Primitivism and the “Regressive Left”

Among the weak arguments against Progress, there is the peculiar case of dominant ideologies hosting factions that reject it in the name of dominant values. The so-called “regressive left” is an example of this from humanism. The regressive left argues that Western civilization embodies power structures that prevent it from living up to humanist or post-humanist values. That is, these structures either prevent Western civilization from acknowledging the equal moral worth of all humans, or from acknowledging the moral standing of humans plus something else, like sentient animals or nature. For instance, Merchant (1980, p. 278) writes,

The female earth was central to organic cosmology that was undermined by the Scientific Revolution and the rise of a market-oriented culture…for sixteenth-century Europeans the root metaphor binding together the self, society and the cosmos was that of an organism…organismic theory emphasized interdependence among the parts of the human body, subordination of individual to communal purposes in family, community, and state, and vital life permeate the cosmos to the lowliest stone.

The origins of this regressive humanist ideology lie in the 1960s and is a result of two major historical developments. The first was the disillusionment felt from the two world wars and, later, the Cold War. Before the world wars industrial cultures had an air of optimism about them, residual effects of an Enlightenment mentality: the dominant attitude was that science and reason could solve human problems, and society could be restructured such that poverty, racism, disease, and other cultural divisions could be mitigated or even eradicated. From this optimism there came a rise in the Old Left’s Marxism and several liberal progressive movements. But WWII changed all that. Fascism presented a real threat to democracy; Nazi Germany and the nuclear bombs dropped on Japan showed, at least superficially, that technical Progress and moral Progress are not linked; and as the Cold War developed, it became clear that socialist optimism was untenable as well, not least because communist as much as capitalist nations contributed to a generalized cultural anxiety.

The second major development was purely technical, a result of the transformation WWII wrought on science and technics. Indeed, the war marks the transformation of industrial societies into techno-industrial societies, based on information and global trade (Mindell 2009). As a result, the Old Left’s focus on industrial labor quickly became outdated from automation, the beginning of globalization, and economic precarity. And as technical developments profoundly changed human life, making it more comfortable, genuine mass discontent over material issues was difficult to find in techno-industrial nations.

Borne from this was a whole generation that had to put only minimal effort toward satisfying their innate needs, and as a result, it found itself uneasy with boredom and a sense of purposelessness. Revolt became something of a fad to fill this need, but it wouldn’t be in the name of delegitimized ideologies like Communism. These were “rebels without a cause.” Of course, because Communist fervor hadn’t totally been eradicated by that point, the organizational infrastructure that remained took advantage of this revolt and, conveniently, had a few targets for it, like the Vietnam War. But revolt for the sake of revolt was the true reason for these rebels’ activism; their banner was a tangential concern. As a result this protest age was full of many divergent, sometimes contradictory causes, and even organizations with a specific target were saddled with young people who had many other causes to contribute. Kenneth Keniston (1965), who published a number of studies on these phenomena, writes, “Whatever the gain of our technological age, whatever the decrease in objective suffering and want, whatever the increase in our ‘opportunities’ and ‘freedoms,’ many Americans are left with an inarticulate sense of loss, of unrelatedness and lack of connection.” And, later:

Alienation is not, of course, a uniquely modern or American phenomenon…. So it is only relatively that we can speak of a ‘new alienation.’ But by this term, I mean to suggest that the origins and forms of our modern alienations are new…that in such a society alienation characteristically takes the new form of rebellion without a cause, of rejection without a program, of refusal of what is without a vision of what should be.

These technical transformations also changed the industrial man’s psyche. Propaganda and managerial technics became far more powerful, so humanist values were more successfully inculcated through new social institutions (Beniger 2009; Burnham 1972). TV, for example, strongly benefited the Civil Rights movement (Everet). And unsurprisingly universities, transformed into the backbone of the U.S.’ science and technics systems (Atkinson & Blanpied 2008), were a major site for humanitarian causes. Together with the aforementioned unrest, the rebels found themselves revolting in the name of the ideals society was already professing, but attacking science and technics as the means to achieve them. The rebels called for racial equality when society was already moving that direction; world peace when leaders, scared of powerful new weaponry, were just starting to see this as desirable; an end to police brutality just as less controversial surveillance methods were becoming preferred. Then they fashioned themselves revolutionaries and dissenters. A whole culture was born that believed its prevailing society to be against its own values, and they became unwitting enforcers.

