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(en) Is primitivism realistic? An anarchist reply to John Zerzan and others ?

Date Thu, 01 Dec 2005 18:15:00 +0200

A reply to primitivist critiques of 'Civilisation, Primitivism and Anarchism'
One of the major confusions in the anarchist movement in the USA
and parts of Europe arises out of primitivism and its claim to be part
of the anarchist movement. But primitivism is not a realistic strategy
for social revolution and it opposes the basic purpose of anarchism -
the creation of a free mass society. Primitivists have attempted to
reply to these criticisms but these replies are easily exposed as more
to do with faith then reality.
Sections of the actual anarchist movement have also constructed a
set of ideological positions that almost seem designed to make
successful mass work impossible. Large sections of the anarchist
movement seem to have forgotten that the goal of anarchism is to
change the world, not simply to provide a critique of the left or be a
minor thorn in the side of the state.

I’ll summarise my argument from the previous essay.
Primitivism generally argues that the development of agriculture was
where it all went wrong. It therefore implies we should return to
pre-agricultural methods of getting food, that is hunter-gathering.
But agriculture allows us to get vastly greater quantities of food from
a given area. Estimates can be made of how many people could live
on the planet as hunter-gathers based on the amount of food that
would be available to them. These estimates suggest a maximum
population of around 100 million.
Is primitivism realistic:
an anarchist reply to John Zerzan and others
Last year I published the article 'Civilisation, Primitivism and
Anarchism'* to sketch out what I saw as the glaring contradictions
in primitivism and where it clashed with anarchism. Primitivism, I
argued, was an absurdity that could never happen without the
'removal' of the vast majority of the world's population. And far from
being related to anarchism it was in contradiction with the basic
tenet of anarchism; the possibility of having a free mass society
without a state.

The article has circulated on and off-line over the year and sparked
numerous discussions. A number of primitivists, including John
Zerzan (1), have replied directly to it, and others have published
what appear to be indirect replies. Here I want to answer the direct
replies and, in doing so, expand the critique of primitivism.

The original essay was also using 'primitivism' as a stalking horse to
address what I see as one of the major problems in anarchism as it
appears in the 'English speaking' world. That is a large-scale failure
to take itself seriously. So-called ‘anarcho’-primitivism is
the most obvious example. But sections of the actual anarchist
movement have also constructed a set of ideological positions that
almost seem designed to make successful mass work impossible.
Large sections of the anarchist movement seem to have forgotten
that the goal of anarchism is to change the world, not simply to
provide a critique of the left or be a minor thorn in the side of the
Is primitivism realistic?

This reply continues in the same vein, on the surface it is about
primitivism but you don't have to dig that deep to see that some of
the criticisms can be applied in a more general sense. A good place
to start in that context is with a poster calling himself Aragon who
posted on more than one of the sites that carried the original article.
In a comment on AnarchistNews.org Aragon states that Flood
"seems to focus his critique on what he calls the question of whether
primitivism provides ‘any sort of realistic alternative’ which
always seems like a bizarre metric for an anarchist to use as
measurement” (2). This is the statement that inspired the title of
this essay. Here we have someone who openly proclaims it to be
“bizarre” to even ask if primitivism provides a realistic
alternative to capitalism.

Far from being a refutation to the original essay this re-enforces the
central point of it. That there is no way the advocates of primitivism
could take the idea seriously if they thought its consequences
through. A lot of primitivism theory strikes me as the work of those
who like playing with ideas but really have no idea of how these
ideas could be implemented. As with Aragon who even finds the
idea of implementation of his own ideas “bizarre”. But this is
also a problem in the anarchist movement. All too often plans are
drawn up or slogans trotted out without asking if they are realistic.
Can they actually achieve what they claim to be about? The only test
that appears to be used is whether the plan is 'pure' enough. What
sort of test is this for anything except perhaps for a religious sect?
The core issue

Generally responses to the essay from primitivists were often a lot
more constructive then what I expected. I expected to get mostly
abuse, and I did but a few did attempt to address the arguments.
However there was no real attempt to address the core point of my
original article. Which was that the 'population question' made a
joke out of any claim by primitivism to be anything beyond a critique
of the world. This is unsurprising - as far as I can tell there is no
answer to the very obvious problem that emerges when you compare
the number of people living on the planet (6 billion plus) and the
optimistic maximum of 100 million (2% of this) that the planet
might be able to support if civilisation was abandoned for a return to
a hunter-gather existence (3).

I’ll summarise my argument from the previous essay.
Primitivism generally argues that the development of agriculture was
where it all went wrong. It therefore implies we should return to
pre-agricultural methods of getting food, that is hunter-gathering.
But agriculture allows us to get vastly greater quantities of food from
a given area. Estimates can be made of how many people could live
on the planet as hunter-gathers based on the amount of food that
would be available to them. These estimates suggest a maximum
population of around 100 million.

