Submitted by subrosa in FuckDave

Direct Action: An Ethnography is worse than I expected. Maybe it was fresh in 2009, but I doubt it.

Between hundreds of pages dedicated to documenting DEMOCRATIC MEETINGS, and the oh-so-interesting things organizers, spokes (shudder) and activists had to say in 2001, there's a short chapter attempting to answer What is Anarchism? in about 5,000 words.

For this chapter it is worth noting, the figure that gets mentioned most often is Karl Marx. But even more amusing to me is just how much space and attention primitivism gets.

Check this out...

There are thousands of Marxist academics but very few Anarchist ones. This is not because anarchism is anti-intellectual so much as because it does not see itself as fundamentally a project of analysis. It is more a moral project.

[...]

Marxism has tended to be a theoretical or analytical discourse about revolutionary strategy; anarchism, an ethical discourse about revolutionary practice.

[...]

Even many of those who do identify themselves with one particular strain act in ways that would be impossible to understand if we were dealing with a political ideology in anything like the traditional sense of the term. Let me take one example—Primitivism—perhaps the most obviously outré. In America, Primitivist ideas first began to take form in circles surrounding a journal called the Fifth Estate, in Detroit, in the 1970s and 1980s. The argument began as a synthesis of a certain strain of Marxism with ideas first articulated by socialist heretics such as Jacques Ellul and Jacques Camatte, who came to see the nature of technology itself as lying at the core of most of what Marx saw as alienating and oppressive about capital, and thus rejected the idea that the proletariat, as an essential part of the global “megamachine,” could possibly be the agents of a revolution (Millet 2004). As part of a broader critique developing around that time of the productivist bias in traditional leftist thought, it’s hard to see this as anything but perfectly normal debate. By the 1990s, however, the most aggressive strain of Primitivist thought began to coalesce around the figure of John Zerzan, one time ultra-leftist, who began expressing utter hostility not only to “the Left” but to “civilization” itself. Zerzan basically took the most radical position that it was possible to take, arguing that everything from plant domestication to music, writing, math, art, and ultimately, even speech—basically all forms of symbolic representation, anything other than absolute, direct, unmediated experience—were really forms of alienation that could only be overcome through the destruction of civilization in its entirety, and a return to the stone age. Now, the influence of Zerzan on anarchism has been considerably overstated in the media, but, there are a significant number of Green Anarchists who take his ideas very seriously, and these Green Anarchists produce any number of zines and journals that aggressively tout these ideas, engaging in constant vitriolic debates with anyone willing to cast doubt on any aspect of the ultra-Primitivist position.

The idea of a return to the paleolithic—the rejection of plant domestication, let alone language—is obviously absurd. It would require reducing the earth’s population by at least 99.9%. Nor are Primitivists entirely unaware of this: the Fifth Estate people had a long debate about the problem back in the 1970s, the editors coming to the conclusion that, since they didn’t really wish to see a global catastrophe such as a nuclear war, the best one could hope for was a gradual process of negative population growth. Most current Primitivists seem to alternate between openly espousing industrial and demographic collapse—I have heard some argue that humankind is a virus which needs to be largely eradicated—to, in defiance of all logic and common sense, denying that massive population decline would even be necessary (Zerzan often does this before non-anarchist audiences). At the same time, these same authors will regularly denounce anyone who advocates the classic anarchist strategy of “building a new society in the shell of the old.” They ridicule any talk of the slow, painful creation of new institutions as outmoded “Leftism,” arguing that only the complete destruction of all existing structures and institutions, followed by a return to our instinctual “wildness,” could possibly bring about real liberation.

My purpose here is not to critique the Primitivist position: this is obviously pointless. It clearly makes no sense to attack any strategy other than waiting for catastrophe, and then deny one is advocating catastrophe. My real point is: if this were a classic ideological position, one should expect the effects to be utterly de-politicizing.

[...]

Primitivism perhaps most closely resembles a traditional sectarian ideology in trying to vanquish all opposing positions, but its content is palpably fantastic and for the most part could not possibly be reflected in practice.

[...]

