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March 01st 2011 print

Hal G.P. Colebatch

Glimpses of Reprimitivisation


William Rubinstein, Professor of History at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth, and author of Genocide: A History (2004), wrote recently:

Apart from the modern West—or, more precisely, the English-speaking democracies of the West—most of human history and most of non-Western societies have been hallmarked by nightmarish, murderous barbarism on a scale so pervasive and so hellish that its extent can hardly be grasped …


It may be objected that I have changed the meanings of the terms I am using: that scientific and technological “primitivism” is not the same as “primitivism” in terms of cruel and barbaric behaviour—the production-line murders at Auschwitz and the destructive use of nuclear energy were the products of science and technology, for example, and today technologically-educated people have been prominent among extreme Islamic fanatics. Nonetheless, I maintain that that the various types of primitivism go together. A modern society which rejects humane civilisation, such as Nazi Germany, will have primitivism return in many aspects. Fanatical Islamicism rejects scientific and technological civilisation (apart from weapons) as thoroughly, and as part of the same mental impulse, as it rejects Western and liberal notions of religious pluralism and sexual equality. 

The Western nihilist or liberal extremist who rejects the humanistic part of the Western cultural heritage tends to reject the scientific and technological part as well. James McAuley once said the program of the modern world is to kill Christ. The postmodernist death-warrants are out for others too: Newton, Einstein and Planck are on the list for liquidation along with Confucius, Dante, Shakespeare and Mozart.

Barbarism and primitivism, like freedom, are largely indivisible. On-going institutional atrocious behaviour seems linked to primitivism in other areas. The use by the Nazis of technologically advanced means to facilitate mass-murder was exceptional. But there are examples of reprimitivisation and cults of primitivism much more recent, and they appear linked with non-religious, secularised societies. In Holland, for example, there are recent cases of the euthanasia of children, something which one might have thought had disappeared from Europe in about 1945. So-called “honour killings” of women within the Muslim community there appear to go unpunished and barely investigated (however, Holland is not alone in Europe in this).

The communist conquest of Indo-China in 1975, and the forcible reprimitivisations carried out in “liberated” Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam led many intellectuals in the West who had supported a communist victory to justify primitivism as a return to moral purity and to minimise the suffering and mass-murder which it entailed. Herbert Marcuse was one who laid down the line to be followed on this, writing in 1968 that: “The affluent society [brings] the progressive brutalisation and moronisation of man …”

The Australian Catholic Worker, by then under far-Left control, and advocating communist victory in Indo-China, claimed in 1970 that:

America’s technical competence … has left us with very little—the vulgarisation of human instinct … distraction as a way of life, raucous appeal to trivialities and luxuries, the consumer cornucopia pouring out its vast retail heap of polluting junk …

Events in Cambodia when America departed from the region were later described by a number of survivors, such as Someth May, in a book called Cambodian Witness:

Comrade Tek … had worked himself up into a rage. He approached the pile of struggling monkeys [he had broken their arms and tied their feet together], and killed them one by one …. with a blow to the back of the skull … “And now,” he said, “I’ll show you the way I used to kill the Lon Nol soldiers when we caught them, and the way to get the liver out.” He laid the last monkey flat on the ground … He made a cut to the stomach. Then he pressed hard on the incision with both hands. The monkey screamed. The liver came out whole. Comrade Tek then slit the animal’s throat. He said, “If it had been a man, I would have put my foot in the cut to get the right pressure—otherwise the liver never comes out properly.”

After the “liberation” of Indo-China one Dr Carlyle Thayer, then teaching at, remarkably enough, the Department of Government at the Australian Royal Military College, Duntroon (later Associate Professor at the Australian Defence Forces Academy), suggested the South Vietnamese city-dwellers who had been dispossessed and forced to labour and very frequently to die in “new economic zones” (that is, uncleared jungle) were discontented and seeking to escape as refugees in leaking boats in their hundreds of thousands simply from decadent softness and wounded vanity:

Among the vast numbers who are part of the middle class are some people experiencing status deprivation and a decline in their standard of living; they react much as we would if we were told Australia’s national interest required that we give up our comfortable positions in academia and in the public service and immediately rush to Mildura [a pleasant fruit-growing area in Victoria on the Murray River, not an uncleared jungle] to help with the fruit harvest. I think that many of us would rebel at the prospect. Our hands would be blistered, the sun would be hot, and we would probably feel we were better suited to more intellectual pursuits … 

There are mountains of such comments, many managing to equal this in fatuous callousness. An article on this matter by commentator Andrew Bolt is worth quoting at length:

This weird love our cultural elite has for the Noble Savage can, of course, be as innocent as Rebecca Hossack’s dream of being buried like an Aboriginal.

