Radical media, politics and culture.

A Tale of Two Zeitgeists


Ideas this week swirled in confusing currents, and the violence of their juxtaposition helped generate clartity.

On wednesday John Zerzan spoke at the university La Sapienza as part of his Italian tour, accompanied by a younger fellow from Eugene. His 'Future primitives' has been quite a popular book in anarchist circles for some years now, and forms part of a broader culture comprising Freddy Perlman (Against History, Against Leviathan), journalso such as Fifth Estate and to an increasing degree 'Anarchy, A journal of Desire Armed'.

Zerzan critiques civilization and domestication, exalts 'wildness' and unmedeiated interaction and has sought to attack technology as the toolkit for domination. For Zerzan technology is not limited to the steam engine, railway track or microchip, but also includes instruments of communication and most fundamentally symbolic thinking and language. Given the extent of contemporary ecological devestation and the ostentatious level of human alienation (expressed in phenomena such as delinquent consumerism, suicide, homicidal pathology, proliferation of assorted forms of charlatanism) there is understandably an audience for a writer who addresses such themes explicitly.

Fundamental flaws:

(a) determinism: a common form of vulgar marxism adopted by neophytes posits a simplified economics as a crude explanation for all social phenomena. A residuum of this complex sits at the heart of the base/superstructure analgy which some more advanced (at least in years) Marxists continue to cling to. The primitivist critique has a similar form. If one swaps the word technology for economy, we arrive at a pretty concise and accurate understanding of their vision. Questions of agency are given short shrift. Problems relating to class composition and consequent social and cultural effects are similarly side-lined. Some writers indulge in this form of vulgarisation for rhetorical effect, to catalyse a discourse or pull an existing discussion in a direction deemed important. Zerzan's adepts are either missing a subtlety which may be there, or may simply be swallowing a poorly digested teleology.

(b) The search for purity: the force of the primitivist polemic relies heavily on the invocation of a harmonious past, where people lived as hunters and gatherers without government or state in absolute harmony with the natural environmnet and relative harmony with one another. That the duration of that society was an order of magnitude greater than our own is repeatedly stressed, so as to underline the fleeting temporality of current conditions and to demonstrate their contingency.

Seamus Deane describes this as 'rewriting Utopia as Eden' and the trope is familiar to Irish readers who recall how Connolly critiqued British capitalism by evoking the brehon chieftain based system which relied on moral economy preceding it. Zerzan's call to the past travels back way beyond the sixteenth century however, to a barely imaginable past. The positing of an uncorrupted state of being, untouched by alienation simply has no meaning for we who have grown up in modern conditions. There is no outside to step to which could cleanse the mind and body of the multiple alienations of our cultural, social and economic fabric. For better or worse we must contend with current social conditions rather than summoning up a dream of the untarnished life which can only be illusory, in other words, a mystification.

The dreadful impossibility of this position is easily illustrated. Asked about the imporatance of violent attacks on property, his companion stressed that breaking a bank window with a brick was first of all an act of symbolic importance as it communicated to others that banks could be destroyed. Thus both the act and the respinse it seeks to provoke are instances of symbolic thinking. Of course only a mystic could find in our lexicon of words and acts which transced such parameters, and they know this. But to criticise the discourse implies having some alternative philosophical and ethical tenets to oppose to the current givens. Primitivism finds itself in this corner only because of the blinkered vision of the content of its critique. When dealing with a dogma there is no pettiness in undelining inconsistency, as it goes to the heart of the though itself.

(c) Diversionary propaganda: this emphasis on the golden era of 10'000 years ago can only have a useful effect for the guardians of the current world as it distracts attention and consideration of the possibilities for alternative social organisation immanent to the world as it is now. How to dispose of the technological and productive capacities available is the political question of our time, Far from being utopian the demands for an abolitiopn of waged labour money etc are hopelessly feasible. '...the situationist project, at least at the start, was to equip a technological society with the means to "imagine what can be done with" its technology.(SIA,87) AJ 138 The poisoned chalice proferred by Zerzan breaks the modern dogma that only the capitalist way of life is possible only say that without a rejection of technology, only lives immiserated by domination are possible.

