The Abolition Of Rulership Or The Rule Of All Over All?
Fighting over the definitions of words can sometimes seem like a futile and irrelevant undertaking. However it’s important to note that whatever language gets standardized in our communities shapes what we can talk and think about. So much of radical politics often boils down to acrimonious dictionary-pounding over words like “capitalism,” “markets,” “socialism,” “communism,” “nihilism,” etc. Each side is usually engaged in bravado rather than substance. Radical debates turn into preemptive declarations of “everyone knows X” or “surely Y,” backed by nothing more than the social pressure we can bring to bear against one another. And yet — to some degree — we’re trapped in this game because acquiescing to the supposed authority of our adversaries’ definitions would put us at an unspeakable disadvantage. The stakes of debates over “mere semantics” can be quite high, determining what’s easy to describe and what’s awkward or laborious.
Thus the partisan impulse is usually to define our adversaries out of existence: muddying their analytic waters, emphasizing any and all negative associations, and painting their conclusions as insane, verboten, or outgroup. At the same time we leap on any and all positive associations we can twist to serve our own ends. Debate over definitions is so often merely a game of social positioning: every word reverberating with the different associations of different audiences and thus what alliances you’re declaring or managing to ascribe to your interlocutor. Language is a messy, complicated, and nebulous place where fallacious arguments are not only par for the course but often thought to be how the whole thing hangs together. In the worst corners of academia and “radical” politics this is embraced wholesale, where philosophy is reduced to mere poetry and cheap ploys of emotive resonance: batted back and forth with an underlying smug derision at the entire affair. “Have you ever noticed that we use the same word for your job — your occupation — as we do for the occupation of Iraq?” and this is somehow treated as insightful rather than doing violence to clarity and honesty.
Obviously my biases here — and social affiliations — are quite apparent. While there can be a place for rhetoric to convey emphasis and it is sometimes necessary to counter fire with fire, in general I find these opportunistic language games detestable. Whenever possible I prefer a subversive linguistic pluralism, happy to adopt the language of those I’m speaking to, declaring myself, for example, pro-“capitalism” or pro-“communism” in some contexts and against “capitalism” or against “communism” in others. If by “capitalism” some poor soul means nothing more than economic freedom then I’m fine adopting his tribe’s language to reach him — the same holds true with “communism”. Yet opportunities for such ecumenism are few and far between; even in those situations where we can escape tribal jockeying and arguments from popularity, such words almost always carry hidden baggage through their broader associations, with the explicit definition hiding the implicit conclusions of its wider use. When it comes to semantics, I’m of the opinion that our first step should always be to discard popular associations as much as possible and decipher what are the most illuminating or fundamental dynamics at play, only then attempting to realign or reserve our most basic words for the most rooted concepts. If our final mapping of concepts to terms is idiosyncratic or provocative, or if it strips away the full array of associations found in common use, then perhaps all the better.
While such an approach is often contentious, I believe that it offers a relatively nonpartisan compromise and starting point in definition debates. Let us hold off as much as possible on barraging each other with claims about what’s more “authoritative,” much less what can be leveraged as proof of such, and likewise abandon the negative and positive association-judo. We can always return to this after we’ve sorted out what sort of realities are even before us to map our vocabulary to. This offers us a certain efficiency, handling some quite heavy work at the start, but at least offering us something other than an endless quagmire going forward. More important though is the danger that jumbled interpretive networks or misaligned concepts pose when normalized. Terms that fail to cut reality at the joints can mislead and obscure, make some basic realities incredibly hard to state or address. In language we should seek depth, generality, and accuracy first and foremost, not mere rhetorical expedience. There is a place for the play of “interestingly” open interpretations but such hunger should not consume us and sever our capacity to act.
Democracy and Anarchy
In many contemporary western societies “democracy” retains positive (if nebulous) associations. Naturally, many activists have therefore repeatedly tried to latch onto that term and redirect it in narratives or analysis that line up with their own political aspirations. “You like chocolate, right? Well anarchism is basically extra chocolately chocolate. It’s more chocolate than chocolate. It’s like direct chocolate.”
This opportunistic wordplay is at least self-aware, and such maneuverings seems fair game to many. After all, isn’t “anarchy” a similarly nebulous word — a site of contention and redefinition?
Yet I’d argue that the situations are quite different. The fight over “anarchy” is an inescapable one for anarchists because the world we want will never be obtainable as long as the term’s historical definition goes unchallenged. In every language that touched ancient Greek, “anarchy” bundles together the explicit definition of “without rulership” with the implicit definition of “fractured rulership” (what should really be called ‘spasarchy’) in a nasty Orwellianism that makes the concept of a world without domination unspeakable and often unthinkable. We have a term for the abolition of power relations and we use it instead to refer to chaotic, violent, dog-eat-dog situations of strong (albeit decentralized) power relations. In short, the fight over the definition of “anarchy” is a battle to untangle an existing knot.
On the other hand, “democracy” tends to stand for majority rule and etymologically for the rule of all over all. If there is an Orwellianism at play it is seems to me one of being too charitable to the term, sneaking in associations of freedom when one is in fact describing a particular flavor of tyranny. A situation more akin to “war is peace” than the “freedom is slavery” is at play with “anarchy.”
Honest proponents of democracy can of course contend that such an “ideal” would look nothing like our contemporary world and so the characterization of our nation states as “democracies” misrepresents what true democracy would actually be. But it would still be a dystopia to anarchists. “Rulership by the populace” is clearly a concept irreconcilable with “without rulership” unless one has atrophied to the point of accepting the nihilism of liberalism and its mewling belief in the inescapability of rulership. Or perhaps even going so far as to join with fascists and other authoritarians who silence their conscience with the ideological assertion that one cannot even limit power relations, only rearrange them.
Etymology isn’t destiny but it does carry a strong momentum and corrective force. I’m not sure why we should feel obliged to fight an uphill battle to redefine “democracy” in a direction consistent with anarchist aspirations. And in any case, from an abstract distance it seems wasteful to assign two terms to the same concept.
Those claiming that democracy and anarchy can be reconciled seem to either be rhetorical opportunists — gravely mistaken about what they can and should leverage — or else they seem gravely out of alignment with anarchism’s aspirations, treating “without rulership” not as a guiding star but a noncommittal handwave.
Perhaps this is today the regrettable consequence of a few decades of anarchist recruitment from activist ranks, a conveyor belt that has sadly often resulted in the most shallow of conversions. Rather than a fervent ethical opposition to rulership, we’ve often settled for merely instilling a mild distaste for collaboration with the existing state on leftists, sometimes going no deeper than “you want to accomplish X with your activism but have you noticed that the state is in your way?” This has led to generations of activists — many I count as close friends — who have never considered how they might achieve their standard collection of leftist desires like universal health care in the absence of a state. When pressed they invariably describe a state apparatus, squirming in recognition and cognitive dissonance. “Oh, sure I’m describing a centralized body wielding coercive force and issuing edicts, but it wouldn’t be, you know, The State… because, like, well it wouldn’t systematically kill black people at the hands of the police.” Such an anemic analysis of the state’s crimes never ceases to be shocking. Just as the gutless defanging of anarchism’s radical ethical hunger and dismemberment of its philosophical roots to a mere political platform is invariably depressing.
Let us be clear; if anarchy means anything of substance then many of these people are not really anarchists. At least not yet! They do not believe anarchy is achievable or even thinkable. And this is reflected in their own frequent aversion and/or equivocation in relation to the term “anarchy,” gravitating more to some positive associations they have seen made with it than the underlying concept of a world truly without rulership. Compared to our present society they want the things often associated with anarchism without the core that draws them. I was — for a time — hopeful that such individuals would move to the much more open term “horizontalist.” In truth they’d be better described as minarchist social democrats, who want a cuddlier, friendlier, flatter, more local and responsive state that makes people feel like happy participants and doesn’t engage in world historic atrocities.
Yet for those of us who have tasted the prospect of a world without rulership, this is simply a difference in degree of dystopia. If it truly were possible to achieve some kind of enlightened social democracy without wealth inequality, systematic disenfranchisement of minorities, and with some decentralization of state function, anarchists would still go to the barricades because this is not enough.
If anarchism is to mean anything of substance, it is surely not merely an opening bid from which you are happy to settle. Anarchy doesn’t stand for small amounts of domination: it stands for no domination. Although our approach to that ideal will surely be asymptotic, the whole point of anarchism is to actually pursue it rather than give up and settle for some arbitrary “good enough” half-measure. Such tepid aspirations is what has historically defined liberals and social democrats in contrast to us.
But it’s important to go further, because “democracy” doesn’t solely pose a danger of half-measures but also of a unique dimension of authoritarianism. A pure expression of “the rule of all over all” could be a hell of a lot worse than “Sweden with Neighborhood Assemblies.” The etymology itself seems to best reflect a nightmare scenario in which everyone constrains and dominates everyone else. If we seek to match words to the most distinct and coherent concepts then perhaps the truest expression of “demo-cracy” would be a world where everyone is chained down by everyone else, tightening our grip on our neighbors just as they in turn choke the freedom from our lungs.
To be sure few proponents of “democracy” specifically define it as “the rule of all over all.” There are many distinct dynamics that folks single out and focus on, but none of these definitions directly address the problem of rulership itself.
Democracy as Majority Rule
The most conventional definition of democracy among the wider populace is today quite rare in anarchist circles. At this point “majority rules” is rarely advocated by anyone in my experience outside some old fogies in the underdeveloped backwaters of the anarchist world like the British Isles, and its use in ostensibly anarchist meetings or organizations now rises to moderately scandalous. But it’s maybe worth reiterating that majority rule can be deeply oppressive to minorities. If 51% of your neighborhood committee votes to eat the other 49% alive, that’s a hell of a lot worse than a situation without majority rules where one person refuses to mow their lawn and thus unilaterally inflicts their malaesthetic on the rest of the neighborhood.
Proponents of such tyranny by the majority love to pretend that the only alternative is “tyranny by the minority.” But anarchist theory is all about removing the structures and means by which rulership can be asserted or expressed by anyone, majority or minority.
This is probably not the place to list them all like some kind of 101 course, but one example is superempowering technologies like guns that asymmetrically make resistance more efficient than domination. Such technologies are directly responsible for the increase of liberty over recent history. In an era where capital intensive undertakings like trained knights on horseback trumped anything else, you got rulership by elites; when the best weapons are one-kill-averaging soldiers, you just line up your troops and the one with the biggest count can be expected to win. But high-ammunition guns give every individual a veto against the lynch mob outside their door, allowing guerrillas to impede empires that vastly outscale them in capital. Technologies like the printing press and internet function similarly. And on the other side of the coin, the infrastructural extent and dependent nature of modern technologies of control or domination makes them brittle against resistance, easily prey to acts of disruption and sabotage. These tools — along with technologies of resilience and self-sufficiency — allow individuals to reject the capricious edicts of anyone, be they a minority or a majority.
Ideally anarchists seek to highlight and strengthen such dynamics with the political approaches we take, treating everyone like they have the most powerful of vetoes, capable of destroying everything, of grinding everything to a halt if they are truly intolerably imposed upon. This focus on individuals stops “the community” or other beasts from running rampant, forcing a detente tolerable for all parties. Such truces are far more likely to be attentive to the severity of individual desires, because “one vote per person” is incapable of reflecting just how much a person has at stake: something we could never hope to make objective and would be laughable to try to have a collective body legislate.
What norms fall out of such an assumption of veto powers are complex (and I’ve argued left market property norms are likely to be one) but at the center is always freedom of association. The consensus society is one primarily comprised of autonomous realms so that individuals can minimize conflict between their swinging fists and maximize the positive freedoms provided by collaboration. But note also the psychological norms. Majority rule treats people as means to whatever ends you want (rallying a large enough army at the polls), whereas a consensus detente can never lose sight of the fact that people are agents with their own particular desires. There is no subsumption of one’s subjective desires into merely being “one of the vote-losers”, a bloc rendered homogeneous and dehumanized by such democracy.
Okay agree some, but maybe we can say that consensus itself is democracy?
Democracy as Consensus
This is probably the most charitable way of framing “democracy” but here too are deep problems.
There’s a massive difference between consensus that’s arrived at through free association, and consensus that’s arrived because people are locked into some collective body to some degree. Often what passes for “consensus” within anarchist activist projects is merely consensus within the prison of a reified organization. Modern anarchists are still quite bad at embracing the fluidity of truly free association, and we cling to familiar edifices. Our organizations reassure us insofar as they function like the state, simplistic monoliths that exist outside of time and beyond the changing desires and relations of their constituent members.
Truly anarchist approaches to consensus would prioritize making the collectivity organic and ad hoc, an arrangement that prioritizes individual choice in every respect. Not just the prospect or potential of choice but the active use of it.
This would mean adopting an unterrified attitude about dissolution and reformation, learning new habits and growing new muscles that have atrophied in the totalitarian reference frame of our statist world. As it now stands, the prospect of going separate ways on a thing if we can’t reach consensus on a single collectively unified path strikes absolute fear into the hearts of most.
For consensus to be truly anarchistic we must be willing to consense upon autonomy, to shed off our reactionary hunger for established perpetual collective entities. Otherwise consensus will erode back in the direction of majority rules, individuals feeling obliged to tolerate decisions lest they break the uniformity of the established collective. Almost everyone of this generation is quite familiar with the general assemblies of Occupy that endlessly and fruitlessly fought over essentially just what actions would be formally endorsed under a local Occupy’s brand. Clearly in many cases we should have just gone our separate ways, working out not a single blueprint but a tolerable treaty to allow us to undertake separate projects or actions. The brand provided by The General Assembly was a centralization too far, creating such a high value real estate that everyone was obliged to fight to seize it. Surely anarchists should resist the formation of such black holes.
Okay, but regardless of the size and permanence of the collectives involved, maybe democracy is just collective decision-making itself?
Democracy as Collective Decision-making
While there are unfortunately many pragmatic contexts on Earth that oblige a degree of collective decision-making, it’s dangerous to fetishize collective decision-making itself.
Many young leftist activists get caught with a bug that suggests the core problems with our world are those of “individualism” by which they mean a kind of psychopathic self-interest that is inattentive to others. The solution, this bug tells them, is to do everything collectively. To stomp out anti-social perspectives by obliging social participation. If we all go to meetings together then we’ll become more or less friends.
The unspoken transmutation they appeal to is one where extraversion and being enmeshed in social interactions will somehow suppress selfish desires. Of course in reality the opposite is often true. The most altruistic people in the world are often introverted individuals who prefer to act alone and the most psychopathic predators are often those most at home manipulating a web of social relations.
Many leftists are scarred by the alienating social dynamics of our society and seek meetings as a kind of structured socializing time to make friends and conjure a sense of belonging to a community, but this is absolutely not the same thing as engendering a sense of altruism or empathy. If anything collective meetings are horrible draining experiences that scar everyone involved and only partially satiate the most isolated and socially desperate. Like a starving person eating grass, the nutrition is never good enough and so the activist becomes trapped in endless performative communities, going to endless group meetings to imperfectly reassure base psychological needs rather than efficaciously change the world for the better. (I say such cutting words with all the love and sympathy of someone who’s nevertheless persisted as an activist and organizer attempting to do shit for almost two decades.) Collective decision-making itself is no balm or salve to the horrors that plague this world.
But that’s not even the worst of it. Collective decision-making is itself fundamentally constraining. It frequently makes situations worse in its attempt to make decisions as a collective rather than autonomously as networked individuals.
The processing of information is the most important dynamic to how our societies are structured. A boss in a large firm for example appoints middle managers to filter and process information because a raw stream of reports from the shop floor would be too overwhelming for his brain to analyze. There are many ways in which aspects of the flow of information constrain social organizations, but when it comes to collective decision-making the most relevant thing is the vast difference between the complexity our brains are capable of holding and the small trickle of that complexity we are capable of expressing in language. As a rule, individuals are better off with the autonomy to just act in pursuit of their desires rather than trying to convey them in their full unknowable complexity. But when communication is called for it’s far far more efficient to speak in pairs one-on-one, and let conclusions percolate organically into generality. “Collective” decision-making almost always assumes a discussion with more than two people — a collective — in an often incredibly inefficient arrangement where everyone has to put their internal life in stasis and listen to piles of other people speak one at a time. The information theoretic constraints are profound.
If collective decision-making is supposed to provide us with the positive freedoms possible through collaboration, it offers only the tiniest fraction of what is usually actually possible. That there are occasionally situations so shitty that collective decisionmaking is requisite does not mean anarchists should worship or applaud it. And one would be hardpressed to classify something far more general like collaboration itself as “democracy”.
Okay, but maybe we can reframe democracy as an ethics?
Democracy As “Getting a Say in the Things That Affect You”
It got particularly popular in the 90s to frame anarchy as a world where everyone gets a say in the things that affect them. And for a time this seemed to nicely establish anarchism as a kind of unterrified feminism. But let’s be real: there are plenty of things that massively affect you that you should have no vote over. Whether or not your crush goes out with you should entirely be at their own discretion. Freedom of association is quite often sharply at odds with “getting a say over things that affect you.”
This may seem in conflict with the moral we drew from our discussion of consensus and the necessity to create a detente grounded in a respect for individual vetoes, but it’s important to remember that we weren’t settling for the naive first-order resolution where anyone strongly affected by something sets off a nuke. There’s a kind of meta-structure that emerges in any network of people upon consideration. The detentes we ultimately gravitate to involve certain more abstract norms, that are more generally useful to all than their violation in specific instances. Respect for freedom of association is one such very strongly emergent norm.
And in any case the goal of anarchists is freedom, we champion a decentralized world — among other conditions — precisely so that it might dramatically increase our freedom, not chain us down. This means at the very least cultivating a culture of live and let live when someone blocks you on Twitter rather than setting the world ablaze because you feel entitled to their attention.
Similarly if everyone in your generation starts using Snapchat — which you dislike — that puts you at a disadvantage: such an emergent norm clearly affects you in a negative way. But this doesn’t and shouldn’t give you cause to bring your peers before the city council and demand that Snapchat be outlawed. The norms of freedom of association, freedom of information, and bodily autonomy cleave out distinct realms of action that can affect third parties immensely yet should not — barring absolutely extreme situations — be dictated or constrained by them. Every invention and discovery changes the world but you don’t get to vote against the propagation of truth, however disruptive it might be to your life.
Okay, but maybe we can reframe democracy as not as any kind of system but as a demographic?
Democracy as “The Rabble”
In recent times David Graeber has re-popularized the historical association of “democracy” with large underclasses. And it’s true that in certain points in history “democracy” served alongside “anarchy” as a boogeyman of the horrors they were claimed would arise if the ruling elites lost their stranglehold on the populace.
Certainly we anarchists leap to defend the unwashed masses from those sneering elites. The prospect that the rabble would demolish the elites’ positions of power or get up to dirty and uncouth things with their freedom is something we embrace. But just because we despise those who despise “the rabble” doesn’t mean we should embrace any and all mobs or the concept of “the mob” itself. The positives that can be wrestled from this use of the term surely aren’t worth explicitly opening the door to “mobocracy”.
This archaic use of “democracy” has obvious subversive potential in our present world, flipping the positive affect built around “democracy” by our current rulers and returning it to those in conflict with them. But anarchists are not blind proponents of “the masses” in any and all situations, something this rhetorical opportunism would lock us into. The masses can be horrifically wrong, and what is popularly desired can be quite unethical. It’s not vanguardism to resist pogroms or work to thwart the genocidal ambitions of majorities like in Rwanda. There are endless examples of “the masses” seeking to dominate, and our goal as anarchists is not to pick sides but to make such rulership impossible or at the very least costly.
Anarchists aren’t engaged in team sports; while we often defend underdogs in specific contexts, we’re not out to back one demographic against another in any kind of fundamental way.
Okay, but does “democracy” still have a role as a transitory state?
Democracy as a Transitory State
This is a complicated issue because obviously it depends on a host of abstract and practical particulars. We’ve covered a lot of different definitions one encounters among apologists for “democracy” in anarchist circles, and what I’ve tried to highlight among all of them is both a lack of any explicit anti-authoritarianism as well as a series of lurking problems that risk warping things in an authoritarian direction.
