John Zerzan is
widely known as one of the main proponents of Anarcho-Primitivism, one of several currents
Anarchism. These primitivists tend to see civilization itself as
the ultimate root of our problems, rather than this or that particular form
of political or economic organization, which is the traditional leftist approach:
Clinging to politics is one way of avoiding the confrontation with the
devouring logic of civilization, holding instead with the accepted assumptions and definitions.
Leaving it all behind is the opposite: a truly qualitative change, a
fundamental paradigm shift.
This change is not about:
- seeking "alternative" energy sources to power all the projects and
systems that should never have been started up in the first place;
- being vaguely "post-Left", the disguise that some adopt while changing none of their
- espousing an "anti-globalization" orientation that's anything but, given activists'
near-universal embrace of the totalizing industrial world system;
- preserving the technological order, while ignoring the degradation of
millions and the systematic destruction of the earth that undergird the existence of every part of the
- claiming —as anarchists— to oppose the state, while ignoring the fact that this
hypercomplex global setup couldn't function for a day without many levels of
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. VIII)
Thus, while those who subscribe to a more traditional approach may criticize
capitalism itself as
the source of our problems, Zerzan and others prefer to pay close attention
to issues like domestication, the birth of agriculture, language and
symbolism in general:
It is grammar that
establishes language as
a system, reminding us
that the symbolic must become systemic in order to seize and hold power.
This is how the perceived world becomes structured, its abundance processed
and reduced. The grammar of every language is a theory of experience,
and more than that, it's an ideology. It sets rules and limits, and
grinds the one-prescription-fits-all lenses through which we see everything.
A language is defined by grammatical rules (not of the speaker's choosing);
the human mind is now commonly seen as a grammar- or syntax-driven machine.
As early as the 1700s,
human nature was described as "a tissue of language," a further measure of
the hegemony of language as the determining ground of consciousness.
Language, and symbolism
in general, are always substitutive, implying meanings that cannot be derived
directly from experiential contexts. Here is the long-ago source of
today's generalized crisis of meaning. Language initiates and reproduces
a distinction or separation that leads to ever-increasing place-lessness.
Resistance to this impoverishing movement must lead to the problematization
of language. Foucault noted that speech is not merely "a verbalization of conflicts and systems
of domination, but... the very object of man's conflicts." He didn't
develop this point, which is valid and deserves our attention and study.
The roots of today's globalizing spiritual crisis lie in a movement away
from immediacy; this is the hallmark of the symbolic.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, pp. 5-6)
According to Zerzan, symbolism (which, to some extent, describes what
Marx referred to as
ideology and takes it even further, including activities such as
language, religion, ideas, philosophies...) is a human attempt to try and
solve the problems created by civilization itself (i.e., by our initial
separation from nature):
Problems introduced by complexity or hierarchy have never been resolved
by symbolic means. What is overcome symbolically remains intact on the
non-symbolic (real) plane. Symbolic means sidestep reality; they are part
of what is going wrong. Division of labor, for instance, eroded face-to-face interaction
and eroded people's direct, intimate relationship with the natural world. The
symbolic is complicit; it generates more and more mediations to accompany
those created by social practices. Life becomes fragmented; connections to
nature are obscured and dissolved. Instead of repairing the rupture,
symbolic thought turns people in the wrong direction: toward abstraction.
The "thirst for transcedence" is initiated, ignoring the shifting reality
that created that desire in the first place. Language plays a key role here,
re-ordering and subordinating natural systems that humankind was once attuned
to. Symbolic culture demands that we reject our "animal nature" in favor of
a symbolically defined "human nature".
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 7)
Similarly, we should also be able to trace back the origins of sexism to that "original sin":
In the context of the generally egalitarian ethos of hunter-gatherer or foraging societies, anthropologists like Eleanor Leacock, Patricia Draper and Mina Caulfield have
described a generally equal relationship between men and women. In such
settings where the person who procures something also distributes it and
where women procure about 80 percent of the substenance, it is largely women
who determine band society movements and camp locations. Similarly, evidence
indicates that both women and men made the stone tools used by
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 12)
In other words, domestication, agriculture, civilization, social hierarchy
and sexism all go together. They were all born together, as a consequence
of the appearance of a new world of the symbolic that justifies that new
state of affairs and, at the same time, attempts to heal the wounds it causes
in a sphere that is obviously above the real, material realm of existence.
