Monday, January 8, 2007

The Failure of the Anti-Civ Ideology

I just received a copy of Green Anarchy (issue 23) today — an American "anti-civ" journal.

Now, I must admit before going any further that I used to call myself something of an anarcho-primitivist. The images of going back to a simpler, more peaceful, "wild", undomesticated existence really did something for me, and in many ways they still do. But I think anti-civ anarchists have really lost the plot, and I'm really not surprised that this is a current largely confined to the US (and a little to Britain).

Anti-civ anarchists are strongly influenced by insurrectionalism, though they probably don't know it as they religiously claim to be "anti-ideology". This critique of insurrectionalism applies very well the anti-civ crew. It seems the anti-civ fetish with small-scale militant direct action, their perceived social isolation and their perceived backwardness and brainwashing of the majority of people are very much a reflection of their desire for radical change in the face of ecological destruction but the lack of mass struggle. I can understand their rejection of mass organisation, but not their rejection of mass movements. They seem to be very much trapped in the American individualist tradition and quite out of touch with popular struggles in North America (excepting their fetishising of indigenous struggle... they're wild peoples, you see). In fact, they remind me a bit of the desperation of militant groups in 1970s US, like Weather Underground, who became more militant the more apathetic the general population became.

The other major point of critique has to be questioning exactly what the fuck "civilisation" is. Having read a lot of this, I know that the definitions of this are all over the place. It seems bizarre to reify such a vacuous concept and create a whole political ideology seeking its abolition. They claim they seek the end of domestication, while "leftist" anarchists merely seek the destruction of the State and capitalism. What do they mean by domestication? Well, at times it refers to human domestication, at other times it refers to animal domestication and at other times to all forms of domestication of life, including plants. Surely the first is the aim of any anarchist project, and the second the aim of any anarchist project with the slightest of an animal-lib tinge. The third is more bizarre, and obviously aims for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle simply not possible in a lot of countries (NZ included) and not possible with current population levels. Their reasoning for it is based in Marxism and some recent, rather weak, anthropological studies that point to the domestication of plants and the resulting surplus as the seed of domination. This fails to take into account all the anthropological evidence, from the likes of David Graeber, that show that hunter-gatherer societies come in both authoritarian and non-authoritarian varieties, as do horticulturalist societies. See Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology for more on this (he takes a particularly vicious swipe at John Zerzan).

John Zerzan, while we're on the topic, also seeks as part of his abolition of civilisation the abolition of time, language and symbolic thinking. Go figure. Thankfully most of the anti-civ peeps haven't taken this on board.

Anti-civ anarchists go to great lengths to characterise other anarchists as latent authoritarians, going so far as to claim that after our revolution 99% of social life will be the same. Well I certainly hope not. I would imagine the destruction of the State, capitalist relations, patriarchy, ecological domination, etc. would mean a quite major shift in daily life for most people.


mollymew said...

Liked your essay very much. Visited your site because you visited mine (Molly's Blog up here in Canada- on the "upside of the Earth" if you will- at the "ends of the Earth from another viewpoint). I am thinking about republishing this essay on my own blog, with propoer attribution, of course.
In Solidarity,

George said...

yes, but what about those flax whips?

John said...

Hi i know this might sound rather pathetic but their is a difference between primitivists and anti civilisation streams of thought. While i agree primitivism is mad as are many of the people such as John Zerzan who espouse its ideas.

Anti civilisation writers such as Ran Prieur and Derrick Jenson however tend to argue that civilisation (marked by the rise of citys) cannot be sustainable and that collapse due to a lack of resources is part of the rise of citys over the long term. They also tend to talk about the hierachys implicit in large scale society such as citys.

Anyway what im trying to say is that being anti civilisation is different to being a promitivist.

anarchafairy said...

Hey John,

When I was into this stuff I found it quite hard to differentiate between anti-civ anarchists and primitivists — I think I used the words interchangably though more often called myself a primitivist. Some primmies only want to go back to pre-industrial societies, whereas anti-civ types much more universally want to go back further... but I'm not sure they can be separated so easily.

I reckon your comment about cities is a really good one. It's interesting reading the classic anarchist writers - Kropotkin especially - as most of them also call for the desturction of the city, to be replaced with the semi-urban semi-rural free commune. They point to the centralisation of the city being a perculiarly capitalist development, efficient only according to capitalist logic, and that anarchist organisation would invariably turn toward decentralisation of production and thus the city. They also talked about the need for largely self-sufficient communes, which therefore needed to cater for their own food production and general production, and only look outside the commune for specialised production.

I guess my point is that being anti-city isn't a departure from classical anarchism really much at all, and its funny anti-civs try to make such a big thing out of it.

I haven't read Jensen so I don't know the arguments about the city by its nature being unsustainable. Is there anything you know of I could read online that would give me a good quick intro?

John said...

Yea i agree with you point that a lot of socialist and anarchist theory does call for the city to play a smaller role in how humans live and i think thats a positive thing. However i think that often those involved in left wing struggles fail to realise that almost everythign we take for granted today is unsustainable and that the way we live has to change really fast if we are to stop ourselves from going extinct.

You can call these ideas whatever you want and most anti civ thought is borrowed from other left wing fields but I think its as good a label as any.

here are a few links that are kinda interesting.

maps said...

Agree with you about primitivism. Interesting that Zerzan used to be an ultra-left (using that as a descriptive rather then derogatory term) Marxist, opposed to unions and United Fronts, before he became a primitivist.