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SWAMP FEVER, PRIMITIVISM & THE 'IDEOLOGICAL VORTEX':
A review of the following texts:
“When at a banquet, where the guests have already over eaten, one person is concerned about bringing on new courses, another about having a vomitive at hand . . . .”
1. An Ugly Dispute
Blisset’s description is not of a new form of fascism but rather the classic variety. Fascism drew not only from conservative, nationalist rhetoric, and actual communal and ecological anxieties, but from a plebeian-leftist rhetoric as well. (The nazis were after all a “national socialist workers party.”) Accusations of ecofascism are legion this season. Of course, fascists like everyone else can colonize ecology for their own purposes, and radical ecology types are as capable of passing over to rightism and fascism as some leftists and even ultra-lefts have already proven to be. But finding superficial parallels between fascist misuses of ecological sensibilities and authentic ecological concerns (the defense of community, spirituality, small scale farming and technics, for example), is hardly evidence of ecofascism. Likewise, Blisset spends much time on what he considers to be the fascist implications of Bakuninism, but connects Bakuninism to GA mainly through a single line in a single book review. And because they supposedly read radical theory shallowly (which may be true), we are told, “it is not unfair” to describe GA’s writing on such topics as the Situationist International “as a form of ‘historical revisionism.’” This gives them “much in common with those other historical revisionists, the neo-Nazi ‘intellectuals’ . . . .”
Such is the quality of the Neoist accusations throughout: exaggeration, obfuscation, indignation and bluff. While the text denies any “desire to demonize the individuals criticized,” it slurs them as a “hate group” of “vile” ecofascists, “an ideological vortex or sucking pit,” “thoroughly Bakuninist in both its incoherent theorizing and its reactionary activist practice,” a “schizophrenic” cabal suffering from the “activist disease, or swamp fever.” (Elsewhere, the Neoists praise the “energetic activism” of many members of the Green Anarchist Network as “an inspiration of others,” only undermined by their association with a single member of GA. Just who is schizophrenic?)
Shields and battering rams
The Neoists reveal their ignorance of ecological discourse, radical or otherwise, in their introduction, a facile discussion of the history of apocalyptic thinking. “Rooted in real concerns about the commodification of the environment,” intones Neoist Richard Essex, the idea of ecological apocalypse “distracts the process of developing a strategy against such depredation with a mythic green crusade based on moral elitism rooted in universal justification.” While there is some truth to this observation, we also need to keep in mind that the global greenhouse, the collapse of marine fisheries, the disappearing ozone layer and similar megatechnic disasters are more than mere examples of commodification. But rather than our being “on the verge of ecological disaster,” he argues, “control over decent air to breath [sic], water to drink, food to eat, will become another element of social control.”
Such a mediocre (and anthropocentric, ethically obtuse) formulation fails to note that we are not on the verge of an ecological disaster but presently undergoing it; his own scenario of what is to come (also arguably apocalyptic, by his logic) is already the case. And whatever Essex means by “universal justification,” the Neoists’ pompous dismissal of the contemporary recognition of ecological catastrophe is based on their own marxist messianism. (As Blissett says in the Transgressions debate, “The overthrow of civilization is the task of communism.” And elsewhere, the institution of communism is “the only means by which the proletariat can defeat fascism”—or in fact do much of anything, one gathers.)
The Neoists call malthusianism a “litmus test” of ecofascism, and GAs malthusians, therefore fascists. Yet they provide little more evidence than a line in Green Anarchist in which a writer speculates that if the deadly Ebola virus that broke out in Zaire last year were to spread around the world, “all our over population [sic] problems will be over.” Not having seen the original article, one cannot be entirely sure of the author’s intent, but since no evidence is cited that GAs welcome such a possibility, it seems fairly innocuous. (In any case, given their own fascination with irony and ambiguity, the Neoists might have suspected some irony in the GA remark—if their own intentions weren’t so transparently malicious.) Accused of neo-malthusian fascism by the Neoists, Green Anarchist replied that their population politics are essentially the pro-feminist, radical social justice perspectives of my How Deep Is Deep Ecology?, arguing that “current population levels aren’t a problem but if they were, women’s control over their own fertility would sort it . . . .” Blissett argues that this response “is more than just reductionist rhetoric, it destroys the logic of [the book’s] argument.” Sorry, but I don’t see how the GA response destroys the logic of my argument, even if it doesn’t fully explicate it.
A barren defense of industrialism
Around the time of the Persian Gulf War, everyone in the dispute agrees, Green Anarchist founder Richard Hunt went over to an explicit right-wing or ecofascist position. No movement is invulnerable to such corrosive political fragmentation and demoralization; to their credit, the GAs campaigned against Hunt, initiating a boycott of his new publication, Green Alternative. Neoists make much of Hunt’s remark that England’s population would have to be significantly reduced. But believing human population should be lowered in the interest of other species and ecological life-webs, indeed, in the interest of human beings—as people as diverse as liberal humanists Paul and Anne Ehrlich, deep ecologists like Gary Snyder, radical EF! wild women like Kelpie Wilson, anarcho-syndicalist biocentrists like Judi Bari, and I myself have all believed—does not automatically suggest death camps, holocaust or fascism. The desire for gradual transition to a planet with fewer people, a desire tempered by the recognition of interrelated ethical imperatives, is never even imagined by the Neoists. By their logic one could argue that given population necessities, the defense of wilderness, or of any non-human nature, might also imply fascism. If, as they also imply, any protest by rural society against modernization is inherently fascistic, one could as easily argue that any defense of former modes of life, or of craft, region, neighborhood, community or family is also fascist. But that would be an utterly specious argument.
