Bonfires and Revelry: Pagan Primitivism
(This is a chapter from the upcoming book by Christopher Scott Thompson, Pagan Anarchism)
I first became a Pagan around age 12, when I was living in a tent in the woods along a dirt road in Maine. My family was building a stack-wall log cabin, where we would live for about four years as homesteaders. We had no electricity or running water, no indoor plumbing and no telephone. I carved a figure out of wood, brought it to my father and asked him if we could put in the vegetable garden to placate the spirits there. That may have been my first conscious act of Pagan religious practice.
Critiques of modern civilization are usually met with derision and ridicule. Who would want to give up all our modern conveniences? It’s a fantastic daydream, and would be a horrible experience in real life—or so they tell themselves. I’ve actually lived that way, so I know they’re wrong. It’s a lot easier to live without modern technology than you would ever think.
Many Pagan anarchists identify with anarcho-primitivism or “anti-civ,” a branch of anarchist thought that sees the primary cause of oppression as civilization itself. Some anarcho-primitivists see the problem as being agriculture, and seek to create a new society inspired by the freedom and low ecological impact of hunter gatherer societies.
Anarcho-primitivism is starkly different from classical anarchism because it aims to resist all forms of industrial civilization. Classical anarchist thinkers such as Kropotkin were not opposed to industrial technology, only to the misuse of that technology to control and exploit people. Although anarcho-primitivists are anti-capitalist, they would also be opposed to an industrialized anarchist society. According to A Primitivist Primer by John Moore:
“For anarcho-primitivists, civilization is the overarching context within which the multiplicity of power relations develop… Civilization – also referred to as the megamachine or Leviathan – becomes a huge machine which gains its own momentum and becomes beyond the control of even its supposed rulers. Powered by the routines of daily life which are defined and managed by internalized patterns of obedience, people become slaves to the machine, the system of civilization itself.”
In place of the traditional anarchist commune or people’s assembly, anarcho-primitivists prefer the band—in anthropological terms, a family-based group of between five and eighty people. It’s easy to see how a band could be run according to anarchist principles, with shared rituals and spirit practices of a Pagan character. A band would live much closer to nature than most humans now do, and would more easily develop a spiritual relationship with the hills and forests, the streams and ponds. The appeal of primitivism to Pagan anarchists is not hard to understand. However, not all anarcho-primitivists are sympathetic to Paganism.
One essay, “To Rust Metallic Gods,” subtitled “An Anarcho-Primitivist Critique of Paganism,” takes the entire Pagan revival to task for idealizing Europe’s polytheistic past. According to this essay, all of the Pagan religions of Europe enshrine a patriarchal mentality of violence and subjugation. The symbolism of our most ancient myths reflects the adoption of agriculture, and the alienation of humankind from nature. According to the author:
“So what then of the historical Pagan societies? As clerical religions, they atrophied participatory spiritualities rooted in place. Increased human domination of landscapes coincided with personification of natural forces as humanoid figures, with distancing from primeval elements and phenomena. These militaristic chiefdoms and kingdoms may have claimed to worship the land, but they owned the land as property. They mined the land for copper and tin and iron. The initial transition from gathering surface clay or salt or flint to gathering surface copper or tin or bog iron may have occurred gradually, but the additive consequences reveal an extractive orientation. They had class hierarchy, slavery, and conquest. Anti-authoritarians have no good reason to venerate or romanticize “heathen” conquerors.”
As the author points out, the veneration of war gods and conquerors seems more appropriate for fascism, and modern European fascist movements have appropriated Pagan myths and symbols. Many people involved in Paganism express semi-fascistic ideas about warrior honor and the sacred nature of hierarchy. These ideas are obviously totally inappropriate for an anarchist form of spirituality, so the author encourages Pagans to turn away from ancient gods and myths and embrace a new animism:
“…worship of sun, fire, and moon directly. Appreciation for lunar and solar cycles. Solstice and equinox celebrations. Reverence for rivers, forests, marshes, hills. Altars and shrines for local spirits. Feasts, bonfires, and revelry.”
That all sounds wonderful, and I would argue that any Pagan revival lacking an animist component would not be truly Pagan. Yet to those of us who see the gods (in our dreams or otherwise), they cannot simply be ignored. We love what we love, and devotional polytheism is a relationship of love. When I light a candle and pray to Brighid, I see the flame—but I also see the goddess and feel my heart well up with love for her. That’s just a fact, whether anyone else approves of it or not.
