numbers
Hunter-gatherers live off the foodthey can hunt or gather, hence thename. Animals can be hunted ortrapped while fruits, nuts, greensand roots are gathered. Before about12,000 years ago every human onthe planet lived as a hunter-gatherer.Today only a tiny number of peopledo, in isolated and marginal regionsof the planet including deserts, ar-tic tundra and jungle. Some of thesegroups like the Acre have only had
Civilisation, Primitivismand anarchism
Over the last decade a generalized critique of civilization has been madeby a number of authors, mostly based in the USA. Some of these havechosen to identify as anarchists although the more general self-identiﬁca-tion is primitivist. There overall argument is that ‘civilisation’ itself is theproblem that results in our failure to live rewarding lives. The struggle forchange is thus a struggle against civilization and for an earth where technol-ogy has been eliminated. This is an interesting argument that has some mer-its as an intellectual exercise. But the problem is that some of its adherentshave used primitivism as a base from which to attack all other proposals forchanging society. Facing this challenge anarchists need to ﬁrst look to see ifprimitivism offers any sort of realistic alternative to the world as it is.