NPR Think Out Loud interview
The Devil in the Plow, Clock & Book
by Martin Billheimer, counterpunch.org, April 3, 2018
The plow marked the moment when History first entered into geological time and humankind, once a single creation out of many, began to transform the forces of general life. This is civilization – the old curse of Cain, first to till and kill, primal architect of cities, the father of that pathology known as ‘Progress’. If Anarchist John Zerzan has one wish in his new book, it is that we might wake from this nightmare of myth and History. Wise children often ask their social science teachers: Why do I have to learn this junk that doesn’t matter? The teacher seldom has a good answer because the question is rarely understood: Why must I learn theirjunk, theirHistory; that is, the ghostly lessons of their wreckage.
Zerzan’s latest collection of essays is entitled A People’s History of Civilization and it will probably be met with the same derision from a self-satisfied Left which has dogged idealists even before Fourier. The influence of utopians has always been an embarrassment, as if the inspired initial spark of a political project keeps raising its shrill orphan voice while the Parties have long since grown into maturity (or senility) and realpolitik (or compromise). The anarchic idea is ageless and perfect,“an enthusiastic and Dionysian pessimism” as Novatore has it; it is necessarily outside of history, close to the uncanny spheres of obsession and dream. But after the plowshare has been broken, dream-visions have usually been met with fixed bayonets from both sides. Martyrdom is the only acceptable elite in anarchism. Who Killed Ned Ludd?, as the title of one of Zerzan’s best pieces asks. Look for the assassin at the feet of the Angel of History.
If agriculture was the original sin of History, the Fall was our descent into Symbolic forms which created a psychological removal best expressed by the use of artillery. With the epoch of History proper, beginning with the Neolithic, internal abstractions are projected outwards onto a terra nullius, a void now dedicated to the manufacture of first commodities, the domestication of animals and conflict management, in terror of the silences of a world made ancient by representation and signs. The great farming apparatus of this era mirrored institutionalized ritual and the codes of orthodox magic, which are the ancestors of surveillance technology and remote control. Division of labor lead to the great land enclosures and the dawn of the money form, nascent surplus-value with its classes of guardians, warriors, magistrates, clerics. Greek books were read in boustrophedon, which means ‘after the action of an oxen plowing a field’, each line progressing and then reversing back in a bi-directional motion, equating the patterns of informational technology with the golden gizmo of sedentary humanity. The subsequent Bronze Age saw pottery, the production of rich varieties of armaments, the complexities of credit and written script, and the formation of the great elites – and naturally, slavery. Early statecraft was far more ‘modern’ than is commonly acknowledged: banking, proto-welfare, heated toilet seats, the wide application of credit and debt enslavement (we have conveniently lost the custom of the Jubilee write-down), micro-breweries, were all part of the ancient world. Zerzan sees our much-vaulted great leaps forward as merely rarified variations on a theme, but he follows these zigzags with penetration and a knack for devilled detail.
The other irruption into the natural world is that old monster, Time. Zerzan rejects the picture of an unbroken continuum where all tributaries lead to an inviolable present, a comforting illusion which mirrors the artifice of irrigation systems and continues to haunt all ideologies. The capitalist regimen of days reduces dynamism to the motors of production and psychology to an internal fateful machine (it also allows our current Neoliberal ideologues to declare that all historical epochs are over). With some reservations, Zerzan co-opts three rough historical eras from Spengler and Jaspers to chart the fairly abysmal record of human enlightenment. After all, a good anarchist cannot totally dismiss the solemn judgment of Nihilism. Yet Zerzan sees a constant spirit of revolt puncturing the gray impenetrable historical mass: revelatory and salvific moments, anarchies when ‘the passion for destruction’ and unlettered prophecy break through the chronologies of States. His chapters on labor history are full of madcap millenarians, outré unionists, and the ‘aristocracy’ of damned refusal. The much-maligned angry mobs of the Middle Ages, a period usually rendered as a vast darkness before the autocratic glory of the Renaissance, were not always witch-hunters and fanatics – many were intransigent partisans against monarchic cruelty and the despotism of the Church. We can characterize Anarchic Time as a series of sudden raids into the Legal-Capital span, transversal lines used like a mocking sniper’s sight at the colossus of History.
