Title: Anarcho-Primitivism: The Green Scare in Green Political Theory
Author: Michael Becker
Date: 2010
Source: Retrieved on 8 September 2011 from papers.ssrn.com
Notes: Michael Becker
Department of Political Science
California State University, Fresno
Paper presented at the Western Political Science Association Annual Conference San Francisco, California, April 1–3, 2010


Today, the fall from grace is evaporating, even as metaphor. The shot at primordial redemption threatens to slip into the simulacrum. The magnitude of alienation from nature and the extent of mediated life is colossal. Falling away from primitive origins has led, finally, into an abyss of artificially reproduced existence and meaninglessness. But, the hyper-technical recognizes nothing external to it; the threat is thus not dis-closed. It is as if the captains of the Titanic not only fail to see the icebergs but refuse to recognize the sea.

Cybernetic life dispenses with a basic dialectical tension between civilization and primitive existence that has always appeared in the consciousness of civilized cultures. [1] For the AI or genetics engineer such a split simply does not exist. There is no nature and no primitive. Humans are in no essential way a part of nature. On the contrary human destiny is fulfilled when the body and mind are synthesized within a fully artificial environment. Paradoxically, the oblivion of natural existence is reinforced, philosophically and psychologically, by some of the most well known representatives of environmental theory and ethics. Their conceptions of a liveable future are fully compatible with cybernetics. Take Paul Taylor’s “Respect for Nature.” Taylor argues for a truce between the human world, civilization, and the non-human, natural world. Nature is pristine, untrammeled by humans. Human presence, by definition, negates the existence of the natural. As humans are fundamentally separate from nature, there is no conceivable reason why a cybernetic civilization, taking Taylor’s view, would be ethically objectionable so long as room is maintained for separate, flourishing eco-systems.

But Taylor’s position — what I refer to as “green political theory” — reiterates the nihilism of cybernetics; it collapses all human existence into civilization and thus again breaks the tension between civilized and primitive. As a rule, in Taylor and green political theory generally, still surviving and past primitive cultures are ignored. Were they recognized one assumes that they would be regarded as less than fully human, a kind of proto-technological version of ourselves. By this occlusion, the consciousness of a tension between civilization and the primitive is broken. Even the memory of an original unity of humans with natural existence is obliterated. The technological totality grows.

Green anarchists and anarcho-primitivists, by contrast, highlight the tension, arguing that civilization is an inherent threat to nature as a whole and to the wildness of our own nature as humans. [2] Rather than ignore the fall or accept it as irrevocable, green anarchists insist that it is not just possible, but necessary, to re-imagine and return to an existence embedded in unity with the living flux of reality, the lifeworld common to all existence. At its center the fall is the rending of simultaneity with nature. The pre-theoretical, affective experience of the lifeworld was disrupted by basic, reified abstractions, most fundamentally notions of space and time. The fall is the substitution of abstraction for lived experience, mediation and control for immediacy and intimacy. It is on the basis of this psychotically violent rupture of “Man” and nature that the systematized violence of civilization against human and non-human nature proceeds.

Mainstream green political theorists and organizations repudiate attacks against institutions and offer rewards for the capture of radical environmentalists. [3] But it is not so much the tactics that are the target of green political theorists and organizations. Rather, it is the suggestion of a return to the primitive — the healing of the wound that is abstraction, a wound that tears us from the world and tears the world to pieces. Green theorists are allies of a civilizational project that has no connection with the world of sensuous nature. Green anarchists advocate war against that project. Anarcho-primitivists are bringing the war home to an unfamiliar terrain: the intersection between perception and the living sensuous field that shelters the senses.

I. Errant Bio-Centrism

Green political theorists hold that nature and humans are separate. Nature is what remains of wilderness, untouched and unaffected by humans. The role of rational persons is to restrain certain activities that would vitiate whatever is left of wildlands. Current socioeconomic and political arrangements are suitable for the task of both assuring the extension and improvement of civilization and protecting wilderness. Educating the public and using legal, state-sanctioned forms of political participation will create policy changes sufficient for balancing the needs of humans and of nature.

Paul Taylor’s “Respect for Nature” is a perfect illustration of “green political theory.” Consider Taylor’s definition of “nature.” Taylor defines the “natural world” as the “entire set of natural eco-systems on our planet along with the populations of animals and plants that make up the biotic communities of those eco-systems.” But ecosystems do not include humans. An ecosystem is “any collection of ecologically interrelated living things that, without human intrusion or control, maintain their existence as species-populations over time [emphasis added]” (Taylor, 3). Taylor mentions two types of eco-systems: those that have been affected by human activity but are being remediated and “those that have never been exploited by humans and have not undergone any major changes as the effect of human culture and technology” (Taylor, 3). Humans, for Taylor, take their very sustenance not from nature but from an artificially produced realm of “bioculture” encompassing the domesticated plants and animals used by humans. (Taylor, 55–58) Indeed the point of environmental ethics is to understand whether humans have any moral obligations toward the non-human world of nature. Environmental ethics will “encompass nothing less than the place of human civilization in the natural world.” (Taylor, 9)