This is what is called an ‘Elephant in the living room’
argument. The question of what would happen to the other 5,900
million people is so dominant that it makes discussion of the various
other claims made by primitivism seem a waste of time until the
population question is answered. Yet the only attempts at a response
showed a rather touching faith in technology and civilisation, quite a
surprise (4). This response can by summarised as that such
population reductions can happen slowly over time because people
can be convinced to have fewer or even no children.

There was no attempted explanation for how convincing the 6 billion
people of the earth to have no children might go ahead. Programs
that advocate lower numbers of children are hardly a new idea. They
have already been implemented both nationally and globally without
much success. China's infamous 'One Child' program includes a
high degree of compulsion but has not even resulted in a population
decrease. China's population is forecast to grow by 100 to 250
million by 2025. An explanation of how primitivists hope to achieve
by persuasion what others have already failed to do by compulsion is
needed yet no such attempt to even sketch this out exists.

As if this was not difficult enough for primitivists the implications of
other arguments they make turn an impossible task into an even
more impossible task. For primitivist arguments normally include
the idea that civilisation is about to create a major crisis that will
either end, or come close to ending life on the planet. Whether
caused by peak oil, global warming or another side effect of
technology we are told this crisis is at best a few decades away.

Even if primitivists could magically convince the entire population of
the planet to have few or no children this process could only reduce
the population over generations. But if a crisis is only decades away
there is no time for this strategy. For even if 90% of the population
was to be magically convinced tomorrow it would still take decades
for the population to reduce to the 100 million or less that could be
supported by hunter-gathering. And in the real world there is no
mechanism for magically convincing people of any argument –
not least one that requires them to ignore what many people find to
be a fundamental biological drive to have children. Some of the
older primitivists I know even have children themselves. If they
can’t convince themselves then why do they think they can
convince everyone else?

The contradiction between these two positions is so obvious that I
can only conclude that those primitivists who have put forward this
'convince everyone to have fewer babies' position have only done so
in order to shore up their faith. It is an argument invented to try and
hide the elephant in the living room but really it only hides it from
themselves. It is impossible to see how they could expect anyone
else to find it a convincing answer to the population question.
Zerzan's reply

John Zerzan's reply to my essay included a variation of this defence
of primitivism.

"It could also be noted that population is hardly a given. It seems
to be more an effect than a cause, for instance: an effect of
domestication ab origino (Latin for 'from the beginning/from the
source' (5)), if we are talking about civilization. And so it seems to
me likely that the numbers might come down fairly quickly were we
to move away from domestication. I do not know anyone who says
this could happen overnight, Flood to the contrary.(1)"

Well first off population is a given. I am not imagining that there are
6 billion people on the earth - there are six billion plus on the planet.
We cannot simply wish that there were 100 million. There are 6
billion and this is a figure that is forecast to rise. Whatever about the
forces that drove the development of agriculture 12,000 years ago
(where there is a debate about cause and effect) the reality today is
that stopping the cultivation of all domestic plants and animals
would result in the death by starvation of 5.9 billion people. So yes a
move away from domestication would indeed mean that "numbers
might come down fairly quickly": starvation only takes a few

Zerzan is also misquoting me. I never claimed that some primitivists
said civilisation had to go "overnight". One can see why Zerzan
needed to invent this particular red herring, like other primitivists he
believes that time is running out. In an interview with fellow
primitivist academic Derrick Jensen, Zerzan himself said "in a few
decades there won't be much left to fight for. Especially when you
consider the acceleration of environmental degradation and personal
dehumanization." Again I’ll point out if we only have “a few
decades” this is hardly the time span in which a 'voluntary'
reduction of the earth's population by some 98% could occur. In
particular as the Earth’s population is actually forecast to rise to
perhaps to as much as 10 billion in that time.

The evasive language Zerzan uses in his response to me is typical of
the primitivist approach to the population question. And although he
might throw out the red herring that "I do not know anyone who
says this could happen overnight " in the original essay I actually
quoted some primitivists who either saw the collapse of civilisation
as a short term inevitability or who worse - like Derrick Jensen -
wanted to bring it on. As I pointed out in the original article, Jensen
is on record as writing "I want civilization brought down and I want
it brought down now” (6). In fact since my article was published
he has taken this further with a call for concrete action "We need
people to take out dams, and we need people to knock out electrical
infrastructures" (7). So while Zerzan may be smart enough to be
evasive on this not all of his followers are (8). And while Zerzan may
have forgotten Jensen he does know him - at least he was
interviewed by him in 2000 (9) and the 10,000 word interview that
was published which would suggest they have at least spent some
hours in each others company.

