“This is the age of disembodiment, when our sense of separateness from the Earth grows and we are meant to forget our animality”
John Zerzan (1943-) is an important contemporary critic of industrial civilization and its myth of so-called “progress”.
Throughout his work, the green anarchist philosopher and writer has always stressed the social and cultural crisis that has gone hand in hand with the environmental destruction wrought by the capitalist system.
He warned in his 1994 book Future Primitive: “In the industrialized culture of irreversible depression, isolation, and cynicism, the spirit will die first, the death of the planet an afterthought”. (1)
And twenty years later he wrote in Why Hope?: “Not only are species, languages and indigenous cultures being sacrificed, the general cultural homogenization is overtaking diversity.
“Increasingly, the malls, airports, apartments, et al. become identical in a globalizing world. Techno-industrial life grows flatter, textureless, and standardized. Perhaps most important: technology is the same everywhere”. (2)
Like other organic radicals, Zerzan’s broad vision understands that the whole direction taken by Western civilization for hundreds of years has been fundamentally wrong.
He explains: “Science, the model of progress, has imprisoned and interrogated nature, while technology has sentenced it (and humanity) to forced labor. From the original dividing of the self that is civilization, to Descartes’ splitting of the mind from the rest of objects (including the body), to our arid, high-tech present – a movement indeed wondrous”. (3)
Zerzan goes further than others, however, in tracing the roots of our alienation back as far as the beginnings of agriculture, domestication and symbolic thought.
He writes in 2002’s Running on Emptiness: “It is our fall from a simplicity and fullness of life directly experienced, from the sensuous moment of knowing, which leaves a gap that the symbolic can never bridge. This is what is always being covered over by layers of cultural consolations, civilized detouring that never recovers lost wholeness”. (4)
He argues that symbolic culture inhibits human communication by blocking and otherwise suppressing “channels of sensory awareness” (5) and adds: “Culture has led us to betray our own aboriginal spirit and wholeness, into an ever-worsening realm of synthetic, isolating, impoverished estrangement”. (6)
Despite this long-term deadening of the human spirit in the West, there was still a spirited resistance to industrialism when it was introduced in Europe, not least in 19th century England.
Zerzan recounts: “Machine-breaking and industrial arson soon became focused tactics against the ravages of industrialism, and to some often hard-to-pinpoint degree, against industrialism itself”. (7)
“The ‘Swing’ riots throughout southeast England in 1830-1831 harkened back to anti-industrial militancy. Agricultural labourers resented threshing machines that were turning farms into factories; they resorted to destroying them and burning owners’ property. Their direct action and communal organization marked them as agricultural Luddites”. (8)
However, he notes, the second and third generations of industrialised English folk came to accept their confined and reduced lives as a normality that had to be endured.
“People became increasingly separated from nature and entered the state of modern, industrial slavery. A great sense of disappointment overtook the earlier aspirations, which were rapidly being destroyed by each new advance of industrial capitalism. From this point onward, disillusionment, ennui and boredom became central to life in the West”. (9)
Zerzan notes that “optimism and a sense of possibilities” (10) were undermined not only by the new physical reality but also by the modern schools of thought which regarded industrialization as “progress”.
He is particularly scathing about Marxism, which presented people with a false escape route which in fact left them firmly trapped inside the industrialist prison camp.
He writes: “Marx’s idea of revolution was severely limited, confined to the question of which class would rule the world of mass production”. (11)
The real question which needs to be addressed, says Zerzan, is humankind’s awareness of our belonging to the natural living world.
“The more technicized and artificial the world becomes, and as the natural world is evacuated, there’s an obvious sense of being alienated from a natural embeddedness”, (12) he observes.
“This is the age of disembodiment, when our sense of separateness from the Earth grows and we are meant to forget our animality. But we are animals and we co-evolved, like all animals, in rapport with other bodily forms and aspects of the world”. (13)
Zerzan insists that there is no substitute for direct contact with the living world, if we are to know what it is to be living. We need to be open to “the community of our beginnings and to the present non-human life-world”, (14) he says. “We are still animals on the planet, with all its original messages waiting in our being”. (15)
This means that we need to develop “a new paradigm, a new vision” (16) that sources revolt against the system from a place much deeper in the collective human psyche than sterile industrial Marxism.
