John Zerzan on Primitivism

Anarcho-primitivist author and host of Anarchy Radio.

These are clips taken from an interview recorded in Eugene, USA, for a documentary never finished by its original producers, which hoped to show anarchism in all its forms around the world today and in history. But, I think it succeeds even better at that task as a video catalogue for those interested enough to find the clips that piqued their curiousity.

To see the full catalogue of interviews click here.

This is one of a few ex-leftist authors in the mix of the larger documentary series which I’m uploading. This is being done to better understand their ideas, in order to properly critique them. To see a conversation I had with Zerzan on direct action, school shootings, authenticity & more, click here.

John Zerzan on Primitivism

Please tell us about yourself

Well, I’m an old anarchist writer who lives in Eugene. I’ve been here since ’81. I’ve spent a lot of time in California. I mainly write and do a weekly radio show, Anarchy Radio. I like the Pacific Northwest and that’s it, I guess.

How did you first get involved in anarchism?

I first got involved with anarchism in the 60s. I was in the Bay Area, in San Francisco and Berkeley back in the 60s. Well placed, that was a lucky place to be. I had just gotten out of college. Height-Ashbury and Berkeley, those exciting days. Although it wasn’t… In the US here anarchism wasn’t very much a part of the situation explicitly. I think it was really even among the communist groups, there were somewhat more anarchist because America is a more individualist place, I guess. I was influenced a lot by the Situationists back then in the 60s, early 70s, which by then was over. Anyway, that was my first experience with that sort of thing.

What has been some of your involvement?

I think my original involvement with anarchism was with an independent do it yourself union in San Francisco. It was a white collar public employees union. It had welfare workers, clerks, hospital workers. We didn’t use the word anarchism but it was very anti-hierarchical, no paid people, we were not attracted to signing a contract. It was sort of Wobblie-like, it was sort of IWW like. Probably more chaotic than that. You know, the late sixties. That was a huge experience, a huge learning experience. It wasn’t, it really wasn’t reading the anarchist classics that brought me into that, it was a hands on thing. What do you see when you start something that’s outside of the accepted thing? We were outside the organized labour thing. We were attacked more by the big unions, official unions than City Hall or other business interests. That was pretty informative. It made me think you can’t be independent of that totality is going to be attacked from all sides. The media, for example, we would get those really excited journalists, what an amazing experiment you have here, that’s really excited. That’s going to be an interesting story. And we would say it’s never going to get published. We weren’t conspiratorial, but we had seen it a bunch of times .. these stories never saw the light of day. Because in San Francisco the unions don’t want people to hear this because it might give them ideas. So, in other words, it wasn’t the anarchist canon or anarchist groups. I looked around for them in the Sixties and only found the Wobblies, and they aren’t really anarchist, they’re syndicalist. And they were doing their union thing. They kind of slipped right through the adventure of the Sixties, they played no part in it. So we never thought any anarchists but we were anarchists without using the circled A.

What is anarchism?

I’m certainly still an anarchist, and I think that anarchy means getting rid of domination, identifying what domination consists of, and the green anarchy thing, or anarcho-primitivism, it’s called a variety of names – anti-civ, roughly speaking the same thing – is, I think, mainly adding to the list of what is domination, and certainly there are still quite a few anarchists who don’t want the list lengthened; they don’t see the factories, they don’t see globalised, standardised life as domination, we do, we want to get rid of it,and that, that’s the split in the anarchy situation around the world, and I think what’s coming on is the green thing, I think there are more kids that are way more turned on by that than self-managing mass society.

What is anarcho-primitivism?

