Richard Tate

Nov 8, 1997

Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels [1].
These "means" could, it was thought, be taken over and used for different purposes by a different class.

An alternative approach emerged during the 1970's. Jacques Camatte, John Zerzan and Fredy Perlman among others focused the growing unease about technology generated by the accumulating evidence that the industrial system is destroying the world. Instead of accepting the traditional conflict between the relations of production (bad) and the forces of production (good), these new Luddites eschewed production per se. Fredy Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan! [2] was the closest thing to a manifesto of the emerging revolutionary perspective. By this I mean that it attempts to explain the whole of human history and pre-history.

Perlman's argument goes like this: Civilization is only 8,000 years old. Human beings have been around for hundreds of thousands of years. Communities existed in the New World for thousands of years without leading to Civilization. (Perlman uses the word Leviathan, from Hobbes' work of the same name [3], to mean a Civilization: an artificial beast with enslaved people as its organs). The Aztecs and the Incas were in decline when the conquistadors arrived. The continent is littered with the ruins of a hundred failed Leviathans. The Old World has even more: but one of these artificial monsters, the Sumerian, succeeded. The rest of history is the result of enslavement, and resistance to it. Contra Marxism, the evidence does not show that Civilization is inevitable, desirable, or irreversible. But resistance to continual slave-raids tends to lead to a permanent military force, and another Leviathan. Though not inevitable in the way Marxists believe, Civilization was difficult to stop. Though it almost always failed, it only had to succeed once. Where it couldn't be escaped, communities ran away, but eventually, it covered the world.

The abolition of Civilization, and a return to communities of free human beings, has always been possible. There were revolutionary uprisings in 1st century Rome, 4th century Persia and 16th century Germany, in the 19th and 20th centuries and at numerous other times. The aim of a real revolution is to bury Caesar, not to praise him; to destroy the productive forces, not to develop them. Leviathans have a continual struggle to keep going, and most fall apart. Progress is the result of a disruption of cyclical time. Our struggle reasserts invariant, cyclical time against progressive, linear time.

Myths such as Dream Time, Eden and the Golden Age when

They dwelt in ease and peace upon their lands with many good things, rich in flocks and loved by the blessed gods -- Hesiod, cited in [2],

are humanity's memories of life before the disaster.

Against His-story completely overturned the old productivist vision. Revolutionaries today, for example the authors of Wildcat and Green Anarchist, don't oppose the way technology is used by capitalism. We don't urge the working class to set up workers' councils to manage production. Our ancestors never worked. They didn't get up cursing the fact that they had to go out hunting and gathering. These activities were part of life, not a chore necessary to fulfill other, unrelated needs.

However, Against His-story has its flaws, and this essay attempts to deal with them. Perlman claims relationships between species in the state of nature are benign. When a bird eats an insect, Perlman says the insect has made a gift of its freedom to the bird. Successful species have caused the extinction of most of the others. The dodo was nothing special. Whenever mammals floated to an island, they ate all the flightless birds. Both the Victorian view of Nature as red in tooth and claw and the modern sentimental fairytale are projections of human values. When he accuses anthropologists of projecting (Against His-story pp7-8, 15...), he implies we can avoid doing so.

But the system of exploitation produced by a small minority of people over the last few thousand years is a different ballgame than the normal struggle of species for survival. It is a war against life itself. The growing destruction of nature isn't a mistake, nor the result of bad management. In 1992, for the first time, the leaders of Leviathan got together, claiming to see if they could tame the beast. The affluent effluent of 178 countries flowed into Rio for the Earth Summit, and produced a lot of hot air about global warming. Five years later, they gathered again. This is what they have achieved:

"Worldwide almost 14 million hectares of forests -- an area the size of Nepal -- are lost to logging or slash-and-burn agriculture each year. Disappearing along with the trees are habitats for rare and endangered species, which the United Nations says are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate of 50,000 a year. In coastal areas, where two-thirds of the world's population lives, water pollution is spreading disease, killing fish and destroying coral reefs. In the open seas, more than 60 percent of the world's fisheries are fully exploited or in danger of collapse. In developing nations, rapid growth in the use of fossil fuels is expected to double global energy consumption by the middle of the next century. The modernization of countries such as China probably will confound efforts to control greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, which many scientists blame for rising global temperatures and an increase in extreme droughts and floods" -- LA Times-Washington Post Service, June 23, 1997.
Environmental laws have saved a spotted owl here and there, but after a brief respite, US industry is back on the warpath. In most countries there has not even been a token turn to environmentally friendly capitalism. It's officially admitted. Even when his own divination tells him that he is destroying the basis of his own existence, the sorcerer is unable to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. To put it more prosaically, "The world is going to hell" [4].

