Review: Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization by John Zerzan (Port Townsend WA: Feral House, 2015)
As an outright opponent of industrial capitalism and all the unhealthy thinking that it drags along behind it, I obviously have a lot of time for the American writer John Zerzan.
The two of us also share an unfashionable interest in the idea of hope, as he in fact points out in the concluding lines of his latest book, Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization.
This is not the kind of hope rightly rejected by many anarchists, in which we are supposed to wait passively for something to happen that will end exploitation and save the planet from disaster.
Zerzan explicitly condemns that sort of attitude when he writes: “There is an understandable, if misplaced, desire that civilization will cooperate with us and deconstruct itself. This mindset seems especially prevalent among those who shy away from resistance, from doing the work of opposing civilization”.
The hope that he and I both encourage is an active, positive kind of hope, a motivating engine for the struggle that faces us.
Hope leads to action and action in turn stirs hope, as Zerzan testifies when he writes: “I am hopeful because I see the energy of resistance alive in many places. It has not gone away.”
The interaction between the two can create a sort of feedback loop, a spiralling intensity, a powerful resonance that can conjure up possibility from the most unpromising of situations.
Hopelessness kills that possibility. While hope does not guarantee success, lack of hope can lead only to failure.
In this informative and thought-provoking collection of essays, Zerzan describes how the capitalist system’s assault on hope can already be seen in 19th century England, where the original spirited refusal of industrialism was gradually crushed.
“The second and third generation came to accept as natural the confinement and deskilling of industrial labor… A great sense of disappointment overtook the earlier aspirations, which were rapidly being destroyed by each new advance of industrial capitalism. From this point onward, disillusionment, ennui and boredom became central to life in the West”.
Today, of course, things are much worse in so many ways: “Not only are species, languages and indigenous cultures being sacrificed, the general cultural homogenization is overtaking diversity. Increasingly, the malls, airports, apartments, et al. become identical in a globalizing world. Techno-industrial life grows flatter, textureless, and standardized. Perhaps most important: technology is the same everywhere”.
Efforts to end this nightmare have been led astray by false routes to liberation which in fact can never take us outside the industrial capitalist prison.
“Marx’s idea of revolution was severely limited, confined to the question of which class would rule the world of mass production”, notes Zerzan.
Set against this artificial industrial world is the real one, the living one, of nature – an entity of which we too often forget we form part.
“This is the age of disembodiment, when our sense of separateness from the Earth grows and we are meant to forget our animality. But we are animals and we co-evolved, like all animals, in rapport with other bodily forms and aspects of the world,” writes Zerzan.
“We need to be open to the community of our beginnings and to the present non-human life-world… We are still animals on the planet, with all its original messages waiting in our being”. He asks: “Might it not be that nature is for the happiness of all species, not just one?”
Zerzan is spot-on with his criticism of postmodernism, that empty and reality-denying philosophical offshoot of industrial capitalism which has unfortunately weakened the fundaments of contemporary anarchist thought (as I discussed in this recent blog post).
In particular he challenges the absurd idea that language somehow produces consciousness. He comments: “Consciousness almost certainly preceded language by many thousands of years. We know that very significant human intellectual capacities are roughly a million years older than evidence of any symbolic ethos. And would not cognitive abilities necessarily predate language? How else could it be explained? Hence to claim that language causes consciousness puts the sequence plainly in the wrong order”.
This is the fundamental error of postmodern thinking: confusing symbols (such as language) with the reality that lies beneath them.
As Zerzan puts it: “The dependence on language is pointing at the moon and seeing instead the finger”.
In the light of this analysis, I find Zerzan’s comments on the issue of numbers a little difficult to accept.
I completely agree with his condemnation of the way “everything must be measured, quantified” in our modern world.
He is right to point out that “it is no coincidence that it was the Babylonian/Sumerian civilization, the first real empire, which first developed the idea of written numbers”.
However, he seems to me to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater when he declares: “Platonism vis-à -vis math means that numbers are independently existing objects. But numbers are not out there, somewhere, to be discovered; they are invented…”
Here, Zerzan is surely making the same mistake as that made by the postmodernists who confuse symbols with reality. He has conflated “the idea of written numbers” with the idea of number, or quantity, itself.
Quantity is real and forms part of the fabric of physical existence, in the same way as extension or duration.
The fact that symbols used to measure that quantity have been abused by our civilization does not mean that the idea of number has no essential validity.
The written number, the symbol, is merely the finger pointing at the moon of real abstract number, to take up that same Buddhist metaphor.
Zerzan’s attack on the idea of number leads him deeper into a metaphysical cul-de-sac in which he criticises a maths historian for saying that numbers reveal the unity which underlies all of life as we experience it.
Insists Zerzan: “The ‘unity’ in question did not exist before it was produced, with the invaluable assistance of number”.
It is rather strange to see an ecologically-minded thinker like Zerzan rejecting the idea of an underlying unity to life.
It is not clear that he means it. Elsewhere, for instance, he makes a positive mention of the “organic wholeness” associated with the Middle Ages and declares that “all of life is connected”.
And in musing over the origins of consciousness, he writes: “It is unique and private, utterly first-person and more than that. There seems to be a bedrock, bare-bones, nothing-but element or dimension somewhere in there, as well…”
In my opinion, the “more than that” in our consciousness is our belonging to an “organic wholeness”, the fact that we are autonomous individual manifestations of the unity which underlies all of life.
It is because of our underlying human unity that we are able to resonate together with the possibilities of radical change.
It is because of our underlying unity with animals and the rest of the living planet that we feel a responsibility to use our human individuality for “the happiness of all species”, to allow ourselves to become nature defending itself, to accept a role as antibodies in the planetary immune system fighting off the cancerous growth that would destroy us all.
And it is because of our underlying unity with the cosmos as a whole that we can find the inner strength, the bedrock of supra-individual consciousness, with which to live and communicate the hope that can set us free.
To cite the Oscar Wilde quotation with which Zerzan ends his empowering book: “We are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars”.