The recent ELF attack on a nanotech research center in Europe throws into sharp relief the problem of division within the anarchist milieu. What happens if two factions end up viewing the other as just as much (or worse) a threat to liberty as any traditional outside enemy?
In the last century we’ve been lucky enough to be able to gloss over most of our divides. Emphatic partisans may in some instances refuse to collaborate with certain others, but general rules of solidarity nevertheless prevail. We work together, share friends, projects and hopefully at least some commitment to rejecting power dynamics. I would like to think that despite some profoundly different avenues of exploration we might all feel the tug of a certain bellweather, keeping us in some level of mutual engagement and bending us back home when we stray. But that’s mostly wishful thinking. What keeps the milieu together is largely just mutual marginalization and alienation, mixed with some desperately believed myths. We are not all working towards the same root thing. There are almost as many concepts of liberty as there are folks wearing the identity of ‘anarchist.’ Many of these are closely reconcilable, different facets of the same fundamental. Some are within reach of rapprochement. But some are not.
I’ve made no bones about it, I think there’s a strand in primitivism that simply can’t be reconcilled with the rest of anarchism. There is no fury like that of a former partisan, and I’ve spent years rolling back the influence its had. I think any goal of freedom that doesn’t include the capacity to explore every depth of the world and reshape oneself as one pleases would be a deplorable half-measure, and the embrace of submission and conformity to some sort of natural identity or role is beyond abhorrent. Our read of history is entirely at odds too. Where they see any substantive inquiry and creativity (science/technology) as the fountainhead of oppression throughout history, I’m with those who read it as locked in a struggle with power, an arms race where Empire spreads itself progressively thinner trying desperately to steer and coopt the engines of our collective inquiry/creativity.
Of course there’s plenty of perfectly admirable anarchists who identify as primitivists, sadly lowering their hopes (as I once did) to deal with the assumed certainty of civiliational collapse and horror of ecological collapse. But the other tendency within their ranks is still problematic. It’s hard to reconcile with someone so scared of life, so petrified by freedom, they want to go back to being a mentally sendentary biological machine, comfortably trapped in a limited body, with limited aspirations, limited knowledge and limited horizons. Now by all accounts the primitivist wave broke a long time ago and they might simply continue fading away or thankfully remove themselves from our movement (as with DGR). But not necessarily. And I think there’s broad value in investigating the possibility of a true and permanent break within anarchism.
Perhaps the best historical comparison available is the split in the 1st International. Some marxists and anarchists continue to this day to work together and extend lines of solidarity — with those idiots on our side almost always surprised at the inevitable betrayal, but I digress — however to most anarchists the divide in fundamentals runs too deep for any meaningful sense of alliance. Our ethical motivation, goals and methods too deeply at odds to ever forget the danger posed by the other. And in many contexts we’re simply unadultured enemies.
A more modern example would that of the early struggle against white supremacy in the skinhead milieu. With more primitivists embracing their bioconservatism these days and aligning explicitly against transfolk among others there’s certainly some added salience. The amorphous but tense division, the attempts for peace and pan-identity, the outside voices (Jensen) driving recruitment… Not a pretty picture as the refusal to organize and confront voices with so many mutual social connections led to such a widespread rot that by the time violence became unavoidable the original skinheads were a minority. It’s kind of sad to compare the whole of the social anarchist ‘movement’ to a subculture, but there’s truth enough to set one to unease. Should we be organizing the equivalent of Antifa / ARA / SHARPs to deal with our primitivist currents? Do enough of us have the stomach for that kind of awful, dragged out fight? On the otherhand, is it the height of irresponsibility to put it off?
I think it comes down to what sort of lines get crossed before “anarcho”-primitivism might finally wither away. The ELF attack obviously crossed a lot of people’s lines and peppered my feeds with shock, concern and outrage. It’s strange to hear and take part of the shift in terms to “not part of my movement”, “not my ally”. A long time coming perhaps, but scary in a sense all the same. I’m really fond of Zerzan in person, and most of my transhumanist friends these days started out as primitivists like me. But you know the composition of their opposition to science — however much we may like to believe otherwise do you really think they’ll see any difference with sabotaging the launch of a satellite telescope or murdering a math professor? What use would it be to continue dealing them with solidarity gloves when the damage they’re doing to our collective freedom, our capacity to engage with the universe, outweighs any positive actions they might happen to undertake in the social sphere? How much does proclaiming yourself an “anarchist” and sharing some acquaintances buy you? The day comes when you find people in your community burning the equivalent of jewish community centers and you have no choice but to turn around and fight them in the streets.
Whether or not it comes to a true schism, whether or not primitivism even lasts that long in identification with anarchism, we need to be aware of the possibility. Five summers ago a friend and I harried all the greens we knew to answer a simple question: “Say that the collapse and all its horrors could be prevented — I know, I know — for shorthand imagine something like cold fusion comes along that sates all our infrastructural needs. And you had a button in front of you that would stop this, that would artificially force a collapse of civ, the deaths of 7 billion people and incidentally the permanent limitation of the survivors’ understanding of the cosmos. Would you push it?” About half bit the bullet.