According to Zerzan, this explains why so many cultures resort to very similar
ideas and stories to tell the beginning of human civilization (a sinful error
that prompts our fall from paradise).
War, incidentally, is no
different. Its origins can also be traced back to civilization itself,
War is a staple of civilization. Its mass, rationalized, chronic
presence has increased as civilization has spread and deepened. Among the
specific reasons it doesn't go away is the desire to escape the horror of
the mass-industrial life. Mass society of course finds its reflection
in mass soldiery and it has been this way form early civilization. In the
age of hyper-developing technology, war is fed by new heights of
dissociation and disembodiment. We are never further from a grounding or
leverage from which to oppose it (while too many accept paltry, symbolic
The emergence of institutionalized warfare appears to be associated
with domestication, and/or a drastic change in a society's physical
situation. As [Ronald R.] Glassman puts it, this comes about "only
where band peoples have been drawn into the warfare of horticulturalists
or herders, or driven into an ever-diminishing territory." The first
reliable archaelogical evidence of warfare is that of fortified, pre-Biblical
Jericho, c. 7500 BC. In
the early Neolithic a
relatively sudden shift happened. What dynamic forces may have led people
to adopt war as a social institution? To date, this question has not been
explored in any depth.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 19-21)
Notice that Zerzan is not talking about human conflict, which has
obviously existed for much longer, but rather warfare. It does seem
evident that the overall level of destruction brought about by "civilized
peoples" indeed cannot be compared to anything else in human History. It
would also be too easy to chalk this up to a more advanced technology, which
is linked to a higher capability to carry out destructive actions. While
there is obviously some truth to it, that still would not change the fact
that the tribes of hunter-gatherers that remain seem to avoid the sort of
genocidal impetus that
pervades civilization. Somehow, the contemporary concept of total war feels like a natural offspring
of a civilized mentality that is, nontheless, utterly incompatible with
more "primitive" lifestyles, paradoxic as it may sound.
Now, if not the origin, at the very least the most important breakthrough
in establishing the current symbolic world of civilization came in what we
refer to as the Axial
identified a turning point for human resymbolization, the "Axial Age", as
having occurred between 800 and 200 BC in the three major realms of
civilization: the Near
East (including Greece), India, and China. Jaspers singled out such sixth
century prophets and spiritual figures as Zoroaster in Persia, Deutero-Isaiah among the
and Pythagoras in
Greece, the Buddha in
India, and Confucius in
China. These individuals simultaneously —but independently— made
indelible contributions to post-Neolighinc consciousness and to the birth
of the world religions. In astonishingly parallel developments, a
decisive change was wrought by which civilization established a deeper
hold on the human spirit, world-wide.
The whole heritage of scared places, tribal polytheism, and reverence for the earth-centered was
broken, its rituals and sacrifices suddenly out of date. Synonymous with
the rise of "higher" civilization and world religions, a sense of system
appeared, and the need for codification became predominant. In the words
of Spengler: "the
whole world a dynamic system, exact, mathematically disposed, capable down to
its first causes of being experimentally probed and numerically fixed so that
man can dominate it..." A common aspect of the new reformulation was the
ascendance of the single universal deity, who required moral perfection
rather than the earlier ceremonies. Increased control of naure and society
was bound to evolve toward increased inner control.
A direct, personal relationship with ultimate spiritual reality was a
phenomenon that testified to the breakdown of community. The development of
individual religious identity, as distinct from one's place in the tribe and
in the natural world, was characteristic of Axial consciousness. The
personalizing of a spiritual journey and a distancing from the earth shaped
human societies in turn. These innovations denied and suppressed indigenous
traditions, while fostering the implicit illusion of escaping civilization.