Despite his antagonism to much of the traditional Left, Zerzan shares two of Marx’s voices: the polemical and the historic-analytical. One of his main criticisms of Marx – or more properly, of Marxists– is that only the means of production are to be handed over the working class, not the means to fundamentally change or halt what is produced. Even if all production were localized in people’s democratic communes, metabolism between worker and land is never possible because the land is still seen as abject material. This fatal mistake can only produce a resurgent bourgeoisie, soon back in charge again as both Bakunin and Trotsky wryly predicted. Thus, the laws of the capitalist mode of production will inevitably return behind whatever cosmetic façade tragedy chooses to trade for farce.
There is also the question of Power; or rather, the claim to Power. Who would elect to be powerless in the face of the Beast? But, Pasolini: “Nothing is more anarchic than power. Power does what it wants and what it wants is totally arbitrary or dictated by its economic reasons which escape common logic.” Two possibilities, then? Careless, heedless resistance and the power of the refusal of old power (the power of the doomed?); and the historically-commandeered application of Power, uncontrollable and fraught with unintended consequences, riddled with dialectical traps for both socialist and capitalist states. And is the power of the State only able to be broken by another rival power? Can this rival power ever be rejected in turn, after it has smashed all the old statues? And if it cannot, then perhaps a reign of terror by the oppressed is always justified, necessary and righteous in its dark parody of unjust justice, an act of cleansing for the wretched of the earth? Are such questions even worth asking, as they hardly apply to the time-beside-time of anarchist revolution – or if they do, are they not equally applicable to the other political schools? Is not every revolutionary some kind of anarchist, but only before the Revolution’s final victory? Still, as per Zerzan, the theory and practice of Power might itself be yet another hostile intrusion into humanity, just like the disciplines of History, Agriculture and Time. Certainly, ideas of power run through historical processes – but they do not necessarily ordain destiny. Perhaps they did not even create the past. Power is not a thing but a relation between things, to use a little Marx. It has its applications, its system of violence and peace, its doctors and its various schools, on every level of society. Maybe we need an anti-education, like we need an anti-history.
Recent work on archeology and society, notably by David Graeber & David Wengrow here, indicates that Zerzan may be mistaken in his essential schema of agriculture-hierarchy-civilization (as would be capitalists and authoritarians). The ages of the earth now seem to weave in and out with a much more Lamarckian than Social Darwinist loom. Technologies appeared and were rejected and did not necessarily follow each other automatically; leadership at times existed only temporarily, then life fell back by season into egalitarianism (this may be the ritual source of the sacralization of kings in Frazer’s Golden Bough); large communities existed in ‘urban’ environments, but seemed to have functioned in some cases as true decentralized soviets; agrarian projects were maintained without the evolution of grain capital hordes (and were abandoned when deemed unnecessary); private property did not always arise out of mass farming and hunter-gatherers could prove more rigid and tiered than farmers. Earlier epochs may have been more fluid and more able to sustain multiple ideas of culture than our own; almost all we knew of them until now came from the speculations of various ideologues. Yet this may be exactly where Zerzan’s anarchic eruptions look back to, look forward to, both announce and recall, which makes his central hypothesis irrelevant and proves his argument against the fabrication known as History. So he ends his book with a beautiful gloss on Benjamin’s ninth thesis from Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940), that mysterious and profound meditation at the twilight of irony, legend and lived life:
A messianic dimension is needed if history is to be redeemed, if a part of our happiness our ancestors could not have is to be validated. To ‘awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed.’ To unmask the paradigm of history and its fundamentally legitimizing enterprise. Time and history ceaselessly advance all encompassing domination; a rupture, a break is needed… a break with history. We were conscripted into history and we must make our exit from it.
Zerzan notes a choice of targets by radicals in 1830 which may augur this escape: a clock tower. Shoot out the Symbolic with the guns of the Real, then forward to the very Capital of Pain. Avanti popolo, alla riscossa...