An Open Letter to John Zerzan (A Primitivist Philosopher of Technology)

John Zerzan is one of the most well known and philosophically adept writers within the the primitivist political tendency.  I emailed him to clarify his theory, plus critique him and his ideology in the process. But he offered to voice chat instead, which was a pleasant surprise.

So, I’ll leave the open letter I wrote here so you can see what my notes were going into the conversation, but if you’d like to just skip to the video and transcript of our conversation click here.

Hello John,

A primitivist blogger passed on your email on the off chance you may be interested in answering a few questions that would help towards a podcast episode I’m preparing for.

The podcast is a discussion between me, I am pro technological advancement, and a primitivist called Normandie who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing essays on Kaczynski’s work.

So, below I have 4 questions for you which I’d be very interested in reading your views on, plus explanations of my thoughts on each.  I’ll also link my podcast notes encase they’re of any interest to you:

Copy of Theo + Normandie Video Plan

With your consent I’d like to post this question and answer discussion around a few places, to help clarify your theory for others and promote my critique of primitivism.

Thanks for your time.


How do you determine what direct action targets are justifiable today?

Obviously ideally we would be able to win by simply choosing targets which have caused people the most amount of misery, so actions for which people can sympathise most, like sabotaging a draft office to attempt to materially challenge the US’s war in Vietnam.

But to the extent some targets are not as optically advantageous, but still useful to sabotage, we agree it would be valid as long as we can still envision a probable future in which the action is vindicated in hindsight through its usefulness for the movement, for example John Brown’s attempt to incite a slave rebellion.

Funnily enough I found a quote of you using the same John Brown example, but in comparison to the violent actions of Kaczynski.  The crucial distinction for me in those two cases though is that (1) Kaczynski’s targets, like the 72 airline passengers he attempted to blow up, were not part of some strategically important stepping stone for bringing about a better world and (2) Kaczynski’s actions were taken during a non-revolutionary period in which I think physically hurting people to achieve political goals is bad.  It’s bad precisely because the conditions weren’t right for revolutionary war.  It was therefore different in the case of John Brown freeing slaves in Kansas a mere 5 years before civil war broke out.

I understand you reject the term leftist or revolutionary for yourself, but to explain what I mean when I use the term revolutionary period, I simply mean a period of extremely heightened tensions in which warfare (whether that be conventional or asymmetric) is justified for the achievable goal of securing a better society in the long term.  And I’ll offer my list of guiding principles that I find useful to this calculation of what direct action targets I think are justifiable today (in my view a non-revolutionary period), and if you like you can use it to help clarify where your approach differs.  Then I’ll ask you some questions:

1) Never act with reckless indifference to human and non-human animal life.

2) Never physically hurt people in order to achieve political goals as it runs counter to our philosophy on the left that material conditions create the person and so we should make every peaceful effort to rehabilitate people.

Some tricky to explain examples that are justified, but only just outside this principle are:

(A) Community self-defence and self-defence by proxy, where you might desire to fight fascists in the street in order to block them from marching through immigrant communities or where you might desire to push your way through huntsmen in order to save a fox from getting mauled to death by dogs.

(B) Survivor-led vigilantism, where to the extent that some current institutions fail to rehabilitate people and the process of seeking justice through the institutions available can sometimes cause more trauma than its worth, then personal violence in order to resolve feelings of helplessness in the face of evil acts can sometimes be reasonably viewed as justified to regain feelings of agency.

3) Never take actions on the basis of anti-science beliefs or with the intent to propagate anti-science beliefs e.g.  disproven conspiracy theories.

4) Take care to respect the difference between property which is personal, luxury, private, government owned and cooperatively worker owned.

So, it could be seen as ethical to choose material targets of evil actors in order to cause economic damage and make a statement, so long as in the case of personal property, the item has no intrinsic sentimental value i.e.  can be replaced because the person is wealthy.  Or is a luxury item that was paid for through the exploitation of others labor.  Or is private property, meaning the means of production which should be owned collectively anyway.

The action would be an outlet for legitimate anger against that which causes us suffering and a means of developing people’s thinking and creating a wider base of people joined in sympathy for those ideals.