In fact, the crux of the Neoist argument is simply a barren, unexamined defense of industrialism and mass technics. The Neoists naively believe that “Syndicalism shows that it is possible to have a complex industrial society without hierarchies,” presumably not only at a 1930s level of development contemporary with the Spanish Revolution but with the technology of the 1990s. They insist that since GAs “don’t explain how they plan to move from a complex mass society that can support a large population, to a world of small agricultural communities where there is less technology,” they must be fascists. (Of course Neoists are no more explicit about how they plan to bring about communist social relations; maybe that makes them stalinists.) GA’s desire to reduce or dismantle mass society’s industrial work pyramid supposedly “necessitates a reduction in population levels if it is to be meaningfully implemented . . . .” This argument is itself a sub-species of malthusianism masquerading as revolutionary theory. The perspective of How Deep Is Deep Ecology? was that industrial capitalism, rather than artificially ensuring an otherwise impossible subsistence, was undermining age-old patterns of subsistence by its fabrication of an untenable form of industrialized existence, both in the short run and for the future, and that both malthusians and anti-malthusian defenders of industrialism labored under the same zero-sum ideology. To the Neoists, as to the deep ecology eco-catastrophists they oppose, Green Anarchist “attacks on what it calls technological ‘mass society’” necessitate a commitment to a huge and presumably rapid reduction of the population. By this logic, Thoreau, Gandhi, Mumford, Ellul, ecofeminists, neo-luddites, bioregionalists, even the Fifth Estate are fascists. But most of us know better.
Of course, Home concedes, “it would be unrealistic to expect [readers] to spot all the allusions we make, since no one can be expected to know everything.” But Neoists refuse to take responsibility for what they say and write; one never knows if they are speaking in their own voice (as when they warn the proletariat and the “revolutionary milieu” about fascist dangers), or if some other voice—irreverent, contrived, and mean-spirited—is being employed. These pomo poseurs dismiss those who “read our propaganda as though it were the product of an anchored authorial voice . . . Our explorations of the phenomenon of projection and unconscious mirroring illustrate the ways in which all ideology is shaped by discourse . . . .” Green Anarchist writers are to be held responsible for every nuance, detail and potential interpretation of what they say; Neoists only “illustrate . . . discourse” (though one never knows to whom). They must enjoy being the only ones to know for sure if they are speaking or projecting. One is reminded of Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels’ remark: “We do not talk to say something, but to obtain a certain effect.”3
Thus the Neoists attack anti-fascism as bourgeois, reformist, perhaps counter-revolutionary—only to become crusading anti-fascists. They attack the lack of coherence among green radicals, only to argue that Neoists are “not interested in offering a coherent ideological program.” They attack GAs for attempting to work with and organize other activists, but they themselves claim to provide “new ‘idea-forces’ which have an organizing effect” on their audience. Defining fascism as a kind of parasitic “vampire that feeds on real social movements,” they attack these selfsame social movements as if to apply some perverse and pretentious anti-fascist chemotherapy. Rather than engaging others in some constructive way, they become a species of vampire themselves, turning their irresponsible vendettas into a kind of vanguardist careerism. As they themselves have commented, the Neoists need to consider how “anti-fascism . . . can very easily be transformed into its opposite, that is to say fascism.” They would do well to take their own advice, which they frequently give to others (like the GAs), to dissolve their group. Everyone will benefit—from the trees that won’t have to be cut for their pamphlets to the people delivered from Neoist noise, whether or not they inhabit a “swamp.” (And get some metaphor other than this tired, leftist leftover; Thoreau called swamps nature’s marrow.)
The problem of theory and action is also immediately apparent in the banner of the GA newspaper (which reads, “For the Destruction of Civilization”), and the so-called “results pages” which Booth says are intentionally placed in the front of their publication. It is one thing to write critically about the dialectic of civilization and empire, its origins and contradictions, and to challenge the assumptions embedded in the ideology of progress. It’s quite another to think you’re forging a political tendency to carry out civilization’s destruction. Whether or not it’s Bakuninist, this is a fantasy contaminated by today’s style of paranoid politics, an ugly and authoritarian fantasy at that, as is suggested by the passive-aggressive rage of the Unabomber text (which the GAs have published as an example, however flawed, of their tendency’s position).4
Civilizations, most people know, destroy themselves. Radical greens, anarchist or otherwise, need to develop a constructive politics of solidarity, justice and renewal that moves beyond one-dimensional opposition to and unintelligible confrontation with mass society. I for one am disappointed that GA abandoned its banner slogan, “For a Free Society in Harmony With Nature,” for the vague cage-rattling of “For the Destruction of Civilization.” According to Booth, the change is “because the times have got more desperate, more urgent, and this is a more emphatic expression of our thinking”—reasoning which reminds me of the futile paroxysms of the SDS Weatherman faction in the late 1960s. Intoxicated by street-fighting with cops, and convinced conditions were now too dire to engage people openly in neighborhoods, schools and workplaces on a multiplicity of crucial social issues, this tiny band of authoritarian vanguardists decided to “bring the war home.” They were sincere, and at times desperate, but things might be a little less dire now if they had not so thoroughly succumbed to their desperation then.
Though containing much that is laudable, Green Anarchist at its worst reads like someone shouting as loudly as possible to drown out any doubts about the enterprise. The “results pages”—various entries documenting alleged ecodefense and resistance—are a mixed bag, too. One may read of admirable endeavors and acts of resistance, but might just as easily run across questionable entries like rioting on October 27, 1996 by islamic militants in Pakistan, and for September 28, 1996: “Kabul, Afghanistan—Taliban militia execute former president Najibullah, and suspend corpses from traffic platform. That’s the way to do it!” Such macho militaristic vehemence makes one wonder if there isn’t some fascistic character structure at play in GA enthusiasms after all. For November 1, we read that four are hurt by a car bomb in Spain; on November 8, “75 year old woman poppy collector robbed”; on November 11, “12-13 year olds slash bus driver” in Liverpool. A graphic shows a rat carrying a club with the logo, “Animal Liberation . . . or else!” Meat markets appear to be as evil as nuclear power plants. Anti-pedophiles protest, gun owners rally, students protest tuition hikes; arson, “Hell’s Angel club bombing, four injured.” What does this have to do with radical theory or practice? What does GA stand for?
