Original version by Jake Tompkins, published on October 3, 2016. This is an unofficial edit; I claim no ownership over this.
There is a popular form of politics in radical circles today which argues against “civilization”. These tendencies view civilization as reliant on domination and oppression and feel that as such, civilization needs to be abolished or negated in some way. There are various different tendencies in this milieu including post-leftism, primitivism, and post-civilizationism. The general theme of these tendencies is that civilization is viewed as a source of subordination and oppression of living things, and sometimes the destruction of the Earth itself. What follows shall be a rough critique of the general idea behind these tendencies.
None of these anti-civilization tendencies has broken through the first wall of argument in the sense of offering a specific definition of what they oppose. Civilization tends to be referred to rather than defined by anti-civilizationists. When they do develop some sort of definition, it is often loose and unsatisfactory. Anarcho-Primitivist Derrick Jensen offers the definition of civilization as “a way of life that’s categorized by the growth of the cities”. This essentially confines “civilization” to be dependent not only on the existence of “cities”, but also on their apparent “growth”. This definition is limited because usually when one thinks of “civilization”, it is a broad form of society and life; not merely something as limited as “the growth of cities”. Usually civilization is referred to as modern capitalist society. Nonetheless, civilizations have existed before capitalism, and civilisation itself predates capitalism by thousands of years. Therefore, defining civilization using this metric seems equally limited.
Objectively, the term civilization can broadly be defined as a sophisticated, modern, and advanced form of society and culture. Usually civilizations are categorized by the use of writing, language, and scientific study. This is a kind of society that we should want for a our future: if people are to be free from their respective oppression, the only way to do so is to reconstruct society and replace it with one that is not organized through oppressive social institutions. This means an advanced society of free individuals in free-association with one another, working for the mutual satisfaction of their collective needs.
Anti-Civilization ideologies only hold the world back from the goal of a free society, no matter what they may be: Primitivism, anti-civilizationist individualism, or post-civilizationism. The ideas put forward by these Anti-Civilizationists do not offer a way out of the current problems that exist; they are simply contributing to these problems by ignoring the need for a consciousness based on class struggle and the foundation of a new human society.
The cause of our current woes is not “civilization” as the Anti-Civilizationists have it. It is completely possible to have an advanced society based upon free-relations of human beings, organized according to the diverse and decentralized ecological system and its needs, but this system doesn’t exist because what currently exists is a capitalist system; a system that is categorized by the appropriation and extraction of the general surplus product by a small class of individuals, rather than using said surplus product to fulfill the needs of the collective society.
This view of civilization as the source of the problems we face leads to a confusing analysis; where a vague concept is used to explain the folly of man, and an analysis that looks at how the actual institutions of society function is obscured and ignored. As such, primitivists will often assert that mass society, domestication, language, symbols, and industry construct systems of domination in and of themselves. They base this argument on a notion of the supposed “true” human nature that consigns us to living in hunter-gatherer tribes rather than in mass industrial civilizations. This is a hollow determinism; it assumes that mass industrialized societies are built on a violation of this human nature, therefore change in mass industrialized society is not even up for discussion. It assumes that mass industrialized society cannot be modified at all. Derrick Jensan argues that the importation of resources requires that these resources become dried up in their native areas and as such any society based on the importation of resources is unsustainable. Jensan is against the idea of industry; therefore, the proposal that Peter Kropotkin makes in the Conquest of Bread, that decentralizing industry into federations as to have most of what a locality needs produced in the native area can be completely ignored. However, within this resides irony due to this being a direct answer to the problem that Jensan proposes.
It is not anti-civilizationism that is needed, but a democratic and self-managed civilization inhabited by a real, human community.