Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Murray Bookchin: using x-rays for hair removal and fitting children’s shoes (1962)

To make matters worse, X-ray equipment was rapidly debased into a cosmetic agent and, finally, into a sales promotion device. It was found that X rays could cause a loss of hair (epilation), an effect that suggested lucrative possibilities. By the 1920’s many physicians, beauticians, and self-appointed “epilation specialists” had begun to treat women with radiation for the removal of “superfluous hair.” One New York physician, Dr. Albert C. Geyser, developed a “harmless” method of hair removal that involved cumulative dosages of at least 500 roentgens over a twelve-week period of radiation treatment. The method, named the “Tricho System,” was very successful, and beauticians trained by Geyser’s “Tricho Institute” began operating in many parts of the United States and Canada. It soon became evident, however, that women treated according to the “Tricho System” lost substantially more than unwanted hair. Many individuals acquired radiodermatitis (skin inflammation), severe radiation burns, festering skin ulcers, and, in time, cancer. The “Tricho” story is one of the more tragic episodes in the history of radiation. It is believed that the victims of Geyser’s system numbered in the thousands; the exact number of those who suffered latent injury and premature death will never be known.

Although radiation is no longer employed in the American beauty parlor, the use of X-ray equipment to fit shoes still lingers in a number of communities. The equipment is used mainly on the feet of children. As of 1960, the use of the shoe-fitting fluoroscope had been banned in twenty-nine states. Some of the other states regulate the use of the machine, but in a few states there are no restrictions at all. A number of local surveys cited by Schubert and Lapp have shown that the machines are often defective, giving high doses of radiation to both the child and the salesman. The Michigan Department of Health, for example, found shoe-fitting machines that emitted as many as 65 roentgens (r) a minute. A survey in Boston showed that irradiation of the foot ranged from 0.5 to 5.8 r a second. (The use of shoe-fitting fluoroscopes has been banned in Boston by state law and is regulated in Michigan.) “For a 22-second exposure, which is commonly used, the feet receive from 10 to 116 rl” Schubert and Lapp write. “Remember, too, that one child may have his feet examined many times while trying on different shoes. Similar dosage measurements have been reported by the United States Public Health Service, which states that the average dosages to the children’s feet are between 7 r and 14 r per exposure.” The amount of scattered radiation that reaches the child’s pelvic region and gonads may run as high as 0.2 roentgens for a Twenty second exposure.

= = = =

Murray Bookchin (under the pseudonym Lewis Herber), Our Synthetic Environment, chapter 6. Originally published in 1962, this text taken from Anarchy Archives.

Anti-Authoritarians Anonymous – Adventures in Subversion: Flyers and Posters, 1981-85

This classic booklet of post-Situ flyers was made by John Zerzan and Dan Todd, probably in 1985. The version this is made from lists the publisher as Oh! Press in San Francisco.

6 MB version

14 MB version

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Louis Adamic: Workers Against Machines (excerpt from ‘Dynamite!’) (1931)

In a shoe factory in Milwaukee a man was pointed out to me who was known among some of his fellow workers to be a saboteur. An eccentric-looking person, he hated the machines and had all sorts of devices to damage them. He was an indefinite sort of radical, and he considered the machines a great curse to humanity. I have encountered this hate for machines elsewhere. People vent it in various forms of sabotage, which has no connection with I.W.W.-ism or Communism, but is purely a matter of personal resentment and vindictiveness. I have seen people who – sometimes drunk, sometimes sober – cursed the machine and, passing by, shook their fists at the mills, declaring they were not their slaves. Every big industrial town seems to have ‘nuts’ who believe that machines are alive and hold them – the workers – in their power.

Shortly after the war I read – I forget where – about an American soldier – “a nut” – who believed that machines were killing people in revenge for the work that they were made to do. “Stop the machines,” he would cry, lying wounded in a hospital, “and there’ll be no more war. Machines make war – machines kill us!”

