A Conversation with John Zerzan
I recently spoke with John Zerzan, the leading voice in the Anarcho-primitivist movement, at his home in Eugene, Oregon. He is the author of several renowned books on green anarchy including Elements of Refusal and Future Primitive. Zerzan is well known for his association with the Unabomber but I wanted to hear what he had to say about the current state of primitivism and where it is headed. — Anthony Alvarado
(This interview has been shortened for brevity. Particularly a long discussion on the Paleolithic age has been cut from the transcript.)
In a nutshell, what do you believe in? I associate you with anarchy and primitivism. How do you define those?
Well, the stuff is called by those terms. Green anarchy and Anarcho-primitivism. Some native friends of ours call it neo-primitivism, or anti-civilization, and there are some differences but roughly there is one common current there. And speaking of the anarchist part there’s a big split and it’s not just here it’s all over the map, between the more classical, traditional left, red anarchist . . . one of the most fundamental things is their approach is self managed production, self manage the factories – well our approach is against industrial life, against factories qua factories for several reasons: one is the suicidal course of things – we can’t just keep industrializing, so that’s obviously where the green part comes in. There is a big split. Like say Noam Chomsky is on that leftist side.
He’s an anarchist?
Well perhaps, he’s . . . I don’t know exactly what he is. He froths at the mouth when people bring this stuff up in an interview, and they do all the time now because it’s spreading I think. He just really, doesn’t get it, doesn’t like it, he won’t have any discussion about it. In other words it’s not just some sectarian squabbling it’s a very fundamental difference.
What criticism does Chomsky have as an anarchist towards green anarchy and primitivism?
Well one of the things he always brings up – and I use Chomsky as a kind of foil or reference point because so many people know who he is, and they think – well they’re all Anarchists it’s cool and so forth– he comes up with the 7 billion people thing and that’s a reality obviously. He says we are genocidists, he really get’s kind of hysterical about it.
He’s saying “Well you guys have a plan to kill 6 billion people.” ?
Exactly! And consciously not just – that would happen as a result if you went that way but , I mean it’s quite amazing! The way I would put it though, I mean I’ve been around, I’ve even been in India a couple of times in the last few years, when I look at those tower apartment block things where people have been forced off the land into cities and if and when this crashes they’re gonna be dead in a few days. They have no land. They have no . . .when the power goes off, the food spoils, they have no water . . . we’re concerned about that. If you ask me the genocidist thing is just ignoring that and plunging on as the crisis deepens in every single sphere.
So this idea of returning to a society based on primitivism, based on sustainability, critics would say well there is no way we could do this without these cataclysmic violent changes – do think that there are alternative ways of getting there from here?
It couldn’t happen overnight. And nobody’s saying that. And Chomsky knows that. Yeah, it would be a process of re-skilling people and seeing some kind of autonomy instead of just the hopelessness that we have now where everybody is dependant on systems of technology that are quite vulnerable but we just keep blindly going along.
I read that you’re anti-leftist. You’re against the Left and to me when I think this radical rejection of the way things are, I think that comes from both the far Left and the far Right . . . it’s like you go either way far enough off the given map and it’s almost a circle.
Yeah that’s possible. I mean there are people who talk about localism and distrust of technology in Europe for example and they’re right-wingers. We’re certainly not rightists! No fucking way! I mean I was a Maoist briefly, I was a union organizer, but I think the longer we stay attached to that, it’s just preventing us from getting anywhere. That’s dead. That has failed. And I see more and more people agree with that. It’s like , well there it was historically – but when did it ever succeed at anything? It never stopped the war. It never stopped depression. I could go on. The Left hasn’t had any juice for about 100 years. The last time the Left inspired people I would say is just before Word War I. And certainly it’s a vehicle for protest. Obviously in many countries, you vote for the Left and register your distaste for the ruling party. Sure. But that’s just a racket. If you keep playing that everything keeps getting worse. And I would say it guarantees that things keep getting worse, until you make that break. And take some ideas seriously that are not constrained by the model of the Left.
Here is one key difference in terms of our thing and the Left. The indigenous thing, we respect that, we try to learn from that. And the Left they are just waiting for those people to become workers and consumers and all the rest. But that ain’t the only model.