Like the Green Anarchist paper, Booth’s pamphlet seems reasonable, decent, and heartfelt, despite its occasional questionable statements. Yet references to the end of the days of “Gandhian wank” and glamorized scenarios of demonstrations in which so-called “fluffies”—who are they, people with their kids in strollers?—are smashed up between brawling militants and cops, make me wonder if the GAs haven’t lost all sense of proportion. It isn’t simply a question of theoretical confusion, it’s a matter of arrogance. As I have argued in other contexts, the more extreme our ideas the more humble we should be about their application.5 We should recognize that no one is exactly clear about how mass society might be transformed into a weave of diverse, egalitarian, communal cultures. Certainly we must find ways to act, but a spiraling, instrumental militantism (embracing the tactics, say, of IRA or militia “spectaculars”—a telling word), becoming ever more frenetic and violent as it becomes more dogmatic and self-righteous, is a recipe for a suicidal spasm. Green Anarchists need to reexamine their ideas closely, and continually, not only in the light of theory but in the light of reality.
2. Primitivists and parasites
However sympathetic he may be to this project, Moore’s interpretation of Detroit is absurdly spectacularized—especially his highly ideological thesis that the impoverished, inner city, multi-racial, student/counter-culture neighborhood I live in and where the FE offices are located is the context for the evolution “from the late 1970s onward, into the praxis that has come to be called primitivism . . . also known as radical primitivism or anarcho-primitivism.” One can only ask here: known by whom? This portrayal of activities in which I happen to have participated does not remotely resemble reality. John: there is no such “primitivist praxis,” unless one thinks discussion groups, flyers, strike-support, anti-war and environmental demonstrations, draft counseling, anarchist free spaces and soup kitchens, guerrilla theater, poetry readings, etc., somehow constitute a primitivist practice recognizably distinct from radical or anarchist activity in general.
This self-delusion reaches almost comic extremes; in scholastic fashion, and lacking any first-hand knowledge of the place, Moore constructs his thesis on an extravagantly interpretive reading of a handful of texts. Hence, with relentless, procrustean zeal, he classifies an actual experience of spontaneous self-organization as a conscious, ideologically driven program, pronouncing a local anarchist temporary autonomous zone “a clear attempt to put primitivist—and Camattian—principles into action.” The problem is that the space (which lasted only a couple of years) was not created by FE staffers or “Camattians” but by a group of young anarchists who were mostly reading anarchist classics, Bolo’Bolo and Hakim Bey’s T.A.Z., and who, except for one or two exceptions on the periphery of the FE at the time, had nothing to do with this newspaper. Besides, nothing Moore cites about the anarchist spaces in Detroit distinguishes them from anarchist infoshops and storefronts anywhere else. His primer parallels this error, describing anarcho-primitivism as “a convenient label” for “diverse individuals with a common project: the abolition of all power relations—e.g., structures of control, coercion, domination, and exploitation—and the creation of a form of community that excludes all such relations.” This is more or less simply anarchism; Moore’s classifications are too convenient for their own good.
Perhaps the FE bears some blame for using the term “primitivist” at all in our desire to affirm and explore the meaning of aboriginal lifeways—an impulse which, with anthropologist Stanley Diamond, we believe to be a natural response to modern alienation, “consonant with fundamental human needs, the fulfillment of which (although in different form) is a precondition for our survival.”6 But to speak of the primitive does not require a political primitivism. The FE collective is not an organization or political “tendency”; our critical perspectives on civilization and technology, like our philosophical and ethical orientation in general, give us no qualitatively special insight into how to transform or dismantle mass society. Even Fredy Perlman, whose influences are erroneously represented by Moore’s pamphlet and who is said to have provided “a primitivist theoretical agenda” in his poetic counter-story to progress, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, insisted—as Moore notes without apparently understanding Fredy’s implication—he was no “-ist” of any kind except a cellist. Those tempted to establish a political tendency with its myth of origins, canon, genealogy and pantheon of luminaries should keep in mind that Fredy’s last work was a novel, not a “theoretical agenda.”7
Farewell to ideological primitivism
For his part, Moore thinks this movement surpasses anarchism, feminism, etc., because it opposes not only manifestations but “the totality of civilization.” Others categorized as anarcho-primitivists may share such abstract and self-serving formulations, but I believe the claim to oppose “the totality” of civilization is empty theoretical bravado, even if it sounds radical—like claiming to oppose “all” technology, which, unless we immediately draw careful distinctions between technology, technics and tools, implies all things technical, and thus muddles any possibility of reasonable discussion about such matters. Moore makes the same error in a section entitled, “How does anarcho-primitivism view technology?” He answers, “Technology is the sum of mediations between us and the natural world and the sum of those separations mediating us from each other.” Moore’s definition of mediations may be different from mine, but it seems to me that to regard all mediations as unambiguous separations is to oppose inevitable mediations like language, music, symbolism, cooking, and even the most simple technical implements like the digging stick and the bowl. Moore’s subsequent comment, that “anarcho-primitivists thus oppose technology or the technological system, but not the use of tools and implements,” does little to clarify what the important differences between tools and a mass technological system might be.8
Opposition to all mediations may in fact define the outlook of a certain current of primitivism—all ten or twelve of them, I imagine. I wish them luck. But mediations may also connect, not just separate. We may marvel at the story of Diogenes, who threw away his drinking cup when he saw a boy drinking from his cupped hands, but this provides only a useful intuition into our inevitably ambivalent mediations, not practical guidance for dismantling the technological system and renewing a convivial technics in the world we find ourselves inhabiting today. In any case, however atrocious the process, conquest and domination have always been syncretic, dialectically unfolding into resistance; hence vernacular, communal and liberatory visions and practices persist, scattered throughout civilization like moments of our past embedded in amber. We need to nurture them. Such visions and practices are also, quite problematically, woven into the sinews of civilization itself. To “oppose” civilization as a totality—if one could be sure what that meant— could only imply somehow “opposing” not only the repressive and dehumanizing aspects of civilization but also the valuable and painful historical experience that has nurtured new insight—those hybrid flowers that have grown up between the cracks in the imperial monolith, and which we require in order to synthesize prehistory and post-modernity.9
I once asked Fredy Perlman how he thought we could embrace extra-rational spiritual insights of native peoples without surrendering to religious obscurantism, since they are both rooted in a kind of non-objective, epistemological gnosis. He said that we could not avoid walking a tightrope between Enlightenment rationalism, with its materialist theories, and spirit. To fall too far into either extreme was to capitulate to a distorted single vision. It seems to me that we derive our greatest insight from the tension between them, practicing a skepticism that does not allow itself to become an ultimate act of dogma. Thus, our alternative notion of “progress” might be that we’ve inevitably learned some things along history’s way, things we didn’t necessarily need to know before, but which are probably indispensable to us now.
