Another draft chapter from the new book on parecon and society….
Like most social movements anarchism is diverse. Most broadly an anarchist seeks out and identifies structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination throughout life, and tries to challenge them as conditions and the pursuit of justice permit. As Bakunin put it, “Authority tends to make its possessor unjust and arbitrary; it also makes those subject to it acquiesce in wrong, subservient, and servile. Authority corrupts its holder and debases its victim.”
Anarchists work to eliminate domination and subordination. They focus on political power, economic power, power relations among men and women, power between parents and children, power among cultural communities, power over future generations via effects on the environment, and much else as well.
Of course anarchists challenge the state and the corporate rulers of the domestic and international economy, but they also challenge every other instance and manifestation of illegitimate authority. As Kropotkin puts it, capturing the anti-authoritarian sentiment but also perhaps foreshadowing complications to come: “We already foresee a state of society where the liberty of the individual will be limited by no laws, no bonds by nothing else but his own social habits, and the necessity which everyone feels, of finding cooperation, support, and sympathy among his neighbors.”
The Two Faces of Anarchism
So why wouldn’t everyone concerned that people ought to have appropriate control over their lives admire anarchism?
Problems arise because from being “opponents of illegitimate authority” one can grow movements of incomparable majesty, on the one hand, and movements that are majestically unimpressive, on the other hand.
If anarchism means mostly the former, good people will admire and gravitate toward anarchism. But if anarchism means mostly the latter, then good people will have reservations or even be hostile to it.
So what’s the not so admirable or even distasteful version of anarchism that turns off potential advocates? And what is the admirable version now increasing its support around the world? And do the admirable strands incorporate sufficient insight to be successful?
Distasteful “anarchism” is the brand that dismisses political forms per se, or institutions per se, or even plain old technology per se, or that dismisses fighting for reforms per se — as if all political structures, institutional arrangements, or even technological innovation intrinsically impose illegitimate authority, or as if relating to existing social structures to win immediate limited gains is an automatic sign of system support or hypocrisy.
Folks holding these counter productive or distasteful views insightfully see the contemporary state’s use of force to subjugate the many but then in response wrongly deduce that this is an outgrowth of trying to adjudicate, or legislate, or implement shared aims, or even just to cooperate on a large scale per se, rather than seeing that it is instead an outgrowth of doing these things in particular ways to serve narrow elites so that what we need to attain instead is to fulfill the functions more positively. We don’t need no polity, we need a good polity, an anarchist polity, which is by no means a contradiction in terms.
Similarly, anarchists with distasteful views correctly see that many and even most of our institutions, while delivering to people needed organization, celebration, food, transport, homes, services, etc., also restrict what people can do in ways that subvert human aspirations and dignity. They then however wrongly deduce that all institutions per se must be oppressive so that instead of lasting institutions we should have only voluntary spontaneous interactions in which at all times all aspects are fluidly generated and dissolved.
The contrary truth is of course that without stable and lasting institutions that have well conceived and lasting norms and roles, advanced relations among disparate populations and even among individuals are quite impossible.
The mistake is that while institutional roles that compel people to deny their humanity or the humanity of others are, of course, abominable, institutional roles that permit people to express their humanity more fully and freely are not abominable at all, but are part and parcel of a just and life-enhancing social order. We don’t need no institutions, we need good institutions, liberating institutions, which is by no means a contradiction in terms.
The situation with technology is similar. The anarchist with distasteful views looks at assembly lines, weapons, and energy use that despoil our world, and says there is something about pursuing technological mastery that intrinsically breeds these horrible outcomes so that we’d be better off without technology.
Of course, this misses the point that pencils are technology, clothes are technology, and indeed all human artifacts are technology, and that life would be short and brutish, at best, without technology.
So, the issue again isn’t to decry and escape technology per se, but to create and retain only technologies that serve humane aims and potentials. We don’t need no technology, we need good technology, humane technology, which is by no means a contradiction in terms.
