Primitive Green: An Interview with John Zerzan
Posted by voidmanufacturing on January 4, 2010
Sunday, December 20, 2009 1:00 IST
John Zerzan first shot into celebrity philosopher status in 1995 after the New York Times featured him in 1995 as a supporter of the Unabomber’s anti-technology doctrine. He has since become a leading light of the primitivist movement in the US. In an exclusive interview with DNA, he explains why modern civilization is fundamentally anti-human, ‘green’ technology is ‘psycho’ and Stone Age is the way to go.
American philosopher John Zerzan’s thesis is simple: civilization is pathological, and needs to be dismantled. Zerzan’s radical critique of civilization, laid out in books such as Elements Of Refusal (1988), Future Primitive (1994), and Running On Emptiness (2002) draws on anthropological research to argue that domestication of nature and domestication of humans go hand in hand. And this is accomplished primarily through technology. According to him, the dystopia of the Wachowski Brothers’ Matrix trilogy is already here: the technological-industrial ‘machine’ is already running the world, a world where individual humans are but insignificant little cogs with barely any autonomy. No single human being – neither the most powerful politician, nor the most powerful businessman – has the power to rein in the system. They necessarily have to follow the inexorable logic of what has been unleashed. He believes that the climate change summit in Copenhagen is a joke, and environmentalists are too superficial in their critiques to make a difference. In an exclusive interview, the California-based Zerzan, who was in Mumbai recently for a lecture tour, talks about why going back to the primitivism of the Stone Age is the only meaningful ‘green’ alternative.
Your work has been described as ‘anti-civilisational’. Are you seriously against civilisation? Of course. Anti-civilisational thought draws attention to the nightmare that’s unfolding right now. It asks some basic questions that haven’t been asked. It tries to change the subject away from the manoeuvring on the surface of dominant systems, in favour of going to the roots of it, and posing alternative directions, alternative projects, on a very basic level. I mean, here we are, as a species, and we can’t breathe the air. What more do you have to say?
You mean you’re being literal when you say we have to go back to the Stone Age? Absolutely, otherwise it’s just talk. We have to dismantle this whole mess, and start thinking practically, start regaining the skills we once had as people on this planet. We’re just becoming more and more dependant on technology, which drains everything away – it drains community away, it really drains experience away, it drains meaning away.
So how does one get back to the primitive way of life? The first step is to have a chance to raise questions like these – beyond the fraud of politics and parties and bullshit that never really challenge anything but only guarantee that things get worse, by avoiding the primary stuff. Nothing’s ever going to change unless there is a chance for people to become engaged on a level of discussion that is meaningful, that really does question this path of technology-led ‘progress’, and why we are on this path, and what drives this.
So what brought us to this path in the first place? I would say it goes all the way back to division of labour, domestication, and the rise of symbolic culture.
What about division of labour? It is with division of labour, and the consequent growth of inequality and estrangement from the earth and from each other that you see, coincidentally or not, the emergence of symbolic culture. Symbolic culture dates back to before domestication and agriculture, but it established the ground for domestication to occur. The rise of division of labour in primitive society also marks the beginning of stratified society, and it appears to emerge fairly suddenly in the Upper Paleolithic era [45,000 to 10,000 years ago] just before domestication.
Without symbolic culture and language, would we be still be human? Well, if you define it that way! Today ‘being human’ means, very symbolic, if not totally symbolic, although that’s been pushed back, too. It was thought that about 60,000 years ago, you had homo sapiens sapiens [the modern humans]. But today the consensus is they appeared 200,000 years ago. Here we’re already moving back out of the symbolic, which is interesting, as it has implications.
What kind of implications? For example, we define intelligence as our skill in manipulating symbols, but that’s not the only way, and why do we define it that way? Because ours is a fully symbolic culture, and to get around in it and achieve things in it, you have to do these things: you have to know the math and everything else. But in a world where you don’t have that, intelligence means something else, and there is obviously intelligence before the symbolic. Given that we weren’t symbolic a million years ago, and Thomas Wynn and other anthropologists say we had the same level of cognitive development then as we do today, it certainly wasn’t applied to symbolic projects or symbolic culture – there is no evidence whatsoever that early humans applied their intelligence to symbolic projects. So how can you say we’re not human unless we’re symbolic?
All that is great and grand about humans, would they have been possible without symbolic culture? That’s just the dominant way of looking at it. For example, if you look at art, religion and so forth as compensations and consolations for what is lost in modern civilisation, then it doesn’t seem so fabulous any more. In fact, its giving us less and less I think.
