Primitivism, Neoliberalism, and the End of History
This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.
In recent years, many content creators have released a slew of books, podcasts, and other forms of media to tell us of the ways in which modern civilization corrupts our character and pulls us from our true being, the way of life we were “meant to live.” This media speaks of a lost connection with an authentic way of being in which humanity lived off of the land in harmony with nature, hunting and gathering all they needed to survive. These small egalitarian bands, the story goes, lived for untold centuries in unity and peace. Some of these movements and works have suggested relatively minor changes in lifestyle from this knowledge of a lost way to live - see the rise of the Paleo diet.¹ Others, however, have called for much more radical changes.
I. Radical Primitivism
Primitivism (also known as Anarcho-Primitivism or Primal Anarchy)² calls for much more than a grainless diet focused on berries, roots, and meat - it calls for a reversion to human ways of life as far back as the Pleistocene. Human society’s level of technological development, these movements assert, is inextricable from hierarchy. One cannot exist without the other. Primitivists point to a common anthropological truism to support this assertion - hierarchy and agriculture came to be at about the same time, hierarchy the result of agriculture. Notable Anarcho-primitivist John Zerzan states this belief in typical fashion: “... increasingly people are coming to understand that life before agriculture and domestication... was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health.”³ Large amounts of stored food led to class stratification, which led to oppression and conflict. This, Primal Anarchists believe, is the original sin of humanity, and humanity must choose to undo it.
Many have pointed out the obvious limitation in this belief - agriculture⁴ is able to support many more people than foraging. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 to 500 square miles of land are required by a hunter-gathering society to support one person. Using the more conservative estimate, about 8 million humans could live via hunter-gathering on the earth. This is almost 1/1000 of the current human population.⁵ As an anonymous anarcho-primitivist admits, “a legitimate objection to destruction of the infrastructure of industrial society is that it would inevitably lead to the deaths of millions.”⁶ Primitivism has teetered on the edge of eco-fascism - several well-known examples exist, such as “Miss Ann Thropy”’s article in the May 1st, 1987 edition of Earth First! which cheered on deaths from AIDS (exacerbated, of course, by wilfully unresponsive political organizations) and stated if “[a deadly epidemic such as AIDS] didn't exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one.”⁷ Other primitivists take a more moderate approach. They suggest that the ecological devastation caused by ‘civilization’ is inevitable, and the course of history will simply force us back to hunter-gatherer lifestyles. As primal anarchist Peter Michael Baeur said, “this is the only way forward.”⁸ Better to get with like-minded people and begin to live this way now, they claim, since it is our true nature as humans.
Ironically, this train of thought, in which levels of supposed technological or societal development are linked and inflexible, mirrors that of neoliberalism.
II. Neoliberalism and Capitalist Realism
Neoliberalism, the current global capitalist order, is marked by increasing privatization and the unceasing march to commodify all aspects of life.⁹ Neoliberal policies enjoy near-unanimous support in both major liberal and conservative political parties; the consensus that neoliberalism is "the only way" is unshakable. Mark Fisher famously dubbed neoliberalism’s grip on imagination “Capitalist Realism” - “the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”¹⁰ Neoliberalism is seen as the end of history, a bleak thought for many. Neoliberals assuage us that the oppression that people the world over experience as a result of the expansionism and neo-colonialism endemic to neoliberalism are necessary evils, merely transition stages for countries which will soon become middle-class and wealthy, far better than the toil of their traditional lifeways. Neoliberal futurists argue that technology, driven by the free market’s genius, will lift those in poverty and may even one day liberate us from having to work at all.¹¹
Capitalist realism is the flipside of primitivism’s take on history. Both share the same narrative that neoliberalism’s evils are inevitable, the conclusion of humanity’s step out of a hunter-gatherer past, but primitivism realizes the metaphorical cliff that our extractionist society is rocketing toward and sees a return to pre-agriculture beyond, while neoliberalism views a techno-Eden beyond where all human needs are met by the magic of markets. Both are marked by a determinism, a narrative that claims their vision as the only possibility.
If one accepts this determinist narrative, the attraction to primitivism is understandable. The horrors of neoliberal capitalism are all around us, from landscapes denuded of their natural character and biodiversity by ruthless development for profit, to the forced loss of traditional ways of life of the global majority, to the disconnection we feel from each other and the rest of nature. Many feel the pain of this situation and need a solution, a way to escape the dread of modern capitalism. If, as primitivists say (and as the common narrative goes), levels of technological development and hierarchy are inevitably linked, anyone in support of ecology and freedom would have to support primitivism.
However, narratives about society do not emerge from a vacuum. All narratives we take for granted under capitalism need to be questioned since they arose in a society where truth is subservient to the survival of capitalism. A truly proficient critique of primitivism needs to look at the fundamental mainstream anthropological claims that undergird primitivism.
