Why “Social” Anarchism?

Why “Social” Anarchism?

You may have wondered why I keep referring to social anarchism rather than just anarchism when I talk about the subject. Social anarchism is in fact what most who understand anarchism are referring to when they talk about “anarchism” without another word in front of or after it. 

It is an ethical-political traditional which (contrary to popular belief) does not seek chaos or disorder, but the “flattening” of social, political, and economic power relations: dissolving hierarchical authority into horizontal power, so that people are able to govern themselves as free equals rather than having to take orders from centralised institutions of control and subordination. So, as a process, if focuses on the continual empowerment of the disempowered, inclusion of the excluded, and the decentralisation of power and authority.

It seeks (in the long term) a directly-democratic and non-hierarchical society characterised by:

  • Individual autonomy
  • Voluntary association.
  • A ethos of communal individuality rather than either rugged individualism or smothering collectivism, balancing the personal and social instincts.
  • The dissolution of all forms of oppressive social hierarchy and domination: racism, sexism, queerphobia, ableism, and the domination of nature.
  • A cooperative economy of the commons premised on workplace self-management; beyond the profit motive, market capitalism, and central planning by the state.
  • And the decentralisation of government into voluntary confederations of a directly-democratic, self-governing communities.

As a tradition, social anarchism first emerged out of the wider socialist movement in the 1860s, with most of its foundational traits being developed within the First International out of the ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, only taken in a more anti-authoritarian direction by figures such as Mikhail Bakunin and James Guillaume, and later in a more communalistic direction by Peter Kropotkin, Élisée Reclus, and Emma Goldman. It has been regarded by many as a confluence of the best of (classical) liberalism and (democratic) socialism, with its economics being described as libertarian socialism, in constrast to the authoritarian state socialism of most Marxist movements and to paternalistic social democracy as it exists on most of the liberal left. It also contrasts with the so-called “libertarianism” of the neoliberal right, a term they appropriated from social anarchists in the mid 20th century.

It is by far the majority tendency among those who describe themselves as anarchists and to many it is even considered the only form of anarchism, and it’s followers the sole legitimate users of the label.

So if it’s the primary (or even only) form of anarchism anyway, why the need for the adjective “social”?

Well, there are three reasons:

1. Specificity 

There are countless ideologies which slap the prefix “anarcho-” onto themselves and whose adherents describe themselves as “anarchists”: anarcho-capitalists, “post-left” anarchists, anarcho-primitivists, market anarchists, national-anarchists, anarcho-monarchists (yes, really).
Specifying a more particular tradition helps reorient things and disassociates one’s ideas/practices from every silly belief-system which self-identifies with the a-word.

2. Accessibility

The word “anarchist” is quite loaded and carries with it a whole heap of stereotypes and myths. Calling yourself an anarchist to someone uninitiated with anarchist theory is likely to make them think you’re insane, or perhaps just immature.  

Social anarchism on the other hand is something they’re at least likely to Google before dismissing you as some kind of nutter.

3. Definition

Adding the word social helps emphasise the positive features of the philosophy rather than just its oppositional aspects. The very etymology of the word anarchism means “without/against rulership”. So the term anarchism by itself refers to what it’s against rather than what it’s for.

Social however implies communality, popular order, and the connections between individuals. So putting them together the two terms – social anarchism – denote “society without rulers” and “sociality against rulership”; implying that authentic human sociability itself is contrary to the logic of hierarchical power.

The term itself isn’t even new. It first emerged in the late 19th century as a way to distinguish the anarchist mainstream from various individualist or egoist strains which promoted a kind of anti-social worldview opposed to building popular movements and in many cases content to merely live freely within the capitalist state system rather than doing anything to get rid of it.

So do try to make the term more popular if you can. There’s at least a slightly better chance that more people will google it, learning what real anarchism is all about, rather than dismissing it out of hand as mindless chaos or black-clad teenagers hurling Molotov cocktails and getting smashy-smashy with shop windows.

For a world beyond hierarchy and domination; for freedom, equality, and solidarity; for Social Anarchism.

The Dialectic of Freedom and Justice in Liberatory Movements

The Dialectic of Freedom and Justice in Liberatory Movements

Every era of liberatory movements comes with its own terminology, rhetoric, and iconography; largely emerging in response to whatever those movements are busy fighting against and what they want to counterpose to the reigning ideologies and practices of their day.