In his Propaganda, Ellul dissects this dynamic. One reviewer explains (Bois 2010):

One of the ironies of propaganda to work is that its population must be educated….So the more educated you become, the less aware you are that you are a victim of propaganda and the more you are ready to spread your ideology to others who will in turn reinforce you and be reinforced by you in a horizontal process. Leaders aren’t telling you what to think (directly), you are being told by your peers what to think and you pass along this information to others to inform them what to think. Then when this ideology has reached a substantial portion of the population, you demand the leaders to comply and they reluctantly do so (which was their intention 30 to 40 years previously, but they won’t tell you this).

In a collection of essays entitled The New Left: The Anti-Industrial Revolution (later The Return of the Primitive), Rand identified this trend among the humanist left and attributed it to a social turn towards collectivism. A recent study on “microaggressions” reflected her conclusion, arguing that the offense-prone culture of college campuses is dependent on highly accessible third party authorities (e..g, college administrators), the availability of collective support (e.g., through social media), and the inability to deal with conflicts autonomously (Campbell & Manning 2014)—all changes that have resulted from technical developments rooted in the techno-industrial turn of the 1940s.

Rand also correctly predicted that, after the Vietnam War, the next major cause of these New Left rebels would be environmentalism. She noted that it squared quite nicely with the ideologies of the hippies and Woodstock, and noted that it conveniently aligned with the New Left’s disillusionment with reason, science, and technics as the means to make the world more humanitarian. Of course, such is currently the case.

All these components were later embodied to the extreme in a left-wing ideology, birthed in the 1970s, known as “primitivism,” or, sometimes, “anarcho-primitivism” (Origins of Primitivism 2010). According to it, primitive man actually lived in conditions that are very much compatible with modern sensibilities: there was no warfare, or at least less of it; societies functioned cooperatively; there was “fierce” equality; animals were respected; and so forth (Moore; Zerzan 1994). Far from being the bastion of humanist values, they claimed, modern civilization, the Western one in particular, actually polluted the natural humanism of primitive man with institutions, which continue to pull us further away from the ideals of human peace and cooperation (ibid.). Originally, these primitivists, who wrote about their views in the radical left publication The Fifth Estate, did not mean their critiques to justify a total rejection of civilization. They wrote that they merely wanted an “appraisal of the primitive.” One early advocate wrote, “The aim is not to replicate or return to the primitive, merely to see the primitive as a source of inspiration, as exemplifying forms of anarchy” (Moore). Only later did their “critique of civilization” become just that, due to a rogue individual named John Zerzan, who believed that the problems identified by the primitivists warranted a revolution against “the totality of civilization” (Zerzan 1994).

Incidentally, Rand was once again correct in writing that this radical environmentalist philosophy has ties to Marxism. She wrote (in her characteristically polemical style), “The old-line Marxists used to claim that a single modern factory could produce enough shoes to provide for the whole population of the world and that nothing but capitalism prevented it. When they discovered the facts of reality involved, they declared that going barefoot is superior to wearing shoes.” This is, to a less outrageous degree, precisely what occurred. Many of the individuals who influenced or were involved in The Fifth Estate‘s early version of primitivism—Jacques Camatte, Fredy Perlman, David Watson, John Zerzan—were ex-Marxists, anarcho-Marxists, or heavily influenced by Marxism, and who had indulged themselves in anarchism as a replacement (Origins of Primitivism 2010). In addition, the cadres of primitivists joined forces with a new academic movement, “the radical anthropologists,” an attempt by similar characters to “reappraise primitive life” and often for political reasons related to indigenous land rights (see radicalanthropologygroup.org). This would not be worth mentioning except for the fact that socialist and communist values color the entire ideology. This was no return to the primitive; it was the return of the noble savage.