Hossack, who runs a swish art gallery in London and was the first cultural attache at our High Commission, has two Aboriginal burial poles in her basement: one for herself and one for her husband. 

As the glossy Melbourne Magazine ooh-ahhed this month: “When she dies, Hossack says, her bones will be bleached on the roof of her London house, placed in her burial pole and sent back to Australia.” 

Like I say, it’s innocent. No one is inconvenienced, unless Hossack’s heirs get the creeps waiting for the skeleton on the roof to turn white. Or the neighbours take fright at the vultures suddenly settling on the gutters of Notting Hill, clutching looser bits of Hossack’s rotting remains. 

You might think other signs of this new craze for the myth of deeply spiritual savages living in some Garden of eco-Eden—with white capitalists cast as the snake—are just as harmless …

But not all of this romanticising about the good old Stone Age is quite so cute. 

I’m thinking, for instance, of Tom Calma’s attack on the Howard Government’s Bill to stop Aboriginal wife-bashers and child-abusers from using the excuse that their barbarity was permitted by “tribal law”. 

(The Government had in mind the 55-year-old man who was initially jailed for just one month for anally raping a 14-year-old girl, the judge accepting that under tribal law the victim was his promised bride.) 

Wrote Calma, paid big to be our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner: “The problem is that this Bill does not address family violence in the indigenous communities in any meaningful way. 

“Rather, it will undermine attempts to solve the problem and perpetuate harmful stereotypes about Aboriginal customary law.” 

Hmm. Does Calma seems more worried by the damage done to the image of tribal law than by the damage such laws do to a 14-year-old girl? 

But he is not alone in re-imagining tribal ways to be gentler—and greener—than they really were and are. Many others want to forget the truth—that even an anthropologist as sympathetic to Aboriginal causes as Professor Peter Sutton says in his essay, The Politics of Suffering, that “a man’s right to beat his wife without interference” can be described by Aborigines as the “Blackfella way” and “high levels of interpersonal violence” have long been “sanctioned” by Aboriginal laws. 

In 2004 Germaine Greer, formerly Professor in the Department of English Literature and Comparative Studies at the University of Warwick, published a work titled Whitefella Jump Up! in which she said Australia should adopt Aboriginal language, customs and religions and revert to a hunter-gatherer society, although it would be hard on the kangaroos, lizards, dugongs and the last rare small mammals to be chased for food by 21 million people, however inept at tracking, spear-throwing and desert-survival these people might be. A leading academic theologian, Dr Peter Adams, Principal of Ridley College, the main Anglican theological college in Victoria, demanded that “All non-Aboriginal Australians [that is, 97.5 per cent of the population] should be prepared to leave the country if the indigenous people want that” and that such artefacts of civilisation as houses, churches, colleges, parks, courts, hospitals and roads were no more than stolen property.

Another Australian academic, Robert Manne, an associate professor of Political Science, said of the allegedly “enchanted world” of pre-European Australian Aborigines: 

[A]nthropologists discovered not an Edenic but an enchanted world, in the technical sense of the sociologist Max Weber. They discovered an intricate social order in which, through the kinship structure, every human being had a precise and acknowledged place.

A society in which “every human being had a precise and acknowledged place” sounds an excellent recipe for stagnation and universal unfreedom, like the insectoid Selenites of H.G. Wells’s The First Men on the Moon, the alphas, betas, gammas and epsilons of Brave New World, or the inner party, outer party and proles of Nineteen Eighty-Four. We know Aboriginal society, sometimes called a “gerontocracy tempered by anarchy” was frequently homicidal and accorded no rights to women and children, while adolescent males who in tribal life failed a series of progressively harder initiation-tests were regarded as non-people and dealt with accordingly. I have already mentioned that the possibility of upward and downward social mobility appears necessary for progress. Mr Manne continued:

[Anthropologists have] discovered a world that was filled with economic purpose, leavened with playfulness, joy and humour, soaked in magic, sorcery, mystery and ritual, pregnant at every moment with deep and unquestioned meaning.

