The Folly of Beginning a Work Before We Count the Cost

Anarcho-Primitivism in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe

Anarcho-primitivism tells us that humanity’s problems began once we abandoned our hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of an agrarian one. Our primitive existence was undeniably successful not only because it permitted us to arrive at present day but because we had lived in this manner for over 99% of our time as a species. By contrast, our new sedentary way of life lead to social stratification and overpopulation due to labor having to be divided and food commodities being produced in abundance. The latter was at variance with nature as we consistently met the demand of our rising numbers atop reproduction now being independent of animal migrations. (No longer did the youngest have to be mobile before another pregnancy took place.) Labor division begat class division as crime ensued due to the need to establish private ownership. Our newfound labor-intensive activities restricted our leisure time thereby increasing stress. Physical health declined when nutritional diversity was forsaken for food bearing the highest yield, which—for the first time in our history—allowed for the possibility of mass starvation via crop and/or herd failure. Population expansion forced us to begin living apart from our natural environment, i.e. in urban habitats. Due to close proximity and the demand for frequent long-distance travel, disease became prevalent. We not only forgot how to be self-sufficient but became dependent upon technology. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues that this superficial domestication within an artificial construct created a mass pathology, as evidenced by the premier of large-scale warfare. This would later be reinforced and termed by Claude Levi-Strauss as the “Evolutionary Principle.”

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe depicts this anthropological causation. Defoe presents a character that is divested of civilization and summarily benefits—physically, psychologically, emotionally, and morally—as he is forced to live a primitive existence. Sadly, the titular figure makes the decision to replicate his lost culture and begins to suffer from many of the same ailments which he experienced prior to his separation from modern society.

Understandably, when Robinson Crusoe is first cast ashore, he worries whether he can survive. His fear is justified because, due to specialization, he does not possess the requisite skills to be self-sustaining. He knows nothing of how to construct a shelter or identify wild edibles. Only with the aide of a firearm and a naïve attitude toward the dangers of tropical water, does he progress through his first year.

By the commencement of his second year on the island, Crusoe has not only built a “castle,” but one replete with rafters, a thatched roof, shelving, two entrances, and a cellar. He fashions a table and chair along with various tools, such as a shovel and makeshift wheelbarrow. Through trial-and-error, he renders tallow from goat fat and crafts candles as well as a lamp. He learns to process food (dried grapes). Within the ensuing decade, he masters pottery, discovers the secrets to baking, engineers two boats, constructs a Dutch oven, teaches himself the art of basket weaving, and successfully tans hides and tailors his own clothing.

Crusoe is pleasantly surprised that his needs are not only met but surpassed by the island’s resources, “I possessed infinitely more than I knew what to do with.” He does become seriously ill shortly after his arrival but acute sickness is never mentioned again during his remaining 27 years on the island. This can be attributed to his heightened constitution, due not only to the nutritional diversity which the island affords—turtle, goat, fowl, hare, fish, eggs, and fruit, the latter in the form of grapes, melons, lemons, limes, and oranges—but his increased physical activity and improved mental health: He hosts an almost perpetual sense of accomplishment atop (which he makes explicit note) being relieved of social and familial pressures, expectations, and demands. Once he establishes a routine by which to sustain his daily needs, he finds that he is in possession of ample leisure time, whereby he takes up the “hobbies” (by definition, enterprises which are not vital to survival) of woodworking (as opposed to carpentry), tailoring, pottery, baking, and basket weaving.

Civilization demands that humans gain and retain absolute control. This is achieved by the immediate environment being domesticated so it no longer poses a threat before it is exploited in order to better serve a populace. Once this is completed, any (perceived) dangers posited by fellow humans are addressed in a like manner. This totalitarian approach to existence is in stanch contrast to organic integration into a previously or currently existing schematic. Anthropocentrism quickly transforms into ethnocentrism so as to further provide for a specific group, i.e. a particular society. Sadly, Crusoe begins emulating and replicating the civilization and society from which he has been cast.

His “civilized” tendencies first affect only him. He observes that the climate does not require one to be clothed and, as we see with the aborigines of the region, is actually prohibitive. His decision to remain almost fully dressed heightens the risk of dehydration (which perhaps contributed to his aforementioned ailment given he had yet to acclimate to the tropical weather1 ). Also, despite admitting that money has no intrinsic value outside a society which acknowledges currency, “Alas! there the sorry, useless stuff lay [in a cave where it proceeded to mold]; I had no more manner of business for it,” he nonetheless puts himself at repeated risk while attempting to procure coinage. Though he states he does so for aesthetic reasons, he erects a second shelter, his “bower,” and—though one could argue this is a preventative measure should something happen to his “castle” (as witnessed when an earthquake occurred and a hurricane struck the island during the first year)—Crusoe’s capricious want foreshadows his ensuing, and otherwise avoidable, grief.

