A couple decades ago, Ran Prieur was a pretty popular primitivist author, who today retains a cult following. He publishes regularly at ranprieur.com, where he’s archived all his old essays and gives updates on his life and thoughts. His community is most active at the subreddit /r/ranprieur.
I decided to have a conversation with Prieur because his story is pretty similar to mine. When he was younger he tried living off the land and encountered similar hurdles. Today he identifies mostly as a thinker and commentator, but his fundamental views seem to have remained the same. In this discussion we cover what that transition has looked like, some thoughts on social collapse, and the importance of spirituality.
How have your views changed since your days as a thoroughgoing primitivist?
If you look at the general form of primitivism, it’s like this: the world was good, and then evil came into it, and if we can defeat that evil, it will go back to being good.
The funny thing is, that’s Zoroastrianism, a religion of ancient civilizations. Until maybe 3000 years ago, nobody had ever seen the world that way, and now we almost take it for granted. you can see it in every superhero movie. and it’s dangerous, because who decides what’s good and evil?
Now I lean toward the Buddhist idea that evil is a misunderstanding. And you make the world better, not by destroying things, but by helping people understand stuff better.
One tenet of primitivism that I never quite believed, is Daniel Quinn‘s idea that civilization was a fluke. I covered this more deeply in my “Beyond Civilized and Primitive” essay, and James Scott’s book Against the Grain has a lot of new info that I didn’t know when I wrote that. It’s looking less and less like one thing happened and everything changed. Prehistory was maybe even more crazy and complex than history. And Scott thinks the best place to draw the line is not between agriculture and not-agriculture, or city and not-city, but state and not-state.
Anyway, you asked about my views changing, and overall I’m just interested in different stuff. I hardly write about anthropology any more, or politics. I increasingly think that the real action is not out in the world, but inside us. So I’m interested in metacognition, and the mysteries of consciousness, and technologies that can change the human mind. And there are a lot of them right now.
I totally agree with you in regards to the general form of primitivism. I call it the “received primitivist idea.” But that simplistic narrative is changing, and arguably hasn’t represented all forms of primitivism over the years. You mention James C. Scott, for example. I don’t think he identifies as a primitivist, but he’s part of the whole green anarchist reformation, of sorts, that’s happening in radical green thought. Because even though he rejects the Garden-of-Eden-type narrative that the 90s primitivism had, he still agrees that pre-state societies are representative of the best of human social organization. And really, apart from those trying to push a hard ideological line, that’s the basic point of pretty much anyone who calls themselves a primitivist. Would you still place yourself in that class of beliefs, that is, that pre-state societies are the form of society best suited to the human animal?
Secondly, when you say that the focus should be more on the internal, spiritual side of things than on the external political side, what would you say to the political types who say that’s just a form of escapism, not really dealing with the issues of the world?
I think humans have been much happier in non-state societies, than in state societies that existed at the same time. I don’t like to call them pre-state, because that implies a direction of history, toward the state, and then someone could say, We can’t go back to pre-state societies.
I’d rather frame it like this: Humans are in an ongoing process of trying different things. Right now we’re going all-in on the state, but for thousands of years, states and non-state societies existed side by side. In the future, there might be no states. Or there might be one global state, which is arranged so that life is more like it was in non-state societies of the past. Or we might get some kind of crash, and again it will be a mix of states and non-states side by side.
In any case, the future is not going to be like the past, because technology has changed the underlying landscape: geography, tools, resources, culture. And in figuring out how we’re going to live, we can get a lot of ideas from non-state societies of the past.
I like the idea of state and non-state existing side by side again, but instead of one geographical region with a state, and one without, all regions will have both, with the non-state system living in the cracks of the state. All we need is to redefine the state to have much bigger cracks. Like, if your business is below a certain income, you don’t have to do any paperwork at all.
Does anyone really say that [a focus on the spiritual is a way to escape the political]? I don’t want to fight people who work on the level of politics. They’re doing important stuff, like legalizing cannabis and trying to get single-payer health care. And I would hope they would say the same thing, that there is important work to be done on the level of human psychology.
Personally I’ve moved away from politics because my actions don’t seem to make a difference. If I had never lived, the political world would probably be exactly the same. But on the level of my own mind, and the people around me, I can see things getting better all the time.
Thanks for answering those questions. A change of topic real quick. What are your thoughts on collapse? You write in “The Slow Crash” that you thing the whole process will be a slow, painstaking deterioration that will probably look closer to feudal-like structures than anything at first. Do you see any chance of nomadic communities arising from this in North America, perhaps from already-existing nomadic subcultures?
