Why Primitivism

Why Primitivism?
John Zerzan

Guy Debord’s biographer has formulated today’s puzzle as to why “the results of human activity are so antagonistic to humanity,” (1) recalling a question posed nearly 50 years ago: “What has become of that opportunity to become more fully human that the ‘control of nature’ was to provide?” (2) The general crisis is rapidly deepening in every sphere of life. On the biospheric level, this reality is so well-known that it could be termed banal, if it were not so horrifying: increasing rates of species extinctions, proliferating dead zones in the world’s oceans, ozone holes, disappearing rainforests, global warming, the pervasive poisoning of air, water, and soil, etc.

A grisly link to the social world is widespread pharmaceutical contamination of watersheds. (3) In this case, destruction is driven by massive alienation, masked by drugs. In the U.S., life-threatening obesity is rising, and millions suffer from serious depression and or anxiety. (4) There are frequent eruptions of multiple homicides in homes, schools, and workplaces, while the suicide rate among young people has tripled in recent decades. (5) Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and other “mystery” psychosomatic illnesses have multiplied, vying with the emergence of new diseases with known physiological origins: Ebola, Lassa fever, AIDS, Legionnaires’ disease. The illusion of technological mastery is mocked by the antibiotic-resistant return of TB and malaria, not to mention outbreaks of E coli, Mad Cow disease, West Nile virus, etc. Barely suppressed anger, a sense of emptiness, corrosion of belief in institutions, high stress levels all contribute to what Claude Kamoouh has called “the
growing fracture of the social bond.” (6)

Today’s reality underlines the inadequacy of current diagnoses and the overall retreat from any redemptive project. What is left of life on earth is being taken away. Where is the depth of analysis to match the extremity of the human condition and the fragility of the planet’s future? Is a totalizing current of degradation and loss all that is left?

The crisis is diffuse, but also starkly visible on every level. As Ulrich Beck put it: “people have begun to question modernity… its premises have begun to wobble. Many people are deeply upset over the house-of-cards character of super -industrialism.” (7) The human condition becomes less stable and more chaos-prone the further one moves away from nature, contrary to the dominant ideology of progress and development.(8) With disenchantment comes a growing sense that something different is urgently needed. The challenge is at a depth that is almost entirely avoided. To go beyond the prospectless malaise and the collapse of social confidence, the analytical perspective must shift radically. (9) This would consist, for openers, in refusing Foucault’s conclusion that human relations are inescapably technologized. (10) As Voegelin put it, “The death of the spirit is the price of progress.” (11) But if the progress of nihilism is identical to the nihilism of progress, whence the rupture? How can one pose a radical break from progress, technology and modernity? A quick scan of recent academic fads shows precisely where such a perspective has not been found.

Fredric Jameson’s formulation introduces the subject: “Postmodernism is what you have when the modernization process is complete and nature is gone for good.” (12) Postmodernism is the mirror of an ethos of defeat and reaction (13), a failure of will and intellect that has accommodated to new extremes of estrangement and destruction. For postmodernists, almost nothing can be opposed. After all, reality is so messy, shifting, complex, indeterminate; and oppositions are, of course, just so many false binarisms. Vacuous jargon and endless side-stepping transcend passe dualisms. In the consumerist realm of freedom, “this complex node, where technologies are diffused, where technologies are chosen,” (14) who can say if anything is at all amiss? (15) The fixation on surface (depth is an illusion; so are presence and immediacy), the ban on unifying narratives and inquiry into origins, indifference to method and evidence, emphasis on effects and novelty, all find their expression in postmodern culture at large. These attitudes and practices spread everywhere, along with the technology it embraces without reservation. At the same time, there are signs that these trivializing and derivative recipes for “thought” may be losing their appeal. (16) An antidote to postmodern surrender has been made available, largely through what is known as the anti-globalization movement.

Lyotard, who thought that technologized existence offered options, now writes about the sinister development of a nee-totalitarian, instrumentalist imprisonment. Earlier, he pointed to a loss of affect as part of the postmodern condition. More recently, he has attributed this loss to techno-scientific hegemony. Crippled individuals are only part of the picture, as Lyotard portrays social effects of instrumental reason in pathological ascendance. Contra Jurgen Habermas, this domination by instrumental reason is in no way challenged by “communicative action.” (17) Referring to global urban development, Lyotard stated: “We inhabit the megalopolis only to the extent that we declare it uninhabitable. Otherwise, we are just lodged there.” Also, “with the megalopolis, what is called the West realizes and diffuses its nihilism. It is called development.” (18) In other words, there may be a way out of the postmodern cul-de-sac, at least for some.