Inner transformation and its "way up" was spirit divorced from body, nirvana separate from samsara. Yogic withdrawal, life-denying asceticism, etc. were deeply dualistic, almost without
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, pp. 27-29)
Here is, indeed, the birth of the big monotheistic religions that are still with us. More to the point,
according to Zerzan, here is the birth place of a whole worldview, a paradigm,
that will come to dominate civilization for the next almost three thousand
years. Once the old paradisiacal unity with nature and community is gone,
a spiritual divide rips us all apart from within and the whole symbolic
realm that was invented to heal us proved itself quite insufficient. That
way, down the centuries, we end up in today's world, the hyper-urban reality.
A reality that increasingly manifests itself in the form of a deep crisis
that may imperil the human race itself. Zerzan describes it as follows:
have more in common with each other than with any other social organisms.
Their citizens tend to dress the same and otherwise consume the same global
culture, under a steadily more comprehensive surveillance gace. This is the
opposite of living in a particular place on the earth, with respect for its
uniqueness. These days, all space is becoming urban space; there is n
not a spot on the planet that couldn't become at least virtually urban upon
the turn of a satellite. We have been trained and equipped to mold space
as it it were an objet. Such an education is mandated in this Digital Age, dominated by
cities and metro regions to an extent unprecedented in history.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, pp. 39-40)
Zerzan does not see anything redeemable in the city:
There have been civilizations without cities (e.g. the early Maya civilization), but not many.
More often they are a key feature and develop with relatively sudden force,
as if the energy repressed by domestication must burst forth to a new level
if its control logic. The urban explosion does not escape some bad reviews,
however. In the Hebrew
tradition, it was Cain,
murderer of Abel, who founded the first city. Similarly, such urban
references as Babylon,
the Tower of Babel,
and Sodom and
Gomorrah are wholly negative. A deep ambivalence about cities is, in
fact, a constant of civilization.
(Jonn Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 41)
In that sense, it reminds us of Beyond Civilization, by
Daniel Quinn, already reviewed by us. Even the examples used by Zerzan
are quite similar. His solution to the problem is also, as Quinn's, to move
beyond civilization itself:
The question, of course, as with Quinn's position, is to figure out
whether building a life beyond civilization is even a possibility anymore
Copán, Palenque, and Tikal were rich cities of Maya civilization abandoned at their height, between
600 and 900 AD. With similar examples from various cultures, they point a
way forward for us. The literature of urbanism has only grown darker and more dystopian in recent years,
as terrorism and collapse cast their shadows on the most untenable products
of civilization: the world's cities. Turning from the perpetual servitude
and chronic sickness of urban existence, we may draw inspiration from such
places as former indigenous settlements on what is now called the Los Angeles River. Places
where the sphere of life is rooted in subsisting as fully skilled humans in
harmony with the earth.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 46)
Both Zerzan and Quinn appeared convinced that not only is it possible, but
it is our only hope, actually. On the other hand, I am not that convinced.
That's how we make it to the second part of the book, The Crisis of
Civilization. Nobody will accuse Zerzan of being too opmistic about
our current situation:
1997-98 saw several months of smoke all across Southeast Asia as four
million hectares of forests burned. Four years later, hundreds of fires
raged for many weeks across eastern Australia, set by bored teenagers. In
the US, groundwater and soil pollution levels have risen measurably
because of concentrations of anti-depressants in human urine. Alienation
in society and the annihilation of plant and animal communities join in a
ghastly, interlocked dance of violence against health and life.
Reified existence progressively disabled whatever and whoever questions it.
How else to account for the stunningly accommodationist nature of
allergic to any questioning of the basics of the reigning techno-capitalist malignancy? And yet a
questioning is emerging, and is fast taking shape as the deep impetus of a
renewed social movement.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, pp. 60-61)
Yet, Zerzan identifies a rising anti-globalization movement that is trying to turn the tides:
referred to the anti-globazation protests of 1999 and 2000 as
"early warning signals" of a "potential political weight" in the industrialized
countries and the Third
World, as a threat to the world system itself. A CIA report that became public in spring 2000, "Global Trend 2015", predicted
that the biggest obstacle to globalization in the new millenium would be a
possible joining together of the "First World" protest movement with the struggles of indigenous people to maintain their
dignity against encroaching capital and technology.