Is this academic actually saying that a way of life “soaked in sorcery” was desirable? What can one do but throw back against this, across twenty-five centuries, the words of Xenophanes:

The gods did not reveal, from the beginning, 
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better

The idyllic nature of Aboriginal existence is questioned by obvious mathematics, apart from the fact that, when a choice is offered them, practically all Aborigines reject tribal life without Western technology. Aborigines inhabited the continent of Australia for 40,000 years or more. They had only most primitive methods of birth control and practically no natural enemies. They were at the undisputed top of the food chain, and were not at risk from predators like African lions, leopards and hyenas. They developed great hunting and gathering skills.

Yet by the time of European settlement they numbered less—probably much less—than a million: estimates vary from about 100,000 to about 750,000. The precise figure does not matter to make the point. This population could only have been so limited by an enormously high death-rate. 

The brutal treatment of women in Aboriginal tribal life horrified even the hard and savagely-disciplined convicts and marines of the first settlement at Sydney. One young marine officer, Watkin Tench, wrote: “[Women] are in all respects treated with savage barbarity … they meet in return for submission only with blows, kicks and every other mark of brutality.”

Tench ridiculed the Rousseauvian concept of the Noble Savage, remarking: 

I wished, that those European philosophers, whose closet speculations exalt a state of nature above a state of civilization, could survey this phantom, which their heated imaginations have raised; possibly they might then learn, that a state of nature is, of all others, less adapted to promote [human happiness].

This is despite the fact that there can also be a strong element of gentleness, humour and self-awareness in Aboriginal culture. The violence and apparent callousness of tribal life was, before being apparently exacerbated by government policies, forced on them by their non-technological existence. 

Policies aimed at integrating Aborigines into the general community or equipping them to survive in the modern world have been damned as being, among other things, “assimilationism”, like some kind of totalitarian ideology. Andrew Bolt remarked of Manne’s enthusiasm:

How could our top intellectual so praise a society in which the strong ruled the weak, infanticide was common, death-rates by warfare horrific, life expectancy low and bashing of women—as measured by the fractured skulls since found—astonishingly high.

It was reported in 2006 that, following a clash at one Aboriginal reserve in which twelve people were killed, the severed head of one woman was dragged through the township by a dog.

This occurred in a wealthy, stable and humane parliamentary democracy, some of whose elites had become infatuated with primitivism and reprimitivisation. 

Politically correct theories of education have meant whole generations of children damaged, probably irreparably, by drugs and sexual abuse, and far less able to survive in either the white or tribal worlds than were their parents. Indeed it seems some white Anglophone educationists and bureaucrats, immersed in cultural self-hatred, have deliberately deprived these children of the opportunity to learn English and mathematics, while being unable to impart to them the ability to track elusive animals or locate water-holes.

Despite all this, many Australian Aborigines and part-Aborigines who have not been exposed to political correctness live ordinary working and middle-class lives. David Unaipon (1872–1967) was an Aboriginal inventor and experimental physicist, musician and author. William Cooper, on December 6, 1938, led a delegation of the Australian Aboriginal League to the German consulate in Melbourne to protest against the Nazi persecution of Jews when such protests were few. I number an Aboriginal physicist among my friends but have not publicised his name for fear of seeing him—as has happened to others—being forced back into an “Aboriginal” role by white social engineers (“You must be a leader to your people!” etc). 

The following is extracted from an article published in August 2007 by Roger Sandall on his website under the heading “A White Wedding”. Could it be true? Sandall asked. Did a woman anthropologist actually compare the ceremony at which young Masai girls are genitally mutilated to “a white wedding”?

Yes she did. It’s true. The anthropologist’s name is (or was) Melissa Llewellyn-Davies MFA. In case you’re wondering, the initials do not stand for Master of Fine Arts; they stand for Marxist Feminist Anthropologist. Ms Llewellyn-Davies compared genital mutilation to a white wedding in her chillingly misleading narration for the film Masai Women … Mind you, our MFA never speaks of “genital mutilation”: this ugly phrase never passes her lips. Instead she talks loftily about “the female circumcision ceremony” …

In the film that was finally produced there’s no sound whatever of the girl’s ordeal. Her screams were edited out and replaced by the voice and image of an older tribal woman smilingly telling us how happy she is … 

It is worth bearing in mind that the purpose of female circumcision is to deprive a woman forever of the possibility of sexual pleasure and thus to deprive her of one of the most joyous and transcendent experiences of human life: to mutilate them, in obeisance to a perverted view of human relationships, so that their lives are less than fully human. The Catholic Church is running a campaign against female circumcision in Kenya, offering alternative rites of adulthood. Other agencies, perhaps fearful of charges of ethnocentrism, seem conspicuous by their silence and absence in the matter. Germaine Greer has claimed that “genital mutilation of girls needs to be considered in context” and that any attempt to stop it is “an attack on cultural identity”.

