Archive for the 'Fifth Estate magazine' Category

David Watson: Introduction to the Origins of Primitivism Set (2010)

One thing I would say and may have already said in my books Beyond Bookchin and Against the Megamachine and my essay “Swamp Fever, Primitivism and the ‘Ideological Vortex’: Farewell to All That” is that I am not opposed at all to some kind of reasoned primitivism. I just distrust all “isms,” and in the case of much of self-proclaimed anarcho-primitivism, the insights of a primitivist view (for example, to be found in Stanley Diamond’s In Search of the Primitive, The Old Ways, much anthropological literature, and the writings and testimonies of native peoples) has become a simplistic, dogmatic, and sometimes fascistic response to problems that demand instead our humanity, compassion, and humility.

I admire so-called primitive or original and tribal societies and believe they offer profound answers to what it means to be human, particularly in the present crisis in world industrial capitalist civilization. They don’t have all the answers, and there is no way they can be fully reproduced, but we need to pay attention to all our ancestors, and to the great traditions – primitive, archaic, and modern – in our evolutionary experience. I think Gary Snyder’s Practice of the Wild one of the most powerful expressions of respect for primitive and archaic traditions, and search for a synthesis of ancient and modern, today, and I recommend it emphatically for its wisdom, beautiful writing, erudition, sense of humor, humility, and humanity.

I must confess that I am pessimistic about our capacity to save ourselves and the complex web of planetary life we know with any insight or political outlook, but I don’t see any reason to give up, and I admire and try to find ways to support those who continue to seek answers and to fight back. Caring about and responding to the crisis in a humane way is one of the few things remaining that keep us human.

I may look at this later and want to modify (or clarify) what and how I am saying this, but it is largely how I have felt about these matters since the days when we were first exploring and debating these ideas. I am grateful to Dylan Smith and Radical Archives and everyone else who did the hard work to make these texts available.

David Watson,
September 2010

E.B. Maple: Introduction to John Zerzan’s “Agriculture” essay (1988)

INTRODUCTION
E.B. Maple

Almost all John Zerzan essays feature accompanying introductions in which the word most frequently used to describe his method and conclusions is “provocative” (see, for instance, Anarchy, Summer 1987). Some may think this only an ugly little term meant to distance a publication from the wild assertions that John so often makes in his writings (“wild”, by the way, is a word which I know he will not take as a pejorative). Realistically though, provocative accurately describes what is the common reaction to reading a Zerzan article – you are provoked, to anger or to thought.

Anger because he states everything with such a sense of certitude even when it does not seem entirely plausible to do so, i.e. liberation is impossible without the dissolution of agriculture, language is the original separation, etc. Indeed, a web of these certainties have come to form a chinese puzzle foundation for his view of alienation and domination leaving his partisans and detractors arguing about how well it all hangs together. John sees the human collapse from our original paradisial state beginning when language, time, number and art entered human consciousness which then formed the basis of agriculture, itself the institutionalization of those earlier forms of separation.

But John provokes anger also because he steps on toes – he says you can’t hide from the leviathan of civilization with the expressiveness of words or the exquisiteness of art, for they are part of the body of leviathan.

However, whether one agrees with his assertions or not, John also provokes his readers to think; witness the substantive replies which have appeared in these pages alongside his previous essays (see FEs, Summer 1983, “Time, the First Lie of Social Life;” Fall 1983, “Responses on Time;” Winter 1984, “Language – Origin and Meaning;” Summer 1985, “Number – Its Origin and Evolution;” and Fall 1986 “The Case Against Art” available from us at 75¢ each). He means to examine everything, but only on his terms – a sometimes maddening methodology of formulaic speculation and eclecticism; one that almost forces those who resist his conclusions to begin their own work on the subject under question.

John will allow nothing of this world to be taken for granted nor to be part of a new one, producing a revolutionary nihilism which many find hard to swallow. His vision in a world in which language, art, time, number and agriculture have disappeared led one friend who read his manuscript to charge that “Zerzan wants to return to the womb.” Maybe so, but it would be back to the womb of the planet in a distant epoch where perhaps an earlier species of humans communicated intuitively, gratification was instantaneous, and joy the character of existence – this before we bit into the apple of knowledge and began our descent into the “terror of history,” as Frederick Turner puts it.