Perhaps the most common term to see in popular left-wing discourse nowadays is social justice. The term has many uses, but in general it refers to the practice of trying to make society more egalitarian by focusing on the empowerment of disempowered groups of people. I’m sometimes dismayed at how younger people tend to avoid explicitly identifying as leftists, and how they use “social justice” almost like a stand-in for “left-wing”. But hey, better to have the beliefs with a different set of signifiers than to use the same terminology without any of the content. Social justice it is then, at least for now. 

“Social Justice Warrior” (SJW) has even become a childish right-wing/liberal insult directed at the new generation of left activists and theorists, and at just about anyone who voices criticism of the various hierarchies which plague neoliberal society in the 21st century.  

Some would contest that this is what “SJW” means, claiming that it’s reserved exclusively for those who are too overzealous in their social justice rhetoric. To which I would reply, there are literal neo-nazi groups on Tumblr and you’re worried about a few teens being a little overzealous about trying to make the world more equal? In any case, this distinction between “legitimate social justice person” and “social justice warrior” is meaningless in practice; just like the distinction between “feminist” and (gag) “feminazi”. Even if you make such a distinction, every member of the former ends up being tarred as the latter by reactionaries. 

With regard to framing current social struggles in the language of justice, or in other cases equality, this is somewhat in contrast to the wave of social movements which characterised the 1960s and 1970s; from anti-colonialism, to black/Chicano power, to second-wave feminism, to the first gay and ecological movements. The rhetoric of that cycle of struggles tended to focus more on “freedom” and “liberation” rather than justice or equality.  

Why was this? One explanation is that this was natural for a era defined by attempts to throw off colonial dictatorship in the global south, dismantle totalitarianism in the Marxist-Leninist regions, and escape from the smothering bureaucracy of the post-war welfare state in the global north. To some extent, those generations felt like the issues of justice and equality were (sort of) already covered by the mid-century prosperity and grand class compromise which made business and organised labour bedfellows. What they needed now was liberation. 

It’s worth pointing out that the rhetoric of “justice” and “equality” have often been used by the authoritarian left to rationalise restrictions on freedom. Given that social anarchists, as part of the libertarian left, want to create a world defined by freedom at the personal and social levels, should we be cautious at this generation’s emphasis on social justice over social liberation? 

Not quite. 

There’s always a dialectical relationship between the concepts of freedom and justice. Each can feel like the antidote to the other when the other gets co-opted by the dominant powers. 

In places/times where justice (or “order”) is the prized political value, freedom becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around. 

In places/times where freedom (or “individualism”) is the prized political value, justice becomes the concept to rally liberatory movements around. 

Because neoliberal societies make pretences to support freedom and the individual – in the form of rugged individualism – it’s not surprising that the liberatory social forces of today (such as Black Lives Matter, fourth-wave feminism, and intersectional class politics) focus more on social justice; perhaps viewing “freedom” as an ideological spook used to justify the domination of the disempowered by the powerful. 

It’s an understandable reaction to a society that venerates freedom as an ideal, but doesn’t deliver on anything resembling collective well-being for the majority of the population. 

That’s not to say that current social justice movements aren’t doing anything wrong in venerating justice over freedom. Just as the discourse of freedom in the 1960s ran into excesses – such as advocating sex with children as part of the sexual revolution – the discourse of justice has lead to an atmosphere that’s (at times) moralistic and judgemental, shaming people for making mistakes of language or conduct and treating them like “the enemy”, rather than someone worth educating or simply having a comradely disagreement with. 

“No platform” is a form of proactive boycotting originally devised to deny literal fascists a public forum to covertly incite racist and queerphobic violence, but without getting the state involved – for the reason that statist repression could in turn be used against leftists. It can be necessary in certain dire situations, and I would always defend those who no-platform hateful people from false charges of “censorship”, but we seem to have gotten into the habit of overusing it to deny a public forum to just about anybody. This doesn’t set a good example. Though I should emphasise that this is more because denying authoritarian figures public space can in fact be a less successful tactic than allowing the, to make fools of themselves and correcting their drivel with rational counter-arguments. 

