The Critique of Civilization Changes Everything

by Ran Prieur

April 15, 2005

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[December 7, 2012. This has some of my best writing, but now I think the entire critique of civilization is just a pretty story based a fallacy: first, take all the worst things in the history of large complex societies, and use them to define the word "civilization"; then use the word "civilization" to define the class of all possible large complex societies. One thing John Zerzan got right is that the main use of symbolic language is for lying. If we view every society, whatever its size, whatever its level of social or technological complexity, as a unique case, and not as part of a value-loaded class, the picture becomes less simple, less ideological, and ultimately more interesting. For my later thoughts on some of these issues, see Beyond Civilized and Primitive.]

Conservatism. Conservatives believe in a lost "golden age" that they want to return to. But if you actually look at the ages they name, and not their romantic myths of those ages, you see that they were just as bad as this age by the conservatives' own standards: In 1950, or 1800, or even ancient Greece, they had taxes, irreverent young people, and loads of extramarital sex. That's a liberal critique of conservatism, but the critique of civilization goes farther, and explains more:

Most of the "traditions" glorified by conservatives are neither old, wise, stable, nor tested by time. They are short-lived, new, and radical. The nuclear family was invented to break down the extended family, which itself is a recent bastardization of the tribe. For that matter, so is the "nation." The modern concept of "ownership" is more aggressive than ancient and prehistoric concepts, and it mostly serves to concentrate power in banks and corporations, amoral institutions with radical effects on society. "Business" is a secular command structure with a psychopathic agenda that tramples the families, farms, and towns that conservatives idealize. Even tilling the soil, even monotheism, are relatively new "traditions," allied to a social experiment that is failing badly.

The real golden age that conservatives are yearning for emotionally, but not permitted to grasp intellectually, is our multi-million year heritage of living as part of nature.

Progressive Humanism. I use "progressive" in the sense of believing in "progress," change that goes in a straight line and makes the world better and better with no theoretical limit. Because humans are the only creatures on Earth that make any pretense of changing in this way, progressivism implies humanism, the attitude that humans are the subjects of this world and all other creatures are objects. Progressive humanism is the religion of civilization, so dominant that even conservatives are progressive humanists, just a little slow: in every age, they think changes were good until recently, but that these new changes are terrible.

Viewed from the larger context of all life on Earth, all the major changes have been terrible since the invention of grain agriculture, possibly farther back. The only way to change in a one-direction straight line is to lose your balance and fall.

Liberalism. I don't mean "liberal" in the classic sense, or in the sense of favoring change, but in the contemporary sense, where a liberal is someone who thinks people are basically good and we should all be able to live together in harmony. Why do they think this? For the same reason conservatives think there was a golden age in the past -- because it's true. We all have a biological memory of living in harmony for more than a million years as humans and countless millions before that as other animals. But just as conservatives are blocked from this knowledge by romanticized images of the recent past, which stop them from looking farther back, liberals are blocked by negative images of the recent past: English factories of the 1800's, or the medieval church. (Never mind that the medieval church had a same-sex marriage ceremony, or that medieval peasants worked less than modern people, or that medieval serfdom was less financially oppressive than modern rent and mortgage.) Liberals look a short ways back, see stuff they don't like, and assume it just gets worse the farther you go.

Also, many aspects of tribal and natural life are offensive to civilized liberal values. Of tribes observed in historical times, some are peaceful, but others are violent, and there's evidence that the paleolithic was worse. Even in the nice tribes there is very little religious or ethnic diversity, and someone with a bumper sticker that says "Love animals, don't eat them" will find it hard to understand the morality of wild nature, where you love other species and eat them.

The critique of civilization explains why liberals always lose to fascists: because both exist in the context of civilization, which is fascist through and through. You can't make a round building on a square foundation. In a system built and maintained by the systematic murder and exploitation of other species, there is no stopping the systematic murder and exploitation of other humans. In a system ruled by a central authority that uses a monopoly on physical force to compel behavior, it is pathetic and half-assed to try to use this authority to force people to be nice and tolerant and take care of each other. If we're all going to get along, we have to do so from the bottom up.

