This is part of a series introducing aspects of anarchism for those new to the idea. As I wrote in Part 1, it is inevitable that there will be some people who will disagree with my representation of anarchism here. And I could never do justice to the complexity of anarchism. So rather than attempting any kind of authoritative definition of anarchism (which would really be contrary to the spirit of the thing), I want instead to dispel some of the myths that I had to unlearn in order to grasp what anarchism is about—this time by talking about what I learned from midwives.
Lesson 3: Civilization does not make our lives better. Civilization robs us of the the good things in life.
What about all the benefits of civilization? Of large-scale, complex social organization? We’ve all been taught the story that the history of humankind has been a progression from barbarism to a civilization and from less civilization to more civilization. And we’ve been taught that this is a good thing. But what if it wasn’t?
Civilization is a term which is often used, but rarely defined. Civilization involves the geographical concentration of people into cities.[FN 1] The word “civilization” comes from the same root as “city”. The earliest states were city-states like Sumer and Babylon, Athens and Greece, Tenochtitlán and Iztapalapa, Venice and Florence. The concentration of people into cities coincides with the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of an elite class, because it is easier to extract the surplus of people’s labor when they are concentrated in one place.[FN 2]
It’s really impossible to pinpoint when exactly civilization began. It’s easier to think of it as a process, rather than a point in time. What anarchists call “the state” is the result of the process of civilization creating a class of people whose sole function is to govern others. This includes rulers like monarchs and aristocrats, but also professional politicians, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, police officers, and soldiers.
Though they’re often used synonymously, civilization is not the same thing as culture.[FN 3] (The fact that the two are often equated is a testament to the dominance of civilization over our minds.) When we think about civilization, we tend to think about things that we like—such as the arts, modern medicine, technological gadgets, and so on. But many of the things that we like, such as art and healing, existed before civilization and outside of states. And many of the lauded “improvements” brought by civilization were not really improvements, or else they were improvements which came at a terrible cost.
Modern medicine is a good example, and one of the first benefits of civilization that comes to people’s mind. Yes, “we” can now treat cancer, something that was (probably) not possible before. But we have also lost a lot of indigenous wisdom about natural medicines in the process, due to the exclusion of certain classes of people (women, indigenous people, people of color) from the medical profession. We have also lost a lot of the ecosystems from which those natural medicines came, due to destruction by civilization. These are not accidents of civilization, but the very nature of the beast.
Homebirth is a good example of a practice which has been almost lost to the advance of civilization. Long before I started calling myself an anarchist, my wife gave birth to our second child in our home. Both our families thought we were crazy. They thought it wasn’t safe. In fact, my wife had been told by medical professionals, that because our first child had been breach and because she had had a Cesarean section, she could not deliver vaginally again. Her OB-GYN even told her that home birth was a form of child abuse. And yet, not that long ago (and for thousands of years before), it was the norm for women to give birth at home, usually with the assistance of midwives. But the dominance of the medical elite has all but wiped out the practice of midwifery—and not because OB-GYNs are better than midwives most of the time.
The birth of our first child, which happened in a hospital with a doctor, had been a traumatic event—though at the time it was normalized for us. My wife was induced by her OB-GYN early and without her consent, in order to fit the birth into his vacation schedule. At the time of the last exam, the doctor said he could feel my son’s head. Yet, the next day, when she went into labor, he was found to be in the breach position (bottom down). As a result, she was rushed off into surgery for a C-section. No one asked her what she wanted. She was given no options. She was drugged, her arms were tied down, and a curtain was placed in front of her face. All the power was taken away from her by the medical professionals. And the doctors made a game of seeing if they could beat their previous time record!
Later, we were introduced to home birth by a friend. When my second child was born, my wife was the one in charge. She decided where she wanted to deliver (in a baby pool in our living room). She decided who would be present (me, her mom, our toddler son, a midwife and two midwife assistants). She decided when she would deliver. (At the time, I was working three hours away, so she intentionally prolonged her labor while I raced home for the birth—she delivered minutes after I walked in the door.) It was beautiful and empowering for her. Had my daughter been breach, the midwife knew how to turn the baby in the womb—something which doctors today have neither the skill nor the inclination to do. They’d rather cut. For this, and other reasons, the hospital model of birth can be less healthy for mother and child than an assisted home birth.[FN4]
But in order to experience an assisted home birth, our midwife had to risk jail because, where we lived, practicing midwifery (outside of a hospital system) is illegal. In addition, if the department of child services had been notified, we might have been labeled child abusers and our children taken away from us by the state. The state would have claimed to be protecting our children, but what they really would have been protecting was the privileged position of the medical elite.
Not only has much been lost to the advance of civilization, but its purported benefits have been distributed unequally. We’ve been taught that civilization has led to a better life for everyone. In actuality, what it did was allow a concentration of power in a class of elites who consume a disproportionate share of the community’s resources. Thanks to the Occupy movement, we’ve all heard the statistics about economic inequality in the United States: the richest 1% in the United States now own more wealth than the bottom 90%. In fact more than half the wealth in the United States is owned by just 400 people.
Again, health care is a great example of this unequal distribution. Cancer treatment is something that is often cited as an example of the benefits of civilization. And yet, how many people, even in industrialized societies, actually have access to those expensive treatments? In the U.S., even those who do have access are often bankrupted and lose their life’s savings due to medical debt.
Contrary to what we have been taught, living outside of civilization has always been better for most people than living inside civilization. Because they were sedentary, people who lived in early city-states had more restricted, and thus unhealthier, diets.[FN 5] The same is actually true of most people today. Our diets are woefully dependent on monocrops like corn, large amounts of refined sugars, and unhealthy amounts of meat.