Now, by Taylor’s own definitions this strikes one as strange. Inasmuch as man and nature are separate, then, obviously, the place of man (the civilized world) cannot be “in” nature. Yet this locution occurs throughout the book generally along the lines of “the place of humans in the natural world.” (Taylor, 45) Taylor seems unaware of this contradiction, though, on occasion, he uses the term “community of Life.” Regarding a biocentric outlook “on nature” Taylor contends that one will be able to grasp oneself in “relation to other living things, and the whole set of natural ecosystems on our planet in terms of this outlook, [when] one identifies oneself as a member of the Earth’s community of Life.” (Taylor, 44) It would seem then that there exists the community of Life as the overarching category with two separate subcategories: humans and nature. Indeed, Taylor’s ultimate argument is that civilization, marked by human autonomy and reason, must be brought into balance with an entirely separate, territorially demarcated space called nature.

As if to reinforce this dichotomy Taylor turns to evolutionary biology. Whether from the point of view of gene mutation or environmental change, evolution presents a picture not of stasis, a balance of nature, but of constant change relating ultimately to the fitness of individual species members to survive. But that survival issue is a matter of fact and can tell us nothing about “whether humans ought to maintain or strengthen the stability and equilibrium” of ecosystems. Humans’ distinction from nature lies in our capacity as moral agents, according to Taylor, and it is not possible to “read off” from a supposed natural balance our appropriate conduct towards the natural world. Indeed, environmental ethics for Taylor involves establishing the rational groundwork for such behavior, and this is solely human, an act that can, in no way, be guided or directed by nature. Instead we must “search for our own principles.” (Taylor, 9) Set apart from nature, humans must make a choice in vacuo concerning their moral relationship to nature. The center of Taylor’s biocentrism is somewhere outside of natural ecosystems.

Taylor lists four factors that account for biocentrism: that citizenship in a community of life, a single organic context for existence, includes human and non-human beings; that, for them and us, maintenance of a healthy natural world is a basic prerequisite for living fully; that all organisms are teleological centers of life — we all share a biological orientation tending towards living well rather than suffering loss; and that, given the context of evolution, humans are not superior to other creatures. But in exploring each of these facets Taylor consistently refers to “free will and autonomy,” especially in regards to planning outcomes, as a fact that distinguishes humans from the rest of creation. Abstract temporality and its employment in anticipating the future and planning for it is held out by Taylor as the distinguishing natural attribute of humans. It is crucial to his understanding of the “fundamental duality between our biological nature and our moral autonomy. [emphasis added]” (Taylor, 48)

Humans are a biological species belonging to a particular taxonomic order and characterized by certain physiological functions. But humans are the only type of creature that can be characterized as a moral agent because each aspect of our existence — from the general life pattern to specific rules, even to the question of whether to continue to exist as a species or not — is allegedly open to deliberation and choice. Our human existence as a teleological center of life is unique to say the least in that even our continued species existence is open to choice. By contrast, non-human creatures are incapable of choice and thus can only be considered as moral subjects.

Thus the basic ethical question in Taylor’s account of respect for nature involves the point at which human non-basic interests, given moral agency, can legitimately override the basic interests of plants and animals as moral subjects.

The answer lies, first, in the role such interests play in the overall view of civilized life that rational and informed people tend to adopt autonomously as part of their total world outlook. Secondly, the special value given to these interests stems from the central place they occupy in people’s rational conception of their own true good. (Taylor, 281)

The interests Taylor is referring to require judgment by rational and educated persons and involve “maintaining a high level of culture” as well as “the legal, political and economic systems needed for the community’s steady advancement toward a high level of civilized life.” (Taylor, 281) Taylor’s assumption is that, somehow, people line up a range of lived options, from primitive to highly civilized, and then “autonomously” choose civilization — along, presumably, with capitalism and “representative government” as the means of delivering civilization’s goods. Admittedly, those eligible to choose are only those already highly tutored in civilization. “Human creations and productions judged as supremely inherently valuable by rational and enlightened members of society [emphasis original]” — things like museums, libraries, energy and transportation systems, and, I think, golf courses — may be built even if it means harm to wild plants, animals, and the natural environment. (Taylor, 282) Granted, Taylor develops a set of sophisticated principles for minimizing harm where civilizationally important activities impinge on the basic interests of natural creatures. But the fundamental hierarchy of “Man” over nature is unmistakable.

The ultimate purpose is “a world order on our planet where human civilization is brought into harmony with nature [emphasis original].”(Taylor, 308) Note that Taylor defines civilization as “equivalent to the total set of cultures on Earth at any given time.”(Taylor, 308) It would seem, then, that primitive peoples are civilized inasmuch as they have a culture. But more developed civilization is characterized by evidence of high culture, things like museums or the systems needed to fuel high culture. So in a scenario in which indigenous lands would be needed for energy resources or a golf course, the decisive factor would seem to be the viewpoint of rationally enlightened members of society. Taylor’s apparent views here echo Mill. Savages, like children, must be “placed under an education of restraint, to fit them for future admission to the privileges of freedom.” (Mill, “Liberty”)It is worth noting that the context of Mill’s statement has to do with restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Alcohol is found in every civilization without fail and seems, generally, to be used in ameliorating the alienating effects of drudgery. [4]