Libertarianism. Libertarians understand the above argument, but they are willfully blind to systems of central control that are only slightly less obvious than government. Like conservatives, they take for granted very recent and radical techniques of domination, unaware of them the same way a fish is unaware of water.

The core libertarian value is not liberty but private property -- just ask them if you have the liberty to set up a camp on their lawn. But the only known societies where nobody is forced to do anything they don't want to, are tribes where the concept of property extends only to small hand-made items. The owning of land is only a few hundred years old. Even in feudal times, when the lord could extort wealth from a certain territory, most of the actual land was considered wide open for anyone to cross, occupy, or use (though of course this use meant draining the life of the land to benefit the elite). Then with the enclosure movement, the more civilized elite declared every inch of land owned by someone, driving self-sufficient farmers from land their ancestors had occupied for centuries, and forcing them into the cities to labor in the dawning industrial age.

Libertarians should be smart enough to see that their idea of the political effect of land ownership is a fantasy. Both in practice and in theory, it does not lead to a utopia of small landholders freely farming and trading. Because land ownership channels wealth to those who already have wealth, it is politically destabilizing. Whoever owns land will use it to get more money, more land, and more political power, leading as sure as water running downhill to a system where one giant multi-tentacled concentration of wealth/power commands almost all the land and all the people.

The only way to maintain liberty is to maintain equality of participation in power, which requires maintaining rough equality of wealth, and the only way to do that, without having a government using a monopoly on force to confiscate wealth, is to have economic equality built into the very foundation of the system. There are only two ways that's ever been done: to have a very close-knit community where social pressure alone is strong enough to prevent anyone from accumulating wealth, or to have a style of technology where your personal wealth is limited to useful items you can carry through the wilderness.

Anarchism. The anarchist ideal of a sustainable non-coercive society has been achieved by many nature-based peoples. Still, some anarchists embrace the critique of civilization (green anarchists or anarcho-primitivists) and some reject it (anarcho-syndicalists, anarcho-communists, and extropians). The difference is pretty much in their view of technology. This is a tough nut to crack. It's easier to convert your mom to green anarchism than to convert a red anarchist. It requires a difficult reframing of our whole world-view, which I attempt below in the techno-utopia section.

Apocalyptic Nihilism. Nihilism is the urge to destroy everything because life sucks so bad. In civilization the human condition is so inadequate that nihilism makes its way into religion in the form of apocalyptic prophecies, comforting assurances that this nightmare can't go on forever, that it's all going to blow up or some merciful god will sweep it away. And it makes its way into politics in the form of the lust for destructive war. In advanced civilization, when alienation and distress are overwhelming, the apocalyptic subplots come to the front as powerful movements that attempt murder-suicide on a national or even global scale.

The anti-civilization movement is like an apocalyptic religion that has awakened: unlike the others, it can explain and justify its emotional motivation for seeking the end of the world, it can precisely define the "world" that it wants to end, it can explain in verifiable terms why that world cannot and must not survive, and it can point to a world that it wants to preserve, a foundation for post-apocalypse living that is grounded in the documented reality of nature-based human cultures.

War / Violence. Why do young men always get excited about going off to war? They think it's going to be fun and thrillingly dangerous, and then it turns out to be intensely uncomfortable and boring, punctuated by horrific pointless killing and maiming, and they return cynical and traumatized for life, and then 20 years later, young men again get excited about going off to war. What's going on here?

Tribal warfare among nature-based people is very much like the warfare that young men idealize. It's consensual, civilians are rarely harmed, it's fun and meaningful, and deadly force is constrained by ritual, so that serious injury and death are just common enough to make it interesting. Also the economic function of this warfare is not to build an empire, but to maintain balance between tribes, either by settling territorial disputes or by raiding supplies to redistribute wealth. (For more on this, look for Stanley Diamond's book In Search of the Primitive.)