Which introduces a more important question about this movement and its
thretening connection to the centuries of struggles against Empire in the not-yet-industrialized world.
Namely, if it is increasingly anarchy-oriented, what does this anarchism consist of?
I think it is fairly clear that it is becoming something other than part
of the left.
Until now, every modern anti-capitalist movement had at its core an acceptance of the expansion
of the means of production and the continuing development of technology. Now
there is an explicit refusal of this productionist orientation; it is in the
ascendant in the new anarchy movement.
This anarcho-primitivist (or simply primitivist) tendency knows that to account for today's
grim realities there needs to be a deeper look at institutions once almost
universally taken for granted. Despite the postmodern ban on investigation of these institutions'
origins, the new outlook brings even division of labor and domestication into question as ultimate root causes of our
present extremity of existence. Technology, meaning a system of ever greater technicization of the
life-world. Civilization, which arrives when division of labor reaches the stage that produces
domestication, is also now seen as deeply problematic. Whereas the
domestication of animals and plants was once assumed as a given, now its
logic is brought into focus. To see the meaning of genetic engineering and human cloning, for example, is to
grasp them as implicit in the basic move to domination of nature, which is
domestication. Though it is apparent that this critical approach raises
more questions than it answers, a developing anarchy consciousness that does
not aim at definitive answers cannot turn back.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, pp. 61-62)
Notice, however, how Zerzan himself acknowledges that this approach "raises
more questions than it answers". It definitely is more radical than anything
we have tried before. It goes beyond socialism
, although it does not have to be incompatible with them (depending on
how we understand socialism or communism, of course). And yet, Zerzan's
position should not be confused with a return to the Stone Age, as many of his critics argue so
. He is fully aware that we cannot just destroy language
and the world of the symbolic that we created during hundreds of thousands of
years. He is proposing something else:
How much time do we have to effect what is necessary to save the biosphere and our very humanness? The
old approaches are so many discredited efforts to run this world, which is a
massified grid of production and estrangement. Green or primitivist
anarchy prefers the vista of radically decentralized, face-to-face community, based on what nature
can give rather than on how complete domination of nature can become. Our
vision runs directly counter to the dominant trajectory of technology and
capital, for the most obvious of reasons.
The left has
failed monumentally, in terms of the individual and in terms of nature.
Meanwhile, the distance between the left and the new anarchy movement keeps
Bourdieu and Richard
Rorty, for instance, long absurdly for a renewed connection between
trade unions, as if
this chimera would somehow change anything on a basic level. Jügen Habermas' Between
Facts and Norms is an apologetic for things as they are, blind to the
real colonization of modern life, and even more uncritical and affirmative
than his previous works. Hardt and Negri speak
to the choice involved rather directly: "We would be anarchists if we were
not to speak... from the standpoint of a materiality constituted in the
networks of productive cooperation, in other words, from the perspective of a
humanity that is constructed productively... No, we are not arnarchists but
communists." Conversely, to further clarify the issue, Jesus Sepulveda
observed that "anarchy and indigenous movements fight against the civilized
order and its practice of standardization."
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, pp. 63-64)
Let us not spend much time on the sterile discussions about whether resistance
to the current suicidal trends should be anarchist or communist. What matters
more is the fact that Hardt and Negri, while bringing up a few interesting
issues worth considering, write documents full of academic jargon, falling
in the same old self-referential tradition of the left. What is needed is
precisely a push to move beyond the old mental schemes of the left. We need
a new mental framework capable to explain to all of us in simple terms (in
"layman terms") where we stand, where we are headed and how to solve our
current problems. Sure, this new framework may be inspired by certain
principles that have been with us for a long time, but it needs to be far
more open, flexible and openminded than the dogmatic infighting the left is
still used to
. Perhaps we need to take a serious leap and leave both
right and left behind, redefining the political and social landscape again.