For this reason, it would be a good move for social justice people to amp up the focus on freedom once again, to emphasise that the “liberty” capitalism/neoliberal culture offers is a false liberty; and that real freedom is only possible through conditions of non-hierarchical equality. 

As social anarchists claim, the unity of freedom, equality, and solidarity is the only basis for both free self-development of the individual, and complementarity of the diverse forces in society. 

The empowerment of the disempowered – women, people of colour, indigenous peoples, queer folks, the disabled, the working classes – means a net increase in social freedom, so as long as justice is pursued in a liberationist (as opposed to statist/protectionist) manner. 

The current wave of liberatory movements and the counter-culture of social justice among the young (in colleges and online for example) is a great place to begin creating a new liberated consciousness and commons-based infrastructure. 

Though it needs to be modified with an increased emphasis on class struggle – as in, moves to acquire control of the means of production, distribution, and investment in the economy – creating direct democracy in communities, individual autonomy, and on social freedom as well as social justice. Focusing on the trans-economic oppressions of people as status-groups is important and necessary, regardless of what crusty old Marxists say about “identity politics”, but can devolve into capitalist accommodation unless accompanied by a definite class politics which defies attempts to divorce interpersonal liberation from economic-political liberation from the capitalist state system. Bonding status-group struggles to demands for an economy of the commons, defined by worker self-management and directly-democratic coordination, could be a massive step forward.

Far from having to choose between freedom and justice, what we need is a dialectical synthesis of the two. Start with the drive towards social justice that exists now, and push it in a more freedom-oriented direction.
Make those so-called safe spaces into free spaces – free from the trappings of hierarchical society.

A Look Back at Black Flame by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt

A Look Back at Black Flame by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt

Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism was a controversial book when it came out and is even more controversial now, though for very different reasons. It presented a revised theoretical framework for anarchism which:

  1. Painted it as a global, rather than Euro-American tradition
  2. Pointed out that syndicalism can be considered an offshoot of 1860s anarchism rather than a separate idea-set
  3. Argued that class-struggle communist anarchism was in fact the only legitimate form of anarchism.

This vision was lauded by many anarchists of a more class struggle orientation, criticised by those of a more intersectional and less “workerist” mind, and loathed by anarchist individualists. Though today the disputes the book sparks have taken on another far more sinister dimension.

Any future readings of this book, seminal and lauded when it came out, are inevitably going to be coloured by a giant elephant in the room: one of its co-authors, Michael Schmidt, was (arguably) exposed as a racist and Afrikaner nationalist, if not an outright fascist, who for some reason saw these beliefs as compatible with a particular brand of class struggle anarcho-syndicalism.

While his writing partner, Lucien van der Walt, remained publicly silent for several months, he used his web moniker RedandBlackWritings to defend Schmidt and argue that the evidence against him wasn’t credible. He later issued a public statement through the Anarkismo network in which he depicted himself as torn between the man he thought he knew and the double life he appeared to have lead, not sure which was the real one.

Given that at least one piece of evidence – an internal memo written under his own name which he’s confessed to writing – contains pretty overtly racist material which he hasn’t even disowned, it’s clear that if he isn’t a total fascist, he’s at least a man with extremely questionable racial politics and therefore a hindrance to the global social anarchist movement. His attempts to defend himself – posting pictures of himself with black people and pointing out that his ex-wife is Indian – have been nothing short of pathetic.

But then what of the book itself? Should it be written off completely because of the double life of one of its authors? Not necessarily.

Many respected anarchists did or advocated doing horrid things aside from their core body of work. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon was a vicious misogynist and racist (especially towards Jewish people), Mikhail Bakunin likewise harboured many contemptible prejudices towards Jews, Peter Kropotkin supported World War One, and so on. While these flaws are always brought up (and should be) they do not invalidate what they got right or render their contributions to anarchist thought and practice void.

The same should arguably apply to contemporary anarchist and socialist writers, though their infractions should be taken a great deal more seriously given the more socially enlightened time we live in, and thus the greater standard we should hold people to.

So how does Black Flame stand up on its own as a work of social anarchist theory?

Well, looking back, it’s actually a very flawed book.

