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!