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John Zerzan Interview (1/2)

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  • Dan Clore
    ANARCHY IN THE U.S.A. (1/2) A conversation with anarchist philosopher John Zerzan by Jim Redden By the time martial law was declared in Seattle, the
    Message 1 of 1 , May 30 12:16 PM
      ANARCHY IN THE U.S.A. (1/2)

      A conversation with anarchist philosopher John Zerzan

      by Jim Redden

      By the time martial law was declared in Seattle, the
      establishment press had decided to blame one person for
      bringing the World Trade Organization to its knees - a
      social critic from Eugene named John Zerzan.

      Zerzan is the spiritual leader of the small group of
      masked anarchists who attacked such corporate icons as
      Nike Town, McDonalds and Starbucks, smashing windows,
      knocking over store shelves, spraying graffiti and
      provoking a massive police crackdown. [Note: the police
      crackdown began before the anarchists did anything -- DC]
      Mayor Paul Schell declared a civil emergency and Washington
      Governor Gary Loche dispatched hundreds of National Guard
      troops to secure the downtown core. Police dressed up like
      Robocop chased WTO protesters through the streets for the
      next few days. Thousands of people were shot with rubber
      bullets, sprayed with tear and pepper gas, or beaten with
      ballistic batons. Many of the victims were innocent
      bystanders and business owners who simply didn't get out of
      the way fast enough.

      The chaos was broadcast around the world. TV viewers saw
      police firing at protesters at point blank range. One cop
      went out of his way to kick an empty-handed protester in
      the groin. Another cop ripped a gas mask off a pregnant
      foreign reporter and struck her. The global trade conference
      ended in disarray on December 3, 1999, and Seattle Police
      Chief Norm Stamper resigned in the face of mounting public
      criticism a few days later.

      It was a stunning victory for the WTO opponents - and
      especially for the small number of young anarchists who
      forced the heavy hand of the New World Order.

      So who is John Zerzan? Contrary to the stereotype image of
      an anarchist, he is not a wild-eyed bomb thrower. Instead,
      Zerzan is a quiet, unassuming 56-year-old who spends most
      of his days babysitting for friends and writing lengthy
      essays on the problems of modern society in longhand on pads
      of paper (he doesn't own a computer).

      A former Cub Scout and altar boy from Woodburn, Zerzan
      earned a degree in political science from Stanford University
      before moving to Berkeley to protest the war in Vietnam.
      While there he received a master's degree in history at San
      Francisco State and spent three years in a Ph.D. program at
      the University of Southern California, although he never got
      a doctorate. Instead, he spent several years driving cabs
      and working as a labor organizer before moving to Eugene in
      1981, where he began advocating a form of anarchy called
      "primitivism" which argues that technology is responsible
      for many of today's most serious problems.

      Zerzan's thoughts have been spread through obscure publications
      such as The Black-Clad Messenger and the Green Anarchist,
      published by small anarchist groups in America and Europe. His
      themes have been echoed by Rage Against the Machine, the most
      political rock 'n roll band since the MC5. [An odd statement
      consider all the punk bands of the '70s and '80s that come
      between these two. -- DC] I caught up with Zerzan at his Eugene
      co-op house just after he returned from Seattle.

      Jim Redden: The establishment press describes you as an
      "anarchist philosopher." How do you see yourself?

      John Zerzan: I'm just a writer. There are various terms that
      people throw around. I've been working on some of these
      questions for a long time, and trying to make some kind of a
      contribution, but that's about it. That's all I can say.

      Redden: Do you accept the term "anarchist"?

      Zerzan: Yeah, I definitely accept that, at a minimum.

      Redden: How do you define anarchy?

      Zerzan: Oh, well, that's a pretty elastic term. To me, it's
      the effort to deal with all forms of domination. I think most
      political philosophies accept some forms, and anarchy tries
      to identify and ultimately get rid of all of them.

