Parecon and Anarchism
This essays is excerpted from the Zed Press book, Realizing Hope
Like most social movements, anarchism is diverse. Most broadly, an anarchist seeks out and identifies structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination throughout life, and tries to challenge them, as conditions and the pursuit of justice permit. Paraphrasing the famous and pivotal Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin wielding authority makes people unjust and arbitrary. Succumbing to authority makes people subservient, and servile. Authority corrupts its holder and debases its victim.
Anarchists work to eliminate domination and subordination. They focus on political power, economic power, power relations among men and women, power between parents and children, power among cultural communities, and power over future generations through effects on the environment.
Anarchists challenge the state and the corporate rulers of the domestic and international economy, but they also challenge every other instance and manifestation of illegitimate authority. As geographer, humanist, and anarchist Peter Kropotkin puts it, capturing the antiauthoritarian sentiment, but also, perhaps, foreshadowing complications to come: “We already foresee a state of society where the liberty of the individual will be limited by no laws, no bonds by nothing else but his own social habits, and the necessity which everyone feels, of finding cooperation, support, and sympathy among his neighbors.”
The Two Faces of Anarchism
So why wouldn’t everyone concerned that people ought to have appropriate control over their lives admire anarchism?
Problems arise because from being opponents of illegitimate authority one can grow movements of incomparable majesty, on the one hand, and movements that are majestically unimpressive, on the other hand.
If anarchism means mostly the former, good people will admire and gravitate toward anarchism. But if anarchism means mostly the latter, then good people will have reservations or even be hostile to it.
So what's the not so admirable, or even counter productive, version of anarchism that turns off potential advocates? And what is the admirable and worthy version of anarchism that is now increasing its support around the world? And do the admirable strands incorporate sufficient insight to be successful?
Counter Productive Anarchism
Counter productive anarchism is the brand that dismisses political forms per se, or institutions, or even plain old technology, or that dismisses fighting for reforms - as if all political structures, institutional arrangements, or even technological innovations intrinsically impose illegitimate authority, or as if relating to existing social structures to win immediate limited gains is an automatic sign of system-support or hypocrisy.
Anarchists holding these counterproductive views see that the contemporary state uses force to subjugate the many, but wrongly deduce that this is an outgrowth of trying to adjudicate, or legislate, or implement shared aims, or even just of trying to cooperate on a large scale per se, rather than seeing that it is instead an outgrowth of doing these things in particular ways to serve narrow elites. Following from this thinking is the idea that we need to fulfill the functions more positively. We don’t need no polity, we need a good polity, an anarchist polity, which is by no means a contradiction in terms.
Similarly, anarchists with counterproductive views correctly see that many, and even most, of our institutions, while delivering to people food, transport, homes, services, etc., also restrict what people can do in ways that subvert human aspirations and dignity. These anarchists wrongly deduce that all institutions must be oppressive, so that instead of lasting institutions, we should favor only voluntary spontaneous interactions in which at all times all aspects are fluidly generated and dissolved.
The contrary truth is, of course, that without stable and lasting institutions that have well-conceived and lasting norms and roles, advanced relations among disparate populations and even among individuals are quite impossible. While institutional roles that compel people to deny their humanity or the humanity of others are abominable, institutional roles that permit people to express their humanity more fully and freely are not abominable at all, but are part and parcel of a just and life-enhancing social order. We don’t need no institutions, we need good, liberating institutions, which is by no means a contradiction in terms.
The situation with technology is similar. The anarchist with counter productive views looks at assembly lines, weapons, and energy use that despoil our world, and says there is something about pursuing technological mastery that intrinsically breeds these horrible outcomes so we'd be better off without technology.
Of course, this misses the point that pencils are technology, clothes are technology, and indeed all human artifacts are technology, and that life would be short and brutish, at best, without technology. So, the issue again isn't to decry and escape technology, but to create and retain only technologies that serve humane aims and potentials. We don’t need no technology, we need good technology, humane technology, which is by no means a contradiction in terms.