“Anarcho-primitivism is an anti-systemic current,” writes Moore. In that case perhaps I am an anarcho-primitivist; as time goes by and the primitivist idea becomes the reified object of sociological treatises and ideological agendas, I want less to do with it. There is nothing wrong with people gathering to talk about critical anthropology, technology, alternative epistemologies, the idea of a counter-history, progress and ideology, etc., as the Primitivist Network claims to do. But given the increasingly brief “shelf-life” of both ideas and ideologies in late modern capitalism, primitivism is less and less a nuanced orientation (held, we should constantly remind ourselves, by people facing the same challenges and duties as everyone else in this society), and more and more a fool’s paradise, the dogma of a gang (in the “Camattian” sense, as it were), however irrelevant and however sincere — potentially even a racket.
What is militant primitivism, after all, given GA’s apparent approval of various bizarre acts of social chaos and despair listed in their pages? Cheerleading apocalyptic collapse and violence evokes the Unabomber’s recommendation that revolutionaries must “work to heighten the social stresses within the system so as to increase the likelihood that it will break down,” a breakdown which would inevitably be “chaotic and involve much suffering.” “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society,” he writes. “Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.”10 This is like deep ecology catastrophism, which takes various manifestations of the disease for the remedy. Yet Booth’s Into the 1990’s lists the Unabomber alongside other supposed anarcho-primitivists like Perlman, the FE, Zerzan, etc., arguing that he “expressed the best and the predominant thinking in contemporary North American Anarchism. . . .”
Perhaps Green Anarchist thinks dismantling civilization means IRA-style “spectaculars,” Aum-style home-made gas chambers, or Taliban-style street hangings—all under a primitivist rubric, of course. Marx once said of his epigones that he’d sown dragons only to reap fleas; I find myself wondering whether the few small fleas of reorientation and revolt I helped to plant didn’t contribute to a harvest of dragons—clumsy, toothless, literal-minded, inflated dragons, perhaps, but no less embarrassing and depressing. What we now most need is not a primitivist Weatherman faction with its instrumental fulcrum politics and militaristic glamorization of entropic violence, but an inclusive, non-sectarian, undogmatic, green anarchist movement capable of making its insights understood, and capable, as cartoon character Snappy Sammy Smoot once advised in the 1960s, of smashing the state while keeping a song in its heart and a smile on its lips.
If green anarchists hope to influence even conscious minorities already committed to social change, let alone the large majority necessary to make significant change, they are going to have to cultivate tolerance, humility, patience, an ability to speak reasonably to people with whom they disagree and to cooperate on common projects with them. Surely, those are not only key aspects of the tribal societies many of us admire, but the proverbial seeds of the society of the future. Perhaps I’m the one glamorizing now, but I was impressed when I visited the anarchist community in Philadelphia a few years ago, where anarchists young and old and of every possibly prefix found ways to work with each other and respect each other, and to accomplish some admirable projects. If we can’t do that, despite our conscious philosophy of mutual aid, egalitarianism and justice, do we really think most people in mass society, with its ideological commitment to competitive individualism, greed, amoral violence and authoritarian power, ever will?
A hundred and one versions
The same goes for the sensibilities loosely called primitivism. As Blissett himself rightly says, “Ever since the Bible came out, civilization has produced a hundred and one literary visions of the simplicities of primitive life.” As a social phenomenon, primitivism has existed since antiquity, wherever empires smashed and conquered once self-reliant communities, and the empire’s inmates resisted, remembering and longing to reconstitute the original tribal circle (“primitive” means original). Like all movements of contestation and revolt, of course, these impulses and sensibilities have had an ambiguous character. Potentially radical or reactionary, revolutionary or conservative, dangerously capable of bringing about new empires, they are always in some way transgressive. (Let us remember that the most famous primitivist movement of late antiquity was christianity, a primitive communist movement. Eventually an increasingly hierarchicalized, orthodox church became an integral part of the reconstituted empire. Original primitive christian impulses continue to generate movements of both radical and reactionary significance after two millennia.)
It’s ludicrous to claim, as Blissett does, that the critique of civilization emerged internationally within the ultra-left milieu, and that therefore, “The overthrow of civilization is the task of communism” (Blissett’s own version of primitivism). Neither the Earth First! primitivist types who coined the slogan, “Back to the Stone Age!,” and with whom we debated deep ecology in the late 1980s, nor the primitivist hippy radical types in Earth First! and other radical environmental groups today came from the ultra-left. Nor have most people in the U.S. who are sympathetic to ideas that might loosely described as “primitivist.” Many found them in the American transcendentalist tradition, especially in our own taoist anarchist hermit, Henry David Thoreau, or in European romanticism’s protest against scientific objectivization of nature and industrialization, or in the bioregionalist vision of Mumford, the Buddhist economics of Schumaker, the satyagraha of Gandhi, the perennial wisdom of archaic and vernacular societies and literatures and plenty of other sources.