Anarcho-primitivism? That’s kind of a mouthful, and again these labels, they quickly solidify into ideologies, and that’s a vexing problem in itself, the formation, the ideology formation dilemma; I mean it’s okay as a shorthand but I think one of the things it is, is stressing the anarchy part of trying to stress the questioning and the openness, keeping it fluid instead of hardening it into a set of answers, because I think we’re just, I think we’re trying to contribute to the sense of raising good questions and in terms of the anarchist lineage, there are people now that don’t seem to see that we’re in the second decade of the 21st century. This isn’t 1870 any more, you know, Kropotkin and so forth, it’s almost unavoidable that we’d have different questions or some added questions. People in the 1800’s weren’t quite so in a position to see where all this was leading, environmentally and psychologically, although there was already a lot of evidence there, and some people did see it a long while ago, but the primitivist part, I think, one way to say it is there won’t be a future unless it’s primitive in some way or another; we simply cannot continue to assume that the industrialising, modernising, massifying tendency is, can be assumed, can be taken for granted, can be left outside of what should be problematised.

And that certainly includes technology, I think that’s one of the most clear aspects of it. What is technology? It’s not neutral, it’s always, it’s never value-free, it’s, you can read what society is in the technology, and if you come to that conclusion, then you open up a whole different, a whole new dimension I think to what anarchy is. It isn’t sailing along going well we have to have all this, well we gotta have technology. We have to domestication, we have to have mass society, we have to have civilization. Well, why are we in this terrible crisis, this totalising crisis that, that everyone can see now. If we just keep sailing along, how are we really different from the dominant culture, the dominant values that certainly wants to preserve all this and keep going forward.

What are the specific problems we are facing?

Well the problems we face now are, I mean nothing is new, we can safely say that, I mean nothing is totally novel, and a lot of this has been developing for the longest time actually, but now we’re seeing to some extent unprecedented phenomena that are systematic and I think it’s not only the, the unfolding, the catastrophic unfolding of what’s happening to the physical world, but it’s also what’s happening to inner nature, the inter-personal, the social, the personal, I mean…One of the things I bring up a lot on my weekly radio broadcast is the shootings, these uh, now this sort of chronic thing where you’ve got these out of the blue, supposedly out of the blue mass shootings. Multiple homicides usually ending in suicide, so often appended with the description, this person was never a problem, never missed work, never got in an argument, never had a mental health issue, just killed fifteen people. What is that saying about the nature of this civilization? Nobody seems to want to look at that. I’ve never seen anyone on the Left go near that question, and yet how horrific does it have to get before you can see the thing unfolding or maybe even unravelling.

What often hits me, and it’s kind of dismaying, is not only that people who are radical, who have something to offer in terms of what explains all this, are missing the most obvious things – where is the, this doesn’t count, these shootings, for example? These pathological things that are unfolding? And of course along the same lines at the same time, the unfolding of the industrial disasters is just so clear, it’s just, you know, reality pounding on the door; in other words, what’s happened in the past, say, since last summer, summer 2010, not only the five billion, five million?, five million barrels gushing from the Gulf of Mexico floor, but then the toxic geyser in Hungary, the sludge flowing into the Danube and into the Black Sea, the neighbourhoods engulfed in natural gas leak explosions…it just goes on and on. And at the same time though we’re always told that technology is the answer; it will provide the solution, we’ll have the breakthrough. And then what we really have is a record of disaster, and the disaster is deepening, the disaster is all part of the massive assault on not only the natural world but all the rest of it, on the built out. It hasn’t worked out. What promise has been fulfilled? And we can look at the alienation not just of something as spectacular as the shootings, that sort of thing, but the isolation, the lack of connection, the disembodied, what passes for connection among people. It’s exactly the opposite of connection among people – it’s machine connection, it’s people living a more synthetic existence all the time, a more separate, dispersed existence. There’s no…community itself has almost vanished, and direct experience has almost vanished.

These are epochal developments, and yet you could spend your lifetime looking at Leftist writings and you wouldn’t get a hint – you’d still think, you could close your eyes and think: oh, I bet this was written in maybe 1951 or something, not 2011. You know, people are not even, you think well, that’s something to ponder isn’t it, it gets your attention? No, it doesn’t. I mean that’s the, that’s the danger of ideology again, to put it another way. If you’re so locked in to the 19th century that you can’t see the disastrous course of life now, and look at the way it’s spreading and the…the avaricious pace of the technological pace is just phenomenal how fast it’s moving. And yet that too seems to be of no interest to what passes for radical theory. You get the big stars of philosophy now: Badiou, Zizek. Two Stalinists, two Maoists. That’s unbelievable – why not two Nazis? I mean, it’s just a scandal that this passes for thinking, thought in this condition that we’re in. It’s just a very bitter joke.

