John Zerzan (born August 10, 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 hunter-gatherers as an inspiration for what a free society should look like. Some subjects of his criticism include domestication, language, symbolic thought (such as mathematics and art) and the concept of time.
His six major books are Elements of Refusal (1988), Future Primitive and Other Essays (1994), Running on Emptiness (2002), Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections (2005), Twilight of the Machines (2008), and Why hope? The Stand Against Civilization (2015).
Zerzan’s theories draw on Theodor Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics to construct a theory of civilization as the cumulative construction of alienation. According to Zerzan, original human societies in paleolithic times, and similar societies today such as the !Kung and Mbuti, live a non-alienated and non-oppressive form of life based on primitive abundance and closeness to nature. Constructing such societies as a kind of political ideal, or at least an instructive comparison against which to denounce contemporary (especially industrial) societies, Zerzan uses anthropological studies from such societies as the basis for a wide-ranging critique of aspects of modern life. He portrays contemporary society as a world of misery built on the psychological production of a sense of scarcity and lack. The history of civilization is the history of renunciation; what stands against this is not progress but rather the Utopia which arises from its negation.
Zerzan is an anarchist, and is broadly associated with the philosophies of anarcho-primitivism, green anarchism, anti-civilisation, post-left anarchy, neo-luddism, and in particular the critique of technology. He rejects not only the state, but all forms of hierarchical and authoritarian relations. “Most simply, anarchy means ‘without rule.’ This implies not only a rejection of government but of all other forms of domination and power as well.”
Zerzan’s work relies heavily on a strong dualism between the “primitive” – viewed as non-alienated, wild, non-hierarchical, ludic, and socially egalitarian – and the “civilised” – viewed as alienated, domesticated, hierarchically organised and socially discriminatory. Hence, “life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health.”
Zerzan’s claims about the status of primitive societies are based on a certain reading of the works of anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins and Richard B. Lee. Crucially, the category of primitives is restricted to pure hunter-gatherer societies with no domesticated plants or animals. For instance, hierarchy among Northwest Coast Native Americans whose main activities were fishing and foraging is attributed to their having domesticated dogs and tobacco.
Zerzan calls for a “Future Primitive”, a radical reconstruction of society based on a rejection of alienation and an embracing of the wild. “It may be that our only real hope is the recovery of a face-to-face social existence, a radical decentralization, a dismantling of the devouring, estranging productionist, high-tech trajectory that is so impoverishing.” The usual use of anthropological evidence is comparative and demonstrative – the necessity or naturality of aspects of modern western societies is challenged by pointing to counter-examples in hunter-gatherer societies. “Ever-growing documentation of human prehistory as a very long period of largely non-alienated life stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly stark failures of untenable modernity.” It is unclear, however, whether this implies a re-establishment of the literal forms of hunter-gatherer societies or a broader kind of learning from their ways of life in order to construct non-alienated relations.
Zerzan’s political project calls for the destruction of technology. He draws the same distinction as Ivan Illich, between tools that stay under the control of the user, and technological systems that draw the user into their control. One difference is the division of labour, which Zerzan opposes. In Zerzan’s philosophy, technology is possessed by an elite which automatically has power over other users; this power is one of the sources of alienation, along with domestication and symbolic thought.
Surplus: Terrorized into Being Consumers
Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers is an award winning 2003 Swedish documentary film on consumerism and globalization, created by director Erik Gandini and editor Johan Söderberg. It looks at the arguments for capitalism and technology, such as greater efficiency, more time and less work, and argues that these are not being fulfilled, and they never will be. The film leans towards anarcho-primitivist ideology and argues for ‘a simple and fulfilling life’.
Surplus: Terrorized into Being Consumers [51:15]