Anarcho-primitivists are the ultimate Luddites — ideologues who favor complete technological relinquishment and a return to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. We spoke to a leading proponent to learn more about this idea and why he believes civilization was our worst mistake.
Philosopher John Zerzan wants you to get rid of all your technology — your car, your mobile phone, your computer, your appliances — the whole lot. In his perfect world, you'd be stripped off all your technological creature comforts, reduced to a lifestyle that harkens back to when our hunter-gatherer ancestors romped around the African plains.
Photo via Cast/John Zerzan/CC
You see, Zerzan is an outspoken advocate of anarcho-primitivism, a philosophical and political movement predicated under the assumption that the move from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence was a stupendously awful mistake — an existential paradigm shift that subsequently gave rise to social stratification, coercion, alienation, and unchecked population growth. It's only through the abandonment of technology, and a return to "non-civilized" ways of being — a process anarcho-primitivists call "wilding" — that we can eliminate the host of social ills that now plagues the human species.
As an anarchist, Zerzan is opposed to the state, along with all forms of hierarchical and authoritarian relations. The crux of his argument, one inspired by Karl Marx and Ivan Illich, is that the advent of technologies irrevocably altered the way humans interact with each other. There's a huge difference, he argues, between simple tools that stay under the control of the user, and those technological systems that draw the user under the control of those who produce the tools. Zerzan says that technology has come under the control of an elite class, thus giving rise to alienation, domestication, and symbolic thought.
Zerzan is not alone in his views. When the radical Luddite Ted "the Unabomber" Kasczinski was on trial for killing three people and injuring 23, Zerzan became his confidant, offering support for his ideas but condemning his actions (Zerzan recently stated that he and Kasczinski are "not on terms anymore.") Radicalized groups have also sprung up promoting similar views, including a Mexican group called the Individualists Tending Toward the Wild — a group with the objective "to injure or kill scientists and researchers (by the means of whatever violent act) who ensure the Technoindustrial System continues its course." Back in 2011, this group sent several mail bombs to nanotechnology lab and researchers in Latin America, killing two people.
Looking ahead to the future, and considering the scary potential for advanced technologies such as artificial superintelligence and robotics, there's the very real possibility that these sorts of groups will start to become more common — and more radicalized (similar to the radical anti-technology terrorist group Revolutionary Independence From Technology (RIFT) that was portrayed in the recent Hollywood film, Transcendence).
But Zerzan does not promote or condone violence. He'd rather see the rise of the "Future Primitive" come about voluntarily. To that end, he uses technology — like computers and phones — to get his particular message across (he considers it a necessary evil). That's how I was able to conduct this interview with him, which we did over email.
io9: Anarcho-primitivism is as much a critique of modernity as is it a prescription for our perceived ills. Can you describe the kind of future you're envisioning?
Zerzan: I want to see mass society radically decentralized into face-to-face communities. Only then can the individual be both responsible and autonomous. As Paul Shepard said, "Back to the Pleistocene!"
As an ideology, primitivism is fairly self-explanatory. But why add the 'anarcho' part to it? How can you be so sure there's a link between more primitive states of being and the diminishment of power relations and hierarchies among complex primates?
The anarcho part refers to the fact that this question, this approach, arose mainly within an anarchist or anti-civilization milieu. Everyone I know in this context is an anarchist. There are no guarantees for the future, but we do know that egalitarian and anti-hierarchical relations were the norm with Homo for 1-2 million years. This is indisputable in the anthropological literature.
Then how do you distinguish between tools that are acceptable for use versus those that give rise to "anti-hierarchical relations"?
Those tools that involve the least division of labor or specialization involve or imply qualities such as intimacy, equality, flexibility. With increased division of labor we moved away from tools to systems of technology, where the dominant qualities or values are distancing, reliance on experts, inflexibility.
But tool use and symbolic language are indelible attributes of Homo sapiens — these are our distinguishing features. Aren't you just advocating for biological primitivism — a kind of devolution of neurological characteristics?
Anthropologists (e.g. Thomas Wynn) seem to think that Homo had an intelligence equal to ours at least a million years ago. Thus neurology doesn't to enter into it. Tool use, of course, has been around from before the beginning of Homo some 3 million years ago. As for language, it's quite debatable as to when it emerged.
Early humans had a workable, non-destructive approach, that did not generally speaking involve much work, did not objectify women, and was anti-hierarchical. Does this sound backward to you?
You've got some provocative ideas about language and how it demeans or diminishes experience.
Every symbolic dimension — time, language, art, number — is a mediation between ourselves and reality. We lived more directly, immediately before these dimensions arrived, fairly recently. Freud, the arch-rationalist, thought that we once communicated telepathically, though I concede that my critique of language is the most speculative of my forays into the symbolic.
You argue that a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is as close to the ideal state of being as is possible. The Amish, on the other hand, have drawn the line at industrialization, and they've subsequently adopted an agrarian lifestyle. What is it about the advent of agriculture and domestication that's so problematic?
In the 1980s Jared Diamond called the move to domestication or agriculture "the worst mistake humans ever made." A fundamental shift away from taking what nature gives to the domination of nature. The inner logic of domestication of animals and plants is an unbroken progression, which always deepens and extends the ethos of control. Now of course control has reached the molecular level with nanotechnology, and the sphere of what I think is the very unhealthy fantasies of transhumanist neuroscience and AI.
In which ways can anarcho-primitivism be seen as the ultimate green movement? Do you see it that way?