What led to these problems?

What accounts for the situation we’re in, what brought it about is, um…the answers to that are lacking and, um, I think the answers, the answer to why it’s lacking is interesting in itself. In other words, if you implicate the whole, all of civilization, then, you know, that’s not going to be welcomed, for various reasons: what do you do with it, and besides the fact that it’s too radical to propose it that way. But that’s what you have to do, in other words the question of civilization I think is basically the question of domestication and I often go back to Freud’s civilization and its discontents which really is about domestication; more precisely he’s talking about what happens when people are domesticated and he concluded that you get neurotic people, you get people that have this psychic wound that never heals because you don’t get over domestication, it’s a condition that is unhealthy, that has banished instinctual freedom and Eros, so, how could people be happy. I mean it was a very radical insight that he had. And that’s, it’s, civilization comes on the heels of this move of taming people, of starting with taming or domesticating animals and then plants. In other words agriculture. And various people have said it was the biggest mistake of human beings to, that shift to domestication, away from the foraging existence, a hunter gatherer taking freely from nature what is provided by nature rather than engineering it and capturing it in terms of private property and farming.

So, in fact, you can go further back. Even more basic social institutions which in turn sets up the domestication, which in turn sets up civilization, is specialisation, division of labour, which seems to have laboured very, very slowly along for thousands of generations, which is probably why it wasn’t so much resisted, it was…because all of society is incorporated, or goes along with something that primary as slowly emerging specialisation, but that slowly emerging specialisation sets up tensions and inequalities, and one can see it, if we flash back to the present, we see ourselves as completely under the effect of control of specialists. We’re deskilled, we’re wholly reliant on different experts…well this began somewhere. Again, maybe almost imperceptibly, but you have these differentials and perhaps the shaman was the first full-blown specialist with power over others…not that that’s always so malignant but it’s a condition that was not there before that, so, with the movement of division of labour, that sets the stage, I think it’s probably fair to say, for the advent of domestication. That’s the take-off point. But there wouldn’t be the take-off basis without the specialisation coming along, and then the next move, the pivotal move of alienation, is to domesticated life. And that’s exactly what we have now and it’s genetic engineering and cloning and nanotech and all the rest of it; it started with farming and this is the logical fruition, the extension, it’s just another step of control, it’s an inner logic, to use Adorno’s phrase, and unless it’s cut off it continues – you have more and more control, you have more domination of nature and you know with more resources to flesh it out; flesh it out is the wrong way to put it I guess, but to bring it along to further heights of control.

What’s it gonna take to bring it all down?

Well to bring all this down, to break out of it I think requires that we become less tolerant of some of the things that hold it all together, for example the Left. If anarchy is still going to be a flavor of the left, and by the left I mean the historical left, including traditional classical leftist anarchism. That doesn’t break with the mainstream of the dominant culture at all, and so there’s a real chasm, it’s not a sectarian divide, there’s really some pivotal stuff at issue. And that’s just the way it is, again, if people want the mass production society, mass culture, mass society, then they do. And some of these people aren’t willing to, in terms of the anarchist left, they’re not willing to admit that, that they want to preserve all this, that they really want more of it.

They have a very different orientation than anarcho-primitivists, for example, one thing that’s telling I think, and has to do with the breakout, has to do with the solution… Is how little respect they give the indigenous issue, the indigenous reality. They really, people who are leftists, want natives to become workers, consumers and voters. They do, they don’t see the integrity or the value of those lifeways.

And I’m referring back to, it goes all the way back to non-domesticated people, nomadic hunter-gatherers, or others, horticulturalists, who have been outside of the force-field of civilization. They don’t want that, they never have, sometimes you see people kind of flirting with that, but you know we have to look at the consistent points of view.