People who express values and ideas critical of industrialism and modern civilization usually started by directly witnessing industrial capitalist pillage of some favorite green place, and exposure through reading or travel to the lifeways and philosophies of native peoples, particularly American Indians. This is the vision to which Fredy Perlman turned when he abandoned the “framework,” as Blissett calls it, of the international left-communist current, no matter how much it influenced him. In fact, one might explain this development as the actual unfolding of Lakota writer Chief Luther Standing Bear’s prediction in his classic essay, “What the Indian Means to America”: the white invader, he said, was “too far removed from its formative processes” to understand the American continent. “The roots of the tree of his life have not yet grasped the rock and soil . . . But in the Indian the spirit of the land is still vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefathers’ bones.” Slowly men and women have been born and reborn; this new sensibility may mean that the roots of the tree of our lives are beginning to grasp rock and soil.11
Thus, not surprisingly, the radical nostalgia for former lifeways which Moore identifies with the anarcho-primitivist movement is actually to be found in diverse manifestations among a spectrum of social groups. Both fruitful insights and nonsense can be found in the primitivist impulse, but it isn’t always easy to distinguish healthy skepticism from repressive rationalism, crazy wisdom from self-delusion. That is for the whole society to work out in a spirit of open-minded tolerance. If rationalists are deluded in thinking that a hypothetical, authentic “progress” (rather than “real-existing” progress) validates their claims to ultimate historical rationality, self-proclaimed primitivists are at least as deluded in thinking they have a simple answer to the riddle of prehistory and history.
The fact that primitivist longings found expression as varied as Gandhian satyagraha and the fascist mystique, in movements both revolutionary and reactionary, should alert us to their psychic depth and intimate, ambivalent connection to the unfolding of human self-realization. We continue to experience the trauma of the dissolution of human community by the earliest empires, and the challenge of how to renew communal life, necessarily and inescapably on a new level. Some people suspect this challenge means healing ourselves and our societies after a relentlessly bad and meaningless trip rowing aimlessly in the dank depths of civilization’s galley ship, rather than reciting the dialectician’s dogma of a yet-unfulfilled evolutionary promise that required our being expelled from paradise in order to renew it (as Bookchin’s version of the fairy tale has it). This refusal to genuflect to progress is hardly evidence of fascism. But it still demands far more circumspection than is evidenced by Green Anarchists.
3. Ecofascism and anti-ecofascism
In Europe the problems raised by this book are more obvious. In two regions of France local leaders of the Green Party entered into an alliance with Jean Marie Le Pen’s fascist National Front, which calls itself “the only true ecological party” and demands political decentralization, nature preservation, and an end to nuclear power — and limits on immigration and the rights of resident aliens. This phenomenon is occurring throughout the continent. According to one anti-fascist researcher, many of the concerns of left and right coincide, such as grassroots localism, struggles against pollution, a sympathy for rural values and small-scale enterprise, and respect for nature. But race — the color line, which W.E.B. DuBois identified as “the problem of the twentieth century” — is the dividing line between ecologies. For right-wing environmentalists, according to journalist Mark Shapiro, “this means a hierarchical social order, with the races separated in their own niches of the globe”; for the mostly left and liberal environmentalists, “it usually means respect for the varied parts of shared ecosystems.”14
The Biehl-Staudenmaier book, however, is far too scattershot in its critique; it fails to draw the important distinction between apolitical sensibilities unprepared by their lack of social critique to resist fascism and an inferred fascist potential in these sensibilities themselves. Of course, Biehl’s associate Murray Bookchin is also notorious for accusing nearly anyone with whom he disagrees — from real right-wingers and potential ecofascists to liberal humanists, deep ecologists, christians, buddhists and radicals like this paper — of being “misanthropic” ecofascists. “[S]ome of the themes that Nazi ideologists articulated bear an uncomfortably close resemblance to themes familiar to ecologically concerned people today,” Biehl and Staudenmaier explain. Because right-wing ideologues today employ rhetoric emphasizing “the supremacy of the ‘Earth’ over people,” and perpetrate a “hi-jacking of ecology for racist, nationalistic and fascist ends,” Biehl and Staudenmaier warn against mystical and antirational attitudes now “being intertwined with ecofascism.” But it never occurs to them that, like ecology, mysticism and other spiritual traditions might also be getting hi-jacked for purposes other than their actual intent. For Biehl and Staudenmaier, however, the mere act of any kind of sociobiological speculation or expression of cultural manifestations as diverse as sufism, zen, deep ecology, holistic nutrition, organic farming, vegetarianism, nature worship, or concern with holistic organicism, is a flag signaling potential ecofascism.