The establishment is based not only on the institutions we all identify with
the system, but also on a whole symbolic order that allows it to reproduce
itself, gaining legitimacy in people's eyes. In this sense, postmodernism is of the utmost
importance, since it has come to justify the current status quo:
Postmodernism is predicated on the thesis that the all-enveloping
symbolic atmosphere, foundationaless and inescapable, is made up of shifting,
indeterminate signifiers that can never establish firm meaning. It is
in this sense that Timothy Lenoir defends the fusing of life and machine
while rebucking critics of high-tech dehumanization: "I wonder where one might locate the moral high
ground in order to fashion such a critical framework?" The reigning cultural
ethos has explicitly denied the possibility of such ground or stable locus of
meaning and value. Criticism is disarmed.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 73)
To make matters worse, ever since the 1980s
this cultural approach has been spreading among the ranks of the
left, thus undermining the very philosophical foundations of its own critical
position. Lenoir is right: if we don't believe in universals anymore, if
there is no way to measure one value against another, if there is no truth or
false, if anything goes... then, how can we criticize anything?
for instance, the contemporary obsession with fighting any "judgmental
approach" to things. This is a consumerist heaven! "Let me consume whatever
I want without annoying me about the possible consequences of what I do...
and, in exchange, I will also let you do as you please". This is not
freedom! It's merely consumerism! The immediate satisfaction of all our
material needs automatically becomes the most important objective.
Especially if it involves some sort of commercial exchange, of course.
Postmodernism as the cultural justification of advanced capitallism.
And yet, Zerzan warns us, there is truly nothing new about this philosophical
approach. Very deep inside, it's nothing but civilization taken to its ultimate expression:
Symbolic culture has always been a mediated or virtual reality, long
before what we call "media" existed. With hypertext, hypermedia, and
the like, in the era of hypercomplexity, it is easier now to see what the
destination of culture has been all along. Not from our beginning, but from
its beginning. As the rate of completion of technification accelerates, so
does the diet of fantasy and denial grow in importance, consumed by a jaded
and enervated humanity.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 75)
This is the key of Zerzan's criticism. What characterizes the criticism
of the Anarcho-Primitivists, especially when compared to how the old left approaches the
criticism of postmodernism. To Zerzan and his colleagues, the ultimate
root cause of all this extremely negative derive is not just capitalism, but civilization itself. After all, capitalism is
nothing but a form of civilization. Actually, the slave system, the feudal
system and capitalism all have civilization and its symbolic world in common.
Their relationship to nature is, essentially, the same. Although, of course,
the level of technical development was quite different, which is why some of
those social and economic stages had a larger impact than others. Due to
this difference in approach, Zerzan does not only criticize postmodernism,
but also Modernism:
It's hardly necessary to point out that none of the claims of
modernity/Enlightenment (regarding freedom, reason, the individual) are valid. Modernity
is inherently globalizing, massifying, standardizing. The self-evident
conclusion that an indefinite expansion of productive forces will be fatal
deals the final blow to belief in progress. As China's industrialization efforts go
into hyper-drive, we have another graphic case in point.
Since the Neolithic,
there has been a steadily increasing dependence on technology, civilization's
material culture. As Horkheimer and Adorno pointed out, the history of civilization is the history of renunciation. One
gets less than one puts in. This is the fraud of technoculture, and the
hidden core of domestication: the growing impoverishment of self, societey,
and Earth. Meanwhile, modern subjects hope that somehow the promise of yet
more modernity will heal the wounds that afflict them.
