Twilight of the Machines
by John Zerzan
Quite some time ago W. H. Auden summed it up: “The situation of our time surrounds us like a baffling crime.” More recently the crisis has been manifesting and deepening in every sphere. Conditions are rapidly worsening and none of the old answers hold up. A friend and neighbor of mine spoke to this with eloquence and understanding: in dealing with others, she counseled, we need to remember that everyone’s heart is broken.
Can there really be many left who don’t know what direction the world system and this society in particular are taking? Global warming, a function of industrial civilization, will kill the biosphere well before this century is out. Species all over the planet are made extinct at an accelerating rate, dead zones in the oceans grow, the soil and the air are increasingly poisoned, rainforests sacrificed, and all the rest of it.
Children as young as two are on anti-depressants, while emotional disorders among youth have more than doubled in the past 20 years. The teen suicide rate has tripled since the 1970s. A recent study showed that nearly a third of high school students binge drink at least once a month; researchers concluded that "underage drinking has reached epidemic proportions in America."
Meanwhile, most everyone requires some kind of drug just to get through each day, against a backdrop of homicidal outbursts in homes, schools, and workplaces. One of the latest pathological developmentsamong so manyis parents murdering their children. A panoply of shocking and horrifying phenomena emanate from the disintegrating core of society. We inhabit a landscape of emptiness, grief, stress, boredom, anxiety in which our "human nature" is as steadily degraded as is what is left of the natural world.
The volume of knowledge is reportedly doubling every five years, but in this increasingly technicized, homogenized world an ever-starker reality goes mainly unchallenged, so far. Michel Houellebecq's 1998 novel Les Particules Elementaires (a bestseller in France) captured a joyless, disillusioned modernity in which cloning comes as a deliverence. Civilization itself has proved a failure, and humanity ends up liquidating itself in absolute surrender to domination. How perfectly in tune with the prevailing, completely defeated and cynical postmodern zeitgeist.
Symbolic culture has atrophied our senses, repressed unmediated experience, and brought us, as Freud predicted, to a state of "permanent internal unhappiness." We are debased and impoverished to the point where we are forced to ask why human activity has become so hostile to humanity— not to mention its enmity to other life forms on this planet.
By their very titles, recent books like All Connected Now: Life in the First Global Civilization and What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives express the resignation to an ever more standardized and bereft situation. Such works express the creative exhaustion and moral bankruptcy of the age, in which massive dehumanization and rampant destruction of nature vie for fulfillment of their interrelated projects.
1997-98 saw several months of smoke all across Southeast Asia as four million hectares of forests burned. Four years later, hundreds of fires raged for many weeks across eastern Australia, set by bored teenagers. In the US, groundwater and soil pollution levels have risen measurably because of concentrations of anti-depressents in human urine. Alienation in society and the annihilation of plant and animal communities join in a ghastly, interlocked dance of violence against health and life.
Reified existence progressively disables whatever and whoever questions it. How else to account for the stunningly accomodationist nature of postmodernism, allergic to any questioning of the basic of the reigning techno-capitalist malignancy? And yet a questioning is emerging, and is fast taking shape as the deep impetus of a renewed social movement.
As the life-world’s vital signs worsen on every level, the best minds should be paying close attention and seeking solutions. Instead, most have found an infinitude of ways to ponder the paralyzing dichotomy of civilization versus nature, unable to reach an increasinly unavoidable conclusion. A few farsighted individuals began the questionning in modern times. Horkheimer came to realize that domination of nature and humans, and the instrumental reason behind that domination, flow from the “deepest layers of civilization.” Bataille graped that “the very movement in which man negates Mother Earth who gave birth to him, opens the path to subjugation.”
After about thirty years without social movements, we are seeing a rebirth. Driven and informed by the growing crisis in every sphere, reaching deeper for understanding and critique than did the movement of the 1960s, the new movement is "anarchist," for want of a better term. Ever since the several days' anti-World Trade Organization militancy in the streets of Seattle in November 1999, the orientation of anti-globalization has become steadily more evident. "Anarchism is the dominant perspective within the movement," Barbara Epstein judged in a fall 2001 report. Esther Kaplan observed in February 2002 that "as the months have rolled by since Seattle, more and more activists, with little fanfare, have come to explicitly indentify as anarchists, and anarchist-minded collectives are on the rise…the anarchist fringe is fast becoming the movement's center." David Graeber put it even more succinctly: "Anarchism is the heart of the movement, its soul; the source of most of what's new and hopeful about it." Henry Kissenger referred to the anti- globalization protests of 1999 and 2000 as "early warning signals" of a "potential political weight" in the industrialized countries of the third world, as a threat to the world system itself. A CIA report that became public in spring 200, "Global Trends 2015," predicted that the biggest obsticle to globalization in the new millenium would be a possible joining together of the "First World" protest movement with the struggles of indigenous people to maintain their integrity against encroaching capital and technology.