I first read it myself a year or two after it came out and was extremely impressed with it. At the time, I was only starting to really look in depth at the large body of anarchist history and thought, and Black Flame served as a great solidification of anarchist ideas which contextualised them in light of their origins. Though even on that first reading, I regarded its picture of communist class-struggle anarchism as the “only” anarchism to be too narrow. Since then I’ve come to my own understanding of anarchism which is narrower than the “big tent” view which accepts just about any ideology that slaps “anarcho-“ onto itself as anarchist, but still wider than the ultra-strict categorisation found in Black Flame.

Having since studied a lot more of the vast literature of anarchism, reading the book again reveals a lot of downsides I didn’t notice before. For a start, their picture of communist class- struggle anarchism as the only legitimate form of anarchism isn’t even original. Stuart Christie (who introduces the book) and Albert Metzler posited the same idea in their book The Floodgates of Anarchy during the 1970s.

While its encapsulation of class struggle thinking in the late 19th and early 20th century is vast, it hardly even touches upon the multitude of fascinating anarchist theorising which developed after the Second World War, aside from a few mentions of Murray Bookchin.

And when I say “vast”, that’s both a complement and a condemnation. Because further reading revealed their scholarship (so impressive first time round) to be very wide, but not very deep. In many cases they only display a superficial understanding of the thinkers they describe, such as Emma Goldman.

With regard to people whose ideas they dismiss, their portrayals are even more shallow. This becomes especially evident with Max Stirner, whom I’m convinced the authors didn’t even bother reading, as they make errors about his thought that appear to have been picked up from second-hand misunderstandings than any serious consideration of his philosophy. They claim there was no real difference between self-described anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists in the early 20th century, but closer reading of the material reveals this to be false – with a strong disagreement over tactics (popular uprising in communes vs trade union action in workplaces) dividing them on ideological and practical grounds. Anarchist historian Robert Graham briefly takes them to task for this conflation in his recent book on the emergence of anarchism.

Also, the inclusion of Marxists like Daniel DeLeon, William Haywood, and especially James Connolly as part of “the broad anarchist tradition” is just comical. I’m Irish. I grew up learning about James Connolly since primary school and read a great bit by him in his own words since becoming a socialist. The idea that he was any kind of anarchist strikes me as one of the most ridiculous things in the whole tome. A syndicalist, yes, but come on.

The fact that the book consciously avoids painting a Eurocentric portrait of anarchism is often praised, but while the authors make mention of many anarchists and movements from the global south, they don’t really explore what they thought very much, or try to incorporate their insights into their revised anarchist framework. I wouldn’t quite call what they do tokenism, but in certain passages it can feel like it.

With regard to oppressed nationalities, they do at least portray the classical anarchists accurately in explaining how they advocated working within anti-colonial national liberation movements – trying to push them in a libertarian direction from within – rather than the simplistic rage against all forms of nationalism as one and the same you often find in anarcho-syndicalist circles today. But this is marred by an equally simplistic and class-reductionist perspective on victims of national domination by imperial powers, disagreeing with Rudolf Rocker that the popular classes from imperialist countries enjoy a slightly higher position in quality-of-life relative to colonial subjects. They seem to believe that as long as you’re working class, you aren’t in any real position of advantage to anybody else who’s working class.

Finally, there’s the chapter on race and gender. That Black Flame lumps these two distinct topics together is a problem all on its own, but let’s ignore that for now. The authors at least acknowledge gender oppression is its own unique form of hierarchy which cannot simply be reduced to exploitation by capital, but do not do the same for racial oppression. They paint one of the most puerile caricatures of white supremacy and anti-racist politics I’ve ever seen (I’ve literally seen critiques on Reddit with more nuance) before dismissing it in favour of abstract “working class” solidarity. Once again, if you’re working class, you apparently enjoy no real advantages to anyone else who’s working class. They cherry pick a few statistics showing that the most racist States in the US are also the ones with the lowest welfare for workers, expecting us to believe that this proves whites are not in fact in a structurally advantageous position relative to people of colour.

Do I even need to explain how simple-minded this is? It is conceiving of racial oppression in entirely economic terms, not even caring to consider the political, social, and psychological hierarchies which define racist societies; which inculcate in the minds of people of colour from an early age that white is the default and anyone else is a deviation from the default. And what about the grotesque treatment by the state of African-Americans? Are we supposed to believe this is just an epiphenomenon of working class exploitation by capital?