Zerzan, like other primitivists, continues to evade the logic of his
own position. It's all very well to talk of a gradual population
reduction but just how does he think primitivists are going to achieve
a population reduction from 6 billion to 0.1 billion "in a few
decades"? What would be gradual about this? This would require a
ban on all but 2% of the earth's population having any children at all!

The ball is really in Zerzan's court; he needs to demonstrate a
mechanism for a non-compulsory and rapid reduction in population
that would require the vast majority of the earth's population to be
happy to have no children at all. He needs to explain how he can
even explain this message to all of the people in the world - never
mind convince them of it. And Zerzan needs a 'voluntary'
mechanism of ensuring that those he fails to convince do not
undermine this reduction, for instance religious or other minorities
who disagree with the primitivists and choose to have many children
. And all this has to happen within his own deadline of "a few
decades". With this sort of burden of proof it is easy to see why
primitivists are not so keen on demonstrating that they have a
realistic alternative.
The nasty side

Those not blinded by ideology looking at this burden of proof will
conclude either that primitivism is of no practical use or that those
primitivists who are rational and still hold to primitivism have some
program they are not revealing. Quite clearly some of those who see
themselves as primitivists do favour die offs or advocate policies that
would make them inevitable. Jensen's call for people "to take out
dams ... to knock out electrical infrastructures" would result in large
numbers of deaths if any number of people were to take him
seriously. It's just a toned down version of Steve Booth's lauding of
the Tokyo Sarin attacks and Booth's fantasy in Green Anarchist that
"One day the groups will be totally secretive and their methods of
fumigation will be completely effective." These sorts of murderous
anti-human sentiments are not only tolerated within primitivism but
their authors are promoted - you'll find their essays uncritically
reproduced all over the web and in various print publications.

My previous essay produced howls of outrage because I pointed out
the existence of such writings. But the problem here is not that I
point out their existence, it is that the primitivists ignore them until it
is pointed out. Yet they work with these people, they publish these
people and then they shuffle around with embarrassment and cry
unfair when what they say is pointed out. And it is not just the
primitivists even sections of the anarchist movement in the name of
maintaining a broad church uncritically publish Jensen and invite
him to address meetings. This is quite astounding given the
consequences of what he is advocating. I can only presume he is
tolerated in some anarchist circles because of the general confusion
that equates militant tactics with militant politics, forgetting that
elements of the far right can also use militant tactics.

There is no critique of the die off point of view from those who call
themselves 'anarcho'-primitivists. Zerzan is happy to do a lengthy
interview with someone who says he wants "civilization brought
down and I want it brought down now" without even bringing the
consequences of such a position up with them. If he wanted to
distance himself from Jensen he has already had the opportunity to
do so.
The centrality of the agricultural revolution

Elsewhere Zerzan has written of the development of agriculture that;

"The debasing of life in all spheres, now proceeding at a
quickening pace, stems from the dynamics of civilization itself.
Domestication of animals and plants, a process only 10,000 years
old, has penetrated every square inch of the planet. The result is the
elimination of individual and community autonomy and health, as
well as the rampant, accelerating destruction of the natural
world” (10)

This is relevant because a number of people who replied objected to
me choosing the development of agriculture as the point at which
civilisation can be said to have developed (11). But as the original
essay explained, "Of course civilization is a rather general term .. For
the purposes of this article I'm taking as a starting point that the
form of future society that primitivists argue for would be broadly
similar in technological terms to that which existed around 12,000
years ago on earth, at the dawn of the agricultural revolution". I
could have picked an older date - the first cave paintings for instance
but this would not only have been more arbitrary but would have
presented an even greater population problem for the primitivists.

I could have picked a more recent date but this would hardly have
helped the primitivists as they then would have had to include
many of the features of civilisation - including the state - in their
primitive utopia. And, as our ability to support a large population has
escalated sharply in recent years, even a 'primitive' society that only
aimed to return to say, 1800 would still have to get rid of the
majority of the earth's population. Evasion aside, it is quite clear that
from the primitivist point of view it was the agricultural revolution
and the changes that happened alongside this where things went

For understandable reasons (not wanting to deal with the population
question) primitivists and their fellow travellers tend to avoid any
date even as general as the agricultural revolution. But it's the one I
choose to work with and this appears to be fair enough with those
primitivists more willingly to openly argue their position. Agriculture
also seems a very logical starting point because agriculture is what
makes a mass society possible. Hunter-gathers can't gather in large
groups for a long period because they exhaust local food sources.
Nor do small groups of hunter-gathers generally have the surplus
food required to develop a high degree of specialisation of labour,
and any specialisation is a bad thing according to most primitivists.