Which introduces a more important question about this movement and its threatening connection to the centuries of struggles against Empire in the not-yet-industrialized world. Namely, if it is increasingly anarchy-oriented, what does this anarchism consist of?
I think it is fairly clear that is now becoming somthing other than part of the left. Until now, every modern anti-capitalist movement had at its core an acceptance of the expansion of the means of production and the continuing development of technology. Now there is an explicit refusal of this productionist orientation; it is in the ascendant in the new anarchy movement.
This anarcho-primitivist (or simply primitivist) tendency knows tha tto account for today's grim realities there needs to be a deeper look at institutions once almost univerally taken for granted. Despite the postmodern ban on investigation of these institutions origins, the new outlook brings even divsion of labor and domestication into question as ultimate root causes of our presnet extremity of existence. Technology, meaning a system of evr great division of labor or specialization, is indicted as the motor of ever greater technicization of the life-world. Civilization, which arrives when division of labor reaches the stage that produces domestication, is also now seen as deeply problematic. Whereas the domestication of animals and plants was once assumed a given, now its logic is brought into focus. To see the meaning of genetic engineering and human cloning, for example, is to grasp them as implicit in the basic move to domination of nature, which is domestication. Though it is apparent that this critcal approach raises more questions than it answers, a developing anarchy conciousness that does not aim at definitive answers cannot turn back.
Cannot turn back to the old, failed left, that is. Who doesn't know at this point that something different is urgently needed?
One of the touchstones or inspirations of primitivist anarchy is the paradigm shift in the fields of anthropology and archaeology in recent decades, concerning human social life during "prehistory." Civilization appaeared only some 9,000 years ago. Its duration is dwarfed by the thousands of human generations who enjoyed what might be called a state of natural anarchy. The general orthodoxy in the anthropological literature, even including textbooks, portrays life outside of civilization as one of ample leisure time; an egalitarian, food-sharing mode of life; relative autonomy or equality of the sexes; and the absence of organized violence.
Humans used fire to cook fibrous vegetables almost two million years ago, and navigated on the open seas at least 800,000 years ago. They had an intelligence equal to ours, and enjoyed by far the most successful, non-destructive human adaptation to the natural world that has ever existed. Whereas the textbook question used to be, "Why did it take Homo so long to adopt domestication or agriculture?" now texts ask why they did it at all.
As the negative and even terminal fruits of technology and civilization become ever clearer, the shift to a Luddite, anti-civilization politics makes greater sense all the time. It is not very surprising to detect its influence being registered in various circumstances, including that of the massive anti-G8 protests in Genoa, July 2001. 300,000 people took part and $50 million in damage was caused. The Italian minister of the interior blamed the anarchist "black bloc," and its supposed primitvist outlook in particular, for the level of militancy.
How much time do we have to effect what is necessary to save the bioshpere and our very humanness? The old approaches are so many discredited efforts to run this world, which is a massified grid of production and estrangement. Green or primitivist anarchy prefers the vista of radically decentralized, face-to-face community, based on what nature can give rather than on how complete domination of nature can become. Our vision runs directly counter to the dominant trajectory of technology and capital, for the most obvious of reasons.
The left has failed monumentally, in terms of the individual and in terms of nature. Meanwhile, the distance between the left and the new anarchy movement keeps widening. Pierre Bourdieu and Richard Rorty, for instance, long absurdly for a renewed connection between intellectuals and unions, as if this chimera would somehow change anything on a basic level. Jurgen Habermas' Between Facts and Norms is an apologetic for things as they are, blind to the real colonization of modern life, and even more uncritical and affirmative than his previous works. Hardt and Negri speak to the choice involved rather directly: "We would be anarchists if we were not to speak…from the standpoint of a materiality constituted inthe networks of productive cooperation, in other words, from the perspective of a humanity tha tis constructed productively…No, we are not anarchists but communists." Conversly, to further clarify the issue, Jesus Sepulveda observed that "anarchy and indigenous movements fight against the civilized order and its practice of standardization."
Not all anarchists subscribe to the increasing suspicions about technology and civilization. Noam Chomsky and Murray Bookchin, for example, insist on the traditional embrace of progressive development. The Marxian heart of anarcho-syndicalism typifies this adherence and is fading away with its leftist relatives.