I really do want to not make this all about the authors personally, but I can’t shake the feeling that a good bit of this perspective could be informed by these two white working-class South Africans trying to convince themselves that they don’t really benefit from a system based on racial hierarchies, that it’s only their class position that disadvantages them; and that if purely economic differences were stripped away, there would be zero differences in life-chances between them and an unemployed black man from a Johannesburg township.

Despite anarchism being one of the first political traditions to support the inclusion of LGBT+ people, and to support free love and the uninhibited freedom to sexual pleasure, the issue of sexuality is never brought up. Nor are the crucial issues of ecology (despite Peter Kropotkin and Élisée Reclus having explored them thoroughly), animal liberation, or liberatory technology. This last omission, especially for those of a solarpunk sensibility, makes the book even more dated as we look to enter an era defined by (A) an overflow of technological change, (B) an accelerating ecological crises, and the need, in turn, for social anarchists to know how to respond to both.

All in all, revisiting the work reveals it to be an attempt to create a version of anarchism that’s far too close to orthodox Marxism: class-reductionist, economistic, stuck in the golden era of proletarian socialism, and dismissive of attempts to expand revolutionary theory by incorporating struggles against other forms of hierarchy/domination into its conception of class struggle. And all of the above remains the case even if you discount the obvious personal flaws in character of Michael Schmidt and Lucien van der Walt.

If you’re an anarchist of a more workerist orientation – who sees the added focus on the fights around race, gender, sexuality, ability, and ecology to be worthy of dismissal – then reading it will likely reinforce your convictions without making your arguments for them any stronger.

Looking back, I now find it unsettling that I recommended it to so many people – even if just to debunk the idea that anarchism had no coherent set of ideas – and have to concede that those who attacked it were on firmer ground than I remembered.

So if you’re a young social anarchist who’s looking to find out more about anarchist history and theory, you can safely skip this one and lose little of value.

Instead, try checking out the following for a broader and more nuanced understanding of social anarchism as an idea-set aimed at a beginner:

– Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism by Peter Marshall

– Anarchism and its Aspirations by Cindy Milstein

– We Do Not Fear Anarchy – We Invoke It by Robert Graham

– Underground Passages: Anarchist Resistance Culture by Jesse Cohn

– Anarchy in Action by Colin Ward

– Red Emma Speaks by Emma Goldman

– Anarchism and Anarcho-Syndicalism by Rudolf Rocker

– The Anarchist FAQ (long but very comprehensive)

Solarpunk Anarchist Solutions to Global Problems: A Quick List

Solarpunk Anarchist Solutions to Global Problems: A Quick List

While dwelling on the state of the world during the combination of COP21 – determining the future fate of the human species – and the worsening chaos in southwest Asia (with the Rojava Revolution being the only beacon of light) I was trying to cobble together in my head what some viable solutions to the problems we all face might be.

Obviously the biggest problems are at the level of the global system itself: it’s centralised and militaristic state structure, its irrational economic setup premised upon infinite growth on a finite planet, various ideological forces (some religious, some not) trying to subordinate humanity to a single way of viewing the world, the continuing ecocide of the biosphere and nonhuman animals.

In the very long term, the only thing that will suffice as a solution is total system change. A structural transformation of the capitalist state system to a completely different social, political, and economic mode of power.

Though when you think that big, it can be easy to lose focus of how those systemic problems affect us all on the day-to-day level and in the here-and-now. It’s important to keep perspective on how to respond to the problems that are right in front of us, so that we don’t become so concerned with the big picture that we forget about the immediate local issues that need resolving.

Social anarchism isn’t just a vision of a non-hierarchical society that will exist some time in the distant future – after we dissolve every state, communalise the means of production, and flatten every social hierarchy – it’s a means of relating to the world that’s right in front of us which aims to decentralise power, challenge authority, and enhance individual and collective autonomy wherever possible. It’s a method of drawing out the liberatory potentials in what we already do and trying to push them to the forefront of our actions, so that our practices in the present prefigure the world we want to create in the future, helping to transfer us from one to the other.

So in the spirit of “practical utopianism”, I made a quick list of short-term to mid-term to long-term goals in order to help conceptualise where I think we should all be heading and what we should be pushing for. It’s by no means definitive or exhaustive. Merely a few suggestions to help get our minds focused on a coherent transitional process from where we are now to where we want to arrive at.


