Ideology and Revisionism

Summary—Ideology is a defined spectrum of beliefs that unite individuals with similar values and determines their approach to action, often even specifying some actions. Revisionism poses a threat to the effectiveness of ideology, however, because it weakens and degrades the unity of action that ideology makes possible, mostly by splitting the movement and sowing discord and confusion. This essay explains the particulars of these ideas and the seriousness of the revisionist threat, with a specific eye toward their meaning in the context of wildism. It also surveys some relevant revisionist ideologies.

1      INTRODUCTION

One of the main threats to conservation today is the threat of revisionism, from the perversions of the Anthropoceners to the confused character of the environmental justice movement. The phenomenon of revisionism, however, can present a great threat to a movement, especially one that relies on ideology as strongly as wildism must. But in order to understand the phenomenon and the gravity of its threat, it is important to understand the meaning of ideology, its importance, and what, precisely, revisionism is.

2      FROM EGOISM TO IDEOLOGY

2.1     Clarifications Regarding Egoism

Two logical outcomes of a materialist analysis are positions that in philosophy are called “egoism” and “nihilism.” Nihilism is the understanding that there is no objective value in the world, and thus that all value is “imbued” by a valuer. Egoism is an extension of this understanding, the idea that humans act from their “self-interest.” Wildists are egoists, but very particular kinds of egoists, and since egoist philosophy is full of many kinds of patently false lines of reasoning, let me clarify.

There are two kinds of egoism: descriptive and prescriptive. The former understands egoism as the reality of the world, whether or not people choose to live with a conscious understanding of it. The latter makes the egoist position a normative one. In general, wildist egoism is of the former variety, but it has repercussions for our normative claims.

Also, the definitions of “self-interest” in egoism differ widely, but we can be certain that the definition stemming from the idea of the “rational actor,” common in economics, is untrue, thanks mostly to cognitive science and evolutionary theory (Kahneman, 2011). Furthermore, “hard” versions of egoism claim that altruistic behavior is an illusion. This is also untrue, something we can again understand thanks to evolutionary theory, but also from simple observation of the world and the numerous examples of animals behaving altruistically. This is thanks to the fact that natural selection, in general, operates on the gene, not the organism, so as long as organism-level altruism benefits the gene’s fitness, the behavior will survive and propagate. This is why, for instance, some male spiders mate with females even though the females eat them afterwards (Dawkins, 1976). In the case of these kinds of altruism, however, the behavior still stems from what the organism himself wants, consciously or not, and not because of any objective, non-material force that compels him to as a moral obligation. “Self-interest,” then, is probably not the best term, but if we are to define it in accordance with these facts, we would have to say it means the wants and needs of the organism himself.[1]

Finally, anyone interested in reading more about egoism should be aware that its principle theorist, Max Stirner, frequently fell into idealist (i.e., non-materialist) traps. For instance, he seemed to believe that merely becoming conscious of the egoistic and nihilistic nature of reality was a path to liberation, since it could compel the individual to act according to rules when he wanted to and no other time. He also, and perhaps as a result, frequently disregarded material factors that determine the individual’s condition, arguing that most of the individual’s bondage consists of “spooks” or illusions. But this completely disregards the material basis of many institutions that underpin the individual’s subjugation, like the state, police forces, and technical society in general. As a result, some of his conclusions, especially his ideas around the family and some forms of social organization, are faulty. The method, then, for discerning what is useful and what is trash in Stirner’s philosophy is to approach him with “the cadres’ razor”—scientific materialism. The same applies to Nietzsche, Darwin, and others who investigated the ethical implications of materialism, but who nevertheless failed occasionally to accept those implications completely.

2.2     Egoism in Wildist Ethics

As made clear in “The Foundations of Wildist Ethics,” wildist ethical philosophy begins with a statement of the “intrinsic” value of wild nature. In a later essay (“Relations and the Moral Circle”) I clarify this position:

In “Foundations” I wrote that “intrinsic” means “non-instrumental” and “non-derivative” (p. 15). However, “non-instrumental” is not always strictly accurate. I used it for much the same reason I still sometimes speak of “free will”: the reality underlying what we perceive as free will is non-intuitive, and acting as though we have free will is still necessary for various reasons. Still, after further thought I have concluded that it poses no real risk to say that our valuing nature is in some ways instrumental, but not in the solely economic sense.

