An Open Letter to John Zerzan

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anon (not verified)
An Open Letter to John Zerzan

From Activist Journeys

(A Primitivist Philosopher of Technology)

TL;DR John Zerzan is one of the most well known and philosophically adept writers within the the primitivist political tendency. I hope to ask questions of him to clarify his theory, plus critique him and his ideology in the process.

Any last minute edit suggestions or questions you’d want to add before I send it off or discussion on the points, just let me know.

Hello John,

A primitivist blogger passed on your email on the off chance you may be interested in answering a few questions that would help towards a podcast episode I’m preparing for.

The podcast is a discussion between me, I am pro technological advancement, and a primitivist who has spent a great deal of time studying and writing essays on Kaczynski’s work.

So, below I have 4 questions for you which I’d be very interested in reading your views on, plus explanations of my thoughts on each. I’ll also link my podcast notes encase they’re of any interest to you.

With your consent I’d like to post this question and answer discussion around, to help clarify your theory for others and promote my critique of primitivism.

Thanks for your time.


How do you determine what direct action targets are justifiable today?

Obviously ideally we would be able to win by simply choosing targets which have caused people the most amount of misery, so actions for which people can sympathise most, like sabotaging a draft office to attempt to materially challenge the US’s war in Vietnam.

But to the extent some targets are not as optically advantageous, but still useful to sabotage, I’d say that it would be valid as long as you can still envision a probable future in which the action is vindicated in hindsight through its usefulness for the movement, for example John Brown’s attempt to incite a slave rebellion.

Some guiding principles that I find useful to this calculation are:

1) Never act with reckless indifference to human and non-human animal life.

2) Never with premeditation physically hurt people for the primary purpose of making a political statement or to earn money, as it runs counter to our philosophy on the left that material conditions create the person and so we should make every peaceful effort to rehabilitate people.

Some tricky to explain, justified, but only just outside the principle just laid out are:

(A) Survivor-led vigilantism, where to the extent that some current institutions fail to rehabilitate people and the process of seeking justice through these institutions can cause more trauma, then personal violence to get to resolve feelings of helplessness in the face of evil acts can be an ethical act.

(B) Personally desiring to fight fascists in the street to block them from marching through immigrant communities or pushing your way through huntsmen to save a fox from getting mauled to death by dogs.

3) Never take actions on the basis of anti-science beliefs or with the intent to propogate anti-science beliefs e.g. disproven conspiracy theories.

4) Take care to respect the difference between property which is personal, luxury, private, government owned and cooperatively worker owned.

So, it could be seen as ethical to choose material targets of evil actors in order to cause economic damage and make a statement, so long as in the case of personal property, the item has no intrinsic sentimental value i.e. can be replaced because the person is wealthy. Or is a luxury item that was paid for through the exploitation of others labor. Or is private property, meaning the means of production which should be owned collectively anyway.

The action would be an outlet for legitimate anger against that which causes us suffering and a means of developing people’s thinking and creating a wider base of people joined in sympathy for those ideals.

For example, if taking the risk to slash slaughterhouse trucks’ tyres in the dead of night both draws attention to animal suffering and also helps you to develop stronger bonds with a group of people and learn from other liberation struggles, then the action is both productive and leads to personal growth.

5) Never take actions in the hopes of helping in part instigate a revolutionary war sooner than it’s reasonable to believe you would have the capability to win. Similarly don’t use rhetoric about how tensions in society have escalated to the state of civil war or a third world war. For example, even if the revolutionary left got really good at assassinating captains of industry and getting away with it, there would be reasonable fears around the psychology of people who would take such an act against people who they could have grown up and been socially conditioned to be themselves, which would inexorably lead to a more authoritarian society and worse foundations on which to work towards a better society.

As a socialist, I do think we can hypothesize the unrealistic case of 99% of society desiring a referendum on a shift from parliamentary representative system to a federated spokes council system and the MP’s dragging their feet, the same way both parties gerrymander the boundaries to make it easier to win despite it being the one issue most everyone agrees is bad, and people needing to storm the halls of power to force a vote to happen.

More likely though, an opportunity for revolution might arise from such a confluence of events as climate refugees and worker gains forcing the state and corporations into trying to crack down on freedoms in order to preserve their power and enough people resisting that move, who are then able take power and usher in radical policy change, with either the army deciding to stand down or splitting into factions.