  • Support for the individual struggles of oppressed groups of people (relative to where we each stand): women through feminist activism, people of colour through anti-racist activism, indigenous and colonised populations through decolonisation, LGBT+ folks, nonhuman animals, and so on.
  • The construction of a future “economy of the commons” through the creation of things like worker-run cooperatives, participatory budgeting programs, community land trusts, and so on.
  • Starting up democratic schools which emphasise free creativity, cooperative self-education, and self-realisation over the passive-receptive memorisation of rote tasks and factoids.
  • Unionising the global workforce so as to resist the forces of corporate capital.
  • Opposing the expansion of state power, especially surveillance, militarism, wars to access new markets for transnational capital, etc.
  • Municipalisation – instead of nationalisation or privatisation – of economic resources, making them easier to manage locally and control democratically.
  • Building an international movement (of movements) for climate justice to (1) avert ecological catastrophe, and (2) make sure green goals are fully concurrent with social goals for popular liberation and economic justice.
  • Creating “infrastructures of resistance” to capital and the state, run according to the values of voluntary cooperation and decentralised federation, as part of a social anarchist “transfer-culture” which embodies the spirit of the new world, getting us used to the practice of freedom, equality, and solidarity.


  • The automation, through the applied use of human-scale eco-technologies, of as much needless human toil as possible so as to eliminate jobs that fall under the “Three Ds”: Dull, Dirty, Dangerous. And the reduction of what anthropologist David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs” which have no reason to exist.
  • The localisation – to as great a degree as is feasible – of the production of goods and services, especially food and manufacturing. Though with technics such as 3D printing, micro-manufacturing, open-source hardware, free software, and vertical farming, this may be easier than you think.
  • Transition to a completely renewable (preferably localised) system of energy. With a particular focus (of course) on solar energy, wind, wave, and geothermal energy depending on the specifics of the community/region which needs power. (Nuclear power may need to be advocated as a necessary evil in a transitional phase, as a kind of methadone to wean us off of the heroin of fossil fuels)
  • The devolution of economic and political power (of state, regional, and local governments) to directly-democratic popular assemblies – meaning the democratisation of finance, investment, allocation of big resources, and political life in general.
  • Creation of a new kind of personal and social consciousness, centred on the values of personal autonomy, civil libertarianism, communal individuality, unity-in-diversity, inclusiveness, non-hierarchical ways of relating to each other, and ecological stewardship of the natural world.


  • Elimination of the need for killing animals for food with cultured meat having been made viable.
  • Full automation of almost all dull, dirty, and dangerous labour, giving people more freedom to pursue jobs which are creative, helpful, and empowering; and to work at their own leisure.
  • Directly-democratic control of the economy at the level of the (worker self-managed) enterprise and (self-governing) locality – with administrative councils made up of spokespersons (as opposed to politicians) sent by each community to coordinate things on levels beyond the local.
  • The rewinding of areas of the Earth which were spoiled by the existing industrialist economic system; possibly even reintroducing extinct species through cloning.
  • An economy which has moved beyond scarcity to the point where markets and even money are no longer necessary, with people being able to take goods freely from stores.
  • A reconciliation of the urban and the rural with the decentralisation and ecologisation of cities.
  • The free movement of all people due to the elimination of nation-state borders and the equalisation of economic abundance.
  • The birth of a new ecological global culture reconciling humanity with the natural world.

So basically, Post-Scarcity Anarchism.

A Few Words on Solarpunk and Primitivism

Is solarpunk compatible with wanting to live a low-technology kind of life?


Terminology can create a lot of confusion. Two people could argue endlessly about the same term, weighing the merits and demerits of it, only to realise that they each were going by two different meanings of the word. Such a thing happened to me recently. 

After I had a lengthly exchange with somebody in response to my claim that “primitivism” was antithetical to solarpunk, and they in turn said this was an authoritarian prescription on how everybody ought to live their lives in an ecological society, it transpired that by “primitivism” they just meant living a more low-tech, off-grid lifestyle, while allowing everybody else to live however they chose.

A number of things should be clarified in the wake of this.

