A Critique of Repent to the Primitive

Problems in Repent to the Primitive

The basic anti-industrial critique — of Freud, of Kaczynski, of Mumford, of Illich, of Shepard — is that industrial society does not adequately satisfy human needs. I argue as much in Repent to the Primitive, outlining the following basic argument:

  1. Human beings (and perhaps nonhumans) possess a will with a drive to flourish.
  2. Civilization in general and industrial society in particular present a strong impediment to the goal of flourishing, because, to exist in either, individuals need to go through a civilizing process, that is, their selves need to be technically modified to be made compatible with civilization.
  3. Thus anyone who wants to flourish must reject civilization.
  4. Because the civilizing process is imperfect, some who have escaped it to varying degrees, known as “wild wills,” provide examples of what rejection of civilization looks like.

The argument is just fine for a general argument and a strong mythology, but it doesn’t hold up to philosophical scrutiny. As I write in the introduction, my primary goal in writing the book was precisely to produce a mythology that presented the general thrust of an anti-civilization ethos. So to avoid distracting discussions that come with the term “human nature,” I simply used to term “human will,” despite the latter being unnecessary because I defined it as synonymous with the former. Furthermore, because I only needed to communicate that there was a general drive in the human will that resisted civilization, I used an undefined concept of “flourishing” to give movement to anti-civilization motivations. But, since it remains undefined, it also remains a weak concept for rigorous critique of industrial society.

This fast-and-loose approach may have fulfilled my requirements for building a mythology, but in the end its lack of rigor led me down the wrong path. Like most human needs theories, two main problems arise with my concept of the flourishing of the will: (1) it does not account for the intersection between the individual and the social; and (2) it does not account for the inability of any individual, under any circumstances, to fully satisfy his needs. In light of these problems, I have dropped my human needs theory and returned again to Kaczynski, who, predictably, already got it right.

The Power Process

In Industrial Society and Its Future (ISAIF) Ted Kaczynski presents a human needs theory that cuts through both of the primary problems most other theories in the field have. In paragraph 33 Kaczynski argues that:

Human beings have a need (probably based in biology) for something that we will call the power process. This is closely related to the need for power (which is widely recognized) but is not quite the same thing. The power process has four elements. The three most clear-cut of these we call goal, effort and attainment of goal. (Everyone needs to have goals whose attainment requires effort, and needs to succeed in attaining at least some of his goals.) The fourth element is more difficult to define and may not be necessary for everyone. We call it autonomy and will discuss it later (paragraphs 42-44).

He explains in paragraph 59:

We divide human drives into three groups: (1) those drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort; (2) those that can be satisfied but only at the cost of serious effort; (3) those that cannot be adequately satisfied no matter how much effort one makes. The power process is the process of satisfying the drives of the second group. The more drives there are in the third group, the more there is frustration, anger, eventually defeatism, depression, etc.

And then he goes on to cover the implications and particulars of these divisions in the following paragraphs 60-76.

Kaczynski’s threefold division of human drives properly accounts for one of the main problems of human needs theories. People like Abraham Maslow tend to have a difficult time justifying their argument that legitimate societies will fulfill human needs, because there are obviously many human needs that can never be satisfied (group three) and because sometimes the circumstances of life make attempts to conquer even usually-easy-to-accomplish tasks impossible. Kaczynski sidesteps these problems by emphasizing the importance of the process of setting, pursuing, and attaining goals, and his nuanced consideration of the possibilities for attaining them. His critique of industry rests solely on the fact that most of the drives we could once satisfy with serious effort (group two) are being transformed into drive we cannot satisfy at all (group three), resulting in major psychological problems.

Most of the literature critical of human needs theories is also irrelevant in regards to Kaczynski’s framework. For example, Patricia Springborg’s The Problem of Human Needs and the Critique of Civilization argues that human needs theories present a means for activists to always find a reason to rebuke society. They can simply keep adding “needs” to human beings, ad hoc, until it becomes impossible for any form of social organization to accomodate them. “The Power Process” is nuanced enough to make this a critique of only marginal importance.

There is also what Rubenstein calls “the ‘moral man / immoral society’ construct that makes needs theory so appealing to advocates of social change.” Human needs literature has long acknowledged that many of its theories assume a naively optimistic view of human nature, tending to encourage the idea that, without any external imposition from social structures, human life would largely be sunshine and roses. This was, for example, the perspective of Rousseau. But such a view of human nature ignores the very obvious needs for things like aggression, and it tends to neglect research into the biological bases of various criminal behaviors (see The Anatomy of Violence by Adrian Rice). In fact, as Kaczynski himself points out, a society better-suited to human needs would probably result in social norms that greatly offend modern moral sensibilities.

Furthermore, such a stark division between the individual and society may activate in the individual a tendency to blame society for his own psychological problems. As Ramashray Roy writes, needs theory’s vision of society as “merely … an opportunity structure” for the individual threatens to teach that the “constraints or obstacles to action” are “located not internally, within the individual himself, but externally, embedded in the socio-cultural environment.”