Famine was also more common for residents of early cities, because people tended to be reliant on one food source, usually a grain crop, which they were forced to grow, because it was easily taxable by the elite. Today, our current food system is propped up my massive petroleum-based inputs (fertilizers and pesticides), which will become more expensive as oil reserves are depleted. Famine will become a reality again unless people relearn how to grow their own food.
The concentration of people in early cities resulted in environmental degradation, such as soil depletion, which also contributed to famine. In addition, the close proximity of people to each other and to domesticated animals made city dwellers more prone to epidemics. We’re realizing that’s just as true today as well.
And civilized people had less power of self-determination, because they were ruled by an elite class. Civilization domesticates human beings, just as human beings domesticated other animals. Initially, this was accomplished through force. Civilization is not the result of free people seeking to protect themselves, but of would-be elites seeking power over people. It is the result, not of a social contract, but of slavery. Throughout history, a large majority of people living in early city-states lived in some degree of bondage, including forced resettlement, unpaid (corvée) labor, debt bondage, serfdom, conscription, communal tribute, and outright slavery. Elites built walls around cities as much to keep people in as to keep threats out.[FN 6]
Later, elites could use less overt force and more subtle techniques of manipulation to domesticate people.[FN 7] We have largely internalized the mythos of civilization, so that we now believe there is no alternative to it. And yet, force remains essential to maintaining civilization (as will be discussed in the next installment of this series). David Grabber has noted that, by some estimates, “a quarter of the American population is now engaged in ‘guard labor’ of one sort or another—defending property, supervising work, or otherwise keeping their fellow Americans in line.”
For all these reasons, civilization itself is highly precarious and prone to collapse. What historians call the “dark ages”, periods of civilizational collapse, were actually periods of freedom for most people—freedom from domination by elites, freedom from large scale war, freedom from pandemics. These periods only appear “dark” from the perspective of the elites, who were the ones who wrote the histories. As the poet Robinson Jeffers reminds us:
… the wise remember
That Caesar and even final Augustulus had heirs,
And men lived on; rich unplanned life on earth
After the foreign wars and the civil wars, the border wars
And the barbarians: music and religion, honor and mirth
Renewed life’s lost enchantments.
— Robinson Jeffers, “Hope Is Not For the Wise”
Anthropologists now tell us that, far from living lives that were “nasty, brutish, and short”, non-civilized people were healthier, lived longer lives, worked less, and were probably happier as a result.[FN 8] Rather than leading to a better life for most people, civilization does the opposite. And the whole order has to be maintained through violence, both externally through large-scale war and internally through a police state.
Anarchists invite us to examine whether civilization really has been the boon to humankind that its defenders claim and to look back to a time, before civilization, when life was simpler and better for most people.
To be continued in part 4 of the Anarchism for Civilians series: “What Pirates Taught Me About Anarchism”.
1. This was true at least until human beings discovered how to harness the sunlight stored in fossil fuels, whereupon civilization began to grow into its current global form.
2. In addition to (1) the concentration of economic wealth and political power in the hands of a small elite and (2) the geographical concentration of people in cities, for the purpose of extracting the surplus of their labor, other salient characteristics of civilization which I have identified from my reading include: (3) the alienation of people from the land by the gradual artificialization of our environments (artificial: the product of human “artifice” or craft), (4) the monopolization and depersonalization of violence by the state, and (5) the psychological domestication of human beings through an internalization of state violence.
3. The anarchist and radical environmentalist, Edward Abbey, illustrated this distinction between culture and civilization, though he flipped the two terms. What matters more than the terms, however, is the distinction itself. In the quote below, from Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, I flip the terms to be consistent my usage above.
Culture is the vital force in human history; civilization is that inert mass of institutions and organizations which accumulate around and tend to drag down the advance of life;
Culture is Giordano Bruno facing death by fire; civilization is the Cardinal Bellarmino, after ten years of inquisition, sending Bruno to the stake in the Campo di Fiori; …
Culture is mutual aid and self-defense; civilization is the judge, the lawbook and the forces of Law & Ordure (sic);
Culture is uprising, insurrection, revolution; civilization is the war of state against state, or of machines against people, as in Hungary and Vietnam;
Culture is tolerance, detachment and humor, or passion, anger, revenge; civilization is the entrance examination, the gas chamber, the doctoral dissertation and the electric chair; …
Culture is a youth with a Molotov cocktail in his hand; civilization is the Soviet tank or the L.A. cop that guns him down;
Culture is the wild river; civilization, 592,000 tons of cement; …
— Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
4. My knowledge of this subject is all second-hand, of course. In this, I am indebted to several wise women who have shared their experiences, not the least of which is my wife. If you want to learn more about the technocratic model of birth, I highly recommend Birth as an American Rite of Passage (1992) by anthropologist Robbie Davis-Floyd, another woman whose wisdom has guided me in this subject.
5. Many anarcho-primitivists equate the advent of agriculture with the rise of cities and civilization. However, in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017), James Scott observes that a gap of four millennia exists between the first domestication of plants and animals and the rise of city-states. During that time, people combined hunting and gathering with some degree of horticulture. Note, it is important to distinguish between agriculture and horticulture.
6. For more on the rise of early states and the condition of their citizens, see James Scott’s Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017).
7. In Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), Neil Postman, contrasts two dystopian futures, that of Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World, and concludes that Huxley, not Orwell, was right:
“Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture …
“In the Huxley prophecy, Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.”