We are destroying the biosphere at a fearful rate. Anarcho-primitivism seeks the end of the primary institutions that drive the destruction: domestication/civilization and industrialization. To accept "green" and "sustainable" illusions ignores the causes of the all-enveloping undermining of nature, including our inner nature. Anarcho-primitivism insists on a deeper questioning and helps identify the reasons for the overall crisis.
Tell us about the anarcho-primitivist position on science.
The reigning notion of what is science is an objectifying method, which magnifies the subject-object split. "Science" for hunter-gatherers is very basically different. It is based on participation with living nature, intimacy with it. Science in modernity mainly breaks reality down into now dead, inert fragments to "unlock" its "secrets." Is that superior to a forager who knows a number of things from the way a blade of grass is bent?
Well, being trapped in an endless cycle of Darwinian processes doesn't seem like the most enlightened or moral path for our species to take. Civilization and industrialization have most certainly introduced innumerable problems, but our ability to remove ourselves from the merciless "survival of the fittest" paradigm is a no-brainer. How could you ever convince people to relinquish the gifts of modernity — things like shelter, food on-demand, vaccines, pain relief, anesthesia, and ambulances at our beckon call?
It is reality that will "convince" people — or not. Conceivably, denial will continue to rule the day. But maybe only up to a point. If/when it can be seen that their reality is worsening qualitatively in every sphere a new perspective may emerge. One that questions the deep un-health of mass society and its foundations. Again, non-robust, de-skilled folks may keep going through the motions, stupefied by techno-consumerism and drugs of all kinds. Do you think that can last?
Most futurists would answer that things are getting better — and that through responsible foresight and planning we'll be able to create the future we imagine.
"Things are getting better"? I find this astounding. The immiseration surrounds us: anxiety, depression, stress, insomnia, etc. on a mass scale, the rampage shootings now commonplace. The progressive ruin of the natural world. I wonder how anyone who even occasionally picks up a newspaper can be so in the dark. Of course I haven't scratched the surface of how bad it is becoming. It is deeply irresponsible to promote such ignorance and projections.
That's a very presentist view. Some left-leaning futurists argue, for example, that ongoing technological progress (both in robotics and artificial intelligence) will lead to an automation revolution — one that will free us from dangerous and demeaning work. It's very possible that we'll be able to invent our way out of the current labor model that you're so opposed to.
Technological advances have only meant MORE work. That is the record. In light of this it is not quite cogent to promise that a more technological mass society will mean less work. Again, reality anyone??
Transhumanists advocate for the iterative improvement of the human species, things like enhanced intelligence and memory, the elimination of psychological disorders (including depression), radical life extension, and greater physical capacities. Tell us why you're so opposed to these things.
Why I am opposed to these things? Let's take them in order:
Enhanced intelligence and memory? I think it is now quite clear that advancing technology in fact makes people stupider and reduces memory. Attention span is lessened by Tweet-type modes, abbreviated, illiterate means of communicating. People are being trained to stare at screens at all times, a techno-haze that displaces life around them. I see zombies, not sharper, more tuned in people.
Elimination of psychological disorders? But narcissism, autism and all manner of such disabilities are on the rise in a more and more tech-oriented world.
Radical life extension? One achievement of modernity is increased longevity, granted. This has begun to slip a bit, however, in some categories. And one can ponder what is the quality of life? Chronic conditions are on the rise though people can often be kept alive longer. There's no evidence favoring a radical life extension.
Greater physical capacities? Our senses were once acute and we were far more robust than we are now under the sign of technology. Look at all the flaccid, sedentary computer jockeys and extend that forward. It is not I who doesn't want these thing; rather, the results are negative looking at the techno project, eh?
Do you foresee the day when a state of anarcho-primitivism can be achieved (even partially by a few enthusiasts)?
A few people cannot achieve such a future in isolation. The totality infects everything. It all must go and perhaps it will. Do you think people are happy with it?
Zerzan's critique of civilization is certainly interesting and worthy of discussion. There's no doubt that technology has taken humanity along a path that's resulted in massive destruction and suffering, both to ourselves and to our planet and its animal inhabitants.
But there's something deeply unsatisfying with the anarcho-primitivist prescription — that of erasing our technological achievements and returning to a state of nature. It's fed by a cynical and defeatist world view that buys into the notion that everything will be okay once we regress back to a state where our ecological and sociological footprints are reduced to practically nil. It's a way of eliminating our ability to make an impact on the world — and onto ourselves.
It's also an ideological view that fetishizes our ancestral past. Despite Zerzan's cocksure proclamations to the contrary, our paleolithic forebears were almost certainly hierarchical and socially stratified. There isn't a single social species on this planet — whether they're primates or elephants or cetaceans — that doesn't organize its individuals according to capability, influence, or level of reproductive fitness. Feeling "alienated," "frustrated," and "controlled" is an indelible part of the human condition, regardless of whether we live in tribal arrangements or in the information age. The anarcho-primitivist fantasy of the free and unhindered noble savage is just that — a fantasy. Hunter-gatherers were far from free, coerced by the demands of biology and nature to mete out an existence under the harshest of circumstances.
Technology may be a curse, but it has also been a tremendous blessing. Humanity is still a work in progress, but we are slowly pulling ourselves away from the Darwinian paradigm. The thought of throwing ourselves right back into it is as facile as it is unimaginitive.
Top image: Ethan Welty/Smithsonian.