Beyond Primitivism: Towards a Twenty-First Century Anarchist Theory and Praxis for Science and Technology

By Thorpe, Charles; Welsh, Ian | Anarchist Studies, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview
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Beyond Primitivism: Towards a Twenty-First Century Anarchist Theory and Praxis for Science and Technology


Thorpe, Charles, Welsh, Ian, Anarchist Studies


ABSTRACT

The authoritarian and ecologically destructive juggernaut of state-supported big science and technology in the twentieth century understandably fostered a deep pessimism and suspicion towards science and technology among many in the green, anarchist, and libertarian-left milieu. This reaction has been crystallized in the 'anti-civilization' primitivist anarchism of John Zerzan. In opposition to this drift towards primitivism, this paper argues that a vision of a liberatory and participative science and technology was an essential element of classical anarchism and that this vision remains vital to the development of liberatory political theory and praxis today. The paper suggests that an anarchist model of science and technology is implicit in the knowledge-producing and organizing activities of new social movements and is exemplified in recent developments in world, regional, and local social forums.

INTRODUCTION

This article develops an anarchist political theory of science and technology that highlights the latent forms of anarchist praxis present within a diverse range of social movement engagements with contemporary techno-science. We argue that there is a marked congruence between contemporary social movement engagement and the key concepts and principles underpinning anarchist writing on science and technology from the nineteenth century onwards.

By exploring the tensions and ambivalences in established anarchist approaches towards science (cf. Restivo 1994) we demonstrate that classical nineteenth-century anarchism emphasised the centrality of socially accountable science within libertarian thinking. Elements of this tradition are discernible in the emphasis on liberatory technics by twentieth-century writers such as Lewis Mumford, Murray Bookchin, and Paul Goodman. This later work on liberatory technics developed during a period dominated by state-sponsored big science. The twenty-first century, however, is dominated by neo-liberal ascendancy characterised by the early transfer of 'near market' science to the private sector. This transition to a neo-liberal era requires clarification of, and debate on, the relationship of anarchism to science. Further, such debate must address the global movement milieu in which traditionally conceived social movements combine with network movement actors to form an antagonistic and proactive social force emphasising autonomy.

Important features of this movement milieu are unqualified opposition to: the alignment of capitalist and state forces through global institutions such as the World Bank and IMF; the military sequestration of public and corporate scientific research and development (R&D) budgets; the imposition of 'market solutions' across all areas of 'public provision' and the pursuit of modernisation agendas which simultaneously degrade ecological and human integrity. Global social movements also challenge the prevailing cognitive order by defining key knowledge stakes regarded as vital to 'the other worlds that are possible'. The recognition and respect for difference is a central part of these linked political and epistemological objectives raising significant challenges for conceptions of science based on universal laws. Key questions explored here are what does the philosophical and political tradition of anarchism have to contribute to such contemporary challenges to dominant social-epistemic orders and is there a theory of science embedded in anarchist political thought that is relevant and applicable to contemporary struggles?

Given the continuing importance of science to modern states and the neo-liberal 'global knowledge economy,' a critical anarchist theory of science and technology needs to overcome the limitations within various forms of 'primitivism' exemplified by the writings of John Zerzan (1996). Zerzan's criticisms of alienation in modern life and of the nihilism of contemporary technological culture are trenchant.

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