Ecological Civilization, or Anarcho-Primitivism?

Matt and I dialogue on different futures for our species and the Earth.

Here’s my original blog post: Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus


  1. Thanks Matt for the opportunity to philosophize on these topics!

    Just wanted to follow up. One thing I would guess is that for some people, the title of this video would be quite frightening, because as we speak about “eco-civilization” is the current ideal for most (an ideological extension of the infrastructural brutalism it depends on), whereas primitivism is the total opposite, and therefore conjures fantasies of savagery, impoverishment, and a neo-darwinian neo-eco-fascism, as some have alluded to with recent critiques of “not all humans” in light of comments regarding coronavirus as the cure for a cancer-like civilization.

    So, I want to suggest there is no reason for “or” in the title. Rather AP is a critique, not a program. In that regard, I’m suggesting an eco-socialist civilization would benefit from an anarcho-primitivist (/primal anarchist) critique, in order to reduce the pressures of civilization that tend towards statism, inequity, overreliance on technology and complex systems…all of which contribute to societal collapse in the first place. So, there is a degree of hybridity that is important, which emerges in titles like Zerzan’s “future primitive,” or Herman’s “future primal” etc. There are two ways to think about this I think: 1) that civilization is an aberration, where fossil fuel exploded, peaked, and will collapse, and with it the carbon economy; or 2) just as the universe passed through an irreversible threshold with the introduction of new elements via nucleosynthesis, once energy flows can no longer be sustained, the collapse of civilizations, like stars, will disperse new elements that can be accreted by novel structures. I tend to take the second view, since I imagine domestication is a common approach to security. However, intensifying domestication in my analysis results in hyperdomination, so the AP critique is important to move people towards the other end of the spectrum, inviting them to explore as deeply as they can lifeways unmediated by technologies that are so complex they depend on a rising technocracy as opposed to cultivate self-sufficiency.

    Lastly, I want to contextualize AP within the different approaches to capital that I think Marx alludes to, so as to again challenge the strict separation of the critique from others. One way to do this is through the so-called “semiotic square”, that allows analysis of effective oppositional concepts, where A, B, non-A, and non-B help us to understand how to perhaps adequately resist social arrangements. For instance, let’s say A is political freedom and B is economic equality, while A is political unfreedom (slavery) and B is economic inequality (poverty)

    We can in turn think about what we would call political unfreedom and economic inequality, perhaps call it fascism, which in its extreme form might be understood as the enslavement and impoverishment of the people. Political freedom and economic inequality might be an alternative to fascism (call it democratic capitalism) but so too could political unfreedom and economic equality (dictatorial communism?). All of those are problematic in some way, hence the move to an ideal state that is the realization of political and economic freedom/equality (I’ll just call it free society). But of course, what does “free society” look like for people? Obviously different visions for different persons.

    That’s helpful I think for understanding AP in this way. If the problem is capital(ism), in the sense that owning the means of production produces a particular class relationship that establishes economic inequality which in turn generates political inequality, then the options become a bit more clear. Again, drawing from the semiotic square, and cosmologizing capital(ism) as a thermoeconomic flow structure, we have our terms set up:

    A) Is it Legitimate? (yes/no = a/non-a)
    B) Is it worth engaging in (yes/no = b/non b)

    If those are the terms for our semiotic square, with regards to how we attempt to resist fascism and move towards a free society, then we seem to have four choices:

    1) Where the thermoeconomic flow structure characterized by capitalism is deemed A) legitimate and b) worth engaging in, then the goal is to promote capitalist praxis with the intention wealth distribution.
    2) Where the thermoeconomic flow structure is deemed illegitimate but worth engaging, then it seems like a luddite, insurrectionary approach to capital is promoted, with the intention of destroying that capital.

    Marx’s definition of capital seems to hinge on commodification and exchange value, so that the active refusal to exchange capital as a commodity (for money) but rather share it negates the commodification process, while maintaining the capital as such for the good of the community. This I would characterize as choice 3), deeming the flow structure legitimate (in the sense that a community needs capital to survive) but not worth engaging in, hence moving towards communes (anarcho-communism) instead.

    And finally, there is the last option, where the flow structure as such is considered illegitimate and not worth engaging in. Again, another option to negate capitalism/commodification besides destroying capital or sharing it would be to produce or procure a good oneself without exchanging it (why exchange it when everyone else can produce/procure it themselves as well. This would be the anarcho-primitivist approach I’d guess, circumventing the flow structure (typified by state control and capitalist productivity) while still getting one’s needs met. In this way, subsistence lifeways and so-called primitive toolmaking skills allow the possibility of small scale Reinhabitation of bioregions in way that are not dependent on extractive technologies, mass society, or total destruction.

    To sum, anti-capitalism struggle necessitates an approach to capital to negate the relationships that characterize and reproduce society’s political and economic inequality. Typically those fall into three approaches: engagement, sharing, and destruction – anarcho-capitalism, anarcho-communism, anarcho-insurrectionism. Yet while those approaches may address capitalism and commodification, they do not necessarily address the deeper issues of colonialism and civilization itself, and therefore do not prevent social collapse, typically induced by BOTH social inequity and environmental degradation. The fourth option, anarchoprimitivism circumvents civilization’s complex flow structures, does address this through subsistence and moving away from intensive extraction, lessening the mass of the social structure through which energy must flow through, compressing the time it takes for energy to move through the social structure, and potentially generating a higher free energy rate density as individuals and communities can more effectively procure energy for themselves, rather than remain reliant on huge bureaucratic highly inefficient structures to ensure energy eventually flows to these areas.

