John Zerzan

Civilized, All Too Civilized

A local anarchist calls for a return to primitive living to avoid catastrophe

We want to be seen as “civilized,” not looked down upon as “primitive.” But what if we have this the wrong way round? 

For 99 percent of our time as a human species, from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, we were primitive, living in face-to-face band societies without war, patriarchy, the ruin of the natural world, hierarchy and domestication. We took the wrong path.

But of course, people argue, there’s no going back. In a talk to a University of Oregon audience a few months ago, Potawatomi elder and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer refuted the “can’t go back” mantra. We can and must go back, along ancestral paths, she declared.

Joseph Tainter’s invaluable The Collapse of Complex Societies shows why we can’t go forward. Most simply stated, civilizations outrun their carrying capacity, their sustenance. They are parasites that consume their hosts. This one last global civilization is doing just that. Built on technology and capital, it is failing on every level, in every area.

If the future isn’t somehow primitive there won’t be a future. Do we choose life or the onrushing death spiral of civilization?

One of Freud’s later works is Civilization and its Discontents, mainly focused on domestication, civilization’s core institution and orientation. Some species are tamed and domesticated and are more or less able to endure their servitude. For humans, Freud argued, it’s different. Domestication’s condition of unfreedom is for us a wound that does not heal. It is the source of neurosis, the basic cause of our unhappiness. The cure is as obvious as it is radical: Remove this cornerstone of immiseration. Freud shrank from the solution, while articulating its inescapable bottom line.

As civilization crumbles, everything within its force field is being affected, being brought down. Youth mental health is in tatters against the backdrop of rising suicide rates, increasing opioid deaths, mass shootings, widespread homelessness and overall hopelessness. Friendships, too, fray under the pressure. 

The physical environment, as we all know, is a parallel catastrophe, e.g. warming, rising, full-of-plastic seas; global overheating; universal air pollution; unprecedented species extinction; severe and erratic weather, etc. 

The domesticators and civilizers have extended destruction and control. The breadth and depth of control are ever greater, from nanotechnology to surveillance society. Genocidal invaders decimated the Native population, declaring “Civilization” and “Progress” while making a graveyard.

The Dead Zone of technological society extends the world’s destruction and our captivity. Place and presence are harder to come by, as the machine provides representation instead of life. Much has been replaced, refined — possibly society itself.

In 1950, mathematician Alan Turing predicted that in 50 years the question wouldn’t be how much more human that technology has become, but how technified humans have become.  

Freud saw what damage domestication/civilization does to humankind, but couldn’t face the answer. Health in the face of cancer simply means an end to the cancer; the same goes for civilization. 

As Kimmerer counseled, we must go back along the ancestral paths. Rewilding, decolonization, de-domestication lead us there. Anti-authoritarian means anti-civilization. A mammoth undertaking, but the alternative is to keep going down a clearly suicidal road. 

John Zerzan is a local anarchist writer whose books include Elements of Refusal and Future Primitive. You can listen live to his “AnarchyRadio” at 7 pm Tuesdays on KWVA 88.1 FM or via audio streaming.