===

from Louis Adamic, Dynamite! The Story of Class Violence in America (Oakland & Edinburgh: AK Press, 1931/2008), p 279.

Sam Dolgoff: “Modern Technology and Anarchism” (1986)

“Modern Technology and Anarchism”
Sam Dolgoff

In their polemics with the Marxists the anarchists argued that the state subjects the economy to its own ends. An economic system once viewed as the prerequisite for the realization of socialism now serves to reinforce the domination of the ruling classes. The very technology that could now open new roads to freedom has also armed states with unimaginably frightful weapons for the extinction of all life on this planet.

Only the social revolution can overcome the obstacles to the introduction of the free society. Yet the movement for emancipation is threatened by the far more formidable political, economic and social power and brain-washing techniques of the ruling classes. To forge a revolutionary movement, inspired by anarchist ideas is the great task to which we must dedicate ourselves.

To make the revolution we must stimulate the revolutionary spirit and the confidence of the people that their revolution will at last reshape the world nearer our aspirations. Revolutions are stirred by the conviction that our ideals can and will be realized. A big step in this direction is to document the extent to which the liberating potential of modern technology constitutes a realistic, practical alternative to the monopoly and abuse of power.  This is not meant to imply that anarchism will miraculously heal all the ills inflicting the body social. Anarchism is a twentieth century guide to action based on realistic conceptions of social reconstruction.

Anarchism is not a mere fantasy. Its fundamental constructive principle – – mutual aid – – is based on the indisputable fact that society is a vast interlocking network of cooperative labor whose very existence depends upon its internal cohesion. What is indispensable is emancipation from authoritarian institutions over society and authoritarianism within the people’s associations – – themselves and miniature states.

Peter Kropotkin, who formulated the sociology of anarchism, wrote that “Anarchism is not a utopia. The anarchists build their previsions of the future society upon the observation of life at the present time…” If we want to build the new society the materials are here.

DECENTRALIZATION

When Kropotkin wrote in 1899, his classic Fields, Factories and Workshops to demonstrate the feasibility of decentralizing industry to achieve a greater balance and integration between rural and urban living, his ideas were dismissed by many as premature. However, it is no longer disputed that the problem of making the immense benefits of modern industry available to even the smallest communities has largely been solved by modern technology. Even bourgeois economists, sociologists and administrators like Peter Drucker, John Kenneth Galbraith, Gunnar Myrdal, Daniel Bell and others now favor a large measure of decentralization no because they have suddenly become anarchists, but primarily because technology has rendered anarchistic forms of organization “operational necessities” – – a more efficient devise to enlist the cooperation of the masses in their own enslavement.

Continue reading ‘Sam Dolgoff: “Modern Technology and Anarchism” (1986)’

‘The Origins of Primitivism’ set (1977-1988)

RADICAL ARCHIVES is happy to finally present our ‘Origins of Primitivism’ set. It consists of 16 documents related to the development of contemporary primitivist thought, which were first printed in Fifth Estate between 1977 and 1988. All of these documents (listed at bottom) are available online for the first time.

Additionally, David Watson has contributed a short introduction and reflection on these texts for the occasion of putting them online; it is available here.

(If you are new to Radical Archives, we recommend you look at the index of texts posted, and the about statement, which describes the site’s topic interests.)

The most important of the these texts is David Watson’s “Against the Megamachine” (originally published in 1981), which outlines his distinct version of primitivism. Watson renounced ideological primitivism with 1997’s “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ‘Ideological Vortex': Farewell to All That”, two years before the demonstrations in Seattle against the WTO. Partly because of Watson’s exit from the discourse, Zerzan’s version (which actually had been developed later) became synonymous with the concept “anarcho-primitivism”.

Watson’s essay is the only document of this set which was previously in print; it is available as the title essay of the Autonomedia book Against the Megamachine: Essays on Empire and Its Discontents. Prior to this, the other texts were only accessible in specialized archival holdings.