Those still embroiled in the left have a much different legacy of failure to jettison—that obviously transcends the “merely” cultural. Discredited and dying as an actual alternative, this perspective also needs to go. Thus, self-described communist militants such as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have no notion whatsoever of the enveloping crisis. They continue to seek “alternatives within modernity.” They locate the force behind their communist revolution in “the new productive practices and the concentration of productive labor on the plastic and fluid terrain of the new communicative, biological, and mechanical technologies.” (19) The leftist analysis valiantly upholds the heart ofproductionist Marxism, in the face of ever-advancing, standardizing, destructive technique. Small wonder Hardt and Negri fail to consider the pulverization of indigenous cultures and the natural world, or the steady worldwide movement toward complete dehumanization.

Kamoouh considers monstrous “the idea that progress consists in the total control of the genetic stock of all living beings.” This would amount to an unfreedom “that even the bloodiest totalitarianism of the 20th century was not able to accomplish.” (20) Hardt and Negri would not shrink from such control, since they do not question any of its premises, dynamics, or preconditions. It is no small irony that the militants of Empire stand exposed for their incomprehension of the trajectory of modernity by one of their opposite number, Oswald Spengler. The Decline of the West is a master-work of world history, and Spengler’s grasp of Western civilization’s inner logic is uncanny in its prescience. Especially relevant here are Spengler’s judgments concerning technological dcwJopmea and its social, cultural, and environmental imparts He saw that the dynamic. Promethean (“Faustian”) nature of global dviimion becomes fully realized as self-destructive mass society and equally calamitous modern technology. The subjugation of nature leads ineluctably to its destruction, and to the destruction of civilization. “An artifical world is permeating and poisoning the natural. The The Civilization itself has become a machine that does, or tries to do everything in mechanical terms.” (21) Civilized man is a “petty creator against Nature.” “…This revolutionary in the world of life…has become the slave of his creature. The Culture, the aggregate of artificial, personal, self-made life-forms, develops into a close-barred cage.…” (22)

Whereas Marx viewed industrial civilization as both reason incarnate and a permanent achievement, Spengler saw it as ultimately incompatible with its physical environment, and therefore suicidally transitory. “Higher Man is a tragedy. With his graves he leaves behind the earth a battlefield and a wasteland. He has drawn plant and animal, the sea and mountain into his decline. He has painted the face of the world with blood, deformed and mutilated it.” (23) Spengler understood that “the history of this technics is fast drawing to its inevitable close.” (24)

Theodor Adorno concurs with parts of Spengler’s thinking: “What can oppose the decline of the west is not a resurrected culture but the Utopia that is silently contained in the image of its decline.” (25) Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (26) has a critique of civilization centered around the focal image of Odysseus forcibly repressing the Sirens’ song of eros. The book’s central thesis is that “the history of civilization is…the history of renunciation” (27) If there is no escape from an all too well-known condition, what more is there to say? Herbert Marcuse tried to lay out an escape route in Eros and Civilization (28) by attempting to uncouple civilization from modernity. To preserve the “gains” of modernity, the solution is a “non-repressive” civilization. Marcuse would dispense with “surplus repression,” implying that repression is indispensable. Since modernity depends on production, itself a repressive institution, redefining work as free play can salvage both modernity and civilization. This is an implausible, even desperate defense of civilization. Marcuse fails to refute Freud’s view that civilization cannot be reformed.

Freud argued that non-repressive civilization is impossible, because the foundation of civilization is a ban on instinctual freedom and eros. To introduce work and culture, the ban must be permanently imposed. Since this repression and its constant maintenance are essential to civilization, universal civilization brings universal neurosis. (29) As a good bourgeois, Freud justified civilization on the grounds that work and culture are necessary, and that civilization enables humans to survive on a hostile planet. “The principal task of civilization, its actual raison d’etre, is to defend us against nature.” And further: “But how ungrateful, how short-sighted after all to strive for the abolition of civilization! What would then remain would be a state of nature, and that would be far harder to bear.” (30) Possibly civilization’s most fundamental ideological underpinning is Hobbes’ characterization of the pre-civilized state of nature as “nasty, brutish, and short.” Of course, Freud subscribed to this view, as did Adorno and Horkheimer.

