Archive for the 'Technology' Category

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

Community, Primitive Society and the State

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.

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

Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism

Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Here as everywhere else, we must distinguish between the increased productiveness due to the development of the social process of production, and that due to the capitalist exploitation of that process.

Marx, Capital

For us communists, builders of the most advanced society in the history of mankind, scientific-technological progress is one of the main ways of speeding up the plans of the party regarding the transformation of nature.

Leonid Brezhnev, 1968

As Jacques Camatte wrote in The Wandering of Humanity, Marx’s work “seems largely to be the authentic consciousness of the capitalistic mode of production.” Indeed, Marx’s thought matured during the apogee of the vogue of nineteenth century scientific positivism, and reflected that religion of industrial progress both in its exaltation of scientific rationalism and its notion of material progress based on mechanization and industry. Like other positivist schemata of its time, “scientific socialism” operated by way of a deterministic materialism which saw human nature as productivist and which reduced all cultural creation to a mere reflection of “material practice,” seeing humanity’s relation to the world in almost crude, naturalistic images as a struggle to conquer nature. The complex mythical structures of ancient communities were seen as infantile attempts to realize and intervene in natural processes, which could ultimately be superseded by scientific instrumental rationality.

Like other aspects of scientistic ideology which grew out of that ever-so-bourgeois of centuries, Marx’s vision delineated human experience into neat, philosophical  “stages of development,” each bounded and characterized by its particular “mode of production,” and all leading irrevocably toward the universalization which capital would create, and finally, to its “dialectical negation” – socialism. As Marx put it himself, De te fabula narratur – that is, the “advanced” societies represented the destiny, with minor divergences, of the “barbarian, pre-capitalist” societies. Progress demanded that the ancient communities be uprooted and the old ways of life destroyed; the imperative of the developing “mode of production” burst the fetters of the old societies, but this time motion would undermine the bourgoisie, “the first to show what man’s activity can bring about,” and usher in the socialist paradise.

This bloody, painful process is “material progress” to the historical materialists, and in the eyes of these bourgeois intellectuals, industrialization was an inevitable “stage” on the road to socialist destiny. The worker had first to lose his tools, the farmer his land, and become mere appendages of the machine in order to ultimately become its masters. Even the earliest class divisions could be justified by virtue of the fact that they destroyed the former “backward conditions of scarcity,” and laid the foundations for progress. Progress would destroy the “infantile” myths and strip the world of its halos and its mystifications. It would urbanize the countryside, centralize production, and rescue people from the “idiocy of rural life.”

Machines the Key to Liberation

It wasn’t the new massified, industrial technology which was oppressive, only the manner in which the bourgeoisie used it for its own benefit at the expense of the great majority. The problem was that the new modern mode of production had not reached full maturity; when it did, the oppressive conditions of capitalism, according to Engels, would be “swept away by the full development of the modern productive forces.”

In fact, it is the contention that bourgeois capitalism fettered the means of production and their free development that became the central criticism of capitalism by Marx and Engels and later by their epigones. After all, if the machines and the industrial system were fundamental to the oppression and dispossession of the human being, they were also destined to be the key to liberation.

Continue reading ‘George Bradford: “Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism” (1981)’

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

Against the Megamachine
By David Watson

“Industrialism is, I am afraid, going to be a curse for mankind… To change to industrialism is to court disaster. The present distress is undoubtedly insufferable. Pauperism must go. But industrialism is no remedy….” — Gandhi

How do we begin to discuss something as immense and pervasive as technology? It means to describe the totality of modern civilization—not only its massive industrial vistas, its structural apparatus; not only its hierarchy of command and specialization, the imprint of this apparatus on human relations; not only  the “humble objects,” which “in their aggregate … have shaken our mode of living to its very roots,” as Siegfried Giedion has written; but also in that internalized  country of our thoughts, dreams and desires, in the way we consciously and unconsciously see ourselves and our world.