A defining feature of the present world is built-in disaster, now announcing
itself on a daily basis. But the crisis facing the biosphere is arguably less noticeable and compelling,
in the First World at least, than everyday alienation, despair, and
entrapment in a routinized, meaningless control grid.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, pp. 77-78)
What is the solution to this bleak scenario, then? A return to nature, it
medicine as, at base, the
restoration of what belongs to nature. Healing as removing whatever works
against life's wonderful capacity to renew itself. The spirit of
anarchy, I believe, is
similar. Remove what blocks our way and it's all there, waiting for us.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 85)
The problem, of course, is defining how we will return to nature. If
technology and civilization are the root cause of our problems, how do we
avoid them? How do we build life without them? Yes, there are still tribes out there that can show us the
way. But, who seriously thinks that switching overnight from a highly
technical civilized society to small groups of foragers is even possible,
unless there is a enormous apocalypse that destroys our world as we know
it? To be fair, it is not clear to me that this is precisely what
Zerzan proposes. He would be the first one, I think, to acknowledge that
he himself cannot drop out and live as a forager. So, what Zerzan
proposs, I think, is, at the very least, that we start now rowing in the
opposite direction. That we start moving away from the highly industrialized,
highly technical civilization we surrounded ourselves with, and return to
nature, craftmanship and small communties . That is far more possible.
The process of globalization that is now in high gear is, in reality, more of the same, Zerzan
Therefore, we should abandon the hope the old left had that, by promoting
globalization itself, we could also promote revolution
At base, globalization is nothing new. Division of labor, urbanization, conquest, dispossession, and diasporas
have been part and parcel of the human condition since the beginning of
civilization. Yet globalization takes the domesticating process to new
levels. World capital now aims to exploit all available life; this is
a defining and original trait of globalization. Early 20th century observers (Tönnies and Durkheim among them) noted the instability and
fragmentation that necessarily accompanied modernization. These are only more evident in this
current, quite possibly terminal stage. The project of integration through
world control causes disintegration everywhere: more rootlessness,
withdrawal, pointlessness... none of which have arrive overnight. The
world system has
become a high-tech imperialism. The new frontier is cyberspace. In the language of perennial empire,
global powers issue their crusading, adventurous call to tame and colonize
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 88)
is, in reality, nothing more but a new stage (the highest, terminal stage,
perhaps) of the project of civilization we started thousands of years ago.
It is actually an intrinsic part of the modernization project:
Hardt and Negri's Empire will serve as a classic artifact of leftism, a compendium of the worn-out and left-over.
These self-described communist militants have no notion of whatsoever of the
enveloping crisis. Thus they continue to seek "alternatives within
modernity". They locate the force behind their communist revolution in
"the new productive practices and the concentration of productive labor on
the plastic and fluid terrain of the new communicative, biological, and
mechanical technologies". The leftist analysis valiantly upholds the heart
of productionist marxism,
in the face of ever-advancing, standardizing, destructive tecnique. Small
wonder Hardt and Negri fail to consider the pulverization of indigenous
cultures and the natural world, or the steady worlwide movement toward
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 104)
Hardt and Negri's problem, as Zerzan sees it, is that they still view things
through the old lenses. In other words, they fail to realize that the
problem is not only capitalism, but modern civilization itself:
None of the supposed victories over inhumanity have made the world safer,
not even just for our own species. All the revolutions have only tightened the hold of domination, by
updating it. Despite the rise and fall of various political persuasions,
it is always production that has won; technological systems never retreat,
they only advance. We have been free or autonomous insofar as the Machine
requires for its functioning.
(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 115)
Here is, to Zerzan, the basic distinction between the Anarchist
and the Marxist
traditions. The former puts the emphasis on the
individual emancipation, even if it is in the context of a community, while
the latter emphasizes the importance of the collective and, most important of
all, still considers that its priority should be to achieve productivity.
made it patently clear that the objective was not so much to
liberate the individual as to increase material productivity and "bury"
capitalism, as Kruschev
Altogether, while it's not clear to me that Zerzan helps us much to find
a solution to our current problems, he does bring up a few interesting issues
that should definitely be considered. Anyone aspiring to change today's
society to build a better world should take into consideration if perhaps
we should break away not only from capitalism (as traditional socialists have always maintained), but
also from the industrial civilization itself. What he points out is that,
unless we manage to avoid the logic of increasing material productivity
closely linked to the current civilization, we will never achieve any sort
of liberation at all. And, more to the point, the productionist mentality
is something that characterizes not only capitalism, but also socialism.
Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 7/10