And finally, regarding reforms, the distasteful anarchism rightly notices that with many reforms the gains we win are fleeting and elites even manage to use the granting of these gains to reinforce their legitimacy and extend their domain of control by first granting but then domesticating and later often even eliminating the advances. But again, the missing additional observation is that these problems don’t result from change or reform per se, but from change that is conceived, sought, and implemented in ways that presuppose rather than challenge system maintenance.
What’s needed instead isn’t to have no reforms, which would simply capitulate the playing field to elites, but to fight for reforms that are non-reformist, that is, to fight for reforms that we conceive, seek, and implement in ways leading activists to then seek still more gains in a trajectory of change leading ultimately to new institutions.
It shouldn’t be necessary to even discuss the above addressed “bad trajectory” of anarchism and its anti political, anti-institutional, anti-technological, and anti-reform confusions. It is perfectly natural and understandable for folks when first becoming sensitized to the ills of political structure, or the ills of contemporary institutions, or of current technologies, or when first encountering the problems of reform struggles to momentarily go awry and blame the entire category of each of these for the ills that the worst instances of each embody. But if this confusion were to thereafter be addressed naturally, it would be a very temporary one as it would quickly become clear that without political structures per se, without institutions per se, and/or without technology per se, not to mention without progressive reforms per se, humanity would barely survive much less prosper and fulfill its many capacities.
But, of course this prediction of easy transcendence of these types of views neglects that media and elites will take any negative trajectory of anarchism and will prop it up, portraying it as the whole of anarchism, elevating its confused and unworthy ideas to crowd out anarchism’s more valuable ideas and to discredit the whole undertaking. I
n this context, some of the most extreme (but colorful) advocates of counter productive viewpoints will be highlighted by media. Their unsustainable and objectionable approaches will as a result gain far more visibility than would be warranted by their numbers, much less by their logic or values, and, thereafter, also a certain tenacity.
What about the good trajectory of contemporary anarchism that is less visible in the media? This seems to me to be far more uplifting and inspiring. It is the widely awakening impetus to fight on the side of the oppressed in every domain of life, from family, to culture, to state, to economy, to the now very visible international arena of “corporate globalization,” and to do so in creative and courageous ways conceived to win improvements in people’s lives now even while simultaneously leading toward winning new institutions in the future.
The good anarchism transcends a narrowness that has often in the past befallen the approach. Instead of being solely politically anti-authoritarian, as anarchism often largely was in the old days, nowadays being an anarchist more and more implies having a gender, cultural, and an economic, as well as a politically-rooted orientation, with each aspect taken on a par with and also informing the rest.
This at least in its current degree of attainment and aspiration is in many respects new, at least in my experience of anarchism, and it is useful to recall that many anarchists as little as a decade back, perhaps even more recently, would have said that anarchism addresses everything, yes, of course, but via an anti-authoritarian focus rather than by simultaneously elevating other concepts in their own right. Such past anarchists thought, whether implicitly or explicitly, that analysis from an overwhelmingly anti-authoritarian angle could explain the nuclear family better than an analysis rooted as well in kinship concepts, and could explain race or religion better than an analysis rooted as well in cultural concepts, and could explain production, consumption, and allocation better than an analysis rooted as well in economic concepts. They were wrong in this “political monism,” and it is a great advance that many modern anarchists know this and are broadening their intellectual approach in accord so that anarchism now highlights not only the state, but also gender relations, and not only the economy but also cultural relations and ecology, and indeed freedom in every form it can be sought, and each of these not always and only through the sole prism of authority relations but also informed by richer and more diverse concepts rooted in each practice.
And of course this desirable anarchism not only doesn’t decry technology per se, but it becomes familiar with and employs diverse types of technology as appropriate. It not only doesn’t decry institutions per se, or political forms per se, it tries to conceive new institutions and new political forms for activism and for a new society, including new ways of meeting, new ways of decision making, new ways of coordinating, and so on, most recently including revitalized affinity groups and original spokes structures.
And this good anarchism not only doesn’t decry reforms per se, but it struggles to define and win non-reformist reforms, attentive to people’s immediate needs and bettering people’s lives now as well as moving toward further future and eventually transformative gains.