Marx, who knew so much about the impact of the productive process and its destructive course as division of labor, nonetheless believed (or wanted to believe) that the technological dynamic would undermine capitalsim. But "all that is solid" does not "melt into air"; rather it becomes more like what it always was. This is as true for civilization as for capitalism.
And civilization now has the form technology gives it, inseperable from the rest of the social orderthe world landscape of capitaland embodying and expressing its deepest values. "We have only purely technological conditions left," concluded Heidegger, whose formulation is itself sufficient to expose the myth of technology's "neutrality."
At its origin in division of labor and until now, technology has been an assumption, repressed as an object of attention. At the point when generalized technicisation characterizes the world and is the most dominant aspect of modern life, the veil is bieng lifted. Technology's invasive colonization of everyday life and systematic displacement of the physical enviroment can no longer be ignored or concealed. A thousand questions push forward.
Health is just one, as we witness the resurgence and multiplication of diseases, increasingly resistant to the industrial medicine that claimed to be erasing them. Antidepressants mask some of the symptoms of rising levels of sorrow, depression, anxiety, and despair, while we are supposed to remain in the dark about the mulitsensory richness, diversity, and immediacy that technology leaches out of our lives. Cyberspace promises connection, empowerment, variety to people who have never been so isolated, disempowered, and standardized. Each new study confirms that even a few hours' internet use produces the latter effects. Technology has also served to extend the reach of work via the many gadgets, especially cell phones, beepers, and e-mail, that keep millions in harness regardless of time or place.
What is the cultural ethos that has blunted criticism and resistance and, in effect, legitimated the illegitimate? None other than postmodernism, which may have finally reached the nadir of its moral and intellectual bankruptcy.
Seyla Benhabib provides a compelling version of postmodern though in three theses: "the death of man understood as the death of the autonomous, self-reflective subject, capable of acting on principle; the death of history, understood as the severance of the epistemic interest in history of struggling groups in constructing their past narratives; the death of metaphysics, understood as the impossibility of criticizing or legitimizing institutions, practices, and traditions other than through the immanent appearl to self- legitimation of 'smal narratives'." Marshall Berman encapsulates post - modernism as "a philosphy of despair masquerading as radical intellectual chic…the counterpoint to the civilizational collapse going on around us."
Postmodernists champion diversity, difference, and heterogeneity, choosing to see reality as fluid and indeterminate. The actual parallel to this attitude is found in the movement of commodities with brief shelf-lives, ciruclating meaninglessly in a globalized, fast- food hip consumerism. Postmodernism insists on surface, and is at pains to discredit any notion of any kind are scorned in favor of a supposed particularity. The meaning of a universal, homogenizing technology, on the other hand, is not only unquestioned, but is embraced. The connection between imperialism of technology and the loss of meaning in society never daws on the postmodernists.
Born of the defeat of the movements of the 1960s and grown ever more embarrassingly impoverished during the post-'60s decades of defeat and reaction, postmodernism is the name for prostration before the monstrous facts. happy to accept the present as one of technonature and technoculture, Donna Haraway epitomizes the postmodern surrender. Technology, it seems, always wa; there is no way to stand outside its culture; the "natural" i sno more than the pervasive naturalization of culture. In sum, there is no "nature" to defend, "we're all cyborgs." This stance is obviously of benefit in teh war against nature; more specifically int he wars against wome, indiginous cultures, surviving species, indeed against all of non-engineered life.
For Haraway, technological prosthesis "becomes a funamental category for understanding our most intimate selves" as we merge with the machine. "Technoscience…[is] unmistakably science for us." Unsurprisingly, she has chided those who would resist genetic engineering, with the reminder that the world is too "unsettled, dirty" for simplistic verdicts about the practices of technoscience. In truth, opposing it is "redactive" and "foolish."
Sadly, there are all too many who follow her path of capitulation to the death-trip we've been forced on. Daniel R. White writes, rather incredibly, of "a postmodern-ecological rubric that steps past the tradition either-or of the Oppressor and the Opressed." He further muses, echoing Haraway: "We are all becoming cyborgs. what sort of creatures do we want to be? Do we want to be creatures at all?Would machines be better? What kinds of machines might we become?"
Michel Foucault was, of course, a key postmodern figure whose influence has not been liberatory. He ended up losing his way in the area of power, concluding that power is everywhere and nowhere; this argument facilitaed the postmodern conceit that opposing oppression is passe. More specifically, Foucault determined that resisting technology is futile, and that human relations are inescapably technological.