Since the mid-1960s, there has been a shift in how anthropologists understand prehistory. (31) Based on a solid body of archaeological and ethnographic research, mainstream anthropology has abandoned the Hobbesian hypothesis. Life before or outside civilization is now defined more specifically as social existence prior to domestication of animals and plants. Mounting evidence indicates that before the Neolithic shift from a foraging or gatherer-hunter mode of existence to an agricultural lifeway, most people had ample free time, considerable gender autonomy or equality, an ethos of egalitarianism and sharing, and no organized violence. Archaeologists continue to uncover examples of how Paleolithic people led mainly peaceful, egalitarian, and healthy lives for about two million years. The use of fire to cook
tuberous vegetables as early as 1.9 million years ago, and long distance sea travel 800,000 years ago, are two findings among many that testify to an intelligence equal to that of today’s humans. (32)

Genetic engineering and imminent human cloning are just the most current manifestations of a dynamic of control and domination of nature that humans set in motion 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors began to domesticate animals and plants. In the 400 generations of human existence since then, all of natural life has been penetrated and colonized at the deepest levels, paralleling the controls that have been ever more thoroughly engineered at the social level. Now this trajectory can be seen for what it really is: a transformation that inevitably brought all-enveloping destruction that was in no way necessary. Significantly, the worldwide archaeological record demonstrates that many human groups tried agriculture and/or pastoralism, and later gave them up, falling back on more reliable foraging and hunting strategies. Others refused for generations to adopt the domestication practices of close neighbors.

It is here that a primitivist alternative has begun to emerge. Ever-growing documentation of human prehistory as a very long period of largely non-alienated life stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly stark failures of untenable modernity. (33) In the context of his discussion of the limitations of Habermas, Joel Whitebook wrote: “It may be that the scope of and depth of the social and ecological crisis are so great that nothing short of an epochal transformation of world views will be commensurate with them.”(34) Since that time, Castoriadis has concluded that a radical transformation will “have to launch an attack on the division of labor in its hitherto known forms.” (35) Division of labor, slowly emerging through prehistory, was the foundation of domestication and continues to drive the technological imperative forward. The challenge is to disprove George Grant’s thesis that this is “a world where only catastrophe can slow the unfolding of the potentialities of technique,” (36) and to actualize Kamoouh’s judgment that revolution can only be redefined against
progress. (37)


1. Anselm Jappe, Guy Debord (Berkeley: California University Press, 1999), p. 3.

2. Joseph Wood Krutch, Human Nature and the Human Condition (New York: Greenwood, 1959), p. 192.

3. Janet Raloff, “More Waters Test Positive for Drugs,” in Science News 157 (April 1,2000).

4. The dramatic upsurge in health-threatening obesity has occasioned many articles, but exact figures are elusive at this time. 27% of adult Americans suffer from depression or anxiety disorders. See G. S. Malhi, et al., “Recognizing the Anxious Face of Depression,” in Journal of Ner vous and Mental Diseases 190 (June 2002).

5. S. K. Goldsmith, T. C. Pellner, A. M. Kleinman, W. E. Bunney, eds..Reducing Suicide: A National Imperative (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2002).

6. Claude Kamoouh, “On Intereulturalism and Multiculturalism,” in Telos 110 (Winter 1998), p. 133.

7. Ulrich Beck, Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Prometheus Books, 1995), p. 37.

8. Agnes Heller, Can Modernity Survive? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 60.

9. See Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles, tr. by Frank Wynne (New York: Knopf, 2001). More prosaically, Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Blackwell, 2000) and Pierre Bordieu, Acts of Resistance: Against the Tyranny of the Market, tr. by Richard Nice (New York: New Press, 1999), characterize modem society along these lines.

10. Michel Foucault, “What is Enlightenment?” in The Foucault Reader, ed. by Paul Rabinow (New York: Random House, 1984), pp. 47-48.

11. Eric Voegelin, The Collected Works of Eric Vogelin, Vol. S, Modernity Without Restraint (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2000), p.105.

12. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or. The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991), p. ix.

13. John Zerzan, “The Catastrophe of Postmodernism,” in Future Primitive (New York/Columbia, MO: Autonomedia & Anarchy/C.A.L. Press, 1994). Thus, Daniel White prescribed “a postmodern-ecological rubric that steps past the traditional either-or of the Oppressor and Oppressed…” See his Postmodern Ecology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), p. 198. Bordieu referred to “the futility of the strident calls of ‘postmodern’ philosophers for the ‘suppression of dualism.’ These dualisms, deeply rooted in things (structures) and in bodies, do not spring from a simple effect of verbal naming and cannot be abolished by an act of performative magic…See Pierre Bordieu, Masculine Domination (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), p. 103.

14. See Mike Michael, Reconnecting Culture, Technology and Nature (London: Routledge, 2000) p. 8. The very title is testimony to the surrender to domination.

15. As an eloquent voice of postmodern abjectness, lain Chambers wonders whether alienation is not simply an eternal given: “What if alienation is a terrestrial constraint destined to frustrate the ‘progress’ introjected in all teleologies?…Perhaps there is no separate, autonomous alternative to the capitalist structuring of the present-day world. Modernity, the Westernization of the world, globalization, are the labels of an economic, political and cultural order that is seemingly installed for the foreseeable future.” See lain Chambers, Culture After Humanism (London: Routledge, 2002), pp. 122 and 41.