So why doesn’t the good anarchism trump the not so good anarchism out of visibility, so to speak, leaving the way clear for most everyone on the left to gravitate toward anarchism’s best side?
Part of the answer, already noted, is that elites and mainstream media highlight the not-so-good viewpoints, giving them far more weight and tenacity than they would otherwise amass. But part of the answer is also that the good side of contemporary anarchism is in various respects too vague to rise above the rest. What’s the problem? I think it’s at least in considerable part that the good anarchism doesn’t posit clear and compelling goals.
Anarchism has historically focused on the political realm of life. But even there with its long history, the emerging anarchism of today’s movements doesn’t clarify for us what an anarchist polity could be. Assuming that societies need to fulfill adjudicative, legislative, and collective implementation functions in the political realm of life, and need to do this via institutions which citizens partake of and constitute, what should these institutions be?
If the bad trend is to say that we favor no political institutions but only spontaneous face to face interaction of free individuals each doing as they choose with no constraints on them, then what is the good trend’s better viewpoint that fulfills the same guiding aspirations but without sacrificing collectivity and continuity?
What kind of structures with what kinds of recurring social roles and norms in an anarchist polity will accomplish political functions while also propelling values that we support?
It is perhaps premature to expect newly enlarging anarchism to produce from within a compelling vision of future religion, ethnic identification, or cultural community, or a future vision of kinship, sexuality, procreation, or socialization relations, or even a future vision of production, consumption, or allocation relations. But regarding attaining, implementing, and protecting against the abuse of shared political agendas, adjudicating disputes, and creating and enforcing norms of collective interaction, it seems to me that anarchism ought to be where the visionary action is.
Nonetheless, has there been any serious anarchist attempt to explain how legal disputes should be resolved? How legal adjudication should occur? How laws and political coordination should be attained? How violations and disruptions should be handled? How shared programs should be positively implemented?
In other words, what are the anarchist’s full set of positive institutional alternatives to contemporary legislatures, courts, police, and diverse executive agencies? What institutions do anarchists seek that would advance solidarity, equity, participatory self-management, diversity, and whatever other life-affirming and libratory values anarchists support, while also accomplishing needed political functions?
Up to the present even the best of anarchism has often been only a rejection of oppression not a vision of liberation. Alexander Berkman writes: “In all times and in all places, whatever be the name that the government takes, whatever has been its origin or its organization, its essential function is always that of oppressing and exploiting the masses, and of defending the exploiters and oppressors. Its principle characteristic and indispensable instruments are the policeman and the tax collector, the soldier and the prison.” Okay, how then can one organize political functions in accord with anarchist values?
Prodhoun writes “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied upon, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censored, commanded, all by creatures that have neither the right nor wisdom nor virtue…. To be governed means that at every move, operation, or transaction, one is noted, registered, entered in a census, taxed, stamped, priced, assessed, patented, licensed, authorized, recommended, admonished, prevented, reformed, set right, corrected. Government means to be subjected to tribute, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, pressured, mystified, robbed, all in the name of public utility and the general good. Then at the first sign of resistance or word of complaint, one is repressed, despised, vexed, pursued, hustled, beaten up, garroted, imprisoned, shot, machine gunned, judged, sentenced, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed, and to cap it all, ridiculed, mocked, outraged, and dishonored. That is government, this is its justice and morality!” Fair enough, but then how do we self govern, how do we self manage ourselves and our societies?
Errico Maletesta tells us “What we want, therefore, is the complete destruction of the domination and exploitation of person by person; we want people united … by a conscious and desired solidarity, all cooperating voluntarily for the well being of all; we want society to be constituted for the purpose of supplying everybody with the means for achieving the maximum well being, the maximum possible moral and spiritual development; we want bread, freedom, love, and science — for everybody.” Yes, yes, but how?
Huge numbers of citizens of developed societies are not going to risk what they have, however little it may be in some cases, to pursue a goal about which they have no clarity. How often do they have to ask us what we are for before we give them some serious, sufficiently extensive, carefully thought through, and compelling answers?
