The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen. – D.H. Lawrence
What is civilization anyway? Defining this term always seems one of the major stumbling blocks for people when I try to talk to them about primitivism. They feel that the term “civilization” is far too broad and is given far too much agency. What do I mean when I say that “civilization is destroying the earth” or “civilization alienates us from ourselves and each other”? Civilization is not really a thing so it can’t really act, they argue. This is a good point and it’s worth lingering on.
Before defining what civilization means to me I have to say that I think the idea of returning to primitive life is so threatening to most people that they immediately look for any possible excuse to dismiss the content of the critique. Spluttering “well what does civilization means anyway?” is just one way of doing that. But nevertheless, like any discussion of complex ideas, it is important to define terms. Most dictionaries will define “civilization” in terms of a number of key characteristics: it is urban or features concentrated populations, it is technological, it is industrial, it is governed by a legal system, it is connected with the concept of the state, it is in opposition with something called “the wild,” “the barbaric,” or “the savage.” Perhaps most important, the term “civilization” implies a totality. It is an organization in human society of all material, cultural, spiritual resources, in other words, everything. Civilization is a particular way of relating to everything.
In order to really flesh out a coherent definition of civilization it seems important to draw out some of its implied qualities. If it is urban, then it must also depend on large scale agriculture. If it is industrial, then it must engage in mineral extraction. If it is a state, it must have a head of state and must therefore be hierarchical. If it has a legal system, it must be authoritarian. Civilization is not unique to any particular part of the world nor to any particular moment in history. There are also degrees of civilization, which is to say, not every civilization possesses every single quality of every other civilization. Ancient Mesopotamia is clearly not the same thing as 20th century America but the two societies have much in common. They were ruled by an elite, who exploited those beneath them. They built cities. They were both expansionist and militaristic. They practiced agriculture. The destructive, exploitative elements of civilization were present in ancient Mesopotamia, just as they are today. Not to the same degree, perhaps, but certainly present. Most importantly, returning to the primitive does not mean returning to the past. I don’t want to live in ancient Mesopotamia, ancient Rome, Europe in the middle ages, etc. Returning to the primitive is about returning to a way of life that has persisted for a million years, while all these civilizations have risen and fallen, and is still alive today.
Friends of mine often ask me, “why civilization? Isn’t capitalism really the problem?” It is absolutely true that under capitalism, civilizations vicious tendencies are most fully realized. But that does not mean that non-capitalist civilizations were not horrible exploitative to humans and the environment or that a future socialist, communist, or classless civilization would be capable of creating truly harmonious relations between humanity and the world without likewise revolutionizing every other aspect of civilized life. Without capitalism we would still have to reckon with industrialism, agriculture, technology, among others. Likewise, one cannot truly say that industrialism or advanced technology is the core problem. This would suggest that pre-industrial large-scale, stratified, militaristic, agricultural societies were not also profound exploitative and oppressive, which of course they were.
Technology, however, is certainly a key element in defining civilization. What makes technology different from a tool is the fact that it inescapably brings with it an enormous system of production and it fundamentally alters the experience of the individual using it. In other words, a tool is something that anyone can assemble for themselves, without access to highly specialized knowledge and training or rare and obscure materials. In order to make a bow and arrow you do need to have some experience and knowledge and you need access to wood, stone, and a few other items that are readily at hand. But in order to construct a computer you need a vast amount of technical training and access to a huge amount manufactured materials that an individual simply could not procure for themselves under any circumstances. I cannot build a microchip by myself without somebody else mining, processing, and assembling the components.
The question of agency is a subtle and problematic one. Of course its true that civilization, a complex system of organization, cannot act. Civilization cannot make somebody do something. So when we talk about civilization destroying the world, what do we really mean? Well first of all, it is important to note that governments, companies, and organizations are made up of individuals. The decisions and actions of those entities ultimately come from somebody. But unfortunately it is not enough to point our fingers at the nefarious, shadowy politicians and CEOs. While they are primarily responsible, it’s also true that civilization spreads through the smaller decisions of individuals from all levels of society. Civilization, a way of life, a way of thought, it something that we have bought into. And yet it is not entirely a matter of choice; the forces of power put a lot of energy into promoting the ideas and options which favor them. Not to mention the fact that if you do not make the choices that those in power want you to make, you will be confronted by men with guns.
Like the AIDS virus, civilization is easier to define in terms of its symptoms, of which there are many. Alienation, depression, suicide, mass killings. These are routine in societies that are highly technological, socially stratified, and urban. They are extremely uncommon in hunter-gatherer communities. Whenever one tries to map a concept onto reality it quickly becomes clear that abstract thought cannot account for our lived experience. Civilization is just a word, what matters is that we have some understanding of what we mean when we use it but we know what we want, and we know what we don’t want. We simply need to muster the courage to lay down our burden and leave it all behind.