To say that nature has “intrinsic” value, then, is mostly a way of saying “here is a point at which further elaboration is unhelpful.” That is, we could say that I value nature because of a love of natural noise (compared to the industrial racket), because of aesthetic preference, because of my cravings for communion with animals to a greater degree than is possible in the city, because of my desire for purposeful, goal-oriented activity, or I could even say “simply because.” And then another person might name some other specific convergence of wants and needs that join to make him concerned with nature, the world maintained by the absence of human control. Elaboration on these points, however, is unhelpful, because the state of nature makes now the time to figure out the basis on which we can find political affinity. The starting point of this political project, the thing with non-derivative or intrinsic value, is nature.

From here, wildist’s normative claims are a logical extension of the consequences of valuing wildness in our current material condition. For instance, those who value wildness must in this time be concerned with conservation and rewilding. This is not a Christian prescription: there is no Divine force that commands the obligation. Instead, the obligation is a logical consequence of the wildist’s starting value (and the conditions in which he finds himself, of course).

2.3     Ideology as Coalition

It is of course legitimate for an individual to remain a lone actor, but this often reduces the individual’s effectiveness in achieving his goals. The trick for the egoist is to find a way to act collectively without subordinating himself permanently and to an unacceptable degree to those “interests” that are not his own. (It is, for practical reasons, impossible to avoid subordinating oneself at all times. For instance, we cannot always know whether another, perhaps trusted, individual’s decision is in our own “self-interest,” and taking the risk to trust them may nevertheless be useful overall. This is the nature of life.) Stirner called his own idea a “union of egoists.” In looking at our available options, wildists argue that a skeletal ideology offers the basis for unified action.

Ideology is to the collective what the starting “intrinsic” value is to the individual: a practical limit at which further difference is irrelevant or unhelpful to explain. In other words, the point of the ideology is to unite a group “narrow enough to entail a politically discrete population…and not so broad as to be meaningless” (“The Foundations of Wildist Ethics,” p. 19).

Ideology is separate from organization and can in fact contain many different organizations. This is inevitable given the variety of human “interests.” In other words, while those at The Wildist Institute are involved primarily in the creation of a specific party-form of organization (a “combat party”), wildism does not exclude other forms of organization and logically requires them. (Consider, for instance, sleeper cadres that operate autonomously of the party.) This is why ideology is so important: it allows diverse forms of organization to unite under a broader coalition for more effective action. In order for this coalition to be preserved, however, all members must accept all core elements of the ideology.

Wildists, for example, are united by three core elements. First is the scientific materialist worldview, which influences all aspects of our analysis and is indispensable for cadre work (in fact, it is called “the cadres’ razor”). Although scientific materialism contains many abstract philosophical assumptions, and can in fact accommodate a spectrum of contradictory ones, wildists need not agree on these ultra-fundamental details, since their main emphasis is on unified action facilitated by ideology. Often this idea is shortened into the phrase, “Talk is everywhere, but rewild is verb.” Of course, this emphasis on specific and unified action is true much in the same way it is true in science, where individual scientists may believe in God personally, but where this doesn’t really affect their scientific work. Some Jewish groups put a similar emphasis on action before belief, arguing that Judaism only prescribes that the Jew perpetually grapple with the existence of God, whatever his conclusions at the time, but must reliably fulfill God’s commandments. For instance, in the Tanakh it is written, “They have forsaken me and not kept my Torah,” to which a Rabbinical commentary quips, “If only they had forsaken me and kept my Torah.” Of course, these Jews nevertheless regard the fundamentals of their ideology as important, and still regard certain kinds of revisionism a great threat. This dynamic within Judaism and science is akin to the dynamic within wildism.

Second, the core of wildism is its critique of Progress. Part of the work of invalidating the progressive mythology is pushing the empirical claim of technical autonomy (“Foundations of Wildist Ethics,” section III.C), but this is mostly a practical concern. People are less excited about technical evolution when they understand that they cannot direct it. The core of the wildist critique is a challenge to the normative claim of the mythology: that civilized modification of nature is morally good, and is therefore an obligation. In contrast, wildists advocate wildness as a core value, the most substantial challenge to progressivism possible.

Finally, wildists note that among those who value wildness, there is an imperative to rewild. This involves a spectrum of actions that range from the personal to the social, the moderate to the radical. The main work of The Wildist Institute in particular is coaxing wildness-centered elements further along the radical side of the spectrum in order to make possible an anti-industrial reaction, if objective, non-controllable factors make such a reaction possible. Wildism itself requires, as part of the imperative to rewild, the belief that a reaction is desirable and that paving the way for a reaction is an important element of any rewilding work. Much of the institute’s work has been and continues to be explicating the reasons why this belief is a logical deduction given our current condition and our values.

