Primitivism is a political and social theory that proposes a human nature and a best-case scenario for social viability. As the name suggests, primitivism advocates a return to what it posits as human society in a primitive setting. This setting is sometimes derived from that of existing indigenous peoples (Latin America, Africa or Pacific Island), but is really to be found only in the past, the pre- and proto-historical past: Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon times, the era of the hunter-gatherer. Even then, of course, it is only a projection, an idealization, without support from any science — which, in turn, primitivism rejects as a product of what it opposes.
The argument of primitivism is that modern civilization, indeed, any civilization, is inimical to the nature of human beings. All institutions and technologies represented by civilization are judged to be oppressive. Since the evolution of civilization is largely the evolution of institutions and technology, the primitivist advocates the setting of the hunter-gatherer to be the ideal, if not best, scenario.
One could dismiss these notions as morally plausible but hopelessly Rousseauean and abstract. Primitivism is sometimes described as a form of anarchism, but because anarchism wants to address a social setting for everybody that is viable here and now, anarchism rejects primitivism as retrograde and utopian. Anarchism is more viable because it begins constructively and without forms or ideals that are historical impossibilities.
Unlike a formal theory of anarchism, which is based on a societal model, primitivism has no interest in mass society, or, more precisely, accepts no accountability for the logic of implementing primitivist ideas on a scale larger than the individual. The result is a vague package of theory and speculation presented as viable — but not viable beyond the individual, and it is questionable for the individual as well. The scenario of hunter-gatherer holds more misleading premises and conclusions that are as inimical to others as they are potentially to the line of logic of its advocates.
The first dubious argument is that the hunter-gatherer was morally superior to a person in civilization. While the latter would be largely the product of socialization and hold values second-hand, the hunter-gather derived values (presumably) only from life experience, which would have been, as Hobbes put it (in a different context), “nasty, brutish, and short.” Violence and aggression were more fundamental to early human beings than the primitivist is willing to admit, holding instead to the image of an idealized post-simian society of leisure and plenty. But an individual could not easily survive alone in pre-historic times, and society itself developed from individual cooperation, from individuals working on behalf of the tribe in collective enterprises, not merely individuals on the hunt dragging back prey to be divided up in egalitarian fashion to each according to his need.
Hunting and fishing are intrinsically violent actions. They differ from the violence in food habits of carnivores (simians are not carnivores), which lack an equivalent of the human level of self-consciousness. Animals follow instincts and capacities, and their food-procurement methods are direct and necessary. However, once human beings evolved consciousness, acts of violence such as hunting became an exacerbation of the primordial remnants of the animal brain as much as imitations of animal necessity.
The psychological and social cycle of violence was experienced by humans at a deeper level of consciousness than that of an animal. The experience would have plunged into the psyche and manifested itself in other social ways. Hence, the latent potential for violence and aggression in every human being today is only barely contained, through displacement and ritual, by complex society, by “civilization.” Was violence as containable in hunter-gatherer society lacking institutions, symbols, and rituals — until these, too, evolved?
Of course, civilization reserves for itself forms of aggression and violence not unique to itself but having its origins in human nature, which include human experience in the primitive era. Civilization regularly calls upon these baser instincts. We have only to look around us to see these sublimated but real channels for aggression artfully — but sometimes not so deceptively — played out.
Furthermore, aggression and violence would extend from survival instinct to include not only food but reproduction, territoriality, and physical comfort. Here is the core of human troubles, already established long before the ills of civilization.
This point leads directly to the second dubious premise of primitivism concerning the origins of civilization. In order to explain the shift from the idealized hunter-gatherer setting to corrupting civilization, a leap of faith in an Eden-like fall is necessary. Somewhere, somehow — goes the explanation — strong individuals cowed weaker ones into obedience, and set themselves up as leaders, authorities, and alphas. Such runs the primitivist explanation.
This explanation is derived by analogy to simian behavior, except, again, no mechanism explains the transition from simian domination behavior to primitive human ideal and its corruption to the equivalent of simian domination. This transition, as with Darwinian evolution, has a missing link, except that with evolution environmental pressures can account for disruptions to the group, while primitivism has no independent factors to present other than a corruption of human nature itself. Hence the analogy to origin and fall mythologies.
The solution is ironic because it argues that human nature is not purely benign as the original Rouseauean premise argued. Instead, suddenly, human nature turns against itself to create civilization, which primitivism posits as the moral and psychological opposite of the hunter-gather state. As with biblical Eden, we have no clue as to how the devil got into the garden if he wasn’t suppose to exist at all.
It may be speculated, in turn, that primitivism excoriates civilization in a fundamental revolt against authority — hence, the generic label of anarchism, which has, by the way, been applied to most hermits in history. But existential and psychological theories, too, offer a serious critique of civilization in moral terms without a primitivist solution. Granted, the primitivist critique is often useful, but imitative and with nowhere to turn for explanation or solace. Ultimately, the argument for a hunter-gather model must needs be both a psychological and an ethical one, but cannot be an anthropological or scientific one.
Primitivism cannot escape the necessity of presenting a body of ethics. To do so from a prehistoric stage, however, is going to be deliberate evasion. Who knows so much about that stage, that consciousness? The posited primitive scenario may have no ethics, or an ethic of license, or an ethic of power, or an ethic of altruism — it all depends on what particular behavior is taken to be representative of human nature. But all evidence points to a continuity of human nature from then to today.
Eliminating civilization, too, avoids the ethical issue of means. Today, climate change, peak energy, and the devolution of globalization strongly suggest a collapse scenario in the near future (decades, not centuries). The state of post-collapse humanity is an unknown. But Nietzsche, writing in the late 19th century, had already given the Western world two centuries of viability — and one has already passed. Many persuasive voices from philosophical to literary, not to mention scientists from around the world, have already pronounced on the same schedule, but in their own styles, never triumphalist, always conscious of the underlying mechanisms in the human heart.
Is primitivism not conscious of its implied nihilism in cheering on the collapse of civilization because of institutionalized violence? If the death of God was received by Dostoyevsky with lament not for religion but for human behavior, then cheering on the death of civilization is nearly the same end. In Freudian terms, some can cheer on the death of the Father (Thanatos) but must own the impossibility of taking the father’s place. Who has faith that human consciousness can transcend these deaths?
Civilization is not the sum of its parts. Civilization is the vehicle, not the content. Civilization is the vessel of centuries of thought, wisdom, and creativity — as much as the carrier of stillborn demons. The demons are stirring in the womb, and the death of Gaia (to use scientist James Lovelock’s imagery) will kill both the demons and the womb.
But this, too, was foreseen by the philosophers as a situation of modernity. The death impulse can be traced all the way back — not to the origins of civilization as the work of Cain but to the moment of consciousness when a human being lifted a tool, killed an animal, and (unlike other animals), remembered how compelling was the experience.