In civilization, our biological memories of what it means to go to war, and what it means to "support the troops," are hijacked and twisted to make us feel good about wars where old women and babies are machine-gunned and cities are firebombed to enable an empire to turn the world into a desert and feed the control-lust of its elites.

Likewise, among dissidents, our natural urge to fight the system physically is channeled into bombings and assassinations, which feed the kind of deadly violence that strengthens the patterns of Empire, and then the pacifists use this mistake to condemn all "violence" and limit dissent to protest marches and other symbolic expressions that are feeble and pathetic if they're not backed up by action.

If we understand this, we are neither for nor against "violence" or "war." We feel good about a certain kind of fighting and we refuse to be tricked into supporting another kind.

Greed. Everyone says the elite are motivated by greed. But why to they keep seeking money when they already have so much that more will not improve their lives? When you look at the accumulation of capital in its ecological and spiritual context, you see that money is just a dream, a symbolic place-holder for detachment and control, the drugs of civilization, which make you feel strong and happy but then you need more and more just to feel normal. Under the mask, the corporate executive's desire for profit is the same thing as the serial killer's desire for a new victim, or the suburbanite's desire for a more powerful lawn mower, or the eco-humanist's desire for clean fusion power.

Techno-Utopia. Jerry Mander, in his book In the Absence of the Sacred, offers a surprising metaphor for the technological development of civilization. All known beings, other than civilized humans, adapt and co-evolve with an environment made up of other beings with whom they interact on equal terms. Civilized humans alone replace this living, dynamic, unpredictable environment with a controlled, self-constructed environment modeled on visions in our heads. Everywhere we replace what we have found with what we have made. Look around right now -- how many things can you see that were not made by humans? It follows that our evolution is no longer with others but only with ourselves -- we are inbreeding!

From the perspective of all other life, human civilization is a cancer, but from the perspective of humans, civilization is a blow-up doll, a dead synthetic membrane that we play with for shallow pleasure, in a mockery of real procreation, because we are too frightened and incompetent to deal with the complexity and aliveness of reality. Instead of walking on the forest floor and scanning it for the stems of edible roots, we walk on chemically-sterilized linoleum and scan it for dirty spots to clean. Instead of listening to the birds to know what other animals are around, we listen to mass-duplicated recorded music with lyrics typically about infantile fixations on other humans. Instead of watching the sky to know the coming weather, we watch mass-duplicated recorded TV shows that offer an idealized view of the tedious and meaningless dramas of our enclosed little world.

What keeps all this going is energy -- specifically, energy in excess of what we would have through living in balance with other life, eating and using our muscles. Energy is the pump for the blow-up doll, or it's the physical drug that feeds the mental drugs of detachment and control, which we crave in greater and greater quantities, leading us compulsively toward genocide and ecocide.

We need less of this kind of "technology," not more. We need to get off our drug and come down before we kill everything that moves. The worst thing that could possibly happen to humans and the Earth would be unlimited, free, clean energy. We would use it the way we have always used it, but more: to cut down filthy dangerous trees and replace them with clean safe artificial trees, to flatten useless mountains and put up engineered climbing rocks and ski slopes, to tame the weather into blue skies with puffy clouds that never rain, and don't need to rain because we have rivers of water circulated through pumps. We would turn the Earth into 200 million square miles of Disneyland, with the few remaining wild animals in NatureDomes where every flea would be computer-tagged. And when this system finally crashed, through sheer incompatibility with the cosmos, nothing would survive bigger than bacteria.