III. The Facade of Finality
Recent anthropological work is beginning to upend all of our long-held beliefs about the history of human technological and societal development. Much of this work was brought to light and summarized by the recent work of anthropologist David Graeber and archeologist David Wengrow. In their recent article in Eurozine, “How to Change the Course of Human History” (hereafter referred to as “HCCHH”),¹² they pull together fascinating pieces of evidence that throw our conceptions of the origins of inequality and technological development of societies into flux.
First, let's look at Graeber and Wengrow’s research on the origins of our common narrative. This view posits that humans lived in small, relatively egalitarian bands for most of human history before the development of agriculture. As the story goes, the development of agriculture created a need to hold large stores of grain. This large store of material wealth led to hierarchies of those who sought to control this wealth. The ability to support large populations led to the development of cities, as well as slaveholding and other abhorrent practices.
Graeber and Wengrow state that this narrative primarily came from Jean Jacques Rousseau, who wrote it not as a truth he had researched but as a theory or tale - “hypothetical and conditional reasonings” (Rousseau, quoted in “HCCHH”). Despite this, this story was widely adopted and is still held as common knowledge by both those on the left and those on the right or center.
However, Graeber and Wengrow bring to light a plethora of examples that upend this account. A series of displays of grandeur have been discovered which show the existence of status in ‘prehistoric’ societies. One such example is the well-known archeological site of Sunghir, in modern-day Russia.¹³ This site contains a variety of burials dating to 30,000 or more years ago, much before the prominent narrative claims that civilization, and thus hierarchy, began. These burials varied in decoration, ranging from a middle-aged man and two children covered in finery to isolated but similar skeletal remains. These, and other such burials - of which a plethora exist - suggest the existence of class stratification in prehistoric times. Other such testaments to status exist, such as the 11,000-year-old stone temples of Göbekli Tepe on the modern-day Turkish-Syrian border, the 15,000-year-old ‘mammoth houses’ of Eurasia, and even Stonehenge, which was but one of many similar structures that dotted modern-day Britain. Many of these structures were dismantled or demolished only several generations after their construction. Graeber and Wengrow suggest that all these examples point not necessarily to the existence of hierarchy but to experimentation with hierarchy in ancient societies.
However, some examples of hierarchy in ancient societies extended far beyond temporary experimentation. Some societies switched their mode of organization seasonally. This is known as “double morphology” - societies that “...have two social structures, one in summer and one in winter, and that in parallel they have two systems of law and religion” (Marcel Mauss, quoted in “HCCHH”). One example is the Inuit, who lived in patriarchal hunting bands in the summer, and in egalitarian, wealth-sharing communities in winter. The indigenous hunter-gatherers of the Pacific Northwest were the mirror image of the Inuit - they gathered in informal, but still somewhat hierarchical societies in summer and coalesced into a society marked by slave-holding and grand displays of wealth in winter. The Cheyenne and Lakota tribes appointed law enforcement with coercive power, but only during preparations for buffalo hunts - in all other times they lived in egalitarian ways.
Not only did hierarchy exist in some hunter-gathering communities, but rather egalitarian cities have also been found.¹⁴ One such city is that in Nebelivka, Ukraine, a ‘megasite’ which was constructed, among others, between five and six thousand years ago by the Trypillia culture. These communities were low-density and spread out, with largely similar houses, material possessions, and lifestyles, indicating a lack of class hierarchy. Instead, these cities were organized into neighborhoods with common buildings which were presumably for assembly.
All this research points to a conclusion which upends the narrative upheld by both neoliberals and primitivists - technological development and hierarchy are not inevitably connected. Societies can choose both separately.
This realization has massive implications for both our understanding of the past and our pathways into an egalitarian future. Without this understanding, the door is closed to many, many possibilities - hierarchy and technology, or neither! the neoliberals shout. Within this rigid understanding of our possibilities, it is understandable that many would choose ‘neither!’. However, there are many people who have not fully realized or accepted the horrific exploitation of our hierarchical system, the same system of production that has produced the laptop this essay was written on. Its minerals were mined from fragile ecosystems devastated by capitalist priorities, pieces of it constructed by workers torn from their ancestral ways of life and forced into horrifically mind-numbing and painful factory work. There are also many who know the reality of the exploitation that supports neoliberalism and accept it as simply a necessary evil for these technological boons. Eventually, these people believe, all societies will step into the material abundance only some of us now have.
The claim that hierarchy and developed technology can only be taken as a bulk package is a boon for neoliberalism. It is therefore unsurprising that Rousseau’s unfounded narrative has held so much ground for so long. Those who want the comforts and wonders of modern technology are forced to hold their noses to horrific exploitation, and those who see the horrors of capitalism and rebel against them must also call for the abolition of our creature comforts, many of which have the ability to support those who would not be able to survive in a hunter-gatherer society. Now that we have the knowledge to reject this narrative, what is ahead for humanity?
