John Zerzan (born 1943) is an American anarchist and primitivist philosopher and author. His works criticize agricultural civilization as inherently oppressive, and advocate drawing upon the ways of life of prehistoric humans as an inspiration for what a free society should look like. Some of his criticism has extended as far as challenging domestication, language, symbolic thought (such as mathematics and art) and the concept of time.
His five major books are Elements of Refusal (1988), Future Primitive and Other Essays (1994), Running on Emptiness (2002), Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections (2005) and Twilight of the Machines (2008). A collection of his most fundamental texts on the roots of civilization, "Origins" (2010), is currently being published by Black and Green Press and FC Press.
Early life and education
Zerzan was born in Salem, Oregon to immigrants of Bohemian heritage. He received his bachelor's degree from Stanford University and later received a master's degree in History from San Francisco State University. He completed his coursework towards a Ph.D. at the University of Southern California but dropped out before completing his dissertation.
Zerzan's theories draw on Theodor Adorno's concept of negative dialectics to construct a theory of civilization as the cumulative construction of alienation. According to Zerzan, original human societies in paleolithic times, and similar societies today such as the !Kung, Bushmen and Mbuti, live a non-alienated and non-oppressive form of life based on primitive abundance and closeness to nature. Constructing such societies as a kind of political ideal, or at least an instructive comparison against which to denounce contemporary (especially industrial) societies, Zerzan uses anthropological studies from such societies as the basis for a wide-ranging critique of aspects of modern life. He portrays contemporary society as a world of misery built on the psychological production of a sense of scarcity and lack. The history of civilisation is the history of renunciation; what stands against this is not progress but rather the Utopia which arises from its negation.
Zerzan is an anarchist, and is broadly associated with the philosophies of anarcho-primitivism, green anarchism, anti-civilisation, post-left anarchy, neo-luddism, and in particular the critique of technology. He rejects not only the state, but all forms of hierarchical and authoritarian relations. "Most simply, anarchy means 'without rule.' This implies not only a rejection of government but of all other forms of domination and power as well."
Zerzan's work relies heavily on a strong dualism between the "primitive" — viewed as non-alienated, wild, non-hierarchical, ludic, and socially egalitarian — and the "civilised" — viewed as alienated, domesticated, hierarchically organised and socially discriminatory. Hence, "life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health."
Zerzan's claims about the status of primitive societies are based on a reading of the works of anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins and Richard B. Lee. Crucially, the category of primitives is restricted to pure hunter-gatherer societies with no domesticated plants or animals. For instance, hierarchy among Northwest Coast Native Americans whose main activities were fishing and foraging is attributed to their having domesticated dogs and tobacco.
Zerzan calls for a "Future Primitive", a radical reconstruction of society based on a rejection of alienation and an embracing of the wild. "It may be that our only real hope is the recovery of a face-to-face social existence, a radical decentralization, a dismantling of the devouring, estranging productionist, high-tech trajectory that is so impoverishing." The usual use of anthropological evidence is comparative and demonstrative - the necessity or naturality of aspects of modern western societies is challenged by pointing to counter-examples in hunter-gatherer societies. "Ever-growing documentation of human prehistory as a very long period of largely non-alienated life stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly stark failures of untenable modernity." It is unclear, however, whether this implies a re-establishment of the literal forms of hunter-gatherer societies or a broader kind of learning from their ways of life in order to construct non-alienated relations.
Zerzan's political project calls for the destruction of technology. He draws the same distinction as Ivan Illich, between tools that stay under the control of the user, and technological systems that draw the user into their control. One difference is the division of labour, which Zerzan opposes. In Zerzan's philosophy, technology is possessed by an elite which automatically has power over other users; This power is one of the sources of alienation, along with domestication and symbolic thought.
Zerzan's typical method is to take a particular construct of civilisation (a technology, belief, practice or institution) and construct an account of its historical origins, what he calls its destructive and alienating effects and its contrasts with hunter-gatherer experiences. In his essay on number, for example, Zerzan starts by contrasting the "civilized" emphasis on counting and measuring with a "primitive" emphasis on sharing, citing Dorothy Lee's work on the Trobriand Islanders in support, before constructing a narrative of the rise of number through cumulative stages of state domination, starting with the desire of Egyptian kings to measure what they ruled. This approach is repeated in relation to time, gender inequality, work, technology, art and ritual, agriculture and globalization. Zerzan also writes more general texts on anarchist, primitivist theory, and critiques of "postmodernism".
In 1966, Zerzan was arrested while performing civil disobedience at a Berkeley anti-Vietnam War march and spent two weeks in the Contra Costa County Jail. He vowed after his release never again to be willingly arrested. He attended events organized by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and was involved with the psychedelic drug and music scene in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
In the late 1960s he worked as a social worker for the city of San Francisco welfare department. He helped organize a social worker's union, the SSEU, and was elected vice president in 1968, and president in 1969. The local Situationist group Contradiction denounced him as a "leftist bureaucrat". He became progressively more radical as he dealt further with his and other unions. He was also a voracious reader of the Situationists, being particularly influenced by Guy Debord.