The postmodern period, according to Paul Virilio, is "the era of the sudden industrialization of the end, the all-out globalization of the havoc wreaked by progress." We must move past postmodern accomodation and undo this progress.
Civilization is the foundation that decides the rest. As Freud noted, "there are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization whcih will not yield to any attempt at reform." "Difficulties" stemming from the origin of civilization as the forced renunciation of Eros and instinctual freedom; "difficulties" that, as he predicted, will produce a state of universal neurosis.
Freud also referred to "the sense of guilt produced by civilization, [which] remains to a large extent unconcious, or appares as sort of malaise, a dissatisfaction." The magnitude of the offense which is civilization explains this great, continuing quantum of guilt, especially since the continual reenactment of the offensethe curbing of instinctual freedomis necesarry to maintain the coercion and destructiveness that is civilization.
Spengler, Tainter and many others concur that collapse is inherent in civilizations. We may be approaching the collapse of this civilization more quickly tahn we can grasp, with results even more unimaginable. Along with the rapid degradation of the physical world, are we not seeing a disintegration of the physical world, are we not seeing a disintegration of the symbol system of Western civilization? So many ways to register the sinking credibility of what is ever more nakedly the direct rule of technology and capital. Weber, for example, identified the disfiguring or marginalization of face-to-face ethical sensibilities as the most significant consequence of modern processes of development.
The list of crimes is virtually endless. The question is whether or not, when the civilization comes down, it will be allowed to recycle into one more variant of the original crime.
The new movement replies in the negative. Primitivists draw strength from their understanding that no matter how bereft our lives have become in the last ten thousand years, for most of our nearly two million years on teh planet, human life appears to have been healthy and authentic. We are moving, this anti-authoritarian current, in the direction of primitive naturalism, and against a totality tha tmoves so precisely away from that condition. As Dario Fo put it, "The people who are organizing themselves across the world." Another Italian voice filled out this sentiment admierably: "And then at bottom, what really is this globablization of which so many speak? Perhaps the process of the expansion of markets toward the exploitation of the poorest countries and of their resources and away from the richer countries? Perhaps the standardization of culture and the diffusion of a dominant model? But then, why not use the term civilization that certainly sounds less menacing but is fitting, without the necessity of neologism. There is no doubt that the mediaand not just the mediahave an interest in mixing everyting in a vague anti-globablization soup. So it's up to us to bring clarity to things, to make deep critques and act in consequence." (Terra Salvaggio, July 2000).
It's an all or nothing struggle. Anarchy is just a name for those who embrace its promise of redemption and wholeness, and try to face up to how far we'll need to travel to get there. We humans once had it right, if the anthropologists are to be believed. Now we'll find out if we can get it right again.
Quite possibly our last oppurtunity as a species.
W.H. Auden, The Double Man Random House, 1941.
Seyla Benahabib, "Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism," The New Social Theory Reader, ed.
Steven Seidman and Jeffrey C. Alexander, Routledge, 2001.
Marshall Berman, The Twilight of American Culture, W.W. Norton, 2000.
Joseph Califano, "Group Calls Underage Drinking an Epidemic," New York Times, February 27, 2002.
Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, Vintage Books, 1964.
Barbara Epstein, "Anarchism and the Anti-Globalization Movement," Monthly Review, September 2001.
Dario Fo, "Italy, Mussolini's Ghost in these Times," A-Infos website, March 3, 2002.
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Chellis Glendinning, My Name is Chellis and I'm in Recovery from Western Civilization, Shambala Publications, 1994.
David Graeber, "The New Anarchists," New Left Review, January-February 2002.
Donna Haraway, How Like a Leaf: Interview with T.N. Goodeve, Routledge, 2000; Modest Witness @ Second Millenium Routledge, 1997; Simians, Cyborgs and Women, Routledge, 1991.
Martin Heidegger, "The Question Concerning Technology," Basic Writings, ed. David Farrell Krell, Harper & Row, 1977.
Esther Kaplan, "Keepers of the Flame," Village Voice, February 5, 2002.
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Joseph Tainter, The Collapse of Complex Socieities, Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb, Verso, 2000.
Daniel R. White, Postmodern Ecology, State University of New York Press, 1998.
John Zerzan, Future Primitive, Autonomedia and C.A.L Press, 1994; Running on Emptiness, Feral House, 2002.
Adrienne Zihlman, "Women as Shapers of the Human Adaptation,"Woman The Gatherer, ed. F Dahlberg, Yale University Press, 1981.