What Taylor offers is not biocentrism. It might be termed, instead, civilization or “civ-centrism.” Externally, nature and humans are separate. Wild plants and animals are moral subjects, while rational and autonomous humans are moral agents. Internally, there is a radical dualism between our biological nature and our pure human decisionism. The hierarchy of humans and nature is duplicated within human cultures. All cultures are equal. But some cultures are more equal than others, an equation solved for by rational and enlightened members of higher cultures. Thus both the lives and natural environments of wild plants and animals and the activities of persons engaging in lower cultural activities must give way to the interests of those engaging in higher level cultural activities. Civ-centrism in Taylor turns out to be the ten thousand year old tradition of the manifest destiny of of a certain type of human existence.

Civ-centrism is evident in other systems of ethics that appear to radically challenge the status quo. In both utilitarian and rights accounts of animals, a hierarchy is invariably established in which the preferences of civilized human beings trump those of animals (and, by extension, humans who lack the same cultural traits). For Peter Singer there is a qualitative difference between the degree of loss of humans and non-humans based on the mental capacity for “hoping, planning, and working for some future goal.” (Singer, 21) Non-human animals have a mental capacity below such planning ability; harm to them is thus of lesser significance. Similarly, in Tom Regan’s rights-oriented philosophy the degree of harm from death is “a function of the opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses.” (Regan, 324) Since, given the variety of pleasures afforded by civilization, human life offers almost infinite pleasure, in a lifeboat situation a human’s life is almost infinitely preferable to, say, a wolf s life.

These examples could be expanded upon indefinitely. The point is that a gulf allegedly separates human and non-human life, and it centers on the distinction between humans and nature and humans’ abstract sense of time and the ability to plan. This characterization of nature as the pristine, non-human world operating under procedures that are separate from human development is taken to an absurd degree in Bill McKibben’s work. McKibben employs every possible locution to convey the idea of spatially differentiated nature, free from human effect: nature is undefiled, untrammeled, pristine, untouched, and virgin. But with hyper-technology, humans have altered, in some way, every last vestige of the natural world. Thus since nature is, by definition, pristine and undefiled separateness from humans, and since humans have now affected nature in total — through climate change, ozone depletion, acid rain, and nuclear fallout — nature actually no longer exists at all! Man has ended nature. “We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature’s independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us [emphasis original].” (McKibben, 58) At least McKibben acknowledges that “nature” is “our” (meaning civilized humans) idea of it. The problem is that that idea is taken for reality. But green political theorists uncritically accept two underlying attributes of “our” idea of nature — abstract spatiality and temporality — which are themselves mistaken for real aspects of the natural world. Reified notions of time and space are, actually, artifacts of a certain, flawed mode of existence, one that green political theorists and the architects of cybernetics hold up as the pinnacle of creation: civilization.

II. “Nature”: Reified Space-Time

Nature, like race, nationality, and gender, is an inherently repressive ideological construct. For anarcho-primitivist writer Feral Faun, learning to identify “nature” as wilderness, an aspect of existence fundamentally separate from human essence, reinforces civilization as the monolithic and exclusive space for meaningful human existence. Wilderness as the conceptual equivalent of nature replaces wildness which is the actual tie between humans and earth. By separating nature from humanness, nature is used as a basic means of forging the self-identification of humans as tame, domesticated creatures. (Faun, “Spectacle”)

That “nature,” is socially constructed is evident in its shifting, socially contextualized meanings. In the western tradition nature first relates primarily to religious concerns about a realm of evil, a place of the devil’s snares. As civilization becomes more secularly oriented nature is transformed into a chaotic place as opposed to orderly society and, later still, a reserve of inert “resources” waiting to be tapped, available for the fueling of civilization. Finally, nature becomes a sign within a semiotic system of accelerating and rigidly controlled commodification. Nature is a point of sale with “natural” foods, “nature” adventures, and accompanying “outdoor” products. Advertising for and consuming each product and service contains the slight thrill of experiencing something external, alien, dangerous and forbidden. The continuing theme in each of these iterations of the concept of nature as wilderness is that nature is a threat and its intrusion into civilization a form of deviance. “‘Nature’ domesticates because it transforms wildness into a monolithic entity, a huge realm separate from civilization. Expressions of wildness in the midst of civilization are labelled as immaturity, madness, delinquency, crime or immorality, allowing them to be dismissed, locked away, censured or punished while still maintaining that what is ‘natural’ is good.” (Faun, “Spectacle”) Institutional, disciplinary forms serve to correct deviance. Civilization is saved from the threat of wilderness.

