See W. Rubin, ed., Primitivism in 20th-Century Art (1988).
Anarcho-primitivism is an anarchist critique of the origins and progress of civilization. According to anarcho-primitivism, the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence gave rise to social stratification, coercion, and alienation. Anarcho-primitivists advocate a return to non-"civilized" ways of life through deindustrialisation, abolition of division of labour or specialization, and abandonment of technology. There are other non-anarchist forms of primitivism, and not all primitivists point to the same phenomenon as the source of modern, civilized problems.
Many traditional anarchists reject the critique of civilization, many even denying that anarcho-primitivism has anything to do with anarchism, while some, such as Wolfi Landstreicher, endorse the critique but do not consider themselves anarcho-primitivists. Anarcho-primitivists are often distinguished by their focus on the praxis of achieving a feral state of being through "rewilding".
Despite its rejection of what it characterizes as scientism, primitivism has drawn heavily upon cultural anthropology and archaeology. Within the last half-century, societies once viewed as barbaric have been largely reevaluated by academics, some of whom now hold that early humans lived in relative peace and prosperity. Frank Hole, an early-agriculture specialist, and Kent Flannery, a specialist in Mesoamerican civilization, have noted that, "No group on earth has more leisure time than hunters and gatherers, who spend it primarily on games, conversation and relaxing."
Scholars such as Karl Polanyi and Marshall Sahlins characterized primitive societies as gift economies with "goods valued for their utility or beauty rather than cost; commodities exchanged more on the basis of need than of exchange value; distribution to the society at large without regard to labor that members have invested; labor performed without the idea of a wage in return or individual benefit, indeed largely without the notion of 'work' at all. Other scholars and thinkers such as Paul Shepard, influenced by anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, have written of the "Evolutionary Principle" which roughly states that when a species is removed from its natural habitat its behaviors will become pathological. Shepard has written at length on ways in which the human species' natural "ontogeny", which developed through millions of years of evolution in a foraging mode of existence, has been disrupted due to a sedentary lifestyle caused by agriculture.
Anarcho-primitivists describe the rise of civilization as the shift over the past 10,000 years from an existence within and deeply connected to the web of life, to one separated from and in control of the rest of life. They argue that prior to civilization there generally existed ample leisure time, considerable gender equality and social equality, a non-destructive approach to the natural world, the absence of organized violence, no mediating or formal institutions, and strong health and robustness. Anarcho-primitivists state that civilization inaugurated warfare, the subjugation of women, population growth, busy work, concepts of property, entrenched hierarchies, as well as encouraging the spread of diseases. They claim that civilization begins with and relies on an enforced renunciation of instinctual freedom and that it is impossible to reform away such a renunciation.
Anarcho-primitivists argue that symbolic culture filters our entire perception through formal and informal symbols and separates us from direct and unmediated contact with reality. It goes beyond just giving things names, and extends to having an indirect relationship with a distorted image of the world that has passed through the lens of representation. It is debatable whether humans are "hard-wired" for symbolic thought, or if it developed as a cultural change or adaptation, but, according to anarcho-primitivists, the symbolic mode of expression and understanding is limited and deceptive, and over-dependence upon it leads to objectification, alienation, and perceptual tunnel vision. Many anarcho-primitivists promote and practice getting back in touch with and rekindling dormant and/or underutilized methods of interaction and cognition, such as touch and smell, as well as experimenting with and developing unique and personal modes of comprehension and expression.
Primitivists also describe it (more specifically) as the process by which previously nomadic human populations shift towards a sedentary or settled existence through agriculture and animal husbandry. They claim that this kind of domestication demands a totalitarian relationship with both the land and the plants and animals being domesticated - ultimately, it even requires a totalitarian relationship with humanity. They say that whereas, in a state of wildness, all life shares and competes for resources, domestication destroys this balance. The domesticated landscape (e.g. pastoral lands/agricultural fields and, to a lesser degree, horticulture and gardening) is seen to necessitate the end of open sharing of the resources that formerly existed; where once “this was everyone’s,” it is now “mine.” Anarcho-primitivists argue that this notion of ownership laid the foundation for social hierarchy as property and power emerged. It inevitably entailed the cultivation and exploitation of the surrounding environs and the creation of a simultaneous monopoly and monopsony by humans, and for humans - generating over time the value-based social structures we now know in which every conceivable physical thing from food to earth to genes to ideas are viewed as quantifiable assets, which are someone's private property. It also involved the destruction, enslavement, or assimilation of other groups of early people who did not attempt to make such a transition, or who were not as far along in the transition as the destroying, enslaving, and assimilating groups.
To primitivists, domestication not only changes the ecology from a free to a totalitarian order, it enslaves the species that are domesticated, as well as the domesticators themselves. According to primitivism, then, humans are nearing the beginning of the last phase of the domestication process as we are now experimenting with direct genetic engineering, and are making dramatic and frightening advances in the fields of psychology, anthropology, and sociology. This thereby allows us to quantify and objectify ourselves, until we too become commodities and property of no greater or lesser fundamental import than any other asset.
