Monday, February 2, 2015

Three Short Theses on Violence

I. Primitivists need to jettison non-violence as an ideal. Hunter-gatherer cultures are too varied with respect to violence to safely form any generalizations. As a general rule, it seems that forager groups who live in large territories, are highly mobile, or enjoy relative isolation such as the Hadza are less prone to violence whereas foragers who live in close proximity, such as the Asmat cannibals of New Guinea famous for eating Michael Rockefeller, tend to be more warlike. Archaeologist Lawrence H. Keeley attempts to vindicate civilization in his book War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage with evidence of pervasive prehistoric violence in both agricultural and forager societies. (While I have not yet read the book, I have no doubt that he has plenty of legitimate evidence of hunter-gatherer violence, though how pre-civilized inter-human violence that mostly left nature intact is less desirable than a peaceful civilization that will unambiguously ruin the planet for a majority of life forms is less clear). From the book's Wikipedia entry (notes in brackets are my own):
One half of the people found in a Nubian cemetery dating to as early as 12,000 years ago had died of violence. The Yellowknives tribe in Canada was effectively obliterated by massacres committed by Dogrib Indians, and disappeared from history shortly thereafter [Note: Not really. The Yellowknives, while suffering massive losses, did not actually "disappear" from history; a small number of survivors continue to live on in Canada]. Similar massacres occurred among the Eskimos, the Crow Indians, and countless others [Note: Yellowknives, Dogrib, Eskimo/Inuits and Crow were all pre-contact hunter-gatherers]. These mass killings occurred well before any contact with the West. In Arnhem Land in northern Australia, a study of warfare among the Australian Aboriginal Murngin people in the late-19th century found that over a 20-year period no less than 200 out of 800 men, or 25% of all adult males, had been killed in inter-tribal warfare [Note: All of Australia's indigenous peoples were hunter-gatherers prior to European contact].
Then there is the intra-group violence of many, many forager cultures, such as virtually all of the Aborigines of Australia (PDF):
The particularly high level of violence against women was a feature of pre-contact Aboriginal Australia. First contact explorers and colonists noted with distress the terrible scars and bruises that marked the women due to the frequent brutality of their menfolk. Sutton and Kimm point to Stephen Webb's palaeopathology studies which verify that violence against Aboriginal women was prevalent for thousands of years right across the mainland continent. Webb analysed 'trauma using 6,241 adult post-cranial bone samples and 1,409 cranial samples from prehistoric remains derived from all major regions of Australia except Tasmania'. He found that female cranial injuries, of a kind indicating 'deliberate aggression', were more frequent than male cranial injuries.
Such violence is attested in forager groups' own myths and stories. They are not ashamed of it but rather derive a significant part of their identity from it. Violence is always interpreted through the lens of culture. Often, harming those from an outside group is tolerated or even encouraged, whereas violence against one's own is sometimes frowned upon, but sometimes also tolerated. Receiving violence is usually inversely weighted: violence that comes from outside one's group is a greater concern than violence from within the group. We don't need to force the ideal of non-violence onto forager identity. Nature does not judge violence and seems satisfied to let many interactions within her realm be defined by intense brutality. Certainly few non-domesticated life forms are strangers to violence. If we want to live with nature--that is, if we want to survive for the long term on this planet--then we should relearn to accept violence and cultivate the maturity that all forager groups exhibit when confronted with struggle, death, abuse, and disease, rather than imposing artificial ideals like justice, equality, non-violence, etc., that, frankly, arise chiefly from the civilized mindset as foils to wildness. Only when we learn to be satisfied with the Dao of nature and stop judging its finely tuned systems of violence and death will the urge to create a "better" world using technical means be curbed and our planet be spared.

II. There is no way to live on this planet without participating in violence. Violence is a big part of the Dao of nature. Life sustains life, but death also sustains life. It is true that most life forms show an aversion to death, but this by no means indicates that death is somehow wrong. Life's calibrations reference a bigger picture. Take human reproduction as an example. Say fifty million sperm cells vie for a single egg all at once. All fifty million desire to reach that egg, but typically there are at least 49,999,999 that simply die without ever accomplishing their goal. If each sperm were not completely driven to fertilize an egg, or if there were fewer sperm and therefore less "competition", the egg may not get fertilized. If every sperm could fulfill its desire and fertilize its own egg, the world would be comically overpopulated (even more so than it is today). The way the Dao has prescribed it, it is necessary for the majority of sperm to die in ignominy in order for life to continue the way it is supposed to. Not everyone gets what he or she wants, and that's the way we should want it to be. Likewise, most "higher order" life forms like mammals and birds have above a 50% die off rate before offspring reach reproductive age. This includes non-domesticated humans, which is why hunter-gatherer life expectancy calculations used to be so low. Nature counts on that percentage in its designs. To nature, 50% is by no means high. Since our lives depend on unencumbered wilderness, we need to learn to embrace facts like higher infant mortality. Anything else is just fighting against nature, and that would undermine any anti-tech critique, as the only thing that lies outside of nature would be the artifice achievable only via technical means.

