Communist fanzine by Paul Petard.
The Whinger #04 2004
John Zerzan and the primitive confusion, by En Attendant - Paul Petard
Paul Petard reviews a pamphlet criticising the primitivism of John Zerzan.
This Chronos pamphlet, John Zerzan and the primitive confusion is a reprint of a French text which was translated in September 2000 to coincide with a talk in London by the political neo-primitivist John Zerzan. The talk was hosted by U.K. Green Anarchist and Zerzan's subject was the Green Anarchist movement in America. The text dealt critically with two of John Zerzan's books, "Future Primitive" and "Elements of Refusal", and criticised them for being an ideological re-writing of the history of humanity.
I made the mistake myself of going to the talk in London, and I was disappointed to find Zerzan, and more particularly his U.K. Green Anarchist hosts, talking some tiresome tosh against ALL technology, against ALL towns and cities, against any agriculture except the most basic smallest scale subsistence horticulture, against electricity, against language, rationality, logic, against any large or sophisticated human interaction. The only valid thing for them being very small neo-primitive subsistence groups and isolated individuals as a compulsory universal model for everyone. All those who don't conform to this are to be despised and regarded as the enemy.
As I have argued before elsewhere, I am opposed to the despotic policy proposal of some "communists" that hermits ought to be eaten for protein because they are outside community, to the contrary I am very much in favour of leaving alone the eccentric individualists and isolationists and those who need a bit of temporary solitude. But those who are not into this and want to live freely in larger communities are not necessarily the enemy.
Now what is the solution to the world's problems as far as the political neo-primitivist is concerned?- why it is the very presence in the world of the humans that is the problem. And if the majority of the humans conveniently disappeared then that would solve the problems. There's quite a few neo-primitivist characters who will wring their hands with glee in a doom mongering fatalist way at the prospect of ecological disaster. They hope major catastrophe will teach the majority of those stupid humans a lesson and destroy all their towns and houses. Certainly there are plenty of things for us to worry about and act upon in the world today, but doomsday politics is a con.
We spoke up and tried to put the case for umbrellas as aesthetically pleasing and practically useful objects the knowledge of which comes to us because of the complex productive interaction and intelligent discourse of many humans. You can if you choose make the things out of "natural" materials like bamboo and stuff. But some of the green anarcho-puritans in the room wouldn't have it; umbrellas were wicked and evil and part of civilization and there be devils among us. Another comrade pointed out how Zerzan's talk was based on a deeply pessimistic view of humanity; nearly everything these humans do they nearly always do bad.
It should be asked whether Green Anarchist themselves might be more correctly titled Green Bolshevist. They have ended up constructing the perfect ready-made megalomaniac misanthropic petty-terrorist ideology. An ultra-green elite vanguard, themselves of course, can sneer at the rest of "civilised" humanity, and everything and everybody living in the modern world becomes a legitimate target. Mind you an ideology like this can become tempting for a few minutes if you ever find yourself squashed up on a crowded commuter train full of accountants and systems analysts stuck outside a station one morning.
Anyway back to the pamphlet; "John Zerzan And The Primitive Confusion". Here En Attendant argue that Zerzan is engaging in an ideological re-writing of the history of humanity, he makes use of different research works by prehistorians, anthropologists and philosophers with the sole aim of establishing a pre-conceived idea of what humanity is all about, has been and will become. The trouble is pre-history is a field of very shifting knowledge and based on extremely fragmented traces, animal and human bones and carved stones. The ideas we have of prehistoric periods cannot be precise, the picture keeps changing and new complicated questions get thrown up.
The text accuses Zerzan of wanting to paint an idyllic picture of the origins of humanity and therefore only seeking elements that will permit him to paint this picture. "For Zerzan, scientific discoveries are just a way to develop his ideology... clearly he will take no account of what hinders him, he will reserve the right of using the argument of scientific authority when it will be convenient for him, and to reject it when it will cease to be convenient to him. Here is the essential of Zerzan's "method", which can be found in all his texts." The authors make a comparison of Zerzan's method, "scientific activity put at the service of an ideology", with that of a character like Lysenko.