Offering a political vision that encompasses key structures for legislation, implementation, adjudication, and enforcement, and that shows how each would be effectively accomplished in a non-authoritarian way promoting positive outcomes would not only provide our contemporary activism much-needed long-term hope, it would also inform our immediate responses to today’s electoral, law-making, law enforcement, and court system, and thus many of our strategic choices.
So shouldn’t today’s anarchist community be generating such political vision? I think it should, and I eagerly hope such an anarchist political vision will be forthcoming soon. Indeed, I suspect that until there is a widespread component of anarchism that puts forth something positive and worthy regarding political goals, the negative component decrying all political structures and even all institutions will remain highly visible and will greatly reduce potential allegiance to anarchism.
Some will say in reply that anarchism has more than enough vision already. Too much vision will constrain ingenuity and innovation. I respond that this is the same type mistake as dumping political structures, or all institutions, or all technology, or all reforms. The problem isn’t vision per se. The problem is vision that is held and owned only by elites and that serves only elites. Public, accessible vision which truly serves the whole populace, political and otherwise, is precisely what we need.
21st Century Anarchism
So what about good anarchism’s potentials? I guess I would say that if anarchism has truly recognized the need for culture-based, economy-based, and gender-based, as well as for polity-based concepts and practice, and if anarchism can support vision originating in other movements about non-governmental social dimensions while itself providing compelling political vision, and if the anarchist community can avoid strange confusions over technology, political structures, institutions per se, and seeking to win non-reformist reforms-then I think anarchism has a whole lot going for it and could well become a main 21st century source of movement inspiration and wisdom in the effort to make our world a much better place.
As to parecon and anarchism, I think parecon is consistent with the impetus I describe above as characterizing the worthy and desirable anarchism and that parecon even constitutes, with that usage of the label anarchist, an anarchist economic vision that minimizes class and other economy related hierarchy to a minimum and that would be consistent with and even propel other anarchistic aspirations as well. Parecon is, I think, in these senses anarchist economics as well as solidarity economics, diversity economics, equitable economics, self managed economics, and sustainable economics.
Above I suggested that anarchism ought to be associated with identifying structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination throughout life and with challenging them as conditions and the pursuit of justice permit. Anarchism would seek to eliminate subordination based on political and economic power, power relations among men and women and between parents and children, power among cultural communities, power over future generations, and much else as well. I then suggested that emerging from this were different strands of activism. One, I argued, went from the above to rejecting technology, institutions, and reforms per se. Without further evidence that this negative type of anarchism exists some may wonder if I am fabricating an unreal position. I therefore offer these addendum comments to address such views head on.
The most visible advocate and exemplar of what I called “not so desirable anarchism” has of late been John Zerzan. Of course other folks are also in this camp, but sticking to Zerzan’s work should amply display the most touted arguments behind the positions I labeled distasteful as in not only wrong but counter productive to efforts to build movements.
Zerzan starts out by reasonably rejecting all authoritarian constraints on human well being and development. This is admirable, of course, but where does he wind up?
Zerzan rejects technology per se. He rejects all institutions that distinguish different tasks and responsibilities for different actors, which is all institutions per se. He derivatively contributes to rejecting the idea of all reforms because no institution is worthy of improvements, so no improvements are worthy of our time.
But even beyond these three themes, Zerzan also rejects language, math, and even counting items or registering time passage. I think all these rejections repeat the same error that other opponents of all technology, all institutions, and all reforms also make, though Zerzan does it most relentlessly. Let’s see.
Zerzan tells us “that technology has never been neutral, like some discreet tool detachable from its context. It always partakes of and expresses the basic values of the social system in which it is embedded. Technology is the language, the texture, the embodiment of the social arrangements it holds together.”
This is unobjectionable as far as it goes, but it neglects another point that Zerzan never returns to. Yes, technologies bear the mark of the society they are born and used in. How could it be otherwise? However, technologies not only reflect those societies’ attributes, including their worst, but also often meet real needs and expand real potentials. So you get electric chairs to kill people and assembly lines to constrain them, but you also get warm clothes for people to wear, and penicillin to enhance their longevity.