If anarchism is not an attempt to put a certain sort of theoretical vision into practice, but is instead a constant mutual exchange between inspirational visions, anti-authoritarian attitudes, and egalitarian practices, it’s easy to see how ethnography could become such an appropriate tool for its analysis.

bold emphasis mine

Couple notes, in case my emphasis wasn't clear enough:

  • "Building the new world in the shell of the old" is not exactly a classic anarchist strategy, but an old lefty slogan, popularized by the IWW constitution. Of course primitivists shit on industrial unionism, what did you expect?

  • According to Graeber, anarchism isn't a project of analysis, but a moral one. And while Marxists have revolutionary strategy, anarchists have revolutionary practice. — Is that why Graeber insists on the classic anarchist strategy of the IWW? Is that why he presents his ethnography (=documenting what spokes say in meetings) as the appropriate tool for analysis?

  • Imagine thinking something's wrong with taking the most radical position, while also denouncing the defiance of "common sense."

  • Primitivists "advocate for the complete destruction of civilization," (yes!) but also, they're really just waiting for catastrophe while denying it is just waiting for catastrophe (??). Also, anarchism is not an attempt to put a certain sort of theoretical vision into practice. But also, let's talk direct democracy, gift economy, industrial unionism.

Graeber is no fun to read. Knee-jerk reactions to radical positions, endless democracy fetishism, boring writing style, academic and yet careless. My hopes for anything like "a good, radical Graeber" are dwindling.

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Comments

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ziq wrote

Imagine thinking something's wrong with taking the most radical position, while also denouncing the defiance of "common sense."

Yeah lol. He's actually using 'radical' as a smear. Oh Dave.

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subrosa OP wrote

Not a critique btw ;)

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ziq wrote (edited )

My real point is: if this were a classic ideological position, one should expect the effects to be utterly de-politicizing.

So are you gonna take his advice and go full anprim now? Good way to achieve anti-politics by the sounds of it.

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subrosa OP wrote

It's a good invitation for sure. Thanks, Davey.

Think I'm fairly anprim, at heart. Just don't feel like fighting redditors on that front, or writing about the hard limits of symbolic thought or whatever. Often dream of getting a cheap piece of land in the woods of Slovakia, for a quiet forest wizard life.

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Styx wrote (edited )

My hopes for anything like "a good, radical Graeber" are dwindling.

🥳🥳🥳

I tried to read this one and I skimmed it up to the page 50 (or so) where he was rambling about how they had to stop at some pastry shop because one of his buddies had a sweet tooth and I thought -- life's too short for Graeber being in love with his own voice.

academic and yet careless

The problem is that he is not being 'academic' at all! Why the fuck is he talking about Marx in relation to anarchism? If he wanted to go the commie road, there are plenty of ancom writers he could have engaged with. And a huge lol at the primitivism critique -- where is he getting it from, reddit???

This comes up again and again with Graeber. He ignores (literally ignores) well-known authors and studies that do not happen to fit within his pre-establish views. Most of his ideas are not original at all -- yeah, let's have assemblies to figure out the new world, nobody thought about this one before! He never bothers with the details of his stunning proposals. Oh, we'll just automatise; it's already happening anyway -- so what's there to discuss. Oh we'll just have spokes and fishbowl bullshit to resolve our difference, no need to even mention things like the tyranny of majority, heard mentality, contrarians -- we'll just magically wave all of this away. (As a digression: I find it disturbing how his 'democracy' fetish basically comes down to how we all have to talk out our differences until we can all agree -- no we don't!)

I have to say it again, the fact that Graeber, the activist, anarchist and 'theorist,' is even a thing is a testimony to the fact that a white male privilege is still at its most robust.

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subrosa OP wrote

Yeah. Academic in number of citations, in namedropping, in authoritative tone. Careless like he's having opinions for his blog.

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Styx wrote

Primitivists "advocate for the complete destruction of civilization," (yes!) but also, they're really just waiting for catastrophe while denying it is just waiting for catastrophe (??).

Totally not Jews/Muslims/Feminists (whatever villain de jour) formed this globalist cabal that controls every crevice of the society and yet, they are also weak, degenerate subrace that must be exterminated.

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