Sometimes I get my best insights from people I don’t agree with. For instance, I’ve always found the anarcho-primitivist writer John Zerzan fascinating, even though I disagree with nearly 100% of what he writes. For those in the dark about primitivism, it rejects not only modern industrial capitalism, but all technology and division of labor in even the most basic form, in an attempt to recover a primal wildness and harmony with nature without such mediating systems as language and culture.
I had been reading up on anarcho-syndicalism when I came across this short essay by Zerzan on “The Bourgeois Roots of Anarcho-Syndicalism“. He writes:
The values upheld by anarcho-syndicalists do not significantly differ from those of the more radical of the bourgeois liberal theorists, and their project, upon examination, proves to be merely the extension of the liberal project.
Like the bourgeoisie – and maybe even more than the bourgeoisie – the anarcho-syndicalists embrace the values essential to capitalism.
What are these values. First of all, technological and economic progress, obviously a no-no for primitivists as it constitutes man’s continuing “mastery” and “domination” over nature. And the values which support this end include the work ethic, conformity, “social peace”, and “a rational, ethical society”.
Both bourgeois liberal theorists and anarcho-syndicalists want a rational, ethical society based on freedom, equality and justice, guaranteeing human rights. Both want a smoothly running economy with high levels of production guaranteeing scientific and technological progress. Both require social peace and conformity to realize their projects. It is difficult not to think that their projects are the same. I see only two significant differences. The bourgeoisie sees the economy as an apolitical force that can progress efficiently and ethically in the form of private enterprise. The anarcho-syndicalists recognize the economy as a political force which must, therefor, be run democratically. The bourgeois liberals believe that representational democracy can create their ideal. Anarcho-syndicalists believe that democracy must be direct – though they never seem to ask us if we want to spend time directly voting on every social issue that comes up. The project of the anarcho-syndicalists is really just an extension of the project of the project of bourgeois liberalism – an attempt to push that project toward its logical conclusion.
On the values Zerzan lists, I find that some (peace and rationality) are entirely good while others (conformity and work) rather mixed blessings. None can have any value for the primitivist. Zerzan’s critique leads me to two conclusions. The first is that the disparate economic ideas of anarchists aren’t entirely incommensurable. As Mises wrote in Human Action:
What divides those parties one calls today world view parties, i.e., parties committed to basic philosophical decisions about ultimate ends, is only seeming disagreement with regard to ultimate ends. Their antagonisms refer either to religious creeds or to problems of international relations or to the problem of the ownership of the means of production or to problems of political organization. It can be shown that all these controversies concern means and not ultimate ends.
. . . for all parties committed to pursuit of the people’s earthly welfare and thus approving social cooperation, questions of social organization and the conduct of social action are not problems of ultimate principles and of world views, but are ideological issues. They are technical problems with regard to which some arrangement is always possible.
Note that Mises distinguishes between “world views”, which interpret all phenomena, including physics, metaphysics, ethics, and so on, and narrower “ideologies”, which “have in view only human action and social cooperation”. Anarcho-syndicalism and liberalism, according to Zerzan, share a bourgeois world view while differing in ideology. Primitivism, on the other hand, is another world view entirely (actually, according to Mises’ full definition, it might even fail at that). The world view shared by liberalism and anarchism, as well as most schools of socialism, has a name never mentioned by Zerzan: Enlightenment.
This is my second conclusion: If syndicalism as Zerzan describes it is the logical conclusion of bourgeois liberalism, i.e. the Enlightenment, then primitivism is the logical conclusion of the reaction against the Enlightenment, i.e. Romanticism or Counter-Enlightenment. This is a strain of thought which is an undercurrent in socialism as well as many varieties of conservative and right-wing thought. It’s most famous figure is Rousseau, but also includes such tempestuous reactionaries as Johann Georg Hamann, Johann Gottfried Herder, William Blake, the writers associated with the Frankfurt School, and postmodernists too numerous to mention.
I am not completely opposed to Romanticism. Indeed, I love romantic art and find many Romantic critiques of reason and modernity to have some validity. But reading the primitivists such as Zerzan (and even more ridiculous figures like Hakim Bey) as they reject culture and scoff at the notions of “social peace” and “ethical society” even as they praise such people as Ted Kaczynski, is enough to give one pause, to say the least.
I think an excellent book could be written on this subject, interpreting modern political history not in terms of Left vs. Right, or Capitalism vs. Socialism, but Enlightenment vs. Romanticism, and tracing the threads of counter-enlightenment though on the left and right.
For a critique of primitivism and related subcultural movements from a perspective that is anarchist, anti-capitalist, and environmentalist, see Murray Bookchin’s classic essay Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm. His essay means to implicate liberal individualism along with what he calls “lifestyle anarchism”, but I think fails, for the main reason that the first is an Enlightenment individualism stressing social harmony, and the latter a Romantic individualism stressing rebellion for its own sake. But that’s a subject for another time.