John Zerzan Interview (1/2)
- 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
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
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.