And finally, regarding reforms, counter productive anarchism rightly notices that with many reforms the gains we win are fleeting, and elites even manage to use the granting of these gains to reinforce their legitimacy and extend their domain of control by first granting, but then domesticating, and later even eliminating the advances. But again, the missing additional observation is that these problems don’t result from change or reform per se, but from change that is conceived, sought, and implemented in ways that presuppose rather than challenge system maintenance.
What's needed isn't to have no reforms, which would simply capitulate the playing field to elites, but to fight for reforms that are non-reformist; that is, to fight for reforms that activists conceive, seek, and implement in ways that lead activists to then seek still more gains, in a trajectory of change leading ultimately to new institutions.
It shouldn't be necessary to even discuss the above addressed "bad trajectory" of anarchism and its anti-political, anti-institutional, anti-technological, and anti-reform confusions. It is perfectly natural and understandable for folks, when first becoming sensitized to the ills of political structure, contemporary institutions, current technologies, or the problems of reform struggles, to momentarily go awry and blame each entire category for the ills that the worst instances embody. But if this confusion were to thereafter be addressed naturally, it would quickly become clear that without political structures, institutions, and technology, not to mention without progressive reforms, humanity would barely survive, much less prosper and fulfill its many capacities.
But this prediction of the easy transcendence of worthy views over counter productive ones neglects the fact that media and elites will portray negative aspects of anarchism as representing the whole of it, highlighting confused and unworthy ideas and ignoring more valuable ideas to thereby discredit the whole undertaking. In this way, unsustainable and objectionable approaches gain far more visibility than would be warranted by their numbers, much less by their logic or values, and, thereafter, also a certain tenacity. Interest in anarchism as a whole is thereby reduced.
What about the type of anarchism that is more positive yet less visible in the media? This is the widely awakening impetus to fight on the side of the oppressed in every domain of life, from family, culture, state, economy, and the now very visible international arena of "corporate globalization," and to do so in creative and courageous ways that win immediate improvements in people's lives, even while simultaneously leading toward new future institutions.
The good anarchism transcends narrow forms that have often been taken to characterize the approach in the past. Instead of arising from a conceptual orientation that is mostly politically antiauthoritarian but not as focused on other facets of life, nowadays anarchism more and more implies having a gender, cultural, and an economic, as well as a politically or power-rooted orientation, with each aspect taken on a par with, and also informing, the rest.
This is in many respects new, at least in my experience of anarchism, and it is useful to recall that many anarchists as little as a decade back, and perhaps even more recently, would have said that anarchism addresses everything, yes, but primarily by means of an anti-authoritarian focus prioritizing power, rather than by simultaneously elevating concepts owing to other dimensions of life in their own right.
Such past anarchists thought, whether implicitly or explicitly, that analysis from an overwhelmingly antiauthoritarian angle rooted in understanding power could explain the nuclear family better than an analysis rooted as well in kinship concepts, and could explain race or religion better than an analysis rooted as well in cultural concepts, and could explain production, consumption, and allocation better than an analysis rooted as well in economic concepts. Those who succumbed to this narrowness, whether advocating it or just falling into it, were wrong and it is a great advance that many modern anarchists know this and are broadening their intellectual approach so that anarchism now highlights not only the state and power, even in all its manifestations, but also gender relations in their specificity, and highlights not only the economy but also cultural relations and ecology, and indeed freedom in every form it can be sought. Most importantly, anarchism now highlights each of these not solely or even just primarily through the prism of authority and power relations, but through the equal inclusion of richer and more diverse concepts rooted in other practices.
This desirable anarchism not only doesn't reject technology, it becomes familiar with, and employs, diverse types of technology as appropriate. It not only doesn't reject institutions, or political forms, it tries to devise new institutions and new political forms for activism and for a new society, including new ways of meeting, making decisions, implementing programs, and so on - most recently revitalizing the idea of closely based and trusting affinity groups and the more original spokes structures by which they combine into larger assemblies.
And this good anarchism not only doesn’t reject reforms, it struggles to define and win non-reformist reforms, attentive to people’s immediate needs and bettering people’s lives now, as well as moving toward further transformative gains.