In some situations, certain things going by the name “democracy” would likely pose half-steps in the direction of anarchism. The replacement of a feudal lord with a village assembly would almost certainly be an improvement. We can get distracted with concerns about possible failure modes and lose sight of what’s actually happening on the ground. Just because the democratic processes of Rojava could theoretically bend in a more sharply nationalistic or racially oppressive direction doesn’t mean that they actually are. There are many situations where participatory democracy represents a major step forward, even something anarchists should fight for with our lives.
But when democracy is idealized — when it’s generalized or elevated as an ideology rather than as a pragmatic strategy in a specific context — things gets dangerous. The risk of such idealization is inherent to its use. And oftentimes democracy serves as a half-measure that actually impedes further progress. The Chomskyian strategy of compromise and “incremental steps” that secure bread today can actually further entrench power structures while providing minor ameliorations.
Democracy is in almost every definition a kind of centralization and such centralization pulls everything under its control. Just as with other types of states, once you establish a centralized system with far-reaching capacity it starts to become more efficient for individual agents to try to do everything through the state: to capture it for your ends rather than working to build solutions from the roots up outside of it. Even those with sharp anarchist ideals start feeling the pressure to go to the General Assembly rather than doing things outside of it as actual agents.
Like shooting people, in our messy and deeply dystopian world democracy may sometimes be necessary and strategic, but as anarchists our every inclination and instinct should be to avoid such means by default, to only cede to them kicking and screaming, and never cease feeling distaste. We must not lose sight of our ideals and even as we can only asymptotically approach them we must still attempt to asymptotically approach them rather than asymptotically approaching some halfway point.
And of course let us not forget that a world where say a social democrat like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn gets their way might even actually end up worse than our present horrorshow. Liberal and socialist policies have a long history of making worse the things they were supposedly out to fix.
Okay, but isn’t that unfair since the whole point is direct democracy?
A Note About “Directness”
It’s annoying how often young activists attempt to create a spectrum of democracy with varying levels of mediation or representation that places anarchy as synonymous with the most direct democracy. It’s true that depending upon a representative to speak on your behalf is an insanely inefficient approach — anyone who’s dealt even just with spokescouncils pooling few dozen people knows this. We know that due to the shallow bandwidth of human language, conversation itself is ridiculously inefficient at a means of conveying the fullness of our internal desires and perspectives, so delegating to someone else with only the vaguest of outlines of what you want is surely much worse.
But what I find particularly pernicious about the reduction of anarchism to a mere “direct” qualifier on “democracy” is that it plays into a fetishization of immediacy that has already ideologically metastasized among anarchists, indeed often among those more insurrectionary or individualist figures on the other side of the debate over “democracy”. The issue with representation in my mind isn’t the lack of immediacy but a matter of limits to the flow of information. It’s a subtle but crucial difference.
A number of anarchists or former anarchists have in recent years increasingly grown to treat immediacy as the secret sauce — the very definition of freedom. This stems from a philosophical confusion over what freedom is and a very continental or psychological focus upon emotional affect, focusing on a phenomenological experience they associate with “freedom” — that is to say a kind of spontaneity or impulsive reaction rather than reflection (since in our present world reflection often brings to attention just how constrained we actually are). To consider an action is precisely to chain it through a series of mediations, to filter and parse it. It’s important to note that the reactionary approach smothers one’s internal complexity, ultimately reducing an agent to a mere billiard ball. When treated as an ideal, immediacy necessarily involves the suppression of consciousness and thus of choice.
The problem with collective decisionmaking isn’t that the discrete deliberative bodies involved process information or ponder choices, but that such arrangements are ridiculously inefficient at it compared to individual autonomy: an embrace of the full agency of their constituents. A more organic network of reflective individuals would provide more choice — that is to say more freedom.
Against All Rulership, Always
To people in the trenches just trying to grab whatever weapons they find useful, all this philosophical criticism of “democracy” no doubt appears to be an ungainly impediment. But anarchism is not a pragmatic project myopically concerned only with what can be won here and now. Our most famous triumphs have been our foresight — often our predictions of dangers to come from various stripes of “pragmatism” and “immediacy.” Anarchism is a philosophy of infinite horizons, taking the longest and widest possible scope. An ethical philosophy of stunning and timeless audacity, not some historical artifact trapped in a limited set of concerns. This sweeping consideration is what enabled us to correctly predict the failures of Marxism, and it’s a tradition worth maintaining. Bakunin’s denouncement of Marx took place in a context long before Kronstadt and all the atrocities that would eventually become popularly synonymous with Marxism. Such “abstract philosophy” and non-immediacy split the ranks of those fighting against the capitalist order, weakening what they could bring to bear in the service of workers’ lives that very minute. And yet the world is clearly all the better for it. Thanks to the anarchist schism with Marxism, the struggle for freedom was able to survive.
I’m not saying that a system of direct democratic town councils are going to be set up somewhere in the world tomorrow under the banner of “direct democracy” and turn genocidal or into some kind of totalitarian small town nightmare, but every take on “democracy” is nevertheless pretty distant from anarchy and thus unlikely to stay true. When your ideal isn’t pointed at freedom itself it’s only a matter of time before the runaway compounding processes of domination warp its path.
I am, at the end of the day, happy to grimace slightly and move along when some comrade I’m working with spouts something about “more democratic than democracy!” just as I’m capable of biting my tongue with the sincere but confused trapped in Marxist or anarcho-capitalist languages. Semantic battles are not the be-all and end-all, but attempts to appropriate the general goodwill towards “democracy” have yet to latch onto any underlying concepts worth validating. It seems to me that a far better practice is to stick somewhere close to the etymology of the word (the rule of all over all) and its near universal associations (majority rule).
One might object on the semantic grounds that it’s better to assign our words to their most positive possible interpretations, but I do think it’s important to have words for bad things, to be able to describe the array of possibilities we oppose with any sort of detail. It’s important to be able to see and comprehend the various flavors oppressive systems can take. Even if we don’t presently live in a full-blown democracy with all the horrors of a true domination of all over all, it’s still an illuminating extreme and one that I think warrants highlighting.
Anarchism’s uniqueness is that it doesn’t seek to equalize rulership but to demolish it, a radical aspiration that cuts through the assumptions of our dystopian world. Anarchism isn’t about achieving a balance of domination — assuring that each person gets 5.2 milliHitlers of oppression each — but about abolishing it altogether.
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The Emptiness of “The Left”
Personally, I don’t think “the left” ultimately represents much of anything coherent, but rather constitutes a historically contingent coalition of ideological positions. Bastiat and other free market folks sat on the left of the french assembly, and while we might try to claim that as part of a consistent leftist market tradition, we should be honest that one’s position in that particular revolution — much less revolution in general — is hardly indicative of very much. There are always revolutionaries who desire systems far worse than our own, and similarly there have been many broadly recognized “leftists” whose desires were utterly anathema to liberation.
It’s popular these days to paint the left and right as egalitarian versus hierarchical. But not only is this an imposed read on a far messier historical and sociological reality, but it’s honestly quite philosophically contentless. No one is particularly clear on what egalitarianism means, or even hierarchy, and many interpretations are not only mutually exclusive, they reveal supposedly identical claims as actually deeply antagonistic. Does egalitarianism mean everyone gets precisely the same wealth (however that’s supposed to be measured)? Does it mean mere legal or social equality in the abstract realm of relations before The People or The State’s legal system? Does it mean equal opportunity for economic striving or does it mean equal access to the people’s grain stores? Does equality supersede all other virtues like liberty? Is it better to all be oppressed equally than to have some achieve greater freedom? I’m not being facetious. We paper over these deep issues with “well but common sense” and the wishful assumption that our comrades will come down on the minutia the same way we would, sharing our intuitions on various tradeoffs, but that’s empirically not the case. We constantly differ.
People talk about “collective direct democracy” as if something being the near unanimous will of some social body constitutes an egalitarian condition. And, sure, it does under some definitions. But the moment I see some collective body trying to vote on my life I don’t want to “participate” I want to chuck a bomb at it. Leftists use both the slogans “power to the people” and “abolish power” — this should be an intense red flag to everyone that completely different conceptual systems and values are at play. It’s delusional in the extreme to suppose that if we sat down and talked about things we’d all end up on the same page. The assumption of pan-leftist solidarity or a shared common goal is a comforting lie.
The left isn’t defined by some set of axioms in ethical philosophy that we can all agree on and than argue about derivations of strategy or implementation from. The left is a historical coalition thrown together by happenstance. As with revolution we tend to self-identify as the underdogs and build our coalitions from the classes we recognize as underdogs against the classes we recognize as ruling but this leads to all kinds of contortions. We are for the right to choose because women are the underdogs in patriarchy. But at the same time we’re pro vegan because animals are the (sometimes literal) underdogs in human domination. Wait, do we value all living things? What counts as a discrete living thing? Do we value them equally or is the level of consciousness/sentience important? Is it the level of dependence or strain it places on another person? Suddenly the responses we have in situations with family members versus the overdogs of christianity seemingly start to come into conflict with the responses we have in situations with disabled people (underdogs!). I’m not saying there isn’t a way to thread all these dynamics, to find a core ethical guide and nuanced attentive implementation — I think there is one (although my particular approach of ultimately recognizing a vast spectrum of sentience/consciousness between zygotes/nematodes and anyone remotely close to a conscious human is denounced by a number on the left as “unegalitarian”). I’m pointing out that our responses rarely arise from an ethical analysis but from instinctual responses to any appearance of an underdog. The left is rarely a philosophy, more often a coalition, with theory tacked on to serve the goals of binding that coalition together. One could easily imagine universes with different historical paths where outlawing abortion is a core leftist plank, seen as deeply interrelated with opposing queerphobia, patriarchy, ableism, etc. Or the left could oppose legal sanction, but support and build grassroots social and cultural sanction against abortion. (Again, for the record I’m pro-choice.)
Underdogism is a really dangerous approach to the world. It’s a good “rule of thumb” but if you know anything about me it’s that I abhor such heuristics and see them as the opposite of radical analysis. Underdogism is how you get things like zionism, leninism, poc nationalism, TERFs, SWERFs, etc. Its failures are manifold. There’s a good case the left is nothing but underdogism — in which case fascism is almost always leftist. MRAs don’t approach politics like a reactionary on the right side of the French Estates General, consciously seeking to preserve an established ruling structure, they see themselves as the underdogs. Sure, they’re not (in almost everything besides some fringe contexts like some bits of divorce law), but fuck it they’re potential underdogs, and that status is more than enough to reproduce much of the standard structures of underdogism.
One might interject that the problem with underdogism of the alt-right is not just their misidentification of underdogs but their hunger for power, and this is certainly broadly true (although a fraction of the alt-right actually seem less in it for power but more in it to drink outgroup/”overdog” tears). But this certainly applies to much of the left in good standing. Certainly many authoritarian leftists have hungrily latched onto underdogism as a potential ladder to power. I’ve met feminist writers who openly admitted to me they’d be patriarchal if they were men, or own slaves if they were antebellum rich whites.
Yes, any set of smart persons who recoil at clear instances of oppression are gonna broadly converge on a number of positions or analyses. But the way they reconcile or hold together these things may differ dramatically. Just because the left is a stable coalition in our present context doesn’t mean aspects of it that seem in perfect harmony won’t break in wildly different directions should certain conditions change.
I have repeatedly encountered leftists who’ve claim that valuing some things above other things is hierarchical and thus right-wing (leftism being in their minds representing something more like stoicism or buddhism). Similarly you find epistemic pluralism common in the most heads-up-their-ass sectors of left academia who think thinking some models of the world are more true than others is “unegalitarian” or even “totalitarian.” It’s tempting to just laugh about hippies and move on, but these sort of horrifically bad definitions of “egalitarianism” will sometimes come out of the mouths of smart people who generally have their heads on straight the moment they move to a context they’re unused to.
Now I hate the NAP, but everyone laughs at the NAP these days for being “unpragmatic” and this has increasingly become tied to a casual indictment of all ethical philosophy itself. A turn that has been encouraged by the twin interrelated scourges of the modern internet far left: tankies and nihilists. This makes sense if — as per social justice — you see the point of the left to create a social framework of etiquette and loose ideology that can bind a coalition of underdog classes together. Thus the increasing refrain of “you can’t compare!” that happens whenever someone tries to tease out commonalities or contradictions between various claims, positions or planks. There is, from this perspective, no common root or unifying ethos to the left and we should not look for one lest the whole project fall apart. Philosophy, ethics, and core values or principles become the enemies, as does both methodological individualism and universalism. There are neither individual experiences nor universal ones, just relatively simplistic classes of people with incomparable experiences. And we bind them together into common cause by badgering, social positioning, poetic affective appeals, and threats of violence.
The left isn’t unified by anything. Marxism is half discredited by idiocy and monstrosity and the half that survived became a wildly contradictory mess more preoccupied with obscurantism, irrationality and anti-realism to hide its own failures than getting anything done much less charting a path. Most of the concerns of the left refer to opposing mythologized superstructures that we are left flailing in the absence of or whenever their composition and behavior change. The left is, in short, utterly allergic to radicalism. Fending off its inadequacies with short puffs of extremism instead.
As social and ideological complexities compound through the runaway feedback of the information age these internal tensions and the laughably frail taping over we’ve done will only become more clear.
There is still hope for a radical anarchism that is willing to root its discussions of freedom and ethics concretely and explicitly. But this will necessarily involve casting off from many allies who we share some limited intuitions or momentary prescriptions with. Or at least dissolving the comforting delusions of a deep camaraderie.
The only reason the lie of “the left” has persisted for two centuries is that its grand Manichean narrative of two more or less uniform tribes — one enlightened and one indecipherably morally corrupt — enables a sense of community that provides psychological comfort to many. To many on the left (as well as on the nationalistic etc right) a hunger for “community” is actually their primary motivation. When chatting at the bar it’s better to not look too deep into why you both oppose capitalists lest you discover something that sunders rather than binds.
But the format of present internet technologies has had the reverse effect. Inescapable contact with The Enemy has led us to put up hostile discursive walls that naturally end up cutting out our traditional allies too, causing both right and left to fracture in desperate attempts to find purity, trustworthiness, or some kind of deeper binding. The happenstance points of unity that worked when we had little choice in who to befriend are now fracturing in all directions. This is largely a good thing, the last two decades have seen all manner of horrors lurking among our own ranks exposed. But the process that brings to light our lack of commonality with the anti-science leftist deep ecologist who wants to kill all humans is also a process that will ultimately rip “the left” to unsalvageable shreds.
This ship is sinking. And just because many of the rats are fleeing doesn’t mean we shouldn’t either.
Nihilism: A Lie In Service To The Existing
Talking about nihilism, much less attempting to define and critique it, is an exhausting sort of task, akin to talking to a mischievous toddler who has learned some empty single-word responses that make an adult go in circles. And one risks serious strain from all the eyerolling necessary to get through any such discussion. Most of us recognize that to bother to debate or critique nihilism is to lose from the outset. In the same way that feeding the trolls is a game utterly disconnected from sincere comparison and collaboration on ideas. And yet total disengagement is unsustainable.
What are we to do when former friends or lovers start falling for such inane tripe and then are somehow shocked by our revulsion? One doesn’t have to go far to find simmering disdain for nihilism in radical circles and yet it sees little expression to those calling themselves “nihilists” beyond snubbing or laughing at it with memes. We simply cluster apart from one another. Individually reasonable in our refusal to get drawn in, but ultimately impractical on the whole. Every once in a while with trolls someone has to suit up and shovel their shit. And so to is every once in a while it worth reiterating what garbage nihilism is.
In this I mean the core idea of nihilism and the way it’s used in practice. I don’t really want to waste time talking about the precise contours of the mild academic fad in continental circles, or the historical footnote of long dead 19th century Russian revolutionaries and some residual poetry, or the loose circle of former anarchists that all burned out together in the late 00s and tried to dress up despair as some kind of hip aesthetic. I mean I will talk about them, I’ve got essays lined up responding to their particulars. But it’s all so utterly boring, such a drudge. And so much of the ostensible preoccupations of said groups are orthogonal to the real issue of nihilism. In letting them set the terms of the discourse the real substance of their core provocation is dodged and what is so pernicious about it is left to spread rot. So, before getting into those weeds, I think there’s value in first going over — in a relatively evenhanded and non-polemic sort of way — what I and many others find so objectionable about nihilism. What’s actually motivating this fury and distrust. Of course being frank and honest is not an effective way to play the game most nihilists are actually playing, and sadly this approach is a lot less entertaining than just talking mad shit, but I hope you’ll read on nonetheless.
It must be noted from the outset that there’s a kind of defensive contradiction in the very idea of nihilism that’s immediately apparent when you try to clarify, “what exactly does ‘meaningless’ mean?” The escape hatch is obvious: a nihilist can just endlessly repeat the words “that doesn’t mean anything” to everything including their own statement. Talking to such a Bartleby is isomorphic to pressing a crosswalk button, so I’m going to start out by assuming a more engaging nihilism, one willing to speak in some approximation of rational terms. In such context I think the most substantive definition for “meaningless” is a situation where something is perfectly symmetric, pointing in all directions, all possible interpretations or models or values equally (including the incoherent ones) and thus conveying nothing. Utterly indistinct, in other words, without structure or affinity or direction or inclination. And thus without content. Formless. “Indifferent,” as an editor of Hostis succinctly phrased things, “to any particular way.”
With this prompt I’d personally phrase the most common form of nihilism as: The notion that when examined at maximal vigilance or scope the topology of possible values/desires has no distinct universal attractors or flows.
I recognize this uses language or concepts (eg “topology”) outside the life experience of some people, but I think it’s better for the precision. And note that one can replace “values” with “models” to get full blown epistemological nihilism rather than mere value nihilism. But honest-to-god full-fledged epistemological nihilism is where you just start throwing things at your interlocutor because all further discourse is impossible. Plus, you know, whatever they claim, no one actually believes in epistemological nihilism. At least not while still having a remotely functional neural net. So we’ll stick with value-nihilism for the moment and then come back to the epistemological stuff later.
The core problem with nihilism is that it always functions as a sleight of hand to protect an existing value set. Nihilism is uniquely good at this because in practice it resolves into nothing more than the assertion that thinking further about something is useless because the ultimate endpoint of thinking about things is a state where all values are exactly equal in appeal. The claim is that you reach an apex of perfect enlightenment and truly realize that “the stars and the sky are uncaring” — that valuing and pursuing happiness is no greater or less smiled upon by universe than valuing and pursuing sadness. Or rainbows, or rape, or honor, or genocide, or paperclips. One is doomed to reach — as Nietzsche so famously freaked out about science and rationality supposedly sending us towards — a vantage point, a crest above the fray, from which one can see that there is no conclusive value inextricably drawn to by one’s enlightenment. All ideals are hollow, all desires arbitrary. It’s a fear much older than Nietzsche, and hugely influential.
We all know that intellectual vigilance ends up changing one’s values. One learns upon reflection, for example, that two desires are mutually incompatible; that one must at least be recognized as more foundational than the other, but possibly the other must even be dropped entirely. Or we learn that a value we thought was clearly definable is in fact an arbitrary cluster of things, only held together temporarily, with no deep substance. That the ideology we assumed we were working from was instead filled with not just with tensions but full-blown contradictions that upon examination tear it irrevocably apart. Similarly, you desire pleasure and disdain pain but then, upon learning how to mentally step back and flip a neural switch that reverses the two, suddenly can find no objective meta-preference between them.
If ethics — the sector of philosophy concerned with exploring “oughts” — is the exploration of this topological network of desires about desires (and desires about desires about desires and so on), nihilism is the claim that when you get the furthest out in meta-desires, when you have mapped every dependency and interaction, every tension and flow, not only does nothing resolve inescapably as your most deeply rooted or inescapable meta-desire, but no deep structure is revealed at all. Rather you are left adrift, your inquiry bottoms out and you become capable of choosing to adopt any value or desire, with no new sign to guide the way save the most base of happenstance, the most superficial of flickering impulses. Thus the popular concern with nihilism being a gateway to shallow hedonism.