The dichotomy is only reinforced when environmentalists campaign to “save nature.” “Ecologists — even ‘radical’ ecologists — play right into this. Rather than trying to “go wild and destroy civilization with the energy of their unchained desires, they try to ‘save wilderness.’” (Faun, “Spectacle”) Faun sees liberated desires, the upsurge of the wildness in us, as the basis for destroying civilization and, with it, the monolithic constructs that domesticate and, ultimately, destroy the wild within us. Attacking civilization head-on, “playing fiercely among the ruins of a decaying civilization,” not “saving wilderness” and preserving the domestication of ourselves, the earth, and animals, is the focus of green anarchy. (Faun, “Spectacle”)

Like Feral Faun, John Moore recognizes the artificiality of the concept of nature and its repressive qualities. Moore cites the opening of Freddy Perlman’s classic “Against His-Story, Against Leviathan” where Perlman notes that here and now is place to jump and dance; right here at our center is the wilderness. This for Moore is a key point of anarcho-primitivism. Nature is immediacy. The “primitive is here and now rather than far away and long ago.” (Moore) Nature and wilderness as normalizing concepts are basic to an identity locked within the confines of civilization. There would seem to be no possibility of the primitive within the megamachine. But, in fact, within us at all times in conjunction with elements of untamed Life is a primordial feeling for the land, living relations, and with the free and wild part of ourselves. Moreover, the idea of the changeless, innocent original primitive is reactionary and racist as it denies primitive people their own pasts. As with nature, the eternal otherness of the primitive is one of the fundamental lies of civilization. The notion of nature and wilderness as external and “the primitive as origin and source needs to be rejected by a primitivism that aims for a radical departure from the Western megamachine” (Moore).

Where Taylor and green political theory would like to absorb all understanding and experience into civilization, anarcho-primitivists want to destroy it. Breaking the identity with life, spatially, through the construct “nature” would seem to require a simultaneous disruption of immediacy in experience through the construct of “time.” “Nature,” as a construct, is part and parcel with separation from the world and so is Time. “Reification of this magnitude — the beginning of time — constitutes the Fall: the initiation of alienation, of history.” (Zerzan, “Elements” 7). Rousseau describes the primitive soul as one which “gives itself up to entirely to to the consciousness of its present existence, without any thought of even the nearest futurity.” (Rousseau, 190) By contrast, civilization revolves around planning of the most grandiose ‘futurity’: large scale agriculture, urban planning, military training and expeditions, bureaucratic control of the population, exploration of earth and distant space. Planning, of this magnitude, requires detachment of self from an abstract conception of a potentially transformed space (the conquest of “nature”) stretching out over an abstractly configured temporality. All experience with is replaced by control over. The otherness of that which is controlled (“nature”) and an artificially constructed temporal field of cause-effect relationships within which the act of control is conceived, carried out, and completed (time) is the synthesized horizon for civilization. Indeed, creation itself becomes not a constant process but a “past” event.

Time is thus “the fundamental language of technology and the spirit of domination.” The fall is a forgetting, “in the sense of loss of contact with our time-less beginnings, of constant falling into time. Time, like nature, is a “reification. All other reifications, in fact, follow this one.” (Zerzan, “Elements”) “Time...occasions the first alienation, the route away from aboriginal richness and wholeness.” (Zerzan, “Time”) Time marks an initial break in consciousness as the literal sense of thinking conjoined with what is thought. Time creates a tear in a mode of thought that had always been one with the field of perception. Memory now can serve a segmented, disembodied field of consciousness that separates perception and perceived and treats the latter as an isolated instance of separate, abstract cognition. Time opens intellectual space for a mode of representative and symbolic thought that can hold the thing represented in a temporal state of suspension. The represented image of the “thing” now exists in a cognitively independent space separate from its primal occurrence, the latter being the field in which the perceiver is co-present. It is only in this state of literally suspended animation, a lifeless, soulless state, that the living elements of the primal field can be set up as “objects” by a “subject” who will master them. The decisive aspects of civilization — abstract language including writing, number, art as an attempt at recuperating lost presence, specialization and division of labor — all stem originally from a sort of intellectual killing field, reified time.

But actually these two fundamental forms of separation from presence, spatialization, especially regarding “nature” and “culture,” and time, are always co-constituted. Zerzan recognizes as much. The movement away from gatherer-hunter life to nomadism and agriculture soon take the form of the war chariot and the centaur symbol. “The intoxication with space and speed, as compensation for controlling time... is a kind of sublimation; the anxiety energy of the sense of time is converted toward domination spatially.” (Zerzan, “Elements,” 11) The spatio-temporal field is like a double helix of the civilized mind through which change across a pre-figured area can be reduced to the smallest increment of temporal measurement. It is as if, from the instant the spatio-temporal field is first opened within the human mind, civilization was destined to “discover” the initial moment in time — the ultimate control. The centaur culminates in the Large Hadron Collider.

But at the outset, reified temporal and spatial abstractions are coterminous with agriculture, a new cultural paradigm of mastery. Agri-culture is a compound of the Latin terms ager or “field” and cultura , cultivation. A field must be spatially demarcated from the rest of living reality, its other. Ager is the root of “acre.” All agriculture is premised on enclosure. Surveying, separating, and appropriating as a privileged domain of the owner is part and parcel with establishing agriculture. The agricultural field is not given; it must be seized. But implicit in the act of appropriation is a temporally conditioned act of cultivation — tilling, tending, guarding, harvesting, processing and selling. Time factors into exchange; both nature as the possessed field and the agricultural product become commodities. In its more developed form commodity exchange of agricultural and other cultural products gives rise to the thorny economic problem of the “time theory of money.” The point is that the fall is associated with agriculture because it is the most basic act of insinuating the self into an artificially created system that is defined by its deviation from and defiance of the primordial world of presence and immediacy. Reified time is fundamentally bound up with the sense of culture as field-tilling or cultivation. It is in this sense that time is to be understood as “a constructed dimension, the most elemental aspect of culture.” (Zerzan, “Time”). Domestication of plants and animals rips them from the eternal flux of present experience and reproduces them in a fashion that locks them into a spatio-temporally contrived system of domination. Humans too, of course, become domesticated.