I also think its hard to construct a coherent primitivism that does not
exclude agriculture since the dawn of agriculture and class society
seem to occur together. This fact has been understood on the left at
least as far back as Engels ‘The Origin of the Family, Private
Property and the State’ and I’ll discuss its implications
next. But in terms of the overall argument about food production
this is a side argument - the earths current population requires the
agricultural technology of the last 100 odd years - going back to
primitive agriculture is not much more of an option then going back
to Hunter-gathering. It would still leave billions of facing death by
Is primitivism a branch of anarchism?

It is true that agriculture is required before the surplus is generated
on which a state structure can be built. This is about the only
argument the primitivists have - the state has always been a feature
of civilisation. The challenge for those who want to abolish the state
- and this has always been understood as a central challenge of
anarchism from the 1860's - is to create a civilisation that does not
have the mechanisms of state repression that all civilisations to date
have had.

This brings me onto another issue that upset some of those who
wrote replies to my essay. Teapolitik's "Primitivism isn't, in itself, a
critique of anarchism at all. It is a supplement to anarchism" is the
best-developed expression of this sort of reply. Teapolitik goes on to
assert that "…civilization (and for some, technology, agriculture,
language, and other products of human society) is not compatible
with ecological sustainability--and that the persistence of civilization,
whether feudal, capitalist, socialist or anarchist, would lead to the
eventual destruction of the life-sustaining qualities of this planet."

I think the case for primitivism being a break with rather than a
development of anarchism is very clear - I outlined this at some
length in my original article. The primitivist argument is essentially
identical to the liberal argument for why the state is necessary. The
state they claim is what allows mass society to exist - without the
state we would have 'the war of all against all'. The primitivists agree
but as they are anti-state they are therefore required to also be
anti-mass society. Yet the origins of anarchism lie in a movement
that sought to go beyond this seeming contradiction - a movement
built on the idea that you could have a free society without the state.
This was the ideological corner stone on which anarchism is

Bakunin, for instance writing on Rousseau's Theory of the State,
wrote in words that are as applicable to the core argument of
primitivism as they were at the time to liberalism that;

"According to the theory .. primitive men enjoying absolute liberty
only in isolation are antisocial by nature. When forced to associate
they destroy each other's freedom. If this struggle is unchecked it
can lead to mutual extermination.” But for anarchists "it is now
proven that no state could exist without committing crimes, or at
least without contemplating and planning them, even when its
impotence should prevent it from perpetrating crimes, we today
conclude in favour of the absolute need of destroying the states. Or,
if it is so decided, their radical and complete transformation so that,
ceasing to be powers centralised and organised from the top down,
by violence or by authority of some principle, they may recognise --
with absolute liberty for all the parties to unite or not to unite, and
with liberty for each of these always to leave a union even when
freely entered into -- from the bottom up, according to the real needs
and the natural tendencies of the parties, through the free federation
of individuals, associations, communes, districts, provinces, and
nations within humanity." (12)

Bakunin’s argument is that liberals insist that large numbers of
people cannot live together without a state to supervise them as they
would come into conflict with each other. But anarchists insist that
large numbers of people can come together and preserve their
freedom though a range of bottom up organising methods. Mass
society and freedom are possible. This is something primitivists

In a similar vein Kropotkin wrote;

"recent evolution…has prepared the way for showing the
necessity and possibility of a higher form of social organisation that
may guarantee economic freedom without reducing the individual to
the role of a slave to the State. The origins of government have been
carefully studied, and all metaphysical conceptions as to its divine or
"social contract" derivation having been laid aside, it appears that it
is among us of a relatively modern origin, and that its powers have
grown precisely in proportion as the division of society into the
privileged and unprivileged classes was growing in the course of
ages” (13).

Here Kroptkin is arguing that humanity can create forms of mass
organisation that do not require the state and which can create
economic freedom. And while the liberals may argue that the state
is required for the existence of mass society this seems to be a recent
argument invented to justify the division of society into classes.

As can be seen - from the beginning - anarchism has included a
rejection of the core idea of primitivism - that there is an
irreconcilable contradiction between mass society and liberty. It has
sought alternative ways to organize mass society that eliminate the
role of the state. For these "free federation of individuals,
associations, communes, districts, provinces, and nations within
humanity" are all features of mass society. In the 1860's the
argument that there was such an irreconcilable contradiction was an
anti-anarchist argument - one that the anarchists took the time to
refute. To try and incorporate the same argument into anarchism
today is to make nonsense of the term anarchism.