Such fears of nihilism are widespread, ironically too often because the fearful accept the nihilist premise. Many people momentarily recognize that their present beliefs or values are unsustainable, critically unsupported and in constant danger of collapse should they be examined too closely. But unfortunately these same people violently shy away from actually shedding off such baggage, in no small part because they have no idea yet what might replace them, and respond by believing that nothing will. In any case, to search for better models of the world or more coherent value systems would mean letting their present ones crumble, and rather than cast themselves into a possibly fruitless quest, they’d prefer to wall up. To accept they’re full of shit and just embrace it or erase knowledge of it. To make their bed where they stand, viewing their own contradiction-riddled perspective as as good of a lie as any other. Easier than radical inquiry is to leap on the suspicion that it’d be fruitless.
The occurrence of this kind of belief in nihilism in the general populace has historically driven a consequent open hostility to inquiry due to these nihilists’ expectations that such can only lead to a more explicit, permanent, or less opportunistic nihilism. Which would, in turn, risk disrupting the incoherent values or identities they’ve secretly used their own nihilism to prop up. And because intellectual vigilance is the defining path or habit of geeks, philosophers, scientists, and other radicals, those communities have been frequently faced with charges of “nihilism” from such secret nihilists.
Naturally some among us feel an urge to turn into and embrace the accusation.
At best this sort of self-identified “active nihilism” ends up as the inane platitude “Question Everything” dressed up a little edgy. A mere call for more skepticism and critical detachment. And who on earth would disagree with that?
But it rarely stays there.
Because in practice an allegiance to “questioning everything” — when taken more seriously as a philosophy rather than a mere slogan or psychological corrective — means either secretly prioritizing specific things or it means holding no thoughts whatsoever. The distinction between skepticism and nihilism is one between carefully weighing possibilities and rejecting all such measurement or comparison all together.
When one has an infinite array of things to “question” to an infinite degree, whatever one prioritizes inherently smuggles in some background framework of assertions and values. Normal skeptical philosophies have no problem with this, they’re happy to explicitly name what’s being held in how much suspicion — to name degrees of trust and dependencies. To distinguish itself, to claim to truly “question everything” in a way that doesn’t surrender by ever finding any semblance of answers, nihilism must discard any such structure. Or at least it must discard any explicit structure. In this guise “active nihilism” ends up being just a sleight of hand by which one distracts either oneself or one’s ideological acolytes with a moving red ball of mindless “negation”. So they spend all their time ‘critiquing’ (or just reactively denying) wherever the ball bounces in their chase of it — while in the process they ignore the rest of the universe of considerations beyond that singular point. In this way new norms, standards and assumptions are reinforced behind wherever the random focal point of attention happens to be. Dash as fast as you might, covering as much ground as you can, you will throughout all that time leave a much larger universe of things unexamined consciously. Every systematizing or framework or slowly-built map you might choose to guide your critiques would be itself a new “god”. So you trade away being guided by structures you can see, analyze and have agency in reconfiguring to instead be guided by more gut and subrationally accepted structures.
The only way to avoid implicit structure creation is to somehow avoid letting any thoughts, models, and desires gel. Not to chase off in circles attempting to “critique everything in ‘equal measure'”, but to sabotage the formation of any remotely solid ideas in one’s skull. Whether one poetically visualizes this as empty still waters, or as a formless chaos, the effect is the same: incapacity to act. A mind truly without models or desires — without a proactive interest in building such structures — is a mind perhaps maximally “free” internally, but incapable of engaging with the wider universe.
In both directions — either by removing all reflection and explicit structure from one’s mind to instead become a billiard ball driven by simple immediate animal desires or, alternately, by turning up the chaos to infinity to obliviate the formation of thoughts — the end result is totally unpalatable, unless one’s emerging core value is a rejection of cognition itself.
This is why nihilism has such a reputation as being anti-intellectualism for intellectuals. The purest expression of ‘active nihilism’ is the rejection of thinking itself, and any lesser nihilism is merely an infantile shield for certain values. After all, if intellectual reflection is supposedly totally inconclusive, finding no emergent signal to break the symmetry between all possible desires, then you might as well settle on the desires you came in with and fend off any tendency to think or evolve further.
Of course there’s another noteworthy exit from such an assumed state of universal symmetry: to just pick something at random. But the full space of possible desires much less possible models of reality is big. Infinitely big. For very large sorts of infinity. A truly random choice would be an insanely alien one. We’re not just talking about a subject wanting to tile its future lightcone with paperclips, but a mind with values and/or models of reality so far from our ken we cannot even speak of them. Remember that anything less than truly random would itself bundle in unexamined or undemolished structures.
I don’t know of many people who’ve stared into the nihilist abyss and come back as unknowable lovecraftian rifts in the fabric of reality seeking to maximize writhing extra-dimensional demon paperclips, so either we don’t really have to worry about this… or it’s the case that inquiry inevitably leading to state of perfect symmetry — meta’d beyond all possible values — is a hypothetical speculation that no one has actually conclusively reached. An influential fear or belief rather than an actual reality.
A common speculative fantasy with sometimes intense aesthetic and emotional affect, but no actual substantiation beyond the reassurance of self-delusion.
I would like to posit a profoundly unoriginal alternate hypothesis: The vigilance necessary to reveal and strip away the false pretenses of our arbitrary inherited values is itself an emergent value.
While strawmen can be constructed around terms like “rationality” and “science”, there remains a direction of coherent inquiry nonetheless that does not invalidate itself. I’ve termed this “radicalism” in light of what anarchists and other political radicals have traditionally found valuable in that word — the pursuit of roots. But this is a starkly philosophically realist position: it assumes that there are roots to be gotten at. Or, perhaps less audaciously, it merely finds nothing to hold onto outside that assumption and so proceeds with it.
While I’ve more frequently invoked value-nihilism than epistemological-nihilism up until now, you can see that the two are of course deeply connected and in an ultimate sense inseparable.
If however radicalism is correct and there are any roots to be grabbed at — most fundamental dynamics to be found — in our models of reality, then this automatically breaks any supposed symmetry of potential values & desires. When one searches to infinity, pressing asymptotically closer to said roots, it is the search itself that remains, that becomes one’s most inescapable emergent value.
This is part of the reason folks attempting to invoke value-nihilism to as a quick shield to defend the lazy, ridiculous, or unconscionable, are so often driven to embrace epistemological-nihilism. A rapacious CEO who waves away all reflection on ethical issues to uncritically satisfy his base hungers suddenly starts spouting harsh dismissals of any objective reality. What seems an absurd and weak non-sequitur is in fact deeply necessary to keep his house of cards from falling. We see this dynamic all over the place. The “you can’t tell me not to date-rape” gutterpunk who wraps himself in the trappings of the “occult” and carries a passionate grudge against “science”. The preening social capitalist who loves to manipulate through emotion and fervently believes that there are — or should be — limits to reason and consideration.
The moment any constancy or structure is admitted to be found in the world the game of value-nihilism becomes unsalvageable. If radicalism — intellectual vigilance — is remotely coherent and efficacious, then it becomes emergent from caring. One has desires and so one puts in intellectual consideration to satiate them. New discoveries propagate updates to one’s motivating desires, and one grows to recognize more just how critical having a better map of the world’s structure is. One’s endless ontological update crises gradually dissolve any extended rigid sense of self. A runaway compounding process happens and all other values fall away to radicalism itself. What different discursive traditions term vigilance, epistemic rationality, consciousness, and even freedom. The storm of recursion and meta-cognition that gives us ‘agency’.
Now one can get into a huge conversation about the occasional optimality of irrational/nonthinking strategies or habits within certain local contexts, and one can also claim that there are other emergent desires/values. I do not want to belabor the point too far by arguing specific structures. The takeaway is more important than any particulars: we have good reason to believe there is some structure to the space of possible values. After all, it would be a strange and unusual random network that was perfectly symmetrical, with no unique attractors or flows. Why should reality be so perfectly ordered as to be precisely meaningless?
There is no proof that the asymptotic endpoint of inquiry implies a perfect symmetry between values. There is no proven nihilist abyss, merely a phantasmal myth of one. Similarly what does it matter where our prompts for inquiry originate, or what precise historical cruft came attendant? One could posit infinite other starting points — the structural dynamics generating convergences in our meta-desires are broader than a precise historical path. To reject this is the same as to rejecting all induction. Again: value nihilism is inherently dependent upon epistemological nihilism.
How would anyone sincerely arrive at the ‘conclusion’ of nihilism? How has this even been a thing? Anti-intellectualism is certainly widespread but it’s not like there are loads of people who take it to the point of openly ideologically worshiping the abolition of consciousness. Such absurdities clearly only emerge defensively.
A lot has been said about the inseparability of nihilism from the context of Christianity, inheriting its frameworks and philosophical assumptions even while it attempts to rebel — for example totally failing to even conceive of any notion of “ethics” or ought or “meaning” that doesn’t look like divine command. And since obviously, no, we’re not going to find any giant flaming letters on the side of a cliff telling us ‘I order you to do such and such, your purpose should be this‘, those who have never imagined anything beyond must surely feel some vertigo upon realizing this. Intellectually malnourished, those raised within such blinders naturally tend to respond by seeking some new shallow but immediately graspable certainty to fill the place God once occupied: all values are arbitrary! This too is simple and straightforward and helps salve the panic of uncertainty, assuages the pressure to do the hard work of investigation and exploration.
In the case of those working from the most moribund traditions of philosophy the whole affair often inherits a strange and false notion of “what meaning is” and how it arises. It’s an almost classical western mistake — a tendency to think in terms of a first-order understanding of linguistic claims rather than in terms of patterns of relations. The need for some kind of starting point, some ur-axiom, directly stateable in language, that is perfectly true, and universally self-evident in a totally unassailable way. Sure you’re not going to find that, at least at first-order — all language is a contingent network — but you can nevertheless find emergent patterns or meta-flows within that network. Is this “truth”? Centuries of philosophers going on tangential quibbles have shown the term to provide an unedifying frame. Indeed the use of such a word, “truth”, seems prone to the discretizing tendencies of human language in a particularly severe all-or-nothing way.
But of course that’s the whole game. Nihilism lives on the over-simplifying of depressed minds in retreat. There’s a deep reason the philosophical concept of “nihilism” has become in much common parlance a mere stand-in for “despair”. Just because the model you were working from turns out to be wrong doesn’t mean there is no better model to be found. Yet depression has an interesting effect on how we perform induction or pattern-recognition. It shrinks the scope of our attention and working memory and demolishes the dynamic complexity of our picture of the world, so we’re reduced to comparing between only very simple models, often at a level of abstraction where simplicity in explanation is unreasonable. Whittled down to these few remaining explanations some particularly simple and dire ones seem incontestable. “I’m a loser,” “nothing can be done,” that kind of thing. Superficial abstractions papering over rich underlying dynamics into a short narrative. Every single piece of data in our lives, every experience can be funneled through this lens, and it often does better than any of the other superficial alternative explanations we, in our despair, have the mental capacity to conjure, and so we trace over it, ingraining it again and again.
In this same vein the often attendant nihilist “critiques” of hope are always trivial affairs, tilting at strawmen.
What would it matter if the probability of good things was very low? How would that necessarily change anything about our values, goals, or motivations? Hope and despair are mere psychological affects, frames of mind or emotion we can always choose to adopt either of in any situation. Nothing is ever known with literal 100% certainty and thus there’s always coursing veins of possibilities that can be ferreted out. Sometimes it’s strategic to start out thinking about ways we could win, other times it’s strategic to start out thinking about ways we could lose. These are just differing search algorithms. Anyone with a little self-knowledge and freedom to reflect can choose to switch between them as need be. Both, of course, can have their failure modes — overconfident limited scope or listless unimaginativeness — but so what. You can ham-fist any strategy.
In the laziest most generic sense, “nihilism”, often just signifies a kind of PTSD from malformed experiments with hope. But in particular, a ridiculous kind of hope that’s not a forward-searching of possibility but just a false-certainty: motivating yourself by delusions of assured victory.
Consider just how weird it is that anyone would ever need to be assured of victory to pursue certain things. Such a need betrays that the ends sought are not being valued in-and-of-themselves. If a revolution is the only way to achieve freedom and you value freedom then you will obviously pursue it no matter how marginal your chance of success. But if what you really value isn’t freedom but something else or some other bundle of things that might be satiated some other way — if freedom for you is only another means to those ends rather than an end in itself — then the unlikeliness of revolutionary victory is relevant. (This is no doubt why the would-be-commissars of Marxism ranted so much about the inevitability of their victory. Without such certainty they would have resorted to seeking quite different paths to the power and privilege they really desired.)
Having overreached by convincing themselves that victory was assured there’s an impulse to course-correct in the opposite direction. This avoids any deep probing questions of one’s values, their dependencies, primacy and weightings. Following the same example as before, if freedom is taken to be outright impossible — rather than merely unlikely to be achieved — then it would be incoherent to continue to value it. With such a move one is saved from a true accounting of one’s motivations.
That this is lazy as fuck is the whole game.
Such ‘nihilism’ leads one to assign literally zero likelihood to events rather than a small percentage because it’s really just an enunciation of depression. A kind of ideological framework of over-simplification to wrap comfortingly around collapsing mental health.
It has been widely said in various ways that “there’s no point in debating nihilism, all you can do is provide therapy” and this folk ‘nihilism’ that defines itself in contrast with ‘hope’ seems to lend that credence. Not a philosophical argument or position so much as a psychological one. A state of feels. We might then view such ‘nihilism’ in something like sociological terms alone, as an affective state that causes people to cluster together until tribal effects take over, promoting various incantations that reinforce this shared bonding experience. There’s a kind of relief in this evaluation: That the incantations of this ‘nihilism’ don’t work as rigorous or radical philosophy might simply be to read them in the wrong context.
Yet this is probably a bit too optimistic.
Sure, there’s undoubtedly some sense in which many casually professed ‘nihilists’ are just faddish fashionistas of depression for whom the philosophical arguments the spout are only so much flak. But similar is often true for many philosophies. It would be a mistake to assume that because prominent numbers do not take a philosophy they represent seriously therefor no one does. Or that the ideology itself has no bite in practice.
Nihilism, as we’ve seen, is in every incarnation a philosophy of anti-intellectualism. From the preemptive dismissal of any inquiry further into our models or values, to quixotic requests that we hold no structure in our minds, to fetishized depression. Nihilism can operate specific to some locale or flavor of thought, but what’s common across all these permutations is a penchant for over-simplification — a search for excuses to fend off intellectual vigilance and the pains that sometimes accompany. Nihilism is a staunch faith in there being no reason to think further. The various arguments for why are not support so much as window draping.
And of all ideologies ‘nihilism’ is one of the most widespread. It has seen incredible success and widespread mention. And no wonder, it’s a stripped down and more directly exposed version of what was at the heart of so many other religions and ideologies. Thinking further, thinking systemically, rigorously, deeply — thinking radically — is a waste of time.
One need not look long for what ends such a tendency serves. The negation of radical inquiry has always been reaction.
The purest nihilists are rapacious stock market bros and casual genocidaires. Rapists and abusers. Every inane garden variety sociopath is a nihilist by nature. And perhaps we might also count the suicides and a spattering of those hardened misanthropes who are filled with a need to snuff out all the noise, color, and complexity of a world filled with thought and agency.
Nihilism suffuses us. It smothers our world, propping up decaying structures and values left and right.
It is not an acid or an abyss, capable of devouring anything. Rather, nihilism is the strongest glue there is — an embrace of contradiction, a self-distraction, a refusal to systematically reflect — a glue capable of holding together absurdities through preemptive strikes against cognition itself. This glue has historically held fast entire empires and churches. Its purest and most flagrant expression being the Fascists who were happy to hug contradictions when they were useful in pursuing droll and bestial desires. For the nihilist or fascist any allowed intellectualism is always a defensive move. An ‘ethical’ appeal today, its negation tomorrow, whatever serves their shallow ends. Theory is only tolerated insofar as it serves one’s aims, it is never allowed to surprise and challenge. Sincere inquiry is entirely alien.
Into this nihilist world have loudly arrived a few johnny-come-latelys, today a handful of academics and punks who’ve been coddled by liberalism and academia, and who thus somehow experience the notion of nihilism as a novelty rather than — as for the rest of us — the all-too-ever-present and noxious ideology behind the cruel grins of all the abusers we’ve ever faced. These jokers arrive too late in their lives to be any good at nihilism, having been long outpaced by the millions of sociopaths native to it, and all they can really use it for is to fend off any pesky intersections with their conscience or serious intellectual engagement in potentially impactful directions. Instead they choose to spiral out in performative displays. One can interrogate the full context and content of their pronouncements, the most popular currents, the people behind them, and what values or orientations need such cloaking as to warrant a defensive move as puerile as nihilism. In the specific case of the anarchist milieu in recent years the obvious answer is a confluence of burnout and conscienceless social capitalism, but here we find it hard not to trend a tad more biting, other authors have already covered this territory, and I’d prefer to leave my far more vicious thoughts on them to separate essays addressing specific currents.
What’s important and independent of such local permutations, is the character of nihilism. What they channel so glibly is not neutral, it has intrinsic affiliations and aims.
Whether unconscious or conscious, nihilism serves as a defensive chaff thrown up by folks who value certain things and don’t want to risk either exposing those values or having them change. Explicit and vocal nihilism is a kind of doubling down: Gleefully embracing contradiction enables both hiding what is really meant from scrutiny and erecting barriers to legibility as a way of reinforcing social hierarchies of access. At the same time that nihilism uses the arbitrary complexity of incoherence to distract it also excuses a shrinking of one’s attention, a collapsing of one’s desires and models of the world, from the more complex to the more immediate. Until one merely reacts, as might a kicked rock, rather than reflecting and choosing.
Nihilism is death. The erosion of agency and choice. A rot that replaces the living, searching, feeling of the mind with disconnect and fossilization. It severs one’s lines of engagement, helps support walls to fend off the outside world. In this sense it perhaps perfectly achieves the perverse notion of negative freedom, or freedom-from. It provides a perfect sort of pickling where-one-stands. Preserving some distorted semblance of life, albeit still and trapped, at least until the bottle finally breaks and one’s suspended corpse is released to rot. This may constitute some sort of ‘defense’, but only that.
Nihilism is incapable of real destruction just as it refuses to engage in creation. In the end it serves only to preserve what exists. Its retreat from structure to indifference blurs the world into a formless single grey, blinding us entirely from possibility. To change things, to act, to have choice, is inherently to reflect, to press against the world, take in its texture and structure, and to build upon that. To be free — in a positive sense of freedom-to — is first and foremost to be able to explore and trace the network of what is possible. Freedom requires engaging with possibility, nihilism denies it. In nihilism’s ideological rejection of radical inquiry — its blind faith that further thought will ultimately reveal nothing but endless formless grey — it ultimately seeks to suppress all living motion in our minds and thus in the world.
It is thus without polemic but with solemnity that we must conclude:
Nihilism is, in the final accounting, fascism. Both its necessary seed and its most purified expression.
A Quick And Dirty Critique Of Primitivist & AntiCiv Thought
When I was six-years-old my anarchist dad smuggled me a copy of Jurassic Park against my mom’s prohibitions. “When you can read it, you can read it,” he said, and within a year I had not only learned every last word, I’d read my fraying copy cover to cover dozens of times in the boring waits at homeless shelters, soup kitchens and welfare offices. Surrounded by a filthy concrete dystopia I read again and again with wide eyes as the Cassandra character inveighed against rigid systems of control as prone to diminishing returns and inevitable catastrophe, spoke about how hunter gatherers worked far less and played far more. I was hooked. Between survivalist day camps and Zerzan tracts at the used bookstore primitivism gave me wonderful ammunition against the myriad tyrannies that littered my existence, from elementary school to the hustles of poverty. These too shall fall, I contented myself. I played in the tiny forest behind the projects we came to live in and loathed the corruption that crept in. I pulled up concrete and broke car windows with my friends.
But mostly I continued to read.
And gradually, slowly, I started to recognize other dynamics at play, other possibilities, and more solid or rooted critiques of power. The claims of John and company started to sour. I realized they were less and less substantiated, clear-cut or sweeping. And, as the points I still agreed with were made in ever more disingenuous or opportunistic rhetoric, I felt betrayed. I began consciously parting ways with primitivism while fighting in the streets of Seattle in ’99. I’d grown too audacious to settle for the limited values, blueprints & strategies of primitivism, and it was clear there was no going back.
