Monday, 6 August 2012

Did you swim here?! Did you swim here?!



I was recently invited to an anarcho-primitivist talk with John Zerzan as speaker by my friend Marmaduke Hutchings. It was packed out with around 120 to 130 people going on my own estimations. It also became apparent that this crowd were already won over and weren’t here to pick a fight with Zerzan. The talk was at Raven’s Row near Spitalfields, there some of his books as well as t-shirt slogans and videos exploring primitivism were on show. After the talk there was food and booze available to the audience. God knows who bankrolls that place. It would be a lively discussion that night. The questions and answers opening featured talk of the ‘proto-fascist’ Batman movie and suggestions that the victims of the recent shooting were really ideologically complicit in the ‘proto-fascistic’ regime. It should be noted that Zerzan didn’t endorse this position. At one point the discussion was derailed over the topic of drug consumption, which culminated with a statement to the effect that “Although koalas are addicted to eucalyptus, they don’t commit genocide.”
 
The height of hilarity was when John recalled the culmination of a questions and answers session that took the form of a man yelling at him "Did you swim here?! Did you swim here?!" The initial emphasis of the talk was on community and its notable absence in our world before making it clear that we don’t want the ‘old hell’ of patriarchal domination and hierarchical control. Rather we want the ‘new hell’ which would be a prelapsarian organic whole of individuals set free from all the old forms of domination and power. The problem here is that there isn’t really a beginning. You can trace these problems to domestication, but then you could trace the roots of domestication back even further. Ultimately you could end up with the view that it is the human race that’s the problem. So we should enjoy the ride and await the end with the knowledge that there will be a great beginning after man. There is nothing that can be done about the fundamental condition of humanity, which we are really just rapacious homonidesand nothing can be made of us.
 
 
You can easily see where the conservative ethos of John Gray would clamber into bed with the nihilistic poetry of Charles Bukowski. Of course, Zerzan stresses that he isn’t a ‘collapsist’ who’ll be singing in a meadow while it all falls down. But it is easier to dream of tearing it all down than overthrowing one system for another. When it got topical as Zerzan took up the Batman shootings as an example. Noting the same old songs, the two primary responses in the narrative around the shooting were that the killer is simply evil or that there are too many guns in America. But the US has always been full of guns and there hasn’t always been these shootings, he notes, the same goes for violent psychos. The almost recreational violence and mass-killing must be a social phenomenon, a symptom of the technological society where there are more shootings than elsewhere. This isn’t particularly insightful, as the most violence can be pinned down to where there is a high concentration of available firearms, political fear and social alienation.
 
It’s the techno-culture stupid! It’s ideological and not neutral in any sense. The rolling back of cultural solidarity comes at the same time that the technological ideology pitches its universal solution. It will connect each of us, but it actually helps to atomise us. It promises us a better world and reduces us to passive appendages of machines. We are increasingly inert in our reliance on GPS systems, the internet and mobile phones. In Japan you can buy bathing machines which close over you like a coffin. In South Korea there is robotic teaching, hugging and even French-kissing. He could’ve included the sex doll craze in Japan, that there are many men who prefer fake women that they can keep in the boot of their car to real women. We’re at the end of sensual experience.In the background of the problems which plague our civilisation Zerzan sees technological domestication at the root of it all: overpopulation and environmental degradation as well as drugs and disease. According to this view industrialisation generates cancer and other diseases.

It’s not just that domestication removes us from what used to be ordinary aspects of human life. He notes that America is an over-drugged society where it has gotten to the point that the drugs can actually be detected in the water supply. There are 80 million Americans with sleeping disorders, tens of millions using drugs to get through the day.In the same vein industrialisation coupled with domestication that the problem of overpopulation came about. The advent of agriculture was the beginning of this. It was the mistake to go from taking what nature gave to us for free to attempts of controlling and engineering nature. When confronted the horrors of pre-civilisation Zerzan maintains that cannibalism, head-hunting and genital mutilation are all products of domestication. He knew Freud’s writing on civilisation in the aftermath of war, that the civilisation is a construct for regulating the suppressed forces of violent sexual urges inside us. Domestication is a wound that never heals, it’s a machine for happiness that creates unhappiness.

