“The Progress of the machine is first of all an unrelenting war against everyone and everything that is not a machine”
Fredy Perlman (1934-1985) was an anarchist author and publisher, the co-founder of Black & Red Books in Detroit, USA, who fiercely and eloquently condemned the modern system of artifice, destruction and exploitation.
Describing the system’s historical emergence, he wrote: “By undergoing what will be called Industrial and Technological Revolutions, the Great Artifice breaches all walls, storms victoriously through every natural and human barrier, increasing its velocity at every turn”. (1)
“Lush forests and prairies are reduced to plowed fields. Entire populations of animals, sometimes whole species, are exterminated. Human communities are gunned down and broken up, their last remnants deported to concentration camps”. (2)
“The Progress of the machine is first of all an unrelenting war against everyone and everything that is not a machine”. (3) “Death is always on the side of the machines”. (4)
Perlman was inspired by organic radical William Blake, even using his art to illustrate his own work, translated Guy Debord’s La Société du spectacle into English and influenced the green anarchism of John Zerzan.
Combining cultural and economic analysis, he showed the way that power and money had progressively gained a stranglehold over our world.
He identified this malignant force as being behind the rise of nation-states and the associated idea of nationalism.
Perlman argued: “Nationalism is the opposite of imperialism only in the realm of definitions. In practice, nationalism was a methodology for conducting the empire of capital”. (5)
The end result was thus “seemingly-independent repressive nation-states invisibly but indissolubly interlocked by the tentacles of bankers and merchants”. (6)
People within this global system accepted money as an equivalent for life and therefore the “sale of living activity”, paid labour, became a condition for their survival, he said. “Daily activity takes the form of universal prostitution”. (7)
They therefore lost, or rather were robbed of, nearly everything that once gave context and meaning to human life.
“The increasingly numerous urban zeks concentrated in factories are, in fact, despoiled of every last trace of community, and in this sense they are more like domesticated cattle or sheep than like human beings in the state of nature”, he wrote. (8)
“Joy ceased to be life’s aim; life itself became a mere means; its end was profit. The variety of hundreds of cultural forms was reduced to the uniformity of a unique routine: work, save, invest, sell, every day from sunrise to sunset, and count money after sundown”. (9)
“Reduced to blank slates by school, we cannot know what it was to grow up heirs to thousands of generations of vision, insight, experience”. (10)
Perlman saw how the invasion, occupation and development of North America by European tentacles of the system had amounted to a “process of unfettered industrial destruction”. (11) The USA was brought into being by “land grabbbers, speculators and their allies” he said. (12)
“Surplus peasants were imported from the run-down estates of post-feudal Europe… Sold plots by land investors, transported to plots by railway investors, equipped by farm implement investors, financed by bank investors, furnished and clothed by the same interests, often by the very same Houses who had provided them with everything else at a rate of profit no previous age would have regarded as ‘just’, they boastfully wrote their relatives in the old country that they had become their own lords, that they were free farmers but in the pits of their stomachs and in the missed beat of their hearts they felt the truth: they were slaves of a master who was even more intractable, inhuman and removed than their former lords, a master whose lethal power, like radioactivity’s, could be felt but not seen”. (13)
He did not shrink from deploying the term “usury” to describe the practice of the financial parasites who had become dominant in Europe since the end of the Middle Ages, before spreading across the world.
“Until the Renaissance, Europeans considered Usury a monstrosity. They associated the practice with alien ancient Etruscans and Carthaginians or with alien contemporary Jews and Muslims, and they called its practitioners bloodsuckers. Now European Usurers who call themselves bankers and investors replace saintly Anchorites in the paintings depicting the exalted”. (14)
“Usurers are the greatest Lords and princes of the realm. Greatness comes, not to those who serve the gods, but to those who serve the devil… The exalted are the unprincipled devotees of the fourth beast of the Book of Daniel, the servants of Leviathan”. (15)
This last term was the title Perlman chose to give to the global system in his best-known work.
As early as 1968, Perlman had named the enemy as being “a single world system” (16) and by 1983’s Against His-story, Against Leviathan! he was describing it as “a single Leviathan which holds all Earth in its entrails”. (17)
This was “a beast that originated in Ur, a beast whose artificial progeny would eventually swallow all human communities and, by our time, begin to eat the Biosphere”. (18)
“The Leviathan is a thing, and from its standpoint, humanity as well as nature are also things, objects, either obstacles or potential instruments”, Perlman warned. (19)
“The liquidation of free beings is in fact Leviathan’s central project, and communities that nurture free beings are its greatest enemy”. (20)
He judged one of its distinguishing features to be “the repression of the natural and the devotion to the artificial” (21) and, indeed, he called Leviathan “the almighty artifice”. (22)
Another was its use of lies and deceit. It constantly sought to conceal the ugliness of its own essence: “Sheer violence cannot view itself in a glass; it must prevaricate; it must cover itself with masks and then with more masks over the initial masks, because the violence keeps showing through”. (23)
To do this it had invented the myth of progress, the biggest of big lies, which insisted that its cancerous and destructive growth over the centuries amounted to “a steady ascent from a hellish Dark age to an electrically illuminated heaven”. (24)
The almighty artifice also has a long history of using controlled opposition movements to recuperate potential resistance and use it in its own defence.