Questioning technology seems incoherent in the modern world because, invisible and ubiquitous, it defines our terrain, our idea of reason. You cannot “get rid of technology,” you cannot “destroy all machines”; we are dependent upon them for our survival. In any case, the story goes, technology has always been with us. When an ape pries termites out of a tree with a twig, that, too, is supposed to be technology. Everything changes, and yet stays the same. Plugging into a computer is no more than an improvement on prying termites out of bark. Therefore, one is expected never to discuss technology as a totality but only specific styles or components of technology, which are to be embraced or discarded according to the criteria of the technological religion: efficiency, velocity, compatibility with the entirety of the aggregate.

No one denies that different modes of life existed; but they have been, or are rapidly being, forgotten. Hence the idea they must have been defective, backward, underdeveloped, and eventually surpassed by progress. You can’t “go back,” “return to the past”—“you can’t stop progress.” When mercantile capitalism emerged, the individualistic, entrepreneurial spirit was thought the essence of human nature. Even non-western and indigenous societies came to be judged mere preparatory stages of modern market society. As mechanization took command, humanity was seen fundamentally as the “tool user,” Homo faber. So ingrained was this notion of human nature that when the paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira were discovered in 1879, archaeologists considered them a hoax; Ice Age hunters would have had neither the leisure (due to the “struggle for existence”) nor the mental capacity (since sophistication is demonstrated first of all by complex technical apparatus) to create such graceful, visually sophisticated art.

Taking the part for the whole—ignoring the complex languages, symbolic exchange, rituals, and dreamwork of diverse peoples, while fetishizing their technics—this ruling idea continues to see all cultural evolution as only a series of advances in technical activities. There is never any suspicion of qualitative difference; the mathematics, techniques, and technical implements of early peoples are seen only as incipient versions of modern cybernetics, rational mastery, and industrial apparatus.

Technology is a way of life

To define technology as any and every technical endeavor or artifact, to think of it as the means by which human beings do everything from picking fruit to firing missiles into space, is to render the word meaningless. This ideology can make no sense of the dramatic changes that have occurred in life; it conceals the fact that technology has become a way of life, a specific kind of society. It assumes that a society in which nearly every sphere of human endeavor is shaped by technology is essentially the same as a society with a limited, balanced technics embedded in the larger constellation of life.

Just as capital has been reductively confused with industrial apparatus and accumulated wealth, when it is more importantly a set of social relations, so has technology been reduced to the image of machines and tools, when it, too, has become a complex of social relations—a “web of instrumentality,” and thus a qualitatively different form of domination. Technology is capital, the triumph of the inorganic—humanity separated from its tools and universally dependent upon the technological apparatus. It is the regimentation and mechanization of life, the universal proletarianization of humanity and the destruction of community. It is not simply machines, not even mechanization or regimentation alone. As Lewis Mumford pointed out in Technics and Civilization, these phenomena are not new in history; “what is new is the fact that these functions have been projected and embodied in organized forms which dominate every aspect of our existence.” (Thus critics of technology are commonly accused of being opposed to tools, when in reality modern industrial technology destroyed human-scale tools, and in this way degraded human labor.)

Continue reading ‘David Watson: “Against the Megamachine” (1981-1985/1997)’

Introduction to ‘Fifth Estate’ #306 (1981)


”When I pronounce the word civilization, I spit.” —Gauguin

We are all trapped within the technological labyrinth, and at its center awaits our annihilation. We have already lost more than we can imagine to civilization’s insatiable hunger for power and uniformity. We live in the shadow of an enormous edifice, a monstrosity which teeters and threatens to collapse upon us in a moment. We sing, make love, struggle and despair amid its decomposing limbs. But the smell of decomposition is general. We are in eclipse; the human spirit is moribund.

