Twilight of the Machines

“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 When everything is at stake, all must be confronted and superseded.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.

Comments 16

  • Prof Em Guy:
    Just like you’ve been saying–agriculture and it’s concomitant evil–the division of labor was the beginning of the end.This is worth examining in depth,which I intend to do.

  • We could always make about seven sequels to the Planet of the Apes!
    Independence Day came to our neighborhood last week. Festivities culminated with the US Army footing the bill for a typical $30-50,000 fireworks display that followed a for-private-profit country music concert at the local horse track. Because nobody dies directly, it is always perceived as an innocuous event. However, it is a yearly celebration of the violence with which we wrested this country from relatively non-ecocidal hands. Occasionally I will listen to said radio station as a cultural study of my local peers. Now that Obama is in office, the theme is: Every day is a good day to thank a soldier-God Bless what you have done for our country. There is a pro-war song that is popular now called, “What brothers are for.” -It reminds me of the recent ads from Raytheon recruiting soldiers wounded in war to help them build missiles.
    Every creature inhabits an ecological space. There is a poorly termed permaculture principle that everything gardens. It is the hunting mountain lions to protect livestock aspect of agriculture that unravels the food web here. If we take pride in ownership, I find little fault or harm in planting several seeds and truly inhabiting a place. Perhaps if no one couple would plant more than two of their own kind…

  • bubbleboy:
    I’m so happy to tell you that they are obviously not your peers.
    That’s why it’s a privilege for me to share this blog site with you.
    I enjoy your blogs.

  • So Guy after reading your blog for the last two years and knunstler ect I have a question for you. How do you hope to live a “sustainable life” on a planet and in a universe that does not allow it? We live on a planet that is a timebomb under our feet. The real earth is 8,000 miles of molten rock with a thin solid crust on top with some green plants,water sloshing around in the oceans and a very thin layer of O2. When a volcanic eruption takes place we are seeing the real face of nature and not the illusion when looking out the window. So what happens? Now and then we get a super volcanic event that poisons the atmosphere( yellowstone basin as an example) or we are smashed by an asteroid or comet the size of Mount Everest and all advanced life forms including us,the whales,polar bears and redwoods are wiped out just like clockwork. This can happen next month or in 5 million years but it always happens. We cannot save ourselves or any other creature in the long run without saving a highly technical society that allows us to detect the threat and deal with it. Your ideas of sustainability are a dead end for us and every other living thing on this planet.
    Now I must say that I do believe that having 7 billion people on this planet is unworkable( 1 billion would be much better) as is the concept of endless growth in a world with limited resources but what I stated above is still the truth.

  • When I stand on the coast and watch the whales pass by or visit the giant sequoias it occurs to me that being the only creature that can build a telescope or a rocket on this planet gives man the “obligation” to save himself and what he sees. You cannot do that by retreating to a primitive life for you are then just existing and running out the clock until an event I described above happens. To me you have then failed and failed every other living thing in this world.

  • Greg Breneman, I certainly accept that sustainability is an illusion, as ensured by the laws of thermodynamics. I get the distinct impression you’d like you use technology to overcome those laws. Good luck with that.
    Given the false promise of sustainability, we’re left with durability instead. We can live durable lives, as individuals, societies, and even species. In the long run, as John Maynard Keynes pointed out so succinctly, we’re all dead. And, although he wasn’t thinking this broadly, the long run applies to societies and species as well as individuals.
    So, then. What to do, what to do?
    Technology clearly is a threat to the durability of human societies and our species. It is perhaps the gravest threat. So I’m not interested in technosolutions, which offer the same illusory hope as sustainability. But societies of humans — indeed the entire species — lived durably on the land for a couple million years before the development of agriculture. We’ll return to the cave again, likely sooner rather than later, and that will be a great day for every non-industrial culture and species on the planet.
    Does this mean I’m running out the clock? As opposed to what, exactly? I tried the mainstream environmental mantra for the better part of a two-decade career — and I had plenty of company, by the way — and all we got was more people, more technology, more economic growth, more death, and more extinction. It’s unclear to me what you are proposing. Signing petitions? Holding rallies? Boycotting Wal-Mart? Begging Congress to implement measures to curb carbon dioxide levels? Convincing Obusha to strive for a steady-state economy? Convince me any of these work for the good of non-industrial cultures and species on Earth, and I’ll be on the front lines. Again.
    Are these easy issues? Will it be easy to convince the majority of Homo industrialus to return to the cave, merely to save the living planet? Or, better yet, to convince Homo industrialus to actively bring down western civilization by any means necessary? I hardly think so. But I have yet to read a single alternative that might help our children, much less the living planet.
    No, retreating will not save the planet. But my retreat is also a strategic retreat, to a place I will defend. It is the source of my water and my food and my community. My picket pin goes here. If everybody would do the same — hell, if anybody would do the same — at least a few places would be defended against the industrial death machine. And that, Greg Breneman, would be better than the current situation, in which no place is defended.

  • Nihilism wins every argument, but what does it get you?
    Even pigs know not to soil the place in which they sleep.
    Nietzsche characterized nihilism as emptying the world and especially human existence of meaning, purpose, comprehensible truth, or essential value. He hints that nihilism can become a false belief, when it leads individuals to discard any hope of meaning in the world and thus to invent some compensatory alternate measure of significance.

  • Nietzsche’s complex relationship with nihilism can be seen in his statement that “I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!”.

