“The crisis deepens. Everyday life is plundered as much as the physical environment. Our predicament points us toward a solution. The voluntary abandonment of the industrial mode of existence is not self-renunciation, but a healing return.”
Thus begins John Zerzan’s 2008 manifesto, Twilight of the Machines. Those words are, interestingly, placed above the title on the book’s cover, which has the author’s head-shot photograph taken in a cave. Before turning the first page, the reader knows where this book is headed.
Zerzan is an anarchist, as indicated by the titles of two of his previous books: Against Civilization and Running on Emptiness. Feral House published both previous books, as well as Twilight of the Machines.
Following a two-page Preface, Twilight of the Machines is divided into two sections: “Origins of the Crisis” and “The Crisis of Civilization.” Part I describes how we got into this series of predicaments, dating to the division of labor in the Neolithic, and Part II takes a more contemporary approach.
But first, from the Preface: “Specialization, domestication, civilization, mass society, modernity, technoculture … behold Progress, its fruition presented more and more unmistakably. The imperative of control unfolds starkly, pushing us to ask questions equal to the mounting threat around us and within us. These dire times may yet reveal invigorating new vistas of thought and action. When everything is at stake, all must be confronted and superseded. At this moment, there is the distinct possibility of doing just that. … Clinging to politics is one way to avoid the confrontation with the devouring logic of civilization, holding instead with the accepted assumptions and definitions.”
Amen, brother. Seems the more dire our situation becomes — that is, the more we pillage the planet and our fellow human beings — the more we turn to politics for answers. But, as I’ve been intimating for years, there are no political solutions to the crises we face. If there is a politically viable solution to solving global climate change, energy decline, or the complete absence of community in America, please fill me in.
And yet, the cries continue for the Teflon president 2.0, the second coming of Ronald Reagan, to save us from ourselves. Get over it, people. We need to push the politicians and the politics out of the way. We need to abandon the system, albeit long after it has abandoned us.
But, back to Zerzan. With plenty of supporting citations, he traces the division of labor to the end of the Paleolithic (i.e., beginning of the Neolithic), coincident with the rise of agriculture and also the rise of organized violence against other humans. Agriculture plants the seeds of war because war is required, for the first time in human history, by agriculture. Once agriculture arrives, bringing with it substantial differences in quality of life for the two sexes, “another dichotomy appears, the distinction between work and non-work, which for so many, many generations did not exist.” Echoing his many predecessors, most notably Daniel Quinn, Zerzan interprets the Fall from Eden as a demise of hunter-gatherer life, with its subsequent expulsion into agriculture and hard labor. The victim bears the blame, a common historical pattern.
Shortly after Cain murdered Abel and then founded the first city, more cities began to dot the Mesopotamian landscape. The rewards of civilization allowed relatively few people to feed the majority, with the biggest rewards going to a select, powerful minority. From those days forward, cities have allowed, in Stanley Diamond’s words, “conquest abroad and repression at home.”
Once the Fall was complete, the battle lines were drawn. Feelings of gratitude toward a freely giving nature were replaced by the ethos of domestication. It’s humans against nature, as well as humans against other humans. The resultant top-down, power-based culture gradually led to development of the ultimate top-down, power-based culture. Monotheism conquered the West some two-and-a-half millennia ago.
I think most literate people know the causes and consequences of our dilemmas. There is nothing new in the first half of Twilight of the Machines. But Zerzan does a nice job articulating the disaster, yet again. And he does so with relatively few words and also with sufficient evidentiary support to satisfy most skeptics. Similarly, Zerzan offers a way forward in relatively few words: “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 the planet, human life appears to have been healthy and authentic. … 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 opportunity as a species.”
I couldn’t agree more. It is an all or nothing struggle. Continuing along the current path risks our living planet and our species, thus representing simultaneous ecocide and extinction of our own species. (There is no word in the English language for the latter phenomenon, I suppose because suigenocide sounds a bit too German.)
After briefly explaining the messes, and their likely causes, Zerzan calls for a voluntary return to primitivism. I’ve finally found somebody more optimistic than me. Whereas I think we’ll be riding the Stone-Age train quite soon, Zerzan thinks Homo industrialus will be fighting, er, bartering, for tickets aboard the train.
Perhaps we’ll power down with the tranquility of Buddhist monks. But my bet lies elsewhere.