      Redden: How did you come to embrace anarchy as your own

      Zerzan: It's been a long process. I learned quite a lot as a
      labor organizer back in the 60s in terms of some institutions.
      That was a learning process. And I think part of it also was,
      in the post-60s, well, there was kind of a re-thinking, let's
      put it that way. Kind of a scratching of heads in terms of what
      were we trying to do in the 60s and did it go far enough. Kind
      of looking again at it. I mean, things slowed down to nothing
      [laughs], so you had to think about it if you were into it. In
      fact, that's where I got started thinking about technology as
      part of the problem and not part of the solution.

      Redden: Is it really possible to live as an anarchist in this
      country at this time?

      Zerzan: No, I don't think so. If you could, there wouldn't be
      the necessity of transforming society. The argument that you
      can live authentically within the system of domination means
      that there really isn't such a need to get rid of it.

      Redden: What is your impression now of everything that happened
      in Seattle?

      Zerzan: Overall, I think it was a great step forward. I think
      it took virtually everybody by surprise, including me. I was
      hopeful, but I didn't expect so much dedication and such a
      level of militancy. I had started to get the impression there
      would be a lot of people there, but you can have a lot of people
      and there and if they're still stuck in the old stuff, it's not
      necessarily that great.

      Redden: So what impressed you about what happened in Seattle?
      The number of people who turned out, their tactics, what?

      Zerzan: Well, I was impressed with all of it, yeah. The various
      things that were going on, the endurance, the dedication of the
      people that put up with being sprayed for hours and all the rest
      of it that happened there when they were keeping the delegates
      out and keeping the thing from happening, and all of the other
      militant deals, like the willingness of people to confront the
      cops, to engage the cops when they started attacking people.
      They didn't just go away without a fight. And now it seem like,
      from what I've been hearing, the heat is on the authorities in

      Redden: That's sure the way it sounds, isn't it?

      Zerzan: Yeah, as more and more things are coming out, including
      nasty things like the use of nerve gas, for Christ's sake.

      Redden: What is your reaction to the extent of the police
      response? Are you surprised by all the equipment that was

      Zerzan: I'm never surprised by that. Personally, I'm generally
      not into making a big deal about the cops. They do their thing.
      I don't want to minimize what people went through and what the
      cops are capable of, but to me that's just the way it goes,
      that's no big surprise. There are more important things to think
      about than whether the pigs do this or that. That's what they do.
      That's what they're there to do, and that's just the way it is.
      People who are always totally shocked, well, I don't know why
      they are because it's never changed. It's the same old shit.
      That's not very interesting to me, frankly.

      Redden: I agree. I'm always been baffled at protesters who say
      they expect police brutality but, when it happens, still seem
      surprised by it.

      Zerzan: Exactly. But with every fresh outrage - I mean, those
      people who live up on Capitol Hill, up above Broadway, they were
      shocked. They came out of their apartments and houses and they
      were very surprised that they were being attacked. What did they
      do? Of course they're pissed off and they're making their voices
      heard up there now.

      Redden: What was the most important message that came out of all
      the protests?

      Zerzan: To me, that there's a new movement here. After 30 years
      of really no social movements, this is a new day. And there a lot
      of people, especially young people, who see this whole society as
      just really bereft and bizarre and intolerable. I don't think that
      should come as a surprise, given the reality, but there's no
      guarantee there's going to be opposition or resistance just
      because society is getting to be more pathological and empty by
      the day. It doesn't guarantee there's going to be a fight over
      it. But now, frankly I'm struck by the number of people who agree
      with that or say that, for example, before I would it. Like some
      reporters who seem to be convinced that this is just the beginning.

      Redden: Isn't it amazing that you just really haven't heard that
      kind of critique for so long, unless you're reading some anarchist
      journals or something like that. But generally, there's been just
      no critique of society, despite how bizarre it's been getting
      in recent years. I mean, some political activists in the late 60s
      and early 70s thought things were getting strange then, but that
      was nothing compared to what's happening now.