For some reason there is a very strong tendency in the USA for the
emergence of ideologies which use the label anarchist but which are
in reality at odds with anarchism. There have been at least three
such streams in the last two decades, 'anarcho'-capitalism,
post-leftism and ‘anarcho’-primitivism. All three have used
a similar methodology of trying to re-label anarchism as 'left
anarchism' (or sometimes 'red anarchism'). All three have shared
the same ideological anti-communist 'rugged individualism' by
which all forms of collective mass organisation can only be

It is hard not to write this off as simply a radical reflections of the
state ideology of the USA. In the case of primitivism it also accepts
George Bush's claims that USA society has to have the car culture.
For Bush this means the USA has to sacrifice the environment in
order to maintain its current standard of living. Primitivism accepts
the first claim but unlike Bush rejects the price as too great to carry.
So primitivism seeks the end of civilization itself. Like Bush it also
seems unwilling to admit that elsewhere on the planet people already
organise their lives in ways that have a much lower energy demand.
Even Western Europe which has a similar standard of living to the
USA has per person a use of energy half that of the USA.

The technology question causes a huge amount of confusion with
primitivists mixing up a particular form or consequence of
technology with the technology itself. I had tried to deal with this in
the original essay using the example of motorised transport. Yet
some replies were from people in the USA who couldn't get their
heads around the idea of the technology of motorised transport being
used in any other way than the way it is used in the USA. There it is
perhaps more reasonable for someone to believe that “car culture
could not be likely eliminated without destroying civilisation”
(14). US culture and urban geography means that right now there
are huge areas of the country where owning a car is pretty essential
to survival.

But this isn't typical of the rest of the world, not even of parts of the
US. If you lived in Manhattan for instance, for day-to-day life a car is
more of a problem then a requirement. People across huge areas of
the planet have a very low percentage of car ownership - in the most
part because people are too poor to afford individual cars. Yet those
with money still have access to mass transportation. If you go
anywhere in North Africa you can travel long distances rapidly and at
ease, reaching even quite small towns because the lack of individual
car ownership has created a market for an incredibly sophisticated
network of collective taxis. They leave from fixed points in each
town whenever a vehicle is full. Really busy routes also have trains
and buses. The point is that even under capitalism alternative ways
of dealing with the need for transportation already exist - there is
nothing inevitable about the 'car culture' that is a feature of how the
technology of the internal combustion engine has been used in the

Some of the replies focused on my treatment of technology and in
particular the contention that the only way out of the population
crisis is both more technology and more access to technology.
Unsurprisingly, as I used the peak oil theory in the original essay this
resulted in discussion on some of the sites dedicated to discussing
Peak Oil. Omar for instance thought this means I "argue technology
as the saviour" (15) - others even thought this meant I was in favour
of atomic weapons!

These misunderstandings are probably my fault for stating the case
too crudely in the original. It is worth deepening the discussion. My
position it that the combination of modern capitalism and the way it
uses technology has given us an unstable and unsustainable
economic system that only even attempts to address the interests of
a small minority of the planets population. And although I may not
believe 'the end is nigh' I do accept that things cannot go on as they
are without major problems.

Of course being an anarchist I already want to overthrow capitalism
and see the economy restructured from top to bottom. So saying
things cannot continue as they are presents me with no difficulties.
However unlike some Peak Oil enthusiasts and all primitivists I am
not willing to argue that we need to 'go back' to some simpler time
when less energy inputs were required because that would involve
accepting the removal of billions of people from the planet.

A social revolution that not only introduces new technology but
re-models what already exists is the only logical way forward. In that
context technology is what we do with it. In the general sense it is
neither liberatory nor repressive. Particular applications of
technology may be either - a rifle in the hands of a US marine is
different in that sense from a rifle in the hands of a Zapatista. The
birth control pill certainly plays a part in giving women choices about
reproduction that were previously hard to come by safely. It also
allows here to control her fertility without the co-operation of her
partner. On the other hand it is impossible to think of a positive use
of the electric chair or a nuclear bomb.

It is also true that the development of technology made it possible to
have a society where there was a division into workers and bosses.
Once you can store surplus food for instance you can have
accumulation of meaningful wealth and so the ability to pay the
soldier, the policeman and the executioner. So the question comes
down to whether it’s possible to have a free technological society
- and anarchism insists it is - or whether the choice is between a
primitive 'freedom' and an oppressive technological society.

