Twilight of the Machines
John Zerzan
Feral House, Port Townsend, Washington State (USA), 2008
142 pages, including notes

John Zerzan is widely known as one of the main proponents of Anarcho-Primitivism, one of several currents within Green 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 (leftist) orientations;
  • 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 technoculture;
  • 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 government.

(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 pre-agricultural peoples.

(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, Zerzan argues:

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 "protest" gestures).


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 Age:

Karl Jaspers 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 Hebrews, Heraclitus 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 exception.

(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:

The mega-cities 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:

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)

The question, of course, as with Quinn's position, is to figure out whether building a life beyond civilization is even a possibility anymore. 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 postmodernism, 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:

Henry Kissinger 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 and communism, 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 simplistically. 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 widening. Pierre Bourdieu and Richard Rorty, for instance, long absurdly for a renewed connection between intellectuals and 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? Notice, 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 seems:

Gadamer describes 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 argues:

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 (or recolonize).

(John Zerzan: Twilight of the Machines, p. 88)

Therefore, we should abandon the hope the old left had that, by promoting globalization itself, we could also promote revolution. Globalization 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 complete dehumanization.

(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. The Russian Revolution 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 famously threatened.

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