Patriarchy, to a primitivist, demands the subjugation of the feminine and the usurpation of nature, propelling us toward total annihilation. They argue further that it defines power, control and dominion over wildness, freedom and life. They say that patriarchal conditioning dictates all of our interactions: with ourselves, our sexuality, our relationships to each other, and our relationship to nature. They claim it severely limits the spectrum of possible experience.
Modern scientific thought, according to primitivists, attempts to see the world as a collection of separate objects to be observed and understood. In order to accomplish this task, primitivists believe that scientists must distance themselves emotionally and physically, to have a one-way channel of information moving from the observed thing to the observer's self, which is defined as not a part of that thing.
Primitivists argue that this mechanistic worldview is tantamount to being the dominant religion of our time. Believing that science seeks to deal only with the quantitative, primitivists suggest that it does not admit subjective values or emotions. While primitivists perceive science as claiming that only those things that are reproducible, predictable, and the same for all observers are real and important, primitivists believe that reality itself is not reproducible, predictable, or the same for all observers.
Science is seen by primitivists as only partially considering reality, and is therefore guilty of putative reductionism. Observability, objectifiability, quantifiability, predictability, controllability, and uniformity are said to be the objects and means of science. This, say primitivists, leads to the world view that everything should be objectified, quantified, controlled, and in uniformity with everything and everyone else. Primitivists also see science as promoting the idea that anomalous experience, anomalous ideas, and anomalous people should be cast off or destroyed like imperfectly shaped machine components.
Modern technology is held by primitivists to be distinct from simple tools in many regards. A simple tool is considered a temporary usage of an element within our immediate surroundings, used for a specific task. Tools are not viewed as involving complex systems which alienate the user from the act. Primitivists claim that this separation is implicit in technology, which creates an unhealthy and mediated experience which leads to various forms of authority. Domination is said to increase every time a modern “time-saving” technology is created, as primitivists claim it necessitates the construction of more technology to support, fuel, maintain, and repair the original technology. It is argued by primitivists that this leads very rapidly to the establishment of a complex technological system that seems to have an existence independent of the humans who created it. Primitivists believe that this system methodically destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, constructing a world fit only for machines.
According to primitivists a key component of the modern techno-capitalist structure is industrialism, the mechanized system of production built on centralized power and the exploitation of people and nature. Industrialism cannot exist, they say, without genocide, ecocide, and colonialism. They further say that to maintain it, coercion, land evictions, forced labor, cultural destruction, assimilation, ecological devastation, and global trade are accepted as necessary, even benign. Primitivists claim industrialism’s standardization of life objectifies and commodifies it, viewing all life as a potential resource. They see their critique of industrialism as a natural extension of the anarchist critique of the state because they see industrialism as inherently authoritarian.
The primitivist argument against industrialism is such: In order to maintain an industrial society, one must set out to conquer and colonize lands in order to unsustainably acquire (generally) non-renewable resources to construct, feed, fuel, and grease the machines. This colonialism is rationalized by racism, sexism, and cultural chauvinism. In the process of acquiring these resources, people must be forced off their land. Additionally, in order to make people work in the factories that produce the machines, they must be dispossessed, enslaved, made dependent, and otherwise subjected to the destructive, toxic, degrading industrial system.
Primitivists hold that industrialism cannot exist without massive centralization and specialization. Furthermore, they hold that industrialism demands that resources be shipped from all over the globe in order to perpetuate its existence, and this globalism, they say, undermines local autonomy and self-sufficiency.
Finally primitivists contend that a mechanistic worldview is behind industrialism, and that this same world-view has justified slavery, genocide, ecocide, and the subjugation of women.
According to primitivists, mass society brutally collides not only with autonomy and the individual, but also with the earth and the network of ecological relationships which make up its living communities. They see it as simply not sustainable (in terms of the resource extraction, transportation, and communication systems necessary for any global economic system). It cannot continue indefinitely, nor is it possible to create alternative plans for a sustainable and humane mass society.
Primitivists argue that organizational models only provide us with more of the same. While it is recognized by some primitivists that there might be an occasional good intention, the organizational model is seen as coming from an inherently paternalistic and distrusting mindset which they hold is contradictory to anarchy. Primitivists believe that true relationships of affinity come from a deep understanding of one another through intimate need-based relationships of day-to-day life, not relationships based on organizations, ideologies, or abstract ideas. They say that the organizational model suppresses individual needs and desires for “the good of the collective” as it attempts to standardize both resistance and vision. From parties, to platforms, to federations, primitivists argue that as the scale of projects increase, the meaning and relevance they have to an individual’s own life decrease.