Perlman highlighted the Roman Catholic Church’s hijacking of the nature mysticism of St Francis of Assissi to form its Franciscan wing, noting: “This abominable recuperation will be remarkable until our time, when the metamorphosis of partisans of universal liberation into policemen and jailers will be so frequent that it will no longer seem remarkable”. (25)
In opposition to the reign of Leviathan, Perlman looked to another way of living, outside the perspective of the monster’s linear lie of historical time tied to its “inexorable March of Progress”. (26)
This different way of being certainly existed in ages past: “Rythms were grasped with symbols and expressed with music. Musical knowledge was knowledge of the important, the deep, the living. The music of myth expressed the symphony of rhythm that constituted the Cosmos”. (27)
But it also lives on in the present as, simultaneously, a memory of how things once were in a long-lost Golden Age, a Garden of Eden from which humankind had been cruelly evicted, and the burning desire to return to that paradise in the fututre.
It was this knowledge, that Leviathan’s civilization was an aberration and that another world was always possible, which inspired generation after generation to resist the dominant power.
“The struggle against His-story, against Leviathan, is synonymous with Life; it is part of the Biosphere’s self-defense against the monster rending her asunder”, declared Perlman. (28)
“The resistance is the only human component of the entire His-story. All the rest is Leviathanic Progress… I take it for granted that resistance is the natural human response to dehumanization and, therefore, does not have to be explained or justified. The forms of resistance are sometimes original but usually they are inspired by earlier forms”. (29)
Like Ernst Bloch and others, he saw a thread of resistance running across many centuries, linking Taoists, early Christians, pantheists, Bogomils, Cathars and Brethren of the Free Spirit, medieval radicals whose aim was “to overthrow the separations, to remove the masks and armors, to return to the original unity, the lost community of free loving kin”. (30)
He was particularly enthused by John Ball and the 14th century peasants’ revolt in England: “The English radicals are not a few visionaries who move from town to town in couples. They are more numerous than anywhere on the continent. All of England seems to rise up against Leviathan, peasants as well as artisans, even poor priests. And the rebels know what they don’t want as well as what they do want. They don’t want a Civilization, which they call Usurpation”. (31)
Perlman traced a source of inspiration behind this spirit of resistance to the original Zoroastrian vision of a permanent struggle between Ahura Mazda, the light and the truth, and Ahriman, the darkness and the lie, aka Leviathan. (32)
He said that in Marguerite Porete’s classic mystical text A Mirror of Simple Souls “Zarathustrian light, a light so bright that it blinds, shocks the individual out of the dark Leviathanic pit, wakes her from the centuries of stony sleep”. (33)
This powerful spiritual motivation, this commitment to the light and “The Way” (34) was, for him, an essential component of our resistance: “The most spirited revolutionaries are those who think the gods are fighting alongside them”. (35)
The depth of Perlman’s opposition to the system, in all its aspects, meant that he had little time for contemporary anarchist comrades who had “not even become aware that there is a contradiction between anarchy and industry” (36) or who were “committed neither to freedom nor to community”. (37)
And he was frequently scathing in his analysis of Marxism, describing its founder as “an enthusiast for the application of science to production” (38) and writing of “a pseudo-resistance which was in fact an instrument for the final reduction of human activity to a mere variable of Capital”. (39)
His critique echoed Debord’s criticism of the kind of fake rebel who absurdly tries to express his opposition to the spectacle by using the language and syntax of that same system. (40)
Perlman explained: “Many of the terms used by Marx to describe people’s activities have been raised to the status of external and even ‘natural’ forces which determine people’s activity; thus concepts like ‘class struggle’, ‘production relations’ and particularly ‘The Dialectic’, play the same role in the theories of some ‘Marxists’ that ‘Original Sin’, ‘Fate’ and ‘The Hand of Destiny’ played in the theories of medieval mystifiers”. (41)
He described the way that this limiting dogma had gradually steered Marxism completely away from anything resembling authentic resistance to Leviathan: “The Third International did not only come to terms with capital and the state; it made them its goal”. (42)
Describing Lenin as the “general manager” of Russian capital, he wrote : “The goal of the dictator of the proletariat was still American-style progress, capitalist development, electrification, rapid mass transportation, science, the processing of the natural environment. The goal was the capitalism that the weak and inept Russian bourgeoisie had failed to develop.