Most can sympathize with quick revolutions against dictatorships where the result is a freer society, like the Kurdish uprising in Northern Syria which took power from a regime who had rolled tanks on demonstrators and outlawed teaching of their native language.

But, even there, there are key foundations you need to work from, like the probability you won’t just give an excuse for the oppressor committing even worse horrors as was the case with the Rohingya militants who ambushed a police checkpoint, resulting in army & citizen campaign to burn down many villages, plus murder and rape those that couldn’t get away.

As well as a responsibility to put down arms after winning political freedoms and a majority are in favor of diplomacy through electoral politics, like in Northern Ireland today.

Under representative parliamentary systems, the sentiment of most is that even if it could be argued that a war of terror against the ruling class was the easiest route to produce a better society, that it would still be ethically wrong to be the person who takes another’s life just because it’s the easiest way. Since regardless of manufactured consent or anything else you still could have worked to build a coalition to overcome those obstacles and change the system slowly from within.

And I agree, it would be an act of self-harm to treat life with such disregard when you could have been that same deluded person shrouded in the justificatory trappings of society treating your behavior normally. I don’t think the way we win today is treating a cold bureaucratic system with equally cold disregard in whose life we had the resources to be able to intimidate this week. Time on earth is the greatest gift people have, to make mistakes and learn from them.

Firstly with your statement on what kind of technology is likely good and which is bad:

If you have a tool that anybody can make, that’s great. You’re in contact with it in a very sensual way. But tools that require a hierarchy of coordination and specialization create a kind of distancing. That’s the kind of technology to avoid.

Are you not concerned you could be promoting direct action which falls well outside ethical principles like the ones above, such that you run the risk of motivating someone to take direct action which makes your rebellion look insane and preserve the status quo or facilitate a move to a more authoritarian society?

Secondly is physically hurting people for the primary purpose of making a political statement or to earn money bad?

For example you stated “Bonanno, it should be added, has been prosecuted repeatedly and imprisoned in Italy for his courageous resistance over the years.” Is it your view then that armed robbery or similar violence is justified? And are you aware that Bonanno promotes the strategy of kneecapping journalists?

Similarly do you regret at all the manner or substance of previous defences you’ve given of Kaczynskis actions? For example you wrote:

The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering the Unabomber phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets, when have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World ever been called to account?. . . Is it unethical to try to stop those whose contributions are bringing an unprecedented assault on life?

Would industrial society not simply re-emerge?

I’m sceptical of Kaczynskis’ confidence that a new industrial revolution wouldn’t simply re-emerge, especially with people passing down memories and books of all the benefits to modern life.

My concerns are that firstly, the harm to the environment would be much worse than us simply transitioning to renewable energy and rewilding areas as we depopulate as is the trend in advanced countries. Secondly, I would argue the probability that we will achieve a long-lasting, mostly peaceful, technologically advanced, left-anarchist society is far more valuable to me than returning to an either never ending series of warring feudal societies or feudal societies that repeats the industrial revolution and has another series of world wars for resources.

Primitive life is more appealing to me personally than feudalism in that I could be born into a fairly egalitarian tribe like the Penan or that I wasn’t but I wouldn’t know any different life or if I had some of the egalitarian ideals I had now, the possibility would be there to strike out on my own and form an egalitarian tribe. But bar convincing everyone to be hunter gatherers, or technological incentives to have fair and democratic communication among societies who trade with each other, you just are going to recreate feudal era societies, where you’d have to be very lucky to escape from conscription and tyrants and environmental destruction could be far worse.

Do you worry that you affirmed the irrationally violent desires of the school shooter who called your radio show through your shared desire for de-industrialisation, which I suspect the caller would view as leading to worse violence and think is good?

I applaud you for trying not to answer fluff questions for the CNN piece on the school shooter who called into your radio show, so leveraging audience interest in your relationship to the story for trying to get important issues on the air. It’s advice I hope more activists will be trained with in the future.