Intelligent Life in Space. When civilized people say "intelligent life," they mean civilized life, creatures on other planets that kill or control other creatures on those planets to produce "resources" and machines of domination, which eventually get so "advanced" that they can fly through space and monopolize and exploit the life of more and more planets... But then our scientists get puzzled: Why, with a hundred billion stars in our galaxy, many of which must have planets suitable for life, haven't we found any evidence of extraterrestrial civilizations, beaming their modulated electromagnetic communications through the galaxy, warping around in metal ships like we see in our own culture's mythology of the future, landing on our planet and trading their more advanced distracting/dominating gadgets for our submission to the Interstellar Monetary Fund which stealthily enslaves the Earth's people and accelerates its transformation into a lifeless desert while temporarily enriching human elites?

What we're really looking for in space is other stupid life, other life that has gone mad the same way we have, and we haven't found it because our madness is a violently unsustainable deviation from reality, and if creatures on other planets have done it, they burned out and crashed in a galactic microsecond the same way we're doing, and their sitcoms and commercials and nationalist talk radio blew by us for only 50 years when we were lounging in grass huts eating mangoes, or will blow by us in the future when we're doing so again.

The Economy. What we call the economy is only one particular economy, characterized by: 1) command by corporations, artificial superhumans defined as having no compassion, only the drive to increase their own ability to dominate. 2) growth, or the escalating transformation of the life of the Earth into dead artifacts and the tokens of ability-to-dominate, or "wealth." 3) employment, a disempowering social arrangement in which humans do commanded hyper-specialized labor all day in exchange for tokens which they trade for necessities and entertainment, neither of which they know how to provide for themselves, but which are provided by other commanded laborers who they don't even know.

It's hard to imagine a more satanic system, and in its absence we would build different economies, almost any of which would be better. Also, when you understand what the tokens of wealth are based on, the whole system looks like a bunch of kids making play money with which they buy and sell back, at higher and higher prices, a bar of chocolate that they're almost done eating, and that was stolen in the first place. Instead of trying to save that system, or even trying to destroy it, we should just get the hell out.

Science. What we call science is only one particular science, a style of filtering experience that has been designed by and for a culture of uniformity and central control. It accepts only experiences that can be translated into numbers, that are available to everyone, and that can be reproduced on command. This is what scientists mean when they demand proof. But this is only a tiny thread of all possible experiences, most of which are unique, not quantifiable, not reproducible, and not the same for all observers. Basically, the science of Empire deals only with fully domesticated data and not wild data, because a science that accepted wild data would feed a culture that would quickly diversify into a chaos that would make central control impossible.

The critique of civilization, when you think it through, leads us directly into the so-called paranormal, into the expansion of our curious attention through new sciences that can accept and navigate diverse realities.

Biblical Literalism. The belief that the Bible (or any other religious document) is simply literally true, is not conservatism but extreme modernism. The deeper people shrink into the tightly controlled mind space of civilization, the less they are able to deal with complexity, ambiguity, mutability, or aliveness. They don't know how to admit they're wrong, change their minds, or do any real spiritual wrestling -- they just want someone to tell them how it is, period, forever. So they choose to take whatever collection of translations of old writings was put in front of them by some authority, and accept it as true in the simplest way. Whatever religion they think they are, they are Cartesians, believing in the reducibility of all experience to machine-like mental models, and they are worshippers of Empire, insisting on a spiritual system that forces universal uniformity of perspective and enables central control.

Western Religion. The stories of Christianity (which overlap the stories of Judaism and Islam) make a lot more sense when they're interpreted in the context of the critique of civilization. (For more on this subject, check out Daniel Quinn's book Ishmael.) The Garden of Eden represents the original human condition, a life of ease and plenty, staying in our place and taking what God/Nature gives us. The Fall is our choice to reject this way of living, to take food by force by domesticating plants and animals and storing great surpluses, so that we're no longer dependent on God/Nature, but have made ourselves into gods. When Jesus told people to abandon material wealth, and imitate the birds and the flowers, he was telling us to abandon civilization and return to living as part of nature. Even the Beast of Revelations resembles advanced civilization, a many-headed entity that destroys the world and forces us into submission.

