John Wisniewski interviews John Zerzan
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). (MORE)
Do you believe that we are alienated in our society, due to our over reliance on technology and machines, which relieves us of power and so responsibility in life. I am not sure if I have this right?
We are increasingly dependent on experts/specialists in every area of life. e.g. one needs books to know how to parent, how to live – we are de-skilled steadily. Clifford Stoll’s ’90s book, Silicon Snake Oil discusses this. We are really infantilized in many ways by this movement, which goes back to division of labor.
Any economist will tell us that the constant forward movement of specialization is what drives the economy in general, is what is meant, most basically, by progress. There is a narrowing in the scope of living that is not much discussed, however basic. The accelerating rate of technological change renders society into a technoculture and this is of course a global development. One example is the false promise of being connected – as isolation mounts rapidly. Technology deforms community and connection is more and more disembodied and trivialized.
What could we learn from or what have we forgotten from our primitive past?
Once we were skilled beings on this planet. We could make tools, identify plants, etc Beginning with domestication we removed ourselves from the earth in order to control it. In the industrialized technosphere we find ourselves cut off and shriveling, having taken the wrong path. But all can be relearned; in fact, some say we still have the orientation within us of the 99% of existence lived before domestication and civilization, waiting to be tapped into.
To our detriment, are we destroying our environment everyday and how will this hurt us in years to come? Is there a lack of concern for future generations?
The eco-disaster is obviously unfolding now, the consequences are starkly obviously. And the general scenario is also clear: global over-heading is a function of industrialism. Both started 200 years ago; every increase of one is a corresponding increase of the other.
The problem is less a lack of concern than the failure to make an alternative public. Both Left and Right embrace mass society, mass production society: industrial life. Without a visible case for something basically different, there will be no solution, without it there can only be cynicism, denial.
There must be a new vision, a new paradigm articulated and forced into public view for dialog and action.
What prompted you to develop your theories and begin to write them down and when did you do this? Was there a particular experience that you may have had?
(The movement of my ideas has been a somewhat gradual one. As a union organizer I became interested in labor history and the study of unionism (mainly as a system of control) led into examining industrialism, the context of early unions (e.g. in England where the factory system first began). The Industrial Revolution was, among other things, social control on a basic level (herding people into factories rather than enduring the constant resistance of autonomous workers (e.g. handloom weavers). The Luddites enter the picture. etc. And it began to occur to me that technology always ex- presses the values of the dominant culture, is never neutral. This is related to indicting domestication and civilization and taking a new look at life before these institutions. The search for the roots of control, the search for what would comprise a liberated future life-world.
Could you tell us about your times during the 1960′s. You were arrested for protesting the Vietnam War, hung out with ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, and became interested in Guy DeBord and the Situationists?
After Stanford I moved, in 1966, to the Haight-Ashbury of SF For a time I was part Marxist hippy, union organizer and weekend rioter (across the Bay in Berkeley). I was never real close with the Pranksters or Kesey, actually knew Neal Casady slightly better. I discovered the Situationists in 1970, when it was already too late for such ideas to become important to the Movement (which was by then dead in California). Later it became clear to me how important, in a negative sense, was the decision (an explicit one for some, like Stewart Brand of Whole Earth fame) to say yes to technology rather than no.
You sat in on the trial of Theodore Kaczinski. Do you see this kind of violence, as anger against a mechanized society? Was Kazcinski suffering from feelings of alienation?
Kaczynski was certainly angry at mechanized society, both philosophically and personally. Industrial Society and its Future, the misnamed “ManifestoÕ (the essay is a carefully argued treatise, not at all a manifest) makes this clear, and he was also angered by industrial intrusion where he lived in Montana. Of course he felt alienated as well; his whole life testifies to that e.g. his flight from society. That anger and alienation are not only characteristic of Ted K but also felt by millions, I’d say.
Could you tell us about the protests against the anti-World Trade
Organization, in which what is called “blac block” tactics were used? Why does anger turn to violence at these demonstrations?
Without real acts demos are quickly forgotten or ignored in the first place. We still think of the anti-WTO militancy of late ’99because of the Black Bloc action. Destroying property is not violence, in my view, by the way. Does a bank window have feelings? Millions demonstrated against the start of the US war against Iraq in 2003 but they were completely ineffective because they merely paraded, never breaking the rules of such games.
You have suggested that the anarcho-political left move away from the left. Why did you suggest this?
The Left has been a monumental failure. When has it stopped war, ecocide, and fascism? More deeply it cannot even be said to have failed – when it hasn’t ever tried. That is, domestication, civilization, industrialism, division of labor are all fine with leftists. Which is why there’s such hatred by lefties for anarcho-primitivism. The Left, on a basic level, is completely part of the ensemble of domination.
Has all of our technology, and the division of labor imprisoned us all? Technology is supposed to aid us, but has it? Are we moving dangerously towards a New World Order?
Division of labor starts by reducing the self to roles of production. By dividing the self the basis of divided or class society is established.
To me, division of labor is technology whereas simple tools are not. They have little or no division of labor and do not constitute systems of production with its further estrangements and hierarchies. We of course see the further movement of technology, in fact its accelerating pace. And what kind of health do we see for the individual, society, or the biosphere? As Kaczynski wrote, the more technified society becomes, the less freedom and the less fulfillment its subjects have. This verdict appears undeniable.
Thanks so much John.
(Interview by John Wisniewski)