What is this thing that you say we have lost in modern civilisation? Community is one thing, and sharing. That’s the text book orthodoxy of pre-historic human society: their number one value was sharing: food sharing, and anti-hierarchy. And you see that in a few – there are more than a few here in India – forager societies that still exist. These are things that we have lost. Take community: there is no community. Today it’s just mass society – people dispersed and isolated and stressed out and relying on drugs more and more and that’s why communal values are disappearing. Because if you don’t have community, where will the communal values come from? That’s why things are falling apart.
That’s quite possibly the reason why early humans didn’t want to change things. They didn’t want to change the existing technology: the stone tools, for example. When the archaeologists now say that for a million years they didn’t change it despite having the intelligence to do so, what explains that? But then, if you’ve got a good thing, why change it?
But isn’t the rise of civilization just a natural expression and progression of human nature? Well, if you want to talk about human nature – and people who are having a good time are always bringing that up – well, what’s the human nature? That which obtained for a million years, or the last 9,000 years? One is a second of time, compared to the existence of homo sapiens.
What about the Hobbesian view of human nature – that without culture, life would be nasty, brutish and short? The Hobbesian view has been discredited completely. Any Anthropology I course tells you that. It’s the textbook thing: among primitive humans, there was no organised violence, there was sharing, women were not objectified, people worked very, very little, people actually lived longer than was thought. The American anthropologist Marshall Sahlins’ book Stone Age Economics (1974) is the single best single source of information on the original affluent society: people’s needs were met, they were not poor, even if they don’t earn anything, but we – our needs are never met even though we fill up the place with stuff.
Then why did Hobbes’ view gain such wide currency? Because it suited the system perfectly. It’s the basic ideology for civilization. In fact, people have been told this all along from the very first cities, the walled cities: don’t go out there, you’ll die, nature’s wild, and it’s a good thing you are here, with the army and the temples to protect you. And that’s what we’re told right now, you can’t leave -people are scared. When this all collapses, people with no skills, no orientation to the earth, they won’t last. But I think people feel it. In the US, there is a great deal of anxiety and fearfulness – even if it’s not allowed to be articulated publicly – over the question of, could this all collapse? More people think it’s a matter of when than if.
Many believe sustainable or green technology can save us from impending ecological collapse. I just saw a billboard on my way here, it was for steel. It said, “We make green steel” and “we’re contributing to the ecosystem” or something like that. I mean, how insane is that? A f***ing steel mill is green?! That’s just outrageously psycho! Here, as in the US, with all this talk about ‘sustainable’, and ‘green’ – the idea is that if you keep using those words, you are trying to tell people, “Well, actually that’s okay, we’re thinking about it, we’re concerned, we’re working on it” – all that shit. Well, its just lies. You just keep on greasing the wheels with it, and hoping people will go along with it, a little while longer.
What are your thoughts on the Copenhagen summit? Its cosmetic stuff, but they won’t get even that out of it, because the rich nations are blocking it. More than a decade after the Kyoto accord, things have not only gotten worse, they have become worse than they had imagined it would in terms of the speed of change.
Many believe that technology’s benefits outweigh its drawbacks, like medical science, for example. If you were to become ill, would you not go to a hospital? Sure, I’m not going to say, oh no, I won’t go to a hospital. I don’t have a choice – what am I going to do? But we’re just trapped in it, and we’re just supposed to forget that it is technology that has created nearly all the diseases in the first place. So they say more technology will solve our problems, and you know, and its just getting worse, it’s not getting better. Medical technology is the strongest case that can be made; but the simple fact is that it all depends on industry – depends on the factories, and the mines -all your surgical equipment and monitors and what not – obvious as that is, it’s always left out of the discussion. If there is a discussion, it is carefully limited to how do we best use technology?
So, are we living in a culture of denial? Oh yeah, massive denial, I don’t know how to compare countries, but the US certainly is on top of the list. But it is an enforced denial too: if people can’t even think about an alternative, then what are you left with? You don’t want to see how bad things are, don’t want to meditate on how bad its going to be for your kids, in a matter of a few years. It’s a protective thing, it’s not healthy, but it’s understandable, as it helps you cope with the system.
But isn’t technology essentially neutral? Technology has values embedded in it. By technology, I mean systems of technology, as opposed to tools. There is a certain distancing in modern technology, a certain coldness, a certain kind of standardization, inflexibility, and dependence on experts is another of its values. But with a simple tool, you can more easily imagine a state of rough equality, where people are not dependant on experts. That’s the best way to read society: look at its technology, and you can tell what its dominant value is.