The same insatiable love for the natural universe that prompted me to fall in love with the forests of Cascadia ended up taking me to theoretical physics. And when I look back at primitivism what I see now seems ever more cold and unrecognizable. Bros chortling about and encouraging the death of billions. Open anti-intellectualism and unbelievably shoddy arguments. Awkward ethical frameworks as well as misunderstandings of anthropological and archaeological records. There are exceptions to be sure — the occasional intellectually vigilant, analytic and sincere individual burnt out and hedging her bets. But Primitivism as a whole? I don’t see the arrival of authoritarian psuedo-Maoist cults, John retreating to openly embrace “spiritualism”, and murderous idiots who think lobbing the term “modernism” is a meaningful argument, are disconnected from the underlying rot.
I wrote on this subject a decade ago, but my approaches were directed at the theoretical formulations of primitivism I found most substantive at the time. For whatever reason — and perhaps for the worse — those currents have since mostly died out. Today the landscape is even more ideologically fractured and many have retreated to a nebulous “anti-civ” position that inherits most of the primitivist framework while remaining loose enough to duck most criticism. But while those identify as anti-civ may individually break with some aspects of primitivism, without any of the frameworks or narratives of primitivism, there wouldn’t be an anti-civ position to speak.
Core to the term “anti-civ” itself is a sweeping impression of “civilization” that is intensely problematic and lends itself to overly simplistic narratives. Primitivism is rife with this kind of irreductionist handwaving that dreams up big monsters from loose associations and gives them agency as magical forces acting on the macroscale, shaping every particular. Following an approach that Ellul openly termed “monism”, primitivism refuses to pick these spooks apart, to recognize any conflict between or latitude in the configuration of their constituent dynamics. Everything is seen as inextricably woven into a whole that acts according to a simple narrative. Such a conspiratorial mode of thought is basically just a doubling down on Marxism, replacing “capitalism” with even broader and more abstract monsters of “technology” and “civilization”. These tales are often explicitly anti-radical in their disdain for getting at the root components.
This reactionary tendency prompts the leveling of normative appeals in terms of broad macroscopic impressions or intuition pumps rather than concretely rooted ethical arguments. Primitivism isn’t an analysis so much as a story. And to function it thus requires a pruning away of complications, never searching beyond the frame or terms of the macroscopic narrative. It happily collects piles of supporting factoids, claims, and even concrete points. But since what matters most are the broad impressions, any specific critique one might level against a given claim is easily sidestepped by just switching to new claims. Tackling primitivism effectively first requires stepping up to the level of generality it operates in — critiquing classes, categories, or trends of arguments within primitivist discourse so as to leave no ground to retreat to, to box in any specific argument from all sides. Only then can we get down into the weeds about the possibilities and dynamics of endless particulars like coltan mining.
The mainstream definition of technology is basically “ways of doing stuff.” And so it’s inclusive of language, knowledge, equations, tactics, heuristics, tools, and even our bodies. Any conceivable means or avenue by which one might act or accomplish something.
Yet in common use “technology” has come to accumulate stronger associations with a subset of these means — ipods and bulldozers rather than ballet exercises or vocal chords. This “technology” is a weird bundle of things, more an aesthetic of physical objects than anything substantive. Is it grey? Does it have metal in it? Corners?
There are a lot of new means that have been developed since industrialization, but average people don’t tend to refer to whiteboards or yoga as “technologies”. Instead there is a very distinct narrative of progress that is widely sold to us by our rulers and it places shit like laptops and cars as the pinnacle of all technologies — to the point where every other means of doing things is implicitly derided. Similarly although “machine” can mean virtually anything with noticeable sub-dynamics that uses energy to do things, we don’t tend to refer to mallard ducks or squirt guns as “machines.” There’s an implicit teleology baked into the way we use these terms.
Primitivists frequently take this looser impression or narrative as their starting point rather than the broader if more concrete definition. And they’ve sought different definitions of technology alongside different analyses to try and better explain these associations. But I am not sure that there’s ultimately any real coherence or substance to the popular bias in our use. There is a sense that we “know technology when we see it” and yet this really does seem to appeal to nothing more than an aesthetic strand with a rather random lineage. The popular impression is arbitrary in various ways that are becoming increasingly inescapable and it does seem like we have no choice but to chuck that impression for the more precise and rooted — if broader — definition of means (something it’s impossible to sweepingly reject without rejecting all freedom to act).
While specific thinkers have built specific edifices of claims, in general they tend to take two distinct approaches in forging alternate definitions of “technology” that are narrower than “tools” or “means.” These two loci of alternative definitions are still quite influential to anti-civ thought, and examining them is highly illustrative.
The first of these approaches to defining “technology” is to appeal to the popular intuition in our era of a dichotomy between living things and non-living.
Some things are “alive”, other things are not. It’s a common rule of thumb and biologists at least for a while tried hard to make it a precise taxonomy. But the category of “living” is a notoriously problematic and probably meaningless intuition (are viruses alive? prions? how about stars? why shouldn’t we interpret crystals and rocks as living? where should boundaries be drawn between organisms? between them and their environment?).
On the other hand, unlike “alive”, there’s hope that our impression of “organic” can actually be saved. We can sometimes make a substantive distinction that holds between suppleness or fluidity and rigidity or brittleness. And certainly crassly-developed structures like highways and cars are insanely rigid and brittle. We’ve always had more organic technologies, but it’s certainly true that there’s been noteworthy pressures towards overly rigid technologies, particularly in the industrial era. Most of what is conjured by the term “industrial civilization” are huge infrastructural projects and operations with little to no adaptability. Modern capitalism depends on a lack of dynamic price signals and redistribution; large towering economic and political institutions rely on rigidity, the perpetual maintenance of certain conditions, so they don’t have to calculate and adjust to changing conditions whether ecological or human. And incredible sums of violence and human energy have been expended to maintain certain arbitrary conditions — demand, profit, etc. The rigidity of large infrastructural projects like the highway system, the diverse subsidies of fossil fuels, etc, underpin this social landscape. Rigidity is certainly characteristic of any system conducive to power relations, and the more rigid the more potentially brittle.
It’s easy to tie this to the simple and rock-like gears and mortar of early industrial factories. When we call something “cold and mechanical” the gist of what we’re saying is typically that it’s rigid and overly simple in structure rather that richly complex, engaged and adaptive.
Yet the overwhelming inclination today — even if it may be too late — is to make our tools more fluidly reconfigurable. General purpose computing has always been at root an attempt to escape the rigidities of single-configuration mechanisms. And now the great drive is to make the hardware of computers and other tools more fluid both in function and composition. So that we might construct or tear apart and rebuild them on the fly in our garage or local hackerspace in more decentralized and DIY ways.
Similarly the primitivist impulse to oppose biotechnology doesn’t ultimately square with a definition of technology as rigidity. While humans have always used biotech from cultivating plants long before agriculture to grafting trees, recent developments have given us a great deal more understanding and lattitude in how to reconfigure biological systems, including things like anarchist biohackers getting yeast to produce critical cheese proteins without enslaving cows. While some multinational corporations may surely encourage their engineers and technologists to approach biotech from a rigid perspective — clumsily stitching in random genes with as little knowledge or appreciation for much context beyond immediate trial and error — many clearly do not.
There’s a deep problem here: More degrees of freedom in manipulation and reconfiguration — in action — is the definition of organic fluidity, and so in a very non-trivial sense our drive to better understand things and to have more means of doing things is ultimately a pressure towards more organic tools. Technological development — in the sense of inventions that expand our array of tools to choose from — can clearly be aligned in a positive direction. Indeed, when older or simpler technologies aren’t stomped out by power structures and newer technologies aren’t censored or filtered, any new invention adds to the array of possible means we have, and thus inherently expands the fluidity of our options.
Following this argument sincerely the conclusion would be that we need wider and more diverse ecosystems of tools, not less. Indeed one quickly comes to realize that the sin of the rigidities of our infrastructure and social systems are the way they suppress technological flourishing.
However the second major primitivist approach to defining “technology” is on its face almost the exact opposite of the organic/inorganic dichotomy: In this lens what’s focused on as the problem is the complexity of various tools and the infrastructures or social context they’re embedded within.
An aside: I’m old enough to remember when the primary green anarchist critique of our technology was that it was too simple or boring and demanded too much rigid focus (that era saw all kinds of fucked up slogans like “only the machines don’t have ADHD” or “civilization is making us autistic” that would never fly today). In the last decade of course the script has almost entirely flipped; now ‘technology’ is more frequently attacked as being inherently too engaging, too complex, and too unfocused. Instead of zoning out forever in front of the “boob-tube” we’re now flitting back and forth between wikipedia and text messages on our phones. Certainly both attitudes represent a meaningful pushback against real tendencies in the tools and norms of their eras, but the leap to define technology “inherently” in such terms is a bit frustrating.
Nevertheless there is some substance to critiques of the complexity of the systems we use. Human brains are astonishingly complex and very plastic, but there are architectural limits to what we can process or keep in conscious attention, not to mention how quickly. We’ve all experienced bad, overly cluttered user interfaces on an app or even bad pedagogical presentations of a topic that require a ton of rewiring in our brains to process. Sometimes this can be like mental stretching — and it can be in different contexts a matter of healthy exercise, or just neutral or marginal. But sometimes to really understand or diligently engage with a system is beyond our present cognitive capacity — and sometimes it’s even beyond beyond any feasible supercomputer. The cryptographic tools that have seen such dizzying success in fighting the NSA are only possible because of inescapable computational limits baked in to our universe by mathematics and physics. Create a sufficiently complex system and it will be beyond the capacity of any central authority or supercomputer to fully know much less control. In so many respects this is true of our present society.
A common refrain in anti-civ discourse is that large scale societies are unnatural and unworkable because we just can’t know everyone the same way we could in small tribes. The relationships and interpersonal drama at play in a tribe of a hundred or so people may be complex, but when scaled up to thousands or millions or billions our puny brains can’t even begin to make heads or tails of everything. And so, the story goes, we move through our lives disconnected and mentally frayed by the incalculable complexity of the society around us. Now it’s certainly true that we can sometimes feel overwhelmed by the staggering diversity of life and feedbacking cultural complexity unleashed by large societies, but there’s an important difference to be highlighted between the invigorating complexity in a new genre of queer hip hop, versus the staggering complexity of a bureaucratic forms in a system denying us food stamps. Power and choice matters. When our lives are forcibly put on the line or when we’re trying to make a difference but have no idea where to start, an overwhelming complex system can be alienating and terrifying, especially when violence is artificially simplifying away our option to not engage. Yet without that pressure complexity becomes delightful and invigorating. Human beings have always held an attraction to complexity. Indeed much of the cross-cultural tendencies we consistently display in response to different visual media has to do with what complex dynamics we are able to discern in them — what organic interplay our brains discern in a forest versus a featureless rocky landscape. Occasionally this childlike hunger for complexity is beaten out of us and we adopt a staid sedentary undeath presented as “adulthood” or “maturity”. But time and time again we’ve strived for greater connection and community beyond the size of mere tribes. Even in places where the land would not permanently sustain it hunter-gatherers would voluntarily come together in the thousands for weeks or months on end, desperately striving to enjoy the benefits of mass society.
A frequently associated notion is that without deep personal knowledge of a person or ties to them we have no reason to care about them. This nihilistic take on ethics is most prominently championed by the terrorist group Individuals Tending Towards Savagery who’ve tried to murder students and anarchists in Mexico City; they explicitly reject and deride feeling compassion for people beyond one’s immediate tribe. The obvious response, that empathy is generalizable and that we can in some very real sense feel compassion for the stranger who stumbles directly in front of us is, I think, rather trivially true and obvious to anyone who isn’t a sociopath. Just as a toddler eventually comes to realize that other people exist, so too are we capable of growing better heuristics and growing more coherent in our intentions, developing not just the capacity to appreciate the existence of people we know through news reports rather than eyesight but to weigh and analyze our impact upon them. Similarly we have gotten extraordinarily good at quickly acclimating to strangers as well as situating them. Happenstance of birth location, language, family, etc are not — and shouldn’t be — a determinant for affinity. It certainly doesn’t reflect what relationships are most fecund for liberatory collaboration and development.
The complexity of our physical tools follows a similar arc. Complexity can be invigorating and it can be terrorizing — what matters are the power dynamics those complexities are embedded within. And there can be healthy ways of managing or navigating our interactions with incredibly complex systems without retreating from all interaction or attempting to artificially flatten them away. Indeed one of the major priorities of power has been to suppress complexity, to limit or prune down the ecology of possible tools to just a few options and impose them universally. To hide away the internals of our tools and external context behind a facade. It should be telling that those realms anarchists have gravitated towards or have pioneered — like open source — have been distinguished by their embrace of complexity. Of course it’s important to retain agency, to be able to select the tools of the appropriate complexity one needs or feels equipped to handle. Where we choose to invest our attention and thus cognitive or symbolic complexity is an important choice and many political or ethical arguments boil down to equally valid personal preferences, preferred realms of tinkering and play. But the complexity imbued within a tool — whether mesh wifi algorithms or prose or a hand-hewn bow — is in no remote sense innately negative.
It’s important to note that the operative word really is “imbued.” While it can be possible to talk of complexity in concrete computational terms like Kolmogorov’s formulation, ‘complexity’ can also matter in intensely subjective and relative terms that don’t necessarily bear a direct relation to fundamental physical limits. Human beings assign symbolic or cognitive complexity in frequently haphazard, situational or anthropocentric ways. We think of our bodies as being “more complex” than coral reefs or gusts of wind, but it’s not remotely clear that there’s any greater computational complexity going on in the molecular dynamics that make us up. There’s a danger of being closer to the subject and thus assigning more attention and conceptual signifiers to it.
Similarly our problem has often been not assigning enough complexity to our interactions with the world. Agriculture is filled with examples of humans constructing insufficiently complex or nuanced approaches. Even horticulture and hunting or foraging almost always involve drastically simplifying the ecological patterns to some structure or framework that’s easy to deal with or model. We’ve often sought to reduce the complexity of the dynamics surrounding us to better keep track of and utilize them and sometimes this ends up being a really bad idea.
If anything the problem has long been that we’ve built tools that aren’t complex enough to handle the complex environments or particulars they contend with.
“Complexity” is often bandied about like a single magical diagnostic for the collapse of historical civilizations, but again the problem becomes what “complexities” we see and name. Cultures can grow complex in insular ways, creating disconnected interpretive nets or languages that barely refer to anything. Additionally, power structures can attempt to awkwardly weld nuances and internal accounting methods into themselves in a desperate attempt to make up for their inadequacies without actually dissolving the core rigidities or imposed simplicities that gird and support their existence. All of that is real, yet the end of the day empires fall because they’re not able to countenance or support the internal complexity necessary for more fluid engagement and adaptation. Indeed past a certain point of complexity empires would cease to be empires, dissolving away into more complex/organic modes.
Our technologies can develop in the direction of insularity — overextending themselves in twists of disconnected and unnecessary complexity — and at the same time they can also overextend themselves in overly simple ways that aren’t responsive to the complex particulars of their environment and users. But additionally they can also integrate fluidly with these considerations. Although power itself often acts to artificially simplify for managerial purposes or to violently sever connections in ways that lead to cancerous insularity, this pressure is distinct and in no way inherent to technology itself. Tools are often embedded in a wider context, but they can also be distinct from that context. A hammer can be made many ways and can function even when the original hammer factory shutters. Many of the things primitivists love to take as ‘fundamental’ to the production of certain technologies are anything but.
Yes, infrastructural realities are incredibly important. The creation of the highway system, for example, has famously driven the normalization of the car form and a huge array of attendant tendencies. The sweeping violence of the state allows it to build artificial mass and scope and thus to impose forms or structures without much regard for their desirability or optimality. Solar steam engines were ready and highly viable two hundred years ago, but were abruptly sidelined permanently when the British Empire happened to conquer a large coal deposit along with a slave populace to mine it. Infrastructural forms feedback in a wide variety of ways with psychology, social norms, and power structures. This much is absolutely true. The community that builds a decentralized network of DIY radio towers stretching between villages to spread word about rapists or attempted marauders is going to have a resultant pressure towards a certain social configuration. Similarly the society that forces people off land to lower the price of oil will be able to use cheaper transportation to facilitate economies of scale, as well as imperial breadth and to suppress the diffusion of alternative technologies by lowering costs.
But it’s vital that we distinguish between applied infrastructure and individual technologies. And between technologies in the standard sense of means or knowledge of how to and actual commodity products. These are distinctions primitivism gleefully wants to handwave away as all inseparable parts of a singular “megamachine”, and blurred together they do make a simpler narrative, but distinguishing them can reveal a lot of critical points and tensions.
There is absolutely no doubt that the vast majority of things that characterize the global infrastructure at present are rotten and must be changed. But we must be diligent in our analysis of it, not merely appeal to the quickest way to present or phrase our resistance.
And the fact of the matter is the increasing complexity of our technology can be incredibly liberatory. Freedom doesn’t lie in simplifying the world around us so that we never have to change ourselves to engage with it. So what if we don’t understand the exact structure and function of every device we use? We typically don’t understand the biochemical structures and functions of the plants we eat. It’s certainly good to be able to understand such dynamics, but all human interaction with the world will inherently involve some pragmatic conceptual abstraction away from underlying complexities. A liberated world would surely be a richly lush and diverse world filled with endless complexities to explore, but not everyone will explore the same things.
The social and technological complexities before us might be new and as yet unsettled into some sort of long-term dynamic equilibrium, but such equilibria are few and far between; the earth’s biosphere itself is always changing. The world described by 18th century biologists looking for a clockwork universe unchanged since set in motion by its creator is a lie — an attempt to make the constant churning of reality more palatable to a staid ruling class, self-domesticated within many walls of imposed simplicity. This kind of violent simplification of the physical world and of human desires and thoughts is necessary for power to act, to even exist. If it is to be taken down we must do more than wait for nature to erode it away, we must embrace the creative fountainheads of engaged fluid complexity within ourselves.
There remains great richness and complexity beyond the harsh walls of suburbia in the flows of our biosphere, and it has significant value, but far greater wildness lies ahead of us should we have the guts to embrace it. To plunge headlong into uncharted waters — developing new tools, new understandings, and new relations. Not insularly disconnected, but connected in a more rich and stunning array of ways.
If there are presently great forces allied against the deepening complexities of the internet era we should be unsurprised, but also undaunted. When presidents, politicians and chiefs of police urge the dismantling of the internet, the repossession or forcible backdooring of every phone and device now grabbed by the masses it’s clear they’re being pressed up against the inescapable reality that complexity is anathema to power and control. But the explosion of culture, connection and code that has been unleashed in the last couple generations has incredible momentum. Our rulers may of course yet succeed in demolishing it, in banning general purpose computing as they want and expending great energy to twist the decentralizing tendencies back into a centralized panopticon, but their victory is hardly assured.
The interplay of our tools can grow complicated beyond any single person or political body’s ability to control — just as is true with our relationships — but this can be a good thing. Anarchists should align ourselves with the uncontrollable.
It must be admitted that a handful of primitivists have caught onto the contradictions attendant to dismissing technology in terms of rigidity and complexity. But some of their responses have been even more horrifying.
Embracing the mainstream definition of “technology” as any means of doing things, some primitivists have let their bile and the momentum of countless narratives run away with their sense and openly concluded in various manners that we should reject attempts to expand our avenues by which to act. Because doing things is itself wrong. Or because the act of trying to find more ways of doing things is wrong. Or because seeking to act outside a strict script is deplorable. Or because trying to exercise more ‘control’ over your tools or shaking fingers and thus have more options in life is the same as trying to ‘control’ other people by removing their options.
In these approaches agency itself is set up as the enemy of primitivism. This often comes with a strong embrace of an essentialistic “human nature”, or role that we are obliged to fill.
Conscious thought? Deliberation? Inquiry? Creative exploration of paths? These are taken as violations or perversions from our set path. Thinking, reflection itself, is taken as a corrupting tendency that must be rejected because it can lead bad places. In this frame of mind the only “real freedom” is to turn ourselves into limited and simple automatons — animals that never lift their heads to think beyond the immediate to engage with wider context or make informed choices. A kind of Orwellian freedom from freedom. This is often closely tied to anti-intellectual currents within the scene. In particular an intensely reactionary tendency that abandons and derides the intellect and diligent consideration as useless dead-ends. This current is obviously fascistic and closely mirrors the patterns in fascism’s historical development. But its precise language of surrender is tailored to anarchist language.