And I think this starts for anarchism, I’d just reiterate that we won’t get anywhere if we’re part of the left, that the left’s dead, and it should be dead, and we should just be dumping the dirt on it’s corpse and move on, otherwise we don’t move on. That’s the first thing, and there’s so much more to tackle, so if that’s what your definition of anarchism is, how can you expect some kind of solution, how can you expect something that inspires people with the same old shit that no one wants anymore. Nobody cares about the Spanish Civil War 80 years ago.

What does it have to do with right now? What it says to me is keep production going, I don’t want to see production keep going, I want to see the end of production. It’s an orientation that has to take itself seriously and fight for the conclusions. Instead of saying, we have this point of view now, and we’re comfortable with that. You can’t be comfortable in this world with anything that counts.

Isn’t anarchism utopian and against human nature?

It’s sometimes said that the anarchist view is utopian and it goes against human nature, but as I like to think of the way Kevin Tucker puts it: we, there were human species for about two million years, we were hunter gatherers in other words, for that period of time, so wouldn’t it be a more reasonable assumption to think that that’s our human nature? And we see now, this has been a huge, probably the key, maybe the key inspiration for anarcho-primivitism is the revision of what is now the orthodox view of what that life was like, in other words a life of sharing. There’s absolutely no question about it in the literature if you’re looking at anthropology, ethnology, all that – egalitarianism was the cardinal point of the ethos of hunter gatherer life and the rest of it filled it by so many people: Marshall Sahlins being one of my favourite in terms of how little people had to work. I think all this has to do with human nature. In fact, actually, the term work is a modern term and probably doesn’t apply as a separate activity, as part of existence, social existence…mumbles…but the amount of time spent some way or another on subsistence, um, very often, um, a fraction of what we spend at modern wage labour. And Sahlins also pointed out, as culture moves along, people work more and more, and that’s kind of interesting: technology promised us we’d work less and less but just as with war, civilization has chronic war, it’s certainly chronic work, and so these things are imposed it seems like, so what is the human nature part if people before they were defeated in their basic orientation to each other and the world and domesticated, before private property and social classes, which really started with domestication, that human nature seems to be the a priori one. That seems to be the one that obtained. So, in other words, for example, people, you also hear people say, well it’s human nature to always be changing things, always trying to improve things. You’ve got to always keep transforming stuff, well, it wasn’t really transformed for about two million years, in fact that’s what’s always vexed the archaeologists – how could the stone tool technology if you want to call it that be so unchanging and yet they knew how to take care of things; they had about the same IQ as ours a million years ago at least, so, if it’s human nature to change things, and they didn’t change things, then there’s probably something wrong with that conception of human nature…

And I would say to that, why change it? If you’ve got a good thing going on, it was very workable, it wasn’t destroying nature, it wasn’t causing war, it wasn’t causing stratification or hierarchy, all the things that as anarchists we supposedly revere, and strive toward, that was the original anarchist society, not only the original affluent society as Sahlins puts it, but the original one and the only one, so, that kind of human nature was very very stable and workable; it was the original adaptation to the Earth, in fact the only one, there hasn’t been any successful adaptation, quite the disastrous opposite of that since civilization. The always-forwarding of the attack on the unbuilt world, the attack on the natural world, so I don’t know, this, it’s a very modern take on what is human nature, and of course that’s the ideology of civilization, we’re supposed to make those assumptions, we’re supposed to just accept them and honour them, well, it’s human nature to do X,Y and Z…well, it wasn’t for 99% of our existence, so that’s just something that if we swallow we keep it going, but if you rethink that then it looks a bit different I think.

How optimistic are you?