The vast majority of political theories, perhaps all except anarchism,
do indeed claim you cannot have a free technological society. I think
it is worth hoping they are wrong even if we have never as yet had
such a society. That a free technological society is possible is - as I
have argued - the central point of anarchism.
Some of the odder stuff

The replies also included areas that in my view are of much lesser
importance (16). Amongst those are responses from some who
attempt to blend primitivism into vegetarianism or even veganism
(17). This really only serves to underline how some primitivists have
not really given any serious thought to what they advocate at all -
very few ecosystems could support vegan humans attempting to live
off the land without agriculture. As far as I'm aware all 'primitive'
societies that exist today on the planet carry out hunting as well as

In this context I am indeed a "damn speciesist" who doesn't have a
problem with humans "exploiting the land for you own good (taking
away vital habitat and feeding ground)". Ecological diversity should
be preserved because it is in our ability to do so and doing so will be
good for us rather than because we prefer trees to people or because
otherwise the earth will be upset. All actually existing 'primitive'
peoples are "speciesist" - they hunt animals. The luxury of some
people choosing not to eat meat at all is a feature of civilization.

Abstract or symbolic - who cares?

I’ll also deal with the remainder of Zerzan's reply to my original
essay here as he is the the leading light of 'anarcho' primitivism and
I’d hate people to think I was avoiding part of his argument..
The remainder of his reply reads;

"Flood probably knows that nowhere have I rejected "abstract
thought" but it better serves his weak assault on "primitivism" to say
otherwise. Some of our ancestors were cooking with fire 2 million
years ago, travelling on the open seas 800,000 years ago. And yet the
evidence for symbolic culture hardly goes back 40,000 years. Thus,
it would seem, there was intelligence that preceded what we think of
as symbolic. Possibly a more direct kind in keeping with a more
direct connection with the natural world. Well, this is a long topic
that I won't try to rehash here. One that doesn't quite fit Flood's
sound byte characterization..."(1)

This section appears to be a reply to where I was explaining my
methodology in choosing 'agriculture' as representing the start of
civilization. I'd actually mentioned Zerzan only twice in the original
article. Why might I have thought Zerzan rejected 'abstract
thought'? Well partly because I had presumed "symbolic thought"
and "abstract thought" pretty much amounted to the same thing. But
in any case Zerzan has also appeared to specifically attack "abstract
thought". In his essay on "Number: Its Origin and Evolution" (18)
he writes, "Math is the paradigm of abstract thought" and then
"Mathematics is reified, ritualized thought, the virtual abandonment
of thinking". To me this - and similar sentiments along the same
lines elsewhere in his essay - sound a lot like a rejection of abstract

In his reply he also seems keen to tell me you can have intelligence
without "symbolic culture". I can only agree - geese for instance
manage to migrate large distances but don't as far as I'm aware
produce any art. But he may be wrong that evidence for symbolic
culture in humans only goes back 40,000 years. Ian Watts of
University College London claims red ochre and other red pigments
were being used at least 100,000 and 120,000 years ago and that
"new findings in Zambia and the re-dating of the important Border
Cave site in South Africa push the date of the earliest use back
further still-perhaps to 170,000 years ago in Zambia.” (19) Given
that the "oldest fossil evidence for anatomically modern humans is
about 130,000 years old"(20) this would suggest symbolic culture (or
symbolic thought) is as old as homo sapiens.

Anyway, to be honest, I'm all for abstract thought. I like the ability to
read a text, to think about its contents and perhaps then to argue
against it. This ability is what is needed to create freedom, it has
been at the centre of all modern revolutionary processes. Even if we
could, why would we want to give up the ability to think abstractly?
Class conflict?

Teapolitik and other commentators take issue with me pointing out
that even if a major environmental crisis resulted in large-scale death
and destruction this would not necessarily mean the end of
capitalism. Teapolitik asserts that "A ‘tiny wealthy elite’
could not possibly continue to control vast natural resources in the
event of collapse--when one elite can no longer hold a carrot in front
of thousands of poor, those poor will revolt." [11] This assertion is
wishful thinking for two reasons - not least that the ruling class has
seldom maintained power through dangling the carrot alone.

Firstly it presumes that the crisis will somehow creep up on the
ruling class - that they will be unable to react or prepare for it.
Capitalism is very much more adaptable than this. For example there
has been a huge amount of research on alternative energy sources
over the last few years as some capitalists anticipate making a
substantial profit out of peak oil. On flicking through a recent issue
of the 'Economist' magazine - which is close to being a bible for
many CEO's - I noticed that 6 out of the dozen or so glossy full page
ads were to do with alternatives to oil or energy saving technologies
like hybrid cars. The transnational corporation BP (British
Petroleum) Amoco rebranded itself Beyond Petroleum back in the
year 2000. Although this was rightly seen as at attempt to
Greenwash it was also to manovure itself for the new energy markets
that would open up as oil declined.