To take an example, in Indian urban society at least, cell phone technology has really taken off in recent times. What does it say about this society, according to you? Well, instead of the face-to-face, we trade it for getting to be on the phone, all the time, often over nothing. Yes, we can talk to friends a thousand miles away, but we don’t know our neighbours, we don’t even want to know our neighbours, we’re trained to seal ourselves off, and the technology helps us that way; we screen out everything, and pretend we are really in touch with people, when we’re more isolated than ever. That’s an easy measurement – how many people live alone, how many have fewer friends, do people visit each other less? – there is an entire sociological list of things. And that’s what you get in the techno culture. So there are certainly values there with mobile phone technology, not to mention the value of the likelihood of getting brain cancer, and poisoning the earth when they go into the land.
You don’t just stop with technology. You say that human reason itself is not value-neutral. The Frankfurt School of thinkers came up with that, about instrumental reason. Reason isn’t value-free. It could be a reason that pretends it’s objective and scientific but it’s actually inclined toward being a tool of domination. It’s just an abstraction to say, ‘reason’. You need to ask what kind of reason it is.
How is non-instrumental reason different from instrumental reason? Non-instrumental reason has an awareness of what the dominant reason, if you will, is really involved in, what is its project. We don’t look at the hidden assumptions all that often. For example, we take domestication for granted, and it’s nothing but more control and more domination at deeper levels, colonising nature at deeper levels. For instance, GM foods and cloning and nanotechnology – they drive domestication even more, down to the molecular or atomic level. But if I weren’t operating in the sphere of domestication, I wouldn’t be using reason as an instrument here, because, why would you want to control nature? Pre-domestication, you take what nature gives, and that’s great, you don’t devise all these ways to fence it off, and breed what you want, and try to figure out new levels of control.But this is the logic today, and it’s certainly not value-free.
People would argue that all this technology and domestication and mastery over nature are necessary to feed an expanding population. Well, various leftists, including Noam Chomsky, say that too, except that the unnaturally high population is related to the civilisation project. That’s when the population started going up. Overpopulation is a symptom more than anything else. Population would start going down if you unplug things like domestication.
But is it really possible to do that today? To unplug technology and the mindset it has created? Well, it’s not like pulling the plug, or let’s do this tomorrow. It could not happen that way, as the population is very high. But you could go in that direction, start figuring out the way to undo it, as a conscious project. That would be more appealing than the prospect of all these people in entire blocs who will starve to death when the power goes out, because they don’t have any skills, and then there could be food riots and then what? It’s not a pretty picture. I think the responsible way is to think through that and start getting equipped, and turning that around. Chomsky and other people call us genocidists. Well, if anybody is genocidist, quite frankly, it’s them, because they don’t want to have any discussion of things like this. And it’s weird that they aren’t more concerned than they are about all these millions of people in megalopolises all around the world – they are screwed if there is a crash. Nobody is allowed to think about it or even put it out there.
How can any such change come about unless there is change in policy at the level of the state and government, where all key decisions get made? No, that’s a dead end, that’s the trap of the system. They want us to keep playing that shit, you know, keep on voting, which really means, vote for the slightly less awful person than the other. That guarantees that we’re stuck in this shit. No, no, that can’t be the answer, that just enables, legitimizes, and reproduces the lie of democracy. If we keep on doing that, then there really is no hope. The first and easiest thing is to drop out of that – don’t vote, don’t play the game the system sets up for us to play.
So you say the state has to be kept out of it? Completely. You can’t get rid of civilization by recourse to the state. You can look at it historically: when and why does the state appear? Or cities, or any institution, starting from division of labour and domestication. The state and all those things are part of the prison that holds it together.
What do you think of work? This is another thing Marshall Sahlins pointed out: the more symbolic culture there is, the more work there is. And it’s true. We are working more and more, I mean, what happened to the promise of technology? None of these things have worked out the way the way they were proclaimed. Now, in the US, if you take a couple, they are both working; often each is working more jobs than one; all stressed out, they’ve got no time for their kids, and all the rest of it.
Is there a way of organising life that does not revolve around production and consumption? Production and consumption is the paradigm of a mass society: mass production means mass consumption which means mass culture, which means mass media, mass everything, and the ‘massified’ world, becomes less healthy. That’s not the way to go, and I think that’s a reasonable statement.
How was your meeting with the Unabomber? I visited him when he was in county jail in Sacramento. We have the same ideas, but not the same tactics. The media are always trying to say, you agree with the Unabomber, don’t you?!! But yes, the thesis that technology is autonomous and decides pretty much what happens is true. It’s even truer especially when we let it go without even treating it as an issue.