Zerzan wants to presume that a vegetarian gathering rather than hunting must have been the natural state of ancient humanity, so he wants to ignore or play down evidence of hunting activity before Neanderthals. The text accuses Zerzan of deliberately ignoring, for instance, evidence of hunting by Homo habilis, the very first humans, at the site of Olduvai in Tanzania 1.8 million years ago, and also at the site of Vallonnet 950,000 years ago (Neanderthals not emerging until about 400,000 years ago). "One can see clearly that even by dating back humanity to its most ancient representative he does not manage... to demonstrate the existence of "good" humanity which he is looking for... The surest way of being wrong in the face of whatever reality is to want at all costs to make it say something."
Zerzan's thesis in "Future Primitive" is basically that "progress" and division of labour, domestication, symbolic culture, were consciously, intelligently and deliberately refused until fairly recently in human existence. En Attendant point out the potential contradiction in this; how can you consciously and intelligently refuse something you have no knowledge of? And no specific evidence has been found suggesting temporary experiments by ancient humans with agriculture which were then abandoned and refused, which is not to say it may never have happened. But they go on to argue; "In fact, as soon as humans have practised agriculture or the rearing of animals, they have never gone "backwards". We have cases at the beginning of the Neolithic era of sedentary humans also practising gathering and hunting but these groups afterwards evolved solely towards agriculture." And they claim; "Settled culture, once it is formed, is never abandoned."
Now I am not sure this last generalised claim is strictly true. One can look at an example in modern Mongolia: since the fall of Stalinism thousands of Mongolians have left the planned urban housing blocs and the failed industrialisation projects and have taken up a new modern semi-nomadic travelling/ herding lifestyle. They haven't become primitive again or rejected technology, they still drive vehicles and listen to the radio etc. Meanwhile worldwide, millions of "settled" workers are now being pushed by economic pressures to uproot themselves and become modern transient economic refugees. Of course, this is not neo-primitivism.
As to the question of agriculture, just why did it develop in the first place? The passage to the Neolithic era still remains quite a mystery. There are only theories. The theory that the development of agriculture was provoked by climate change is dismissed by En Attendant. They suggest there were at least 15 significant climate changes in the relevant period, but agriculture didn't develop in each case. Nonetheless is this dismissal acceptable? Climate change may well have been a catalyst in the birth of agriculture, particularly if it coincided with cross pollination of certain plants creating new varieties particularly suited to agriculture that hadn't existed before. So maybe it does take at least 15 climatic changes over 3 million years to help successfully kick off this agriculture thing.
What they do say about the development of agriculture is: "Human societies seem to aspire more to their own conservation, to the upholding of their own structures than to the domination of the surrounding environment.... What took place during the Neolithic era, is that the conservation of the social structures went through the domination of the natural environment, a domination that in turn brought about the creation of new structures"
The text scoffs at Zerzan's notion of a "face-to-face society", his desire to "live in the present", his affinity for the spontaneity of the hippies, his like of psychedelic drugs, his individualism etc. They also sneer at Zerzan for being, as they put it, an "American feminist". Here in my opinion the text actually starts taking an ugly turn. The authors slag Zerzan for being "moralistic" for seeing "evil" in stocking (no stupid, not "stockings", but stocking; storing and hoarding etc.), in agriculture, in complex organisation etc. But are they not being "moralistic" and puritan themselves in scoffing at psychedelic drugs (according to them psychedelic drugs are all a C.I.A. plot), at youth movements, at the practical preference some may have for organising in smaller groups, at "individualism"?
The authors show their own miserable big-bourgeois collectivist prejudices in their sneering at "individualism". They sneer at "wounded individualism" and the isolated "vegetable". But it is not just peasants and small farmers in the third world who have a real material need to defend their remaining individual space and petit informal reserves against the relentless encroachment and enclosure against them. Individualised and atomised workers under dispersed fordism in the developed world also have perfectly good reason to defend their individual space and what little reserves, whether social or individual, they have left against further encroachment by both corporate capital and state capital. It is part of the process of defending both the individual and the social wage, and what amounts in part to an informal strike fund, while under capital.