During a week-long furlong to his “bower,” Crusoe leaves a kid tethered at his “castle.” The goat nearly dies of dehydration. Though the animal was not kept as food, this incident nevertheless presages the trials of animal husbandry, which he will later devote himself. When he realizes that his gunpowder supply is diminishing, he begins utilizing traps and snares. However, shortly thereafter and believing such to be more economic, he builds a corral and proceeds to tame and breed goats. Likewise, he “accidentally” (after disposing of what he thought were mere husks) sows barley (before adding rice to his crop). He then dedicates his energies to horticulture. Granted, agriculture avails him to the possibilities of butter, bread, and cheese but it isn’t necessary for survival and results in a master-slave relationship that, inevitably, will be conveyed to people.

Crusoe was contented—and survived—upon the island’s resources yet, when he gains access to commodities which he prefers (as opposed to requires), he arbitrarily obligates himself: Not only must he plant, cultivate, and render seed, he has to feed, water, and supervise the goats and maintain their pen, atop crafting storage units (so as to keep his goods in ready supply). In a survival situation, any unnecessary expenditure, especially ones which run the risk of injury (such as carpentry), is undeniably foolish. (Which is why trapping and snaring are the best hunting methods for they are safer than using a firearm and more economic in respect to time and energy.) Though we could defend his decision to build a second shelter, few will argue that food storage isn’t a luxury, especially when produce is available year-round, and—more importantly—rearing livestock is dangerous. These stresses are compounded by the possibility of crop failure (the probability of which is abruptly increased by the cultivation of potentially invasive flora) and livestock losses as leisure time summarily diminishes due to agricultural responsibilities. As such, the “bower” becomes useless, the energy involved in its construction wasted, as the risks incurred in building it vain. Moreover, these “conveniences” capriciously restrict Crusoe’s naturally diversified diet.

Crusoe’s mental and emotional strain is further exacerbated when he discovers a foreign footprint in the sand. After 15 years of having “nothing to covet,” he fears that “[ . . . ] they [natives] [will] find my enclosure, destroy all my corn, and carry away all my flock of tame goats, and I should perish at last for mere want.” It is worthy to note that Crusoe refuses to acknowledge that, prior to his agricultural endeavors, a hunter-gatherer existence had sustained him and, thus, if said destruction were to occur, it would not result in his inevitable starvation. Upon finding the mysterious print, he spends three days in hiding and only reappears when he can no longer afford to neglect his goats. Had a threat been present, his arbitrary dependency upon livestock might have cost Crusoe his life. He devotes the next two years to reinforcing his “castle” and, to better veil his herd, builds another corral further into the island, all while abstaining from fire craft or engaging in any leisure activities for fear of being discovered. (It could also be conjectured that the illness he suffered during his first year on the island was due to unpurified water, which he now makes himself susceptible once again.2 ) At the heart of Crusoe’s paranoia lies in his residual culturally-induced imperialism: Aware that other individuals might manifest themselves, i.e. a potential society, he claims private ownership of everything around him (note the frequency of possessives within the previous quotation) because he believes a hierarchy must necessarily exist—of which, he presumes he naturally resides at its apex—and, ergo, that others will desire what he “owns” as a consequence, so much so that he lives in crippling fear for approximately a decade. Whereas he once rejoiced that, “I was removed from all the wickedness of the world here; I had neither the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, nor the pride of life,” when (the mere thought of) a society presents itself, Crusoe’s hubris returns.

His propriety over objects and animals quickly metamorphoses into domestication and ownership of people. Once more, this is merely an extension of one of civilization’s creeds: A person must control one’s surroundings. He rescues a Caribbean native from being cannibalized—not on moral grounds—but because Crusoe is in need of additional labor. Unnecessary augmenting the island’s population puts both parties at risk of contracting disease and is a mortal liability for Crusoe given that the autochthon is a cannibal. Crusoe’s apprehension is evident in his forcing the aborigine to sleep outside the “castle’s” fortifications. In hopes of subduing the threat, he neutralizes the native by eradicating his identity: Crusoe issues him an English title, “Friday” (thus depriving him of his given name), Christianizing him (negating his religion), and—perhaps paradoxically—assimilating him to European customs (dispossessing him of his culture). A further irony is that Crusoe was once enslaved yet regards and treats Friday as ethnically subservient, as epitomized by Crusoe’s insistence that Friday refer to him as “Master.” Crusoe proceeds to rescue others and tyrannize them, i.e. a Spanish refugee is described as “my [Crusoe’s] Spaniard.”