“We’ve tried using technology and look at the mess we’re in nonetheless” logically becomes “we’ve tried thinking about things and look at the mess we’re in nonetheless.” Thinking is seen as hopeless and totally ineffective, a masturbatory waste of time that can only lead one down false paths. A rejection of technology is inevitable from this perspective. Not just smartphones but music, language, tactics, strategy, etc. The corruption of large parts of the primitivist scene to anti-civ nihilism has been the inevitable result.
Of course there are still many who don’t fetishize the undeath of immediatism and don’t entirely or openly embrace the obligation to follow some biological script. But they often still inherit and invoke teleological notions in ways that add up to the same thing — personifying unthinking natural systems as having fundamental orientations or goals in themselves that must be respected. To alter a river’s course is violence against the sacred, and thus beavers are denying the “freedom” of the river. Since sacredness acts as a cognitive stop there’s no point in teasing apart the contradictions or arbitrary distinctions this sort of thinking engenders. A lot of hunter gatherer societies are animists, after all, and so it’s a short step for your local oogle to suddenly start talking in terms of the spirits of things and how anything he doesn’t like is “disrespectful” to fictitious entities in his head. How does one determine just what those spirits want? Well outside of rituals to promote an arbitrary consensus perspective through social pressures, there’s no answer. To appeal to science in anything less than shallow and opportunistic ways is to invoke yet another castigated demon.
I have little patience or hope for those ensnared in this worldview. They cannot be reached. And I illuminate this tendency merely as a precautionary reductio ad absurdum for those not yet pushed near its event horizon by a need to justify bad associations with “technology”. There is sadly no reaching those who deny and reject thought itself.
“Okay,” say some of the anti-civ folks, “fine fine fine, we admit that technology is a thorny subject and maaaybe there’s a place for you nerds with your windmills and wifi routers in the ruins. But surely we can all agree that the entire edifice of our existing world is the product of a single horrific leviathan, a genocidal chain-reaction set off in prehistory with the mistake of agriculture and that is as unsustainable as it is totalitarian.”
There is a degree of truth to this tale.
The moment the last Ice Age ended the archaeological record we have sees a veritable explosion of population, agriculture and cities. As a consequence new, larger scale power structures became possible, characterized by more persistent relations. And through various means of conquest such organisms eventually grew to dominance and replicated around the world. But the story isn’t as clean-cut as the conventional Primitivist narrative. In particular, the claim that large numbers of people associating in one place (cities) inescapably equates oppression is tenuous at best.
We know a lot more now than Zerzan and Perlman did back in the 70s, and there wasn’t some 1:1 instantaneous relation between the advents of agriculture, cities and large scale social hierarchies in the archaeological record. There was agriculture in various senses without cities, cities without agriculture, cities and agriculture without hierarchy. At best there’s so far been a tendency towards certain associations, but the precise causality is blurry to say the least. Without access to the actual historical mechanisms it’s hard to claim there are no alternatives. Additionally there are relatively few truly distinct strands of empire in the historical record, so we don’t have fully separable case studies. And the scant handful of millennia since the ice age hasn’t presented more than a few iterations of these macroscopic organisms and their lifecycles — not enough time to draw any clear or solid rules about the phase space of possible configurations.
It’s true that with the surpluses and stores of agriculture you can sustain larger ruling classes and marauding hordes. The emergence of macroscopic power structures focused on permanent enslavement over larger and larger regions rather than occasional raiding — of persistent abuse rather than intermittent — was connected with the emergence of persistent social contact and agriculture. But there were thousands and thousands of years in which the ties binding city, agriculture, and hierarchy hadn’t been normalized. From findings in the Levant we know that plants were being systemically cultivated as far back as twenty thousand years ago. Much more history has been lost in the Amazon and Sub-Saharan Africa thanks to their modern climates; who is even to say what existed during the supposed hunter-gatherer period of the ice age. But the moment the ice caps started to retreat incredibly large populations came together in Britain to explore astronomy, contorting themselves to achieve the cultural complexities of large scale society even without agriculture. Great plains Native Americans would voluntarily come together in vast numbers, straining for the benefits of greater connectivity despite the limits of the land. Similarly the early pastoralist city of Catolhyuk had a population orders of magnitude above Dunbar’s Number and was notably egalitarian. Starkly egalitarian city societies without evidence of authority can be found throughout the archaeological record. From Cayonu’s social revolution 9000 years ago that lasted two thousand years to the highly advanced Harrapans contemporaneous with the empires on the Nile, Tigris and Eurphrates.
Until recently the historical record has been almost exclusively written by the most bloodthirsty conquerors and their perspectives are a terrible foundation for analysis. But even what record they left is clearly riddled with indications of exterminated resistant societies and maroons/pirate utopias.
The impulse to nevertheless write these missing chapters of our history out because they didn’t “win” fundamentally mistakes what power and anarchy are. Just because one complex of power relations managed to plant its flags around the world doesn’t mean the anarchistic currents it tried to digest in the process were in any sense vanquished. The presence of a flag or the locals now wearing western clothing doesn’t in any sense equate the victory of empire.
We live in a more highly connected global society to be sure but there are deep contestations over the degree and nature of its structure. These contestations, these tensions, have grown incredibly complex as everyone on the planet has joined in pitched battle. There are a great many swirling strategic advances and defeats happening all around us.
The fact that we have increased our interconnectivity and cultural complexity — whether through strands carrying the coercive imprint of neoliberalism or on our own terms in the other direction in ways that resist power dynamics as with Somali communities hacking together cellphone networks or Congolese villagers and nomads DIYing radio networks to collaborate to suppress marauders and rapists — does not equate surrender to an imperial logic.
The forces of power are quite showy today, but they are not always necessarily stronger or more repressive in effect. The radical milieu has a bad tendency to appeal to sweeping cynicism and desperation out of fear that anything less cartoonish than “everything is terrible and getting worse” won’t be persuasive at rallying ourselves and others. The abolition of chattel slavery and the transatlantic slave trade? A meaningless spectacle! Everyone knows wage labor in sweatshops etc around the world is so much worse! And the prison population is larger in real terms, even if radically smaller in percentage! We end up aggressively, rabidly blind to improvements. As others have noted, this fetishization often leaves us befuddled and incapable of response when we start winning.
It’s a bad idea to take the ostensible “reach” or “size” of an empire as a measure of its strength and oppression. The size of a patch of color on a map is no indication of its power. Just as often it is the case that “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away”; for all their spectacle of might ‘larger’ empires are often more ephemeral. Indeed a world government could well be an improvement over the 200 or so interlockingly viciously competitive, redundant and locally-attentive nationstates we have today. Better to have distant and confused bureaucrats than the personal attention of small town cops. Regime or system collapses, when they come, are often reorganizations to be more efficient at protecting and deepening power relations themselves. Civil war between fractured fiefdoms has long been a great means to re-strengthen the game theoretic conditions used to justify power. The general computational efficiencies of decentralization can mean things like Rwanda’s genocide being more efficient than that of the Third Reich. When the Roman Empire fell the Vandals actually governed their sections of the old empire more effectively.
While the modern nationstate ecosystem is unparalleled in many horrific aspects, our highly connected mass society has also been incredibly conducive to anarchistic forces in culture and infrastructure. All the more potent for being explicitly conscious of their intentions and vigilant in pursuit of more anarchistic ends than mere egalitarianism.
Yes, technological advances have upped the stakes in the conflict between power and freedom. And “city culture” can be blamed insofar as it provides people the connections and depth of experience necessary to develop technologies. But the historical arc of “civilization” hardly represents a single beast but a complex battlefield of differing forces.
Viewing history in terms of the development of a singular “city-culture” that bundles in a dozen things is in so many ways a tale invented to clean things up in hindsight. It obscures the more salient degrees of freedom and tensions that existed in prior eras and wraps up a vast array of historical dynamics with a single relatively teleological bow.
If civilization is just any tendency for people to aggregate in large numbers it’s hard to assign any negative value to that. And disingenuous to claim that the macroscale power structures that dominate today are the inherent result of such.
The wild dishonesty of primitivist ideologues making pie-in-the-sky claims about hunter gatherer societies has already been widely noted. It’s no fun shooting fish in a barrel when they retreat to claiming magical sources of knowledge. But it must be said that if our hunger for much larger communities has brought into greater relief the old psychologies of dehumanization and selfishness that have spawned violence and power relations in nearly all human societies, so much the better. I prefer our enemies and idols be dragged into the daylight where they can be staked dead, rather than let perpetually rustle and lurk behind the interpersonal relationships of small communities from whom we have little alternative or escape.
Lastly it’s worth touching on the attempted definition or identification of civilization with the importing of resources. As if individual human beings and ecosystems don’t ‘import’ resources — what an arbitrary distinction! This notion of cities as black holes on the map that can only suck from an indentured peasantry is a contentless rhetorical appeal. What cities (or non geographically defined large aggregates of highly-connected people) produce is cognitive/cultural/technological complexity, which is why people consistently voluntarily trade and associate with cities when no tax or threat of force is present. Similarly the appeal to the scale of energy flows on a map is barely worth responding to. Not only is such a distinction intensely arbitrary, but that kind of footprint has been before and is being once again decoupled from the wider social connectivity represented by cities. Are primitivists really going to stop calling points of dense urbanity “cities” or “civilization” when they grow/collect all their food/energy on site in vertical farms? Similarly an anarchy of highly networked but ecologically isolated hollowed out asteroids presses the superficial bundling of impressions that is “civilization”.
We can all agree that environmental devastation is generally negative. And yet it is precisely our push towards wider social connectivity — our globalized perspective — that has finally given us much deeper appreciations for the context of our actions. Hunter gatherers were blind to the externalities of their actions that didn’t result in relatively immediate environmental pressures. The mass networking, expanded knowledge and social options launched by cities offers a much better way.
Yes, this great messy experiment — this orgy of unleashed human thought and options in our relations — has raised the stakes and brought clarity to many perpetual struggles. But dense connectivity, having a multitude of options for collaboration and communication beyond a relatively static tribe, is not the same thing as the rigidity of empire.
We have always lied, withheld information, manipulated, positioned, threatened, and used physical force to constrain and direct each other’s options. Power relations followed us to the cities, but the history of our war with them is not a clean arc. We do not live in the belly of an all-encompassing beast. Rather our lives are found moment by moment on the edges of crossed swords. We are swirling in an intensely complicated and vast battlefield. The great connectivity of cosmopolitan urbanity is one of anarchy’s greatest victories. It has drawn our enemies like locusts. But to retreat, fall apart and scatter to the wind — to be run down and cornered alone once again by more attentive power relations in small tribes with fewer avenues of escape — is to abandon all hope or pretense of resistance.
Our Core Desires
The most frustrating thing about debate in terms like “civilization” and “technology” is that it confines our discourse to a very high level of macroscopic abstraction. And this naturally obscures deeper or more fundamental arguments over values and goals. I dislike this mode of theorizing immensely because it avoids a more direct or honest grappling between different perspectives on ethics and motivations, often to disingenuous effect.
For example when primitivists spew invective about “specialization” what they’re effectively targeting is diversity. All of us specialize, that’s the nature of individuality and subjectivity. Our experiences, our interests and knowledge bases inherently diverge insofar as we have any agency, any creativity, any inquiry, any latitude to roam. And it is through interacting that we benefit from others’ differences and uniquenesses. There will always be some things we can only accomplish in collaboration. So when primitivists sweepingly claim that it’s specialization that makes modern technology bad, they’re implicitly asserting that a certain type of “individuality” — self-sufficient autonomy — is better than another type of “individuality” — intellectual agency. That negative freedom is good and positive freedom bad. But all of these fundamental dynamics are hidden underneath heavily framed and leveraged examples. The full ramifications of such a sweeping allegiance to anti-specialization are hidden from first glance. That’s the nature of this kind of discourse.
The Problem with technology is that it “mediates” our interaction with reality, someone declares. But the air, photons, our skin, our cortical neurons, etc don’t? — It’s too late, this new rationalization for opposing technology has been grasped. And now that person finds themselves locked into the logical ramification of their position. What is mediation but chains of filters or processes? What is abstract thinking or pondering, but precisely this: interceding in the normal causal sequence of stimulation and reaction. Thinking is the problem! Doing due diligence rather than reacting immediately! Death to thinking! Death to the meta-abstraction inherent in consideration and judgement! What we want is lives lived in the absolute present! Fuck making plans! No considering anything in depth or at length! Ultimately the most important things you should value is “directness” and “immediacy”! Anything else is just disconnected fluff! By painting the barriers and inefficiencies we happen to grapple with in our particular context with a broad stroke (“mediation”) the primitivist undergoes a kind of ideological collapse until their ultradense framework allows no escape, no further cognitive motion or critique. Obviously, as psychological advice within a limited context, a greater degree of grounding or awareness of the present can be useful, but when people try to build full-fledged philosophies out of “living in the moment” the only result is death worship. A rock “lives in the moment” — the moment I prod it it moves. It is the mental recursion, the internal modeling, the exploration of possibilities before acting, the knowledge of broader context, that gives us agency.
There are quite significant normative statements being glossed over in different primitivist analyses. Sweeping claims and associations quickly grow into a dense thicket, both giving cover for and boxing people into absurd positions, all while the underlying roots are left unexamined.
What do we or should we most value or desire at core?
Primitivists are prone to trotting a litany of claims about the lives of hunter gatherers. They were happier. They were super healthy Adonises. They had sex all the time. They even saw the moons of Saturn with their bare eyes. It’s like a commercial for a new toothpaste. If they could find a way to claim primitivism will make people’s penises bigger I’m sure they’d try.
These claims can of course be disputed — in terms of how cherry-picked their examples are, how inherently specious anthropological accounts of ‘happiness’ are, how they cavalierly dismiss horrors like hunger, and to what degree primitive life’s success along these metrics can be superseded through other means — but I think this is the wrong approach. I don’t really care whether living as a primitive will give me a bigger cock. Why should we care about these superficialities? If mere happiness was the totality of our aspirations we could simply hook ourselves up in vats of heroin.
What do we value or desire at the root of our ethics/motivation? What do we desire to desire, or desire to desire to desire?
Even if happiness is something that we desire or should desire, is it ALL we want or should want? And if not happiness is there something else inherent to the being of anyone capable of examining and restructuring their desires — some kind of natural prescription that we might follow or revolt against to our doom? This is a harder question because it requires an identification, a settling on some particularly relevant definition of what we should identify with or what we should value.
Our brains have changed over the last two million years — even the last ten thousand — childlike traits like inquisitiveness emphasized and extended. A long arc towards fighting off the relative deadness and complacency of adulthood. Humans are at present a weird inseparable jumble of Pleistocene creature and radically new stuff; we are a number of contradictions physiologically with no underlying objective directive baked in.
Those who can conceive of nothing beyond a very superficial naturalistic fallacy might say that humans are defined by serving some niche role as gears in an broader machine/ecosystem. But how do we go about determining what that role is from the vast variety of possible reads on it?
The ‘purpose’ of humanity might equally well be taken to be to serve as a cleansing virus — getting in a long-overdue mass extinction event so evolution can be sped up (there is after all no ecological imperative towards equilibrium). Or maybe the neotenic arc we’ve taken in retaining our childlike inquiry and creativity is an evolutionary catastrophe utterly at odds with the broader biosphere and we should all stop thinking, stop exercising our childlike inquiry, or even just kill each other off! Or maybe we’re the whole point of the sudden singularity of this Phanerozoic eon, a way for life to jump off this planet in a kind of ecological succession on the grandest scale, spinning up asteroids, seeding comets, rebuilding Mars from desolation, and turning the stars green.
Or maybe the relevant category isn’t what mere ecological niche we fill, but our existence as striving minds, dynamic neural networks modeling the world around them — as children struggling not to be vanquished by the sedentary, dying circuits of adults. Honestly I think this one rings the strongest. As inquiring, engaged, creative minds we don’t just ignore limitations, we’ve actively resisted and overcome them for as long as we have existed. Indeed creativity and inquiry seem in so many ways to lie at the core of liberty, of thinking, of existing. And for most of history the creatives, the scientists and the like have been situated in positions of resistance to power. Occasionally power structures learned how to eat them or incorporate them, but inevitably these methods fail and you get major politicians on tv demanding the effective abolition of science or the internet.
My point with these examples is we need to be clear about what sort of perspective or motivation we’re appealing to. And how that shakes out. It’s not enough to make broad references to “happiness” or “the earth”.
And yet — like Marxism — Primitivism largely ducks addressing our foundational ethics head-on; it avoids making any concrete arguments for why we should value the things it appeals to. The idea being that its target audience will probably have accumulated some loose positive associations with the things it invokes (green things feel good!) and so appealing to them should be good enough. But note that this is a decidedly non-radical approach.
And all the arguments in the world that technology or civilization may have certain downsides are entirely beside the point if those downsides are in different areas from one’s most core values.
My most core value is vigilance. I don’t see how one can speak of any sort of coherent ethics or care without it. In fact it was vigilance that attracted me to the arguments of primitivism two decades ago — concern with the lack of due diligence and consideration to the dynamics and externalities of our industrial society. But at the end of the day what primitivism ultimately represents is an abandoning of vigilance. The world of the permanent collapse is world in which our inquiry into the universe — the depth of our engagement with nature — can never progress past a certain level. A world in which the array of means (technologies) we might consider are permanently and starkly limited. In which we are cut off from the richness of most others’ thoughts and confined to tiny prisons of localism.
These deep tradeoffs to its prefigurative world are horrifying enough, but the primitivist ideology that has shaken out to defend that prescription bends inescapably towards a vicious anti-intellectualism.
Distilled, primitivism is the very opposite of radical thinking. In its reactionary embrace of an Orwellian negative freedom implicitly centered around a biological essentialism it has mutated into a mockery of anarchism. The portrait of “freedom” as some unperturbed static natural state of being to be defended bears only the loosest of linguistic ties with the positive freedom — the freedom to — of anarchy. What the popular notion of collapse represented in Jensen’s “Endgame” — where almost all technological options are irrevocably banished — really presents is the ultimate prison. One so absolute as to need no further guards.
In this we must recognize primitivism as functionally serving to carry the tradition of domestication and sedentary life to its apex: a final desperate attempt to exterminate the rich Cambrian explosion of lush cultural and intellectual complexity that accompanied increased social connectivity and options in affinity. An extinction event unparalleled in the history of consciousness. The permanent loss of incalculable cultural and intellectual ecosystems.
And for what? A sedate lifestyle of immediatism, of comfortably consistent conditions. Longer chains, bigger cages. Superficial ameliorations at the cost of all further advances in freedom in the longterm. There’s a word for people who trade away all hope of the infinite in return for immediate pleasures, the very people who popularized “in the long term we’re all dead”… they’re called liberals.
Yes, freedom implies risk and danger. But the perpetual security promised by primitivism is a nightmare irreconcilable with anything capable of calling itself anarchist without choking. Coffins are made “human sized,” our lives should be lived bigger than that.
It must be said that I nevertheless occasionally happen upon the most relatable of primitivists. The sort of person persuaded not by mysticism or a deathlike hostility to complexity or thought itself but mostly by pragmatism and despair. Whose embrace of primitivism or anti-civ reflects not an anti-intellectualism, but a sincere analysis that sees no alternative.
“I hate thinking about it,” yet another burnt-out punk confides to me over bourbon. “Every time I glance around at the world all I see is death.”
And surely, yes, rampant ecocide continues largely unabated. But simple narratives have a kind of overwhelming pull. It becomes easy to pattern-match everything within their framework. The same triggered mental circuits, again and again and again. Eventually we get so lost deep in these well-worn ruts they feel like a vise. They become so painful — the feeling of being trapped so deep — that we develop an aversion to vigilantly pushing through. To collecting more data, considering alternate pictures or hypotheses. The moment something starts to remind us of the imprisoning narrative we wince away from it, implicitly accepting it rather than critically engaging with it.
But here’s the plain fact of the matter: We’ve explored very little.