So why doesn't the good anarchism visibly trump the not so good or counter productive anarchism out of visibility, so to speak, leaving the way clear for most everyone on the left to gravitate toward anarchism’s best side?
Part of the answer, already noted, is that elites and mainstream media highlight the not-so-good viewpoints, giving them far more weight and tenacity than they would otherwise amass, and thereby turning away people who might otherwise gravitate toward anarchism. But part of the answer is also that the good side of contemporary anarchism is in various respects too vague to rise above the rest. What’s the problem? I think it’s at least in considerable part that the good anarchism doesn't posit clear and compelling goals.
Anarchism has historically focused on power which is certainly evident in and an outgrowth of the political dimensions of life, arriving at shared norms and decisions about program, adjudication, etc. But even there, the emerging anarchism of today's movements doesn't clarify for us what an anarchist polity could be, instead often dismissing the idea of vision, much less of providing a new political vision, as irrelevant or worse. But given that societies need to fulfill adjudicative, legislative, and implementation functions in the political realm of life, and that societies need to do this through institutions made up of citizens, it is more than reasonable to wonder about what those institutions should be. Anarchists who say only that they don’t want a government, or don’t want a state, are not usefully answering this question.
If the counter productive trend is to say that we favor no political institutions, but only spontaneous face-to-face interaction of free individuals, each doing as they choose with no constraints on them, then what is the good trend’s better viewpoint that fulfills the same guiding aspirations of delivering freedom, but doesn’t sacrifice collectivity and continuity?
What kind of structures, with what kinds of recurring social roles and norms, will accomplish political functions while also propelling freedom and participation that we support?
It is perhaps premature to expect the newly re-emerging anarchism to produce from within a compelling vision of future religion, ethnic identification, or cultural community, or a future vision of kinship, sexuality, procreation, or socialization relations, or even a future vision of production, consumption, or allocation relations. But it seems to me that anarchism ought to be where the visionary action is when it comes to attaining, implementing, and protecting against the abuse of shared political agendas, adjudicating disputes, and creating and enforcing norms of collective interaction.
Has there been any serious anarchist attempt to explain how legal disputes should be resolved? How legal adjudication should occur? How laws and political coordination should be attained? How violations and disruptions should be handled? How shared programs should be positively implemented?
In other words, what is the anarchist’s full set of positive institutional alternatives to contemporary legislatures, courts, police, and diverse executive agencies? What institutions do anarchists seek that would advance solidarity, equity, justice, participatory self-management, diversity, and whatever other life-affirming values anarchists support, while also accomplishing needed political functions?
Up to the present even the best of anarchism has often been only a rejection of oppression, and sometimes even only of a few dimensions of oppression, and not, in any case, a vision of liberation. Alexander Berkman writes: “In all times and in all places, whatever be the name that the government takes, whatever has been its origin or its organization, its essential function is always that of oppressing and exploiting the masses, and of defending the exploiters and oppressors. Its principle characteristic and indispensable instruments are the policeman and the tax collector, the soldier and the prison.” Okay, how then can one organize political functions in accord with anarchist values? What is the positive political agenda?
Errico Maletesta tells us more broadly that what anarchists want “is the complete destruction of the domination and exploitation of person by person; we want people united … by a conscious and desired solidarity, all cooperating voluntarily for the well being of all; we want society to be constituted for the purpose of supplying everybody with the means for achieving the maximum well being, the maximum possible moral and spiritual development; we want bread, freedom, love, and science - for everybody.” Yes, yes, but how?
Huge numbers of citizens of developed societies are not going to risk what they have, however little it may be in some cases, to pursue a goal about which they have no clarity. How often do people have to ask anarchists what they are for before anarchists give people some serious, sufficiently extensive, carefully thought through, and compelling answers?
Offering a political vision that encompasses key structures for legislation, implementation, adjudication, and enforcement, and that shows how each would be effectively accomplished in a nonauthoritarian way that promotes positive outcomes, would not only provide contemporary activism much-needed hope, it would also inform immediate responses to today's electoral, law-making, law enforcement, and court system, and thus help orient many strategic choices.