By their logic, of course, ecology itself is automatically and inherently suspect. Not only do “ecological ideas have a history of being distorted and placed in the service of highly regressive ends,” as they argue, ecology from its inception served to legitimate the racist and elitist rule of the European upper classes over both their own lower classes and the “colored races” in the colonies. It should come as no surprise that Ernst Haeckel, who coined the term “ecology,” was himself a reactionary racist, who (as Staudenmaier reports), laid the groundwork for Nazi racist pseudo-science and its murderous eugenics programs. Trapped within their political agenda, these social ecologists do not seem to understand such critical distinctions, and thus undermine their genuine insights. Staudenmaier not only attacks romanticism as implicitly fascistic (when in fact both left and right drew from the romantic movement), he worries about the “ideological overlap between nature conservation and National Socialism,” adding, “The Nazi state also created the first nature preserves in Europe.” That Nazi official Alwin Seifert (whose official title was “Reich Advocate for the Landscape”) “opposed monoculture, wetlands drainage and chemicalized agriculture” apparently makes all such opposition suspect. (At the same time, it should be mentioned, the marxist scientific rationalists in the Soviet Union were contemplating the liquidation of nature that could not be made to serve human ends.15)
Hitler, Staudenmaier says, “could sound like a veritable Green utopian, discussing authoritatively and in detail various renewable energy sources . . . and declaring ‘water, winds and tides’ as the energy path to the future.” In fact, some Nazi rhetoric brings to mind even the language of eco-anarchist Murray Bookchin himself; Reichsminister Fritz Todt, for example, demanded that technology bring about “a harmony with nature and with the landscape, thereby fulfilling modern ecological principles of engineering as well as the ‘organological’ principles of his own era,” and Seifert insisted that work methods “more attuned with nature” be found — all language similar to Bookchin’s idea that human urban and agricultural infrastructures be tailored to fit their landscape, leaving only “a gentle, human imprint on nature,” encouraging a renewal of a “sense of oneness with nature that existed in humans from primordial times.”16
Biehl’s exposé of Rudolf Bahro is damning. Bahro, once an independent socialist dissident expelled from East Germany and then a provocative anti-industrial Green, now calls for a theocratic-ecological invisible world government, and argues that the ecology-peace movement must “redeem Hitler,” reclaim “the positive that may lie buried in the Nazi movement,” and “liberate” the “brown parts” in the German character, the “call in the depths of the Volk for a Green Adolf.” Bahro claims this would be “an entirely different Adolf” which Germans need in order to find their “roots, the roots from which will grow that which will save us.” Bahro’s tortured mysticism will likely win few converts to neofascism; it is probably unacceptable even to German rightists, who would not react well to his identification of the roots of the ecological crisis in the “sickness” of “white Nordic humanity.” He could even be arguing for a way to respond creatively to authentic concerns and utopian yearnings by integrating the dark side of human personality. But if he is, his views are so incoherent and obviously dangerous that they can sow only the most destructive whirlwind.
Yet none of this invalidates positive aspects of Bahro’s earlier work as a socialist dissident or his radical anti-industrial politics.17 Nor is Bahro’s problem that is he mystical; it is rather the content and context of his mysticism, unless anti-ecofascist crusaders Biehl and Staudenmaier are prepared to argue that anarchist mystics like Gustav Landauer, Martin Buber, Dorothy Day and others were also by definition proto-fascists. As Staudenmaier recognizes, “Even the most laudable of causes can be perverted and instrumentalized in the service of criminal savagery.” Thus one can be a fascist vegetarian or a libertarian communist vegetarian, a revolutionary anarcho-syndicalist deep ecologist or an elitist, reactionary deep ecologist. I dare say one could even be a fascist social ecologist, everyone’s interpretation and self-definition being subjective, and grounds for an argument. Staudenmaier is wrong to imply that fascism can be detected simply in a defense of intuition or in the belief that humans should live according to some idea of natural order, or in the wish “to ‘reform society according to nature.’” After all, even social ecology claims to conform or respond to an idea of nature. Rather, fascism is identified by its authoritarian statist politics, its militarism, its nationalism and racial mystique. Religious rebels, we should remember, were among the most courageous and uncompromising opponents within Germany to the fascist regime, and many paid with their lives.18
A narrow rationality
He elaborates, “Exponents of traditional anti-technological views did find a place in the Nazi hierarchy. Racism did draw on antiurban, agrarian, preindustrial utopias. But enough of the leading intellectual and political figures of the movement, party, and regime embraced ideas similar to [the totalitarian-traditionalist yet pro-technology] reactionary modernism to justify a revision of our view of Nazism as a movement driven by ideological hostility to technology.” In fact, “By 1939 the Nazis were claiming that the terrible effects of technology had been corrected by the National Socialist revolution of 1933. The official view of technology was anything but pessimistic and Goebbels himself went to great lengths to denounce technological pessimism as a legacy of ‘bourgeois reaction’ which could not grasp the rhythms and ‘hot impulses’ of the stahlernde Romantik of the twentieth century.” When a romantic technological pessimism returned to German politics, Herf adds, “it did so on the Left rather than the Right.”21
In fact, outside of its basic authoritarian program, fascist demagogy has varied according to its needs. Fascists employed as much socialist and anti-capitalist rhetoric as ecology in their attempt to gain followers. No one would argue that this makes talk of socialism a sign of potential fascism. Context matters. Nazi agitator Gregor Strasser employed a nationalist and socialist mix in his propaganda, attacking “international finance capital [which] means the end of all possibility of social liberation . . . the end of all dreams of a socialist Germany.” The Nazi cadres, he said, were “ardent socialists . . . waging the fight against capitalism and imperialism incarnated in the Versailles treaty . . . .” The Nazi Party, according to Daniel Guerin, “supported extensive movements for labor demands. For instance, in October, 1930, it supported the strike of the Berlin metal workers, in which 100,000 workers took part. In November, 1932, it, together with the communists, instigated the Berlin transport strike.” In Italy, the fascists won peasants to their cause by demanding “land for those who till it.”22
Bookchin, Biehl et al also make much of a fascist holistic organicism, but in fact the appeal of organicism was understandably widespread as industrialism expanded into every sphere of life, bringing with it social dislocation, disasters, and mass displacement of populations. The organicism and holism of figures such as Lewis Mumford, Siegfried Giedion and Aldo Leopold could hardly be called expressions of fascism. Fascism responds to and exploits authentic sensibilities for its own purposes; people susceptible to authoritarianism and racist dehumanization of various others are sometimes won to fascism by organicist arguments and sensibilities, sometimes by the worship of modernization and industrial technology’s prowess.23
The narrow rationality exemplified in Biehl’s and Staudenmaier’s text, and their lack of distinction between the opportunistic exploitation by rightists of ecological concerns and sensibilities, and the causes and concerns themselves, turns a potentially important work into a mixture of insight and sectarian folly. We undermine our capacity to expose and neutralize fascist ecomysticism when we label all ecomysticism as fascist; we surrender the terrain to fascist and authoritarian spiritual obscurantism by failing to comprehend the deep human need to embrace spirit. As Joel Kovel has argued eloquently, spirituality is not simply a false or alienated response to class oppression but is rooted ontologically in human being itself—in “the general predicament of our species: general discontinuity with the rest of being,” and “the opaque mystery of consciousness.” It is powerful because it is an “interrogation of being from the standpoint of nonbeing [with] no discrete answer to the interrogation and therefore no prescribed spirituality. . . .”
