Book Review: Against Civilization

John Zerzan's expanded work.
Figure 1A: John Zerzan’s expanded work.

I was introduced to John Zerzan through his expanded edition of Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections. Previous to this the only advocates of Anarchism I had come into contact with had not been sophisticated enough to articulate their wider view of the world. I had seen their paradigms but not yet fully understood the worldview that these paradigms came from and what that should mean.

Zerzan gave me a wider understanding of the history of Anarchism and the different streams of thought with it that began at the time of the Industrial Revolution in the Old World and the New World (the newly conquered Anglosphere on the American continent). Thinkers – whether philosophers or scientists – expressed great reservations regarding the sweeping technological advances that alienated men from the wider natural world around them.

The first wave of anarchism was the desire and need to downsize industrialisation that gave birth to unprecedented levels of communal alienation, pollution, malnutrition, social stratification leading to caste systems as well as loss of aesthetic appreciation (all of this following the Enlightenment in Europe in which religion was discarded and man had to find no meaning for the world).

The way to combat this was to reorient or change the direction that industrialised societies were headed in, which might include civil disobedience, vandalism, destruction of government property or assets and the like.

As the theory of evolution was further developed, anarchist thinkers added this to their intellectual weaponry and understanding of how history evolved and indeed how people also did. It would appear that somewhere along the way, anarchists split over just how far the system could be redirected or changed. As mentioned above, one option was to change the system through redirection or undermining of the system.

The second position was more radical than the first. This would involve leaving the entirety of what was referred to as the society or more precisely ‘civilisation.’ As stated by the second school of anarchism, the problem was never people or the corruption that they brought. The problem was the system, the entire thing. Civilisation has vicitimised us all and the solution was to walk away from the vicitimiser and end the co-dependant relationship.

This is anarcho-primitism, sometimes shortened to ‘primitivism,’ the camp to which John Zerzan belongs. His collection of essays and presentations on what has come to be known as primitivism immediately caught my eye in the alternative book store and the first three pages immediately made me purchase it. If I cannot put it down in the first five pages, you have my attention. Otherwise, forget it.

With the book under my arm on the way home, I wondered what other gems I might discover. Zerzan has organised the book into the following headings:

Section I. Outside Civilization. The first spoke in the wheel of primitivism is to explain what benefit the person will derive from it. As mentioned previously, evolution theory figures prominently in anarchist thought, i.e. the idea that human beings moved from a simpler hunter gatherer social network to a more complex set of networks.

This original, primitive, hunter gatherer period was the utmost of man’s capabilities. This epoch was before the domestication of plants and animals and also man. Man lived off the land, in caves and cubbyholes near streams and ate vegetation and animals as was needed.

Section II. The Coming of Civilization. When civilisation arrived, primitivists assert, man lost his way. He domesticated goats, sheep, cows, which limited their genetic variability. The same thing was done with fruits and vegetables, which in turn limited man’s variability and characteristics and thus domesticated him. And with this limitation came lack of variety in food, storing food which led to eating fruit and veg out of season which led to diseases.

This also brought along zoonotic diseases and through the advent of long distance transportation, people now visited social groups that they would have never reached. Previously, man only travelled to locations he could reach by foot. Once the car and train appeared, now came the appearance of diseases that had not been. This is the result of long distance travel and intermingling among  different groups of people that one would have never met in a primitive setting.

The more sedentary man becomes, the more storage man makes. The more storage man makes, the more he associates his possessions with social standing and value and not the skills that he had possessed in his primitivism.

From here came central government and out of that central government came religion and these were to tools used to control people with control of natural resources (government) and micromanaging the people through guilt that is reinforced through the state’s wing (i.e. religion).

Section III. The Nature of Civilization. This collection of essays cover the current condition of man in the aftermath of civilization and the radical plans it will take to return back to the original state mentioned in section one’s presentation of lectures. Naturally people will be afraid and the process will have to initially be demonstrated through a smaller body of people in order to show the wider species that the transition back can be facilitated.

Section IV. The Pathology of Civilization. If people decide not to abandon civilization, the future is grim based upon what we already know from sections 2 and 3. In fact, according to the writers of these essays, we are just as much on the endangered species list as the animals that we record in our books if we do not take immediate and drastic steps. The vanguard, those brave enough to do it, will come first and then those who follow suit will come later; but something must be done.

