John Zerzan, primitivist superstar

There’s no doubt modern society is ecologically destructive and unsustainable. Can the technology that defines it be blamed for social oppression, too? The primitivist philosopher John Zerzan thinks so.

Zerzan argues that agriculture is inherently oppressive because it requires the control and domination of nature. Zerzan says it is the root cause of other forms of oppression in human society, too.

Basing his view on a study of anthropological literature, Zerzan writes in books like “Future Primitive” that “life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health. This was our human nature, for a couple of million years, prior to enslavement by priests, kings, and bosses.”

The only trouble is, while many hunter-gatherer societies are and were essentially egalitarian, there are some glaring exceptions. The aboriginal people of the Pacific Northwest, for example, had slaves. (They took captives in warfare). You can read more about that here.) I asked Zerzan how he reconciles that with primitivism.

“There are nuances, but the dividing line is domestication,” Zerzan said. “The Northwest coast people had domestication. They were sedentary, they had tobacco and dogs. Even a little bit of domestication really poisons the well. The domination of nature turns all the other stuff in motion.”

Zerzan said he considers the nomadic model to be the most egalitarian. “Agriculture was the worst mistake in human history,” he said.

Zerzan edits the “Green Anarchy” journal and hosts an Anarchy Radio broadcast at 7 p.m. Pacific time on 88.1 FM Tuesdays in Eugene, Oregon. You can check out his web site here.

One thought on “John Zerzan, primitivist superstar

  1. As an anthropology student, and someone who is sympathetic to primitivism, I’ve run into Zerzan a lot and I have a few problems with his take on things.
    First of all, the statement you quote: “this was our human nature, for a couple million years…” “Human nature” is a worn out term, and has been more or less discarded by most scholars. Also, his time scale is a little suspect. Humans (Homo Sapiens) have been around for about 200k years, not millions. That is, unless you include Homo erectus and all the other members of the genus Homo, many of whom don’t resemble us at all and couldn’t be said to have a collective “nature.”
    Second, he generalizes life among hunter gatherers as being “one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health.” The problem is that H/G life was perhaps even more variable and complex than the variety of cultures we see today. It’s impossible to validate that kind of generalization, just as it is impossible to validate the Hobbesian notion of the “short, nasty, and brutish” life.
    Finally, there are many examples of non-egalitarian H/G cultures, the Pacific NW natives being one, and also many examples of egalitarian horticultural or pastoral cultures. He is grasping at straws when he blames the problem on the domestication of dogs – if that were the case, then almost every human culture for the last 15k years would be infected by dominance and, by his definition, non-egalitarian.

    I agree that ecological destruction and social oppression are intimately linked, and I’m all for primitivism. But let’s have a primitivism that is based on genuine anthropological knowledge of the full complexity of human cultures, not simplistic notions derived from 18th century, noble-savage romanticism.
    PS – Love the blog, it’s always educational.

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