Spirituality cannot be explained away as “irrational” and alienated pseudo-consciousness. “Undoubtedly official religion alienated the essence of spirituality as a way of enforcing subservience to temporal power. But something had to be there in order to be alienated.” Kovel argues that we are not therefore left to make an Augustinian leap of absurd faith: “For while there can be no positive proof of the independent existence of the spirit realm, and therefore no ‘spiritual science’ as such, we are still able to say whether the dimension of spirituality makes human existence as a whole more coherent. We are still able to think about whether human beings are more intelligible, more fully themselves, when considered spiritually or through the lens of despiritualization; and whether history becomes more intelligible, whether the ceaseless struggle of classes, the fitful march of progress, the astounding and horrific abyss over which history teeters, all become clearer.”24 When we tar as “atavistic” and potentially fascistic people’s natural reaction against the alienating and spirit-destroying nature of mass technics, we surrender this deeply reasonable impulse to fascist demagogues who will one day decry technology’s horrors and the next proclaim its glorious destiny. Thus in a sense we commit the same narrowly rationalistic errors made by earlier anti-fascists.
Biehl and Staudenmaier claim to “see the roots of the present ecological crisis in an irrational society—not in the biological makeup of human beings, nor in a particular religion, nor in reason, science or technology.” “At the heart of the völkisch temptation was a pathological response to modernity,” Staudenmaier writes. It never occurs to them to ask where the irrationality of an irrational society comes from, or to consider the pathology of modernity itself. Sixty years after the failure of Guerin’s analysis to grapple adequately with the otherness of the irrational, they insist they “uphold the importance of reason, science and technology in creating both a progressive ecological movement and an ecological society.” They never reflect on the fundamental irrationality of this society’s “reason, science and technology,” and why people rightfully mistrust them, turning instead to various forms of spirituality and intuition, be they liberatory and humanizing, or repressive and dehumanizing. Upholding rationality and science to rescue ecology from potential fascism, they don’t notice that right-wing objectivist rationalists similarly employ scientistic rationalism to oppose even the mildest environmental reform.
In the early 1970s, a leftist group steeped in a rationalist, materialist doctrine—one in some ways more sophisticated than those of many other such leftist groups in its appeal to a broad left tradition beyond simplistic leninism—published provocative social critiques of the counter-culture and the budding environmental movement as having parallels to and even intellectual roots in fascism. According to this group, the anti-technology sensibility, with its respect for labor-intensive farming and similar approaches, was mere mystification for a deepening capitalist austerity similar to the Nazi “strength-through-joy” ideology. Glorification of “Nature” (always in quotes) as a supreme value was a religious obscurantism that lined up hippy environmentalists with the supposedly proto-nazi German wandervogel of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This group posed a rational scientific alternative steeped in Hegel, Marx and Luxemburg, noting the resemblance of anarchist (lifestyle anarchist?) rhetoric to “Mussolini’s anti-Marxist demagoguery . . . .” Anarchism, they argued, “because it is the extreme political expression of bourgeois individualism inevitably gives birth to fascism . . . The rock-drug ‘counter’-culture, ideological expression of anarchism, is likewise merely a particularly vicious extension of previously existing bourgeois cultural trends.”
Like Staudenmaier and Biehl, this organization was careful to deny that all expressions of rock or other counter-culture manifestations were automatically fascist. Nevertheless, one editorialist continued, “The world view implicit in that culture, if extended, would lead to specific social relations. The world-view of the rock culture is a return to a state of animality and a celebration of barbarism under the guise of ‘liberation.’ It is no more than the symbolic celebration of the monstrously inhuman existence that capitalism has created . . . .” This group published excerpts from Guerin on proto-fascist youth counter-cultures in pre-Nazi Germany, along with graphics from 1920s and 1930s Germany and the 1960s showing strikingly similar pagan motifs. This decadent irrationality had to be fought, and was even rampant among the left. “Purely phenomenal perception,” argued the theoretical journal of this group, “deliberately avoiding the development of critical awareness, leaves people in a state of helplessness in which they will submit to any onslaught, including fascism, which emerges as a social force.”
In its clarion defense of rationality against dangerous irrationality, and in its epistemological determinism, this warning against proto-fascist tendencies seems only a slightly more marxist version of Bookchin’s Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism and other social ecology texts decrying deep ecology misanthropes and ecofascists.25 Of course, this earlier display of militant antifascism, the National Caucus of Labor Committees, soon began a campaign of vicious physical assault against various rival leftist groups in 1973 before going on to reconstitute itself, under the leadership of Lyndon LaRouche, as the U.S. Labor Party—a genuine fascist group if there ever was one. Thus the defense of rationality spawned extreme and violent irrationality, and anti-fascism became, as the Neoists like to point out, not potential but actual fascism.26
Remembering our limits
Pois argues that relatively little attention has been paid to German fascist attitudes about nature at least in part because “in certain crucial aspects, National Socialism was very much in the mainstream not only of German but of Western philosophical and religious developments.” The Nazi world view “embodied within it elements that have existed as Western civilization’s alter-ego from time to time” — not only its violent messianism, but perhaps more importantly the anxiety about humanity’s inescapable differentiation which leads people to seek a way to be in or of nature. According to Pois, “This approach is one that has not been confined to woebegone romantics in full flight from modernity . . . but began with the crude scientism of the Enlightenment.” Enlightenment natural science itself began the process which rooted human beings in nature as “just one species among many” (the phrase which causes social ecologists to reach for their revolvers), while at the same time ranking people for the purposes of social domination. The rise of nationalism and reactionary racial myths intertwined with mystical demagogy and scientific rationalism contributed both to late-nineteenth century imperialist rationales and to twentieth century fascism.
