Elements of Refusal
by John Zerzan
Second Edition, 1999 by CAL Press/Paleo Editions, POB 1446, Columbia, MO 65205, USA
Paperback / 308pp / $14.95 / ISBN 1-890532-01-0
'"They want to start a conflagration from these little brushfires," an FBI officer said, referring to one gang from Eugene, Oregon, prominent in the Seattle confrontations. "They are a strange bunch, no one really knows who they are. We call them the Forces of Darkness."' - from the UK newspaper the Evening Standard, December 1st 1999.
It's not surprising that in the wake of recent global uprisings this stroppy author and activist from the US town of Eugene in Oregon has become a focus for State and media attention. When black clad anarchists from his community in the Pacific Northwest started regularly fighting with cops, engaging in acts of property destruction and then eloquently articulating their opposition to the techno-industrial totality people took notice. And, much to his dismay, Zerzan would be described as the leader of these "Forces of Darkness". Well, it's a lot more complicated than that...
Zerzan has been instigating insurrection for decades. Never one to shy away from a debate, he's taken on local government, business, industry and reform-minded activists face-to-face in his own community; do-gooder leftists, class war anarchists, union goons, fluffy Earth First!ers and social ecologists in the pages of the alternative press; and sophist academics and other ineffectual post-modern intellectuals in his many books and pamphlets. As a result, his radical rhetoric and real commitment to turning theory into practice stands out.
For several years now Zerzan has been a contributing editor to Anarchy - A Journal of Desire Armed, and has become a leading proponent of the theoretical orientation known as anarcho-primitivism. Like his friend Ted Kaczynski, Zerzan is a revolutionary intellectual, and you can't separate the two terms and do justice to their work. They are revolutionaries and intellectuals. Strong, articulate and passionate, yet self-effacing in person, Zerzan calls to mind the image of an angry professor who might have just been fired from his job at university because he was just too good at subverting the dominant paradigm.
In Elements of Refusal, the first major collection of his essays, originally published in 1988, Zerzan outlines the framework of his cogent and powerful critiques of civilisation, Leftist political thought and contemporary culture. Written in a distinctly academic yet readable style, the book induces the reader to question not just authority, but also the very foundations society is built on. Zerzan has investigated pre-history and history in order to ascertain the roots of our estrangement from one another and the natural world. It is a daunting task, potentially full of political pitfalls. He constructs an argument that is often caricatured as calling for a return to the stone age, but by sheer force of common sense he succeeds in making a compelling case not for going back, but for moving forward, away from technological society and towards a future primitive. In contrast to the more 'woo-woo' and misanthropic aspects of the philosophy of deep ecology that has dominated some of the radical ecology scene in the US, Zerzan's anarcho-primitivist perspective has a distinct class consciousness. In his view, it's not humans in general who are responsible for social oppression and destructive ecological practices, but the civilising impulses of a certain dominant elite.
The book begins at the beginning by reviewing what is known about the origins of time, language, numbers, art and agriculture. These five essays first appeared as articles in Fifth Estate and are now classics, describing in rich detail how the taken-for-granted attitudes regarding the benefits of these phenomena have insidiously infected our consciousness.
In the first essay, Zerzan takes the reader on a guided tour of the history of time - that ubiquitous concept that alienates us from the here and now and is one of the earliest hallmarks of hierarchical social structures. We see it emerging in the calenderical stelae of the ancient Maya and in the advent of the seven-day week in civilisations of the pre-Christian Middle and Near East. Zerzan systematically traces the idea through to it's contemporary manifestation - 9 to 5 Western culture - showing how we all ended up as slaves to the clock - with our very subsistence tied to the hours we work in a week.
The second essay introduces the study of linguistics. A central theme in all Zerzan's theoretical work is a critique of symbolic representation, with language as the most omnipresent form. He is unwilling to accept that language was an inevitable outgrowth of human evolution, but sees in it's development one of the earliest expressions of the will to dominate. The fact that he is able to cite examples of non-articulated (verbally represented) thought in action, e.g. playing chess, using tools, composing music, adds credibility to this argument. He writes, "The process of transforming all direct experience into the supreme symbolic expression, language, monopolises life... As the paradigm of ideology, language stands behind all of the massive legitimisation necessary to hold civilisation together." As it is clear the rhetoric of politicians and the marketing strategies employed in our consumer culture are utterly dependent on the ability to manipulate through the sophisticated use of language, as an essential element of oppression, language itself is certainly deserving of his radical critique.The third essay concerns mathematics, observing that, "Human helplessness seems to be directly proportional to mathematical technology's domination over nature...". Mathematics has been one of the primary forces driving a now out-of-control technological society to the brink of social and ecological catastrophe; without it, chemistry and biotechnology wouldn't exist, nor would engineering or the nuclear industry. Building on the idea that symbolic representation is at the root of unegalitarian, ecologically destructive social relations he shows how representation finds its most abstract expression in numbers. Inherently reductionist and mechanistic, the world of numbers is cold and calculating. Not recognising how this translates into the realm of social relationships, Zerzan believes, may doom us all to a future where the boundaries between man and machine become increasingly blurred.
The fourth essay looks at art as "...[P]art of the symbolic matrix of estranged social life." Today's culture is a commodity, and Zerzan argues that art is the star commodity in a society saturated by images distancing us from what is real. While most elements in the counter-culture like to argue the artistic aesthetic experience somehow offers a more authentic and immediate appreciation of such venerable entities as truth and beauty, Zerzan disagrees. His detailed analysis of how art turns subject into object, beginning with the first ritual representations in art by the first cultural specialists, the shamans, undermines the idea of art as a benign form of individualistic expression and communication.