Zerzan says technologies are contextual, and of course they are. They arise in some social setting. Technologies don’t spring spontaneously from nothing with no lineage and imprint. Nor are technologies utilized in social vacuums. Zerzan is thus correct that each technology, whether a pencil or a shoe lace much less a guided missile or an assembly line, bears a social inscription carrying diverse imprints of the motives of its conception, production, and utilization — part of which generally reflect the defense of social elites but another part of which often reflect the accomplishing of needed functions.
We should therefore expect technologies conceived, produced, and utilized in feudal times to be different than those in prehistoric times or than those in capitalist times. This is elementary.
Zerzan moves on, however, to a point that is not at all elementary. He says, “the idea that [technology] is neutral, that it is separable from society, is one of the biggest lies available. It is obvious why those who defend the high-tech death trap want us to believe that technology is somehow neutral.” This is disingenuous hand-waving, I think, or else evidences an immense confusion.
That is, when someone says that technology per se is neutral, they of course mean that technology does not by its internal logic have to serve only dominating elites. Technology can serve any constituency including broad populations. Technology can arise in any social setting and system, and can accomplish diverse tasks that can be beneficial or horrendous, humane or cruel, liberating or stultifying.
Technology isn’t necessarily prehistoric, or feudal, or capitalist, or anything else other than always a product of human design and labors, and having a human origin imposes on technology no particular social direction, no universal social stamp.
Zerzan rightly notices that our contemporary technologies encapsulate forces at play in our own contemporary societies. He wrongly concludes, however, that all technology must forever and always be as our technology is now. It is therefore not true that if we don’t like specific instances of our technology now, to get rid of them we must dispense with all technology per se and forever.
The most obvious way to discern the unwarranted leap in Zerzan’s claim is to note that without technology humans would have no clothes, no source of power outside their own muscles, and not even agriculture to renew their muscles. Life would be brutish, isolated, and short. Disease would be rampant. Communication, mobility, knowledge, music, art, play, and pretty much everything else would be harshly limited.
This alone ought to close the case, of course, that eliminating technology per se is not the way to avoid the ills of harmful technologies. But another way to see the point rests on examining Zerzan’s logic.
Suppose I were to say that all human thought, all human expression, emotion, and even locomotion, manifests an imprint of the society in which it occurs. This is certainly equally true as saying that all technology bears such a societal imprint. Do I next follow Zerzan to deduce from the fact that it is socially imprinted – like technology is — that all human thought, expression, emotion, and even locomotion must always embody oppressive attributes so that I should reject them all in the same way that Zerzan says we should reject technology?
Or do I assert that in desirable social settings (and to a degree even in undesirable ones) human thought, expression, emotion, and even locomotion also have wonderful and essential attributes that we certainly don’t want to reject, and that in good environments the defining features can become overwhelmingly positive making the idea of rejecting them utterly ridiculous?
I prefer the latter logic, both for human attributes and for technologies.
Zerzan, in contrast consistently prefers the former logic. His mistake is to rightly notice various horrible technologies but then wrongly attribute the problem they pose not to mutable social structures and institutions which impose the bad features on the technologies and the bad technologies on us, but to the category of technology per se.
Consistent manifestation of this leap from disliking instances of some category to rejecting the whole category would lead to rejecting pretty much everything that is social or otherwise a product of human exchange and thought but which frequently turns up with horrible aspects in contemporary societies, and would thus imply wanting humans to revert to a kind of pre-humanity state. Amazingly, Zerzan follows exactly that trajectory.
Thus, Zerzan offers that “my working hypothesis is that division of labor draws the line [between a desirable prehistory and everything since], with dire consequences that unfold in an accelerating or cumulative way. Specialization divides and narrows the individual, brings in hierarchy, creates dependency and works against autonomy.” And he continues by deducing that “tools or roles that involve division of labor engender divided people and divided society.”
That is, again, Zerzan drags partial truths to outrageous conclusions. Of course typical corporate divisions of labor diminish and even destroy individual and social potentials. Zerzan points out, for example, that “the first `breakthrough’ for me was in terms of the Industrial Revolution in England. Namely, it became clear that the factory system was introduced in large part as a means of social control. The dispersed craftsmen were deprived of their autonomy and brought together in factories to be de-skilled and disciplined. This shows that technology was not at all `neutral’.”