Over time the claims of the radical anthropologists were dismissed for being rose-colored or, worse, an intentional misrepresentation of the data (Alcock 2001; Chagnon 2013; Pinker 2003). But the ideology of primitivism remained, and its influence extended to most corners of anarchism. As a result, the primitivist tendency was a central pillar of the anti-globalization movement of the 1990s, John Zerzan’s variant in large part responsible for the 1999 Seattle Riots (Campbell 2001). Other major organizations or figures in the new anarchist movement, like CrimethInc., adopted and adapted the ideas in a way that resulted in “anti-civilization anarchism” or the closely-related “green anarchism.” It remains a significant radical element of New Left protests today, affecting many social justice movements having to do with race, police, prisons, environmentalism, food production, and even workers rights.

All this is to point out that there is an intrinsic problem with regressive humanist ideologies: one cannot effectively resist a society based on that society’s own values. For sure, the most extreme elements of the regressive left may notice that their ideology entails a rejection of industrialism. But their rejection of Progress is a weak one because it is wrong: primitive cultures are much more violent, hardly egalitarian in the way modern humans would find appealing, usually not good conservationists, often cruel to animals… (See Chagnon 1983; Diamond 2013; Kaczynski 2012, pp. 126-189; and Pinker 2003, 2011 for evidence for these claims.) And in any case, these values are certainly not achievable with a return to post-primitive but pre-industrial conditions, which would undoubtedly be the result for many should industry collapse. Finally, the primitivist will and does find that their projects to bring about a less racist, less patriarchal, more cooperative, more egalitarian society will always be set back when industrial societies accede to their demands, as Ellul pointed out. In other words, primitivism will never be able to motivate a true rejection of Progress because at base, it is unwittingly an embrace of it.

Bibliography

Alcock, J. (2001). The triumph of sociobiology. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Atkinson, R., & William Blanpied. (2008). Research universities: Core of the US science and technology system. Technology in Society 30, 30-48.

Beniger, J. (2009). The control revolution: Technological and economic origins of the information society. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Bois, D. (2010). Why do some people not understand Jacques Ellul? The Montréal Review.

Burnham, J. (1972). The managerial revolution: What is happening in the world. Westport: Greenwood Press.

Campbell, B., & Jason Manning. (2014). Microaggression and moral cultures. Comparative Sociology 13(6), 692-726.

Campbell, D. (2001). Anarchy in the USA. The Guardian 2(18), 1-4.

Chagnon, N. (1983). Yanomamo: The fierce people. New York: Henry Holt.

Chagnon, N. (2013). Noble savages: My life among two dangerous tribes—the Yanomamo and the anthropologists. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Everet, A. (n.d.) The Civil Rights Movement and television. The Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Diamond, J. (2013). The world until yesterday: What can we learn from traditional societies? New York: Penguin Books.

Ellul, J. (1964). The technological society. New York: Vintage Books.

Ellul, J. (1973) Propaganda: The formation of men’s attitudes. New York: Vintage Books.

Kaczynski, T. (2010). Technological slavery: The collected writings of Theodore John Kaczynski, a.k.a. “The Unabomber.” Port Townsend: Feral House.

Keniston, K. (1965). The uncommitted: Alienated youth in American society. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Keniston, K. (1968). Young radicals: Notes on committed youth. San Diego: Harcourt, Brace & World.

Merchant, C. (1990). The death of nature: women, ecology, and the scientific revolution. New York: HarperOne.

Mindell, David. (2009). The science and technology of World War II. In Walbert, D. (ed.) The Great Depression and World War II. North Carolina Digital Library.

Moore, J. (n.d.). A primitivist primer. Green Anarchist.

The Origins of Primitivism’ set (1977-1988). (2010). Radical Archives.

Pinker, S. (2003). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin Books.

Pinker, S. (2011). The better angels of our nature: Why violence has declined. New York: Viking Books.