I am incurably optimistic and I’m always mocked for that too, but I guess it’s probably because I sort of came of age in the 60’s, when it seemed like things were really turning, it seemed like the winds were turning as they say, and I don’t know, I’ve never lost that feeling that a lot is possible. And I think, and maybe this is just because of that, umm, predisposition to see things in a better light, I tend to emphasise how, how weak the system really has become. I think it’s, it doesn’t have, it has very little ideological base left. In the US you have over 2 000 000 people in prisons. When…I mean I’m just using that as an example, but I think, if you don’t have any greater allegiance than that and you have to fall back on coercion, if you have to fall back on brute force, you’ve kind of already lost the battle. And, you know, in terms of the whole, speaking of ideology, I remember in my age I certainly remember the American dream stuff, you know the ‘your kids will have it better than you’ that’s just an assumption ‘it’s getting better’ you know there’s all these wonderful new developments…nobody believes that any more and this system doesn’t even bother trying to say it, it would just be, it’s too laughable to say it, so, it just doesn’t have any answers, it just doesn’t have any, any solutions that are cogent, I mean you just look around and you can see that.

So now, I think it’s, somewhat akin to locking people up now, it’s more, this is where it’s at, better get on board or you’re, you lose, you’re screwed, you just don’t have a choice. It isn’t that it’s so attractive that you rush to join, you just…I think more and more people just feel trapped and, um, without a choice in the matter, and so, that, when you get that kind of erosion of faith in, in the future of the system or the goodness of the system, it shows a fragility there that we should ponder a little more. Sometimes we seem to feel so overpowered and we are overpowered obviously, but…but our enemy is weakening I think. It’s really, it’s showing itself to be nothing but bad news, and so I think what has taken the place of the ideology of the dominant culture is technology; it now relies so much on technology. And even in terms of social-type questions, everything will somehow, someday soon, magically be healed and solved and taken care of by technology. That’s the last part of the ideological armoury, and it works to some degree, we’re all held hostage to it, we surely are, so it’s not an illusion, but it’s not the same as people actually believing in the different components of what is trapping us. And that’s what we have to get past, and that’s as old as civilization, by the way, you know. From cities that were walled cities, um, you can’t go out there, that’s, it’s very hazardous, it’s dangerous, you’ll get killed out there, it’s a good thing you’re safe in the city, we have the army, we have the temple, we have all the stuff and you’re secure here, it’s still saying the same thing. Except it isn’t secure here, it, it’s anything but secure, and really everybody knows it. There’s so much anxiety in any developed country you can cut it with a knife and that shows, another way of showing that no one is believing in the promises, no one feels they’re protected, so, I think, in a way the road is open, it’s much more open than we think, to get somewhere against the prevailing, still dominant controls.

What can each of us do now?

I think individually what we can do is…is try to see through our captivity to understand it better and to share that instead of, too often we accept the terms of the dialogue in any political culture which leaves out every important question or issue, it simply does, when you look at American politics for example, it’s really nothing but trivial. There’s nothing at issue, it doesn’t question anything important. I’m not saying…I’m not so arrogant to say that there are not issues that affect people, certainly, but nothing fundamental is on the table, and we have to stop that, we have to, we have to interrupt that, and it’s harder to do individually, but that’s part of it too though. But I think that’s just speaking out and interrupting the false, or phony, or pseudo-dialogue that takes place in society and start injecting it with some reality. That’s all it is, it’s just really that simple…

This is a great nation of denial, it’s probably the most…the most in denial one…I don’t know that for sure…So it’s not easy. I think individually, I don’t think it’s a positive thing to be told, which the dominant culture does tell us every day, and I’m sure it’s not just in America, that if you recycle more or take a shorter bath or something like that, you will have some real impact, you won’t, it’s just, you just, it’s just a lie. I look at recycling as just making room for more production. All, none of this stuff has any meaningful reality, and of course we hear about green and sustainable endlessly, and I’ve seen it in India actually and not just the US, of course, but, and it’s easier, if you want to console people, they need to have some sense that they can do something. They can vote, they can be more assiduous in their recycling, or whatever it is, these things that are just a compensation, and actually only strengthen the system, they’re nothing about the solution, I’m sorry, but, it’s a waste of time. You have to look at where does the energy or the water go, for example, if you’re looking at your personal consumption habits, that only reinforces the consumerist mentality. But that’s another thing we can each do, is see through that and reject that and not just keep it to ourselves. We can mock these things that…I think that so many people know it’s just a joke, but it’s socially reinforced and we just go along with it. It’s counter-intuitive to say that these things are not helpful, but, insofar as they’re not helpful, it’s our job, I would say, to find that out, and let other feel encouraged and emboldened to, we can all go a little further, if we each you know, point out the lies, it’s more comfortable to just go along with it of course, but that’s something we can do.

