Monday, March 24, 2014

Anarchism that is not also primitivism is incoherent

In a pamphlet published in 2003 entitled Anarchism vs. Primitivism, the author, Brian Oliver Sheppard, provides a scathing attack of primitivism and the primitivist strain in anarchism.

Sheppard tosses all of the usual anti-primitivism bombs, barely taking a breath between volleys. For example, primitivists are moronic Luddites who want to take us back to a make-believe golden age when humans lived idyllic lives as noble savages with no technology, no agriculture—and no language (!), and the ad hominem classic: primitivists are hypocrites because even as they promote their anti-civilization message, they are gleefully partaking in all of the accoutrements of civilization: electronic communication, vehicular travel, etc.

As near as I can see, his piece is of real value in a couple ways. First, it contains numerous examples of straw-man reasoning, and might be quite useful in an introductory logic class. Second, if we spend the time to take the straw out of his flaming primitivist effigies, the irrationality—and actual incoherence—of non-primitive variations of anarchism becomes sparklingly clear. He makes this simple for us by providing an appendix that includes a convenient list of “primitivist conflations” designed to help the reader with “decoding primitivist babble.” Let’s take a quick primitivist look at the first five.

1. Conflation of civilization and coercive social relations
Here we are told that primitivists consider civilization to be the source of all oppression. Patriarchy, division of labor, warfare, etc., all emerge from civilization. Sheppard dismisses this in a single sentence by pointing out that all of these evils existed before civilization, and so therefore, presumably, the primitivists are all wet.

That’s a bit like saying that radiation exists naturally in the earth, so spent nuclear fuel rods are nothing new. Really? The firebombing of Tokyo was just a tribal skirmish with bigger spears?

But what about those coercive social relations? How do the non-primitivist versions of anarchism deal with them? Social power is the capacity to make other people do what they would not do freely otherwise: aka coercion. By removing the state and placing power in the hands of some abstract collective, coercion somehow vanishes? Civilization cannot function without massive coercive capacity, whether that capacity falls to a state or to a worker’s collective. Someone has to be made to do the actual work, after all. Coal doesn’t mine itself.

2. Conflation of technology and coercive social relations
The true conflation here is to lump all technological processes and objects together into a single basket. Humans in their natural state are technology-dependent creatures. But without an organized division of labor—and some kind of coercive authority to enforce the divisions—you can’t get technologies any more complex than simple crafts.

Here Sheppard tosses a softball for us: “The onus is on primitivists to demonstrate that technology is invariably predicated on coercive or environmentally hostile relations.” Even a cursory glance at the history of technology (beyond simple craft) satisfies the onus with genocide-levels of oppression and several degrees of global warming to spare. To say that actual history does not provide evidence that technology is predicated on “coercive or environmentally hostile relations” is to beg the question.

3. Conflation of “industrialism” and capitalism
I’ve got to confess that this one makes the least amount of sense to me. Apparently, industry—factories and the labor and natural resources necessary to run them—works differently when it’s “owned” by the people who run the machines than it does when it is “owned” by the capitalist (or the corporation, or the state, or an alien super-being from a galaxy far, far away): the mercury coming out of the smokestack becomes less toxic, and black lung disease is less deadly.

4. Conflation of poverty with freedom
The idea of poverty only makes sense within the framework of oppression and inequality. More than just a lack of access to resources, poverty is specifically a lack of resources that other people have access to. Freedom does not necessarily mean that you have unlimited access to resources, but poverty cannot exist without imposing systematic limitations on the degree of access a person is allowed to have (aka, limitations on freedom).

5. Conflation of group decision making and statecraft
State bureaucracies are groups specifically designed for decision making (and the enforcement of compliance with the result!). There is a vertical hierarchical structuring within state bureaucracies that is not supposed to exist within (horizontal? networked? rhizomic?) anarchist collectives. But that in and of itself doesn’t mean that the decision making process would yield better—or even substantially different—results in any given situation. Nor does it change anything with respect to the need for compliance enforcement. It’s here where the incoherence emerges most clearly. From the perspective of the dissenting individual forced to comply, it makes little difference whether the decision came from a worker’s collective or state bureaucracy.

It’s all right if you call yourself an anarchist and still want to keep your toys, I suppose. But if you are going to accuse me of incoherent babbling, you really need to be a bit more articulate yourself.

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