So shouldn't today's anarchist community be generating such political vision? I think it should - after all, where else should it come from to have hopes of dealing with issues of power desirably? Indeed, I suspect that until there is a widespread component of anarchism that puts forth positive political goals, the counter productive tendency of anarchism that rejects all political structures and even all institutions will remain highly visible and will greatly reduce potential allegiance to anarchism.
Some will say in reply that anarchism has more than enough vision already, or that its commitment to people controlling their own lives not only in polity, but in economy and other dimensions too, is enough vision. Too much vision will constrain ingenuity and innovation, they say. I respond that this is the same type of mistake as dumping all political structures, or dumping all institutions, or dumping all technology, or dumping all reforms. The problem isn't vision in itself; it is vision that is held and owned only by elites and that serves only elites. Public, accessible descriptions of viable and worthy institutions which serve the whole populace, political and otherwise, is precisely what we need.
21st Century Anarchism
So what about good anarchism’s potentials? I guess I would say that if anarchism truly meets the need for culture-based, economy, gender, and polity-based concepts and practice, and if anarchism can support vision originating in other movements about nongovernmental social dimensions, while itself providing at least compelling political vision, and if the anarchist community can avoid strange confusions over technology, political structures, institutions, and seeking to win non-reformist reforms - then I think anarchism has a whole lot going for it. It could well become a main 21st-century source of movement inspiration and wisdom in the effort to make our world a much better place.
As to parecon and anarchism, I think parecon is consistent with the impetus I describe above as characterizing the worthy and desirable anarchism and that parecon even constitutes, at least with that usage of the label anarchist, an anarchist economic vision that minimizes class and other economy-related hierarchy and that would be consistent with and even propel other anarchist aspirations as well. Parecon is, in these senses, anarchist economics as well as solidarity economics, diversity economics, equitable economics, self-managed economics, and sustainable economics.
Addendum 1: Primitivism
Above I suggested that anarchism focuses on identifying structures of authority, hierarchy, and domination throughout life and challenging them as conditions and the pursuit of justice permit. Anarchism seeks to eliminate subordination based on political and economic power, power relations among men and women and between parents and children, power among cultural communities, power over future generations, and much else as well. I suggested that emerging from this were different strands of activism. One, I argued, went on to reject technology, institutions, and reforms outright. Without further evidence that this negative type of anarchism exists, some may wonder if I am fabricating an unreal position. I therefore offer the following comments to address such skepticism head on and, I admit, to more aggressively critique the counter productive views that I think harm anarchism.
The most visible advocate and exemplar of what I called “not so desirable anarchism” has of late been John Zerzan. Of course other folks are also in this camp, but sticking to Zerzan’s work should amply display the most touted arguments behind the positions I labeled counterproductive to efforts to build anarchist movements.
Zerzan starts out by reasonably rejecting all authoritarian constraints on human well being and development. This is admirable, of course, but where does he wind up?
Zerzan rejects technology per se. He rejects all institutions that distinguish different tasks, which is all institutions. He contributes to rejecting reforms outright because in his view no institution is worthy of improvements, so no improvements are worthy of our time. Beyond even these three themes, Zerzan also rejects language, math, and even the idea of counting things or registering the passage of time. I think all these rejections repeat the same error that other opponents of technology, institutions, and reforms also make, though Zerzan does it most relentlessly. Let’s see.
Zerzan tells us “that technology has never been neutral, like some discreet tool detachable from its context. It always partakes of and expresses the basic values of the social system in which it is embedded. Technology is the language, the texture, the embodiment of the social arrangements it holds together.”
This is unobjectionable as far as it goes, but it neglects another point that Zerzan never returns to. Yes, technologies bear the mark of the society they are born and used in. How could it be otherwise? However, technologies not only reflect their society’s attributes, including sometimes their worst attributes, but also often meet real needs and expand real potentials. So you get electric chairs to kill people and assembly lines to constrain them, but you also get warm clothes for people to wear, and penicillin to enhance people’s longevity.