The Liverpool Echo of February 5, 2008, reported that African tribal elders were flying to Liverpool to carry out genital mutilation on girls born into immigrant families. Further:

Health officials today revealed girls aged between four and 11 are also being taken abroad during school holidays to be illegally circumcised … The most recent figures from Liverpool maternity services identified 237 women with female genital mutilation in three years. In some ethnic communities in the city, 90% of women are mutilated.

One specialist midwife at Liverpool Women’s Hospital said that this was an understatement.

The great Australian poet of failure, Henry Lawson, thought success the province of cynics, criminals, “louts” and cloddish people without “idears”, as in the poem written in the 1890s, “Middleton’s Rouseabout”. Lawson himself had a life whose initial deprivation was in some ways not unlike that of Walt Whitman, but the contrast between this poem and those of Whitman, with their vigour and optimism, quoted above could hardly be greater:

Type of a careless nation,
Men who were soon played out,
Middleton was—and his station
Was bought by the Rouseabout. 

Flourishing beard and sandy,
Tall and solid and stout,
This is the picture of Andy,
Middleton’s Rouseabout.

Now on his own dominions
Works with his oversears;
Hasn’t any opinions,
Hasn’t any “idears”.

The Mombasa-born academic Professor Ali Mazruri (the Mazruris of Mombasa were a prominent eighteenth and nineteenth-century slave-trading clan)  claimed, from the distinguished platform of the Reith Lectures, broadcast to the world by the BBC and named after its founder who believed his mission was to enlighten and uplift humanity, that: “The decline of Western Civilization might well be in hand. It is in the interest of humanity that such a decline should take place.”

In the twenty-first century a morally depraved condition was identified known as “affluenza”, the diagnosis being generally made by journalists with comfortable salaries and superannuation living in the more affluent and technologically-advanced parts of the world. The original text for this, published in the late 1950s, was probably John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society, in which a wealthy, secure and influential economist-politician-diplomat and admirer of the German Democratic Republic’s economic progress denounced the comfort and security achievable by others. In Australia the columnist Catherine Deveny wrote in the Age as a federal election approached that she was:

Hopeful that this avalanche of corruption and deception will stop people voting for Howard again. Then I realise that if they were stupid enough to be sucked in by him the first and the second time, there’s not much hope. I just hope a few of them have died from xenophobia and affluenza.

The influential British journalist George Monbiot wrote in 1999:

Stand in Liverpool Street station on a Friday evening while some of Britain’s richest people are going home to enjoy the fruits of their labours … Stress oozes from them like sweat, anger shudders beneath their skins. [They’re suffering from] a species of mental illness.

He also, in 2007, welcomed the prospect of a recession in Britain, stating: “Yes, yes, it would cause some people to lose their jobs and homes,” but claimed this would be a small price to pay for stopping “The destructive effects of economic growth.”

It would be interesting to know if he felt the same way a year later.

One, presumably comfortably-salaried, American academic published a book in 2008 attacking the value of happiness—early in 2008, that is, before large numbers of Americans began experiencing the presumed spiritual enrichment of negative equity. The onset of a real recession at the end of 2008 silenced most such voices, which were largely replaced by hysterical and irrational prophecies of doom. 

It is possible to feel schadenfreude at the spectacle of a soft, decadent, Eloi-like people suddenly forced to confront harsher realities than they are used to, but that is not in the long run a helpful reaction.

Mark Steyn wrote in 2007 of the pseudo-environmentalist fashion among certain celebrities for urine-drinking and primitivisation of sanitary facilities:

George Monbiot … writes: “It is impossible not to notice that, in some of the poorest parts of the world, most people, most of the time, appear to be happier than we are. In southern Ethiopia, for example, the poorest half of the poorest nation on earth, the streets and fields crackle with laughter. In homes constructed from packing cases and palm leaves, people engage more freely, smile more often, express more affection than we do behind our double glazing, surrounded by remote controls.” In Ethiopia, male life expectancy is 42.88 years. George was born in 1963. If the streets and fields are crackling with laughter, maybe it’s because the happy peasants are reading his syndicated column in the Gamo Gofa Times-Herald. No wonder they’re doubled up and clutching their sides. It’s not just the dysentery from the communal latrine.