For Zerzan “the fall of the species into time” signals alienation; he cites Valery’s claim that “by a sort of abuse, man creates time.” Throughout his writing Derrick Jensen has noted the similarity between the abusive parent and the abuse of nature. Since the violence of civilization is inevitable we desensitize ourselves to the suffering of the plant and animal world just as the child shuts down his natural emotional response to the incidents of child abuse. The horror is too vivid to acknowledge and confront. The furious abuse by civilized humans of all the rest of creation, that which remains “stuck” in the ignorance of the timeless, stems from the original, violent separation of humans from the world vis-a-vis the reification of time.

Like the concept of nature, time is “a socially learned phenomenon.” Any parent can attest to that. Humans and the rest of the world are “synchronized to time and its technical embodiment rather than the reverse.” As such “redemption must involve, in a very real sense, redemption from time.” (Zerzan, “Time”) Time is something that must be fought against, broken. The ultimate “struggle of existence is to overcome time.” (Zerzan, “Time”) This Struggle, as Faun points out, will involve more than the smashing of clocks. “Many revolutions involved the smashing of clocks and calendars; but time wasn’t smashed in the heads of the insurgents so it reappeared.” (Faun, “Liberation”.)

From the moment of the first agri-culture forward those who have mastered agricultural knowledge become similarly separated from the human, animate tools employed in the drudgery of tilling. Domestication and the process of selective breeding immediately appears among humans. As Paul Shepard notes “The caste system is the social expression of agricultural ecology.” (Shepard, 239) Agri-culture creates the socioeconomic conditions for civilized culture generally: the separation of specialists and owners, whose minds occupy a religiously demarcated space of the soul/sun/father, from peasants who, by the very fact of their physical toil, are consigned to the separated realm of earth/body/mother. Class division reflects a series of hierarchies: soul-body, sun-earth, and the basic spatio-temporal abstraction that elevates “Man” above world. Thus a caste of priests, oracles, and scribes develops ritualized control through increasingly sophisticated calendrical measurements incorporating ever more vast segments of reified time. The calendar relates the abstracted movements of celestial objects to the temporally structured agricultural field and to the spatial orientation of religio-architecture. Control is sanctified in the person of the King, and a class of bureaucrats and military officers impose order through a mixture of monotonous regularity and terrifying force.

These changes culminate in the first civilized state, the initial civitas, the kingdom of Ur. The state is the first “artificial man.” A symbol of rule where the head of the king is yoked to the body of the incorporated/incarcerated populace. But the head is filled with dead things, abstracted entities void of the living which they merely copy. In fact, the whole matrix consists not of the separate wills of subjects unified in the majesty of a living king nor in the symbolized figure of the state as a lion. Rather, “we might think of it as a worm, a giant worm, not a living worm but a carcass of a worm, a monstrous cadaver... its skin pimpled with... technological implements... the entire carcass is brought to artificial life by the motions of the human beings trapped within it.” (Perlman, 27) In the religio-political sovereign state, “what was once joyful celebration, self-abandon, orgiastic communion with the beyond, shrinks to lifeless ritual, official ceremony led by the head of state and his officials.” (Perlman, 36) The participant become spectator; ecstasy of union in Life is replaced by subservience; the subject is “diminished, intimidated, awed by the power” of the sovereign. Perlman notes throughout his his-story how the crack up of civilizations opened opportunities for re-wilding. But the opportunities were missed; the Leviathan regrouped. The rebels failed to thoroughly smash the idea of heads of state and the idea of time that existed in their own heads.

Domination by time, time pressure, and anxiety about lost time was radically increased with the substitution of a linear for a previously cyclical conception of time. Compulsion by time changed in two directions. On the one hand, on a large scale, linear time enabled the development of a theory of history which locked humans into a progressively unfolding destiny, not of a cyclical return, but of an inevitable, fulfillment. Eschatology caged individuals in a spatio-temporal moment that was fixed within an immutable law of historical development. On the other hand, at the micro level so to speak, linear time allowed for the development of machines for its precise measurement. This took form initially in the monastery as a means for the minute regulation of daily performances and then spread into the workplace, the military camp, and eventually all social institutions. With clock time (now measured in nano-seconds) and with time and space coupled via the time-schedule, alienation from immediacy in presence became fundamentally internalized. “Motion is stressed by perspective’s transformation of the similarity of space into a happening in time... a quantum leap in time had occurred.” Modern civilization becomes “a war against empty space,” in Braudel’s phrase. (Zerzan, “Elements,” 14)