Zerzan says technologies are contextual, and of course he is right that they are. They arise in some social setting. They don’t spring spontaneously from nothing, with no lineage and imprint. Nor are technologies utilized in social vacuums. Zerzan is thus correct that each technology, whether a pencil or a shoelace, much less a guided missile or an assembly line, bears a social inscription carrying the imprints of the motives of its conception, production, and utilization - some of which generally reflect the defense of social elites, but others of which often reflect the need to accomplish certain functions.
We should, therefore, expect technologies conceived, produced, and utilized in feudal times to be different than those in prehistoric times, or than those in capitalist times. This is elementary, and true.
Zerzan moves on, however. He says, “the idea that [technology] is neutral, that it is separable from society, is one of the biggest lies available. It is obvious why those who defend the high-tech death trap want us to believe that technology is somehow neutral.” This is disingenuous hand-waving, I think, or else evidences an immense confusion.
When someone says that technology per se is neutral, they mean that technology does not, by its internal logic, have to serve only dominating elites. Technology can serve any constituency, including broad populations. Technology can arise in any social setting and system, and can accomplish diverse tasks that can be beneficial or horrendous, humane or cruel, liberating or stultifying.
Technology isn’t necessarily prehistoric, or feudal, or capitalist, or anything else other than always a product of human design and labors. Having a human origin imposes on technology no particular social direction, no universal social stamp.
Zerzan rightly notices that our contemporary technologies encapsulate forces at play in our contemporary societies. He wrongly concludes, however, that all technology must forever and always be as our technology is now. It is therefore not true that if we don’t like specific instances of our technology now, to get rid of them we must dispense with all technology forever.
The most obvious way to discern the unwarranted leap in Zerzan’s claim is to note that without technology humans would have no clothes, no source of power outside their own muscles, and not even agriculture to renew their muscles. Life would be brutish, isolated, and short. Disease would be rampant. Communication, mobility, knowledge, music, art, play, and pretty much everything else would be harshly limited.
This alone ought to close the case, of course, by showing that eliminating technology per se is not the way to avoid the ills of harmful technologies. But,since for many anarchists who take this line, this does not suffice as rebuttal, another way to see the problem rests on examining Zerzan’s logic.
Suppose I were to say that all human thought, all human expression, emotion, and even locomotion, manifests an imprint of the society in which it occurs. This is certainly equally as true as saying that all technology bears such a societal imprint. Is it sensible that I next follow Zerzan to deduce that because all human thought, expression, emotion, and even locomotion - like technology - are socially imprinted, they must always embody oppressive attributes, and I must reject them in the same way that Zerzan says we should reject technology? Or should I instead assert that in desirable social settings (and to a degree even in undesirable ones) human thought, expression, emotion, and even locomotion also have wonderful and essential attributes that we certainly don’t want to reject, and that in good environments the defining features can become overwhelmingly positive, making the idea of rejecting them utterly ridiculous?
I prefer the latter logic, both for human attributes and for technologies. Zerzan consistently prefers the former logic. Zerzan’s mistake is to rightly notice various horrible technologies, but then wrongly attribute the problems they pose not to mutable social structures and institutions which impose the bad features on the technologies and the bad technologies on us, but to technology itself.
A consistent manifestation of this leap from disliking instances of some category to rejecting the whole category would lead to rejecting pretty much everything that is social or otherwise a product of human exchange and thought, but which frequently turns up with horrible aspects in contemporary societies. It would thus imply a desire for people to revert to a kind of pre-human state. Amazingly, Zerzan follows exactly that line of reasoning.
Thus, Zerzan offers that “my working hypothesis is that division of labor draws the line [between a desirable prehistory and everything since], with dire consequences that unfold in an accelerating or cumulative way. Specialization divides and narrows the individual, brings in hierarchy, creates dependency and works against autonomy.” And he continues by deducing that “tools or roles that involve division of labor engender divided people and divided society.”