For example, if taking the risk to slash slaughterhouse trucks’ tyres in the dead of night both draws attention to animal suffering and also helps you to develop stronger bonds with a group of people and learn from other liberation struggles, then the action is both productive and leads to personal growth.

5) Never take actions in the hopes of helping in part instigate a revolutionary war sooner than it’s reasonable to believe you would have the capability to win.  Similarly don’t use rhetoric about how tensions in society have escalated to the state of civil war or a third world war.  For example, even if the revolutionary left got really good at assassinating captains of industry and getting away with it, there would be reasonable fears around the psychology of people who would take such an act against people who they could have grown up and been socially conditioned to be themselves, which would inexorably lead to a more authoritarian society and worse foundations on which to work towards a better society.

As an anarchist and big tent socialist, I do think we can hypothesize the unrealistic case of 99% of society desiring a referendum on a shift from parliamentary representative system to a federated spokes council system and the MP’s dragging their feet, the same way both parties gerrymander the boundaries to make it easier to win despite it being the one issue most everyone agrees is bad, and people needing to storm the halls of power to force a vote to happen.

More likely though, an opportunity for revolution might arise from such a confluence of events as climate refugees and worker gains forcing the state and corporations into trying to crack down on freedoms in order to preserve their power and enough people resisting that move, who are then able take power and usher in radical policy change, with either the army deciding to stand down or splitting into factions.

Most can sympathize with quick revolutions against dictatorships where the result is a freer society, like the Kurdish uprising in Northern Syria which took power from a regime who had rolled tanks on demonstrators and outlawed teaching of their native language.

But, even there, there are key foundations you need to work from, like the probability you won’t just give an excuse for the oppressor committing even worse horrors as was the case with the Rohingya militants who ambushed a police checkpoint, resulting in army & citizen campaign to burn down many villages, plus murder and rape those that couldn’t get away.

As well as a responsibility to put down arms after winning political freedoms and a majority are in favor of diplomacy through electoral politics, like in Northern Ireland today.

Under representative democracies, the sentiment of most is that even if it could be argued that a war of terror (not a revolutionary war) against the ruling class was the easiest route to produce a better society, that it would still be ethically wrong to be the person who takes another’s life just because it’s the easiest way.  Since regardless of manufactured consent or anything else you still could have worked to build a coalition to overcome those obstacles.

And I agree, it would be an act of self-harm to treat life with such disregard when you could have been that same deluded person shrouded in the justificatory trappings of society treating your behavior normally.  I don’t think the way we win today is treating a cold bureaucratic system with equally cold disregard in whose life we had the resources to be able to intimidate this week.  Time on earth is the greatest gift people have, to make mistakes and learn from them.

So firstly, with your philosophy on what kind of technology is likely good and which is bad:

If you have a tool that anybody can make, that’s great.  You’re in contact with it in a very sensual way.  But tools that require a hierarchy of coordination and specialization create a kind of distancing.  That’s the kind of technology to avoid.

Are you not concerned that you could be promoting direct action which falls well outside ethical principles like the ones above, such that you run the risk of motivating someone to take direct action which makes your rebellion look insane and so lead people to wish to preserve the status quo or facilitate a move to a more authoritarian society?

Secondly, is physically hurting people in order to achieve political goals during non-revolutionary periods bad?

For example you wrote “Bonanno, it should be added, has been prosecuted repeatedly and imprisoned in Italy for his courageous resistance over the years.”  Is it your view then that armed robbery or similar violence is justified? And are you aware that Bonanno promotes the strategy of kneecapping journalists?

Similarly do you regret at all the manner or substance of previous defences you’ve given of Kaczynski’s actions? For example you’ve written or been quoting as saying:

The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering the Unabomber phenomenon.  In fact, except for his targets, when have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World ever been called to account?. . .  Is it unethical to try to stop those whose contributions are bringing an unprecedented assault on life? .  .  .

They ain’t innocent.  Which isn’t to say that I’m totally at ease with blowing them into pieces.  Part of me is.  And part of me isn’t.  .  .

I ended the speech with the suggestion that there might be a parallel between Kaczynski and John Brown.  Brown made an anti-slavery attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia in 1859.  Like Kaczynski, Brown was considered deranged, but he was tried and hung.  Not long afterward he became a kind of American saint of the abolitionist movement.  I offered the hope, if not the prediction, that T.K.  might at some point also be considered in a more positive light for his resistance to industrial civilization.

