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What is primitivism?

Primitivists hold that, following the emergence of agriculture, the growing masses of humanity subtly became evermore beholden to technological processes (“technoaddiction”) and abstract power structures arising from the division of labour and hierarchy. Primitivists disagree over what degree of horticulture might be present in a primitive society, with some arguing that permaculture could have a role but others advocating a strictly hunter-gatherer subsistence.

Primitivism has drawn heavily upon cultural anthropology and archaeology. Within the last half-century, societies once viewed as barbaric have been largely reevaluated by academics, some of whom now hold that early humans lived in relative peace and prosperity.

Scholars such as Karl Polanyi and Marshall Sahlins characterised primitive societies as gift economies with “goods valued for their utility or beauty rather than cost; commodities exchanged more on the basis of need than of exchange value; distribution to the society at large without regard to labour that members have invested; labour performed without the idea of a wage in return or individual benefit, indeed largely without the notion of ‘work’ at all.”1

Primitivists view civilisation as the logic, institution, and physical apparatus of domestication, control, and domination. They focus primarily on the question of origins. Civilisation is seen as the underlying problem or root of oppression, and must therefore be dismantled or destroyed. Some primitivists reject modern science as a method of understanding the world with a view to changing it. Science is not considered to be neutral by many primitivists. It is seen as loaded with the motives and assumptions that come out of, and reinforce, civilisation.

For most primitivists, rewilding and reconnecting with the earth is a life project. They state that it should not be limited to intellectual comprehension or the practice of primitive skills, but, instead, that it is a deep understanding of the pervasive ways in which we are domesticated, fractured, and dislocated from ourselves, each other, and the world. Rewilding is understood as having a physical component which involves reclaiming skills and developing methods for a sustainable co-existence, including how to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves with the plants, animals, and materials occurring naturally in our bioregions. It is also said to include the dismantling of the physical manifestations, apparatus, and infrastructure of civilisation.

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  1. Future Primitive
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