On a more local scale the large scale destruction from Hurricane
Katrina is actually being used by capitalism to restructure parts of
the New Orleans economy in their interests. Anarcho has written
that Bush's plans for New Orleans amount to a;

"blank sheet upon which the far-right will unleash their plans for
social engineering. Children will go to school with vouchers. Wages
will be lowered and regulations waived to accommodate the bosses.
The entire area will become a free-enterprise zone. A flat tax will be
imposed. All under the guise of economic revival premised on the
belief that corporations freed from trades unions, workers rights,
environmental restrictions and taxes will reap huge profits and those
profits will grow the pie for everybody"(24).

This is the way capitalism works - crisis are opportunities for new
investment for those companies in favour (e.g. Halliburton in Iraq)
and excuses to impose cuts on the working class (e.g. the
introduction of the bin tax in Dublin). Mass death and destruction
have often been a central part of the development of capitalism - not
a threat to it. For capitalism they can be opportunities to remove
'unproductive people' from the land. (e.g. Irish famine of the 1840's).
Much of the original wealth on which capitalism was founded was
part and parcel of the process that almost entirely wiped out the
indigenous people of the America's. Today tens of millions of people
die every year from diseases that are easily preventable.

There is also nothing automatic about poverty or a decline in living
standards being met with mass revolt. Capitalism, and the market in
particular, is also an inbuilt mechanism though which the population
are encouraged to accept the hoarding of scarce resources as natural.
In the west today this means the rich have access to fast cars, luxury
homes and private yachts - not that much of a hardship for the rest
of us. But elsewhere in the world the rich have access to these things
while the poor literally starve in the streets. If there was to be a real
crisis in world food production then this is what would visit the
working class in the USA and beyond. To a minor extent this is what
happened in depression era America and in post war Europe. In
neither case did it lead to significant revolts never mind the collapse
of civilisation.

The second reason why a major crisis would not automatically lead
to the fall of capitalism is more brutal. The need to spell it out
simply reflects the rather naive thinking of a lot of primitivists when
it comes to the ruthless nature of capitalism. Jay Gould the US
financier & railroad businessman summed up this nature when he
said, "I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half."
Outside of a recent brief period in Western Europe and the USA
capitalism has routinely deployed enormous repressive forces to
defeat rebellion. In the 1970's it created military dictatorships, which
killed tens of thousands of people across South America. In Central
America in the 1980's it killed hundreds of thousands.

There have been moments in history when the ruling class was at
least briefly defeated - the Russian and Spanish revolutions being the
most common examples. But this was not a simple product of
desperation - if desperation led to revolution than revolution would
have swept the African ruling class away years ago. It was also a
product of revolutionary organisation stretching over decades and a
set of revolutionary ideas that could unite people in the struggle for a
better world. Large-scale crisis can indeed bring about large-scale
upheavals but without a positive revolutionary program that unites
people such upheavals always end up with a new faction of the
ruling class in the driving seat. In fact capitalism and the ruling class
are so flexible that they can undergo apparent defeat only to end up
back in control in a new form within years - as happened in Russia
after 1917.

So yes, unless we are organised on a mass scale a "tiny wealthy
elite" will indeed "continue to control vast natural resources in the
event of collapse". They have hundreds of years of experience of
doing just that. And they won't just use the much-depleted carrot to
do so, they also have the stick and for much of world history it is the
stick rather than the carrot that has had the lead role in keeping
people in line. Technological developments mean one man in a
helicopter can provide the same level of 'stick' that previously an
army of hundreds was required for. They can still hire one half of the
working class to kill the other half but in repression as with other
areas these days they are able to downsize.
Hope for the future

Primitivism offers no hope and no program for a revolutionary
change of society. It includes some of the most reactionary and
anti-human writings this side of fascism – I’ve even read
primitivists writing off the death of the mass of the worlds population
on the grounds that “quite a few of those 5.9 billion are just
empty shells”(22). But even the best of the writings offer no
more than some interesting ideas to ponder over - ideas that have
been around for the last 200 years.

There are real problems associated with the growth of the human
population and the wasteful nature of capitalism. We are already
seeing the emergence of long-term environmental problems even if
the end is not yet nigh. But bad as the effects on the environment
are, the real shame is that we live on a planet where millions starve
in order that a tiny ruling class can live in absolute luxury.

Anarchism offers an alternative to the capitalist system - an
alternative that can provide a decent life for everyone on the planet
both in terms of material good and control over their own lives. But
achieving this alternative is not a question of waiting for people to
rise up - it is a question of organising the vast majority of the planet
against the tiny elite who rule us.