In 1974, Black and Red Press published Unions Against Revolution by Spanish ultra-left theorist Grandizo Munis that included an essay by Zerzan which previously appeared in the journal Telos. Over the next 20 years, Zerzan became intimately involved with the Fifth Estate, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed, Demolition Derby and other anarchist periodicals. He began to question civilization in the early 80's, after having sought to confront issues around the neutrality of technology and division of labour, at the time when Fredy Perlman was making similar conclusions. He saw civilization itself as the root of the problems of the world and that a hunter-gatherer form of society presented the most egalitarian model for human relations with themselves and the natural world.
Zerzan and the "Unabomber"
In the mid-1990s, Zerzan became a confidant to Theodore Kaczynski, the "Unabomber", after he read Industrial Society and Its Future, the so-called Unabomber Manifesto. Zerzan sat through the Unabomber trial and often conversed with Kaczynski during the proceedings. After Zerzan became known as a friend of the Unabomber, the mainstream media became interested in Zerzan and his ideas.
In Zerzan's essay "Whose Unabomber?" (1995), he signaled his support for the Kaczynski doctrine, but criticised the bombings:
[T]he mailing of explosive devices intended for the agents who are engineering the present catastrophe is too random. Children, mail carriers, and others could easily be killed. Even if one granted the legitimacy of striking at the high-tech horror show by terrorizing its indispensable architects, collateral harm is not justifiable...
However, Zerzan in the same essay offered a qualified defense of the Unabomber's actions:
The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering the Unabomber phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets, when have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World ever been called to account?... Is it unethical to try to stop those whose contributions are bringing an unprecedented assault on life?
Two years later, in the 1997 essay "He Means It — Do You?," Zerzan wrote:
Enter the Unabomber and a new line is being drawn. This time the bohemian schiz-fluxers [see Gilles Deleuze], Green yuppies, hobbyist anarcho-journalists, condescending organizers of the poor, hip nihilo-aesthetes and all the other "anarchists" who thought their pretentious pastimes would go on unchallenged indefinitely — well, it's time to pick which side you're on. It may be that here also is a Rubicon from which there will be no turning back.
In a 2001 interview with The Guardian, he said:
Will there be other Kaczynskis? I hope not. I think that activity came out of isolation and desperation, and I hope that isn't going to be something that people feel they have to take up because they have no other way to express their opposition to the brave new world.
In his essay "Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm", Murray Bookchin directed criticism from an anarchist point of view at Zerzan's anti-civilisational and anti-technological perspective. Bob Black's Anarchy After Leftism is a known book within primitivist circles, written as a rebuttal to Bookchin. Another notable anarchist work directed at Bookchin's perspective is David Watson's Beyond Bookchin.
Aside from Murray Bookchin, several other anarchist critiques of Zerzan's primitivist philosophies exist. The pamphlet, "Anarchism vs. Primitivism" by Brian Oliver Sheppard criticizes many aspects of the primitivist philosophy. Some authors, such as Andrew Flood, have argued that destroying civilization would lead to the death of a significant majority of the population. John Zerzan contends the collapse of civilization as having a gradual decrease on population size, with the possibility of people having the need to seek means of sustainability more close to nature. Additionally, several anarcho-primitivist thinkers, such as Derrick Jensen, argue that civilization is in fact unsustainable, and as such the problem addressed by the primitivists in maintaining overpopulation is not a question of their choosing, while they seek other possible scenarios and look for appropriate courses of actions.
* Origins: A John Zerzan Reader. Joint publication of FC Press and Black and Green Press, 2010.
* Twilight of the Machines. Feral House, 2008.
* Running On Emptiness. Feral House, 2002.
* Against Civilization (editor). Uncivilized Books, 1999; Expanded edition, Feral House, 2005.
* Future Primitive. Autonomedia, 1994.
* Questioning Technology (co-edited with Alice Carnes). Freedom Press, 1988; 2d edition, New Society, 1991.
* Elements of Refusal. Left Bank Books, 1988; 2d edition, C.A.L. Press, 1999.
* Telos 141, Second-Best Life: Real Virtuality. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Winter 2007.
* Telos 137, Breaking the Spell: A Civilization Critique Perspective. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Winter 2006.
* Telos 124, Why Primitivism?. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Summer 2002.
* Telos 60, Taylorism and Unionism: The Origins of a Partnership. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Summer 1984.
* Telos 50, Anti-Work and the Struggle for Control. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Winter 1981-1982.
* Telos 49, Origins and Meaning of World War I. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Fall 1981.
* Telos 28, Unionism and the Labor Front. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Summer 1978.
* Telos 27, Unionization in America. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Spring 1976.
* Telos 21, Organized Labor versus "The Revolt Against Work:" The Critical Contest. New York: Telos Press Ltd., Fall 1974.