Also of importance is “Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time”, which is a long critique of Zerzan’s article “Beginning of Time, End of Time” (which was the first of his five “origins” essays). Written under Watson’s pen name “George Bradford”, this much-overlooked critique summarizes what are the basic objections to Zerzan’s view from a sympathetic perspective: that the notion of purely unalienated being (and along with it, the abolition of agriculture) is a misguided – and impossible – approach to these issues. Paralleling many discussions within the Western Marxist and Existentialist milieu (especially regarding Georg Lukács’s early work on reification), Watson argues that separation is something intrinsic to human nature, and cannot  be seen as ‘outside’ of our own human existence. To abolish separation is to return to the womb or ascend into heaven.

The third essay of special importance is Bob Brubaker’s “Community, Society and the State”. Brubaker was a Fifth Estate writer who was involved in the magazine’s dialogue as primitivism was developed. Brubaker’s work has been largely forgotten.

The fourth essay of special importance is Fifth Estate‘s 1977 review of Gary Snyder’s The Old Ways, Six Essays. Steve Millett has identified this as the first complete statement of a primitivist perspective to appear in Fifth Estate.

Last, a letter from Marcus Graham, who had edited the anarchist magazine MAN! in the 1930s, shows the issues Fifth Estate was grappling with around technology, organization, etc. had been long-standing discussions in the anarchist milieu, well back into the classical era.

By making these documents available online, hopefully a richer understanding of the different strains of primitivism will result, as well as a constructive and critical dialogue regarding this intellectual and political current. Important questions were asked by the founders of primitivism, including: critiques of political organization, spontaneity and resistance; the role of technology and the question of its autonomy; and basic ontological questions about civilization, alienation and environmental domination. With the partial exception of insurrectionism, these questions have largely been shelved by the post-Seattle anglophone anti-authoritarian milieu.

While Radical Archives is neither “primitivist” nor “anti-civ”, our position is that these questions have not been answered by Murray Bookchin’s brand of social ecology, John Zerzan’s version of primitivism, or any version of ‘green syndicalism’.

It is partly for this reason, and partly out of interest in anarchist intellectual history, that we are returning to the time in which these questions were being actively grappled with in the anti-authoritarian milieu.

Radical Archives would like to thank Steve Millet for pointing out many of these works in his dissertation, as well as to David Watson and Peter Werbe for their help in identifying who wrote many of these articles. We would also like to give special thanks to Dylan Smith for the many hours he spent transcribing all of these works; without his labor, none of this would be possible.

We hope in the near future to make available a number of related works, including works by primitivist John Moore, Sam Dolgoff’s essay on technology, as well as other works of Bob Brubaker.

THE ORIGINS OF PRIMITIVISM SET

Introduction to ‘The Origins of Primitivism’ Set by David Watson (2010)

The First Primitivist Essay: “Gary Snyder Asks: Poetry or Machines? Back to the Stone Age” (1977)

“Technology & the State: An Introduction” (1978)

“FE Criticized and Our Response” (1978)

“On Having Nothing to Say” (1979)

“Searching for the Culprit” (1979)

“Against Civilization: Introduction to Russell Means” (1980)

Introduction to ‘Fifth Estate’ #306 (1981)

“Against the Megamachine” by David Watson (1981-1985/1997)

“Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism” by George Bradford (1981)

“Community, Primitive Society and the State” by Bob Brubaker (1981)

“Defeated Spirit?”, letter from John Zerzan to ‘Fifth Estate’ (1981)

Marcus Graham on ‘Fifth Estate’, Anarchism, Technology & Bookchin (1981)

“More Debate on Technology: Does FE View Mean ‘War or Big Brother?’”, letter from Chris Dugan and reply from John Zerzan  (1982)

“Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time” by George Bradford (1983)

Language: John Zerzan on George Bradford on John Zerzan (1984)

Introduction to John Zerzan’s “Agriculture” essay, by E.B. Maple (1988)

David Watson: Introduction to the Origins of Primitivism Set (2010)

One thing I would say and may have already said in my books Beyond Bookchin and Against the Megamachine and my essay “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ‘Ideological Vortex': Farewell to All That” is that I am not opposed at all to some kind of reasoned primitivism. I just distrust all “isms,” and in the case of much of self-proclaimed anarcho-primitivism, the insights of a primitivist view (for example, to be found in Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive, The Old Ways, much anthropological literature, and the writings and testimonies of native peoples) has become a simplistic, dogmatic, and sometimes fascistic response to problems that demand instead our humanity, compassion, and humility.