III. Those who choose not to eat animals believing that they are reducing suffering delude themselves, though their intentions may well be noble. While it may be possible to survive strictly off of gathered wild plant and fungal foods (though I highly doubt it), one would surely be, at the least, severely malnourished, as nutrients such as protein, fat, and several vitamins are not easily obtained outside of animal sources. Plants in general tend to be very poor in protein, with the exception of legumes and some grains, which, of course, cannot be gathered in adequate quantities in the wild and therefore presuppose agriculture. I'm sure it's not necessary here to go over how agriculture harms the planet, let alone the animals that vegans and vegetarians claim to be sparing. I can't say the same kind of harm would arise from natural predation relationships, including humans hunting animals, and a strong case can be made that ecosystems actually depend on animals killing other animals. To judge predation negatively as violence is rather absurd. Of all the possible ways of obtaining food on this planet, hunting and gathering leave the most nature intact, even when that hunting results in extensive species extinctions. In the worst case scenario, hunters who have hunted all possible game into extinction will themselves soon perish or else learn to be less profligate in their harvesting, allowing for a quicker rehabilitation of the ecosystem as much more nature will have been left intact compared to what a failed agricultural society leaves in its wake. Low tech hunting and gathering are still the lightest way to tread on this planet, and one of the many reasons why civilization is inherently problematic is because it can by no means accommodate this lifestyle. Take civilization as a given and we are left with only bad choices: large-scale suffering of conventionally-raised food animals, impractical and often unaffordable "ethically raised" animals, vegetarian and vegan diets that must make up for nutritional deficiencies by relying on ecologically-destabilizing agriculture, and genetically-modified crops and animals.


  1. I think our thoughts on this are converging in many ways. My one doubt though is even with the characterization of our respective viewpoints as "anarcho-primitivism". I think, even with the anti-civilization qualifiers, any reference to "anarchy" at this point seems almost out of place, in that, yes, we probably don't want "rule" per se, but rule isn't dependent on a choice as in a contemporary election in a mass democracy, but is more dependent on the inability of any given person or group to have complete dominance over others. That some may have more wealth or prestige than others, but that doesn't matter because everyone can still feed themselves and is both needed by and needs the community. The issue is that any authority within that context is fragile, mainly because it can only be imposed by as much force as one individual or small group of individuals can impose, or what the small band gives them.

    It is also of note that all non-violent ideologies are products of empires that characterized what historians now call the Axial Age. That is, it was only after the monopoly on violence had long been usurped by the state. I also recall, just to add to your anecdote, an English traveler among the northern California Indian tribes who characterized them as both the most gentle and violent people he had ever met. Again, here we have a case of small scale (though of course very much lethal at times) violence preventing the emergence of large scale violence that would accompany the rise of agriculture, etc. Those who consider anarcho-primitivism "ableist" because the weak would be preyed upon by the strong don't count that when civilization slaughters people, it does it by the millions.

    1. I agree that we seem to be reaching many of the same conclusions, and I think it's notable that we are doing so despite working from differing backgrounds. As far as whether or not the label "anarchy" still applies, it's really sort of a tertiary concern. I can see what you mean, and I also sometimes feel that the term "anarchist" probably takes away more from an argument than it contributes, not just because many people seem to be allergic to the word, but because anarchy seems to be primarily concerned with the nature of the state, which to me is a rather narrow target for critique. We have so very little in common with anarcho-capitalists, -syndicalists, -feminists, and so on because no one else has much to say about technology and chronically misattribute the ills that it enables. Nevertheless, it's not like anarchy is an inaccurate characterization of low-tech human societies, but the term probably doesn't emphasize the most important point. I honestly don't pay much attention to critiques of state power because I find it boring and obvious. If such critiques are what being an anarchist is about, then I guess I'm not quite an anarchist.

  2. Also, a comment I left on a Facebook discussion of this post: "...most other people I encounter discussing these questions are, in my opinion, too idealistic and automatically assume that hunter-gatherer life would be better for all than our contemporary social and political order. I think that is asking the wrong set of questions. Many analyses of hunter-gatherer societies violate such fallacies as "correlation does not equal causation" and "no true Scotsman". These particular societies were "non-violent" from our point of view, ergo, their way of life leads to nonviolence. I think that the given complexities within any given society, even a "simple" one like that of hunter-gatherers, mean that you can't control for everything, and therefore a given society might be given to small scale personal violence. The very fact that we live in a society that consistently uproots "traditional" ways of life (in what Marx calls "primitive accumulation") is the only reason we can conceive of a social order as being "different" from our own. However, when we confront situations where supposed hunter-gatherers do not conform to our ideal of what they should be like, we move the goal posts, and go to the "no true hunter-gatherer would do X", which is just a means reality is far messier than our theories.