The author also neglects the fact that war gods can be invoked by either side of a conflict. In the Second Battle of Moytura, the three war goddesses known collectively as the Morrígan fight in the rebellion of the gods against the tyrannical Fomorians. A myth can be interpreted in more than one way, and I see no reason a modern polytheist could not pray to the Morrígan before engaging in acts of resistance against the State.
In modern Hong Kong, the war god Guan Di receives prayers from Triad gangsters, the police who hunt those gangsters, and the protesters of the Umbrella Revolution movement. As Heathen Chinese wrote in the essay “Are The Gods On Our Side?” on Gods and Radicals:
“It seems reasonable to conclude that Guan Di has, at times, answered the prayers of both sides of a conflict simultaneously. It seems further reasonable to extend this pattern to the ongoing conflict that some call “the class war.” Guan Di has thousands and thousands of worshipers with whom he maintains relationship on both sides of said war.”
The Guan Di who answers a protester’s prayer is no more or less real than the Guan Di who answers a gangster’s prayer or the prayer of a police officer. As a deity of conflict, it is simply in Guan Di’s nature to answer prayers related to conflict. Heathen Chinese goes on to say:
“As the worship of many gods is restored in the West, it is therefore the responsibility and duty of anti-capitalist/anti-racist polytheists and neo-Pagans to make their voices heard as loudly as possible. Ask for your gods’ help in our collective struggles before the other side does.”
So I cannot accept the rejection of Pagan religion by some anarcho-primitivists. What about their opposition to civilization?
Most people lacking a clear understanding of anarchism would define “anarchy” as violent chaos, or what happens when central government collapses. In 1991, Somalia collapsed into a patchwork of warring factions when the dictator Siad Barre was overthrown. Few people would argue that the average Somali person was better off during the civil war than under Siad Barre. Being ruled by a tyrant is not a good thing, but having to deal with a different tyrant in every neighborhood is even worse.
It must have been similar when the last Western Roman emperor was deposed in 476, or when the Ashikaga shoguns lost control of Kyoto in 1467.
“Now the city that you know
Has become an empty moor
From which the skylark rises
While your tears fall.”
These are the words of a samurai official (as translated by historian Stephen Turnbull) after the beautiful temples and feudal palaces of ancient Kyoto had been destroyed by civil war. The Ashikaga shogunate had lost its power, its claim to hold a monopoly on the use of force. The result was horrifying, a breakdown of social order throughout the entire nation of Japan. For a hundred years, samurai warlords known as daimyo waged petty local wars with each other for the control of territory. The “Age of Warring States” was a century-long bloodbath, ending only when a series of tyrants succeeded in crushing all opposing clans and uniting Japan under a new shogun.
The men who united Japan were no better than those they conquered. Oda Nobunaga, for instance, marched into battle under a banner reading “Rule the Empire Through Force.” His samurai set fire to a Buddhist holy mountain outside of Kyoto and then marched up the hillside, methodically cutting down any monks who came running in panic out of the burning temples. Yet despite their brutality, the conquerors justified their actions because their conquests put a stop to war. When the Tokugawa clan came out on top, Japan remained at peace for more than 250 years.
The distinction between the Age of Warring States and the so-called Pax Tokugawa is what most people think of as the difference between anarchy and civilization. When civilization breaks down—as in the reduction of Kyoto to an “empty moor” during the Onin War—humanity fractures into senseless violence. Gang bosses war with each other over local power, and ordinary people are left with nothing. Only a strongman can restore society, a tyrant capable of controlling all lesser tyrants and establishing a new monopoly on the use of violence.
This monopoly on the use of violence is what we call the State, and people tolerate it or even celebrate it because they think it brings peace. Certainly the “Age of Warring States” was not a peaceful time, but was the Pax Tokugawa truly peaceful?
During the years of Tokugawa rule, there were more than five thousand four hundred peasant uprisings in Japan. Many of these local rebellions sought a reduction in the crushing taxes imposed by feudal lords. The peasants often won the initial skirmishes against their samurai rulers, but in the end the authorities were always able to crush these rebellions because they had access to firearms and the peasants did not. In some cases, peasants who could not or would not pay their taxes were wrapped in bales of straw and burned alive. Rebels were crucified along the sides of the road. Very often, the local lord would then agree to lower the taxes and meet the demands of the peasants—but only after crushing the rebellion first. The peace of the Tokugawa was only an illusion, maintained through both the threat and the reality of horrific violence.