  • Ok Guy so we are all at a crossroads. We are not the only intelligent and clever species in the universe that has had to face this problem for I am sure it has happened elsewhere in numbers to big to count. It leaves two possible paths as I see it.
    1) The intelligent and clever species consume their fossil fuels too quickly while failing to move on to a higher technical level that allows them to tap into the staggering energy being radiated into space from all the stars in the universe. They then find themselves returning to the cave as you say. The final effect of this however is that it also makes them irrelevant since they will never meet any other species or achieve much. There luck at some point runs out as well as that of any other living thing on their world when their planet suffers the usual asteroid/comet impacts and volcanic events which would exist everywhere else in the universe.
    2) They use fossil fuels as a stepping stone to that higher technical level before or perhaps AFTER they have suffered a collapse and massive population reduction which allows them to proceed with out as great a burden on themselves or their environment. If they have tapped into the energy of the stars then the only limitation on their survival would be how long the universe lasts.
    I have always wondered how this planet earth which you would think has universal value not only to us but to others could sit here for 4 billion years while perhaps being habitable for the last ten percent of that time and not have some other species come along some time ago and claim it for their own shoving us out of the way. The only answer I can come up with is that some percentage of species which is unknown fall into group 1) above having no ability to get here or even save themselves while species in group 2) also an unknown number have the ability to build their own worlds to suit them(Dyson spheres perhaps). They would have no interest living on an unstable ball of rock subject to all its limitations. Lets remember something,this planet is all we know and that colors are perceptions about what we think we can do or even what we should do.

  • Prof Em Guy: Why do you and others who are avowed atheists (not only is there not THE God, but there isn’t even A god), use Biblical narrative as backup evidence for your positions? “Fall from Eden as a demise of hunter-gatherer life, with its subsequent expulsion into agriculture and hard labor”, and “Cain murdered Abel and then founded the first city”.
    You say, “war is required, for the first time in human history, by agriculture.” Why is war required by agriculture? And aren’t you and I and anyone who maintains a subsistence garden and/or orchard practicing agriculture?
    bubbleboy: You stated: “Now and then we get a super volcanic event that poisons the atmosphere…or we are smashed by an asteroid or comet the size of Mount Everest and all advanced life forms … are wiped out just like clockwork. This can happen next month or in 5 million years but it always happens.” What is your evidence that “this always happens,” and how many times has it already happened, that it has created a pattern that we should expect to see repeated?
    I’m just full of questions today. :)

  • Wendy I am the one that said that species get wiped out like clockwork so I will answer your question. As we orbit the sun at 36,000 miles an hour we pass through objects crossing are path ranging in size from a grain of sand to the size of “Mount Everest” as I put it. Of course the number of large objects over time is much less than the small ones but the probability of a large strike increases with time.The dinosaurs were wiped out sixty million years ago by a strike on the yucatan in mexico perhaps with a little help from a super volcanic event that might have happening at the same time. The surface of the moon where there is no weathering from wind or water records strikes in the millions of various sizes. The earth was formed from the collision of this material when it was young. In Arizona we have the worlds best preserved impact crater up on I-40 near winslow. It is about three quarters of a mile across and 700 feet deep and was produced by a rock the size of large house traveling at 35,000 miles an hour when it hit. Every time I fly over it I am reminded of what the universe really has in store for us all unless we have the ability to do something about it. As for super volcanic events now and then a very large pool of molten rock from the earths interior gets close to the surface where the crust is thin and the result is a super volcanic event that pours so much gas into the atmosphere that life suffers worldwide, The entire yellowstone national park basin is an example of an area that is still active as well as the caldera that the white sands missile range occupies in new mexico as some local examples. This planet has also gone through multiple ice ages with ice two thousand feet thick at one time covering the area where I grew up in wisconsin. You can still see the moraines which are nothing but large hills filled with gravel that were bulldozed by the ice as it moved south. There is even some evidence that ice at one time covered the entire planet for quite some time.

  • Wendy:
    When Prof Em Guy
    (I know he’s proud of his new nickname,that you gave him)said agriculture requires war,he was referring to substantial agricultural wealth.
    Hope I don’t hurt your feelings by telling you that you don’t have to be concerned about a war over your garden.Maybe a naughty neighbor stealing a turnip at 3:00 AM,
    but that’s just annoying–not war.

  • Wendy, I “quote” the Christian bible as history. The story of Cain and Able, the story of the Fall, trading in a garden for a farm … all that is the story of agriculture, hence violence. Subsistence gardening is a great thing … scale up, though, and we start storing food, hence accumulating wealth, hence requiring a means to protect said wealth, and, well, you can see where that gets us.

  • Greg: Thank you for answering. I’ve been to Yellowstone, hiked on glaciers and volcanos, and got dumped on by Mt. St. Helens when she blew. So I agree, nature is a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more in control than we are. But we can’t give up just because we might get wiped out by any number of disasters at any moment, any more than I should never leave home because I might get run over by a truck. Or should I? H’mmm
    Bubbleboy: Sorry…go back to whatever it was you were doing…
    Frank: Whew! I am so relieved. :D By the way, my “naughty neighbors” are rabbits.
    Guy: Thanks for clarifying. But I might start a war with the rabbits.

  • Uncle Guy,
    Can you find and recite, here, from the first page of TWILIGHT OF THE MACHINES – the phrase that goes something like:
    ” … murderous ( obsession with? ) the future…” I loved it!… then lost it. Sorry – I went down the rabbit hole before even sniffing the dirt around the burrow. More later….

  • Dan Treecraft, the closest I could find within the first three chapters is this line from the Preface: “Specialization, domestication, civilization, mass society, modernity, technoculture … behold Progress, its fruition presented more and more 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.”