I admire so-called primitive or original and tribal societies and believe they offer profound answers to what it means to be human, particularly in the present crisis in world industrial capitalist civilization. They don’t have all the answers, and there is no way they can be fully reproduced, but we need to pay attention to all our ancestors, and to the great traditions – primitive, archaic, and modern – in our evolutionary experience. I think Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild one of the most powerful expressions of respect for primitive and archaic traditions, and search for a synthesis of ancient and modern, today, and I recommend it emphatically for its wisdom, beautiful writing, erudition, sense of humor, humility, and humanity.

I must confess that I am pessimistic about our capacity to save ourselves and the complex web of planetary life we know with any insight or political outlook, but I don’t see any reason to give up, and I admire and try to find ways to support those who continue to seek answers and to fight back. Caring about and responding to the crisis in a humane way is one of the few things remaining that keep us human.

I may look at this later and want to modify (or clarify) what and how I am saying this, but it is largely how I have felt about these matters since the days when we were first exploring and debating these ideas. I am grateful to Dylan Smith and Radical Archives and everyone else who did the hard work to make these texts available.

David Watson,
September 2010

Chris Dugan & John Zerzan: “More Debate on Technology: Does FE View Mean ‘War or Big Brother?'” (1982)

MORE DEBATE ON TECHNOLGY

DOES FE VIEW MEAN “WAR OR BIG BROTHER?

Dear Fifth Estate:

The cover graphic of the mushroom cloud with the word WAR! in seven centimeter lettering across the front struck me as highly appropriate for the Fifth Estate (See FE Nov. 19, 1981). It would seem to me that a worldwide nuclear war would surely be a progressive step towards “Paleolithic Liberation.” In all your polemics against technology and in your point by point rebuttals to pro-tech arguments you never seem to deal with the sort of question I am inclined to raise. Namely, how do you expect 4 billion people to sustain themselves on the planet in a hunter gatherer mode of production?

The population of the planet in paleolithic times was a mere fraction of one percent of the present population. This was true for a reason; human beings needed to live within the carrying capacity of the environment. There is an optimal level in the ratio of the number of human beings to a given ecosystem for a given mode of production. I would suggest that the development of agriculture, the state, classes and technology has been a long term process of intensification of production in response to rising population pressures. With each new innovation (i.e. semi-nomadic agriculture to sedentary rainfall agriculture to irrigation agriculture, etc.) the carrying capacity of the environment is increased making further population expansion possible which leads to eventual depletions and pressure towards still more intensified production strategies.

With the development of newer modes of production for larger populations there have been various trade-offs. These have included the development of despotic bureaucracies such as the techno-managerial elite which solidified itself permanently as a class in China around 500 BC in control of the elaborate irrigation system which developed there in response to the food demands of a rising population. Although there have been “revolutions” and conquests by foreign invaders throughout China’s history, the region has always been ruled by a bureaucratic ruling class and continues to this day. Other trade-offs have included longer working hours and greater and greater degrees of alienation.

The Fifth Estate makes its strongest theoretical contributions in its analysis of alienation, dehumanized mechanized labor and the techno-wasteland culture. I find myself agreeing with practically all of your arguments while agreeing with virtually none of your conclusions. There can be no denying the role that technology, especially centralized heavy industrial production, has had in degrading the spontaneity and creativity of the human spirit in favor of a homogenized, docile workforce of obedient order-takers. To assert that this is an inevitable result of technology in any form misses the point entirely, though.