The doctor of criminology they had on at the end of the CNN piece did interest me though when she said “the subtext of what he’s [the school shooter is] saying is violence is innate and instinctual to humans, and really should not be punished because it’s their natural basis, that’s the message I think he’s trying to get across, and the parallel to himself is obvious, he feels possessed by this need, this compulsion to commit violence.”

So my question is, do you agree that he was in part using the story of the domesticated ape to justify his own violent desires? And if you had suspected that was part of his motivation at the time, how do you think you would have responded to his story differently? Finally has the experience led you to be more cautious of what motivations callers are bringing with them to have affirmed when they call in?

Finally is primitivism motivated primarily by a desire to return to a more innocent time in one’s childhood?

There’s a quote I like by Saul Newman from the book the ‘Politics of Postanarchism’ on page 156, about how the desire for a primitive way of life is often a desire for a more innocent time in one’s childhood which I would love to read your response to if you have the time. I’ll attach a file of the full ebook also if you’d like to see it in context:

Where Zerzan’s argument becomes problematic is in the essentialist notion that there is a rationally intelligible presence, a social objectivity that is beyond language and discourse. To speak in Lacanian terms, the prelinguistic state of jouissance is precisely unattainable: it is always mediated by language that at the same time alienates and distorts it. It is an imaginary jouissance, an illusion created by the symbolic order itself, as the secret behind its veil. We live in a symbolic and linguistic universe, and to speculate about an original condition of authenticity and immediacy, or to imagine that an authentic presence is attainable behind the veils of the symbolic order or beyond the grasp of language, is futile. There is no getting outside language and the symbolic; nor can there be any return to the pre Oedipal real. To speak in terms of alienation, as Zerzan does, is to image a pure presence or fullness beyond alienation, which is an impossibility. While Zerzan’s attack on technology and domestication is no doubt important and valid, it is based on a highly problematic essentialism implicit in his notion of alienation.

To question this discourse of alienation is not a conservative gesture. It does not rob us of normative reasons for resisting domination, as Zerzan claims. It is to suggest that projects of resistance and emancipation do not need to be grounded in an immediate presence or positive fullness that exists beyond power and discourse. Rather, radical politics can be seen as being based on a moment of negativity: an emptiness or lack that is productive of new modes of political subjectivity and action. Instead of hearkening back to a primordial authenticity that has been alienated and yet which can be recaptured – a state of harmony which would be the very eclipse of politics – I believe it is more fruitful to think in terms of a constitutive rift that is at the base of any identity, a rift that produces radical openings for political articulation and action.

Class Warrior (not verified)
Interesting point about not trying to trigger an unwinnable war

The part about "Never take actions in the hopes of helping in part instigate a revolutionary war sooner than it’s reasonable to believe you would have the capability to win" was quite a serious issue in the United Snakes last year, especially from late August through Jan 6.

Problem is, the other side can start it unilaterally, so you have to prepare even if you never want to start it at all. Whole sections of the extreme right did all they could to force a civil war in the US, from shooting at us in the street, to car attacks, to planning false flag attacks on such things as the Jan 20 2020 gun rights rally in Richmond. Had they gotten it going, we would have been forced to fight an enemy with far more ammunition and weapons than we have, the alternative being to be slaughtered without a fight. Worst of all, it would have not been the current "3-way fight" alignment, but ourselves alone vs the cops and Nazis fully in alliance with each other and little infighting.

Now we get four more years to get ready. Now in some places some of the cops fight for the facists, but others remember being beaten with flagpoles bearing that bullshit "thin blue line" flag. Now its a 3 way fight between Biden, the Nazis/white nationalists/fascists, and the progressive left. Now the fash get four years to expend resources on defense and take losses, while we can build and train.

We need to show that we cannot be easily or cheaply defeated. Oftentimes, that's enough to kill the enemy's appetite for war. Then you don't have to kill anything else. That gets us another four years, and so on down the line.

Even major wars are subject to this calculation: in the mid to late 1930's, both the UK and Nazi Germany tried to delay the start of WWII while furiously building warplanes, submarines, surface ships, and tanks. Each tried to delay the other while they rearmed. Even after it started, and with Hitler and Stalin both knowing war was inevitable, same stalling all the way to that bullshit peace treaty between them that neither intended to keep.