Empty space is perhaps another metaphor for “nature” which becomes, to cite Heidegger, “standing reserve.” Nature is a “gigantic gasoline station,” the field of available materiel or resources constantly on call for integration into systems. Non-human and, increasingly, human nature is “empty” in the sense that any natural thing is a quanta of forces to be utilized within a matrix of performative actions. Living beings things thus lose even their identity as distinct objects. This reduction redoubles again both the opportunity for further control and the anxiety such a relationship engenders. As Heidegger notes “the will to mastery becomes all the more urgent the more technology threatens to slip from human control.” (Heidegger)

III. Conclusion: Zeks and Renegades

Primitive cultures are rooted in myths. Civilizations are based on lies. Civilization has its compensatory pleasures. But we miss the significance of the fall if we look there. The search for meaning in the experience of material superabundance is not primordial; it is not even superficial. The veil of civilization’s compensatory power lies not in varied material pleasures but in the equivalent impossibilities it engenders at the heart of our individual and social lives. Plato and Aristotle, each recognized this. It is why, out of their common concern over the civilizational curse of the demand for luxuries, they invented newer, more psychologically profound compensatory powers: contemplation of the form of the Good and, for Aristotle, the possibility of a complete, happy life crowned by meditation of first principles. The fundamental lie of civilization is that the original unity of human thought and existence could be duplicated within civilization. Such lies became the nuclear reactors at the heart of civilizational megamachines.

But these redemptive promises are themselves unattainable. As such, they play a crucial role in originating and sustaining the ruthless imperialism of civilization. By driving the alienation from Earth into the hidden aboveground of the psyche and replacing it with an allegedly attainable substitute, the spiritual groundwork is laid for, at least, the acceptance of the terms of civilization, and, at most, a devotion of oneself to those terms. The alleged impossibility of turning back to live in freedom through identity with both human and non-human others engenders despair. [5] A new (im)possibility must be created but one which is allegedly within reach, via contemplation, faith, or technical rationality. In these fundamental civilizational tropes we discover both the hidden impossibility of returning to primitive life and the ostensible availability of a great (but actually also equally impossible) basis for reuniting of ourselves with reality. Illusory hope in the face of hidden despair is the basic chemical ingredient and fusion reaction of the psychic shock. Every civilization displaces the Earth as first Mother with a sky-God. Father Sun, detached from its natural interplay with Mother Earth and Sister Moon, becomes the domain of civilization and the model of the authoritarian father. Simultaneously, the father master is given a history within which each son is destined for a role of service toward the completion of the father’s immutable, historical tasks. Women, like Earth, live roles of secondary service to the master/God/father. Time is a cruel taskmaster. It cuts endlessly. The head is detached from the heart, reason from emotion, the spirit from the body. The human mind filled with dead abstractions is cut away from the world which becomes a plane of objects, ready for appropriation. Our embodied perceptions are severed from our own earthly relations in the mineral, animal and plant kingdoms and even from the body of Mother Earth.

Green political theory gives the appearance of healing these rifts. But by incorporating all the basic aspects of civilization it winds up not even actually recognizing them. In the metaphysics of previous civilization good and evil is problematized along lines that hold open the tension between the original primitive and the artificially created forms of civilization. By taking civilization for granted, green political theory closes this tension off. As such it reinforces a cybernetic worldview that tends toward total artificiality. In the cyber-world “the dichotomy of good and evil... comes down to public relations.” The ludicrous contradictions in the “Man”-nature equation are not felt by a people who sense no loss of natural place. So BP sells “stuffed endangered animals toys with fill ups... Phillip Morris [is] out to find the cure for cancer... Weyerhauser protect[s] the wilderness... Monsanto feed[s] the starving third world children.” (Tucker) Civilization and civilized people are in no position to “save the earth.” Conversely, as civilized people they are in no position to allow earth to save them.

It seems fairly clear that many primitive peoples were aware of the the various threats that later came to fruition in civilization. According to Clastres, primal people had a very early premonition that power’s transcendence conceals a mortal risk for the group, that the principle of an authority which is external and the creator of its own legality is a challenge to culture itself. It is the intuition of this threat that determined the depth of their political philosophy. For, on discovering the great affinity of power and nature, as the twofold limitation on the domain of culture, Indian societies were able to create a means for neutralizing the virulence of political authority. (Watson, “Civilization in Bulk”)

Primitive cultures incorporated powerful norms in their stories and oral tradition that undercut the exact tendencies of civilized “order.” The widespread stories of the trickster, coyote, and among the Plains Indians, iktomi, the spider, portray a self-centered, grasping fool whose outlandish schemes backfire and end up in ruin. Perlman notes the presence of the trickster “Wiske” in Potawatomi stories. As with other trickster figures there is a certain ambiguity. He bears knowledge and techniques that are potentially constructive — in the case of Wiske, snowshoes, boats, spears and arrows — but in return he demands control and the loyalty of the people. But the Potowatomi know what to do: they exile him. Eventually, European invaders will ask the Potowatami if Wiske ever “actually existed.” But this has no meaning for the Potawatami. As Perlman puts it, “Wiske existed in the present,” and in their songs and ceremonies Wiske “was always a member of the community and he was always exiled.” (Perlman, 240–241) Reality is presence, and presence is rhythmic not linear.