Chaos and violence or a violent order, but never peace and freedom for the common people: this is the reality of all forms of Empire, including those from our Pagan past. The religion of the Roman Empire was a broad-minded polytheism, but the Pax Romana was a peace of terror. In words attributed to the Scottish chieftain Calgacus, the Roman historian Tacitus gives us an eloquent account of what any empire really is:
“They plunder, they butcher, they ravish, and call it by the lying name of ’empire’. They make a desert and call it ‘peace.’”
The Roman Empire was one of the world’s great civilizations, and is still idolized by many Pagans as a time when polytheism thrived throughout Europe. Yet this is what one of its greatest writers had to say about it at the height of its power. When civilizations are built with the blood of the conquered, the only people impressed by them will be those who benefit—or those so far removed from the reality of the situation that they cannot smell the blood or hear the screams.
The same applies to modern Liberal Democracies. People suffer and die every day so we can live our lives the way we do. The oceans rise, the cities swelter, species disappear from the planet at a dizzying pace. Our world is changing, becoming less hospitable to life. For as long as we can, we will go on pretending that nothing is really wrong, or that the problems can be fixed with a few cosmetic reforms. We are killing our own species, and we’re so unwilling to stop doing it that most of the debate is about whether we should do “too little, too late” or do nothing at all.
Even for Pagans who reject primitivism, the anarcho-primitivist critique has relevance. The world is obviously in crisis, and the crisis could well be terminal. We could be approaching a future in which the Earth is no longer livable, or will only support a much smaller population. Perhaps the only way to preserve this planet as a living biosphere is to destroy the source of the crisis: our technological society.
This is the perspective of Deep Green Resistance, a controversial anti-civ organization. According to their Statement of Principles:
“Civilization, especially industrial civilization, is fundamentally destructive to life on earth. Our task is to create a life-centered resistance movement that will dismantle industrial civilization by any means necessary.”
This sounds apocalyptic, and raises the possibility that millions of people would have to die before the primitivist society could come into being.
According to Derrick Jensen of Deep Green Resistance:
“The grim reality is that both energy descent and biotic collapse will be ever more severe the more the dominant culture continues to destroy the basis for life on this planet. And yet some people will say that those who propose dismantling civilization are, in fact, suggesting genocide on a mass scale… Polar bears and coho salmon would disagree. Traditional indigenous peoples would disagree. The humans who inherit what is left of this world when the dominant culture finally comes down would disagree.”
This uncompromising position appeals to some, but it is clearly a picture of mass destruction even if only to prevent a greater harm. The controversy surrounding Deep Green Resistance is partly inspired by this extreme position, but also by their virulent rejection of transgendered people.
We can argue theory all we want, but theory has something inhuman about it. It’s all abstract; it’s based on chains of logic alienated from life. My attitude to this question is not abstract or theoretical. When Deep Green Resistance attacks transgendered people, they are attacking people I personally know and love. I reject that absolutely, and there is no room in my mind for compromise.
Deep Green Resistance has also made it clear that anyone unable to survive without modern medical technology would have to be allowed to die.
According to Derrick Jensen:
“I have Crohn’s disease, and I am reliant for my life on high tech medicines. Without these medicines, I will die. But my individual life is not what matters. The survival of the planet is more important than the life of any single human being, including my own.”
It’s obviously true that the life of the planet is more important than any individual life, but Deep Green Resistance is talking about a future in which we allow millions of people to die because they aren’t physically perfect enough to survive without modern technology. An organization that holds these positions can be nothing but anathema to me.
So we’ll leave that aspect of the controversy to the side, and concentrate on the anti-civ question. In my opinion, a strong case can be made that industrial civilization is irredeemable. It’s hard to imagine a society based on any lifestyle similar to that of the modern United States that would not be destructive to all life on Earth. Everything about the way we live demands a global economy of extraction and exploitation—one that must double in size every twenty years to maintain corporate profits and avoid collapse. According to an article in The Guardian by Jason Hickel:
“Let’s imagine, just for argument’s sake, that we are able to get off fossil fuels and switch to 100% clean energy. There is no question this would be a vital step in the right direction, but even this best-case scenario wouldn’t be enough to avert climate catastrophe… When it comes to climate change, the problem is not just the type of energy we are using, it’s what we’re doing with it. What would we do with 100% clean energy? Exactly what we are doing with fossil fuels: raze more forests, build more meat farms, expand industrial agriculture, produce more cement, and fill more landfill sites, all of which will pump deadly amounts of greenhouse gas into the air. We will do these things because our economic system demands endless compound growth, and for some reason we have not thought to question this.”