What you’re saying reminds me of Howard Zinn, in his A People’s History of the U.S. he talks about the analogy of a tea kettle that rather than boil over or explode there’s the safety valve of the Left to let off steam, pressure. I think that when I watch the Jon Stewart Daily Show – “oh, hey it’s funny!” – It’s cathartic like – well, things are terrible but we laughed at least.
Exactly, and they are clever, it’s funny stuff. But Zinn is a perfect example of the reformist left. Where is the basis for something different than the dominant nightmare that we’re in now? I’ll tell you one thing I talk about a bit on my show is the shootings.
You’re referring to the Arizona shootings that just happened?
I think the Arizona thing was atypical because that guy seemingly was disturbed, but what you have . . . the guy never made any trouble, never made no noise, seems a perfectly sweet guy . . . just killed 10 people. That’s the thing. It’s not the mental health thing. It’s rare that that’s what it is.
You see the shootings as symptomatic of the sickness of our civilization and culture?
Definitely. The techno-culture. Community slowly has eroded away and what holds things together?
My understanding of your philosophy is we took a wrong turn right out of the gate. At the start of Agrarian culture and we have been heading off in the wrong direction ever since. So you’d like to go back if possible. Do you think of it in terms of “going back”?
Well I do, I realize that you can’t literally go back. Time goes forward. But it would be going back it seems to me. That was our main mistake – to start domestication. You start domestication and almost immediately get war and civilization and everything else that didn’t exist for . . . you know the human species has been around for two million years.
Let’s say civilization is the sickness – what are the symptoms? We’re talking about obesity, schizophrenia, alienation, neurosis and general unhappiness in the human condition.
Exactly. Well put. Anxiety is the common emotion right now and of course how many people do we know that are on anti-depressants? The emptiness of the techno-culture just gets more and more empty. And all the claims about it are false – technology connects us? There’s never been so much isolation. There has never been so many people living alone, people have fewer friends, people visit their friends less. Go down the line it’s exactly opposite of what the claims are.
Facebook . . .
Of course. “Friends” you’ve never met. It’s just a joke. A sad joke. I’ve been studying this type of thing since the 70’s, the phenomenal emptiness of it.
I think community is the key thing here. I think it is the key thing in terms of this sort of discussion or discourse. Who doesn’t want community? And who doesn’t see that it’s just about gone? So, it’s got to be face to face. I would argue that if it isn’t, it’s just ersatz. You can’t really be accountable unless you have a face-to-face relationship. That would be my definition of community. So how do we go there? And do we wanna go there? Are things getting so bereft that . . .and awful things are underway. This isn’t really living. What are my kids going to have? What is the quality or texture of life? Is it getting better or worse? What’s the future?
So what do we have that’s helping? You know, you got Al Gore saying buy green appliances or . . . recycle. Well I think recycling just makes room for more production. But it gives us something to do, so some people make a fetish of all their little – buy a Prius or whatever but –
Definitely. It’s like swabbing a gunshot wound with a Q-tip.
Yeah, you can keep busy, but then you’re not noticing it’s killing you. Global warming is a function of industrialism. It’s a measure of industrialism. So obviously the answer is get rid of industrialism. No? It’s crude and simplistic but isn’t that it? But of course who is going to say that? So we’re trying to raise these questions.
I want to talk about Kaczynski, violence, and the hypothetical situation that – at what point is that the right thing to do in your opinion?
Well with Kaczynski, the sad thing is he was so isolated. I’ve been stressing the dialogue aspect, the enlarging of conversation. Nothing is gonna happen unless we can do something there and start bringing up things that have been blocked out.
I mean I’ve seen the politics of desperation and not just with Kaczynski, but with the end of the movement of the 60’s, people picked up the gun because everything was done, the world was over. Some people didn’t want to accept that so they went off on suicidal things like the SLA.
Symbionese Liberation Army. I knew somebody who was in that group. This was in the early 70’s in Berkeley. I mean there were a lot of casualties. The 60’s was flowering or raging, or whatever you want to call it, and then it wasn’t.
So it was really hard to take. Really fucking hard to take. I went into a whole drinking thing for years. Man, you feel like everything might change, and it’s going in the right direction – wow, that was an unbelievable feeling. Then it was over.
Hunter S. Thompson talks about you could almost see the place where the wave of the 60’s crested, you can see the high-water mark.
Seemed to me, maybe other people remember it differently but, just in San Francisco and Berkeley there was just a very, very definitive – everything was different.
