The Cry of the Anarcho-Primitivists

In short, all good things are wild and free.

— Henry David Thoreau, Excursions

As someone who enjoys running in the mountains, I find myself drawn to Henry David Thoreau’s vision of nature and wildness.   But when you follow in Thoreau’s path, you discover that his admirers include not only outdoors enthusiasts, but also people with more extreme views.  Consider the philosopher and writer John Zerzan, a self-proclaimed anarchist and primitivist, who criticizes industrial mass society as inherently oppressive and warns us that technology is leading humanity into an increasingly alienated existence, at the same time that it threatens to destroy the natural environment.  To be sure, the anarcho-primitivist movement counts few members, but does that mean it’s safe to ignore Zerzan and his warning?

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Portrait of John Zerzan by Bata Nesah, Belgrade, 2013

Zerzan’s book, Running on Emptiness:  The Pathology of Civilization, is academic in tone, yet the arguments are clear and incisive.  The text reveals a deep anger at the “system” and the elites who control the levers of power.  In presentations and interviews, however, Zerzan comes across as sincere, thoughtful, and careful in his choice of words.  He acknowledges the irony that as a self-proclaimed primitivist, he’s yet dependent on technology to communicate his message.  He’s groping toward a better world without specific plans on how to get there, and rather than advocating revolution, he’s trying to challenge the status quo belief that more technology is the best solution for all of society’s problems.

As an anarchist, Zerzan would like to see a society that is free of “all forms of domination,” and as a primitivist, his model for authentic, intimate existence is the “face to face communities” of our hunter gatherer ancestors, who prior to agriculture, operated in small bands without specialization of labor or hierarchy.  Judging from encounters with aboriginal peoples, humans were once “in touch with themselves as organisms in ways we can’t even comprehend.”  Today we experience snippets of authenticity as children, in the experience of love, birth, and death, and in encounters with nature for those who can escape the cities.

But otherwise, Zerzan finds that modern human existence is increasingly alienated and estranged.  As evidence, he points to a rising tide of depression, suicide, and violence, observes deterioration in relationships as people increasingly interact online, and sees a parallel to the human condition in the ongoing destruction of the natural environment.

Where humanity took a wrong turn, Zerzan believes, was with the development of agriculture, which marked the beginning of our efforts to dominate nature through the domestication of plants and animals.  Agricultural communities required greater specialization of labor and hierarchies to oversee production, and the result was that humans, too, became domesticated.  Culture, including rituals, art, and religion sprang up to address the anxieties of those whose labor was co-opted and whose spirits were broken, but culture is itself a form of domination, in Zerzan’s eyes, as it imposes on people proscribed ways of thinking and behaving.  The industrial revolution introduced more control over working people, and now the information technology revolution is taking us even further from our roots as hunter gatherers living in small bands, where life offered connection with nature, leisure, sharing, and meaning.

Culture has led us to betray our own aboriginal spirit and wholeness, into an ever-worsening realm of synthetic, isolating, impoverished estrangement.

— John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness

Technology is not a neutral force, in Zerzan’s view, it is a process of control and domination, and its spread is insidious because people become dependent on innovations.  Take the car, for example.  At first, it provided a huge benefit by allowing people to cover long distances much faster.  But the result is a world of pavement, where walking is rarely convenient or even safe, commuting consumes long hours of every day, and automobiles are practically a necessity (if you don’t have one, you’re consigned to public transportation).  Similarly, with computers, what was once a tool to enhance productivity is now a requirement for many schools and jobs, and time spent in authentic experiences and relationships is increasingly replaced by digital communication and processing tasks in front of an electronic screen.

As the social dimensions of human life disappear along with meaning and value, a consumer society in cyberspace becomes the next stage of human existence. We are moving steadily toward the goal of complete illusion-virtual life in a virtual reality

— John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness

One way in which technology rules us is through the concept of time, a “predatory force” in Zerzan’s eyes, which began with the development of the calendar and then got worse with the factory clock, “the symbol and fountainhead of the order, discipline and repression required to create an industrial proletariat.”  Children still enjoy the “freer consciousness” of our ancestors, at least for a short period of their lives, until they reach school age.  “School teaches you to be at a certain place at a certain time, and prepares you for life in a factory. It calibrates you to the system.”  Zerzan worries that the difference between people and machines is narrowing.

Another aspect of technological domination is the replacement of direct experience with language and symbolic logic.  Unlike our ancestors who fashioned tools, stalked game, and moved through the wilderness, people today sit in front of computers processing symbolic tasks.  Their reward for electronic work is consumption of digital entertainment.  Instead of experiencing life, they experience more symbols.  And despite a seeming abundance, people continue to wonder about the meaning of life — the question itself betraying the fact that meaning is missing.

Massive, unfulfilling consumption, within the dictates of production and social control, reigns as the chief everyday consolation for this absence of meaning.

— John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness


So what should one make of the anarcho-primitivist world view?

Zerzan’s logic reminds me of John Muir, who drew a divide between the beauty of nature and the cares of civilization.  But in both cases, there’s an internal contradiction:  if technology is a creation of humanity, and humanity is part of the natural world, then our technology must also be a force of nature.  In principle, an automobile is no different from the nest of a bird.

In this light, the transformation of human experience under the industrial technosphere could be considered a natural process.  Nature may not care that we feel alienated, so long as the species continues to replicate.  After all, domination is part of the natural world, as we witness in the relationships between predator and prey or the behavior of stronger or more aggressive animals within a herd.

But even so, Zerzan’s warning leaves me with a feeling of disquiet.  Technology is changing the world extremely rapidly, and surely we may ask where this is taking us.  Thoreau raised this question one hundred sixty two years ago, when he wrote that “man has become the tool of his tools.”

Also, it’s hard for someone like me to completely dismiss the primitivist vision.  In recent years, I’ve spent more time running in the mountains, in some cases without food, water, or even shoes, seeking to discover something of our ancestral vigor.  My actions may speak louder than my words.

I don’t know what to tell others to think, except to share one final bit of Zerzan’s message:  “those of us who don’t have guns to our heads need to be aware of the bargains we make in order to live the way we do.”  What he means, I think, is that it would be a shame to wake up from a high-tech dream to discover that we haven’t become the people we intended to be.

In Wildness is the preservation of the World.

— Henry David Thoreau, Excursions

The Cry of the Anarcho-Primitivists

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