Many readers of Zerzan may warm to him because they percieve him as a determined opponent of an ideological sloigan called 'progress', which is a concept based upon the refinement of techniques of capitalist acculation and management as opposed to a contribution to the better living of humanity in terms of either pleasure or sustainability. Like his dismantling of the claim that no other way of life is possible, this is a welcome consquence of his work. Read to the letter however Zerzan offers nothing other than a fatal resignation to fighting a dying society where the war is over before the battle has concluded, because from the beginning we are touched by the original sign of civilisation and alienation.


Derive Approdi held a conference on their collection Futir Anterior at the weekend. The book comprises five chapters treating different questions arising from the operaista tradition, the contents being a collage assembled through interviews with thirty nine Italian thinkers from across four generations of radical thinkers born between 1925 and 1950.

Operaismo developed out of the dicovery of Marx's grundrisse written as an introduction to Das Kapital. An impoprtant section of Grundrisse analyses the devlopment of machinery in capitalist production and positis automation as being a consequence of workers struggle sinside the factory context. Thus worker militancy leads to increased investment in fixed capital over labour. Whilst devised as an attack on labour power, automation in fact shifts the site of political conflict from labour conditions to the distribution of the social benefits. The wroker is liberated from the drudgery of production, but in order not to be enslaved at the hands of another capitalist must organise politically to impose the terms of automation.

Radical struggle thus seeks to influence the direction of development and the power relation determining that devleopment rather that the development of the forces of production as such.

Noteworthy was the prevalence of the term multitude and the absence of thatb of proletariat. Another phrase which rearose repeatedly was the idea of the communist presence in capitalism, or the harnessing of commmunist creativity and concept in the existing production process.

Dismissal of representative democracy as unable to reflect the complexity of social life was treated as a given. And rightly so. But the emphasis on horizontal organisation of the multitude and its relationship with ossified power was not addressed. Anarchist concepts were in the air, but for the particpants appeared unutterable. 'Empire' leaves this same taste in the mouth of the reader.


Where the withhering attack on extreme alienation formed the kernel of Zerzan's claims, it arose rarely amongst the operaisti. Only Bifo spoke of the massive increase in mental illness and pathology resulting from the dissolution of the traditional world of work, and even then treated it as a byproduct of the change in labour relation. What struck me as curious about this is the blindness to the phenomena, quite apparent in the United States, Ireland and the UK (and before that in germnay, switzerland and the netherlands) of revolt against the increasing commodification of everyday life and the social glacialisation inherent to that. The succes of Klein's book 'No Logo' owes more to this aspect than any other, certainly more than the fact that major brands are producing their commodities in third world sweatshops where labour and environmental regulation is non-existent.

This revolt against the invasion of exchange value and privatisation into every corner of existence has been pivotal to the emergence of carnivalesque rebellion epitomised by groups of a pink black complexion such as Reclaim the Streets which constituted a genuine innovation of the nineties. RTS broke with the tradition of nihilistic carnival incarnated in events like Hannover's Chaostage by advancing concrete values and creating spontaneous street situations to produce pleasurable antagonistic experiences that combined individual hedonism with collective agency and social reappropriation of space. This reappropriation neatly constituted the only media required, a fact which should be remebered when considering the disgusting prostration of most political groups before the forces of information.

The greatest loss of the recent cycle of struggles derives from the marginalisation of this innovation. Historically this occurs through the emphasis on Seattle as opposed to the Carnival Against Capitalism in london. More immediatley it has been smothered in the sterile debate between violence and non-violence (including those who are just ambiguous about violence such as the Disobeddienti).

"Innovation makes enemies of all those who prospered under the old regime, and only lukewarm support is forthcoming from those who would prosper under the new. Their support is indifferenty partly from fear and partly because they are generally incredulous, never really trusting new things unless they have tested them by experience."


Some innovations just need to be reinvented.