The factory as a force for social control did not develop though some sort of process inherent in technology itself, it was developed deliberately by capitalists in their efforts to secure greater control over the workforce. I would direct your attention to John Zerzan’s “Industrialization and Domestication (see FE April 1976) for a closer look at the late 18th and early 19th century class struggles I am referring to. The modern factory was developed, in part, as a weapon of the capitalist class in the class struggle.

Virtually all technology in history has developed within a class matrix of one sort or another. Yet you seem to regard technology as being an independent force with an intrinsic mad logic all its own and unconnected to any sort of class analysis. I am not arguing that technology in its present form will be liberating and non-alienating if only the “good guys” take it over from the “bad guys.” An assembly line will always be alienating to some degree, even if it is under total workers’ control.

I see three major directions in which our species can go. The first is towards the continually expanding techno-managerial Orwellian computer Mega-state. This would involve greater and greater interlocks amongst the planet’s ruling elites, greater control over the lives and thoughts of individuals, and a steady erosion of individual liberty, free thought and free expression.

The second likely direction is mass self-destruction through a nuclear war or an eco-catastrophe. This second course would favor the FE’s goals, in my view, as it would drastically reduce the population pressures of the human species for obvious reasons. The question of how a reduced human population could live in a paleolithic mode of production and have enough for everyone to eat remains only partially answered at best.

The third choice which our species has is towards an ecologically sound, decentralized humanistic technology. There is simply no other way to support the basic needs of 4 billion people without some forms of technology or a massacre. If you can prove me wrong, please do so and I will eat my typewriter. That’s a promise!

Population control is going to be essential one way or the other. The techno-Megastate will accomplish this through war, genocide, family planning by government decree, and through forced sterilization of “undesirables.” The alternative is voluntary, rational population control by a cooperative planet-wide confederation of ecologically-based autonomous communities. The alternatives are Big Brother or the mushroom cloud on the cover of FE (or both!).

In Support of Your Paper
(even though we disagree).
Chris Dugan
The League for Evolutionary Anarchism & Freedom
Box 18488
Denver CO 80218

John Zerzan responds: To see class society as the “response to rising population pressures” is to view it as a natural, inevitable outcome and neglect the tragic struggle of communal life against its domination. For an anarchist, I would have thought Kropotkin’s stress on mutual aid and the perfectibility of society would be more pertinent to the question of population than Hobbes and Malthus, who seem larger influences and who bolstered bourgeois ideology by elevating the scarcity of resources and proclaiming the constancy of the ethical limitations of humanity.

Similarly, your prescription of a “planet-wide confederation” to somehow control population on a “voluntary, rational” basis seems to me way off for one who, presumably, desires a free, unmediated condition of life. I would think that either people will apprehend and express the dimensions of anarchy directly or they will need the lingering authority of global bureaux. Not both.

In the matter of technology, here also a couple of unsound notions. You cite my “Industrialism & Domestication” as a corrective to the idea, allegedly the Fifth Estate’s, that technology is independent of the social and political framework in which it is found. Yet the FE was the original publisher of this essay and I’ve seen no evidence that the paper’s staff has ever disputed the article’s thesis that a designed social control intentionality was the hallmark of factory-system technology.

On the other hand, there has been a willingness in the FE to consider the sense in which present and future technology tend toward a life of their own. Here there has been an effort to critically assess the extent to which Jacques Ellul is correct that technology is becoming itself an independent system dominating society.

Concerning the definition of technology, or rather the point at which “technology” becomes a destructive influence, here I think you have also misread the FE.

Recent anthropology (e.g. Marshall Sahlins, R.B. Lee) has completely reversed the view that original, hunter-gatherer life was nasty, short and brutish, in favor of recognizing in the Stone Age the original affluent society, in which work was neither valued in itself or needed in great amounts and in which the spirit of the gift dominated. But as I see it, the attention accorded this momentous discovery and its implications has not meant that a foraging way of life is an exact formula promoted to end the profound alienation of humanity from itself and nature. Eschewing blueprints, the FE has mainly tried to show that the myths of progress have concealed much about our origins, and has also tried to see through to the nature of the technology that now envelops us.