These are of course only the explicit elements of the ideology, and there are undoubtedly unexamined, implicit elements that are important as well. One possible example is the cadre form of organization. But since organization is a much more practical question than ideology, and since it involves trade-offs that individuals may regard more or less acceptable given their dispositions and character, the question of organization is a topic for another time.

3      REVISIONISM

3.1     What is Revisionism?

Revisionism is the phenomenon whereby a hostile tendency modifies core elements of an ideology in order to make it more palatable to the hostile tendency, or in order to weaken the movement united by the ideology. In our case, this has occurred primarily with progressivist revisionism within the conservation movement.

The phenomenon of revisionism takes place in many political and ideological terrains. Taking again the examples of science and Judaism, the former has had to face creationist revisionism, or scientists attempting to show that the concept of God and sometimes biblical literalism are scientific concepts; and the latter has had to face many waves of revisionism, the most egregious being the so-called “Messianic Jews,” who claim the Christian Jesus as the Jewish messiah.

The threat of revisionism lies not in different understandings of facts. For instance, a theory is not revisionist in relation to science if it proposes an alternative to prevailing evolutionary theory, although it may be revisionist in relation to the prevailing paradigm. In other words, while Copernicus was a revisionist in relation to the geocentric cosmological model, he was no revisionist in relation to scientific methodology, and indeed demonstrated that he followed that methodology more rigorously than his geocentric colleagues. The former kind of revisionism is no threat and can be healthy, and only because of the vaguities of language can they be called the same name.[2] In conservation science, for instance, it is a good thing for someone to “revise” common methods of conservation in light of new facts.

Instead of facts, revisionism is a threat in relation to values. For instance, creation “science” is revisionist because it betrays the epistemological values of parsimony, scope, accuracy, consistency, etc. Messianic “Judaism” is revisionist because its belief in the Christian Jesus modifies core values of Jewish doctrine by placing more emphasis on eschatological concerns, recalibrating the relationship between the Jewish and Gentile people, between Israel and Jews, etc. This obviously affects actions, since imperatives are created by a combination of values and conditions; but when values are modified, imperatives change, and unity of action is degraded.

3.2     A Survey of Revisionist Ideologies

Revisionist ideologies may qualify as such under several conditions. First, they may claim a different name but appear similar because of their refusal to also dispose of the discourse and major goals of the ideology. For instance, some anarchists, primitivists, and anti-civilizationists espouse similar goals as wildism but on the basis of progressivist values. As a result, the “leftism” that they rail against is the same “leftism” that the New Left rails against, namely, the Old Left. Instead of equating “leftism” with progressivist values, then, they argue that it is anything with the character of the Old (mostly Marxist) Left and its organizationalism, scientific analysis, and class reductionism. This is not so much a problem anymore, since wildists no longer use the terminology when “progressivism,” “opportunism,”[3] and “humanism”[4] adequately address the threats that “leftism” sought to cover. But for a long time this created some confusion.

To be clear, the primitivists et al. are not revisionists, and are instead totally separate ideologies (they are better described as confused humanists). However, they do present a threat of revisionism because some confused member of their ranks, or some stranger who is somewhat familiar with their writings, may attempt to integrate their progressive values into the wildist ideology.

This has already occurred, and it demonstrates another way an ideology may qualify as revisionist. Recently some followers of John Zerzan, the principle theorist of anarcho-primitivism, attempted to claim the name of “wildism” as their own and associate it with the non-scientific field of ecopsychology, feminist ideas, and various other kinds of nonsense. They have since desisted, but we can expect similar attempts in the future.

Outside of obscure ideologies, the conservation movement as a whole has faced many revisionist attacks, the most blatant and dangerous of these being the ecomodernists, who I addressed in “Refuting the Apartheid Alternative.” They attempt to integrate progressive values by virtue of a single economic phenomenon found in a handful of commodities, something they call “decoupling.” On this basis, they argue for the acceleration of technical and economic development and the establishment of “island civilizations” so that the nature outside of those islands can flourish. Worse, they coopt the Rewilding Program devised by The Wildlands Network, failing to note who it was devised by and giving the impression that they themselves devised it; they argue for a revisionist concept of rewilding that incudes de-extinction of species through biotechnology; and they use the label of conservation even though they are closely aligned with the Anthropoceners, who emphasize humanist moral concerns over conservationist ones. Similar tendencies of this sort have been found in the environmental justice movement (Wuerthner, Crist, & Butler, 2014).