That is, again, Zerzan drags partial truths to outrageous conclusions. Of course, typical corporate divisions of labor diminish and even destroy individual and social potentials. Zerzan points out, for example, that “the first `breakthrough’ for me was in terms of the Industrial Revolution in
I may be that Zerzan first encountered the brilliant expression of such ideas a quarter century ago in the same places I first encountered such ideas, for example, in the wonderful essay by Steven Marglin, “What do bosses do?” or in Harry Braverman’s Monthly Review work. But if so, Zerzan missed the key insight that the imposed division of labor served specific social relations and elites, and that the problem posed for suffering humanity wasn’t that different people were doing different tasks per se, but was the particular limited combinations of tasks that most of the people were compelled to do, as well as the pittance they received for it.
Zerzan is certainly right that (corporate and sexist and racist) divisions of labor have buttressed hierarchy, imposed dependency, and impeded autonomy. And he is also right that many institutions incorporate these damaging divisions of labor and therefore deserve rejection. But beyond this, he fails to note that virtually all institutions involve roles that diversify people’s tasks and responsibilities. To jump from the correct and familiar insight that some divisions of labor are so horrible that institutions embodying them are unworthy, to more comprehensively claiming that no division of labor at all can be abided and therefore all institutions are unworthy, says that each individual must, in essence, do everything for him or herself or, at any rate, without lasting institutional coordination with others. It rejects roles per se and leads to an anti-institutional, antisocial, and, I think, ultimately, even antihuman stance.
So rather than solely rejecting imposed divisions of labor that are contrary to our aspirations, which would be quite sensible, Zerzan slip-slides all the way to the extreme claim that all divisions of labor of any kind have to go.
Should we reject divisions of labor that relegate many to obedience and to rote boredom, while privileging an elite few with empowering and engaging endeavors? Of course we should. About this Zerzan and I presumably agree. But the way to do this isn’t to have everyone do everything, with no differentiation of different people’s responsibilities. And the way to do this is not to ignore that people have diverse tastes and inclinations and that they wish to express these in their actions. And it is not to forego the worthy gains that can accrue from taking advantage of skills and training.
Why throw out the baby of productivity and individuality as well as diversity with the bathwater of alienation and hierarchy? Why not divide tasks into jobs that are balanced for empowerment and quality of life implications (to eliminate hierarchy), and that are self-managed (to eliminate alienation and authoritarianism), even as they also respect each individual’s personal tastes (to further diversity and to benefit from creativity)?
Get rid of the hierarchy-inducing (bathwater) aspects, of course. But keep the fulfilling and beneficial attention to different people’s preferences and the utilization of diversity to increase the breadth of our collective experiences and to also increase output and diminish required labor.
So why does Zerzan pose the problem as no division of labor versus a bad division of labor (and similarly as no technology versus bad technology), rather than as a bad division of labor versus a good division of labor (or as bad technology versus good technology)?
One possible line of thought leading someone to propose such limiting polarities would be to notice something that all divisions of labor (and all technologies) have in common, which is their being a human and social creation, and deciding that this commonality somehow inevitably infects them with harmful aspects. I am not sure Zerzan believes this, nor sure if it matters much what he believes, because in any event, whether intended or not, this is the practical and intellectual implication of his stance.
Thus, Zerzan says, “it seems evident that industrialization and the factories could not be gotten rid of instantly, but equally clear that their liquidation must be pursued with all the vigor behind the rush of break-out. Such enslavement of people and nature must disappear forever, so that words like production and economy will have no meaning.”
In other words, we not only have to eliminate bad economic activity that divides us into unequal classes, that exploits us, that despoils us, or that degrades us, all of which I certainly agree with, but we have to eliminate economic activity completely. Human artifacts must go, it seems. As with technology and the division of labor, so with the economy as a whole: we must opt for all or nothing.
No more production for Zerzan. No more workplaces. And what do we put in their place? Foraging, it seems, because that bears no mark of specifically human invention. So Zerzan rejects tools and roles, technologies and institutions, and even production and economy. Amazingly, though, he doesn’t stop there.