“With Marx’s Capital as their light and guide, the dictator and his Party would develop capitalism in Russia; they would serve as a substitute bourgeoisie, and they would use the power of the state not only to police the process, but to launch and manage it as well”. (43)
Perlman even managed to work a condemnation of 20th century communism into his account of the English Peasants’ Revolt!
He wrote: “The nightmarish will to universalize labor camps, which will later pass for radicalism, is what the English rebels are against. The English insurgents announce the end of the Leviathanic world, not its completion.
“The condition the insurgents want is not universal villeinage but universal freedom; it is the condition of communities of free human beings in the state of nature, unencumbered by Leviathanic separations and usurpations”. (44)
But, at the same time, he was not blind to one area of useful analysis from Soviet communist theorist Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, which we would do well to bear in mind today.
This concerns the origins of the wealth with which the ruling class sets in motion all the machineries of its ongoing exploitation.
This initial capital comes from plunder at home and abroad, from land grabbing and the eviction of peasants, from, in short, the theft of other people’s homes, possessions and lives.
Explained Perlman: “The expropriated fields, forests and animals were garnered as bonanzas, as preliminary capital, as the precondition for the production process that was to turn the fields into farms, the trees into lumber, the animals into hats, the minerals into munitions, the human survivors into cheap labor”. (45)
Crucially, and very relevantly at the current time, this injection of raw wealth has to be repeated at regular intervals, because the business-as-usual profiteering is prone to various crises and would otherwise eventually grind to a halt.
Perlman pointed out: “The primitive or preliminary accumulation of capital is not something that happened once, in the distant past, and never after. It is something that continues to accompany the capitalist production process, and is an integral part of it.
“The process described by Marx is responsible for the regular and expected profits; the process described by Preobrazhensky is responsible for the takeoffs, the windfalls and the great leaps forward”. (46)
Leviathan is an all-devouring beast and nobody is ever safe from its insatiable greed, particularly when it feels the need to reset itself or build itself back better.
As Perlman warned back in 1979: “For two hundred years Capital developed by destroying nature, by removing and destroying human beings. Capital has now begun a frontal attack on its own domestics; its computers have begun to calculate the expendability of those who’d been taught to think themselves its beneficiaries”. (47)
1. Fredy Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan! (Detroit: Black & Red, 1983), p. 292.
3. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 291.
4. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 45.
5. Fredy Perlman, ‘The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism’, 1984, Anything Can Happen (London: Phoenix Press, 1992), p. 106.
6. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 237.
7. Fredy Perlman, ‘The Reproduction of Daily Life’, 1969, Anything Can Happen, p. 33.
8. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 178.
9. Fredy Perlman, ‘Progress and Nuclear Power’, 1979, Anything Can Happen, p. 74.
10. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 10.
11. Fredy Perlman, ‘Anti-Semitism and the Beirut Pogrom’, 1982, Anything Can Happen, p. 81.
12. Perlman, ‘Progress and Nuclear Power’, Anything Can Happen, p. 74.
13. Perlman, ‘Progress and Nuclear Power’, Anything Can Happen, p. 75.
14. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 230.
15. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 232.
16. Fredy Perlman, ‘Anything Can Happen’, 1968, Anything Can Happen, p. 9.
17. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 43.
18. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 245.
19. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 232.
20. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 254.
21. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 155.
22. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 238.
23. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 141.
24. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 179.
25. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 189.
26. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 291.
27. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 241.
28. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 266.
29. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 184.
30. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 205.
31. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 212.
32. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 77.
33. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 205.
34. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 79.
35. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, pp. 101-102.
36. Perlman, ‘The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism’, Anything Can Happen, p.113.
37. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 204.
38. Perlman, ‘The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism’, Anything Can Happen, p. 108.
39. Perlman, ‘Progress and Nuclear Power’, Anything Can Happen, p. 76.
40. Guy Debord, Commentaires sur la société du spectacle (Paris: Gallimard, 1992), p. 38.
41. Fredy Perlman, ‘The Reproduction of Daily Life’, Anything Can Happen, p. 32.
42. Perlman, ‘The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism’, Anything Can Happen, p. 113.
43. Perlman, ‘The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism’, 1984, Anything Can Happen, p. 115.
44. Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, p. 213.
45. Perlman, ‘The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism’, Anything Can Happen, p. 109.
46. Perlman, ‘The Continuing Appeal of Nationalism’, Anything Can Happen, p. 108.
47. Perlman, ‘Progress and Nuclear Power’, Anything Can Happen, p. 77.