Human history so far has been unimaginably brief when viewed on the scales of different social evolutionary cycles. It has also been in some ways a single history. This obliges both a certain amount of hesitancy when it comes to inferring anything and a certain amount of diligence. We are not able to set up a few hundred completely separate Earths and re-run the end of the ice age and the advent of large scale societies. We have only one Earth. This makes it all the more imperative we get things right, that we take the best possible path. And part of that means doing all our homework. Not falling back on easy defaults or simple stories like primitivism trades in, but proactively considering as many possibilities as we can.
Who knows what random parameters would spin out differently were we to clone a hundred prehistoric Earths. What teleologies or “deterministic” accounts of history would crumble away, revealed as so much just-so storytelling after the fact. It seems likely much would.
Whatever may get printed on Boeing pamphlets there isn’t some objective and singular path of technological “progress.” History is filled with chance occurrences and random walks down the available avenues. While in the broadest terms we can speak of a tendency for technological creativity to create more available means and there are some sequential dependencies to what technologies get invented, there are usually many many paths. And the social-infrastrutural progressions that happened to play out — like tapping fossil fuels like crazy — are not inherent tradeoffs. I referenced Augustin Mouchot’s solar steam engine earlier, and its eclipse by both a decrease in coal prices thanks to British imperial conquest and a French-British treaty. Suffice to say that had an anarchist revolution succeeded back then, or even had the vagaries of geopolitics spun out differently we would have taken a different path. There are countless examples of such happenstance throughout the histories of technological development. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.
One can easily spin out alternate paths we might have taken to get from the ice age to information technologies had we developed and stuck to an anarchist ethos back in prehistory:
People collaborate into large cities, horticulture and pastoralism provide the foundation, then aquaducts and plumbing technology — as the egalitarian and peaceful Harrappans were immediately inclined towards — lead to city gardens and more sustainable irrigation. Sanitary city conditions lead to plummeting child mortality which (as we’ve seen around the world) rapidly leads to stable populations and dramatically differing concepts of relations towards children which helps prevent hierarchical abuse feedback loops ingraining slaver mindsets. The lack of rapid population imbalances and consequent warring leads to longer time preferences and less pressure to grow food at any cost, which leads to saner controlled experimentation surrounding crop practices. Metallurgy is developed in a competitive and egalitarian environment of more DIY backyard shop styles that never provides the startup coercion necessary to concentrate knowledge. Written language emerges from the mathematics of studying astronomy, weather, engineering, exploration, and keeping accounts in a world where tribal reputation mechanisms have trouble scaling past Dunbar. We get glassmaking and lenscrafting very early which leads to solar and all of modern physics. As well as the dramatic advancements in mathematics to go with it, and ancillary insights in biology and chemistry. Glassmaking — the mere artisanal heating of sand — is so profoundly important to the leaps of the last few hundred years I could geek out on it for an entire piece at least as long as this one. But suffice to say a more deliberative and scientific world has less pressure and capacity to extract and burn fossil fuels before realizing their impact. In such a world without governments murdering scientists, closing off research and making proclamations like “we do not do jewish physics”, fundamental research would move a hell of a lot faster, while the absence of huge command economies and capital accumulations mean industry and large scale infrastructure would move slower.
We may not have a direct window to that particular alternate universe, but we don’t have a window to any other universes. And it’s dangerous as fuck to infer too much from just our own. It’s the conservative fallacy in fact, wherein one assumes that what is or has been must be basically all that is possible. Such stunning and terrifying arrogance.
The point is that unending refrains of, “How would you anarchist nerds ever have wifi routers without slave mines for Coltan in the Congo?” are ridiculously, *militantly* obtuse framings. Coltan for instance is available from many sources around the world, the Congo representing a tiny percentage, the only reason certain sites see vast ecological destruction or human suffering is social context. And rare indeed is the resource that had no easy to access surface deposits. The vast mines of this world exist in large part because our rulers wanted to retain materials that had been harvested for useless sudries rather than recycle and repurpose them. Gold is useful in consumer electronics, but so little is needed in comparison to the amount wasted as arbitrary signs of wealth. Sufficient electronics to launch an information age could be made using copper easily harvested from surface deposits thousands of years ago. There are many different ways of making semiconductors, batteries, solar panels and the like, many alternative forms requiring different resources. There’s no reason to suspect that the approaches that are economical in a world with titanic amounts of force and capital would be similarly economical without. When engineers design technologies they are guided by what resources have been made economically optimal, so if the authoritarian government of China has bulldozed its citizens’ land and driven down the price of certain rare earths then research into tools utilizing those rare earths will proceed faster than research into far less destructive alternatives. To claim that social structures and dynamics have no impact on the progression of technologies is insane. And radical changes to our social structures would cause radical changes to our technologies.
The tendency to sweepingly dismiss all green tech as “similar in kind” and ignore orders of magnitude of differences in impact or relevancy is a widespread infection. But what it resembles most is the sort of desperate incantation to preserve one’s narrative we mock with “but jet fuel can’t melt steel beams”. Ratios matter. It matters when we reduce away the work of a hundred people to just one person (or spread out among many people until it’s a trivial chore). And, yes, actually a lot of green tech offers dramatic improvements, not merely green capitalist obscuring of the real costs. The people working on green tech aren’t all idiots or malicious conspirators.
Primitivists love to present a hierarchy whereby information technologies are only available to a very small number of people thanks to the suffering and colonial enslavement of a great many. But the reality is almost everyone on this planet has a cellphone now; billions have smartphones. The enthusiasm of small villages in Africa setting up low-impact DIY wind turbines to generate electricity for their own purposes, must be distinguished against the many orders of magnitude of unnecessary waste in the first world. Primitivism so often functions as a motte and bailey fallacy, whereby legitimate environmentalist arguments against the vast destructiveness of our present ridiculous and authoritarian infrastructure are suddenly magically extended into arguments against all possible technology — never quite making an argument for how the waste and destruction is supposed to inevitably creep back in.
Invariably an allusion to political reformism is made when you point out avenues by which our infrastructure and commodity use could be changed while retaining and deepening our technological capacity. But such a comparison to reformism is inane; political power is a different beast entirely. The psychology involved in controlling other people is dramatically distinct from the psychology involved in giving them more possibilities. We have good reason to expect control to continue striving for more control. But capacity is different from control. Technology — in the sense of means — doesn’t dominate minds, it extends what they can do. You really have play some extremely dubious postmodern shellgames or get lost in crude psychological appeals to avoid that reality.
Similarly desperate are the “growth in a finite system” refrains. The Earth is most emphatically not a closed system, and this fact underpins the very existence of the biosphere. Our ecosystems would not exist without constantly taking in solar energy from without. In the last fifteen years we’ve been arguing about this solar technology has blown right through every allegedly ‘fundamental’ engineering barrier. Meanwhile experts agree that we already have sufficient technology to mine asteroids and — aware of this as well as many asteroids with such abundances of rare metals as to crash global markets or create near post-scarcity — billionaires have been investing in asteroid mining companies. Imagine every mine on the planet shuttering, every mountain top removal project packing up. But again, like every other major technological development going back to satellites, the only response primitivists can muster is to say “science fiction” as sneeringly as possible.
The reality is that the collapse of civilization in a permanent Endgame sense is not guaranteed in the slightest. In fact while there is much that is brittle about our current infrastructure, it is the supposed guarantee of civilization’s collapse that has grown increasingly brittle. Collapsists love to rattle off the array of peaks or potential catastrophes as though multiple arguments that are interrelated are stronger than one. It would only take the maturation of a single technology to derail the whole thing. Get cheap energy from fusion or solar panels and you can spend that energy to process and recycle metals, averting peak metal in the process. Get cheap metals and harvesting wind, solar, etc suddenly becomes trivial.
An Endgame collapse is certainly a possibility worth considering seriously, but it is not an inevitability. It is also a possibility we must fight to our dying breaths.
In public primitivists are always quick to retreat to the claim that they don’t want to kill seven billion people, there’s just literally nothing we can do to stop such an unprecedented holocaust. What nonsense. Seven billion people is such an astronomical number of people that even the tiniest glimmer of a chance to derail such gigadeath by saving civilization should surely occupy our every waking moment. And press them on this, start talking about liquid fluoride thorium salt reactors (impossible to meltdown, short halflife of products, no utility in making warheads, useful way to get rid of thorium already naturally poisoning the Earth’s surface in many places) or the like and very quickly a lot of them will revert to angry declarations that they’d blow up any possible fixes to the collapse.
This response should be highly illustrative of just how paper thin and superficial the fig leaf covering their genocidal misanthropic aspirations are. Primitivism is just another Marxism where you let “inevitable” material conditions do your slaughtering and gulaging for you.
Even as bad as an unparalleled holocaust and retreat to an inescapable and monotonous primitive Eden would be, what is actually likely to emerge would be much worse. It was once common to bandy about “peak metal” and imply that the depletion of rare metals in easily accessible forms wasn’t just going to derail industrial civilization and impede it from ever being rebuilt but would stop all forms of empire. Yet the reality is that things like steel would remain, casting us not into the era of hunter gatherers but instead a permanent unending version of the middle ages. And what we will likely see instead of a singular collapse — what any honest primitivist admits to themselves these days — is instead a series of endless catastrophes. There will be no bandaid ripping past which the survivors finally get a measure of relief. The fall of some empires will mean the likely rise of other empires, with different characteristics perhaps, but similar power relations. While some aspects of our world are incredibly fragile, there is presently enough redundancy for the same systems to start up again and be much worse, provided any room for humanity on the planet remains. Brazil for instance is almost entirely run on hydroelectric power. While information technologies and many other liberatory technologies would go away large industrial societies are not going to disappear. A limited number of people hiding the cracks between various Roman Empires is hardly all that enticing of an anarchist vision.
While the end of civilization, anarchistic or not, is hardly guaranteed. Ecological collapse is already a sure thing, an already happening thing. The only question is how bad we’ll let it get. And in this abandoning science and proactive technological grappling is a whole bunch of things that end in -cidal.
It’s not as simple as “just kill industrial civilization and then the biosphere will get better for human life”. Our biosphere isn’t magic and it bares no allegiance to anything besides physics. There is no inherent orientation to an equilibrium, much less one that’s liveable for humans, or even current terrestrial animals.
I frequently hear green anarchists claim that the solution to global warming is to just stop industrial civilization and let the trees regrow. This is either desperate to the point of delusion or stupendously ignorant of the science of global warming.
Trees temporarily absorb carbon but then promptly re-emit it when they die and decompose or burn. The carbon in the air right now is utterly beyond the capacity of the earth’s forests at their peak, and it would take too long for trees to capture enough carbon to derail the current feedbacking. Our oceans are usually the vast vast vast majority of the carbon capture in the normal cycle, and they’re stressed beyond their capacity now. Additionally trees can actually *increase* global warming because they’re darker and thus absorb more solar radiation. Indeed basically any increase in the size of boreal forests right now would *contribute* to global warming. This is one of the big dangers, actually, that forests will spread in the northern hemisphere as temperatures rise and cause even greater warming.
The carbon that is now in the air isn’t part of the normal carbon cycle that trees dealt with, it’s carbon that was for hundreds of millions of years locked up in the Earth. The last time it was in the atmosphere the Earth was a dramatically different place, inhospitable to a lot of modern organisms. The only solution that can actually save us from the runaway feedback loops we’ve set off that are releasing methane and the like is to put that carbon back in the earth, back in the rock or similar form. And there is no way to do this without technology and science.
Our only hope is carbon negative technologies — technologies that as a byproduct take carbon out of the atmosphere and into a more permanent form. Thankfully there’s a vast diversity of avenues by which we can do this, many of which are in production and use already. Some rather advanced, some stunningly simple. Algae are what originally pulled the CO2 out of the air over millions of years and made our atmosphere breathable. If the feedback process of global warming continues unabated algae blooms in the ocean risk destroying ocean life and creating toxic consequences. Some of my favorite carbon negative technologies generate algae in controlled systems — before algae blooms in the wild destroy even more — in ways that generates energy. The byproduct being both energy for our technologies and trapped carbon. The calculus is changing as the happenstance technologies that were normalized the last couple centuries change. With carbon negative technologies the more energy we consume, the less CO2 in the atmosphere.
The remaining work at this point is making them even more efficient, figuring out which ones are most optimal, and turning them from technologies to infrastructure (ie widespread production/use). The latter requires some social struggle, but is doable. Primitivists are always accusing scientists and engineers of rushing technologies into development without due diligence, but when we exercise due diligence developing green technologies they pretend as though the delay means they’re fundamentally not possible.
Indeed only through the global perspective possible with modern science can we begin to contextuallize our actions and their consequences.
Many anti-civ folk are now starting to concede this, but the point is no fringe or marginal one. Massive amounts of toxins and elements are currently locked up in products or infrastructure, to throw up our hands and walk away is to let them leak out. It’s not just shitty nuclear plants and biowarfare labs.
And if you expect there to be time and an increase in the popularity of revolutionary perspectives such that revolutionary scientists can help with some decommissioning you’re not talking about an inevitable collapse that we’d have no power to avert, you’re talking about a deliberative and intentional social change. So why not go further?
We have the capacity not just to avert global warming and ocean acidification but to reclaim the Sahara and restore the megafauna that hunter gatherers killed off. (Contrary to the myth that primitive peoples were somehow aware of ecological externalities beyond their immediate contexts, recent global statistical analyses have conclusively settled that hunter gatherers were responsible for the ecological destruction of the late Quaternary). With the broader insight and perspective provided by science and global communication we finally have an opportunity to repair the mistakes of past generations as we move asymptotically towards greater understanding of our world and thus greater agency within it.
That word, agency, is the core of this divide between anarchism and primitivism.
Primitivists would rather write agency our of the conversation. They want to pretend that we have No Alternative but collapse, no real choices or options to be expanded or diligently explored. Their opposition to technology and cosmopolitanism make perfect sense when the very notion of expanding our choices is taken to be incomprehensible. Physical freedom? What nonsense, you can’t be oppressed by nature! What’s happened to get someone to such a ludicrous position is a divorcing of oppression from anything concrete. Now oppression isn’t controlling people or constraining their options in life, it’s just anything that conjures bad feels. Freedom? Well there’s no such thing really. Just the freedom from thought, the freedom from choice, complexity, vigilance, etc.
This kind of obsession with the delusion of certainty is the hallmark of depression. The desperate hunger for the pain of having no real options. Many commentators have noted the turn of our milieu towards treating depression, anxiety and other mental health issues as the essential experience of our radicalism. We bond over sharing in it; and end up fetishizing and reinforcing these ailments.
Only in such light primitivism can pretend to be coherent with anarchism.
But to hunger for the genocide and ecocide of a collapse is to mistake mental health issues for radicalism. Misanthropic edginess for critique. Emotional states for vigilant pursuit of root dynamics.
What I’ve sketched out here is decidedly not comprehensive — and intentionally so. Primitivism benefits from a vast array of different arguments that end up multiply overlapping each other in an ever-changing patchwork. As with “200 Proofs Earth is Not a Spinning Ball” what’s important to realize is that the individual arguments don’t actually have much importance. One could spend years responding to everything Zerzan has written, systemically breaking down his arguments and getting into citation wars, but those who have come to identify as primitivists then happily shift their focus to other writers with alternative arguments. Once one becomes invested in the trappings of the ideology, the community, the culture, the mythos, the fantasies… there’s little avenue left for changing one’s mind. “Anti-civ” and “post-civ” were supposed to provide more freedom from the ideological prison of primitivism, but the end result has been a larger more amorphous ideological prison, still chained to a center of mass defined by the same old primitivist mistakes.
My intention here has instead been to provide an overview of and gateway to critiques that those in the anti-civ milieu are typically unaware of. (Everyone at this point is well aware of primitivism’s vulnerability on trans issues and ableism.) What’s been so frustrating to a lot of anarchist hackers, scientists, and former primitivists is that the points I’ve covered are blindingly obvious to us. But primitivist milieu in its relative memetic isolation has grown a thick shell of uncritically embraced arguments and claims that extend in many many fields and make debate a herculean task.
It must be admitted that this kind of ideological catastrophe is a side effect to the positive feedback loops in complexity unleashed by modern communications technologies. We exist in an early stage where it’s still easy for certain positions to quickly accumulate reinforcing cruft until they pass an argument-complexity event horizon that makes them basically unchallengeable. Where perspectives can win not through good arguments but tangled ones; often shifting around between endless fallbacks or implicitly complex but explicitly simple appeals to “common sense” notions.
Arguing with primitivists is a process almost identical to arguing with statists. Tear down one claim and they fall back on a hundred others. Tear down those and they start again invoking the stuff you’ve already demolished. Try to lay out everything at length and they appeal to how much more has been written by statists, given their superior numbers. Your argument is now too long to read, or too technical and inaccessible. You haven’t directly addressed this specific argument made by this specific person in this specific book. Do that and they declare that person irrelevant. Try to hit general trends in their discourse and they decry that as unfair and disconnected. These protective strategies used by dominant ideologies reflect really basic Manufacturing Consent style techniques where all burden is placed upon alternative or dissident perspectives and they are both expected to persuade with very little space to build complicated responses and to tackle every argument immediately. And whatever you do, no matter how much ground you force them to concede, the conversation always ends with a scoff. Your position is unpopular because my position is common sense among my friends. Or, even sillier, arguments about tone, wherein the dissident is dismissed for not being sufficiently polite and deferential while banging on the locked doors of their dogma.
And then they claim shit like “the existing needs no further defenders” which is just the most absurd heights of sweeping simplification. And of course takes as its starting point the absurd notion that our existing society is anything but hostile to technological development and diversity.
A critical eye towards how technologies are used or the normalization of certain infrastructural forms does not make you “anti-civ” or a luddite, it makes you a conscious human being with basic critical thinking faculties. Primivists do not hold a monopoly on examining tools and infrastructure. But such critical analysis should be extended to everything, including our bodies and our biosphere. Radicalism means rejecting simplistic claims about their “nature”, just as it also means rejecting simplistic narratives about abstractions like “civilization”.
The means we adopt can have corruptive influences, they can bend in certain directions, in laziness we can slip into valuing them as ends unto themselves and discarding our original ends. And certain means can be incoherent with the ends they allege to work towards. Anarchism is founded on the recognition that ends and means are deeply interconnected, albeit not magically one-to-one. Ferretting out these dynamics is valid and important work, and green anarchists have made numerous valid individual points on the ossified infrastructure we are imprisoned by. Covering the Earth’s surface with concrete and asphalt is clearly fucked, as is cutting up the biosphere into tiny pieces, etc, etc. We should obviously be conscious and engaged with the means we choose. We should remove the social and infrastructural systems that deny us agency in our means. But as anarchists our critical engagement with means should reflect a desire to expand freedom, not constrain it, to make ultimately possible more means — infinite means even — not less.
Now one can still dismiss opportunities for a freer future as not worth the risk. And one can entirely reject the underlying desires, ideals and ethics that value to intellectual vigilance and positive freedoms. Such an opinion is a coherent one, at least as much as “liberalism”, but it bares almost no relation to anarchy.
Forget bread, forget cake, forget even the bakery, the only anarchist demand is everything.
Anarchy Is A Scale-Independent Proposition
There’s a particular narrative–surprisingly common in certain corners of the anarchist scene–that no one has really bothered to call out and so has grown rather fat and comfortable over the last few decades. It goes something like this:
Thinking or acting from a big-picture perspective is–if not The Problem–then at least a major root cause of everything miserable about our world. Any claims, theories, ideals, or motivations that extend our frame of reference beyond our immediate lives are predicated in the same mistaken arrogance, a mistake responsible for the seemingly intractable poison within the left and activist struggles, as well as so much more. In response we must ward ourselves from the ideologies, the grand constructs, the stories that dwarf the particulars of our immediate perceptions, our social circles, our daily struggles. Most of all we must reject the search for universals and focus only on the “human sized”.
Often this narrative quickly segues to pattern-matching this “big-thinking” tendency in terms of some unified Judeo-Christian tradition (under the assumption that there’s only a tiny chance of running across anyone with a strong claim to be part of a different tradition). At this point the narrative really picks up steam: There was once polytheism/animism/spiritualism but then all the little gods and little tribes got ground up by the big universal monster and now there’s just universal stuff, and we should just break things apart again until they’re back on a “human scale”–ala Dunbar’s Number–where we can better keep track of everything. And, supposedly, therefor stop our thought from growing “out of control.”