Section V. The Resistance to Civilization. The final section covers what is necessary to reach the goal, namely section 1. Some essays, although veiled with rhetoric, clearly state the forcible necessity of returning to primitivism by all peoples in the end, not just the vanguard.

There will be initial resistance, but once the excesses of individualism melts away through the common (and indeed coerced) good, then that is when real freedom can be realised, which will include greater leisure time.

This 266 pages was not a waste of money; I actually found it a very worthy read. Some of the more inflammatory things I was able to easily navigate through with little or no difficulty. The general author, John Zerzan, did an amicable effort in putting together the ideas of other like minded individuals in presenting this slim manual.

There are some five glaring issues that I have been able to isolate:

  1. the author, in an interview with Coast to Coast Radio, informed the host that he had not transitioned into primitivist living with the exception of on the weekends. I found this as problematic as when Pol Pot (AD 1925-1998) destroyed cities and forced people to subsist in the countryside in order to return them to their ancient, glorious primitive past (the people starved, became malnutrition and many died), he was still living as King Midas.
  2. In order to practically understand and imbibe primitivism, one must have first digested that geologic sedimentation, special evolution, chemical evolution, racial biology and radiometric dating are absolutely valid without any wrinkles.
  3. The author and his contributing writers make the cataclysmic mistake of stating that the central government formed first and then religious figures. This is irreconcilable when one looks at the case of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241 AH), may Allah have mercy upon him, who was outside of the government, not an agent within it. What’s more, the scholars came before the government of the Muslims was centralised (this occurred in the Abbasid period).
  4. The development of the white race is being superimposed and then redacted on the rest of the world as the model solution for every society’s current ills. All available data that whites tell us about the development of the white race is that they were genetic outcasts from sub-Saharan Africa that mated with a proto-human (neaderthal) species and lived throughout caves in Europe and upper Asia. Whenever skeletons are found, they are in caves with drawings and the like. They then became hunter gatherers and have now stepped from infancy into the adulthood of developed civilisation along with the rest of the world (with the human species). This is not how ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia or Ceylon developed.
  5. Primitivists see themselves as part of the world and not external to or alien to it. When they fail to fit back into it (as the in the case of Pol Pot), they are frustrated. Such people have not thought back and considered that maybe it is because their understanding of civilisation and the human race is wrong.

Pol Pot (AD 1925-1998), Mao Tse-Tung (AD 1893-1976) and other primitivist thinkers (who although communist still had the primitivist doctrines) failed miserably to destroy their people’s civilisation and then move them back into an agrarian, hunter gatherer nation; not because they did not take their time or the people were not sincere. No. It is because the Vietnamese, Cambodians, Chinese and other peoples do not share European history and were never gatherers. This is not who they are or were.

We do not find bones of Arabs in caves with fossilised ashes in the centre with a spot next to it for sexual congress, another one for sleeping quarters and another one for easing oneself all in one cave in addition to cave paintings above that spot that have burnt pitch marks from the torches they used to light the way.

Neither can you find “primitive Eden” remnants of Ethiopians, Malaysians, Indonesians, Zulus, Xhosa and the like. This is not how these peoples developed. The European or white man was a special case and developed as he did based upon his leaving the original life he had in sub-Saharan Africa and then subjecting himself to the exceptionally harsh conditions of northern Europe and upper Asia (if the white scholars of European history are to be believed).

To make this aberrant history the ideal is the actual call for the destruction of the other 97% of the human race (Europeans or whites are some 2-3%) who has and will never live in such straightened circumstances. There is a reason why one finds caves all over Europe and cave exhibits in museums in the same location and pyramids, ziggurats, monuments and totems everywhere else.

A European returning to his primitivist past (Zerzan is a Czech) based upon his archaeological history is no surprise, it is a natural regression when you have reached the apex of your development. There is nowhere to go but down or back when you have reached the summit.

I would strongly advise readers to obtain a copy of this text and also listen to Zerzan’s primitivist point of view. It is this same point of view that was subscribed to by Ted Kaczynski (known as the Unabomber) and one that is increasingly becoming more popular in the United States and Canada.

If one would like to know what the realisation is of the primitivist lifestyle, the reader should study colonial America as well as the British Empire. Thank you for reading.

Al-Hajj Abu Ja`far Al-Hanbali