I tend to think the line should be drawn between tools and machines. It is here that division of labor, with its diminution of the individual, begins, and its consequence, the arrival of the effective power of specialists. The devitalization and depersonalization so vivid today perhaps finds its axial point back at the distinction between tools and machines. Langdon Winner, in his Autonomous Technology, put it this way: “One can seek the high levels of productivity that modern technological systems bring. One can also seek the founding of a communal life in which the division of labor, social hierarchy, and political domination are eradicated. But can one in any realistic terms have both? I am convinced that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no.'”

Of course, we are meant to believe that we would all die if technology were dismantled. We are so steeped in it that the simple idea of growing our own food is not what springs to mind but rather the artificial problem of how to “coordinate” its “production.” Instead of the notion of natural ways of birth control, related to the condition of being one with our own bodies, there is an unthinking assumption of factories that produce surgical steel, plastics and other dependency-maintaining substances. Today’s growing distrust of high technology, however, and the “surprising” recent movement, as noted in 1980 census analysis, away from the cities to small towns and rural areas are two phenomena that point away from massified, complex technology.

But if one continues to think in terms of “production,” and sees the assembly line as merely alienating “to some degree,” then the essential point of the FE’s quest for the bedrock of freedom is being missed.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #309 (vol. 17, no. 2), June 19, 1982, p 2.

Marcus Graham on ‘Fifth Estate’, Anarchism, Technology & Bookchin (1981)

FE View Not New. . .

To the Fifth Estate:

The “Against the Megamachine” article in the July 1980 Fifth Estate ought to influence pro-machine marxists, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in realizing the Frankenstein that the scientists have created.

George Bradford’s essay, “On Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism,” in particular deals with this phrase most effectively. Bradford correctly points out that although anarchists are opposed to “authoritarian Marxism,” they have failed to realize what the technological megamachine implies.

Nevertheless, not all anarchists have followed Peter Kropotkin’s pro-machine position. In the weekly anarchist “Road to Freedom” (1924-1939), in an article entitled “Man’s Liberation,” appearing July 1925, this writer stated in part: “Man created machines. Machines that were to lessen man’s toil. But alas! The machine has increased the wealth of the idlers and brought misery to the many… .What is even worse, the machine has destroyed man’s joy of artisan creation. Man merely became a spook of the very machine that he himself created.”

I think the future will prove that Kropotkin, from an anarchist point of view, has, in accepting thus the machine, made one of the greatest errors. Such an attitude was perfectly logical for the Marxian school of thought, but certainly not for the anarchist. In reality, man will never be able to master the machine without the sacrifice of endangering human life.

Kropotkin’s pro-machine position received a new impetus when Murray Bookchin came out in favor of the machine under the alluring title Toward a Liberatory Technology in “Anarchos” issues 2 & 3, 1968-69. In a reply, “Questioning the Premises” of Bookchin which appeared in the October 1971 issue of the Match! of Tucson, Arizona, I wrote: “Technology rests on the basic principle of centralized authority, as its technique shows in every move that it makes. Anarchism, on the other hand, rests on the very opposite basic principle of decentralization. Whether by intent or not, Bookchin is correct when using the words ‘socialist ideal,’ since Marxism fits into technology as into a perfect glove. But when he implies that technology is related or conducive to the building of an Anarchist society, he is totally wrong.”

It is indeed good to find Bookchin changing his position by now as quoted by Bradford in his article.

Last but not least, the Fifth Estate, although not calling itself an anarchist publication, is nevertheless considered as such by “The Anarchist Review” of England, anarchist groups and individuals who materially support it ­– for the reason of its most consistent anti-authoritarian reaction towards every political and social question.

