BACK TO BASICS
The first of his ideas is that civilised humanity has lost its way and its first step in doing so was the Agricultural Revolution about 10,000 years ago. I’ll have something to say about this later. Such phenomena as civilisation, language, time, technology, art, representation, religion, work, and so on, are all symptoms of us having lost our way. He is not actually suggesting that we return to primitive hunter-gatherer lifeways, but rather that we progress towards them in order to rediscover our lost Eden – as it were. Apparently, we were much better adjusted and happier during this stage of our evolution as a species which lasted for about 99% of our time on this planet. 10,000 years ago, however, the Agricultural Revolution ended this idyll and we have been maladjusted ever since. There may be a lot of truth in this, but it is less his analysis that I have difficulty with, than his solutions to the problems he identifies. Many would doubt the feasibility of progressing towards a Utopia which is a faithful reflection of this lost Eden - anarchists like Murray Bookchin especially. Hakim Bey, the author of TAZ (Temporary Autonomous Zones) talks, I believe, of the return of the primitive - rather than a return to (or progression towards) the primitive – in the manner of Freud’s “Return of the repressed”, which Freud said always returned in disguised form. Zerzan has attacked Bey quite savagely, but Bey seems to me to have something of a point here.
Another anarchist, Murray Bookchin, dismisses Zerzan’s ideas out of hand. He makes a big play on the distinction between Social Anarchism and Lifestyle Anarchism and he places both Zerzan and Bey to their detriment in the latter category. For my own part, I don’t think we should leap so readily to these partisan either/or positions. Many anarchists speak of changing life as well as society, and that seems crucial to me. Anyway, all in all, I think these two ‘kinds’ of anarchism are rather stuck with each other. Anarchists will no doubt continue to experiment in new ways of living and being, whether or not there is some kind of social revolution to complement their efforts. And their experiments may still be valid for all that.
Bookchin comes originally from a Marxist background. His book, Anarchism, Marxism and the Future of the Left contains fascinating accounts of his time as an activist in the Thirties as well as his time in the New Left during the Sixties. As a result of his experiences and time on the left, Hegel and Marx are definitely among his intellectual heroes, in spite of his having graduated to anarchism since his Marxist days The thing is, however, he does take a lot of this Marxo-Hegelian baggage with him into anarchism – particularly the Dialectic. Let me tell you what I think about dialectical reasoning. It consists of adopting an idea, which is your conclusion before you have even arrived at your premises and then working towards that conclusion through a series of ‘resolved’ antinomies, in an effort to integrate all conflicting positions into the conclusion you have already arrived at. (Kant at least understood the paradoxical nature of his antinomies and therefore didn’t waste too much time in trying to resolve them.) In Plato’s time, the dialectic was a relaxed and gentlemanly procedure in which the object was to win arguments, not to determine the ends of history – a la Hegel or Marx. Hegel thought the Prussian state, which was his employer of course, was the end of history and Francis Fukuyama cites Hegel as an influence on his book, The End Of History; for Marx it was the Communist society in which the state had withered away. I think Marx’s take on the “end of history” was perhaps a little less interested than Hegel’s, but that is another matter. Bookchin was in this dialectical tradition and proudly carried its banner with him and was always willing to invoke it in his writing. My feeling is that he should have recalled Robert Burns’s line, “The best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley.” For had he done so, he might have freed himself “frae money a blunder” as a result.
But back to Zerzan. I wonder, if he too does not have an Hegelian scheme he works to and wants to impose on reality – his own version of The Negation Of The Negation – with the original negation being Man’s fall into civilisation and the negation of that negation being Humanity’s liberation from civilisation. I am not denying the possibility of such a negation of a negation emerging out of the ‘blind forces’ of ‘history’. What I would deny is conscious planning and preparation to achieve it in some kind of utopian spirit. To paraphrase Louis Macneice, World is a bit crazier and more of it than that. Will alienation be overcome as a result of our conscious choices? I very much doubt it. Perhaps Zerzan is right, but my incredulity does tend to get the better of me at the suggestion, in spite of the fact that, as far as I am concerned, the jury is still out and I don’t want to arrive at any premature conclusions regarding what its verdict might be.