Eastern Religion. There are a lot of Eastern religions and philosophies, and this argument does not apply to all of them. But the most popular ones seem to contain two key myths of civilization. One is humanism, which appears as the idea that humans are on a higher spiritual level than all other animals. And the other, underlying this, is the idea of spiritual progress, that different states of being can be put in order from worse to better, and that we are supposed to travel in the correct direction toward some ideal state at the top. To defend these beliefs, you have to hold that progress and human superiority are universal truths, even though they have only ever appeared in a short-lived and deviant culture which is using them to drive the greatest mass-extinction in 60 million years.

Now, an Eastern-style belief system could avoid this criticism if it were willing to strip off value, to declare that humans and other beings are merely in different places, none better or worse, and if I want to go hang out as a three-toed sloth for a billion lifetimes, that is exactly as commendable as seeking enlightenment. I'm sure the actual religions have more subtle ways to answer the criticism, but to my knowledge, none of them are willing to accept the possibility that the last several thousand years of human changes have been a spiritual mistake.

Gnosticism. Gnosticism is one of the few civilized belief systems that is not overturned by the critique of civilization, but just gets its hair blown a little, and then can hang around and have a dialogue. I'm dealing here with the simplified popular gnosticism found in movies like The Matrix and The Truman Show: that we are in an artificial reality, a prison for the mind and body, that we are kept here by a sinister architect and agents who seem to be people like us, that we can escape from the prison or even destroy it, and that someone on the outside is trying to help us.

The key question is: Is wild nature part of the prison? Anyone who has spent ten minutes watching swallows at sunset will not accept a belief system that declares a need for swallows to awaken. As Edward Abbey said:

In metaphysics, the notion that earth and all that's on it is a mental construct is the product of people who spend their lives inside rooms. It is an indoor philosophy.

In fact, most interpretations of Gnosticism are more sophisticated than that. They're also more sophisticated than the simple anti-civ position, that nature is the more-real outside world and civilization (both its mental and physical aspects) is the prison. They might say that the prison includes a certain view of nature, and to get outside it we have to see beyond that, to a spiritual nature that lies deeper, as the ocean underlies its surface.

The critique of civilization can enrich gnosticism by contributing powerful stories with hard details about a particular prison, how it was constructed, and how to get out of it. And gnosticism can give something back: a metaphysical explanation for what civilization means and where it came from, a deep story of the origin of this hell-world that speaks of intelligence and intention and not just blind chance. I've read (and written) plenty of speculations about how civilization got started, and the hypothesis that humans have been possessed by life-hating occult entities is not only the most meaningful, but one of the more plausible.

The Meaning of Life. When we ask about "the meaning of life," we are asking for the larger story in which our life fits. Inside civilization, the larger story is "progress." Progress and its corollaries, "growth" and "wealth" and "education" and "upward" social mobility, tell us what makes a meaningful and successful life: a college degree, a professional certification, a clean house in the suburbs, a stock portfolio for retirement, and some personal contribution to humans going somewhere new.

From outside civilization, these are all the vaporous conceits of a pathological culture on the verge of collapse. Of course there are other philosophies that make our accustomed reality seem trivial -- there's Cartesian nihilism, that we are just a bunch of dead bouncing particles and waves, and there's the astronomy cliche that we're just parasites on a speck of dust in the vastness of the cosmos, and there's the religious doctrine that our life on Earth is nothing compared to an eternity in heaven or hell. But none of these provides a real alternative -- by which I mean an alternative that we can explore with our senses. Thus they all lead to greater disconnection, and often despair.

The critique of civilization (which could more precisely be called the nature-based critique of civilization) does provide a real alternative. That's why it's so dangerous. The meaning of life doesn't require theologians or philosophers. It doesn't even require language. You can find it under a rock, in a weedy vacant lot, off the shoulder of the freeway: the larger story in which your life fits, not to go somewhere, but to be home.