Armor and Alienation

Throughout Against His-story, ordinary events are embellished with references to people struggling to free themselves from the armor which Civilization has bolted onto their otherwise cute personalities. But how does Perlman know what part of us is really us, and what is merely internalized compulsion? Human beings have no instinctive ability to look after ourselves. We cannot survive if abandoned at birth. Modern parents may try to reason with their offspring, but at the end of the day, toilet training and other basic behaviors are not a matter of opinion: they have to be imposed on the child by the authority of the parents. It is not at all obvious which parts of our personae are the neurotic compulsions of civilization, and which are the restraints necessary for belonging to a human community, or indeed being human at all. This is not to say that the concept of "armor" is useless. But it needs to be carefully defined before you go around tearing off bits of people's psyches. There is a dangerous circularity in assuming you know how people really are. Objectors to Perlman's "armor" hypothesis are dismissed as... armored. There is no Perlman cult, but this kind of thinking is cultish. If the word "cult" means anything, it means a collective, trapped, not in armor, but in circular logic.

Perlman has to do some impressive mental gymnastics to fit the facts into his theory. For instance, he treats the whole history of the Roman Empire as a rebellion against the Etruscans which became "diverted" into another Leviathan. But something cannot turn into its opposite. A diverted rebellion is one which is slightly off course, not going in the opposite direction. The Empire did not contain "traces" of the original rebellion except in the trivial sense that you can find a quantum of anything in almost anything else. He speaks of the Earth as if it were alive, conscious and female. "Mother Earth" became one of the bromides of the nineties.

Numerous authors are quoted, completely out of context, to back up his theory. Snatches of Yeats' and Eliot's poetry are cited to make them look like opponents of Civilization (pp 1-2). According to Perlman, Buddha renounced Civilization, not the world as such. Attempts to recruit philosophers as diverse as Nietzsche and Sartre to his side are far-fetched.

But Perlman doesn't claim to be defending a manifesto or a theory. It's a vision, or a story. Perlman sometimes called himself a "rememberer". Like it or not, Against His-story tells the whole story of the human race under a unifying perspective, just as The Communist Manifesto does. But the latter's authors were open about the grandeur of their scheme. Perlman's attempt to sound like a humble storyteller is a convenient way of trying to avoid responsibility. Like all anarchists, he wants to say "this is what's wrong, and this is what to do about it" without actually saying so: that would be authoritarian. If he dealt with Hobbes' Leviathan fairly, he would have to consider this succinct argument against anarchy:

And whosoever thinking Soveraign Power too great, will seek to make it lesse; must subject himselfe, to the Power, that can limit it; that is to say, to a greater [3].

Against Hysteria

This is not the place to fully re-examine the concessions to women's liberation which have been made by men involved in radical movements since the swinging, but sexist, sixties. However, Perlman complains that the story of Civilization is a male story, hence the title of Against His-story. It explicitly identifies the triumph of Leviathan with the defeat of the female sex, so it's necessary to briefly look at this position and its consequences.

As Nietzsche remarked in Beyond Good and Evil, "In no age has the weaker sex been treated with as much respect by men as in ours" . This is certainly true of radical movements like Earth First! , and to a lesser extent, of Western societies in general. Many recent moral panics, by which the media tries to persuade us to support the state, originate in the women's movement. Date rape, pornography, sexual harassment, domestic violence and child molesting are some examples. Thanks to the women's movement, in Western countries, the testimony of women is taken more seriously than that of men. In November 1990, an innocent man was convicted of the rape and murder of a girl 21 years before [5]. The only evidence was the recollection of his mad feminist daughter [6]. After 6 years of hell, he was released in July 1996 [7]. If he were not a man, if it was not a sexual case, and if the sole witness were not a woman, the case would have never reached court.