    Which is to say that the point of AP is to address the precarity of the human experience, which is not addressed by the state or capital, nor is it necessarily addressed by a civilization, however egalitarian, if that egalitarian civilization depends on extraction and exploitation of resources. (Of course, the AP critique would say that such intensive extraction is necessary for civilization in the first place, and the resulting stratification tends towards inequality as well so…) Rather, it is to say that AP redefines an approach to better address precarity, by reconsidering the human relationship to the nonhuman world, recognizing it is not civilization that insulates against precarity, but rather civilization is the cause of precarity, eroding the true foundations of security, namely a flourishing biosphere and the subsistence techniques and traditional ecoloigical knowledge needed to thrive within it.

    The implications however of living within civilization today are probably that all four aspects of the ideal approaches that the semiotic square gives us for addressing the role of capital should be utilized so as to ensure a diversity of tactics, so that a hybrid approach is more likely to address the core underlying conditions for collapse better than any one can on its own in particular. These are, of course “ideal” categories, and the reality is, just like the first semiotic square (fascism, communism, capitalism, and free society) there are likely elements from all that we experience daily, and as such, we should adjust accordingly and choose approaches situationally.

    1. I agree that the critique is important. It is also important to have a constructive project and ideal to aim for, an ideal that is open to critique. As I mention in the video, it is perfectly true that there are no examples of ecologically or socially just civilizations. Even before agricultural civilization, however, hunter-gatherers were driving large land mammals into extinction and transforming the landscape. So the question for me is not “how can we avoid leaving an ecological footprint?,” since the answer for any phase of our species’ evolution, primal or modern, and for any species more generally for that matter, is “in no way.” As Whitehead put it (I repeat myself, I know): “life is robbery…but the robber requires justification.” The question, then, is “how can humans use their knowledge and freedom to regenerate and contribute to the vitality of this planet?”

      I appreciate the critique of technology, but I think we can miniaturize it along the lines suggested by William Irwin Thompson.

      And again, Bookchin’s approach suggests localization of material production and planetization of consciousness. Money is not the problem, rather general purpose global currency under transnational corporate rule is the problem. In such a system, money ends up flowing out of localities into the hands of an elite few. Another approach might be to develop many local currencies for food and other materials produced within each municipality, and a global currency for whatever cannot be produced locally (which ideally would be very little). This is an approach suggested by Alf Hornborg in “The Power of the Machine.” Getting rid of money entirely is totally unworkable, in my opinion.

      1. There is a beautiful line someone pointed out, “”In short, what we destroy in the coming decades will be more important than what we build.” This I think parallels the anarchist like, “the urge to destroy is a creative urge,” because the important point is not to think we know what must come out, but allowing what comes out to grow out of the present. Ultimately, and this is what I alluded to, any “constructive project” we consider will be rooted in the value system of today, which itself is contingent upon the infrastructure and social structures we have internalized as necessary. In short, a “more civilized” future depends on the premises and assumptions of the “less civilized” civilizations of the past, because what is problematic and needs to be interrogated is civility itself.

        Yes, large-mammals were driven to extinction (as I also point out, this is attributable to the introduction of atlatls, or more complex technology that was designed to kill more efficiently), absolutely. And animals certainly change the landscape as well, leading to novel ecological regimes, no question. The question is whether those new ecological regimes are impoverished with regards to biodiversity, or whether that biodiversity is cultivated. The problem with Whitehead’s point that robbery requires justification, is that certain justifications are just not justifiable. I support the idea of regenerating and contributing to the vitality of this planet — I just have not found this to be an effect of any civilization, ever. In which case, is civilization’s robbery justifiable?

        I agree “miniaturizing” tech is important — my point here is if people can make the tech themselves, they will retain autonomy along with minimize the footprint. Dependence on complex societies reduce autonomy and even introduce precarity. Exchange value does seem to incentivize commodification, so I would disagree with you there. There are other ways to facilitate exchange beyond money (gifting for example). So to the point for instance that “getting rid of money entirely is totally unworkable, in my opinion,” an alternative means of exchange would likely suffice. Already we are moving out of a cash economy to a digital credit economy, where numbers are just a matter of information. There are other ways of using information in ways that do not promote scarcity (not having enough money to buy goods), but rather using information to determine who is in need, and how to allocate resources to those persons so they can achieve their potential.

        I certainly hope “localization of material production and planetization of consciousness” occurs fast, my impression is that this is a spectrum. One extreme pole of localization of material production is subsistence living and personal techniques (making fire, producing a bow, creating a shelter for oneself, hunting, gathering, foraging, etc), which I think generates a relationship to ecological community unmediated by technologies that are too complex to understand and therefore require such a degree of specialization one’s autonomy is eroded, and therefore one’s consciousness is directly informed by the immediacy of gaia. The other pole is hyperdomestication which I would name as civilization, and so I just recommend voluntarily moving towards the first pole as far as possible, and habituate and normalize those lifestyles, before we are forced towards that pole by necessity and have no idea how to exist in that political space.

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