Firstly, by “primitivism” I didn’t mean anybody who favours a more low-technology or Luddite way of living – away from cities, computers, and with a closer connection to the natural world. 

That’s a perfectly fine way to live, temporarily or permanently, for anybody who finds fulfilment in it; and in fact could be seen as an understandable reaction to the trappings of industrialist society.

By primitivist, for those who don’t know, I refer very specifically to a branch of thought a great deal more extreme, which (unfortunately) gained a following among self-described anarchists in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s; associated with people like John Zerzan and more recently Derrick Jensen.

Such primitivists not only want to live closer to the natural world, but regard all forms of “technology” (defined in nebulous terms) as inherently authoritarian and something no one should take pleasure in unless they’re deluded and a slave to machines. 

They regard not only the industrial revolution as a mistake, but even the agricultural revolution.

Yes, the one that happened 10,000 years ago.

To them, the only solution to the trappings of the capitalist state system can be a worldwide abandonment of all cities and technology, and a mass return to a hunter-gatherer way of life. They also regard clothing, art, writing, spoken language, counting in numbers, and even acknowledging the passage of time as authoritarian and worth abandoning.

In many ways, the way of life they seek is less like that of the real hunter-gatherers they venerate/romanticise and more akin to non-human primates like bonobos or cervine species.

It would be one thing if primitivists just wanted everyone to voluntarily abandon technology and civilisation through a kind of popular exodus or great reformation. Though that’s not what they have in mind. 

Instead, they claim that “civilisation” itself is innately doomed to self-destruct, gradually culminating in a rapture-like process called the “collapse”, leading humankind to be left with no feasible alternative but to become hunter-gatherers again.

There’s a bunch of obvious problems with the above which contradict their own objectives – such as the nuclear catastrophe that would happen without anyone to monitor waste or reserves – but I won’t go into those here.

What’s clear is that in seeking total civilisational collapse for the whole human species, the aims of these primitivists are not compatible with the values or aims of solarpunk.

Solarpunks, by and large, do not reject all technology as inherently authoritarian, but only centralised/hierarchical forms of technology which are more coded for dominating or destroying things than helping anybody. 

To a solarpunk, problems arise less from technology itself and more from how technologies are used. Just as the capitalist state system creates hierarchical and violent technics, a more liberated, egalitarian, and ecological kind of social system would create and maintain more liberatory kinds of technics.

That’s why solarpunks seek to use certain forms of technology in a responsible and ecological manner to make life better for both humanity and the natural world (humanisphere and biosphere, second nature and first nature), restructuring our technological infrastructure along decentralised and horizontalist lines, so as to re-harmonise the relation between humans and the Earth they live on.

The long-term aim would be to create a different kind of high technology than the kind associated with the capitalist state system. A world powered entirely through renewable energy, with decentralised eco-cities replacing congested metropolises, automated machinery and artisanal craft replacing industrialist mass production; with liberatory technologies like 3D printing, vertical farming, open-source hardware, and the cornucopia of a copyright-free Internet enabling a high standard of living with a minimum of human labour – and with localisation of production/distribution allowing us to stay within ecological boundaries.

This is a vision which chimes well with a number of technological thinkers such as Lewis Mumford, Peter Kropotkin, and Murray Bookchin; people associated with (or close to) the social anarchist tradition.

But in this non-hierarchical and decentralised world of technological abundance, would there be room for those who personally disliked being surrounded by even decentralist eco-technology? Would there be space even for those who wanted to be hunter-gatherers and live as most primitivists want to live?

The answer is not only yes, but of course.

Just as there’s no one type of person, there should be no one type of living arrangement that everyone should be expected to like. The general solarpunk vision of post-scarcity eco-cities is only an overall hub, around which many different kinds of life could be made possible.

We might have living areas which are more congested and industrial-looking for those who like that feeling of hustle and bustle, pastoral Amish-like communities for those who prefer the simple life away from urbanity, and even reserves for those who wanted to live as hunter-gatherers, just like what the John Zerzans of the world see as their ideal.

The difference is, while a Luddite or even primitivist way of life would be possible within a solarpunk world, a solarpunk way of life would not be possible within a primitivist world. As the imagined “collapse” would make it impossible for anyone who likes high technology and city living to exist in a way that pleases them; if they even survive the apocalyptic transition to such a state of affairs.