According to this view private property emerges from domestication, John Zerzan contrasts himself against the Marxists here. He skips over the materialist reading of history, that the productive modes of exploitation create the pre-conditions for the next stage. In this way slavery and feudalism created the necessary conditions for capitalism to emerge, in turn capitalism may lead to socialism. Zerzan would probably reject this as another notion of technological progress, for him every political project is reducible to this fetish for technology. But it seems as though Zerzan, to some extent, wants technology without technology as he claims that there are other ways of powering respiratory machines than the systems we fall back on today. His example of electricity generated through cycling. At the same time it could be said that the anarcho-primitivism to which Zerzan subscribes really falls into the ease with which we can imagine the collapse of our entire world than it is to foresee a post-capitalist future.

In the same way that Zerzan dismissed the ‘same song’ of the American narrative around shootings to differentiate his position from conservatives and liberals he made time to distinguish himself from the other factions of the Left. Even though Zerzan may not see himself as a man of the Left, it is the case that the anarchist tradition comes out of 18th Century classical liberalism and developed into libertarian socialism in the 19th Century. The free-market libertarians are really a 20th Century phenomenon, another outgrowth of classical liberalism. For him the Left and the Right are both subject to the ideological shibboleths of technological progress, this dynamic is something to overcome and transcend. In a classic display of left-wing sectarianism Zerzan made periodic slights against Noam Chomsky and environmentalists, the main competition to his position at the eco-libertarian end of the radical Left. Really this is where Zerzan comes across as ultra-leftist and as we shall see he’s not adverse to forms of comfortable resistance.

Chomsky is wrong to claim that there isn’t a way of eliminating technology and even if there is we shouldn’t. Yet Zerzan isn’t all that clear about how we can break apart the system and return to that land of ‘Once upon a time…’ where there is no racism, homophobia, misogyny and no more hierarchical authority, no statism and no capitalism. When pushed on this Zerzan seems to opt for a dichotomy of ‘small actions’ such as cycling and ‘big acts’ of violence. He shirked away from any kind of mass-violence in a Khmer Rouge style destruction of society. Though he doesn’t evade the endorsement of political violence, it has to be about the destruction of private property. In such cases Zerzan stands on the side of rioters, the Earth Liberation Front and Animal Liberation Front. He also shirked away from a sudden collapse as that would reap a high body-count, in this sense Zerzan seems like less of an anarchist as it would imply a gradual transition. Rather than simply endorse the coming collapse of Western civilisation as a new hope, he calls for a primitive future.

This is where the ultra-leftist sectarianism converges with comfortable resistance and the nostalgia for a world outside of all our modern problems. Similarly the Greens can be damned if they deny that the system can’t be saved through innovations to eventually replace fossil fuels with sustainable energy. As much as the eco-Right are deluded in their plan to save capitalism through carbon caps, it isn’t the case that the eco-socialists are about the preservation of capitalist society. Really many Greens share Zerzan’s nostalgia for a human community of communities which precedes the horrors of industrial capitalism. In his vision community will instil responsibility in the same way that it is in co-ops as the ‘fuck-ups’ are present at meetings where collective deliberating goes on and everything is discussed democratically. This is where it’s clear that Zerzan is a product of the 60s, when the commune movement hoped to establish an alternate society free of any kind of power structure only to find the old structures were quickly reconstituted.

It seems then that there would be a need for conservatives to hold it all in place once it had been achieved. Actually you could read a conservative nostalgia out of Zerzan's view of the past. Amnesia is for reactionaries, though he isn't guilty of wiping away inconvenient truths it is the case that the anarcho-primitivists are selective about what they want to go back to. It is fitting then that Zerzan stands by autonomous deference within the system, this way we can all do our bit in the resistance. There is a conservative side to this also, as we remain inside our bubbles without televisions and mobile phones reading about the future primitive. The political is not just an individual decision, if we want to change the world we need collective acts and organisation. The wish almost matches the nightmares of many environmentalists: that we could sit still for too long and the world as it is would be gone forever. But this would be a crude anarcho-primitivism. The more civilisation, the more neuroses seems to summarise Zerzan’s position – it’s better to go back than to continue forward, backwards is forward!