Urban civilization is a vast junkyard. Everything from the cells of our bodies to the planets is contaminated by its poisons and excreta. To resist it seems incoherent and hopeless. But the flaming trajectory of progress is what is truly mad, because its false optimism conceals a vicious cynicism and despair at the possibility of life. Realizing that all is lost, this consciousness surrenders to the momentum: after all, this is the Machine Age, and there is no room for human beings in a world of automata.

When we began this issue, frustrated with the lack of clarity which characterized the previous discussions, we had in mind to say something definitive about technology. We spent most of May and June in the library under fluorescent lights going through the endless literature on the subject. Besides being made vengefully aware of the contradictions involved in our activities, we learned that we were at least correct to trust our instincts and our visceral loathing for this technological desert and its obliteration of the human and natural universe. Everywhere we turned we found more horrors, more corruption, more decay and a greater urgency to somehow resist its conquest. Everything started to come under question, every commonplace of this civilization and its instruments, its way of life. If we learned that we could not necessarily foresee all of the implications of a geometrically expanding technological system, we could be certain about what it excluded from the realm of possibility: community, diversity, love and freedom, for starters. Just in the last few days, someone found a note in the newspapers that computer experts have coined the word “servoprotein” to refer to human beings such as programmers and technicians who work on the computers. This little bit of news demonstrates with frightening transparency that we will either recreate a natural and human world or perpetuate a world of machines which renders us superfluous by transforming us finally in “servoprotein.”

This is our challenge: to renew our humanity or lose it entirely to this behemoth which we have created and which has become the measure of all things. As E.M. Cioran has written, “. . . everything is virtue that leads us to live against the strain of our civilization, that invites us to compromise and sabotage its progress.” We will either find a way out of the technological wilderness or we will lose ourselves in it.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #306 (vol. 15, no. 5), July 1981, p 3.

This is the introduction to Fifth Estate #306, which includes the first version of “Against the Megamachine” by T. Fulano, “Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism” by George Bradford, “Indigenism & Its Enemies” by P. Solis, “‘The Snowmobile Revolution’ – Technological Invasion” (unsigned), and “Community, Primitive Society and the State” by Bob Brubaker. All except Bob Brubaker are actually pen names for David Watson.

RADICAL ARCHIVES NOTE: This article is unsigned but David Watson has confirmed that he wrote it. In our opinion, Fifth Estate #306 represents the emergence of a fully-formed primitivist perspective. This came after years of discussions regarding the role of organization, technology and radical change – but also a couple years before John Zerzan starts publishing his “Origins” essays.

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


Perhaps the most insidious aspect of modern, centralized technology, even more than its pervasiveness, is its complete acceptance in almost all quarters as an integral part of the human experience (and among so-called “revolutionaries” as a prerequisite for a change to a humane society).

Humanoids and humans have spent the vast portion of our time on the planet with little or no technology and only in the last 10,000 years or so (an infinitesimal portion of our existence) has the rise of mechanical and technological improvements begun to affect us and the other species with which we share the planet. The capacity for innovation and invention seemed almost innate in humans once the first rudimentary developments of prehistoric times became wide-spread. The first inventions were employed as a means to improve what was often a harsh and dangerous existence, but they immediately put us on the road on which we currently find ourselves.

The simple but monumental development of stone weapons increased the available food supply for humans, but at the same time gave to one species the ability to obliterate others, which, in fact was accomplished in several cases.

The most important technological leap in history was the innovation of agriculture, which led to a complete redefinition of the human experience and altered people from a condition of wildness to one of domestication. As the system of agriculture began to predominate, humans became rooted to a fixed geographic region—and for the first time—could produce a surplus of goods. It was within this social setting that the most significant social institution in history emerged—the vertical bureaucratic hierarchy—and its expression in class society and the political state.

Since that epoch 10,000 years ago, both technology and the political rule of the State have snowballed to the extent that they now stand in the position of dominating all of human existence. Their development has continued unaltered since that period irrespective of the particular type of political rule or mode of production in a given era, to the point where human existence on the planet is threatened by both.