From an analytical perspective I accept a lot of Zerzan’s critique of civilisation. However, solutions to the problems civilisation creates are another matter entirely. That we have only to progress towards a simpler more ‘primitive’ way of life and all the problems of the last 10,000 years will sort themselves out seems a bit far-fetched to me. When dealing with civilisation’s prehistory, Zerzan talks in a time-scale of about two million years of human evolution or more. I am not sure if he includes Australopithecus in this huge sweep of ‘early man’. However, it does seem to include homo-erectus and homo-habilis and, later, Neanderthals. Homo-sapiens fits into this scenario as a late-comer and from what I can gather the rot started with ‘him’. I have no idea how this squares with current scientific thinking on the subject of our evolution and therefore I don’t know if Zerzan is right or wrong. I am also not going to comment too much on whether or not pre-civilised ‘man’ was on much more friendly terms with wild animals than civilised man - as Zerzan says was the case. I suspect that that is some kind of projection. I am sure Paleolithic humans were as wary of sabre-tooth cats as I myself would be if I ever encountered one, and I really don’t think that civilisation has all that much to do with that. As for the claim that people communicated telepathically rather than with words in those far-off days, well, what can I possibly say? Furthermore, I do strongly suspect that the idea that things began to go sharply downhill with the Agricultural Revolution and domestication some 10,000 years ago is more than a little simplistic.
Agriculture seems to take the rap for a lot of our problems. But there was no straight-forward evolution from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural ones – and from there to states and all the horrors of civilisation. It seems to me that human societies bifurcated at the end of the Paleolithic hunter-gatherer era and agriculture wasn't the only path we travelled down. The concurrent emergence of nomadic pastoralists appears to complicate this neat scenario. According to some schools of thought, nomadic pastoralists played a crucial role in the emergence of states. They were much more warlike and hierarchical than agriculturalists and as a result would eventually conquer the latter, subjugate and exploit them, creating states in the process and becoming warrior aristocracies whose way of life was supported by the peasants who were now well and truly under their thumb. Thus, domination, exploitation and inequality didn’t just evolve from agriculture. Franz Oppenheimer recognised that already in the 19th Century. The existence of more warlike pastoralists was really what threw the spanner into the works of stateless societies, not agriculture. This idea seems much more realistic to me than the one which has class-societies emerging from non-class societies in some kind of evolutionary way. I suspect that if certain members of a basically egalitarian society attempted to coerce and exploit other members of the same society, those other members would very quickly rebel and put them back in their places. On the other hand, for more aggressive and militarised outsiders, like nomadic pastoralists, it would be much less of a problem. All they would need to do is conquer, subjugate and terrorise the local populations they encountered into submitting to their will. They would have both the means and the psychological disposition to do so because their own way of life as nomadic herders in perennial conflict with other nomadic herders would have made them much more warlike than the sedentary agriculturalists. That doesn’t seem to be a possibility which Zerzan has given much thought to however.
So, I disagree with Zerzan who sees the fall of a free humanity simply in the emergence of agriculture. I am not saying that that would not have been traumatic, but how crucial it was I cannot say. And since I disagree with Zerzan about that, I would also have to disagree with him regarding what it might take to extricate ourselves from the mess civilisation has bequeathed us. Along with Zerzan, I agree with Freud, Lacan, Heidegger and others that such phenomena as civilisation, language, time, religion and so on engender forms of alienation. Heidegger recognised it in our flight from Being to subect-object relations and an instrumental view of the world. Lacan views the Symbolic Order as one in which our needs and desires are alienated. Heidegger also critiqued technology as a source of alienation. Zerzan explicitly recognises the importance of these seminal thinkers – among whom he includes Wittgenstein, who he regards, along with Heidegger, as one of the two most important philosophers of the 20th. Century. Zerzan cites other thinkers such as Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Marcuse, Debord, as well as the American Abstract Expressionist painters who had moved away from representation towards something more inchoate and 'primitive'. His intellectual background is thus fairly catholic from that point of view, indicating that he has a wide culture and is willing to find inspiration wherever he comes across it. However, I have to re-iterate that the problem for me remains power, not civilisation. That is to say, economic, political and military power and the connections between states, capitalism and warfare. I don’t have any definite answers to any of these questions – especially not of the wholesale variety which Zerzan put’s forward. And the fact that I don’t have any answers – though I do have a lot of questions – means that I do not think we have too much control over the future, which is, I suspect, in the lap of the gods.