David Watson notes that a similar approach was used to keep the virulence of technique at bay. Through shamanism, primitive people “minimized the relative weight of instrumental or practical techniques and expanded the importance of techniques of seeing: ecstatic techniques.” Ecstatic vision held in check the tendency of technique and power to become disengaged from the community and natural world as separate functions. This is the precursor to specialization, division of labor, and political authority, the separation and elevation of economic and political spheres of exploitation. This is when “everything starts to come apart.” (Watson)

But these are values articulated from the inside, as it were, of primitive cultures, designed to hold centrifugal forces at bay. Now the center is broken. Civilization is a world of owners, officials and zeks (Perlman’s borrowing of Solzhenitsyn’s term for gulag workers). The whole world will be converted into a machine. A passionate intensity for controlled, systemic violence is sovereign. In the face of systemic assault the zek armors his body and masks his face. Desensitization is the better part of valor.

In the closing section of “Against His-story” Perlman surveys the European conquest of turtle island. Ideologically, the old Puritanism becomes obsolete: “the language of salvation and damnation, of sin and the fall, becomes increasingly archaic in the land of endless frontiers, and it is more often an obstacle than a guide to enterprising invaders.” (Perlman, “Against,” 269). The ancestors of the “enterprising invaders” will deliver us to the ultimate stage of civilization. They will completely sever humanity from earth by constructing artificial humans for an artificial human environment. Old tales of the fall from primitive immediacy with earth and animals is substituted for by a secular ideology called green political theory in which humans, perfectly civilized, will wall themselves off from a place called “nature.”

For Perlman, the Puritans and their descendants hated slave-owners because they did not work and slaves because they “worked without conviction.” But who the Puritans resented above all were the renegades, those “fellow zeks who make themselves at home in the community of the continent’s survivors.” They hated them because they refused to work and because they “dispensed with the amenities that brand them as Human (he means civilized).” But it is the primitive who is human and the zek, who, in his devotion to the Leviathan, has lost his humanity. The zek sees in the face of the primitive and the renegade his own lost soul.

Were the pioneer to admit their humanity, however briefly, however grudgingly, his innards would explode, his armor melt, his mask fall, for he would in that flash of light see himself as a zek, his freedom as self-enslavement, his market civilization as a forced labor camp. The devil would try to tempt him to become a Renegade and, irony of ironies, he would fall, unlike Eve out of blessed labor into cursed Eden. (Perlman, 268–269)

In the anarcho-primitivist the green political theorist is confronted with the renegade, and he hates and fears her as much as his Puritan forebear hated the white Indian. But the primitive renegade today has no surviving community of indigenous survivors to escape to. The “amenities” of civilization seem inescapable. No tie to the timeless realm of the sensuous world seems to remain. The only alternative is to attack the machine itself.

Smashing down the walls of civilization involves liberation from even the most basic conceptual constraints that tame the wildness in humans. It is the liberation of “vital energy,” “free-spirited wildness,” and “the intense, passionate life of untamed freedom.” The walls must be smashed because the sum of all walls is “everything we call civilization, everything that comes between us and the direct, participatory experience of the wild world.” (Faun, “Feral”). Conventionally, the green scare is thought of as Leviathan’s campaign of repression against those who smash walls. Leviathan terms smashing walls “eco-terrorism.” As usual, the truth is exactly opposite of the civilized version. Ecology derives from the Greek oiko or home. It is the same root as economics, and the affluence of original cultures stemmed from the fact that their place of sustenance was simultaneously the place of their most intimate relations, their home. But that primordial home, for green theorists is a world apart from human civilization. It is an old and basic and ferocious error. The thought of rectifying it is terrifying. In this sense the green scare is the fear struck into the hearts of the civilized, green political theorists. It is the fear that inheres in the knowledge that we can, indeed that we must, fall back from civilization into the place where we grew up as humans, the place we belong, the home that is called earth.

Works Cited

Bookchin, Murray. “Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm.” dwardmac.pitzer.edu

Chomsky, Noam. Chomsky on Anarchism. Oakland, California: AK Press, 2005.

Faun, Feral, “Nature as spectacle: The image of wilderness vs. wildness” Feral Faun; “Anarchy: A Journal Of Desire Armed” Issue #29 Summer 1991. www.insurgentdesire.org.uk

Faun, Feral. “The Liberation of Motion Through Space” www.insurgentdesire.org.uk

Faun, Feral, “Feral Revolution” in Demolition Derby #1, 1988, p. 30; www.insurgentdesire.org.uk

Heidegger, Martin. The Question Concerning Technology. www.lcc.gatech.edu classes/readings/Heidegger/heidegger_techquestion2.pdf

Heinberg, Richard. The Primitivist Critique of Civilization. A paper presented at the 24th annual meeting of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations at Wright State University, Dayton, Ohio, June 15, 1995.

Jensen, Derrick. A Language Older than Words. New York: Context Books, 2000.

McKibben, Bill. The End of Nature. New York: Anchor Books, 1989.