Green capitalism is a suicidal fantasy. If human civilization is to endure, it will have to change both quickly and drastically. That is the fundamental moral imperative behind modern revolutionary activism.
Does this mean that civilization itself is the enemy? I don’t know that it does. There is no universally-accepted definition of the word “civilization,” but one traditional definition is simply “urban society.” The Classical Mayan civilization disappeared around 900 AD when the Mayan people abandoned the cities and returned to the countryside, where their descendants still live today. So there is precedent for the deliberate abandonment of urban civilization. That doesn’t make it a viable option for us today.
If billions of people suddenly left the cities to return to nature, the ecological devastation would be incalculable. Anarcho-primitivists don’t want this to happen, so it’s hard to see how an anarcho-primitivist society could come into existence without mass slaughter. According to John Moore:
“The personal view of the present writer is that population would need to be reduced, but this would occur through natural wastage – i.e., when people died, not all of them would be replaced, and thus the overall population rate would fall and eventually stabilise.”
I do not find this convincing. For one thing, a significant global decline in population would prevent the doubling of the economy so necessary for capitalism, triggering a catastrophic collapse of civilization with a much more rapid population loss. Unless we’ve already replaced the capitalist system with something that isn’t based on growth, this scenario ends up being just as destructive as any intentional mass murder. Perhaps anarcho-primitivism could only begin to develop after classical anarcho-communism takes hold, but I don’t think that’s what Moore was proposing.
It comes down to the individual anarcho-primitivist.
If their position is like that of Deep Green Resistance, which speaks of triggering the fall of civilization intentionally, then I don’t see how anyone who values the sanctity of life can possibly support them.
If their position is simply that civilization will collapse on its own—and that the best way for the survivors to live after the fall is to adopt anarcho-primitivism—then I think they may be right. I don’t intend to wait around for that to happen while there is still the smallest chance of a better outcome, and that is why I am not an anarcho-primitivist.
Historian Peter Linebaugh suggests a better way forward:
“Since the city, in the sense of law, force, and commodity, has abolished the countryside commons and the “bourgeois” nations destroyed the “barbarian” ones, the commoners of the world can no longer retire to the forest or run to the hills. Unprecedented as the task may historically be, the city itself must be commonized.”
For most of human history, it was surprisingly easy to escape the reach of the State. As James C. Scott shows in The Art of Not Being Governed, most historical States led a precarious existence. No ruler could create an empire without vast reserves of concentrated manpower, yet people could simply walk away from the State at any time and escape to the forests and hills – and they often did. The ruined cities studied by archeologists didn’t necessarily fall prey to any dramatic catastrophe. In many cases, they simply couldn’t continue to function because so many people chose to leave them. For many centuries, States were small islands of slavery surrounded by huge ungoverned wildernesses and the “barbarians” who lived there. Most of the world was a free Commons. Empire-building, industrialization and capitalism have destroyed this Commons, and there is no longer anywhere left to run. With our backs to the wall, our only real option is to free the cities.
I believe that Kropotkin was right in The Conquest of Bread, when he argued that a future urban civilization could be based on the well-being of all rather than the profit and power of a few. Kropotkin was a product of the Industrial Revolution, so he didn’t realize how destructive it would be to continue that lifestyle even under anarcho-communism. If there is ever an anarchist society based in the cities, they will have to be eco-cities or they will not endure.
If we should ever be so lucky as to see that happen, perhaps there will also be bands of anarcho-primitivists living outside the cities and close to nature, worshiping the spirits of the land with “feasts, bonfires and revelry.” It sounds like a wonderful life.
Christopher Scott Thompson became a pagan at age 12, inspired by books of mythology and the experience of homesteading in rural Maine. A devotee of the Celtic goddesses Brighid and Macha, Thompson has been active in the pagan and polytheist communities as an author, activist and founding member of Clann Bhride (The Children of Brighid). Thompson was active in Occupy Minnesota and is currently a member of the Workers’ Solidarity Alliance, an anarcho-syndicalist organization. He is also the founder of the Cateran Society, an organization that studies the historical martial art of the Highland broadsword. Thompson lives with his family in Portland, Maine.
Pagan Anarchism will be released 15 November, and is available here.