This "individualism" of the individual peasant or the individualised worker, defending what remains of their petit reserves, can only be regarded as "reactionary" to the extent that you are mad, bad and stupidly Marxist enough to think that enclosure by big capital and state capital is in any way "progressive". For instance, only a very sentimental variety of ultra-leftist would think it in workers' interests to demand lower individual wages and less housing in order to bring themselves closer to "communism". And here paradoxically, in their sneering at modern "individualism", En Attendant end up slipping into their own backward looking trajectory.
The individual spaces and petit reserves of the modern atomised individualised worker are there to be subtly subverted and detourned into something socially radical, ultimately to be turned against capital and state. They should not be despised or scapegoated as the cause of all the social ills. In this respect it is the collectivist marxists and the collectivist sociologists who are the ones who are really guilty of fetishising and exalting the abstract "individual" in order to scapegoat it. When vulgar ultra-left collectivists adopt a puritan stance of being anti "individualism", all they are really doing is ganging up with collective capital, with social democratic politicians, and with the clergy. Their solution to the problem of individual alienation is merely to suppress it under a collective alienation, a collectivist property, or some bureaucratic collectivist gang. The question of workers' individual pride and individual dignity is not just a question of conservatism. At the same time the social solidarity and mutual aid of the exploited and oppressed in struggle is not necessarily the same as collectivism. Meanwhile doesn't the Stalinist union bureaucrat always attack the autonomous wildcat strikers for their "individualism" and parody them as "petty-bourgeois"?
In the future under "communism" if there is not a degree of tolerance for some individual space and some individual autonomy then the real sentient physical individual humans will be suffocated and crushed. And the supposed "communism" will have succeeded in suffocating and crushing itself in the process. So we are both pro radical individualist and pro-communist at the same time!! -and we revolt against the prejudice that this must be a contradiction. As for any form of collectivism that might have a radical side, like a wildcat strike committee that actually had some clout, we fear a lot of it of it died out in the early eighties. Only a weak rump remains.
En Attendant finish off, as one would expect, with a rant about "revolution": "When, for example, the revolution is done (which no doubt will be soon, of course) we will occupy ourselves intelligently re-afforesting the millions of hectares devastated by industrial agriculture, this will not be done by the action of "small isolated groups". And if, as an individual, I have the good fortune to participate in this collective action, I will be quite indifferent to inscribing my name on each tree I will have planted, and that besides, without doubt, I will not see reaching maturity. I will not feel less an individual for that."
Now maybe I'm being too paranoid in my reading of the above passage, but it does hint a little to me of some sort of state socialist collectivist labouring army, or mass compulsory work team; yuk! The painful truth is that a lot of the damage to the environment is semi-permanent and we are just going to have to live with a lot of it for some time into any post-industrial, post-capitalist situation (and the "revolution" might not at all be soon). Like old derelict mills dotted around the landscape, the big chunks missing from the ozone layer and rainforest will serve as grim follies and monuments reminding us of a different grim past.
En attendant also don't seem to appreciate how material conditions and physical scale, the quantity of resources and density of population for instance, may have some influence on the various social forms that might occur in a given situation. Maybe it is just possible to imagine a city of a million people being "managed" in a non-exploitative and non-hierarchical way, without capital and domination. But if the population grows beyond a critical point and gets too crowded won't it become increasingly difficult to "manage" it in this way? Even if such a city is run on egalitarian lines the physical pressure of overcrowding could still end up being harmful to both the humans and the environment, won't such pressures tend to harm and deform the egalitarianism? Even a hard left communist like Bordiga could see it would be useful to communism to reduce the massive population imbalance between urban areas and rural areas.
Paul, May 2004
Libcom note: Originally published in The Whinger #4 May 2004. Taken from the Antagonism website.
Lots of Awkward Questions - Paul Petard
Paul Petard on the fetishisation of proletariat (2004).