Perhaps Zerzan first encountered the brilliant expression of such ideas a quarter century ago in the same places I first did, for example, in the wonderful essay by Steven Marglin, “What do bosses do?” or in Harry Braverman’s Monthly Review work. But if so, he missed the key insight that the imposed division of labor served specific social relations and elites, and that the problem posed for suffering humanity wasn’t that different people were doing different tasks per se, but was the particular limited combinations of tasks that most of the people were compelled to do, as well as the pittance they received for it.
Zerzan is right, of course, that (corporate and sexist and racist) divisions of labor have buttressed hierarchy, imposed dependency, and impeded autonomy. And he is right that of course many institutions incorporate these damaging divisions of labor and therefore deserve rejection.
But beyond this, virtually all institutions involve roles that diversify people’s tasks and responsibilities. To jump from the correct and familiar insight that some divisions of labor are horrible so that institutions embodying them are unworthy, to more comprehensively claiming that no division of labor at all can be abided and therefore all institutions are unworthy, says that each individual must, in essence, either do everything for him or herself or at least only randomly seize on doing this and that without lasting institutional coordination with others. It rejects roles per se and leads to an anti-institutional, anti-social, and I think ultimately even anti-human stance.
So rather than solely rejecting imposed divisions of labor that are contrary to our aspirations, which would be fine, Zerzan argues all divisions of labor of any kind have to go.
Should we reject divisions of labor that relegate many to obedience and to rote boredom while privileging an elite few with empowering and engaging endeavors? Of course we should. About this Zerzan and I presumably agree. But the way to do this isn’t to have everyone do everything with no differentiation of different people’s responsibilities. And the way to do it is not to ignore that people have diverse tastes and inclinations and that they rightly wish to express these in their actions. And it is not to forego garnering the worthy gains that can accrue from taking advantage of skills and training.
Why throw out the baby of productivity and individuality/diversity with the bathwater of alienation/hierarchy? Why not divide tasks into jobs that are balanced for empowerment and quality of life implications (to eliminate hierarchy), and that are self-managed (to eliminate alienation and authoritarianism), even as they also respect different actor’s personal tastes (to further diversity and benefit from creativity)? Get rid of the hierarchy inducing aspects – the bathwater – of course. But keep the fulfilling and beneficial attention to different people’s preferences and the utilization of diversity to increase the breadth of our collective experiences and to also increase output and diminish required labor.
So why does Zerzan pose the problem as no division of labor versus a bad division of labor (and similarly as no technology versus bad technology), rather than as a bad division of labor versus a good division of labor (or as bad technology versus good technology)?
One possible line of thought leading someone to propose such limiting polarities would be to notice the one thing that all divisions of labor (and all technologies) have in common, which is their being a human and social creation, and deciding that this commonality somehow inevitably infects them with harmful aspects. I am not sure Zerzan believes this, nor sure if it matters much, however, what he believes, because in any event, whether intended or not, this is the practical and intellectual implication of his stance.
Thus, Zerzan says, “it seems evident that industrialization and the factories could not be gotten rid of instantly, but equally clear that their liquidation must be pursued with all the vigor behind the rush of break-out. Such enslavement of people and nature must disappear forever, so that words like production and economy will have no meaning.”
In other words, we not only have to eliminate bad economic activity that divides us into unequal classes, that exploits us, that despoils us, or that degrades us, all of which I certainly agree with, but we have to eliminate economic activity tout court. It is human artifacts that must go, it seems. As with technology and division of labor, so with economy as a whole, we must opt for all or nothing.
No more production for Zerzan. No more workplaces. And what do we put in their place? Foraging, it seems, because that bears no mark of specifically human invention. So Zerzan rejects tools and roles, technologies and institutions, and even production and economy, but amazingly, he doesn’t stop there.
Zerzan takes this line of thought all the way to its ultimate destinations, going well beyond the confusions of more typical the “not so desirable anarchism” discussed earlier.