But wouldn’t anarcho-primitivism mean billions of people have to die?

‘We know that anarcho-primitivism certainly means the death of billions of people, almost all of the billions of people, let’s face it. And professor Noam Chomsky points this out very well, he’s called us genocidists. He’s pointed out that it would not just be the unintended consequence if there was somehow a primitivist shift, but it’s the desired consequence.’ Of course this is real deceit. This is just, it’s really hard to believe. But I think actually it’s just the opposite, people like Chomsky and lots of other people, they’re the ones who really don’t care about the six billion people. They’re the ones who want to see them staying in these cities, megacities especially, in these tower-block apartments, where, when everything fails, they’ll be dead in a few days because they have no skills, they have no access to getting along without the whole artificial aspects of modernity. We’re talking about reskilling ourselves and spreading that information and I think there’s a great psychological bonus to that, by the way, I’m not, I don’t pretend to be very far along on that road at all, but I, the one thing I’m struck by, people who have reskilled in terms of knowing how to start a fire, or find edible plants, or make a shelter, or simple tools, they are much more likely I think to be fine with this, because if you want to pull down civilization, and you don’t know how to live without it, you’ll probably hesitate. At some level or other when you’re pulling it down, it’s harder to pull down, it can’t be as fully desired if you’re not ready for what can follow, so I think that’s an important aspect that’s…to, to reverse the picture, I’m not just being rhetorical here, but we’re the ones that are thinking about the six billion people far more than those who not just blithely accept but promote this direction we’re going in, this suicidal, poisonous, pathological train we’re on. If you don’t question that then you don’t give a damn about the six billion people because you’re consigning them to what is already unfolding. All the major cities in the world you can’t breathe the air, so, you know, we gotta keep on industrialising, we gotta bring factories everywhere, you know, that is the opposite of our position, again, because we’re thinking about life on this Earth and I don’t think the people who are making these fantastic charges against us have the right to say that they’re the ones concerned about it.

Does history prove or disprove the Noble savage myth?

Anarcho-primitivism has been accused of largely continuing the noble savage myth, and I plead guilty, because there was a noble savage, and it’s very, it’s very hip to scoff at that, to jeer at that, and that doesn’t mean that we think there was some perfect Eden or something like that, but compared to this nightmare now, especially, and given what we learn from the standard literature, not having to inflate anything, or make up anything, or go into rhapsodies about the absolute perfection of hunter gatherer life, we know how workable it was, and noble or not noble, but yeah, the savage life was much superior, it simple was.

Can you talk a bit about the history of anarcho-primitivism?

When anarcho-primitivism, so-called, first started getting around, there was maybe more of a, kind of, I don’t know if you can call it a purist kind of a view, if it wasn’t nomadic hunter-gatherer then it was horrible and it wouldn’t be worth pursuing, that would simply be the goal, and that hasn’t been eclipsed I would say, I don’t think that’s been lost sight of, I think it’s fairly clear that’s kind of an ideal anti-hierarchical condition, the nomadic part, before you get to sedentarism, but on the other hand there are people, including Kevin Tucker, who have written persuasively that there are a lot of small-scale horticulture-based societies that have been exemplary, that have not fallen into the usual things that come from domestication, and you know, some of this, again, the domestication thing is the watershed, for example, people say, oh you’re all in love with the primitive and what about cannibalism or genital mutilation or human sacrifice or, you know, stuff like that, well none of those things existed before domestication.

So, I think it’s more important to keep that in mind as a general thing rather than try to say that we’re going to have some litmus test or blueprint or something like that in terms of a return.

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