Normally, one person's word against another is insufficient even to prosecute, let alone convict. If I went to the police and said I had seen someone whom I remember burglarizing my house three years ago, but didn't report at the time, they'd laugh me out of the precinct. But if a woman made a claim of rape or sexual assault with similar lack of evidence, or even something as ephemeral as sexual harassment, she would be taken seriously. The Satanic child abuse witchhunts, which seriously damaged many innocent people's lives on both sides of the Atlantic, were the product of a holy alliance of feminists and Christians [8]. The courts aren't 'fair', but they are not completely arbitrary. It is possible to avoid conviction if the prosecution haven't proven their case. Feminism has aided the state by undermining the assumption of innocence, and strengthening the assumption of slave morality: that losers are morally superior to winners.

The idea that women were freer in primitive societies, as Perlman believed, is simplistic to say the least. I won't attempt to demonstrate this, Zerzan-style, by citing dozens of anthropological examples. The reader can easily find as many examples of primitive patriarchy as sexual equality. One of my own favorites is the JÌvaro of Equador. These people have a history of resistance to colonialism. They once overran the gold-thirsty Spaniards and, with delicious irony, poured molten gold down the governor's throat. This kept the conquistadores out for three hundred years. The JÌvaro are not the egalitarians of Perlman's story. They keep women in domestic servitude [9].

According to Perlman, every time men succeeded in subduing women, this was a step toward Armageddon, but most hysterians are progressive. They accumulate evidence that women were responsible for Civilization [10], and even culture [11], unquestioningly assuming that these advances are to their credit. Whereas Marija Gimbutas [10] defends Civilization against male barbarism, Perlman sees the former as a product of the latter. The Fifth Estate happily embraces both viewpoints. They may be mutually exclusive, but both perspectives are against men. If we really want to reject the progressive tradition, we have to reject feminism as firmly as Marxism.

No U-turn

It is more than a banality to say we cannot go back, and that we have to deal with the world as it is. Allowing the development of Civilization was certainly a mistake, and arguably, Agriculture wasn't such a hot idea either [12], but it does not follow that these errors can be rectified. It would be impossible to return to the Stone Age. The current population of the world cannot support itself under capitalism, but neither could it survive by hunting. Some kind of small-scale sustainable Agriculture will be necessary.

Perlman has no clear idea of how Civilization will end. He mentions a few ranters and a bit of resistance, but largely relies on Leviathan's own unsteadiness to bring it down, urging us to sing and dance, and wait 'til the sun rises.

Perlman's work contributed major insights which could be developed into a coherent perspective. This perspective would demonstrate that progress is not inevitable. It would break the link between resistance, progress and the state, forged by Marxism, and used by the latter to defeat the former. Against His-story is not that perspective. Perlman left many loose ends. But his basic position has proven unanswerable. Opposition to progress, development and Civilization are part of the minimum program of revolutionaries today.

[1] The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Penguin, London, 1967 [1848].

[2] Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, Fredy Perlman. Black and Red, Detroit, 1983.

[3] Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes. Penguin, London 1951 (1651).

[4] How Deep is Deep Ecology?, George Bradford, Times Change Press, CA, 1989.

[5] This is what Microsoft Word's grammar checker had to say about this sentence: "Gender-specific expression. Consider replacing the word 'man' with person, human being, or individual" .

[6] Partial Recall, David Ramsay Steele, Liberty, Port Townsend, March 1994.

[7] Repressed Memory Under Fire, San Jose Mercury News, July 1, 1997.

[8] Satan's Silence, Debbie Nathan & Michael Snedeker, Basic Books, New York 1995.

[9] The JÌvaro, Michael J Harner, University of California Press, 1972.

[10] The Civilization of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas, Harper Collins, San Francisco 1991.

[11] Blood Relations, Chris Knight, Yale University Press, London, 1991.

[12] Future Primitive, John Zerzan, Autonomedia, New York 1994.