“Though for the most part eschewing notions of race and racial supremacy, modern environmental concerns are in part rooted in this general tradition,” avers Pois. But he adds an important qualification: “As we have seen, National Socialist ideologues were in no small way concerned that man, or at least some men, live in harmony with the environment and, appreciating the fact that this is obviously necessary, we must recognize that just because something happens to have been emphasized by people as despicable as the Nazis does not make it wrong. Man is, at least in part, rooted in the natural world, a world too often viewed as being a simple object for exploitation. In their own version of the ‘natural religion,’ however, their Lebensphilosophie, the National Socialists exemplified a pernicious tendency that must be of special concern for anyone who chooses to see man as a product of some deified nature, and nothing more than that.”28
And nothing more than that — the key idea in the last line. The Nazis practiced one version of nature religion, not the only one. (Goethe practiced another. So did Standing Bear.) Perhaps just as a more organic, deeper notion of reason requires continual self-examination along the blurred line between critical rationality and diverse modes of intuitive extra-rationality, our ecological politics might think of humanity as both only a single leaf on nature’s tree and something more than that. In their own hideous way, the Nazis themselves are proof of human uniqueness, though we can find far more worthy examples. The problem with their claim to a non-anthropocentric view was not so much its lack of scientific “objectivity” or “rationality” but its lack of humanity, which, interestingly, is to a great degree a question of spiritual and intuitive sensibilities. Like that of the misanthropes whom the Fifth Estate debated in the late 1980s, Nazi misanthropy was highly selective. And their pseudo-naturalism was a racist cult based on exclusion, conflict and cruelty—exclusion, conflict and cruelty they were willing to perpetrate on others. Similarly, the difference between, say, organic farming motivated by some sense of spiritual connection to the soil and organic farming for the sake of some exclusive “fatherland” should be easy enough to discern. We should be able to identify such ideas when we encounter them, and learn how to deal with them, without having to resort to a rationalism that ends up legitimating that other fascism, that other fatherland: liberal democratic capitalist (or promethean leftist, if you like) progress with its ultimate totalitarianism of a bioengineered technopolis.
It also helps to remember the limits of our theories, to remember that our ideas about nature must always be considered in light of what they say about our obligations to the human community and what kind of social relations they imply. As Langdon Winner has put it, “Nature will justify anything. Its text contains opportunities for myriad interpretations. The patterns noticed in natural phenomena and the meanings given them are all matters of choice . . . It is comforting to assume that nature has somehow been enlisted on our side. But we are not entitled to that assumption.”29 Green anarchists, deep ecologists, social ecologists and the rest of us have all been guilty of that error to one degree or another. We all need to tread carefully, mindful of our world and the world we say we desire.
4. Down the vortex
Calling oneself a primitivist, or pretending that the origins of the authoritarian plague can be ultimately explained, helps little in this regard. The lessons of a primitivist sensibility come from the perennial (counter-) tradition, and thus are rewarding and offer deep insights, but they are nevertheless general enough, and too close to fundamental life intuitions, to yield any definitive practical answers to our problems, or even a theory (which is a manifestation of scientific rationality, not primal truths). “The concept of the primitive is as old as civilization,” writes Diamond, “because civilized men have always and everywhere been compelled by the conditions of their existence to try to understand their roots and human possibilities.” “The search for the primitive,” he says in another context, “is the attempt to define a primary human potential. Without such a model (or, since we are dealing with men and not things, without such a vision), it becomes increasingly difficult to evaluate or understand our contemporary pathology and possibilities.” For example, he explains, unless we work to rediscover “the nature of human nature,” medical science may survive (and, one must assume, in the form of a bioengineered nightmare world), “but the art of healing will wither away. For healing flows from insight into primary, ‘pre-civilized’ human processes; it presumes a knowledge of the primitive, a sense of the minimally human, a sense of what is essential to being human.”
A sense of what is “minimally human” or essentially human is among the most important values being lost in contemporary mass society. We cannot even say whether or not this loss has already reached a point of no return, but a reasoned reaffirmation of primitive and archaic lifeways and truths has the potential of aiding the “people without history” (as Eric Wolfe called western civilization’s victims) to find their way, regain their stolen inheritance, and thus lay the foundations for an authentically human present (and presence). Such an impulse is both conservative and deeply radical, as Diamond argues, representing as it does “a form of neo-primitivist striving, proclaiming the sacredness of life, communal forms of society, the esthetic dimension of human nature, the continuity with nature at large and culture as ritual.” Thus a redefined idea of “progress” would become more like the notion in aboriginal tribal societies, “a metaphor for spiritual transformation,” and thus also “in part, a primitive return; a reformulation of old impulses in new situations and social structures.” Let us also add, a process of healing.
The social and historical critique of empire, state, megamachine, monoculture, and the ideology of progress — “the basic apology for imperialism,” as Diamond calls it, no longer a religion or a mere dogma but a compulsion — requires theoretical insight and an attentiveness to fundamental human intuitions.31 But even indigenous peoples with a living memory of primal lifeways cannot any longer avoid negotiating much of the same terrain detribalized peoples face. A movement which attempts to reduce primitive insights into an ideology or strategy risks becoming a caricature of its own best instincts. Better to put our collective shoulder to the wheel we face, not chase phantoms. As Lévi-Strauss writes in Tristes Tropiques, “The sources of strength on which our remote ancestors drew are present also in ourselves,” and he adds, quoting Rousseau: “The golden age which blind superstition situated behind or ahead of us is in us.”32
An authentic green movement should have room for anarchists, feminists, social and deep ecologists, anarcho-primitivists, left communists and eco-socialists, mystics and rationalists and many others, as long as they can keep in mind their common humanity and their common interests, and learn to act on them.
David Watson March-April 1997.
First published in the Fall 1997 issue of Fifth Estate (vol. 32 #2 (350))
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