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primitivism

primitivism

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Published by Serdar Aygün

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Published by: Serdar Aygün on Jul 03, 2010
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Civilisation, Primitivismand anarchism
Over the last decade a generalizedcritique of civilization has been madeby a number of authors. Some of thesehave chosen to identify as anarchistsalthough the more general self-iden-tification is primitivist. Their overallargument is that ‘civilisation’ itself isthe problem that results in our failureto live rewarding lives. The strugglefor change is thus a struggle againstcivilization and for an earth wheretechnology has been eliminated.Facing this challenge anarchists needto look to see if primitivism offersany sort of realistic alternative to theworld as it is.
&
The article
‘Civilisation, Primitivism and Anarchism’ 
sketched out the glaring contradictions in primitivismand where it clashed with anarchism. The article hascirculated on and off-line over the year and sparked nu-merous discussions. A number of primitivists, including John Zerzan, have replied directly to it, and others havepublished what appear to be indirect replies. Here I wantto answer the direct replies and, in doing so, expand thecritique of primitivism.
Is primitivism realistic:
an anarchist reply to John Zerzan and others
 
A PDF pamphlet from the Struggle site - http://struggle.ws - http://anarchism.ws
 
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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’[1].
“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.
 
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contact with the rest of the planetin recent decades(2), others like theInuit(3) have had contact for longperiods of time and so have adoptedtechnologies beyond those developedlocally. These latter groups are verymuch part of the global civilizationand have contributed to the develop-ment of new technologies in this civi-lization.In marginal ecosystems hunter-gath-ering often represents the only feasi- ble way of producing food. The desertis too dry for sustained agricultureand the arctic too cold. The only otherpossibility is pastoralism, the relianceon semi-domesticated animals as afood source. For instance in the Scan-dinavian arctic the Sami(4) control themovement of huge reindeer herds toprovide a regular food source.Hunter-gatherers survive on the foodthey hunt and gather. This requiresvery low population densities as pop-ulation growth is limited by the needto avoid over hunting. Too much gath-ering of food plants can also serve toreduce the number of plants that areavailable in the future. This is the coreproblem with the primitivist idea thatthe whole planet could live as hunter-gatherers: there is not nearly enoughfood produced in natural ecosystemsfor even a fraction of the current pop-ulation of the world to do so.It should be obvious that the amountof calories available to humans asfood in an acre of oak forest will be alot lower then the amount of caloriesavailable to humans in an acre of corn.Agriculture provides far, far more use-ful calories per acre than hunter gath-ering in the same acre would. That is because we have spent 12,000 yearsselecting plants and improving agri-cultural techniques so that per acrewe cram in lots of productive plantsthat put their energy into producingplant parts that are food for us rath-er then plant parts that are not foodfor us. Compare any cultivated grainwith its wild relative and you will seean illustration of this, the cultivatedform will have much bigger grainsand a much larger proportion of grainto stalk and foliage. We have chosenplants that produce a high ratio of ed-ible biomass.In other words a pine tree may be asgood or better then a lettuce at cap-turing the solar energy that falls on it.But with the lettuce a huge percentageof the captured energy goes into food(around 75%). With pine tree noneof the energy produces food we caneat. Compare the amount of food to be found in a nearby woodland withthe amount you can grow in a coupleof square meters of garden cultivatedin even an organic low energy fash-ion and you’ll see why agriculture isa must have for the population of theplanet. An acre of organically grownpotato can yield 15,000 lbs of food(5).A a square that is 70 yards wide and70 yards long measures just over anacre.The estimated population of humanon the earth before the advent of ag-riculture (10,000 BC) varies with someestimates as low as 250,000 (6) Otherestimates for the pre-agriculturalhunter gather population are moregenerous, in the range of 6 to 10 mil-lion.(7). The earth’s current popula-tion is nearing 6,000 million.This 6,000 million are almost all sup-ported by agriculture. They could not be supported by hunter gathering,indeed it is suggested that even the10 million hunter gathers who mayhave existed before agriculture mayhave been a non sustainable number.Evidence for this can be seen in thePleistocene overkill(8), a period from12,000 to 10,000 BC in which 200 gen-era of large mammals went extinct. Inthe Americas in this period over 80%of the population of large mammals became extinct.(9) That this was dueto over hunting is one controversialhypothesis. If correct than the adventof agriculture (and civilisation) mayeven have then due to the absence of large game which forced hunter gath-ers to ‘settle down’ and find otherways of obtaining food.Certainly in recorded history the sameover hunting has been observed withthe arrival of man on isolated Polyne-sian islands. Over hunting caused theextinction of the Dodo in Mauretaniaand the Moa in New Zealand not tomention many less famous species.
Living in the bog in winter
Another way of looking at the factthat primitivism cannot support all of the people of the planet is more anec-dotal and uses Ireland (where I live)as an example. Left to itself the Irishcountryside would consist mostly of mature oak forest with some hazelscrub and bogs. Go into an oak for-est and see how much food you cangather - if you know your stuff thereis some. Acorns, fruit on brambles inclearings, some wild garlic, strawber-ries, edible fungi, wild honey, and themeat from animals like deer, squir-rel, wild goat and pigeon that can behunted. But this is many, many, manyfewer calories then the same area cul-tivated as wheat or potatoes wouldyield. There is simply not enoughland in Ireland to support 5 million,the current population of the island,as hunter gatherers.Typically hunter gathers live at a pop-ulation density of 1 per 10 square km.(Ireland’s present population den-sity is around 500 per 10 square kmor 500 times this). By extending thisstandard calculation from elsewhereon the planet the number that could be supported in Ireland would be lessthen 70,000. Probably a lot less as only20% of Ireland is arable land. Blanket bog or Burren karst provide little inthe way of food useful for humans. Inwinter there would be very little foodto be gathered (perhaps small cachesof nuts hidden by squirrels and somewild honey) and that even 70,000 peo-ple living off hunting would eradi-cate the large mammals (deer, wildgoat) very quickly. The coastal areasand larger rivers and lakes would bethe main source of hunting and somegathering in the form of shellfish andedible seaweed.But being generous and assumingthat somehow Ireland could sustain70,000 hunter gatherers we discoverwe need to ‘reduce’ the population bysome 4,930,000. Or 98.6%. The actualarchaeological estimates for the popu-lation of Ireland before the arrival of agriculture is around 7,000 people.The idea that a certain amount of landcan support a certain amount of peo-ple according to how it is (or in thiscase is not) cultivated is referred to asits ‘carrying capacity’. This can be es-timated for the earth as a whole. Onemodern calculation for hunter gathersactually give you 100 million as themaximum figure but just how muchof a maximum this is becomes clearwhen you realize that using similarmethods gives 30 billion as the maxi-mum farming figure.(10) That would

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