Marcus Graham
Los Gatos CA

= = =

from Fifth Estate #307 (vol. 15. no. 6), Nov. 19, 1981,  p 2.

“Defeated Spirit?” – John Zerzan to ‘Fifth Estate’ (1981)

Defeated Spirit?

To the Editors:

The latest issue, containing much excellent analysis of our techno-morass and its processes, nonetheless has bothered me.

The absence of a connection between the critique and its use is the most troublesome feature. From the articles I have a persistent sense of the too-remote, the academic; that of a profound indictment minus any everyday applications.

Aside from some very visionary-sounding phrases, the only concrete references to a radical anti-technology approach were calls for “a defense of every little commodity,” which strikes me as merely reformist, and for a “critical sociology,” which could suggest, of course, a retention of specialization of even the university!

To me the technology critique is the first coherent, contemporary attack on no less than every mediation and representation in social life, and therefore exhilarating. But it is not so far for the FE authors: “We are in eclipse; the human spirit is moribund,” says the introduction to the last issue.

This defeated spirit tends to inform the paper, and renders the goal of liberation an impossible (or even cynical) idea to the “Paleolithic Liberation Organization” which produces it. The depth of misery is laid out for all to see–only there’s really zero hope for breaking what we can so clearly understand. Thus, the critique remains a banality: everyone can know it and no one can win. Perfect example is quoting Jacques Ellul at great length–Ellul who is equally known as lay Catholic theologian as for his (trenchant) ideas about the “Technological Society.”

As the situationists used to counsel, “Nihilists! One more effort if you would be revolutionaries.”

Not in eclipse,
not even close,
John Zerzan
Newport, OR

= = =

from Fifth Estate #307 (vol. 15, no. 6), Nov. 19, 1981, p 2.

Bob Brubaker: “Community, Primitive Society and the State” (1981)

Community, Primitive Society and the State
Introduction

by Bob Brubaker

Primitive culture, Marshall Sahlins has argued, is not fetishized utility. “The practical function of (primitive) institutions,” he tells us, “is never adequate to explain their cultural structure….People employ customs and categories to organize their lives within local schemes of interpretation, thus giving uses to material circumstances which cultural comparison will show, are never the only ones possible.” Consequently, diversity is the rule in the primitive world, as much because of the multifarious systems of meaning and interpretations peoples employ to constitute their worlds, as because of the varying climates and landscapes in which they are situated.

It follows that history cannot be summarized in the manner of Marx, as merely “the production by men of their material life.” The “struggle for existence,” so called, does not determine the cultural forms of primitive society. The notion that production and culture are separate spheres (or separable analytically), with the mode of production as (ultimately) determinant, dies once one accepts the interpretations of ethnographic evidence offered by Sahlins, Pierre Clastres, Jean Baudrillard, and Stanley Diamond.

This essay is intended to open up discussion about what constitutes community by examining societies worthy of the term. In a time when the last vestiges of the primitive are being rooted out and destroyed, an elementary self-education about what is being lost is crucial. A part of ourselves, a possible mode of human being, is being irrevocably lost.

The very concept of what community is has virtually disappeared, if we are to judge by the pronouncements of Marxists and anarchotechnocrats, whose vision is of life organized around a vast nexus of production and consumption. A world of difference is not anticipated by the visionaries of perfected technology, but is the province only of those whose hatred of abstract order is tempered by a longing for community, diversity, and the human scale.

It is necessary to take seriously Stanley Diamond’s “search for the primitive,” understood as an exploration and elaboration of a “pre-civilized cross-cultural human potential,” and employed as a standard by which to criticize civilized existence. This search is not an effort to idealize a primitive “golden age” to which we can return. What it entails, rather, is the identification of subtle human attributes which have been lost amid the cacophonies of civilization, and an assessment of their possible relevance to our lives.

Continue reading ‘Bob Brubaker: “Community, Primitive Society and the State” (1981)’



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