Today, are any struggles that might exist for communistic social relations exclusively the struggle of just one class, the famous grandiose "Proletariat" as "class for itself"? Or in reality, do pro-communistic struggles by necessity involve diverse radical social movements and awkward material struggles, which are likely in practise to contain elements from more than one "class"? Or is it the movement itself which defines the class?
In which case what are we to make of the conflicts in social and economic interests to be found in practise within the various movements and struggles? Can all questions of social difference and conflict be reduced exclusively to a question of "class"? Is there a "real movement" one can really put ones finger on, or is it just a romantic myth? And does the marxist mythology of the universal revolutionary "Proletariat", and total "Communism" after the "Revolution", bear any relation to the real need for practical solidarity and practical struggle in the present, however imperfect these may be?
Is there any good reason why what remains of small farmers, peasants, self employed artisans, permanently unemployed and so on, shouldn't be included in the struggles for communistic social relations alongside wage labourers in revolt? Despite growing encroachment and enclosure and dispossession it is not yet the case that all these people are fully proletarianised and fully absorbed into wage labour. Nonetheless, is it not the case that many of them are still capable of seeing the need for, and having a desire for, communistic relations? And struggles don't just stand by and wait for the supposedly convenient moment when dispossession of virtually everyone is complete, they break out anyway while the process is still going on.
Sometimes small farmers, peasants and artisans are capable of being pro-communistic, and this isn't necessarily dependent on their proletarianisation. The peasant has an objective direct interest in resisting the exploitation of the landlord and the userer even while they are still a peasant, and they might see the overall need for communistic social relations from the point of view of petit-bourgeois rationality. At this point the vulgar Marxist would jibe that the peasants and their friends aren't strong enough on their own to form a class capable of leading a revolution against the bourgeoisie. However the depressing evidence of recent years unfortunately suggests that a similar jibe could now be made about any supposedly universal revolutionary "Proletariat".
Also would it not also be useful for social revolts to aim to bring in and include some of the small farmers, who could provide good food for the social revolt to eat? You certainly won't get good healthy food from the ecodisaster of big industrial agribusiness, whether controlled by the capitalists or even by collective workers' self-management?
Today is it not the case that when social revolt breaks out it is not so much any more about forming and building class but more about destroying class? What it forms is less likely to be a clunky tanky "class-party" but instead a radical insurgent diverse mass of humanity. The bog standard ultra-left Marxist formulation that the "Proletariat" as the "universal" class comes together as a "class for itself" to "overthrow" Capital, impose the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat", and in the process succeeds in abolishes itself as a class, is a bag of very awkward and not at all satisfactorily explained contradictions. In reality there is a problem of class formation, and in reality there is never a perfectly fully formed Proletariat for itself.
Is it not actually the case that what we are seeing now is the mass of atomised individual exploited "proletarians" already engaging half way in the process of abolishing themselves as a class by conspicuously refusing to come together on a mono-class basis and impose the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" in the first place?!!! The workers have been unable to continue living up to the expectation the big employers once had of them; to act as a fine strong coherent corporatist body of fordist workers. Now, in addition, the workers are inclined to resist both capitalist work, and their apocalyptic supposed "historic mission", as laid down for them by marxism.
The workers strike against themselves, and as capital decays, the proletariat as human variable capital decays with it. As "Troploin" have put it; "no dynamic capital, then no dynamic proletariat"
And in reality wouldn't the "Dictatorship of the Proletariat" just turn out to be the ultimate collective capital?; capital revolutionising itself in the form of an intense bourgeoisie-less state capital? Increasingly many individual proletarians refuse or are unable to unite on the basis of a conservative workerist identification with, and fetishising of, their own fundamental impoverishment and misery under wage labour exploitation, a condition they despise so much that half the time many of them refuse to consciously even think about it any more.
Instead, if they openly revolt, in addition to direct industrial disputes, they are just as likely to
a) Express their suppressed needs and desires through proud individual rebellion, or radical hedonism, or individual semi-antagonistic lifestyle alternatives, or
b) Join together with other individual proletarians and a smaller number of disillusioned members of other classes in radical diverse social movements and social revolts.