Crusoe sends out a rescue mission and, in preparation for greater numbers returning, he expands crops, domesticates more goats, dries additional grapes, and weaves extra baskets in order to transport a greater amount of goods. Before the mission’s return, mutineers dock and are quelled. After subverting them, since they too are products of specialization, he teaches five of the insurgents agriculture before leaving them the island. Years later, he returns to find the island’s population so great (children are now present after women were brought from the mainland) that he designates private plots for each of its residents. (The irony is that he postpones his return to the island, in part, due to owning a Brazilian plantation which he cannot personally oversee atop fretting about the security of his money while abroad.) Not only does he compound the dilemma by adding two workmen to the colony (growing numbers necessitates the arrival of technology in the form of a blacksmith) but he sends for more supplies and women from Brazil and England. Of these goods, cows and hogs are included, which implies that he believes (and perhaps rightfully so by this time), that the island cannot—or will not in the near future—naturally sustain its human occupants. Also, as with his request for Brazilian women, bringing foreign fauna to the island runs the risk of importing disease which could result in the demise of the island’s indigenous livestock and, conversely, introduce the new fauna to native illness. Thus, if—for whatever reason—the island’s populace had to resort to a hunter-gatherer existence, Crusoe’s induction of civilization, especially in the guise of agriculture, might inhibit survival because the islanders’ unregulated numbers are now dependent upon set yields (war, the consequence of class division and/or hubris, ruined a previous year’s crops), the native habitat may be unable to support present numbers, and/or the island’s ecosystem might be compromised.

When Robinson Crusoe first arrives on the island, he adopts anarcho-primitivist principles and soon finds himself happier than he had ever been.3 Unfortunately, he decides to abide by the dictums of civilization and, as a result, his newfound contentment promptly vanishes. Though for many years his ensuing discomfort is singular and self-inflicted, he departs from the island after instilling its remaining members with the ideals which deprived him of a rewarding existence. The inevitable consequence is that the island’s inhabitants will not be afforded the life which Crusoe once enjoyed nor will the island be able to sustain its populace as it once had.

  • See also Michael Gurnow’s “Not My Everyman: Moral Degeneracy in Daniel Defoe’s Character of Robinson Crusoe.”
    1. We cannot issue Crusoe benefit of the doubt because Defoe shifts the location of the island where his source material was lost—Alexander Selkirk was stranded 400 miles west of central Chile—to Tobago, which is found off the northeast shore of Venezuela. Thus, it is appropriate that Selkirk was clad in fur when he appeared to his rescuers because Más a Tierra’s temperate rarely rises above 80°F yet the average low is slightly above freezing. This is contrast to Crusoe’s locale—which is only 11 latitudinal degrees from the Equator—where the average daily high is 90° and the low almost never dips below 75°. Nevertheless, and perhaps due to the social implications of wearing such, Crusoe does not strip his pelts of fur. []
    2. Though he could be utilizing the sterile acquisition methods of solar stills, rain catchment, dew collection, water vines, and condensation bags during this time, given the region’s climate, it is doubtful that he could avoid dehydration without boiling water. []
    3. As outlined in John Howell’s 1844 The Life and Adventures of Alexander Selkirk, Megroz’s 1939 The Real Robinson Crusoe, and Richard Steele’s 1713 article from The Englishman titled “Alexander Selkirk” (in which the author interviews the castaway), after his rescue, Selkirk longed to return to the life he had on Más a Tierra. In In Search of Robinson Crusoe, Daisuke Takahashi even conjectures that, prior to his death by yellow fever, Selkirk set to sea once more with the intention of returning, perhaps permanently, to the island. []

    Michael Gurnow is a freelance writer. His work has appeared in Fifth Estate, The Externalist, The Modern Word, Herbivore, M10K, Word Riot, among others. Read other articles by Michael.

    3 comments on this article so far ...

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    1. dan e said on May 4th, 2010 at 12:56pm #

      Very entertaining & imaginative. Those finding this piece stimulating will want to read “The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State” by F. Engels. Google also “The Golden Bough” by Frazier. There is a pile of writing by Anthopologists on the topics raised in “Crusoe” as well as on Engels, Frazier and others who followed in that stream of thought. I remember reading various articles about aspects of this stuff in journals like “Nature Society & Thought” (no I’m not a CPUSA fan:), New Left Review, “Science & Society”.
      The point is, investigation of the transition from egalitarian/matriarchal hunter/gatherer social organization to sedentary agricultural communities organized on a geographical instead of kinship basis is nothing new. There is an enormous literature; to me the best work has been done by those who take Engels as the starting point.

    2. lichen said on May 4th, 2010 at 1:02pm #

      Anarcho-primitivists are deluded; hunter-gatherers had extremely repressive, conservative, violent, unhealthy right wing societies with extremely short life spans, ugly imaginations, and disgusting customs. We’ve come very far from there; agriculture itself, especially plant-diets based around agroforestry, are not as destructive; it was industrialization and chemical agriculture that caused the real population bomb. Matriarchial societies are just as fascist as partirachial.

    3. Deadbeat said on May 4th, 2010 at 7:46pm #

      Not one mention of Capitalism. It was the drive for PROFITS and heighten EXPLOITATION that created industrialization and the use of chemicals to increase yields (i.e. PROFITS). All the rest of the Crusoe nonsense is just that — a work of FICTION.