All you should be concerned about are your immediate relationships with other people in your social/drama circles, how you relate to them and the kind of psychological states you’re able to briefly create together.
For a lot of people this perspective somehow resonates very deeply as a kind of clean break. There’s this big boogeyman representation of supposedly all existing paradigms, and then there’s them, breaking away, abruptly free to explore an array of new possibilities. You get this with a lot of cults too, once you just see The Problem everything is so clear and filled with newness and possibility. Our brains love the feeling of a new perspective or a new context, especially when we’re dealing with continually grinding problems. We get to let go of all our frustrating calculations and considerations constantly hanging around, persisting in the back of our minds, and start anew! People get so overwhelmed by that rush that they refuse to pay attention when this new One Simple Trick fails to actually address anything, when the exact same sort of problems creep back, and the limits of the new paradigm start to feel like prison walls again. And so you see people, enraptured by the feeling of the original break, with the impression of it, refusing to feel out for these walls, repeating the same kind of sad content-devoid mantras in response to any input. “If you’d only see that it’s all Moralism maann.”
Granted, this can be an important step in flexing your brain, I guess, if you come from a certain background, with certain priorities. But I don’t. This shit and the context it comes out of are just so incredibly alien to me. And so the magical salve of returning to the small-scale is just a wad of spit and leaves to me. It doesn’t begin to address the things that worry me.
Like a lot of people I didn’t originally become an anarchist over concerns about black helicopters or mushroom clouds or any showy large-scale horror. I first became an anarchist because at a very young age I saw people–individual people–exercising control over other people. I saw dynamics of abuse, coercion and manipulation and I recoiled from them. I thought about the way these dynamics worked and then I critiqued and rejected them. Simple as that. Crucially these behaviors were often completely divorced from epic narratives, big ideologies or global forces. They were, in fact, often intensely localized, personal, and situational. Sometimes they gave rise to grand ambitions and sweeping frameworks. But they arose separately, and indeed, were often joined closely with an anti-narrative and anti-globalist bent. “This situation is unique and can’t or shouldn’t be compared with any other, much less any commonality identified.” “Ethics is a delusion for weak people.” “There are no constants so why not give into whatever impulses strike me.” Indeed the most powerful tools in perpetuating these power dynamics were those that denied universals or constants and those that exploited limited knowledge, information or communication. Gaslighting. Triangulation. Isolation.
“You actually believed me?!” and then cackling laughter.
Such sociopathy is not a fringe dynamic, but a near constant tendency that is deeply deeply riven in just about every society or culture on this planet. It survives in no small part by keeping its ever present machinations hidden or at least unspoken. It perpetuates itself through narratives that reduce the world to an unmappable formless mess, devoid of constants or directions. It portrays the world and our experiences as a substanceless game of immediate impulses and chance particulars. Everything is arbitrary, so why not? An impulse towards friends and family after all is just a historically contingent trapping that one could easily emerge without or shed off. Love and compassion just a fleeting affliction of sentiment, with no deep reason to prompt valuing its perpetuation. I may bask in parental love for you today and tomorrow delight myself by your screams as I break your fingers. There are no constants, no universal attractors, no way to argue or persuade that isn’t just manipulation, positioning, delusion. Being kind or resisting power might happen to give you some sense of pleasure or happiness but any sufficiently intelligent person can change their brain. Why not take the easier route and just just find ways to hack how you get pleasure? To distract yourself from recognizing oppression and suffering, or to take delight in them?
Cinematic buckets of blood dumped on Carrie or the hordes beating Piggy are not a departure from the norm but are implicit in everything we do. Our society’s illusion of normalcy is a detente riven with the fluctuations of our continuing and almost-all-present manipulations, cruelties, and selfish acts. These small violences form a constant fabric whose wrinkles form the scaffolding of larger emergent structures until we arrive at governments, religions and corporations.
Leftists declare such interpersonal power dynamics–insofar as they are ever forced to recognize them–only the consequence of macroscopic patterns like Capitalism. What a laugh! The small is ultimately not so much the result of the big as the other way around. Feudalism, state communism, city states, federated tribes… no matter how you push the wrinkles in the fabric around the psychology of abuse, control and deception that ties it together remains unaddressed. Hunter gatherers like any other iteration of humanity often did horrible things to one another, held each other in abusive bondage, faith and ritual. The bonds that oppress us are no less bonds if they are small-scale and responsive. The might of emperors has oft been but a puff of air compared to aggregate coercive power and suffering caused by every abusive partner or parent or friend in the world. It does not take the existence of sweeping patriarchal norms and socializations for partners to abuse each other, for parents to be cruel or domineering to children, these behaviors emerge in almost every culture or circle. The rates of abuse and physical violence among lesbians are the same as among heteros. This is not some magically adaptable macroscopic force or conspiracy that absorbs every punch we through at it and reorganizes itself, it is not some huge spectre out there beyond our immediate lives, it is a persistent tendency, a creeping low-level infection riven throughout our immediate lives, our collective and one-on-one relations.
And everywhere it smirks to itself. Every Pope has been an atheist. Every successful president or czar a passionate egoist. They wrap their thoughts in robes, just as most of us wrap our thoughts in what we term ‘useful‘ delusions in our most clearheaded moments. Temporary allegiances and affectations. Sure the power that binds others often binds the wielder. But not always. And certainly not always in a meaningful one-to-one relation against the subjective desires of the wielder.
This kind of person, this kind of thinking, has no need for universal or big-perspective thinking; they will scramble for power in any context. The problem they represent is irrespective of the scale of pageantry. These sociopathic currents run deep in almost every cluster of individuals and often crawl into our own heads.
The damage we do each other at the small-scale, at the “human level”, is usually far more profound in suffering than the damage done by big tangled contexts and social organisms above and beyond our families, lovers, and friends. They intersect, they feedback off each other in interesting ways, and with bigger scale comes bigger risk, to be sure, but at the end of the day the narrative of small-scale against big-scale is utterly toothless against the roots of the horrors we face.
I and many others were originally attracted to anarchism not because we were looking to satiate some hunger for the participatory delusion / commodity known as “community”, but as a ray of absolute resistance against the fundamentally sociopathic and nihilistic social norms of our world. Against an omnipresent foul fog that burns our lungs and seeks to settle deep into our skin.
For us Anarchism has always first, foremost, and at root, presented itself as a sharp critique of this rampantly common and pedestrian perspective, this staunch belief in immediatism and the irrelevance or nonexistence of universals or solids of any form of truly persuasive arguments that might be found–this assumption of the uniform arbitrariness and futility of vigilant investigation beyond one’s momentary or happenstance motivations–that infests every abuser, every conman, every social capitalist, every creep, every rapist.
Our anarchism represents a break with this, it is the cry that an-archy is possible, even considerable, that we need not reassign the term like so much litter to denote merely diffuse, local and personal archies. That we need not embrace the orwellian framework in which anarchy is the same shit, only more locally responsive. It is the declaration that there is a substantive differentiation to be found between the ideologies or psychologies of constraint and those of richer, wider engagement, of more expansive identity and compassion. And that the latter is ultimately more attractive than the former. That we need not shy away from reality or lower our gaze in furtive dejection to our immediate trappings, to mere fleeting impressions of love and resistance, to aesthetics rather than anything of consequence.
Such an anarchism is an unraveling of the very fabric of power relations that bind almost every society on earth. And critically: there is no scale at which it does not apply.
That big showy tangles of power must also be dissolved is but a trivial ramification, it is no more representative of the anarchist break than any other shift or twist in the fabric of power relations. Nor can our break be characterized by a brief or local loosening of the weave. The break anarchism signifies is not with the particularities of the west, or of civilization, it goes far far deeper than that.
Why do we throw ourselves on bombs or strap bombs on ourselves to save others? These are not superficial feelings, they are not socialized happenstance or quirk of birth. These are conclusions those who are radical in their investigations, their vigilant explorations, find themselves drawn to. As radicals we never allow ourselves to be satisfied with hazy mystical simplified abstractions and spooks like “friendship” rather than concrete realities and dynamics of thought and action. Or wander in circles, adding contextual complications but not even attempting to weigh, reorganize or sort through them. Relishing the self-created maze of notes upon notes and so never attempting to isolate the deeper patterns or consistencies.
The narrative of opposition to “big-thinking” is at its core just a kind of smug pride in timidity, of ritualized fear and comfortable despair. “We have not won in a few scant iterations of history and this is proof that we will lose.” “Some people tried thinking and look at where that inevitably led.” It’s the instinctive recoil of the traumatized animal. A sense that “when the stakes go up we dare not rise to compete.” And at its core it swallows and preserves every nihilistic assumption at the core of our sociopathic society. One might be able to relate to the mewling slave repeating “might makes right” like a prayer of absolution, having internalized the masters’ intellectual laziness, but one should never join them.
Let us never forget that coffins are made “human sized”; our lives should be bigger than them.
The Retreat Of The Immediate
Anarchists who intend to act as though we didn’t live in a dystopic world must find themselves perplexed at every moment. With the ecosystems of civil society so atrophied and virtually every surviving institution of value captured and beaten into participating in the bloody circus of statism, who do you call? What do you do when you see a thug with a gun (and a badge) looming over someone, much less kidnapping or shooting people? Hell, how do you deal with the existence of sitcoms?
Ethically navigating the horrors of our world is a challenging task for anyone with a shred of humanity, but it’s unfathomable once you abandon the notion of strategy – the pursuit of wider context.
And yet the appeal of immediatism has grown widely in recent years, under various banners and in many circles. Perhaps this is a reaction to the patently ludicrous Plans of social democrats, state communists, vulgar libertarians and organizationalist ideologues–in such light it’s clearly a sympathetic instinct. But it is also a surrender of the mind and heart.
Immediatism, in almost every formulation, has two sides.
On one side is Rothbard’s famous “big button” that we might break our fingers pushing to suddenly poof away the militaries, courts, politicians and police of the world – come what may in the aftermath. I waft back and forth on this hypothetical. It’s certainly rhetorically convenient for emphasizing the scale of state atrocities being committed right now, but unconvincing to anyone versed in the wilds of sociopaths, thugs and would-be-DMV-administrators that currently infest our world. The state is but the apex predator in a rich ecosystem of would-be states. As anarchists our goal to abolish power relations doesn’t stop at merely the most prominent ones. And fractured civil war between would-be warlords and social democrats can be many times more destructive and oppressive than the off-hand tyranny of old, fat and senile sociopaths.
We anarchists are objectively right, centralization is inefficient. But this cuts two ways. Rwanda’s machetes were more efficient than Hitler’s gas chambers. Robust markets will efficiently deliver death just as much as any other “good” a certain culture might value. Meanwhile the wicked truth is libertarians often flourish in overextended empires where the mountains are high and the emperor far away. At one time I used to retort that if I could push a button and create a single incredibly centralized global government I would. Better to have a single enemy to focus on than two hundred, interlocking, redundant and locally attentive ones.
States create game theoretic environments around their peripheries that suppress cooperation and reward antisocial strategies. Primordial empires wouldn’t have persisted if they didn’t constantly sow the seeds of future cops, rulers, and bureaucrats through the cultural and economic norms they instilled. But not every bully can grow up to be picked as Head Genocidaire and the landscape is littered with the failures. Some are too stupid to make it, some confined to small-time crime, some in miniature statelettes like the mob running in parallel to their more official brothers, some seeing greater advantage in milking hidden privileges from the current state, and some simply unlucky. Many more, despite being distorted and corrupted by their environment, are too humane to function well in the gears of state power. They nevertheless instinctively support the stability of any known social form and lash out at deviation, thoroughly persuaded that cooperation is impossible on any significant level and our only hope is to eek out a living as moss on a wall without attracting the wrath of whatever sociopaths are in power.
If we were to press that magical button these residual forces, endemic across our society, would immediately begin the reconstitution of states. There would be serious opportunity for sustained development of more ideal communities (as we have seen in virtually every crisis), but so too, in the absence of vigorous preexisting social antibodies to power accumulation, would there be terror and micro-totalitarianisms. Not universally, but all too often even a small presence leads to widespread PTSD, a willingness to grasp any known “solution” however imperfect rather than spend the time and iterations of trial-and-error necessary to win categorical improvements. The most staunch conservatives and proponents of totalitarianism I’ve met have been survivors of civil wars. Only when there are anarchist community centers in every neighborhood, self-defense cooperatives, arbitration bodies, autonomous basic-needs infrastructure, widespread awareness of alternative justice systems, et alia, would pushing that button actually be a surefire reduction in state violence.
Of course I don’t fault anyone for lusting after that button, I even tend to lean towards pushing it in my read of the weighted probabilities, but A) the button is very much just an unrealistic thought experiment, and B) focusing on the dichotomy it frames things in is incredibly strategically unhealthy. We don’t win the moment a state ceases to exist, much less all two hundred or so officially registered “states.” To even speak of anything approaching a win condition for us we must damn well consider the default strategies and frameworks ossified in a number of people’s heads. While the decline and fall of existing states will be an amazing battle to win, it is not the war. We win by turning the tide against power psychosis, not certain symptoms. And that, sadly, is an inherently gradual thing without clear markers.
But then we’re anarchists: Our decentralized and autonomous asses flourish in situations involving vastly complicated contexts unknowable to a single actor or reducible to simple terms! Which brings me to my second point.
The other side of immediatism is the adoption of limited ethics, whether deontological or nihilistic. Pretending we live today in the world we’d like to see (or dismissing any ideal or goal as hopeless) explicitly involves ditching context.
The world is not a simple place and simplistic abstractions (even in the form of “shit’s too complicated” or “we’re sure to lose”) do violence through irresponsibility. Further they signal a cognitive surrender to the ossified and sweeping logic of the state.
Rather than delve after the true comprehensive roots of a dynamic and risk being reshaped in the process, the rigid algorithms that make up the psychosis of power try to impose simplified and relatively unchanging macroscopic abstractions. To think, to reformulate with greater context, is to risk deviation from the game theoretic dynamics that preserve simplicity. The drive for control is the drive to reduce the amount of thinking one has to do–often by force. The state requires this strategic rigidity and simplicity in its components so that they might be A) calculable and B) stable in the weird niche of game theoretic phase space it survives in. While the state embraces limited attempts at foresight, explorations in meta-strategy and awareness are always, by necessity, confined.
Conscious intentional actors are the state’s worst nightmare. The mere pressure of oppositional tactics alone is easily integrated into state calculations, even reformulated as a vital organ. If every sharp grievance is turned into a mindless rupture, then the number of burnt cars this week becomes just another focus group report. They have storefronts and cops aplenty to sacrifice. Sure, despite our best efforts they might miscalculate still, and our endless siege rush through the cracks to some meaningful accomplishment/destruction, but there’s no good reason to settle for this minimal effectiveness. Like the old post-left slogan, “an insurrection of generals not an army of soldiers” actively thinking through strategies of attack and exploitation individually is the only way to leverage the state’s calculational constraints. What does our embrace of agency as anarchists even mean, if in our resistance we gravitate towards any form of attack in front of us or stirs our first impulse? If all your resistance can be easily replaced with a lego mindstorms robot, identifying cops via python script and chucking firebombs at them, it stands to reason you might be at least a little bit more effective at building such robots. And if you’re willing to take one step of foresight in the causal pursuit of our desires, why not more?
Barely better than chucking our bodies at their nightsticks or shooting the first thug with a badge we see kidnapping people is the sort of internalized legalism that tries to slice up the world in terms of immediately visible violence. We see this most egregiously among certain vulgar anarcho-capitalists who famously can’t tell if something is unethical unless things have gotten to the point where someone is openly pointing a gun. Never mind amorphous culturally implied threats or conversations about the unbelievable subsidy left by historical genocide and slavery. Coercive power and profit from it is a tangled thing and if we throw up our hands at a few steps of removal or the blurring of direct responsibility through convoluted shell games we invite sociopaths to walk all over us. Pick two random people, even two random anarchists, and they’ll give you two very different definitions of “what counts”.
The answer is, of course, that it all counts.
Lines of power, control and implicit coercion crisscross our world; we are all chained up in them to varying degrees. Perhaps it really would be a good thing, if we all started blazing away at our oppressors and the only people left standing to start over were a couple saintly homeless queer disabled black kids. Sometimes, in despair, I think exactly that.
I understand the common impulse to ignore the big picture entirely and attempt to lose oneself in the accounting of proportionality, personal blame and other relatively crisp immediates. But this is suicidally insufficient and to constrain ourselves to such immediate reactions is to become complicit. It is the nature of tangles that they cannot be resolved by merely pushing back. We do not live in a world where violence is a deviation rather than the norm and, thus, easily squashed the moment it rears its head. When a shell game has been going on for centuries, passing balls of coercion between billions, retribution can only get us so far. How responsible is the individual cop that shoots us for resisting an IRS warrant versus the officer who gave the order, or the politician who signed the law, or the friend who snitched, or the teacher whose salary it’ll partially go to? How “responsible” is a white american who’s benefited from centuries of subsidy for the relative immiseration of a decedent of slaves? What of the beneficiaries of economies of scale generated by a transportation infrastructure built on genocide? The framework of blame is the fantasy of quick answers from immediate context. We cannot know the constraints placed on other people, the distorted choices and incomplete information available to them. “Responsibility” much less “proportionality” are profoundly arbitrary in most situations. Focusing on them frequently poses daunting collective action problems as well as issues of representation and, thus, effectively prioritizing some situations of sharp oppression over others.
But all is not lost, we can at least try to minimize oppressive constraining bullshit or, equivalently, maximize agency. This instinct is shared by both those who talk of responses being justified “up to what’s necessary to immediately stop the aggression” and those who instead talk about rehabilitory approaches that “even if they may never end up working all that well all of the time,” will at least avoid escalating to the point of murdering every last person who adamantly refuses to stop some micro-aggression. Both approaches, however, by attempting to write out a simple universal operating method, are too cute and fall into the same statist trap of ossified frameworks rather than active and fully-context-sensitive strategizing.
As anarchists, native to the knowledge problems of subjectivity, we need to embrace knowing when we don’t have the answers. Not knowing the full particulars and context of a comrade struggling on the other side of the world we can at best only helpfully point out glaring contradictions, externalities or potential inefficiencies of one strategy versus another (imprisoning people in gulags, for example, won’t make them freer or lead to the state withering away). Sometimes this means not acting. Shooting a politician might lead to better conditions, it might lead to sharply worse ones. Same with blowing away the first cop you see. Sincere passionate, highly intelligent and considered anarchists will disagree on whether or not to push Rothbard’s hypothetical button this very moment. Merely by virtue of having different life experiences and seeing different spatterings of data on social conditions. On the other hand dramatically increasing the power of the state to fight the corporations historically inseparable from the state, without a viable means of then fighting the resulting super-empowered state (never mind whether it gets the corporations or just increases the potency of regulatory capture), is clearly a strategy developed with limited exploration of ramifications. Continuing to investigate is important.
Merely blindly escalating to the level of retaliation necessary to fend off each and every aggression flowing through the facet of this world would mean a total war of annihilation. Conversely, in many cases, failing to escalate beyond some arbitrary line or apportioning our efforts according to degrees of “responsibility” rather than “what will stop the violence” can leave us in an intractable mess. The solution is to reject the paradigm of escalation entirely, a notion that was only possible by examining interactions in isolation. Reprisal is but one tiny sliver of tactics. When facing an ungodly mesh of knots you don’t push or pull, you examine the whole structure and look for weak points. The question before us, as anarchists, isn’t how hard to bluntly react when our world fails to be perfect but where and how to proactively strike against dystopia.
Sometimes that means letting things pass in silence, sometimes it means sucker punching, and sometimes it means something completely orthogonal.
Some problems can’t be solved directly. Sometimes you have to go around them. This requires seeing the full breadth of our society as it is, not as we’d like it to be. In a world filled with people who feel entitled to control others in a million tiny and not-so-tiny ways, selfcenteredly focusing on wiping the blood off our own hands or trying to pin precise apportionments of blame can only leave us complicit in the blood awash around us. There is no universal formula, no simple heuristic or paint-by-numbers methodology that will get us to a better world. Indeed such shortsighted procedurism flies in the face of virtually every anarchist vision. “Freedom” is a meaningless slogan without vigilance and agency. If “freedom” from proactive consideration is what we were looking for this world already offers many avenues. Indeed that is practically all it embraces.