Rather than the familiar organizational model, primitivists advocate the use of informal, affinity-based associations that they claim tend to minimize alienation from decision-making processes, and reduce mediation between our desires and our actions.
Reform, on the other hand, is seen as entailing any activity or strategy aimed at adjusting, altering, or selectively maintaining elements of the current system, typically utilizing the methods or apparatus of that system. The goals and methods of revolution, it is argued, cannot be dictated by, nor performed within, the context of the system. For anarchists, revolution and reform invoke incompatible methods and aims, and despite the use of certain pragmatic expedient approaches, do not exist on a continuum.
For primitivists, revolutionary activity questions, challenges, and works to dismantle the entire set-up or paradigm of civilization. Revolution is not seen as a far-off or distant singular event which we build towards or prepare people for, but instead, a way of life, or a practice of approaching situations.
Primitivists claim they owe much to the Situationists, and their critique of the Spectacle and alienating commodity society. Deep ecology informs the primitivist perspective with an understanding that the well-being and flourishing of all life is linked to the awareness of the inherent worth and intrinsic value of the non-human world independent of its economic use value. Primitivists see deep ecology’s appreciation for the richness and diversity of life as contributing to the realization that present human interference with the non-human world is coercive and excessive.
Bioregionalists bring the perspective of living within one’s bioregion, and being intimately connected to the land, water, climate, plants, animals, and general patterns of their bioregion.
Primitivists have been profoundly influenced by the various indigenous cultures and earth-based peoples throughout history and those who still currently exist. While primitivists attempt to learn and incorporate sustainable techniques for survival and healthier ways of interacting with life, they see it as important not to flatten or generalize native peoples and their cultures, and to respect and attempt to understand their diversity without co-opting cultural identities and characteristics. Primitivists also feel that it is important to understand that all humans have come from earth-based peoples forcibly removed from our connections with the earth, and therefore have a place within anti-colonial struggles.
They are also inspired by the feral, those who have escaped domestication and have re-integrated with the wild. And, of course, primitivists honor the wild beings which make up the Earth. It is important to remember that, while many anarcho-primitivists draw influence from similar sources, anarcho-primitivism is something very personal to each individual who identifies or connects with these ideas and actions.
Rewilding is also described as having an emotional component, which involves healing ourselves and each other from what are perceived as 10,000-year-old wounds, learning how to live together in non-hierarchical and non-oppressive communities, and de-constructing the domesticating mindset in our social patterns. To the primitivist, “rewilding includes prioritizing direct experience and passion over mediation and alienation, re-thinking every dynamic and aspect of reality, connecting with our feral fury to defend our lives and to fight for a liberated existence, developing more trust in our intuition and being more connected to our instincts, and regaining the balance that has been virtually destroyed after thousands of years of patriarchal control and domestication. Rewilding is the process of becoming uncivilized.”
Anarcho-primitivism is associated with and has influenced the radical tendencies within Neo-Tribalism.
Both critics and proponents of anarcho-primitivism agree that if everyone lived as a hunter-gatherer, the earth would be able to support far fewer people, possibly as little as one hundredth of today's 6.5 billion. Primitivists assert that humanity has exceeded the limits of its resource base and that consequently the earth is now overpopulated to the point of imminent collapse. They see a population crash as both inevitable and desirable, being the only possible route to a sustainable anarchist future. Many radicals believe this will be inevitable due to the peak oil crisis.
Anarcho-primitivists, based on several anthropological references, argue that Hunter-gatherer societies, by their very nature are less susceptible to war, violence and diseases. Furthermore, they emphasize the violence of alienation and purposelessness which they see as stemming from technological civilization.
Derrick Jensen has responded to these critics first by saying that it "reveals the weakness of their own position: they cannot rebut the substance of our message, so they simply attack the messenger." Additionally he states emphatically that the critics are accurate in saying that primitivists do not live a primitivist lifestyle; everything about our civilization is inherently destructive, whether buying his books or "something from Global Exchange". In this he indicates that no legitimate options exist within the system and it is necessary that people "dismantle the industrial economy.
He later adds that although it is important for people to make lifestyle changes to mitigate damage, "to assign primary responsibility to oneself, and to focus primarily on making oneself better, is an immense copout, an abrogation of responsibility. With all the world at stake, it is self-indulgent, self-righteous, and self-important. It is also nearly ubiquitous. And it serves the interests of those in power by keeping our focus off them.
Some have argued that the primitivist distinction between acceptable tool use and unacceptable technological dependence is incoherent and cannot be sustained in the light of archaeological and anthropological evidence. Tool use in modern hunter-gatherer societies, it is argued, cannot be characterised as merely a temporary usage of an element from the immediate surroundings used for a specific task. This would be a better description of chimpanzee tool use Rather, tool culture is complex and organised, and often involves a degree of division of labour, as well as considerable knowledge of the local environment. Tools and other objects of value have been traded since the Middle Paleolithic 120,000 years ago.