All of us want electric lights and indoor plumbing, but not the simultaneous developments of the hydrogen bomb and the pollution of the air which has been developed along with the conveniences of life. But the fact remains that we have both and it may be quite possible that one could not have been created without the other, so in tandem are the military machines of the State and the major inventions of the modern epoch. The two articles below detail the Frankenstein syndrome inherent in technology at the service of the State. Rudy Perkins describes how the development of nuclear power is tied directly into nuclear weaponry; and in the following piece, Duke Skywatcher demonstrates that Star Wars’ technology is not fantasy, but that contemporary Darth Vaders are planning bigger and better wars for us all the time—this time in space.

Though neither presents alternatives, neither could be expected to since a thorough analysis of the development and function of technology has yet to be made. However, if the term “revolution” is not simply to be a codeword for the next batch of political rulers, we have to begin an investigation of all of the elements of our lives and be prepared, if need be, to make fundamental alterations in any of them rather than accept the givens of that which oppresses us.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #290 (Vol. 13. #2), March 2, 1978, p 7.

This is the introduction to “The State and Nuclear Power” by Rudy Perkins and “The Arms Race of the Future Is Now: Star Wars?” by Duke Skywatcher.

RADICAL ARCHIVES NOTE: The article is unsigned but Peter Werbe has confirmed that he is the author.

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

“Against Civilization: Introduction to Russell Means”

The following text is a talk given by Russell Means at the Black Hills International Survival Gathering held last July at the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The gathering was attended by groups which spanned the spectrum from local Indians and farmers, to Marxist-Leninists politicos, Sierra Club activists, Greenpeace, anti-power-line activists, to “alternative technology” entrepreneurs.

The U.S. government and the energy corporations have designated the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa, the sacred hills of the Lakota people, as a “National Sacrifice Area,” slated for “terminal development.” What this “terminal development” (a term both redundant, all development being terminal for humanity, and also reminiscent of terminal cancer) means concretely is rendering the entire area uninhabitable with coal gasification plants, high voltage power lines and nuclear reactors (having a potential “life” of thirty-five years) in order to supply energy to the Burger Kings, police stations, disco parlors and office buildings of urban civilization, which is equivalent to saying that the sacred hills of the plains Indians are to be converted into capital.

We were struck immediately by the similarities in the conclusions that Russell Means has reached and our own, in particular, in relation to the question of technology and a critique of Marxism. Means is starting from a set of experiences quite different from our own. We are all urban, European in background, and came out of the experience of the “counter-culture” and leftism in one way or another. Means comes from a set of traditions which was whole, organically related to its environment and which resisted capitalist civilization as recently as two or three generations ago.

We have been speaking as orphans and fragments, searching for roots and a tradition of resistance to civilization anywhere we can find them. We have embarked upon an adventure which began first of all with the criticism of all of our former presuppositions, that is, of Marxism and anarchism, technological progress, modern society, the functions of art and culture, workers’ organization and self-organization, the existence and function of classes and other questions. We don’t claim to have resolved these fundamental problems, but we have headed in a general direction of rejection of the presuppositions of this society in all its forms, East and West, of rejection of (modern, industrial, at least) technology and of civilization and the so-called historical progress posited by the Enlightenment thinkers, bourgeois liberalism and Marxism.

We have, in some ways, come to see the revolutionary upheavals of the past few hundred years less as projects by political visionaries carrying out a new social program than as forms of resistance by masses of people to maintain community and solidarity in the face of the onslaught of capital. We came to distrust the “political visionaries” as revolutionary leaders, as well as the humanist codes that they mouthed to construct their Republics and their Five Year Plans, and to trust the instincts and the desperation of the little communities that have fought to preserve a way of life which they saw as being destroyed by industrialism and massification.