Mill, John Stuart, On Liberty. See chapter five. www.constitution.org

Mill, John Stuart. On Nature. www.lancs.ac.uk

Moore, John, “Coming Home: Defining Anarcho-Primitivism with John Moore,” www.insurgentdesire.org.uk

Perlman, Fredy. Against History, Against Leviathan. Detroit: Black and Red Press, 1983.

Platt, Rutherford H ed. The Forgotten Books of Eden. New York: Bell Publishing, 1980.

Regan, Tom, The Case for Animal Rights. New York: Routledge, 1984.

Rousseau, The Social Contract and Discourse on the Origin of Inequality. trans. and ed. Lester G. Crocker. New York: Washington Square Press, 1978.

Shepard, Paul. The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game. New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1973.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation. 2nd ed. London: Thorsons, 1991.

Taylor, Paul. Respect for Nature: A Theory of Environmental Ethics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Tucker, Kevin. www.insurgentdesire.org.uk

Watson, David, Civilization in Bulk. www.insurgentdesire.org.uk

Zerzan, John. Elements of Refusal. Seattle: Left Bank Books, 1988.

Zerzan, John. “Time and its Discontents” (reprinted from Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed. #39, Winter ‘94.) www.insurgentdesire.org.uk


[1] Zerzan notes that the idea of “an original state of pleasure and perfection is very old and virtually universal” (Zerzan, “Elements,” 9). Heinberg notes that the image of a lost golden age is central to all of the world’s religions and “one of the most powerful themes in human thought” (Heinberg, “Critique”). What I am suggesting is that the contrast between the “golden age” and the fallen world creates a tension that has provided the impetus for civilization’s expansion. Such tension provides the tragic force to Plato’s “Republic,” where justice is inherent in the simple, primitive “city of pigs” and, inevitably, a failed project in the civilized “city at fever heat.” It appears in the Eden story, where knowledge severs humans from the eternal presence of God and where the farmer-murderer Cain is cast out, he and his descendants permanently marked. The destiny for agri-culturalists is fear and loathing by all the primitive peoples who they are compelled to destroy as they ra(n)ge over the entire face of the earth. Augustine furnishes the corresponding psychological account of the sinners’ dread, the turning of the will away from God, the fullness of Life, toward a self which, in its own assertion, is Nothing. It is evident in the various modern accounts of a state of nature. In Locke, money and property inequality alter humans’ satisfaction with intrinsic values. Rousseau’s noble savage is originally uncontaminated by the vanity which constantly intensifies with reason, property, and civilization. It is true that each of these theorists substitutes a compensatory and redemptive possibility (the Form of the Good, grace, material abundance, and the general will, respectively) for the loss of original unity with Life. But the fact that these are illusions simultaneously intensifies the anxiety of the civilized and deepens the agonic character of the prim-civ split.

[2] There is a considerable range of viewpoints regarding the proper response to modern technology and capitalism from arcology to primitivism. For the purposes of this paper the focus is on a common critique of the reified concepts, the exploitative techniques, and the systemic oppression, violence, and ecological destruction that comprise civilization.

[3] For example, HSUS offered reward money for information leading to the capture of arsonists who burned the car of a UCLA vivisector. www.greenisthenewred.com

[4] Mill’s work “On Nature” epitomizes the psychological fear and loathing of the natural world. The opposite sense, of identity with nature, that infuses so much of radical environmental consciousness and action is dismissed as “natural prejudices...grounded on feelings which...intrude into matters with which they ought to have no concern.” Citing direct experiences of nature such as hurricanes, mountain precipices, the desert, the ocean, and the solar system, Mill tells us that that which impresses us is simply their “vastness” and that a feeling for their sublimity is “in all cases more allied to terror than to any moral emotion.” Those who feel a sense of admiration in the presence of nature are aesthetically developed but morally bereft, according to Mill. In a kind of sado-masochistic vein Mill contends that the emotions excited by the vastness of nature and its powers betray a preference for pain over pleasure and easily slip into gratuitous delight in great forces of maleficent power, whether natural or social. He then ticks off a litany of things nature does to man — impaling, breaking, devouring, crushing starving, freezing and poisoning — and, writ large, nature takes away the means of life through hurricanes, locusts, tidal waves, and plagues. (Mill, “Nature”) Mill doesn’t even recognize that existence without nature is impossible. Plus he seems to think nature does to humans worse things than civilized humans do to one another and to primitives. What’s more his criticism foreshadows dismissive critics of anarcho-primitivism who claim that a return to nature would bring about a mass human die off and the philosophy is thus genocidal. Chomsky, for instance, claims that primitivism means mass genocide of millions.... the worst mass genocide in history.” (Chomsky, 226) See also Bookchin (“Social”). Again, actual genocides are the work of civilized humans, and mass die offs occur with the collapse of civilizations. These views revolve around the failure of the critic to examine his own blind faith in civilization.

[5] It is, perhaps, the poignant and persistent voicing of such despair that led the church to excise from the official version of the Bible Eden stories that have the first humans committing suicide over the magnitude of the loss of being ejected from paradise. (Platt)