Rand, A. (1999). The return of the primitive: The anti-industrial revolution. New York: Penguin Books.

Último Reducto. (2011). Izquierdismo: Función de la pseudocrítica y la pseudorrevolución en la sociedad tecnoindustrial. In Kaczynski, T., La socieded industrial y su futuro. Spain: Ediciones Isumatag.

Zerzan, J. (1994). The future primitive and other essays. New York: Autonomedia.

6 thoughts on “Primitivism and the “Regressive Left”

  1. 2 thoughts.

    I find it interesting that the article cites Diamond, Pinker, and Chagnon. All 3 have been widely criticized by indigenous people, and seem to have trouble understanding the difference in violence rates between actual hunter-gatherers, and horticultural cultures (especially those that are facing genocide from outside forces). How does it make sense to take statistics from these groups and apply them to hunter-gatherers. Also, at least Diamond, has used those statistics to justify government oppression of indigenous groups. That is sick.

    2. Given what I just laid out, I was not at all surprised to see this article shared in a Rewilding group by a White Supremacist.

    1. In regards to your first thought, I am aware of the controversy around Pinker, Diamond, Chagnon and their crew in general. But that is an academic debate, not a political one. There is a divide between the sociobiologists and cultural materialists, and the debate from the 60s-80s got super nasty, with all sorts of accusations. It was a circus. Many of them are unfounded. I encourage you to read up on the history of the conflict.

      Regarding your second comment, I can’t say anything. I can’t control who shares my stuff, can’t verify that what you say is true, etc. I will say that to argue that facts should be rejected or hidden because of their ideological repercussions is dangerous. If, for example, one claims that the sociobiological view of primitive violence is dangerous because it encourages treating primitive people badly, then you’ve (1) essentially said that a culture that bad treatment is legitimized by that violence; (2) weakened your own position, because if it can be demonstrated that a culture you view as peaceful is actually violent, your morality and values are then very much threatened by true investigation of the society, regardless of the outcome of that investigation. A much better way to approach these moral issues is to hedge them on your deeply held values, not on the empirical state of things.

      Thanks for the comment, by the way.

      1. I am familiar with the debate, and for me it comes down to this, the side that argues that “primitive” groups are violent, is also the side that studied groups that were horticulturalists, and the side that says they were largely peaceful, studied actual hunter-gatherers. Those that studied horticulturalists also seem to be unable (or unwilling) to recognize that horticulturalists are not hunter-gatherers. How am I to put any weight behind the words of anthropologists that display no understanding of anthropology. I will also note that you avoided the fact that these men have been criticized by indigenous groups and leaders. Are you not concerned about indigenous voices?

        As far as your critique of what i said, I am interested in the facts. Just because I find it vile that Jarrod Diamond uses his research to argue for state oppression of indigenous people (people who are facing genocide from those same “civilized” governments) does not mean that his research is not also faulty.

        As far as what you can help, or not, I can’t help but notice that since I left that comment, you (assuming this is John F. Jacobi) have joined the rewilding group that is run by said White Supremacist.

        Mind explaning to your readers why you joined an “Ethno-Nationalist” group that is for “White Europeans”?

        Thanks!

        1. I’m sorry, but not all sociobiologists have conflated horticulture and hunting/gathering. You are correct that Pinker mixes the two up. Diamond to a much lesser extent. But that’s not the whole of the debate.

          Sure, what indigenous people say about the issue is notable for obvious reasons. I ignored it because it wasn’t necessary to respond to it.

          I joined the FB group because of your comment here. I wanted to learn about this person and what “ethnonationalist rewilding” is all about. I don’t support racial solidarity. I said this explicitly in my message with the guy you mentioned. I wanted to be clear that I didn’t want to be used for a racial agenda.

          1. If you want to know what it is really about, it is basically just a cover for a bunch of Charles Manson worshipers who love the environment and hate Jewish people. Not saying everyone in the group is into that, but that is what the core members are all about.

            I will give you the benefit of the doubt, but find it a little fishy that your site seems to lean against social/racial justice, and you joined the group.

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