Means comes from one of these little communities, and so has seen the tail-end of that process at work in a lifetime, through the experiences of his grandparents, parents and his own generation; only the process which his family must have witnessed compressed into a hundred years or so took thousands of years elsewhere, this leap from the Paleolithic into modern American capitalism. His point of view is important, because it is a voice, like our own, orphaned in the technological wilderness into which humanity has wandered, and it sounds like our own voices, it reveals our bitterness, our rage, our ambivalences, too, perhaps. But it is also a voice that sounds distant, mythic, like the warbling of a fabulous, alluring bird which sang to us in a dream of our childhood and which we had forgotten but which we can never forget. It still has a sense of place, of a history tied to the land, of a spirit residing in all of nature, of the wisdom which comes in dreams.

We think when Means speaks of “European culture,” that he is not describing the culture of the European peoples in their totality, but the culture of capital, which began as a characterological flaw within the European, but which infects human beings wherever it has spread (including Indians), and which has been resisted everywhere, by the Luddites and framebreakers in England, by peasants and proletarians in Russia, Spain, and elsewhere in Europe, by mestizos in revolutionary Mexico and by so-called primitive people everywhere.

The problem of capital began and spread from Europe: the Europeans were its primary victims, and their cultural traditions and their communities were destroyed by the land enclosures, mines and factories. Perhaps the problem really begins with a separation of spirit and matter, but that doesn’t begin in Europe, but somewhere in the Judeo-Christian desert, or perhaps in Sumer, or Babylon. And a critique of those societies would imply a similar critique of all societies characterized by the “Asiatic mode of production,” under which a bureaucratic, priestly or military caste is maintained through taxes and forced labor, which would include the ancient Amer-indian civilizations in Mexico and Peru.

Ultimately, we are not interested in arguing these points with Means, because we agree with him where it is important: that “development. . .means total, permanent destruction,” that Marxism is the “same old song,” and that there can be “another way.” Where he uses the terminology “European culture” we prefer to say culture of capital, since non-Europeans have acculturated to this despiritualization of the world, to this cleavage of spirit and matter, and Europeans have also resisted it.

The fact is, we have all been changed, and we are all threatened with extinction. We must all sift through the experiences of millennia, find our way out of the technological labyrinth, and create a new culture which reaches into the traditional culture of our remotest past, and into our most utopian possibilities for a human community of the future.

There will be those who see the more human aspects of Russell Means’ talk–its apparent simplicity, its spirituality, its intransigence, its “impracticality”–as flaws, and who will argue against its generalizations from a rationalist, “realistic” point of view. We are not in the least interested in these criticisms, since we agree with Means that “Rationality is a curse since it can cause humans to forget the natural order of things.” Rationalism is part of the problem; we must begin to trust our dreams. Expecting Means to think in terms of cost-efficiency, or “pragmatically,” is to expect him to allow himself to be infected with the categories of capital.

He must speak the question which confronts us all in his own, specific way; it is this very cultural diversity, this symphony of voices which describes the world we desire. The future does not lie in any single homogenous vision any more than it could be the result of a political program. To think it does is to repeat the fatal error which constitutes civilization.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #304, December 31, 1980, p 7. Introduction to “On the Future of the Earth” by Russell Means.

RADICAL ARCHIVES NOTE: The article is unsigned but David Waston has confirmed that he is the author.

Emma Goldman on technology

You are entirely right, dear Evelyn, when you say that the “simplification introduced by the machine is useful for manipulating thousands” and that “changes wrought by machine intervention are completely on the external side and leave the real battle which has to be fought from within the person.” Certainly the machine has become a fetish eulogized by every shade of Marxian schools. We Anarchists have realized this modern superstitution long ago. This is why we have insisted that… instead of [man] being subjugated to the machine, [the latter] must be so directed as to take very little time from man so that he may gain time and leisure for his inner growth and development. Above all, the use of the machine must be so directed as to take very little time from man so that he may learn to appreciate the quality and beauty of things he produces.


from Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution, ed. David Porter (Edinburgh, Oakland, West Virginia: AK Press, 1983/2006), p 316.