[This was not published in Wildcat 17]
Future Primitive and Other Essays, John Zerzan,
published by Autonomedia, New York 1993.
This is a collection of John Zerzan's most recent work, published in Anarchy and Demolition Derby.
John represents the most extreme tendency within the anti Civilization current. We say Civilization has been a costly and unnecessary disaster from start to finish. John goes further, lambasting human culture in its entirety. What were the preconditions for Civilization? John identifies seven deadly sins which led humanity into captivity: Agriculture, Art, Ritual, Language, Number, Time and the Division of Labor.
The first essay, Future Primitive, quickly establishes the basic position of anti Civilization. An avalanche of evidence demonstrates that gathererhunter people were better off in health, leisure time and material abundance than the beneficiaries of Civilization. One only has to consider the fact that TODAY'S gatherer hunters, forced to the margins of the world, eg. the Kalahari, by the farmers, STILL have a healthier lifestyle than their agricultural neighbors. How much better off they must have been when they could choose the richest environments to live in. Nobody bothers to argue against Marshall Sahlin's and Richard Lee's work on "the original affluent society", though a few Marxists still ignore them, prefering to cite Engels' works of fiction.
In summary, Zerzan's theory goes like this. For most of prehistory, the 2.5 million years of the Palaeolithic, virtually no development occurred, though human beings were intelligent enough to have invented Language, Agriculture etc. if they had wanted to, as is shown by the skills involved in making stone tools "manipulation, concentration, visualization of form in three dimensions, and planning", but consciously rejected them. Division of Labor developed at a glacially slow pace, so noone noticed what was happening until it was too late. In the Upper Palaeolithic, symbolic consciousness, in the form of Language, Ritual and Art, made the classification and cultivation of plants possible, and led to Agriculture, the invention of Number, environmental destruction, disease, sexual oppression and war. The rest is history.
Unfortunately, the argument depends on citing dozens of academics, with no attempt to search for dissenting voices. "Zihlman (1981) points out... Gero (1991) has demonstrated... Poirier (1987) reminds us...". Even if the book had a list of references, few readers would have time to check them all, and none to find the counterexamples which may invalidate some of the steps in Zerzan's theory.
Though we cannot check all his facts, we can question his logic. At one extreme, we have the determinism of the Marxists. The urge to develop production "led to" the state, classes, etc.. At the other, we have Zerzan's equally deterministic account of the Fall. In general, he doesn't actually state that the invention of Language led inevitably to Hiroshima, using phrases like "opens the door to", "establishes the material foundations of", "invites", "enables" and "initiates" instead of "leads inexorably to". But with phrases like "The development of symbolic culture, which rapidly led to agriculture..." (p30), he allows for no alternative development, once culture had emerged, than the one that actually happened.
"The development of number further impelled the urge to treat nature as something to be dominated". It is true that numeracy is a dangerous habit, but merely being able to count does not "impell" people to quantify, compare and value everything in the universe, as scientists do today. When Klickitat Indians counted the number of guests at a Potlach ceremony in order to determine how many salmon to catch for them it did not lead to trying to sell them.
Zerzan is unclear as to how exactly Division of Labor arose. Specialization in itself does not "lead to" class society. If Janet picks pears while John bags bears, this does not imply that John will give Janet a hard time when he gets home, or vice-versa. This is not Division of Labor because it is not Labor it is simply two people doing different things. Shamanism is a specialization, but most shamanic societies still lived in RELATIVE harmony with nature and each other. They did not usually advance to a higher stage. A bit of cultivation is not the end of the world. The Amazon jungle is mostly fallow land which is occasionally slashed and burnt. This sustainable agriculture enabled primitive communities to live harmoniously without the tendency to build Earthraping Agricultural monsters like the Inca Leviathan. Evidence keeps emerging of the abandonment of this or that development by Native Americans: there is a whole continent of counterexamples to theories of inevitability, whether progressive or conservative.
If agriculture is a form of domination and therefore, according to his method, bad, surely so is hunting? He tries to avoid this problem by saying hunting was "not normally an aggressive act", and resurrects the hoary old chestnut about native peoples apologising to animals before hacking them to death. A consistent opponent of all forms of domination of nature would list Hunting among the Original Sins. Unfortunately, this would lead to condemning the emergence of homo sapiens. Even Zerzan isn't prepared to go that far.
He may be right to say people could think before they could talk, that they had nonverbal communication of immense range and variety. It is true that language has acted as an "inhibiting agent", bringing life under "greater control". It does not mean that this is inevitable. It is just that we have lost all the other ways of thinking and communicating. Storytelling is not an expression of "an inherent will to manipulate and control", but of collective solidarity. Language was once one means of expression among others. It needs reintegrating into other types of communication, not abolishing.
Perlman's position, in Against His-story is far less extreme, but for all Perlman's contempt for "Positive Evidence", built on more solid factual foundations. Civilization did not "arise" all over the world because of Agriculture, it arose in one or a few place(s), and was subsequently imposed with immense difficulty, against continuous (and continuing) resistance, on the rest of the world. The reason for its success and here we have to make a concession to inevitability is that it is very difficult to fight without forming permanent armies, which then become the basis of states. But the fact that something happened does NOT mean that it had to happen. This is why we have an imagination.
"Tonality and the Totality" is a critique of music: all of it. Perlman indicted all the Renaissance artists as paid pimps of princes, but conspicuously omitted music from his rejection of Art. Zerzan has no such qualms. "Any historical study that omits music risks a diminished understanding of society". Tonality, the dominance of one pitch over the others, is both a direct reflection, and a reinforcer, of hierarchical society. The development of harmony, the suppression of polyphony, was a conscious part of attempts to divert and pacify the class struggle of the 1590's/1600's. The connection between modern musical rhythm and work is obvious.
Radical though Zerzan's views are, what are their consequences? Sometimes Zerzan's extremism leads, in theory anyway, to an abstentionism reminiscent of certain Parisian café intellectuals. In a short piece on "Community", he says: "So we are dealing with an illusion, and to argue that some qualitatively higher form of community is allowed to exist within civilization is to affirm civilization." In other words: We are against Civilization. If we believed that a real community could exist within Civilization, this would water down our opposition to it. Therefore, we must not believe that a real community could exist within Civilization. So when The Fifth Estate writes about the "collapse of community" in Detroit, it is being Progressive. In reality, the defence and development of existing community is the very basis of the class struggle. In practice, adopting Zerzan's position makes no difference. It does not lead to completely abandoning language, nor living in caves. People who agree with Zerzan support the class struggle with an emphasis on prisoners, exactly the same as autonomists, ourselves and others.