Zerzan takes this line of thought all the way to its ultimate destinations, and in doing so reveals the illogic and other flaws of “counter productive anarchism” most graphically, which is why I am spending so long on Zerzan.
Zerzan rejects even language. He tells us that in “the process of transforming all direct experience into the supreme symbolic expression, language, monopolizes life. Like ideology, language conceals and justifies, compelling us to suspend our doubts about its claim to validity. It is at the root of civilization, the dynamic code of civilization's alienated nature. As the paradigm of ideology, language stands behind all of the massive legitimation necessary to hold civilization together. It remains for us to clarify what forms of nascent domination engendered this justification, made language necessary as a basic means of repression.”
The problem is now civilization. Zerzan rejects humans entwined in social arrangements of their own creation, conceived to allow each to pursue their lives as they will without having to operate atomistically or in opposition to all others. Since words are a big part of the glue of such arrangements, says Zerzan, let’s dispense with them too, rather than try to fulfill their potential.
“Words bespeak a sadness; they are used to soak up the emptiness of unbridled time. We have all had that desire to go further, deeper than words, the feeling of wanting only to be done with all the talk, knowing that being allowed to live coherently erases the need to formulate coherence,” says Zerzan.
And of course Zerzan is correct that we don’t want to live by words alone, or bread alone, or technology alone, or anything else alone. But what Zerzan misses, is that noticing that fact does not justify wanting to entirely dispense with each.
Of course we express sadness in words, but also in deeds and feelings. Should we reject not only words, but also deeds and feelings? Consciousness is surely often a bulwark of existing oppressions. Consciousness sometimes manifests sadness and is often used in authoritative ways. Should we lobotomize ourselves, too? For that matter, why not notice that sexual intercourse has very often been fraught with painful ramifications, outright violations, and virtually universally to date with asymmetries of power? Why not saltpeter? Shortly after Zerzan has his way there will be no more humans, and, Zerzan is correct, there will also be no more human suffering.
Terminating just short of this species suicide, Zerzan’s agenda, or hope, seems to me to be that we should end divisions of labor, reject technology, discard institutions, silence language, eliminate numbers, reject time, and perhaps dispense consciousness - though not reproduction - returning to prehistoric relations. And the mainstream media tells everyone that Zerzan is an exemplar of anarchism. And anarchism has trouble finding recruits.
If you think I exaggerate all this, judge for yourself. Zerzan says, “my tentative position is that only a rejection of symbolic culture [that is, language] provides a deep enough challenge to what stems from that culture.” Thus: reject language. Or “only a politics that undoes language and time and is thus visionary to the point of voluptuousness has any meaning.” Not just language, but time too.
Wordplay is all well and good for provocative or aesthetic exercises or for entertainment. But Zerzan claims to be challenging the realities that delimit people’s lives. Being revolutionary on behalf of liberty carries a responsibility, it seems to me, to attend to reality.
Zerzan rejects numbers too. To explain why, he tells us that “
Zerzan rightly notes that numbers can be used in harmful or alienating ways and to service authority and power. Anyone would conclude that in some pursuits we are better off without numbers. We shouldn’t try to quantify love or dignity. Fair enough. But Zerzan wrongly extrapolates that we’d be best off without numbers at all. Goodbye to language, goodbye to numbers and time, goodbye to technology and institutions…why not goodbye to sex too? I guess Zerzan thinks that would be an unpopular stance. The fact that the rest is popular in some quarters is what is perhaps most astounding of all.
In the early part of this chapter I commented on important confusions about technology, institutions, and reforms that I think are diminishing the affectivity of a particular strand of “counterproductive anarchism.” I also discussed the more positive insights into breadth of focus, new vision, and non-reformist reforms that give another strand of anarchism the potential to become central to successful activism in years ahead.
Zerzan’s thinking as it is examined here may or may not typify why some folks hold the counterproductive views they do about technology, institutions, and reforms. I have no way of knowing that for sure. But the views are prevalent and Zerzan is most forthright in their defense. The Zerzan quotations I used are from various of his essays and interviews available on the internet. Hopefully his stance will disappear in time.