R.H. Tawney stated in an extraordinary paroxysm at the end of Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, first published in 1922, that modern capitalism was 

a whole system of appetites and values, with its deification of the life of snatching to hoard, and hoarding to snatch, which now, in the hour of its triumph, while the plaudits of the crowd still ring in the ears of the gladiators and the laurels are still unfaded on their brows, seems sometimes to leave a taste as of ashes on the lips of a civilization …

Another influential leftist, C. Wright Mills, claimed the consumers of capitalist production were “cheerful robots”. The Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican Church, Dr Rowan Williams, who has been known to dress as a Druid on occasion (that is, as the priest of a religion which involved human sacrifice) a dress remarkably suited to his caprine features, and who, repeating a fallacy which had helped stunt human development for millennia, claimed that: “Every transaction in the developed economies of the West can be interpreted as an act of aggression against the economic losers in the worldwide game” wrote in the Times of November 25, 2007, that: “There is something [sic] about western modernity which really does eat away at the soul.” The word something is typical of the vagueness of such statements. Possibly his predecessor in the office who, as mentioned above, was pelted to death with bones at a Viking feast would, had he been able to foresee it, have regarded a life of Western modernity with considerable envy. 

Dr Williams was reported shortly after as urging Christians to give up carbon emissions for Lent. This occupant of the Throne of St. Augustine outdid his previous pronouncements by calling for the introduction of sharia law in Britain. He equated sharia law with Jewish Beth Din arbitration processes, and warned that we must be wary of a “universalist Enlightenment system”. Following protests of an evidently surprising intensity, he claimed that:

I must take responsibility for any unclarity in either that text or in the radio interview, and for any misleading choice of words that has helped to cause distress or misunderstanding among the public at large and especially among my fellow Christians.

The Anglican Synod, which not long before had voted to disinvest in Israel, rewarded him with a standing ovation. However, despite his confused and patronising words, it might be argued that the real problem was not that his fellow Christians had misunderstood him but that they had understood him perfectly. At about the same time a woman in Saudi Arabia was sentenced to be beheaded for witchcraft, an offence to which, though illiterate, she had quite magically signed a confession. The Bishop of London claimed that “flying is a sin against the planet”.  Archbishop Williams later claimed to have attempted a “flight-free” year but his itinerary got in the way.

At Easter 2008, Williams claimed that the “comforts and luxuries” which people took for granted could not be sustained forever, and forecast that civilisation would collapse. He sneered that: 

… enough oil, enough power, enough territory—the same fantasy is at work. We shan’t really die. We as individuals can’t contemplate an end to our acquiring, and we as a culture can’t imagine that this civilisation, like all others, will collapse and that what we take for granted about our comforts and luxuries simply can’t be sustained indefinitely. To all this, the Church says, sombrely, don’t be deceived: night must fall. 

This once again seemed to confuse the cure with the disease: scientific and technological civilisation had delivered mankind benefits, health and happiness. Part of its genius was an ability to replace a threatened resource, such as whale-oil, with something better. Shortage of ivory for billiard-balls led to celluloid and plastics. Councils of despair and pseudo-apocalypticism were a threat to its ability to continue to do so (And, parenthetically, how odd that the Archbishop of Canterbury should sneer at, and use sarcastically, the words: “We shan’t really die,” when that was exactly one of the central messages of Christianity! Another of its messages, incidentally, was not that “night must fall”, but that “The gates of Hell shall not prevail.”) Or perhaps Druidism’s various achievements offered a better alternative? 

Another opponent of scientific and technological civilisation, Norman Mailer, in his last book, On God, published in 2007, attacked not only plastic but also flush toilets. It was hard to work out exactly why, but apparently they somehow decreased mankind’s connection with the infinite. 

It is almost a tautology that in the event of any prolonged and severe fall in living standards and economic growth it is the vulnerable such as pensioners who would suffer most, for some lethally. 

It was not very long ago—and a sign of how far we managed to come up in a short time—that a mystery film set in England gave a clue that a retired policeman had been corrupt because he could afford a colour television set. As a clue it seems archaic now, but will it be taken for granted that old people will have modest comforts and luxuries in any anti-technological future? And once the spiral of falling living standards is entered into, where may it end?


This is an extract from Hal G.P. Colebatch’s forthcoming book Fragile Flame.