Finally, a common form of revisionism waters down the radical nature of an ideology. In our case, this means de-emphasizing the importance of an anti-industrial reaction and instead emphasizing more personal, or moderate, forms of rewilding. Several revisionists of this type have occurred so far, but as it stands they are tangential and no serious threat.

3.3     The Threats of Revisionism and Their Solutions

Revisionist ideologies must be avoided because they confuse members and sympathizers, weaken the ideological coalition, and degrade unity of action. Thus, wildists must fiercely renounce revisionist ideologies, avoid revisionist influence, but most importantly to preserve the terrain on which wildism and conservation depend in order to enact their goals.

Our main battle is against the infrastructure of industrial society and by extension the technocrats and armed forces that develop, maintain, and protect it. Battles with revisionist ideologies must therefore be secondary, or even tertiary, or less, and only in relation to the overarching goal of disrupting industry beyond repair. For the most part, this involves guarding our ideological terrain against revisionism; so long as the value of wildness is preserved within this terrain, revisionists can mostly be ignored. The process of guarding this terrain is called being the “conscience of conservation.”

4      CONCLUSION

Ideologies are means by which self-conscious individuals enter into a coalition with other individuals on the basis of a core set of values and conclusions about those values. The ideology of wildism has three such broad elements: the scientific materialist worldview, the critique of progress, and the imperative to rewild with an eye toward political reaction.

Revisionists are those who attempt to use the name, discourse, or core elements of wildism with severe modification affecting its main values and deductions. So far we have seen revisionists in a few groups: the ecomodernists, some primitivist actors, the environmental justice advocates, and the Anthropoceners, among others.

In order to facilitate our goal of disrupting industry beyond repair, wildists must maintain their ideological terrain by guarding it against revisionist threats. Otherwise, the ideological coalition will be weakened, members and sympathizers will be confused, unity of action will degrade. Guarding against these threats is what is meant by the saying that wildists should be the “conscience of conservation.”

Although the ideas outlined here are neat and tidy in the abstract, especially the idea of egoist individuals rationally joining a coalition, this is only an abstract model, and when applied to real life it will necessarily become messier. These questions all fall under the banner of “organization,” which wildists recognize comes with trade-offs and a pragmatic approach, as well as a materialist approach, as always. In the future, then, we must start with these ideas on ideology and develop arguments for relevant trade-offs and specific organizational models.

5      BIBLIOGRAPHY

Darwin, C. (1871). The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene.

Jacobi, J. (2016). Refuting the apartheid alternative. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(2).

Jacobi, J. (2016). Relations and the moral circle. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(2).

Jacobi, J. (2016). The foundations of wildist ethics. Hunter/Gatherer, 1(1), 6-55.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

Lange, F. A. (1866). History of Materialism and Critique of its Present Importance.

Nietzsche, F. (1886). Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future.

Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books.

Stirner, M. (1907). The Ego and Its Own.

Wilson, E. O. (1975). Sociobiology: The New Synthesis. Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1978). On Human Nature. Harvard University Press.

Wilson, E. O. (1998). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York: Knopf.

Wuerthner, G., Crist, E., & Butler, T. (Eds.). (2014). Keeping the Wild: Against the Domestication of Earth. Island Press/Foundation for Deep Ecology.

[1] Because “self-interest” is the only available terminology, I will continue to use it in quotes for the rest of the essay. However, readers should keep in mind the particular definition offered and not be surprised if another term is used at some later point.

[2] In wildist technical terminology, however, the two kinds are not both referred to by the same name, and “revisionism” is reserved exclusively for the latter tendency

[3] “Opportunism” is the tendency to take advantage of an opportunity regardless of the principle of it. Opportunists are common in academia and humanist movements on the political left, both because of an activist infrastructure left over from the 60s and looking desperately for a new source of revolt.

[4] “Humanism” is the dominant progressivist ideology, united by the values of solidarity between all humans, equality for all humans, and the integration of victimized classes. Left-wing movements (and the libertarians on the right) are commonly known for enforcing the humanist concern for victims, while right wing humanists often accept a more practical view that still favors the nation as an ethical reference point. Humanism was birthed from Christianity and has birthed animal rights ideologies, progressive ecocentrism, and transhumanism.

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