The fifth and final origins essay undertakes a global investigation of the advent of domestication. In the imperialist ideology of progress, the practice of agriculture is consistently depicted as one of humankind's "great evolutionary leaps forward." The idea is that through domestication, primitive man was able to conquer nature, thus securing the surplus food production that would facilitate the rise of civilisations - ostensibly the epitome of human cultural achievement. Again, Zerzan begs to differ, stating that, "Agriculture has been and remains a 'catastrophe' at all levels, the one which underpins the entire material and spiritual culture of alienation now destroying us", and argues that "liberation is impossible without its dissolution." Mainstream archaeological theory firmly supports Zerzan's contention that the domestication of plant and animal species led to the domestication of the human species. Hunter-gatherers, with their subsistence strategies geared toward procurement rather than production, living life within the bounds of nature rather than seeking to control it, exhibit egalitarian social relations. With the beginning of agricultural and pastoralist modes of production, we see the will to dominate nature and other humans emerge. All agricultural societies develop hierarchical (patriarchal) social structures resulting in the ideological control of the many by the few.
In the origins essays, Zerzan makes use of a great deal of anthropological and archaeological theory. What makes his work different from establishment thought in these disciplines is that it is relevant to the situation we all now encounter in the real world. For Zerzan, the past's role in the present is one of delegitimising domination and engendering resistance. Understanding how things came to be the way they are now is a necessary first step in destroying the contemporary power relationships that have a hold over our lives. Despite this Zerzan effectively resists engaging in an overly romantic depiction of the primitive. While in some senses it may well be a harsh life in the pre-civilised 'wild', it is also one where the dignity and autonomy of all species is valued; conformity, exploitation and mass society is devalued, and it therefore represents the closest humans have come to actualising social and ecological harmony.
The Resistance in Context
The second part of Elements of Refusal contains eleven essays that address the character of the resistance he played a part in defining. Here Zerzan recounts the history of the international labour movement that once held so much revolutionary promise, but that he personally witnessed degenerate into a single-issue politics that denied the destructive influence of the totality of technological society.
The essay 'Who Killed Ned Ludd?' explains why the Luddites "rise and defeat was of such great importance to the subsequent course of modern society." In the pre-Luddite days the people openly hated their rulers, but it would be up to the Luddites to manifest the hatred the working class felt towards the industrial process that had made them slaves. They demonstrated their rebellion through spontaneous acts of sabotage that were "seemingly unmediated by ideology." Then the unions, ideological entities themselves, came to supersede their action with mediation and compromise, becoming just another force in the domestication of human beings.
Zerzan's real contribution is a thorough and insightful critique of leftist theory and practice. The essay 'The Practical Marx' is a must read for anyone whose knowledge of Marx has come through sycophantic socialist sources; whilst 'Unionism in America' concentrates on the evolution of the collusion of what were supposed to be two opposing entities - capitalist employers and the disenfranchised workers. Zerzan began his activist career as a union organiser and his analysis, especially in 'Organised Labour vs. The Revolt Against Work' smacks of the disillusionment that one who had devoted so much time, energy and hope in the liberatory potential of such an enterprise would justifiably feel upon its failure. The reader can follow the logic of Zerzan's activist progression from union organiser to one of the very earliest proponents of the anti-work position. These essays represent much more than just sour grapes, they offer a richly detailed insiders historical overview of class war politics that even any avowed workerist would be hard-pressed to find fault with.
Where We're at Now
Zerzan concludes the work by offering his observations on contemporary culture. Since Elements of Refusal was first published in the 80s Zerzan admits in the 'Preface to the Second Edition' that this section is the most dated. Nevertheless, there are valuable lessons to be learned by reading these essays. 'The Promise of the 80s', 'The 80s So far' and 'Present Day Banalities' highlight evidence of the erosion of belief in society's dominant attitudes and the on-rushing impoverishment of everyday life. The last few pages of the book contain reprints of some incredibly clever and thought-provoking agit-prop that Zerzan was producing with his friends in the 80s and was compiled in a booklet under the title Adventures in Subversion. I recently ran across several of these flyers and posters in a 1990 edition of the Loompanics catalogue and they have lost none of their power as anti-authoritarian propaganda.
As a reviewer I must confess that Zerzan is perhaps my favourite contemporary theorist and author. All of his work is ground breaking in its originality and analytical potency. It is difficult for me to offer any criticisms of this book because I believe that any shortcomings it might have are more than compensated for by the important information it conveys and the astuteness of the critique. Some people might find the copious citations and footnotes distracting, but don't let them deter you. Zerzan uses them more as suggestions for further readings rather than appeals to academic authority, and anyone who wants to find out exactly what is up with the anti-civilisation currents in the ecological resistance movement would do well to follow them up.
In a new preface he dedicates this edition to the Unabomber stating, "I hope that aspects of Elements of Refusal may be useful to those who are appalled by the nightmare we face, and who are determined not to go along." We all now live in a complex matrix of corrupt cultural constructions that Zerzan reveals for what they really are - sources of alienation, suffering, domination and discontent that must be destroyed. Rather than being a "force of darkness" Zerzan is a source of light, articulating non-negotiable dissent and promoting revolutionary social change by illustrating how contemporary society is the product of thousands of years of social struggles and complex technological changes. His work illuminates by fanning the flames of resistance.