That anarchists occasionally throw up their hands and retreat to a tiny sphere of immediate considerations – whether embracing blind optimism or blind despair–is entirely understandable given the challenges we face. But such a retreat is not a victory, nor could it ever somehow be representative of liberation.
Why Anarchism? A Love Letter To Our Doubters, Burnouts, Expats, & Refugees
I’ve identified as an anarchist for over two decades. Like any ideology or flag of identification it is, to most people, a weird, antiquated sort of thing to do. Relatively few people actually care about the world and those with the audacity to set out to change it are rarer still. Even among them radicalism is infrequent, and such prominent flag-flying practically extinct. It is, I’ll readily admit, on the face of it rather intellectually suspect. Akin to the lone old Marxist grumbling in the back of the hackerspace at the nerve of people to choose terminology outside his tradition’s memetic scaffolding. We’re all busy getting things done as informed, free-thinking, universally iconoclastic individuals these days, why willingly chain yourself to the baggage of centuries old political tensions and the flotsam of small but frequently problematic milieu?
This sort of questioning washes in with every wave of burnout and trauma. What once felt exciting and liberating becomes all too familiar and constraining. And in many people’s need to push back, to reassert their underlying agency as human beings rather than characters in a political narrative and question ties of assumed “affinity” with scurrilous personalities or behaviors they end up floating away entirely.
So I thought I’d write a little piece about why I don’t leave. How coming in originally with a deeply suspicious and critical eye on these issues I ended up nevertheless choosing to hoist the black flag on which nothing is written and cast a huge chunk of my life in its shadow.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with me that it’s ultimately not about the people or even the history but the word and conceptual space itself.
“Anarchy” is unarguably the greatest and most consequential Orwellianism in the world. In every language to have touched Greek it bundles a kind of sociopathic chaos onto the concept of pure freedom. Freedom in our common tongue isn’t merely slavery, it’s a nightmarish state of death and domination devoid of substantive empathy. And the implication is the root of virtually every paradigm, social ecosystem, and cognitive strategy on display: That there is no escape from lines of domination, no aspect of relation to one another outside the binary of controller and controlled. Anarchy, as a word, is the ultimate reset button on those who dare to dream outside the rules of the games we play. A reminder that society is, supposedly, a zero sum game, and any present deviation from that reality a fleeting collective irrationality, capable of being popped at any moment by exploring too far or thinking too deeply. We have a word for the absence of rulership, and we use it to signify fractured rulership.
This is, once you start to notice it, a poisonous, ruinous affair that spreads widely if subtly in effect. There are many kinks in our languages and conceptual schemas, and we frequently manage to work around most of them, but “anarchy” sits at the center of a topological defect so vast it almost characterizes the entire landscape of our social relations. That we might be able to slither out an equivalent victory without contesting this conceptual perversion directly shouldn’t blind us to its centrality. We are not merely using an ungainly word to describe something everyone is basically already on board with. We are challenging an assumption that underpins virtually every other political, ethical or motivational paradigm. Both conservatism and liberalism, broadly recognized, see sociopathy as fundamental, one embraces that nihilism opportunistically, the other seeks to hide from it by embracing arbitrary, shortsighted abstraction and rejecting all inquiry into the roots.
The prominent use of the term “anarchy” is not a pedantic definitional battle to save the legacy of some long dead but kinda awesome communards, nor is it an attempt to set our lives by their historically-situated rhetorical proclamations and strategic fumblings. It is a surgical strike on the chessboard and a clearing of the air. No endeavor can make significant headway in the long run without self honesty. It is through pressing concepts and notions to their extremes and examining their high-energy behavior for contradictions or simplifications that we avoid getting lost in a miasma of localized abstractions of indeterminate depth or arbitrariness, unable to effectively navigate or orient ourselves. A willingness to bite bullets, to fearlessly and seriously swim to the boundaries of the possible, is vital not just in changing the world but having any agency in our own lives.
And what is lost through identification with the marginalizing term “anarchy” is arguably more than made up for through that marginalization. While all those who identify with anarchy do not always live up to the radical inquiry it suggests, at worst anarchist circles serve as fertile territory for explorations in extremism. Unbridled sociopaths, the inventively unhinged, and ideological robots of a thousands colors contribute to a deluge of first-hand data and such productive, passionate experimentation as found nowhere else. There are also, of course, saints and angels to be found in abundance too, human beings so sharply and intensely human you can get addicted to their realness. Through two centuries of struggle “anarchy”, like the word “love” has become a defect pummeled into a hole. Things happen there. Radiation comes blasting out.
I’m not arguing that mundane, petty, shortsighted prickishness doesn’t in some ways characterize wide swathes of those who identify as anarchists. Or that utterly reprehensible behaviors and structures aren’t replicated by many wrapped in our flag. We all know that most communists are just capitalists who think the game should be confined to social capital. But, however much we may opportunistically or aspirationally use the phrase, there is no “anarchist movement”. There are rather countless circles and individuals on various trajectories, interacting at this single point and sometimes allowing the goodwill or romanticism attached to “anarchism” to bind them to people of wildly different motivation or experience. Anarchism has gone through many iterations, with bundles of associated things rising and falling, while other, largely unrelated waves do the same. There are many anarchist cultures and global scenes, some almost hermetically sealed to each other. Whatever horror appears to span the anarchist world you’ve seen, it is likely that this too shall pass. Far better and far worse, and just far different ones will take their place. Some of today’s breakaway clusters, insurgent inclinations, and alien appropriators will be tomorrow’s mainstay.
Some of this is just inevitable cultural tectonics, some of it is the direct result of conscious exploits or better ideas. People can and do have significant impacts on the trajectory of anarchist milieus and conceptual evolution. Things will change and you can have a significant effect in changing them.
But no, not every victory is immediately possible wearing the anarchist flag. Don’t get me wrong, there are countless critical insights unique to anarchist discourse, some still to be detached as modules and exported like so many others to “the left”, to subcultures, and to the mainstream, others so deeply embedded with a universal rejection of power relations they are possibly undetachable. Some things will likely only ever be possible under the flag of anarchism. Yet, if you’re looking for a specific victory the anarchist label is indeed sometimes a bad bet. You can do better with the loose “movement of movements”. You can do better with your friends. You can do better within “non-ideological” projects that sacrifice processing efficiency by cloaking deep motivations and settling on superficial but productive affinities.
Some people will tell you anarchism is about the existing insights. Those too largely can and will be exported. It’s not the array of tools and insights developed so far but the rootedness that has driven those insights.
As I said “Anarchism” has a clearer etymology than “feminism”, or “communism”, or “socialism”, or “social justice”, and it targets not something as macroscopic and aggregate as “women” or “community” but an incredibly important conceptual tangle that gets at the root of many of our society’s problems. The crux of “anarchy” is an ethical orientation, not a political platform. It’s intellectually easy to be a sociopath and also a feminist or a communist, or whatever. In the very best currents of such traditions “never holding control over another mind” is still only loosely stitched on as a bullet point. Anarchism is simply more closely tied to “no power relations ever” or “see others freedom as your own” and this matters in a wider array of situations than something historically particular. Anarchism can be corrupted and obviously often is, but it’s harder, in the grand scheme of things, to corrupt anarchism than anything else. We’ve numbered in the millions and moved the world yet deliberately never seized power. For all the shit that’s cropped up in our ranks, unlike virtually any other comparable framework you care to name no anarchist has ever been responsible for genocide or megadeath. That is actually, sadly, amazingly unique in history. Our focus on power itself rather than any of its instantiations has an effect that’s hard to deny. We may fuck up, but we course-correct. If not ourselves then our comrades. The cognitive dissonance is usually just too great.
Yes, this bias sometimes comes at the expense of immediate returns, praise, and the exhilaration of momentum. Do our banners fly over huge armies? Not always. But what often matters more is who gets the ball rolling, who provides the tools that otherwise wouldn’t have been considered or dreamt of. What anarchism provides is not so much an ideological platform and a cohesive movement but a think tank and a laboratory. It is far from the only space capable of insight and has no monopoly on useful information–indeed many spaces are practically defined by exclusive access to certain experiences and insights. But just as it is hard to plot a radical arc that doesn’t pass into “anarchy” there is still so much more to discover and resolve. Beyond our current experiences, beyond our present concerns. This is the realm of maximum possible impact. Anarchists exist in and are native to virtually every struggle and community. We famously punch many many orders of magnitude above our weight and we do so not by seizing other people as tools but by providing people with new tools, by seeing hopes and dangers long in advance. The whole point of getting to the roots is to map out the stuff no one else has seen yet, to recognize new possibilities, to prepare for wildly different futures, to do the hard work no one else sees the utility in. You don’t walk away from that awareness and somehow come out more productive.
Probably the complaint I receive the most is: there’s so little forgiveness or empathy in the anarchist community, it’s all just hyper line-drawing moralism. Well, yeah, you get some decent human beings in a room suddenly more free from bullshit and they’ll start upping their standards. Opening your eyes to power relations and daring to stand against them is a fucking dangerous, traumatizing thing. Suspicion and defensive walls are only natural. This creates a mildly productive competitive dynamic where we’re all constantly burning bridges while each learning more about decency all the time. This state of affairs works well enough yet of course is suboptimal. People get run out for being from a different culture; while some sociopaths are allowed to dig in deep once they learn some sufficient “rules” to play within. The latter is an amazing opportunity for us to preemptively map out every last corner for sociopathy to hide in through experiment. The former, however, doesn’t take much to change. All it takes is meeting people halfway yourself. You don’t have to change the entire “scene” all you have to do is get critical mass to count as your own scene. And share your insights!
The second most frequent complaint is that anarchism has failed to ingest certain good ideas or realizations from other people. In my experience that’s just not true, or at least not a good portrayal of what’s going wrong. There’s plenty of anarchists deeply aware of critical race theory, or ableism, or neuroscience, or Hayekian calculation limits, or whatever–and plenty of anarchist discussions and developments on those ideas. The problem is internal communication and documentation; so many of our theoretical insights and developments happen in conversation or on the ground. Circulation takes forever. Right now we’re in a stage where we’re constantly re-inventing the wheel. We don’t publish our ideas to the world in any accessible or mapped way, just to our immediate friends. So we entered the 00s lurching, bitten by the 80s luddite zombies and didn’t sufficiently embrace or shape the internet. So what? This is rotten and embarrassing situation to be sure, but it’s obviously a transient one that you can help speed up our recovery from.
At the start of this I wasn’t entirely honest, I too have tried to leave anarchist circles. Almost a decade ago, but years after I’d done my time in various trenches and cycled through burnouts. I know the allure. The laundry list of failings and frustrations with the milieu, with the canonical discourses, with the daunting challenges we face. But you’ve got to be honest with yourself. What are you going to do, just go ride bikes? Work on some feel-good campaign adrift and at the mercy of a wider context? Get high off cynical elitism reading Baedan? Vacations are good and all, but at some point everything else starts to pale in comparison. The cruft and collisions anarchy can draw are often quite wild and I don’t blame anyone occasionally ducking out for some security or safety. But amid the blazing horrors, the anarchist singularity is simply the best place to find rooted concepts and as a result real, long-term hopes and the sort of affinities that really truly matter. Not just people deeply committed to good, but friends who will find paths towards it that you didn’t even think of. Not just victories in the immediate, but opportunities for coherent progress on the whole.
I hate to break it to you, but there’s no avoiding it at this point. You’re in this for the long haul.
I Am Not Afraid of Islam
Make no bones about it: Faith is evil. Faith is the absence of vigilance and ethics necessitates vigilance. And so faith, in any form, is flagrantly unethical, immoral, evil… whatever terminology you prefer. But it’s an evil in the same sense as zombies. More bumbling than diabolical. And the fact of the matter is almost everyone these days has a little bit of the zombie juice inside of them.
In 2001 the technoprogressive and cyberlibertarian dreams of the 90s were largely on ice. The hacker community moribund. Everywhere the future seemed in retreat. For two years popular culture had dwelled on the turn of the millenium and the uncontroversial conclusion was nothing had lived up to snuff. To those who had been actively struggling in broad spheres the postponement of such predictions and dreams hardly needed explanation; hands-on engagement brings with it an appreciation of the complexity to culture and society in all its many fractal arenas. But to a certain class of people, junior technocrats mostly, who had grown up taking comfort growing up from prophesies of an assured gleaming rationalist future, this was an ecclesiastical betrayal that required a simple answer. And then the towers came down.
The core of the internet has always been atheist and so to was the fledgling bloggosphere in 2001. The difference was mostly one of age and cynical elitism. It takes a while to develop a finer appreciation of the underlying mechanisms of our society, there’s simply too much going on. “Why” can be a steep learning curve; explorations don’t deliver any framing narratives quickly. So much easier to stay at the surface with “People are stupid.” In this way, in that way. Slowly collect and label little discrete failings apparent in others, each one with attendant narrative implications. As parts of the picture fill in so to does a reflexive defense of certain institutions and assumptions.
9/11 was a pivotal paradigm-shift for a host of reasons from bewildered suburban housewives with existential vertigo to jetsetting corporate executives shocked that old fashioned things like national governments hadn’t been sufficiently sidelined. But the technocratic hordes reading instapundit, poised on the foundations of our embryonic information society, ended up playing no small part. Finally the world could be epic again. A clash of civilizations! Their conservatism was fancy devices and Janes and Stratfor, white, male and upper-middle-class, or at least aspirationally inclined to those things; they had little to fear from the conservatism of George W Bush, then merely an ineffective moderate. America was a bastion of secularism and gleaming champion of initiative, as atheists they convinced themselves it was the only tool worth a damn. And Islam was the devil. The heart of everything holding us back from an Asimovian paradise.
It’s so sad that one of the most potent cultural impetuses to the last decade of imperialism could be so blatantly fucking ridiculous.
Islam is a joke. (Christianity is a joke too.)
There are many forms of faith possible in life; religions only happen at the point when metaphorical flesh is dripping off a fractured logical skeleton and the insides have already rotted away.
Anyone and everyone capable of seizing any sort of power must at least retain enough brains to machievelli. It’s impossible to keep enough of a dynamic mind to look out for threats and manage the social complexities that interface with a religion without taking a step back from that religion and grounding yourself in less bulky faiths and more explicit selfishness. Our leaders from Ahmadinejad to Pope Sidious are atheists at core, always have been. Doesn’t make them any less evil, obviously, but it does assure a certain level of rational self-interest. bin Laden was an incredible dumbass, and he was contextually fenced in terms of social capital and desire, but he wasn’t such a dumbass as to actually be religious in his heart of hearts. He wasn’t going to start an apocalypse.
Further, at the end of the day Al Queda was stuck working through religion. Hezbolla, The Islamic Brotherhood, etc. No matter how much some of them may want to eat all our brains they’re an innately hobbled force. They have the mass sometimes, they just don’t have the speed or dexterity.
I am not afraid of Islam for a lot of reasons. But ultimately I am not scared of Islam because unlike those privileged and content enough to sit back and wait to be ushered in to some gleaming new world those of us actually struggling to build the future have a better appreciation of the landscape and dynamic obstacles at play. You can’t judge progress by comparison to shiny pamphlets as if the future was a condo going up (Next Fall!). In the trenches, in the nitty-gritty, you can see progress happening still small, sometimes just grinding industriously away at the rocks in our path, but accelerating with exponential growth nonetheless. We are changing the conditions of the battlefield faster than they can shamble. So no, you entitled bourgeois assholes who’ve never fought a fascist in your life or done any struggle besides petulant bloviating in the defacto service of totalitarianism, I’m aint scared of no holy ghost. Nor its followers.
And, if the last decade wasn’t mounds and mounds of proof that you shouldn’t think of the religious as anything other than a mindless natural disaster that it’s relatively easy to skirt, I’d like to tell you of a gal I saw once.
Minneapolis has a large Somali immigrant community, burqas and hijab are a common sight on the bus, with hot-pink phones flashing under the sleeves. One afternoon in the month leading up to the RNC while I was taking the 14 through South Minneapolis to meet up with someone at a FNB, one of these teenage Somali gals got on the bus in full black burqa. Except that covering the back of it were punk patches. From Antischism to Bad Religion. I don’t know if she was trying to balance Islam with anarcho-punk or if she was maintaining the burqa as an atheist punk in some personal fuck you to cultural prejudice and patriarchal sexualization, the way her sharp eyes burned I suspected the later. Either way, and I don’t mean to say this with any colonial associations: Free thought can consume anything. We got nothing to fear.
Or at least my team doesn’t. To hell with yours.
Something About Makhno And The Right Approach
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.
Stress, Labor & Play
There’s a lot of talk in anarchist circles about abolishing work. Some of it in line with the dream of a high-technology path to post-scarcity. But a lot of it takes an alternative route and settles for simply building a ludic society — that is to say a culture that adapts its tasks into “play”. Like a lot of romantic, boundary-pushing, post-leftish notions it’s purposefully detached from precise conceptual formulations, but the general notion is that the exertion fundamentally necessary to, you know, keeping us alive should be fun rather than drudgerous. Appealing to the dichotomy of association we distinguish between “work” and “play.”
But while this is an intuitive bundling, I think there’s an analytical weakness worth noting, or at least a reality getting glossed over. Ignoring all the vectors of drudgery that plague the modern world there’s still a fundamental conceptual distinction between projects that we undertake that have serious consequences and projects that do not. Drudgery and alienation — in short *disinterest* — can be eliminated, but stress is a different beast. A game of calvinball for instance is an undertaking of pure (random) process divorced from results. There’s nothing to invest in and/or nothing we might invest. Roughhousing, shenanigans, fiddling, aimless exploration. These allow us to engage in action without belaboring ourselves with concern. Naturally they carry with them an immense sense of freedom and relief. But while the process of undertaking projects with real-world consequences can be fun, enjoyable and a chance to scratch personal itches. Their very synchronicity with our driving desires can instigate a radically different experience. While it’s perfectly rational to talk of a world in which we are no longer forced to take actions we’d rather not, eliminating all perception of weightiness to those actions is a different and much stronger type of impossible. There are plenty of actions we ultimately want to take that at the same time inspire trepidation and tension.
Duh, right? But in the succulent rhetoricism of dismissing work I think there’s been an insipid conflation between these negative associations. Stress has somewhat paradoxically gotten bundled with disinterest. And liberation implicitly set in opposition to both.
Now don’t get me wrong, there’s value to consequence-less play — it helps us practice process and overwrites the klaxons ringing in our brains. Play frees up mental space, allowing us to reboot while at the same time charging up our minds or at least to keep rolling rather than go dead. But its value is in balancing and augmenting our stressful pursuits. The danger is that in certain circumstances the easy, investment-minimal repetitive action found in such play can invoke empty illusions of productivity. Because this gratifying sensation of pseudo-accomplishment comes without the stress of substantive commitment and concern it can fast become a sinkhole ultimately just as alienating as wage-slavery.
It’s not hard to see examples throughout the milieu of people intuitively appealing to this bundled notion of liberation choosing incredibly unproductive patterns of action. This isn’t the time or place to call out specific embarrassments, but in illustration we’re obviously all familiar with occasions of rhapsodic “we did such and such lame thing and it felt so liberating” where strategic vigilance is intentionally thrown out the window. (I’m just grabbing a common touchpoint. Insurrectionary approaches can have very good arguments — even for not being particularly rational on some levels — but y’all can’t argue that sometimes shit claimed as such ends up just stupid.)
Relieving stress is great, but when it’s set in artificial either/or conflict with caring enough to get wrapped up in an undertaking — vigilantly struggling to affect some consequence — what results isn’t a liberation of our desires, but a broadening flatness to our lives. Pursuing desires is part and parcel of being human, and it’s ridiculous to presume that that won’t occasionally require investments, risk and the attentive concern that comes with that. Don’t get me wrong, meetings suck. There are a great many components to the psychologically taxing projects we undertake in this movement that could seriously stand some massive revision/abolition. But the mere fact that such projects can be a stressful, taxing commitment is not proof that they’re dismissible reproductions of the forms of labor we seek to abolish.