      Zerzan: Yeah, exactly, that's just the way I see it. We started
      things starting to develop, but you would have been horrified to
      guess what's going on now on every level. And everybody knows it.
      School children are murdering each other, the teenage suicide rate
      has tripled in the past 30 years, I mean you can go on and on.
      It's right there in the paper every day, but it's just kind of
      ignored. Nobody is going to talk about it on any serious level.
      But now, I'm hoping that the real questioning of things is finally
      on the table.

      Redden: Until recently only the right wing seemed concerned about
      the concept of the New World Order. What do you see is coming down
      and what the target of the protests should be. Is it really on that
      kind of global scale?

      Zerzan: I don't want to sound like a politician here, but I think
      that's kind of remote to me, frankly. What happens to transnational
      capital in some total sense of the whole world order and all that
      is certainly nothing to minimize, but I think it's everyday life
      that's going to get people going, if anything does. You can't
      separate the two because it is a totality. It isn't one thing or
      another. I think another way to put it is, even if there was no
      WTO for example, what would be different? For one thing, the people
      who just make the WTO the issue are really missing the point. That's
      superficial. WTO or not, would things scarcely be that different?
      They've got to realize it's the depth of the thing. This is nothing
      new. There are people who say, "Oh, this is just unbelievable,
      where did this come from, this is qualitatively new." Well certainly
      it isn't, not at all. So you go back down to the roots of it, what
      is the real logic of the whole nature of the whole deal at the most
      basic level. That's what people have to got to make the connection
      to. I mean, I'm interested in the Third World and certainly the
      environment is a very crucial, persuasive issue for a lot of people,
      but I think it's more - my general feeling is, it's just the emptying
      out of daily existence, the whole leeching away of everything, the
      whole texture of living, the whole idea of meaning and values. I'm
      not saying that what the corporations are doing on a global level is
      nothing, but isn't really the fundamental stuff to me.

      Redden: You mean just what you encounter on a day to day basis trying
      to live in this country, or live anywhere in this world?

      Zerzan: Yeah, yeah. And how much it's getting worse, and what people
      think about what kind of a world that they want to have for there
      kids. Stuff like that. I think that could open up this movement,
      that's what's going to make this thing come to the fore. But who
      knows. I don't know that, I'm just guessing. But these issues on
      the level of, say, the WTO protests, really are the same issues as
      everything that's going south in this society.

      Redden: What can people do in their day to day lives to fight back?

      Zerzan: Well, I don't know. That's of course the challenge. That's
      really the basic question, it seems to me. But the first thing is,
      the essential first step, is just that it be talked about. Instead
      of just this massive denial, where it's going to be, just, Gore
      versus Bush and nonsense like that. And then they'll wonder why no
      one is voting. As the voting percentage plummets every time,
      virtually. I mean, you can't go on forever ignoring what is so
      stark and so crazy. Sooner or later - and I hope we've seen the
      beginning of it - we have to start looking at just how out of whack
      everything is, and why. Without that there's nothing else going on.

      Redden: For years the establishment has basically prevented anyone
      from questioning globalization by saying it's a done deal, there's
      no sense talking about it because nobody can stop it. But it seems
      to me that one of the big things that came out of what happened in
      Seattle was the realization that, yes, you can talk about it. One
      of the major obstacles thrown up in front of everyone trying to
      question the global economy is all of a sudden gone.

      Zerzan: Exactly. It's the old cliche that nothing succeeds like
      success. We stopped the WTO meetings, the chief of police is gone -
      that was an unmistakable victory. And without that, a lot of people
      would still just accept that you can't talk about it, that it's just
      the way it is. You can point out everything under the sun - the ocean
      is dying and 50,000 other things - and they'll say, "Well, yeah,
      you're right, but so what? What are you going to do about it?
      Nothing's happening, there's no prospect for change." And now there
      is. Now pretty much suddenly there is. That's why the whole anarchy
      thing. I think anarchy is the only real opposition. That's the
      movement. Otherwise there isn't any, in my view. Now people are over
      the country are hearing about anarchy, of course because of some
      pretty flashy things that happened up there, but I think it's not
      going to go away. It's a real alternative. I'm very optimistic.
      Of course, I couldn't prove it and maybe I'm just a Pollyanna here,
      but given how bad things are I just don't think it's likely that
      people will go right back to thinking, "Well, I'm not curious,
      there's no issue, you can't do anything."

