Both ‘Progress’ and the ‘Primitive’


Both ‘Progress’ and the ‘Primitive’: Towards a New Synthesis


In the struggle to come to terms with and solve humanity’s great present crisis, I would argue that it is important to fall neither for ‘optimistic’ Pollyanna-Progress nor for its apparent opposite ‘pessimistic’ Primitivism, neither for the ideological rationalising of past and present economic, technological and imperial violence as ‘progress’ nor for romantic regression to some simpler, idealised past.

To understand this, it might be helpful to see how both of these ideologies, like most ideologies, contain both lies, distortions, omissions AND partial truths.

The truth of optimistic Progress as Business-As-Usual is that there has indeed been material and moral progress on some levels. Despite all their deep flaws, deformations and ambivalences within authoritarian class and patriarchal societies, the civilized, urbane, cosmopolitan values of critical, anti-authoritarian thinking and science, democracy and the rule of law, the human equality of man and woman and all races, the freedom and sacredness of the individual, the liberating potentials of some technologies and of universal human rights – all, I would argue, constitute a precious legacy of progress within human evolution.

The lie of the ideology of linear Progress is the denial of its (i.e. capitalism’s) violent, often racist, barbarous, bloody origins and the ongoing horrendous price of progress. This price has been and is oppression, exploitation, dispossession, slavery, genocide, alienation and meaninglessness and, if unchecked, its inherent trajectory is towards a new totalitarianism, complete human alienation/dissociation and the collapse of a liveable planet in global ecocide. The ideology of progress also denies that it is also a form of patriarchal, fear-based (‘Primitivist’) mythology which believes in endless human power-over nature and the ecological viability of its ‘air-conditioned nightmare’ (Henry Miller), of an artificial, homogenised and totally commoditized pseudo-nature, of imperious male mind over ‘lowly’ female matter.

Similarly, the truth of romantic Primitivism is that the present form of industrial capitalist civilization is unsustainable and ecocidal, ethically untenable, socially oppressive and unjust, philosophically scientistic and reductionist, spiritually empty and dehumanizing. There is also great truth in the ancient wisdom traditions and many productive practices of pre-literate cultures and pre-modern civilisations.

The lie of pessimistic and romantic Primitivism is that there has been no progress at all, that there once was an non-ambivalent, conflict-free, ecological and social ‘Golden Age’ or Eden before agriculture or before urban civilization, one that we can and should somehow return to and that this social regression to the stone age could be undergone without some form of massive genocide, or else that the latter is in some way either acceptable or inevitable. Primitivism also denies its own historically recurring role as the ongoing self-critique of progress and modernity.

Both the ideology of Progress and that of Primitivism suffer from rigid either/or thinking and naïve overcompensation: both tend to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

In my view, the lies and distortions of these ideologies can be rejected while the partial truths of Progressivism and Primitivism can be dialectically united into a greater whole. The rigid dualism of either/or thinking can be lifted up into the synthesis of both/and thinking. To survive and live well we need ‘both cows and computers’. The ‘primitive’ and the sophisticated. Localism and cosmopolitanism. Rootedness in place and the particular and rootedness in the universal and cosmic. The past and the future. Lao Tzu and Einstein, Rousseau and Marx, Eden and Utopia.

The exciting fact is that at this point in human evolution we have ‒ despite the ecological need to abandon luxury and affluence, abandon class society and inequality ‒ the material and cultural preconditions for overcoming the ancient splits, dissociations and alienations that have shadowed history: woman and man, nature and humanity, country and city, exploitative class and working class, individual and society, local and global, nation and nation, wisdom and science, surviving and living… ‒ all the many dissociations and conflicts that have now led us to the brink of ecocide or utopia.

In fact, we now, objectively, need what was previously considered utopian just in order to preserve a liveable planet and survive.


However, to achieve this (r)evolutionary and utopian synthesis, we need to transform our present global system of hyper-industrial capitalism and consumerism that is threatening our very survival on an inhabitable planet.

This transformation is a process of deep social, economic, cultural and spiritual change, a holistic revolution of both external and internal conditions. Neither can be achieved without the other. Both/and.

Externally, we need to transform the relations of power and powerlessness, of domination and inequality as expressed in class, gender, ethnic and international power relationships and their material expressions in economic, political, military, social and cultural institutions and technologies.