Zerzan rejects even language, for example. He tells us that in “the process of transforming all direct experience into the supreme symbolic expression, language, monopolizes life. Like ideology, language conceals and justifies, compelling us to suspend our doubts about its claim to validity. It is at the root of civilization, the dynamic code of civilization’s alienated nature. As the paradigm of ideology, language stands behind all of the massive legitimation necessary to hold civilization together. It remains for us to clarify what forms of nascent domination engendered this justification, made language necessary as a basic means of repression.”
The problem is now civilization…that is, humans entwined in social arrangements of their own creation, conceived to allow each to pursue their lives as they will without having to operate atomistically or in opposition to all others. Since words are a big part of the glue of such arrangements, says Zerzan, let’s dispense with them rather than try to fulfill their potential.
“Words bespeak a sadness; they are used to soak up the emptiness of unbridled time. We have all had that desire to go further, deeper than words, the feeling of wanting only to be done with all the talk, knowing that being allowed to live coherently erases the need to formulate coherence,” says Zerzan.
And of course one doesn’t want to live by words alone, or bread alone, or technology alone, or anything else alone. But that is not the same as wanting to entirely dispense with each.
Likewise, of course we express sadness in words, but also in deeds and feelings. Should we thus relegate not only words, but also deeds and feelings to Zerzan’s junkyard?
And consciousness is surely also often a bulwark of existing oppressions. Consciousness sometimes manifests sadness and is often used in authoritative ways. Let’s lobotomize ourselves, too.
For that matter, why not notice that sexual intercourse has very often been fraught with painful ramifications, not to mention outright violations, and virtually universally to date in history with asymmetries of power? Why not dump sex too? Shortly thereafter there will be no more humans, and, Zerzan is correct, also no more human suffering.
Terminating just short of this species suicide, Zerzan’s agenda, or hope, seems to me to be that we should end divisions of labor, reject technology, discard institutions, silence language, eliminate numbers, reject time, and perhaps dispense consciousness — though not reproduction — returning to prehistoric relations. And the mainstream media says Zerzan is an exemplar of anarchism. No wonder.
If you think I exaggerate all this, judge for yourself. Zerzan says, “my tentative position is that only a rejection of symbolic culture [that is, language] provides a deep enough challenge to what stems from that culture.” Thus: reject language. Or “only a politics that undoes language and time and is thus visionary to the point of voluptuousness has any meaning.” Not just language, but time too.
Wordplay is all well and good for provocative or aesthetic exercises or for entertainment. But Zerzan claims to be challenging the realities that crush out people’s lives. Being revolutionary on behalf of liberty carries a responsibility, it seems to me, to attend to reality.
Zerzan rejects numbers too. To explain why, he tells us that “Euclid developed geometry — literally, `land measuring’ — to measure fields for purposes of ownership, taxation, and the assignment of slave labor.” And: “When members of a large family sit down to dinner, they know immediately, without counting, whether someone is missing. Counting becomes necessary only when things become homogenized.” Can this be serious? Apparently so. The thought pattern is by now familiar, after all.
Zerzan rightly notes that numbers can be used in harmful or alienating ways and to service authority and power. Anyone would conclude that in some pursuits we are better off without numbers. We shouldn’t try to quantify love, dignity, etc. Fair enough. But Zerzan wrongly extrapolates that we’d be best off without numbers all the time. Goodbye to language, goodbye to numbers and time, goodbye to technology and institutions…why not to sex too, I guess Zerzan thinks that would be an unpopular stance. The fact that the rest is popular in some quarters is what is perhaps most astounding of all.
In the early part of this chapter I commented on important confusions about technology, institutions, and reforms that I think are diminishing the affectivity of a particular strain of “distasteful anarchism,” and also on the more positive insights about breadth of focus, new vision, and non-reformist reforms that give another strain of anarchism the potential to become central to successful activism in years ahead.
Zerzan’s thinking examined here may or may not typify why some folks hold the not so desirable views they do about technology, institutions, and reforms. I have no way of knowing that for sure. But the views are prevalent and Zerzan is most forthright, and the Zerzan quotations I employed are from various essays and interviews all available on the internet. Hopefully the stance will go away in time.