So to sum up, when I criticise primitivists, I don’t refer to those who want to voluntarily lead a more low-tech existence while respecting others’ lifestyles, but to those extreme anti-technology/anti-civilisation ideologues who seek the kind of collapse which would make a diversity of lifestyles impossible.

Democracy or Autonomy?

While social anarchists have always used the word autonomy – meaning self-directedness as well as free association – there’s been a certain ambivalence about the word democracy. This can be confusing for newcomers who start reading anarchist literature and see direct democracy being described as anarchistic in one book and lambasted in another.

The term comes from two Greek root words (demos + kratos) which together mean “people power”.

At the beginning, the word was synonymous with what is now called “direct democracy”, and referred more broadly to the idea of a self-organised multitude (“demos”) having ultimate power, rather than royals, elites, or priestly castes ruling in the name of divine authority. Originally, the very term “representative democracy” would have sounded like a contradiction in terms, as popular will by definition can only be direct. It cannot be represented by anyone speaking on people’s behalf.

While democracy was considered a radical and dangerous concept all the way up to the 19th century, often being used in the same way “anarchist” and “extremist” are used today, in the early 1800s the term started being applied to the practice of representative government, first as a populist euphemism, then literally.

Elections for office were in fact an invention of aristocracy, not democracy. Rousseau in the century beforehand described representative government as “elective aristocracy” (a more fitting description for what we have now), not democracy in any sense, which he associated with direct and participatory decision-making through popular assemblies.

With most classic social anarchist literature being written in the 1800s, the early anarchists used the “democracy” in an almost entirely negative sense, to mean both representative government as well as the idea that majorities had the right to rule over minorities.

Since the 1960s though, many social anarchists began reclaiming the earlier radical sense of the word democracy to refer to the kinds of participatory bottom-up decision-making methods they always supported anyway. Most people don’t like the state, which calls itself democratic, but still like the idea of democracy (people power) in essence. So this provided a useful discourse to reframe social anarchist ideas: as the fullest manifestation of democracy in the original sense of the word. This use was also common among others on the libertarian left such as Cornelius Castoriadis, who contrasted democracy with the “liberal oligarchy” that’s normally called democratic.

That’s not to say it doesn’t still have its detractors in anarchist circles. Even if many anarchists understand that what’s being referred to isn’t representative democracy, but direct participatory democracy, they still use it to refer to the idea of majority rule and the denial of dissenters to go their own way.

These anarchists (the North American group Crimethinc among them) contrast “democracy” with “autonomy”.

But are they really so opposed to one another?

All social anarchists agree with the principle of voluntary association and the freedom of any individual or group to disassociate from an organisation if they find themselves in irreconcilable disagreement with it. They can then do their own thing or convince other dissenting parties to join them in forming a new voluntary association.

And in the absence of nobody ever cooperating with anyone else out of fear that they may have to compromise with others, some level of group decision-making will be necessary in order to get anything done on a scale that goes beyond the lone individual.

So long as the methods we use for making decisions are voluntary, horizontalist, consensus-based, and respectful of the individual (including their freedom to secede), why not call them democratic, given the popular resonance the word so clearly has?

Just as with individualism and collectivism, setting up a separation between them is establishing a false dichotomy. It’s true that notions of democracy that are majoritarian and not fully voluntary need to be rejected. But then so too do notions of autonomy which are antisocial and elitist.

The lone individual who just wants to do their own thing without being forced to take part in democratic decision-making is someone who should always be respected in any directly-democratic society.

So the answer to this dilemma is not democracy or autonomy, but democracy and autonomy. The aforementioned Cornelius Castoridis even used the two terms as roughly synonymous, identifying the practice of direct participatory democracy as the essence of the project of autonomy which runs throughout human history, always in tension with heteronomy (the opposite of autonomy), or what social anarchists would call hierarchical power.

The answer is a synthesis of the two traditions: autonomous democracy (or democratic autonomy as the Rojava Kurds call it).

We should use both terms in a positive and anarchist-specific sense, letting people know that we don’t allow for majoritarian/involuntary democracy or antisocial/elitist autonomy.

Autonomous democracy avoids the trappings of both rugged individualism and smothering collectivism, fulfilling both the personal and social instincts in humanity.