A Problem with Labels: Primitivism, Anarchism, Nihilism

Ideologically the ideas espoused here are a variant of primitivism, distinct mostly because it eschews romantic and utopian ideas about human nature for more conservative ones.

The politics derived from it belongs to the anarchist tradition because of the emphasis on autonomy — there could certainly be authoritarian and fascist versions of primitivism. But I’ve eschewed the label “anarcho-primitivist” because, apart from its clunkiness, direct association with anarchism tends to create the sense that the politics is humanist. Primitivism, properly formulated, must be philosophically conservative (and politically even reactionary) because its central values focus on conserving and restoring.

It is of course quite different from mainstream associations with “conservative,” which is equated with “right-wing.” It, like many radical ideologies, mostly transgresses the left-right divide and even allies itself with left-wing ideologies. But “conservative” is a less political and more philosophical term that doesn’t even apply to much of the right today. You might call primitivists “the real paleoconservatives.” Still there is a rich tradition of conservative anarchism and it is an appropriate term to the right audience.

Finally, in what sense is the politics described nihilist? Superficially there are many similarities to political and philosophical variants of nihilism. Like the narodniks and nihilists of Russia, it is materialist in orientation; the same Nietzschean implications materialism has for moral philosophy apply; and the emphasis on action remains. “‘What is to be done?’ was originally a nihilist slogan, after all, before Lenin appropriated it” (see The New Nihilism, Peter Lamborn Wilson).

But it would be a mistake to say the similarities are more than correlational. They merely point to the similarities of all forms of nihilism that have resurfaced, repeatedly, in the modern age. Today this nihilism is resurfacing again, and seems the logical end point of nearly all radical ideologies. The ideas explained here, then, while primitivist, conclude, like all radical ideologies are doing, in a nihilist impulse — “the rejection of civilization as such” (see “German Nihilism,” Leo Strauss); the belief that the existing order must be destroyed before sufficient alternatives can be established.

What is the point of detailing primitivist ideas if it ends in nihilism anyway? Why not start at the end? The answer is twofold: political and philosophical.

Politically primitivism is probably the most appealing mode of thinking about world affairs among the educated industrial citizenry. While traditional societies have religion, ethnic loyalties, etc., the modern world, if it is to be convinced of the need for a revolt against modernity, must be shown the nihilist conclusion of its own civilization and its scientific superstructure. Primitivism does this because it takes into account the findings of cognitive psychology — such as the essentially Paleolithic character of human beings — and the moral implications of materialism and evolution.

Philosophically it is necessary not to start with nihilism because, however much the ultimate implication is complete relativity, the human being is situated in a real world with real interests and must choose one of the myriad of options presented to him. This is the essential conundrum of nihilism, the whole point of all Nietzche and  Dostoyevky’s pontificating about values and choice and affirmation.  It is an open question whether individuals really can choose their values and meaning or whether meaning is locally produced. But whatever the answer, the point is that one cannot start with nihilism; one is led to nihilism.

In conclusion, the terms don’t end up mattering as much as they would in many classical political circumstances, when the primary goal was to build an identity and movement around a totalizing ideology. To the extent that this applies (mostly in the industrial world) “primitivist” and “anarchist” are more appropriate. But globally the politics of antimodernism extends beyond primitivism, environmentalism, etc., even though these are a crucial nexus of the conflict. The idea is more to demonstrate the unity of concerns of already-existing bases of power, like extant traditional communities, religious groups, or subcultures. Whatever label one uses doesn’t matter so long as it properly communicates this to the audience; that is, that its psychological effect is awareness of a global conflict between industrial and traditional ways of life, technology and nature, and the impulse to conserve man or remake him.

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