Finally, the “moral man / immoral society” construct makes it difficult for human needs theorists to account for one of human being’s most important class of needs, namely, the social ones. If humans have a need for a social identity, and therefore a social structure that grants them that identity, and they have a need for various social interactions like grooming, sex, or simply communication, then it makes no sense to frame social structures as necessarily a set of external impositions on the individual. Such a framework leads to simplistic and highly individualistic conceptions of a good human life, one that is concerned only with individual personal satisfaction at the expense of the social. It is also very well-suited to the consumerist ethos, as Adam Curtis points out in his documentary film, The Century of the Self.

Kaczynski avoids these problems by emphasizing the element of the power process that he calls “autonomy” (paragraph 42):

Autonomy as a part of the power process may not be necessary for every individual. But most people need a greater or lesser degree of autonomy in working toward their goals. Their efforts must be undertaken on their own initiative and must be under their own direction and control. Yet most people do not have to exert this initiative, direction and control as single individuals. It is usually enough to act as a member of a small group. Thus if half a dozen people discuss a goal among themselves and make a successful joint effort to attain that goal, their need for the power process will be served. But if they work under rigid orders handed down from above that leave them no room for autonomous decision and initiative, then their need for the power process will not be served. The same is true when decisions are made on a collective basis if the group making the collective decision is so large that the role of each individual is insignificant.

As above, Kaczynski writes that autonomy is not necessarily a very strong need in every individual, and he concedes that this indeed seems to be the case for some parts of the human race. However, he demonstrates that this need for autonomy is clearly very strong in some individuals. It is here that I would bring in the examples of the wild will given in Repent to the Primitive.

Kaczynski’s framework also allows one to see more clearly the importance of my distinction between “solidarity” and “civility.” In “Taking Rewilding Seriously” I write:

Let me be clear. Solidarity, cooperation and altruism in small, natural social groups, is necessary for human flourishing. The human animal needs mates, parents, peers, elders to go beyond simply surviving and to live well. But civilitymust be instilled; it is a technological modification. Consider Freud’s thoughts on the matter in Civilisation and Its Discontents, in which he writes that one of the characteristic elements of civilisation is ‘..the manner in which the relationships of men to one another, their social relationships, are regulated — relationships which affect a person as a neighbour, as a source of help, as another person’s sexual object, as a member of a family and of a State’ (much like social manners began to be regulated in the Middle Ages).

But this distinction is not easily compatible with my idea that the primary purpose of the individual is to fulfill his own personal needs. Otherwise, there would be no solidarity at all, which in all human societies has included a great deal of sacrifice for the sake of others in the social group. With Kaczynski’s concepts of autonomy and the power process, this problem is abated.

Beyond Rewilding and Out of the Silo

Beyond the specific problems with my human needs theory, Repent to the Primitive fails in its goal to give a general mythology for anti-civilization impulses. It only applies to a small subset of anti-civilization impulses: those known as “rewilding.”

I am personally sympathetic to the rewilding approach, and I doubt that will ever change. My anti-modern impulses are not Christian or Islamic, nihilist or pessimist, or even anarchist except in the most general sense. I also have an enormous amount of admiration for nature, a primary pillar of my personal reasons for rejecting the industrial way of life. I will, then, continue my rewilding pursuits in my personal life. I will also continue to encourage them in the U.S. and other parts of the developed world, like Australia and various European nations, especially since I think it, along with nihilism and anarchism, presents one of the only available responses dislodged industrial citizenry have to the problem of industry.

But in terms of actually addressing the problem of world society and its industrial-technological base, the terms of unity and the basis for political action must be much broader. I have moved in this direction a little with the critiques issued in Reflections no. 1, suggesting that political action should be based primarily on opposition to world society and inspired by the possibilities that ending world society would present. Repent to the Primitive is of little use to this effort, except insofar as it appeals to a subset of its “political” constituents, the rewilders.

Blast from the Past

Ultimately I am happy that I made the mistakes I did in Repent to the Primitive, because it allows me to better understand some of the problems social movements of the 60s and later faced. Human needs theories became especially popular during this time, and they tended to populate the many social movements of the decade. However, as social movements failed to achieve their goals, more and more radicals sheltered themselves with a self-referential, ironic politic that emphasized self-expression and art rather than collective political action. This problem continues to be the primary hurdle for radicals in the industrial world.

During my time at college, I no doubt instigated a sense of nostalgia in many of my university superiors, themselves children of the 60s. For the past forty or so years these individuals have seen an enormous shift in the political landscape, and then, all of a sudden, a young boy inspired by Earth First!, using loads of LSD, and evangelizing for the Unabomber bumbles into their lives, imploring them to take seriously the prospects of an anti-industrial revolution. I’m sure the image was helped by me dropping out of college and putting out what I considered the keystone achievement of my time at university, a book that argued for the very same radical politic of self-expression that the 60s terminated with.

I hope now to move on from this phase of my life, to formulate a politic that responds to the failure of the 60s and properly accounts for the new 21st century landscape. It is time to recognize that self-expression is not the most important thing, nor is it a particularly powerful mode of resistance; that there is a reason the radical environmentalist movement has devolved into a safe-haven for privileged drop-outs; and that drugs are not, in fact, a means of “breaking free.” Instead, we must look at the possibilities for powerfully responding to the problem of world society and the continued devastation its industrial-technological base wreaks on our lives.

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