    It's nice to study hunter-gatherers. or to analyze how societies have developed. However, I don't think one could "codify" their ways of life outside of their particular contexts, geographical, botanical, and otherwise. In other words, their lives will never be able to conform to an "-ism", so I don't know why people keep trying to make it do so. That is why I agree with the post. My own commitment to anarcho-primitivism, as imperfect as it is, is mostly due to the idea (perhaps not that well defined or firmly held) that the point is to minimize the harm that humans can do to themselves and the environment. Say what you will about hunter-gatherer violence / warfare / etc., but it wasn't endangering the Earth like modern violence (in the form of war, environmental degradation, etc.) is endangering the planet presently. Perhaps the only solution is to pull the plug on the machine, even if that seems downright impossible now."

    1. I would once again add that much of the radical discourse on primitive societies is hopelessly beholden to unacknowledged leftist sentiments. We both know that notions like non-violence, justice, and equality are reactions to civilization and don't exist as ideals in pre-civilized societies. They can't. This isn't to say that people in a forager group don't care that they get different treatment for no apparent reason from their bandmates or that they don't mind getting beaten with rocks, but these are small-scale societies we're talking about. We might as well be talking about one's extended family with cousins and grandparents and so on. I'm not sure one could argue that a family embraces justice and equality and non-violence, even if most members of the family feel that things are more or less equitable. A parent may choose not to beat her child but this isn't really a statement about non-violence, and any attempt to claim it as such is pure liberal appropriation. Because relations are so personal and specific, it wouldn't make sense to extrapolate some universal ideals about non-violence or justice from the interactions between family members, and most people, I wager, do not, instead acquiring a sense of universal values from the state in the form of education and propaganda.

      A recent episode of the NPR podcast "This American Life" had a segment about an osprey streaming camera feed that featured an osprey nest with a mother and three fledglings. For some unknown reason, the mother started attacking and starving her hatchlings. Viewers of the osprey cam were horrified and demanded that the maintainer of the site, which I think was an oceanographic institute located in the Pacific Northwest, to intervene, but osprey experts all agreed that no such intervention should be attempted. To me, the point was that nature works the way it works and if one has a problem with it, then one should readjust one's expectations to be more in alignment with nature, because the alternative is the impulse to "fix" nature, and that is synonymous with technology. This is why anti-tech folks need to get over their hang-up on primitive violence. None of the osprey experts had any explanation for the bizarre behavior, but they knew enough to understand that it was none of their damned business what a mother osprey does to her offspring. In the end, all three fledglings left the nest on their own, and one of those three died a short distance from the nest. Osprey are neither violent nor passive. They are just osprey. So it goes with hunter-gatherers.

  3. A Reddit thread that continues the discussion:

  4. The problem with citing Keeley isn't that he's somehow proving violence exists amongst nomadic hunter-gatherers, no anthropologist has ever denied that and as an anarcho-primitivist I've discussed it at length. The problem with Keeley is that he conflates evidence of violence amongst nomadic hunter-gatherers as evidence of warfare. That is what is continually being contested. There are numerous responses to Keeley, (Douglas Fry, Robert Kelly and R Brian Ferguson being among the stand outs) but at no point does the presence of violence indicate something about our nomadic hunter-gatherer being non-egalitarian.
    Warfare is a co-ordinated effort that requires some sense of cohesive group identity that can translate into groupthink. Considering the constantly shifting dynamics of nomadic HG bands, this is something that simply isn't a permissible thought. The idea of setting any kind of ecological boundary arises with both horticulture and sedentary hunter-collector circumstance. Nomadic HG bands typically identify or affiliate with center points, primarily water-based ones. It requires a lot of intrusion to impose upon that kind of non-boundary.
    All of this is intentional and functional. The general basis of what makes nomadic HG life function is a base understanding of the fact that we're going to wear on each other. Movement is pivotal as is the ability to be self-sufficient, which is another way of saying not reliant upon stagnancy and expectations of individual contribution.
    Movement and the flexibility permitted by fluid shifting is a form of conflict resolution, but it's not necessarily a failsafe. All HGs are fully capable of violence. It is how they subsist. Amongst the !Kung it is widely acknowledged that the readily available poison tipped arrows are one thing that makes violence particularly fatal. Steps are taken to mitigate and avoid those escalations, but they do arise. It's worth noting that most recorded incidents of violence are a direct response to an immediate circumstance or perceived wrong doing, not retaliatory in nature like violence and warfare cycles amongst delayed return societies.

    1. Hi KT,

      Thanks for your comment and apologies for the delayed response. I have been without a working computer for months now and, being a person of limited means, have not yet been able to purchase a new one and continue writing. I hope this situation changes soon.

      I wonder if you've taken a look at the Reddit link posted above your comment? In particular, my last reponse to AutumnLeavesCascade is pertinent to the points you bring up. It consists mostly of excepts from explorer Samuel Hearne's journal describing the planned massacre of Copper Eskimo by his Dene guides. Both these indigenous peoples were MFBS at the time. I'm interested in getting your reaction to the incident.

      As fof Keeley, I regret to say that my copy of his book has gone missing and I never got a chance to read it. I'll have to wait to purchase it again. The little I did read, however, did not strike me as obviously flawed analysis.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.