Internally, we need to transform those aspects of ourselves that reflect and strengthen these power relations as interpersonal power/submission neuroses, addictions, voluntary slavery, false or infantile needs. We need to grow more into our objective potentials as free and interdependent human beings at this pivotal point in history.

We thus need both political direct action and social mutual aid and we need some kind of inner work, meditation, solitude, group work. In both domains, the key is to ‘let neither their power nor our own powerlessness overwhelm us’ (T.W. Adorno).

How can we even begin to confront and transform this overwhelming power and powerlessness?

For most of us this may seem utterly impossible. The power and violence of the power elites seem too great, the general acquiescence and levels of consciousness too dispiriting. However, the open secret of critical political theory is that the power and legitimacy of the ruling elites is, in the end, based on our acceptance, obedience, conformity, collusion, tacit consent, our voluntary slavery and ‘fear of freedom’ (Erich Fromm). This obedience is thus their Achilles’ heel, the critical fulcrum where we potentially have the most potential leverage for deep yet non-violent social change.

The practical key to deep transformation is thus mass civil disobedience and resistance, the retraction and refusal of consent, individual and collective (organised) self-activity and constructive autonomy.

If widely practised, this would be a cultural revolution, a slow, at times accelerated, spreading of anti-authoritarian, independent attitudes and radically democratic, alternative institutions throughout society until they reach a social critical mass and seek, or spread, their own embodiment in new or renewed social institutions and behaviours at all levels. The end result would be a liberated, radically democratic, self-managing society that has integrated the best of capitalist progress and the best of the pre-capitalist past.

Mass resistance and disobedience may take many diverse, constantly changing and creatively adapting forms, both confrontational and constructive, all non-violent and thus also pre-figuratively embodying the lived participatory values of the liberated, utopian, post-capitalist society we are creating within the shell of the old.

Active strikes, occupations, blockades, sit-ins, teach-ins, boycotts, protest marches, refusals to vote or pay taxes, a varied tapestry of democratically self-managed institutions, alternative cultures and community-run sustainable technologies, … the list of creative, non-violent tactics is endless and endlessly adaptable to specific situations and needs. They are only limited by our imaginations and unacknowledged fears.

External and internal actions are not separate but form one continuum. Civil disobedience, self-activity, needs strong, independent, autonomous people. Not ‘perfect’ people, as these do not exist. Flawed people, as we all are to a greater or lesser extent, yet strong, independent, critical and self-critical, autonomous. Joined by deep convictions and ideals as well as by open doubts and voiced ambivalences. Joined in seriousness and humour, grief and joy, diversity and unity. Both/and.

All over the world, the dance of transformation has, often or mostly unconsciously, already begun. Can we hear that beat in the distance? Why not join in? Time to get off the sidelines, save the planet and dance in the new that has learnt from the old.

~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on July 1, 2013.

3 Responses to “Both ‘Progress’ and the ‘Primitive’”

  1. The capitalist society is a schizoïd world where even if we are full of the most noble feelings and ideas , by our very actions we support complete disrespect of nature , other lifeforms and the losers amidst ourselves . If we try to withdraw our support we will be thrown to the other side , trampled upon and annihilated . So we prefere not to see what we are really doing and fight for our part in this good life .

  2. Peter, Your point about difference tending to be expressed as a binary opposition ( nature OR nurture, civilization OR savagery) reminds me of the process described by Richard Dyer of “splitting” – that reduces, essentializes, naturalizes and fixes difference within a stereotype. It is a form of closure and exclusion , normal vs deviant, Us vs Them,etc that may have had some evolutionary value but now keeps us from moving forward.

    I agree optimistically that ‘cultural revolution’ is that way forward but because time is of the essence, it can’t follow the model of the 60’s “counter culture” which was packaged and commodified into New Age bliss. Needs an antagonistic edge and some defined politics.

    I am going to add memengineering to my blogroll.

    Dave Jones aka troutsky

    • Thanks Dave, absolutely agree with all you say. Thanks for adding the blog to your blogroll. Clicking the Troutsky link at the WP Gravatar doesn’t get me to a troutsky blog, so how do I so that I can reciprocate and put you on my own blogroll? Peter

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