Anarchist communism provides the best hope for freedom and the
best model for fighting for freedom. It distils the lessons of hundreds
of years of struggle - and of all the successes and failing of these
struggles. It does not have 'the answer'; that is something that can
only be created by the self-managed struggle of the mass of the
population of this planet. Our role is to help the emergence of this


* - my original article can be found at

1 The first comment in reply to the posting of the article on
Anarchist News appears to be from Zerzan (it's posted anonymously
but refers to 'I' in disputing what Zerzan has said and is signed JZ).
Mind you it could be another primitivist impersonating him - they do
a fair bit of that. http://anarchistnews.org/?q=node/200

2 At http://anarchistnews.org/?q=node/200#comment-679 - in fact
'Aragon' may simply not understand what was said in the original as
the realistic alternative referred to was in relation to current society
and not social revolution i.e. "Facing this challenge anarchists need
to first look to see if primitivism offers any sort of realistic alternative
to the world as it is."

3 Note that this is an optimistic maximum - quite often I multiplied
the real probable maximum by a figure of ten to avoid pointless
arguments as to whether Ireland for instance could support 20,000
hunter gathers rather than the 7,000 my figures would calculate out.
I mention this because the folks over at Lib.Com.org didn't get what
I was doing and 'corrected' my error in the edited version they
published at http://www.libcom.org/thought/approaches/primitivism/

4 By this I mean the persuasion mechanism proposed assumes some
form of global communication in order to reach everyone on the
planet - something that does not yet exist and some form of near
100% reliable contraception that everyone on the planet could have
access to - something else that does not yet exist!

5 What is it with academics and the use of obscure Latin? See my
remarks on this in my review of 'Empire' at

6 Issue #6 of The 'A' Word Magazine, this interview online at

7 Derrick Jensen, Ripping up Asphalt and Planting Gardens, Oct
2005, online at http://www.raisethehammer.org/index.asp?id=180

8 It seems fair enough to describe Jensen as a follower of Zerzan as
Jensen has described Zerzan as "The best anarchist thinker of our
time", "the most important anarchist thinker of our time" or more
frankly "I love all of Zerzan's books, but I think I love this one the
best." In his review of Zerzan’s 'Against Civilization: Readings
and Reflections" for Amazon.com

9 Derrick Jensen interviews John Zerzan , Alternative Press Review,
at http://www.altpr.org/apr12/zerzan.html Given that the Wikipedia
entry on 'anarcho' primitivism includes "in the United States
primitivism has been notably advocated by writer John Zerzan and to
a lesser extent author Derrick Jensen" I find Zerzan's implied claim
in his reply to me to have forgotten Jensen and what he has to say
incredible - but maybe they have fallen out?

10 Globalisation and its apologists. An abolitionist perspective, by
John Zerzan, online at

11 Teapolitik in the third comment on the AnarchistNews posting
and in some of the other places my original essay was posted e.g.
Teapolitik also says "I am not a primitivist" in some versions of this
reply. Joe Licentia who also says "I'm not a primitivist" also
questions my equating of agriculture with civilisation in his 'Critique
of "Civilisation, Primitivism and anarchism" online at

12 Bakunin in Rousseau's Theory of the State online at

13 Anarchist Communism: Its Basis and Principles by Peter
Kropotkin online at

14 E.g. Heretic posting on the infoshop.org posting of the original
essay - online at

15 online at http://peakoil.com/fortopic4417.html

16 For instance I'm not terribly interested in critiques like that of
Heineken (at http://peakoil.com/article2267.html) who worry about
my "educational background and therefore of the authoritativeness
of your commentary". He asserts that "many writers like Flood do
not seem to have much training in biology or ecology" as if this
should exclude anyone from commenting on such issues. They are
just another version of the sort of anonymous comment left on
Anarchist News that asserted "who by now, doesn't know that
andrew flood is an idiot? .. try not to innundate this board with such
obviously superceded nonsense as just about everything written by
flood and his cretinous supporters."

17 Vegan Hobo -

18 Number: Its Origin and Evolution at

19 Painted Ladies, New Scientist Oct 2001, online at

20 http://www.mnh.si.edu/anthro/humanorigins/ha/sap.htm

21 The real looting of New Orleans begins online at

22 Anon in the debate about Jensen at

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PDF version
by Andrew Flood Thursday, Dec 1 2005, 12:09pm

I hope to be able to make available in the next month or so a PDF
pamphlet that combines the original essay, this essay and a 'Weird
things primitivists claim' FAQ.

add your comments

Updates to footnotes
by Andrew Thursday, Dec 1 2005, 1:37pm

I'm going through the links in the footnotes and a couple have
changed. Here are the new URLS

No 11 - the 2nd URL is now at

No 14 - (infoshop) has moved to
* by Andrew Flood - WSM (personal capacity) Thursday, Dec 1 2005,
Written for Anarkismo.net
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