He sees historical signs of promise in Romanticism, which sought to reconcile humans and nature, consciousness and unconsciousness and quotes Northrup Frye’s observation that “the contrast between the mechanical and the organic is deeply rooted in Romantic thinking”. (17)
In a contemporary context, this new vision must embrace a radical critique of the globalist capitalist system which maintains the industrialist nightmare.
Writes Zerzan: “All civilizations are the institutional appropriation by a small ruling elite of most of what is produced by the submerged classes. Their political/legal structures frequently claim to serve their subjects, but of course, then as now, they exist to protect the privileged position of the few”. (18)
For this reason the new vision needed by humankind must “involve a radical decentralization, a move away from the ever more integrating world system”, (19) he says. This would not be so-called “alter-globalization” but anti-globalization based on anti-authoritarian perspectives.
This vision must embrace radicalism not just of thought but also of action: “Civilization must be attacked at a deep enough level to hit its target. Activism that lacks critique or lacks a qualitatively different vision or paradigm is doomed to be quite limited in my opinion. This means, among other things, that we must not shrink from embracing property destruction, which is hard to co-opt”. (20)
The first step in this direction is to confront the reality of the existential threat we are facing and accept that minor reforms within the industrial capitalist system will never be enough to defeat it – “the planet is not going to be saved by recycling”. (21)
He argues: “We have to face what’s going on. Once we’ve faced reality then we can together figure out how to change it, how to completely transform it”. (22)
The action that needs to be taken will not necessarily be acceptable to the conditioned mindset which imagines we always have to play by the rules as set down for us by the system itself.
But we have a responsibility to be courageous and defiantly shake off “the pre-packaged methods and limits of the daily strangulation”. (23)
Zerzan says, in a conversation with Derrick Jensen: “We didn’t make this culture. We didn’t turn the world into the battleground and cemetery it has become. We didn’t turn human relations into the parody they have become. But now it is our responsibility to overcome what our culture has created. Maybe you could say that now we must be what we must be to overcome it”. (24)
The idea of hope is sometimes denigrated by those who see it as a purely passive position of waiting for something to happen.
Zerzan dismisses the misplaced hope, “especially prevalent among those who shy away from resistance” (25) that industrial capitalist civilization will somehow listen to criticism and deconstruct itself.
But he thinks hope can also be a powerful, motivating energy which inspires action and is lent increased resonance by the impact of that action.
Declares Zerzan: “I am hopeful because I see the energy of resistance alive in many places. It has not gone away. And because I think that the system of domination is actually quite hollow and weak. It is plainly losing the allegiance of many on many levels, has no answers to the myriad problems it has created”. (26)
1. John Zerzan, Future Primitive and Other Essays (Camberley: Green Anarchist Books, 1996), p. 138.
2. John Zerzan, Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization (Port Townsend WA: Feral House, 2015), p. 78.
3. Zerzan, Future Primitive, p. 145.
4. John Zerzan, Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization (Los Angeles, Feral House, 2002), p. 4.
5. Zerzan, Running on Emptiness, p. 6.
6. Zerzan, Running on Emptiness, p. 16.
7. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 61.
8. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 63.
9. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 66.
11. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 61.
12. Zerzan, Running on Emptiness, p. 78.
13. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 97.
14. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 98.
15. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 106.
16. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 80.
17. Northrup Frye, Romanticism Reconsidered (NY: Columbia University Press, 1963), p. 7. cit. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p 66.
18. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 25.
19. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 80.
20. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 84.
21. Zerzan, Running on Emptiness, p. 80.
22. Zerzan, Running on Emptiness, pp. 80-81.
23. Zerzan, Future Primitive, p. 130.
24. Zerzan, Running on Emptiness, p. 89.
25. Zerzan, Why Hope?, pp. 94-95.
26. Zerzan, Why Hope?, p. 84.