The majority of workers are not individually paid up members of the official trade unions, nor are they members of any formal unofficial unions. For a variety of material and historical reasons the majority of workers are unlikely ever to become members of formal unions. The majority of individual trade union members are not actively involved in the organisation. It is increasingly visible to many workers that the trade unions are unable to win any significantly large gains for the majority of their own members, never mind the workers as a whole, only win and defend some temporary gains for certain "key" entrenched sectors. Some traditional industrial militancy does continue, like the recent wave of wildcat walkouts in the Post Office in the U.K. for example. But it is heavily sectoralised and contained and doesn't have as much leverage as it used to. Some of the industries in which it occurs, like the Post Office, just aren't as important today as they were ten or twenty years ago.
The decentralisation of much of production, together with new systems of "dispersed fordism" and "globalisation", have undermined the sectoral collective bargaining power of many workers. In the seventies if the miners in the U.K. went on strike they could bring down the government. Today if all the miners remaining in the U.K. went on strike how many people would even notice? Industrial militancy and fist waving alone don't necessarily make you strong, you also need some essential leverage. Some groups, like posties, transport workers, firefighters might still possess a degree of this. But the need to break out of exclusive industrialism and workerism has become obvious.
There are millions more workers who don't struggle openly. They remain silent, collapse in on themselves, become depressed or neurotic, or they turn to religion or drugs or alcohol, they burn out and become nervous
wrecks, go mad or become ill to the point they are no longer able to work efficiently or work at all. In the U.K., one of the industrialised developed centres and certainly not a "third world" country, on any given work day there is an average of 6 million workers and people of working age who are officially too sick to work, that's if you total up the long-term sick and unable to work with the short term sick and those phoning in sick. In 1980 in the U.K. there was 0.5 million of working age on long-term sickness benefit or incapacity benefit. Today the figure is well over 2 million. Against capitalist work and production, for many workers who do not have the strength to struggle openly, the weapon of default is growing ILLNESS. I am myself an unemployed temp worker getting older and tired and ill.
In the sixties and seventies and early eighties, the production line would often be stopped by a strong coherent body of workers forming a strike committee, or shopfloor assembly, or flying picket, or workers council. Today all over the world the production line is just as likely to be stopped by half the workers burning out and falling to pieces on the job, slowing down or even collapsing from exhaustion, while the other half desperately find ways of skiving off, dodging, running away and individually escaping. A dignified organised conscious worker activism or worker militancy, whether in the union or not, is no longer a realistic option for the majority because they are too tired or too burnt out or too drugged up or too ILL. Only a minority are still capable of maintaining it to any extent.
Workers' sickness becomes a major problem, both for them and for capitalist production. Even in social insurrectionary situations such as have recently occurred in Bolivia or Argentine, the formation of "workers councils", or autonomous "union committees" and "strike committees", or "peoples assemblies" is only half the story of the real crisis in the bulk of production. Yesterday production would be periodically interrupted by moments of class formation. Today millions of workers worldwide have been so burnt out and worked to the limits of exhaustion that production is increasingly being stopped indefinitely by physical class-collapse.
The "Proletariat" as a class are irrepairably fragmented, atomised, shattered. But the twist in the tale is that the "capitalists" are losing too. Despite all the humbug talk of "recovery", the social landscape is becoming less successfully dynamically "capitalist". It is becoming more lumpen-bourgeois BARBARIST instead. The social clashes, which in the first place were never strictly totally centred on one big supposed opposition of "Proletariat versus Capital", increasingly break down into a drawn out series of fractured conflicts between a dispersed diverse déclassé mass of billions of humans on the one hand, and a fractious collection of lumpen-bourgeois barbarist elites on the other. Neither a unitary action nor a unified consciousness is instantly possible.
Maybe the silver lining to this gloomy cloud is that we are not going to get one big "Dictatorship of the class-party" with its inherent neo-stalinist dangers, magically leading us to one big total centralist-integralist "Communism". Is it not instead the case that the potential in the real historic movements in the real world right now is for diverse dispersed free and open social revolts leading to many diverse dispersed free and open "communisms"?
Paul Feb 2004