IV. Toward a Conscious Future
With the knowledge of our own power to choose both our level of technological development and the structure of our society - hierarchical or not - we must cast off the facade of the end of history and step toward a conscious future. We can both live comfortable lifestyles in which people have the choice of whether or not to spend much of their days gathering food and supporting our material basis and live in a democratic way as societal equals, where no person has power over another.
What does this mean for technology? Will laptops still exist in our new eco-communities? It’s hard to predict. We must change the priorities of our society and its development from profit to people - meeting human needs must come first before all else, as well as respect for the ecological basis that underlies and undergirds our entire existence. Design with this ‘double bottom-line’ - people and planet - will look very different from standard design in this period, which follows either the traditional bottom-line - profit - or the “triple-bottom-line”, which claims to keep both planet and people in mind but is often simply a ruse for more profit. As we begin to take conscious steps to gain democratic control over production and our communities, we will see technological development take fruitful and surprising routes which will not only act within our ecological limits but help to regenerate ecosystems devastated by capitalist development.
With the knowledge that technological development and hierarchy are not inextricable, we must take steps to democratize both our political systems and technological development. We must bring conscious decision-making into communities through the foundation of popular assemblies. These popular assemblies can then begin to take control of production through energy democracy initiatives such as community-owned solar and wind technology, communal production spaces (such as workshops or maker-spaces¹⁵), and workers’ cooperatives. Together, let us step toward a future in which we can live in an egalitarian manner and support all human needs.
2 Admittedly, some who fall under the ‘primitivist’ or anti-civilization umbrellas have varying beliefs that do not exactly follow what I am outlining in this article. What I write here is based on the sources I have read and shows a broad understanding of the majority of Primitivist thought as I see it - I am not critiquing those who do not follow this narrative or have more nuanced perspectives.
4 Agriculture: “the science, art, or practice of cultivating the soil, producing crops, and raising livestock and in varying degrees the preparation and marketing of the resulting products”. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/agriculture “Agriculture” is a broad term in which many practices fit. It’s important to note that many indigenous hunter-gathering methods involve some sort of cultivation, such as regular burning of certain areas to encourage the growth of some plants over others. Many other indigenous methods of cultivation are more intensive, such as Chinampa agriculture (an Aztec method of growing crops atop artificial islands in bodies of water). https://www.britannica.com/topic/chinampa
Most, if not all, indigenous cultivation methods were vastly more sustainable (and often regenerative) than the high-tech, destructive agricultural methods that are the norm in the European world today. While calls for a narrow view of non-agricultural hunting and gathering are defeatist at best and genocidal at worst, mainstream global industrial agricultural methods are currently genocidal and destructive to our ecological foundation. A synthesis of indigenous methods and eco-technologies from other sources is necessary to both heal the effects of global industrial agriculture, such as the synthesis found in Permaculture. https://permacultureprinciples.com/
5 Sources: https://www.britannica.com/topic/hunter-gatherer https://www.space.com/17638-how-big-is-earth.html. This isn’t even taking into consideration the vast tracts of land which can support far fewer, if any, humans via hunter-gathering than 1 per every 7 square miles - those land areas closer to 500 square miles per person.
8 https://www.petermichaelbauer.com/the-rewilding-podcast-episode-1-introductions/ - At timestamp 43:30
10 Mark Fisher - Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6763725-capitalist-realism
11 Several sources in popular publications speak to this narrative, such as the concluding sentence of Ji Shisan’s article in The New York Times “The End of Work?”(https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/10/opinion/the-end-of-work.html): “In [the AI future], we may not need to work very hard to support ourselves. The robots will be doing most of the labor, while we will have the time and leisure to explore what it is to be human.” Lawrence Katz, a professor of economics at Harvard, has a different vision of a post-work future in which “information technology and robots eliminate traditional jobs and make possible a new artisanal economy … an economy geared around self-expression, where people would do artistic things with their time”. (Quoted in The Atlantic article “A World Without Work”:https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/07/world-without-work/395294/).
Popular educational YouTube channel Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell contributes to this narrative in their video “The Rise of the Machines – Why Automation is Different this Time” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSKi8HfcxEk). Its worldview typifies the neoliberal perspective - capitalist technological development lifts people out of poverty and is generally good for everyone. “The Information Age and modern automation could be a massive opportunity to change human society and reduce poverty and inequality drastically. It could be a seminal moment in human history.” That or Elysium: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elysium_(film).
12 https://www.eurozine.com/change-course-human-history/ This piece by Graeber and Wengrow is a must-read and forms the foundation for this article.