4 comments:

Marmaduke Dando Hutchings said...

Hi Josh,

I’ll try to address some of the points in order below.

“Rather we want the ‘new hell’ which would be a prelapsarian organic whole of individuals set free from all the old forms of domination and power. The problem here is that there isn’t really a beginning. You can trace these problems to domestication, but then you could trace the roots of domestication back even further. Ultimately you could end up with the view that it is the human race that’s the problem. So we should enjoy the ride and await the end with the knowledge that there will be a great beginning after man. There is nothing that can be done about the fundamental condition of humanity, which we are really just rapacious homonidesand nothing can be made of us.”

I don’t see how you can trace the roots of domestication back further exactly, though do expand on this. That there is a fundamental condition of humanity that is rapacious and destructive, I think is an assumption based on where we are now. The primitivist argument is that, for all of pre-history, which goes for 90% of humanity’s time as a species on earth, we have not behaved in this way at all. So to look at such a short period such as history for evidence that humanity has no other option than to behave in the way now believe to be common place, is not good enough. The reason why domestication of plants and animals is the crux of the issue, is because it’s the first severance from nature. It’s the first step forward in our collective ego away from our biology. Instead of being completely at the mercy of nature, post domestication, one is at the mercy of nature and the flaws of our own ingenuity. There’s much to expand and argue over here, but let’s move on for the time being.

“The almost recreational violence and mass-killing must be a social phenomenon, a symptom of the technological society where there are more shootings than elsewhere. This isn’t particularly insightful, as the most violence can be pinned down to where there is a high concentration of available firearms, political fear and social alienation.”

This may not have been clarified too well, but the ramping up of social alienation through the ever increasing techno-culture, is offered as context to the phenomenon of the shootings. As well as alienation, I’d also suggest the strain of civilisation on individuals, the omnipresence of which technology seeks to shore up unfalteringly.

“When confronted the horrors of pre-civilisation Zerzan maintains that cannibalism, head-hunting and genital mutilation are all products of domestication.”

Given that domestication of plants and animals is the first building block of civilisation, those products of domestication you cite, cannot be from pre-civilisation.

Continued below…

Marmaduke Dando Hutchings said...



“He skips over the materialist reading of history, that the productive modes of exploitation create the pre-conditions for the next stage. In this way slavery and feudalism created the necessary conditions for capitalism to emerge, in turn capitalism may lead to socialism. Zerzan would probably reject this as another notion of technological progress, for him every political project is reducible to this fetish for technology.”

A fetish for innovation, yes quite possibly. I’d reject it on the grounds that it’s just plain unnecessary, and pretty mean to boot, to ask millions of people to sacrifice their lives for a future that isn’t even guaranteed, let alone desired by all.

“But it seems as though Zerzan, to some extent, wants technology without technology as he claims that there are other ways of powering respiratory machines than the systems we fall back on today. His example of electricity generated through cycling. At the same time it could be said that the anarcho-primitivism to which Zerzan subscribes really falls into the ease with which we can imagine the collapse of our entire world than it is to foresee a post-capitalist future.”

This was an example of transition. Clearly, eventually, there would be no respiratory machines, and people would die naturally and with dignity. Given that these machines are still around, and with people attached to them, if there was to be a crisis which threatened those dependents, naturally you would do all you can for them, and if that means hooking them up to some hacked bike power generator, then so be it. This is presuming the person on the machine wants to live of course, but that’s a different story.

“Chomsky is wrong to claim that there isn’t a way of eliminating technology and even if there is we shouldn’t. Yet Zerzan isn’t all that clear about how we can break apart the system and return to that land of ‘Once upon a time…’ where there is no racism, homophobia, misogyny and no more hierarchical authority, no statism and no capitalism. When pushed on this Zerzan seems to opt for a dichotomy of ‘small actions’ such as cycling and ‘big acts’ of violence.”