Separately, you’ve talked about religion a lot lately on your blog. A lot of greens are starting to adopt religious sentiments. For example, Paul Kingsnorth recently emailed me, writing:
I believe these days what we are facing is a spiritual crisis: this is at the root of the problem. No new economic system, government, or destruction of systems, will reconnect us again if we can’t get our feet back on the ground and root ourselves in communities and traditions that see the earth as alive and understand that the divine sings through it.
Another friend, Bellamy Fitzpatrick from the Backwoods land project, started off as a pretty hard line secular anarchist, but has recently stated that he gives much more credit to the religious aspects of our relationship to nature. And Andrew Sullivan in NY Mag just put out an article, “America’s New Religions,” that talks about the resurgence of religious loyalties. Do you think this is a real trend? Will it persist? Do you think it is linked to an overall response to global society that hopes to return to more local and traditional ways of life and thinking?
I used to think it was obvious that we were going to get a deep and hard crash. I started doubting that position when Hurricane Katrina shut down America’s largest seaport, and nothing happened elsewhere except gas prices went up. Then I doubted it more as prominent doomers, like James Kunstler, just kept making wrong predictions year after year. I started to see those people as performers, playing to an audience for money, rather than serious forecasters.
Doomers like to use architectural metaphors, like “foundation” or “house of cards.” I seem to remember one about a stack of bricks. But big systems don’t work that way at all. They’re more like animals, or like the mythical hydra, where if you cut off a head, it grows back. [For a contrary perspective, see Kaczynski’s “Hit Where It Hurts” and “Letter to A.O.“]
I still think economic collapse is inevitable, because our economy is based on exponential growth, which can’t continue. There’s a great book called Gaiome, now out of print, where the author calculates that even if we expand into space at light speed, even a very small rate of exponential growth will eventually run out of room. And already, most of our so-called growth is in mostly imaginary financial inventions, and ordinary people are getting poorer.
But I’m not sure how economic collapse will affect technology, or politics, or culture. It’s all so complex, the more I know, the more I don’t know. To answer your question about nomads, I don’t see old-world nomads coming back, but nomadism might emerge in new ways. Already, people are changing jobs much more often than in the 1950’s. And a lot more people are living in their cars.
I’ve been thinking about religion since I saw an Adam Curtis interview, where he predicted “a resurgence of religion.” My first thought was, That sounds true. And my second thought was, What does that even mean? Religion is one of those words where we think we’re all talking about the same simple thing, but really we’re talking about a bunch of different things.
I don’t think we’re going to see more people praying to a sky father deity. That’s a form that religion took in more innocent times. My latest definition of religion (this is, like, a day old) is: a community of people united by a point of focus, which has no practical value, but great psychological value. It’s actually better if the point of focus doesn’t make sense rationally. And it should also serve as an anchor for the community having a common culture.
I think industrial civilization has a crisis of meaning. But then I’m thinking, What does “meaning” mean? Again, it’s that point of focus, the thing you think about while doing other things. In the 20th century it was increasing wealth, which is a dead end. So now people are turning to anything they can find to fill that gap.
Now that I think about it, colonizing other planets is basically a religion. Even though it’s physically possible, it’s extremely impractical. And people who have achieved all earthly goals, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, are pushing it the hardest. So people who refuse to believe in anything supernatural, can still focus on the goal of colonizing mars, to motivate them in their tech industry jobs.
You said earlier that you are focused more on personal and interpersonal changes. What kinds of changes do you recommend, specifically in relation to our over all social crisis?
Given your big transitions in the past few years, what do you consider to be the important questions now?
The funny thing about the “social crisis” is, everyone agrees that we’re having one, but there’s no agreement about what it is.
I think our society has drifted too far from human nature. Unable to make sense of the world, more people are falling into depression and anxiety. I don’t feel qualified to recommend changes, except to say that every person can eventually figure out how they need to change their life so they feel sane again, and these changes will destabilize society, which needs to be destabilized.
Important questions? It depends on who you are. How to end poverty, or reverse climate change, are important questions for billionaires and senators. Personally, I’m interested in the question of how society is going to change, with all this crazy stuff happening on levels of technology and culture. But it’s not that important because I’m mostly just a spectator. My important questions are about how to manage my moment-to-moment habits so my life feels less tedious and more fun.