Who's we exactly warrior

I'm not in the least interested in the progs vs the trads for the battle of US hegemony. While I do not like the right at all, the current professional managerial class adjacent left-which includes antifa-is not a friend of anarchism and anarchy in the least. The fact that you have a significant amount of the right cheering on what's going on in France right now tells you everything you need to know about how bad the late state left is. It's bad even by it's own flawed no longer radical standards. I say let them beat the shit out of each other.

Your whole war mode is just an grand narrative war elaboration of punks vs skins. It really just is white political gang politics precisely as Jacques Camatte analyzed. If one were to do a proper threat assessment the bigger threat BY FAR is the continued growth of the national security state under a liberal mode of power as opposed to the conservative right wing one pre-obama. People like Greenwald and Snowden have been screaming about this with many idiot leftists(of the Vaush type) not noticing or caring. I could care less about a nonexistent rising fascism in comparison.

It's time for anarchists to be anarchists at this state of history and break with this toxic decadent power corrupted legacy left.

Class Warrior (not verified)
"Non existant?" We nearly had a fucking facist coup in the U$

On Jan 6, we had an attempt by Donald Trump's minions to overturn an election by force.

Before you dismiss the election itself, consider what happens when Fascists are done with elections. A Trump dictatorship with no further elections and a rubberstamp (or NO) congress would have likely meant giving police power of adminstrative detention, explicit bans on people of color entering upscale areas of some cities, still-larger concentration camps for migrants, and possibly the deputization of anti-migrant militias on the border. Police roundups against the far left requiring little or nothing in the way of format charges (just "security orders") would have been very likely.

We didn't assault the Capitol on Jan 6, Trump supporters did. They were chomping at the bit to make war on the Left, with the goal of wiping us out. We had to fight major street battles with them to keep them from destroying Black Lives Matter Plaza on Nov 14 and Dec 12. Had we stayed home, they would have burned everything on the Plaza and the cheering victory parties after would have given the extreme right a major boost-just in time for January 6. On Jan 6, we let them and the cops go at each other, while a few of us focussed sucessfully on defending the Plaza again. In the end, the coup attempt failed, with the coup plotters facing the usual result of a failed coup attempt.

anon (not verified)
Lol, you been watching the

Lol, you been watching the Hollywood documentaries brah! Would never have been a coup, just a mass of confused disempowered petitè bourgeoisie amd blue collars making a racket.
Settle down, take a deep breath, ain't no big fascist elephant in the room!

You're hallucinating Warrior

There was never going to be a Trump dictatorship and much of the worse case scenario of what was said to come from his 4 years only run was...trumped up.

Who cares if a capital gets assaulted. What happened on the 6th was hardly as dramatic as what's been going on in France just recently where a fucking portrait was taken down. And which supporters? The old lady, and the coo coo shaman along with the other clowns. Do you even know what a coup is C-War? You're drinking too much of the antifa koolaid.

Again, I really don't think anarchists should be helping professional managerial adjacent progs. What they are doing right now under Biden is in many ways worse then what Trump is doing. Do you know that Philip K Dick in the ass cybernetic society that Philip K and the cyberpunk authors who followed him warned you about? What's going on right now under Biden is his scientific managed soft power dictatorship is how it starts. The emergence of the cybernetic state and the evolution of the national security state that started with Bush is a much bigger threat to anarchism and anarchy then some trumped up fascist threat.

anon (not verified)
Teh TBR ;-p

Jan 6 will go down as the Trailer Boy's Rebellion, when the valiant connoisseurs of the BBB Doctrine [bongs, beers and burgers] stormed congress, wheezing heavily as they reached their goal, 15minutes of fame on their own reality tv show.

anon (not verified)
first: " ourselves alone vs

first: " ourselves alone vs the cops and Nazis fully in alliance with each other and little infighting."

then: "On Jan 6, we let them and the cops go at each other"

anon (not verified)
Typical class warrior,

Typical class warrior, completely ignores us nihilists! We were there on Jan 6! We were all there under the big elm tree opposite Congress, roasting chestnuts and discussing the humungous Manichean political narrative unfolding, the national good cop/bad cop script, the media circus.
Everyone pretends we don't exist!

tatergator (not verified)
why be afraid

The big mistake that *leftists made on Jan. 6 was not participating.

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