      Redden: How many people do you think there are in this country now
      who consider themselves anarchists?

      Zerzan: That's so tough. On one level, there are a number of books
      that say that Americans are basically anarchists in a real general
      way because they're distrustful of government and this and that.
      And that's pretty much true. But in terms of explicit identification
      or affiliation with the label anarchy, that is also hard for me to
      figure out because it's such an elastic term. That's quite a range
      of stuff. Right here in Eugene, there is the militant hard core
      anarchists and then there's a bunch of people who also consider
      themselves as anarchists and they're not that hard core. I think
      people are getting more militant, and I think that also the analysis
      is deepening, the critique is deepening and getting more radical,
      especially the most extreme one, which is primitivism. But the
      question of just how many people that is, is something I've
      wondered about myself. But I think it's going to grow real fast.
      That very word was pretty much proscribed, but now - that would be
      a whole piece in itself that would be worth checking into, the kind
      of ban on that word. And when it is grudgingly used, it's always
      "self-proclaimed anarchist," you know what I mean. They're so
      reluctant. And now, it's just anarchists. Anarchists this, they do
      this, they do that, or supposedly. The thing is kind of out of the
      bag. But in answer to your question, boy, I couldn't even guess but
      I think it's going to be growing as people realize that it is an
      alternative way to look at things.

      Redden: Could you explain primitivism for me?

      Zerzan: Well, most simply, let me see. I think one way to put it is,
      the problem isn't just capital, it's also technology and it's also
      even civilization. In other words, that's what is problematized. I
      mean, to the leftists capitalism is the problem, but I think it's
      more than that. It's just the realization to look at that as an
      issue. And of course, the Unabomber was perhaps a certain benchmark
      to open up that discussion a but. I think that helped. That was a
      mixed bag in some ways, of course. But, in terms of argument, it's
      almost effortless to abolish the argument that technology is
      neutral, it's just a tool and you can pick or not and all that
      stuff. Technology is the embodiment of the system, of capital if
      you will. There's no separating, "Well, we want to get rid of
      capitalism but we want the technology." That's what we all used to
      think, even the anarchists were, "Of course, we want that 'cuz that
      will free people or whatever, you know." Now I don't think there's
      that much belief in that, and that's a shift in a primitivist
      direction, if you will. But beyond that, I mean my main hypothesis
      or provisional deal - and I don't want to make a dogma or an
      ideology out of this, really - I believe division of labor and
      domestication are negative things, and the fullness of these
      things is creating the crisis right now. So in other words, if
      you could undo division of labor, you'd have whole people. And if
      you undid domestication, you'd have free people. To put it in real
      crude terms here, maybe the problem is a lot deeper than we've
      thought is the conclusion that I've come to.

      Redden: Over the holidays, DVD players have been one of the most
      heavily-advertised gifts for Christmas. It's not enough that you
      can go to a movie theater these days and experience the big screen
      and wrap-around sound with a lot of other people, now you're
      suppose to want to have all that in your home theater and watch
      it by yourself.

      Zerzan: That's the big refrain, isn't it, of the whole high-tech
      vista - we empower you and we connect you. And yet of course,
      people have never been so disempowered or so isolated. So it's
      just a big lie. That isn't what's going on at all, but yet we're
      suppose to believe. And there's more and more incredulity about it,
      if you will. I see these letters to the editor all the time, for
      example about Y2K where people say, I hope it all does collapse
      because look at what technology has done to family life, look at
      what it's done to one-on-one communication, look at what it's
      done to - you know it at least as well as I can say it, wherever,
      out in the country or anyplace else.

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