We have to do what we can within the confines of the system we find ourselves in. In our day to day lives, there are some choices we get to make, hardly empowering, but why wouldn’t you choose to make the right one, given what you know. But if any big change is going to happen, the idea that technology is political, is going to have to be forced onto the table, by any humane means possible. Property destruction turns a lot of heads.

“Amnesia is for reactionaries, though he isn't guilty of wiping away inconvenient truths it is the case that the anarcho-primitivists are selective about what they want to go back to.”

Anarcho-primitivism to me is not about going back to anything particular. To me it’s about going forward with the realisation that things weren’t always this way, that they don’t need to be this way, whilst having to deal with the weight of our own prejudices civilisation has instilled in us. There are myths about humanity that are reinforced with every year that civilisation lumbers on. We need to blow these myths apart if want to have a humane future. Blind capitulation is not good enough.

I’ll leave it at that. Thanks for writing a piece Josh…love the accompanying pictures.

M

JT White said...

It depends on the particular conception of human nature which you subscribe to; the same goes for your view of history and the past especially. I don't think that the primitivists are necessarily in touch with the way that the past was. I mean this in the same way that the conservatives don't really have a claim to 'reality'. These concepts are already ideologically charged.

The anarchist strain of primitivism presupposes a positive notion of human nature that we can unearth from all the propaganda - if we dig deep enough we're all anarchists. Similarly the vision of the past is a positively charged one, it's not beyond bias (and none is). If you take this primitivist line to its ultimate conclusion you might even throw Darwinism out of the window.

Are there not power-structures which may emerge from our biology? Don't animals kill each other. Chimpanzees, our closest cousins, form gangs as teenagers and kill each other.

I can see that but it would ignore the socio-economic element of alienation. This is the reason that there are more shootings in the US than in Canada, yet there are about as many guns in Canada. There isn't an enormous difference between American capitalism and Canadian capitalism, but the differences are significant.

It can't simply be a matter of civilisation as American crime rates are not unusual (except when it comes to gun violence, then it's exceptional).

This is where it appears anarcho-primitivism reverts to pre-Marxian socialist positions, Fourier's brand of utopian socialism specifically. Historical materialism does not stipulate any guaranteed destination. But it creates the need for action to redeem the countless generations who have toiled to amass the material surplus of capitalism.

We can debate whether or not we can possibly 'redeem' them. I think the world would be a better place if the material resources of advanced capitalist societies were used to establish socialism. Again, this is not a 'neutral' position but any notion of political neutrality is a liberal illusion. Also, why read Capital if you're going to position yourself against historical materialism?

Putting aside the matter of our competing historic worldviews. I have to say, I don't think people will necessarily die with dignity in a pre-civilised world (the same can be said of civilisation of course). People used to die of their teeth for example. I'm still troubled by the lack of a approach to a transition to a primitive future. Like it or not the Khmer Rouge brand of 'authoritarianism' always claimed the guise of a non-authoritarian model. Officially the Khmer Rouge was not running the country for example.

JT White said...

I don't disagree with you about 'autonomous deference' although I disagree on the finer details. Especially as I don't take technology to be 'ideological' in strict terms, technology can be developed for all sorts of purposes. This is the same with tools, a hammer can be used to put up a painting or bash someone's head in. It's nothing intrinsic about the hammer itself.

I don't write-off violence, it really comes down to the context of the particular situation. Generally I think Zizek's trichotomy is quite a good one: sometimes it's better to do nothing, sometimes small gestures are better and sometimes violence is necessary. But I think Marx may have had a point that the violent outbursts aren't the cause of the fall of a political order. In the same sense that the pains of childbirth are not the cause of the birth itself.

So there is a need for something more here and I say that with the knowledge that the Left doesn't necessarily have a ready-at-hand approach to change.

I think it's more about changing the structural conditions to those which are not detrimental to human flourishing and creativity. This does mean a radical overhaul of the present state of affairs in order to construct something better. I also don't think it's capitulation as much as a ideological disagreement. There's not enough disensus on the Left as it is.