Would industrial society not simply re-emerge?

I’m sceptical of Kaczynskis’ confidence that a new industrial revolution wouldn’t simply re-emerge, especially with people passing down memories and books of all the benefits to modern life.

My concerns are that firstly, the harm to the environment would be much worse than us simply transitioning to renewable energy and rewilding areas as we depopulate, as is the trend in advanced countries.  Secondly, I would argue the probability that we will achieve a long-lasting, mostly peaceful, technologically advanced, left-anarchist society is far more valuable to me than returning to an either never ending series of warring feudal societies or feudal societies that repeats the industrial revolution and has another series of world wars for resources.

Primitive life is more appealing to me personally than feudalism in that I could be born into a fairly egalitarian tribe like the Penan or even if I wasn’t I wouldn’t know any different life, or if I had some of the egalitarian ideals I have now, the possibility would be there to strike out on my own and form an egalitarian tribe.  But, bar convincing everyone to be hunter gatherers, or the provision of technological incentives to have fair and democratic communication among societies who trade with each other – you just are going to recreate feudal era societies  where you’d have to be very lucky to escape from conscription and tyrants, and where the environmental destruction in the long term could be far worse.

Do you worry that you validated and perhaps encouraged the irrationally violent desires of the school shooter who called your radio show through your shared desire for de-industrialisation?

I applaud you for trying not to answer fluff questions for the CNN piece on the school shooter who called into your radio show, so leveraging audience interest in your relationship to the story for trying to get important issues on the air.  It’s advice I hope more activists will be trained with in the future.

The doctor of criminology they had on at the end of the CNN piece did interest me though when she said:

the subtext of what he’s [the school shooter is] saying is violence is innate and instinctual to humans, and really should not be punished because it’s their natural basis, that’s the message I think he’s trying to get across, and the parallel to himself is obvious, he feels possessed by this need, this compulsion to commit violence.

So I’m wondering, do you agree that he was in part using the story of the domesticated ape to justify his own violent desires? And if you had suspected that was part of his motivation at the time, how do you think you would have responded to his story differently? Finally has the experience led you to be more cautious of what beliefs callers are bringing with them to have affirmed when they call in?

Finally is primitivism motivated primarily by a desire to return to a more innocent time in one’s childhood?

There’s a quote I like by Saul Newman from the book the ‘Politics of Postanarchism’ on page 156, about how the desire for a primitive way of life is often a desire for a more innocent time in one’s childhood (see below).  I would love to read your response to this if you have the time.  I’ll attach a file of the full ebook also if you’d like to see it in context:

Where Zerzan’s argument becomes problematic is in the essentialist notion that there is a rationally intelligible presence, a social objectivity that is beyond language and discourse.  To speak in Lacanian terms, the prelinguistic state of jouissance is precisely unattainable: it is always mediated by language that at the same time alienates and distorts it.  It is an imaginary jouissance, an illusion created by the symbolic order itself, as the secret behind its veil.  We live in a symbolic and linguistic universe, and to speculate about an original condition of authenticity and immediacy, or to imagine that an authentic presence is attainable behind the veils of the symbolic order or beyond the grasp of language, is futile.  There is no getting outside language and the symbolic; nor can there be any return to the pre Oedipal real.  To speak in terms of alienation, as Zerzan does, is to imagine a pure presence or fullness beyond alienation, which is an impossibility.  While Zerzan’s attack on technology and domestication is no doubt important and valid, it is based on a highly problematic essentialism implicit in his notion of alienation.

To question this discourse of alienation is not a conservative gesture.  It does not rob us of normative reasons for resisting domination, as Zerzan claims.  It is to suggest that projects of resistance and emancipation do not need to be grounded in an immediate presence or positive fullness that exists beyond power and discourse.  Rather, radical politics can be seen as being based on a moment of negativity: an emptiness or lack that is productive of new modes of political subjectivity and action.  Instead of hearkening back to a primordial authenticity that has been alienated and yet which can be recaptured – a state of harmony which would be the very eclipse of politics – I believe it is more fruitful to think in terms of a constitutive rift that is at the base of any identity, a rift that produces radical openings for political articulation and action.

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