16. Recent titles indicate a shift. See, e.g., Martin Beck Matustic and William L. McBride, eds., Calvin 0. Schrag and the Task of Philosophy After Postmodemity (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2002) and Camel Flaskas, Family Therapy beyond Postmodernism (New York: Taylor and Francis Inc.. 2002). Tilottama Rajan and Michael J. Driscoll, eds. After Post-structuralism: Writing the Intellectual History of Theory (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002) is haunted by themes of origins and the primitive.

17. Jean-Francois Lyotard, “Domus and the Megalopolis” [which could very well have been called, in anti-postmodernist fashion, “From Domus to the Megalopolis”] in The Inhuman: Reflections of Time (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), p. 200.

18. Ibid., p. 200, and Jean-Francois Lyotard, Postmodern Fables (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), p. 23.

19. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, ‘ 2000), p. 218.

20. Claude Kamoouh, “Heidegger on History and Politics as Events,” in Telos 120 (Summer 2001), p. 126.

21. Oswald Spengler, Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life, tr. by Charles F. Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1932), p. 94.

22. Ibid., p. 69.

23. Oswald Spengler, Fruhzeit der Weltgeschichte, #20. Quoted in John Farrenkopf, Prophet of Decline (Baton Rouge, LA: University of Louisiana Press, 2001), p. 224.

24. Spengler, Man and Technics, op. cit., 103.

25. Theodor W. Adorno; Prisms (Cambridge. MA: MIT Press, 1990), p. 72.

26. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002).

27. Ibid., p. 55. As Albrecht Wellmer summed it up, “Dialectic of Enlightenment is the theory of an irredeemably darkened modernity.” See Albrecht Wellmer, Endgames: the Irreconcilable Nstwe of Modernity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 1998), p. 255.

28. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Boston: Beacon Press, 1990).

29. Stgmund Freud, Civilization and its Discontents (New York: Random House, 1994). Durkheim had already noted that as humankind “”advances” with civilization and the divison of labor, “the general happiness of society is decreasing.” See Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997), p. 249.

30. Sigmund Freud, “The Future of an Illusion,” in The Complete Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 21 (London: Norton, 1976), p. 15.

31. A misleadingly-named “Man the Hunter” conference at the University of Chicago in 1966 launched the reversal of the Hobbesian view, which for centuries had provided ready justification for all the repressive institutions of a complex, imperializing Western culture. Supporting evidence for the .new paradigm has come forth from archaeologists and anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins, Richard B. Lee, Adrienne Zihiman, and many others. See Eleanor Leacock and Richard B. Lee, Politics and History in Band Societies (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982); Richard B. Lee and Richard Daly, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Hunters and Gatherers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics (Chicago: Aldine de Grecyter, 1972); Colin Turnbull, The Forest People (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988); Adrienne Zihiman, et al.. The Evolving Female (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

32. See, e.g., M. J. Morwood, et al., “Fission-track Ages of Stone Tools and Fossils on the East Indonesian Island of Flores,” in Nature (March 12, 1998).

33. This critique is growing in the US, via periodicals such as Anarchy, Disorderly Conduct, The Final Days, Green Anarchy, Green Journal, and Species Traitor. See also Chellis Glendinning, My Name is Chellis and I’m in Recovery from Western Civilization (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1994); Derrick Jensen, Culture of Make Believe (New York: Context Books, 2002); Daniel Quinn, Ishmael (New York: Bantam, 1995); John Zerzan. Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Los Angeles: Feral House, 2002).

34. Joel Whitebook, “The Problem of Nature in Habermas,” in Telos 40 (Summer, 1979), p. 69.

35. Cornelius Castoriadis, Crossroads in the Labyrinth (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1984), p. 257. See also Keekok Lee, “To De-Industrialize—Is It So Irrational?” in The Politics of Nature, ed. by Andrew Gobson and Paul Lucardie (London: Routledge, 1993).

36. George Grant, Technology and Empire (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1969), p. 142. Of course, the situation grows more and more grave, with sudden, dire changes very possible. See M. Sheffer, et al., “Catastrophic Shifts in Ecosystems,” in Nature (October 11, 2001); M. Marion and W.M. Evan on the growing likelihood of disasters, “Technological Catastrophes: their causes and preventions.” in Technology in Society 24 (2002), pp. 207-224.

37. Claude Kamoouh, “Technology and Destiny,” in Telos 124 (Summer, 2002), pp. 71-94.

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