Suddenly nobody would come to a meeting, you would call a meeting, nobody would show up and you knew nobody was going to show up.
I always hear Manson as being the point where things changed.
Things soured. The famous Altamont thing where the Angels killed that guy.
What year was that?
That was December of ’69.
Was that a Ken Kesey thing?
No, it was the Rolling Stones. It was . . . everything was already dead there. In places where it started, it started earlier and ended earlier. But maybe some kids in Indiana or something were just getting turned on to things. If you were at a key place in the planet you probably had a heightened sense of it.
I feel like growing up in the 80’s, 90’s you could still look back on the 60’s and say hey this was a time when there was a crossroads, everything was on the table. Where do you think we are now in 2011, is a crossroads in the making or a long way off?
I kind of do. I have this feeling that unlike the end of the 60’s where you had the sense of nothing. Everything was just flat. I don’t feel like that’s the way things are now. I feel like we don’t know what to do but the energy is out there. Like you do. Like a lot of things which I try to stress on my weekly show. There’s resistance, Mexico is really, there’s a lot of interesting shit going on there, you know EZLN (Zapatista Army of Liberation) it’s a different thing.
I have a videographer friend, Tim Lewis, he made the film Breaking the Spell about Seattle (WTO riots). He has that same sense. He’s more your age, he tells me “Oh, it’s coming back soon and it might be more radical the next time.”
My impression is that there really is a spiritual component to the 60’s. There was this transfusion of ideas from the East. The Beatles went over to India and meditated and then Boom! You know, paisley kaleidoscopes everywhere!
[ laughter] A lot of that.
These ideas feel really political and academic but is there a spiritual component?
I think that is such an important question! I really do, and I’ve just been starting to get that. I think there is. I was in Croatia and this woman said the basis of Green Anarchy is a spiritual movement. I was like wow, that sounds kind of right.
I was in Memphis a year or two ago. I was invited to go to this thing of Christian Primitivists. It was the damnedest thing. Very trippy. I’m on the way there and I’m thinking – I’ve been an ex-Catholic for many years, don’t bring that shit. I’ve been through that, that’s fucked up, I don’t want to hear about that. I was just closed off to all of it. Just because of that experience. So I get there and there’s a lot of people there, and there’s these kind of scruffy looking anarchists, some of them are drinking beer in the parking lot, you know a lot of tatts and everything, and they just look like anarchists. Kids I’ve been around with whatever . . . and they’re all Christian. Christian! There’s all these workshops and stuff, I just walked around the whole weekend with my mouth hanging open.
So at the first workshop somebody asked the obvious question. “Hey, you’re Christians. You believe in God. The big G. The total authority, the absolute authority. How can you be anti-authoritarian?” It’s kind of the obvious question. And there was a young man and young woman giving the workshop and they just said “That’s you’re conception man. It ain’t ours.”
So we go . . .oh! Okay . . .but still, what?! What are you talking about? It’s kind of amazing. They’ve just reconfigured the whole damn scripture. In this completely far out way. And they are fierce!
It’s overdue for an overhaul.
Yeah, it turns me on. I’ve been attacked by some anarchists for being “Oh, Zerzan now he’s become spiritual, he’s gone off into that” but no, not really. I’m not a Christian. But there’s something going on.
Here’s the way I look at it. If we are talking about reconnecting with the earth, wholeness, connectedness, stuff like that, it suddenly dawned on me – that sounds pretty damn spiritual.
Last question: when you look back on this decade that just opened up what do you hope to see?
Well, I just think the whole damn thing is so nakedly obvious now. Reality is pounding on the door. I mean if we can’t get somewhere with this, given this reality . . . but as you also say not everybody is desperately unhappy either. But I think there is something that hasn’t been stamped out yet. It can be surprising too, who knows?
In fact the 60’s was that way. I mean it was the 50’s, the first half of the 60’s was the 50’s: conformism and consumerism – not a damn thing in sight, except for the civil rights movement and that wasn’t very huge, it wasn’t a mainstream thing.
Then bang! All over the world. You know, and Marcuse wrote that book One Dimensional Man in 64 and it was just the gloomiest book! On how people are just like robots, nothing is happening, it’s just dreary! And then within weeks the thing started in Berkeley and everywhere else and he just had to laugh!
Zerzan can be heard weekly on his live radio show Anarchy Radio Tuesdays at 7 p.m. and streaming from KWVA 88.1 fm