John’s desire to shed the pain of modern consciousness and all of its institutions is understandable in a frightening and miserable world, but his approach in writing has led some to question whether it is critical theory they are confronting or sheer, unrealizable utopianism and psychic escapism. I am not sure whether such a distinction has to be made at a point where all we have to sustain ourselves is the stuff of our dreams. The value of John’s ongoing investigations is contained within his intransigent insistence that nothing be free of critical examination, even if it is those qualities that some would contend make us human (we should remember that marxists insist that it is work which separates us from the animals). His fear that our desires will be corralled into a blind canyon by what society dictates as possible at this time is justifiable. When an authentic revolutionary movement is created, perhaps than it will then begin to shape what a new world will look like, but at this point no speculation should be spurned.

In many ways, as he indicates, John is not telling a new story in his present essay. The era of the dawn of agriculture has always been seen by historians as the epochal watershed which produced the basis for civilization. Points of departure come over the affirmation of the Neolithic Age by bourgeois and marxist theorists (who view it within their mystified social schema as a “progressive stage” of history) and those who see it as John does, as a defeat for humanity which left its nomadic and wild status for one of sedentary domination. This newspaper, as well, has long affirmed the validity of hunter-gatherer society as one in which humans were better able to act out a balanced relationship to nature and each other than in state societies which have followed.

Still, even among those who share a common hatred for this society and the desire for a new one some take issue with John’s conclusions and with some of his individual contentions; they will have their say in the next issue.

In the meantime, we should realize that while reading this essay that all of the social sciences are highly ideologized with archeology perhaps being the foremost among them due to the scantiness and ambiguity of available evidence. For instance, the right-wing paleontologist Adrey could find a crushed skull and contend from that the confirmation of the Hobbsian dictum that life before the state was “nasty, brutish and short.” However, his findings are also used contradictorily to support the notion that modern violence –particular interstate violence­ – is an extension of an inherent human quality.

Similarly, the more liberal Leakeys discovered Paleolithic era burial sites and concluded that prehistory was based on cooperative and caring values with the implication that it has been the modern world which has twisted basic human traits, and the species retains the capacity to return to them. Our acceptance of one interpretation or another depends mostly on our view of contemporary society, which is why I like the Leakey story better than Adrey’s. So, while reading what follows, perhaps think, what story do you want to be told, and maybe it will provoke you to act in terms of it.

- E.B. Maple

= = =

from Fifth Estate #329 (vol. 23, no. 2), Summer 1988, p 17.

Language: John Zerzan on George Bradford on John Zerzan (1984)

Language I

Dear FE,

Neither the simple abuse by Ratticus nor the extended commentary by George Bradford seemed to me to engage the two most basic points or arguments of “Language: Origin and Meaning” (Winter ’84), namely that language is the model of ideology and that it derives from earliest division of labor. Thus they rejected the piece while failing to deal with the essentials referred to by its title, an odd tack possibly reflecting on my craftsmanship as its author.

To evoke the world as it encountered what are perhaps the original viruses of alienation (time, language) and to ask whether they are inevitable is to wonder whether we can supersede a condition in which anguish and repression have been with us so very long.

The old question, ‘where did we go wrong?’ challenges us to aim our critical inquiry far enough back, into prehistory. If part of the progression is something like time, language, art, myth, religion, private property, the state, can we refuse only the latter two or three of these inventions and find this adequate to solve the long, deepening neurosis called civilization?

The madness of today and our desperation within it may be helping us to see how profound the sickness has been, the easier perhaps to raise questions as to how deep the healing must go.

John Zerzan,
Eugene, OR

= = =

letter to Fifth Estate #316 (v19, #1), spring 1984, p 2.

George Bradford: “Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time” (1983)

CONFRONTING THE ENEMY: A RESPONSE ON TIME

The following article by George Bradford continues the discussion of time and alienation initiated by John Zerzan in his article “Beginning of Time, End of Time,” which appeared in the Summer 1983 FE.

A project such as ours, based as it is on our mutual desire to abolish technological civilization, capital and domination, has to eventually take up the problem of time. All of us know with a visceral vengeance the horrid role of the clock in our lives. We don’t have to be convinced: we measure out our precious, limited im/mortality against the days, the hours and minutes of captive time. So it was with great sympathy that I began John Zerzan’s ambitious essay on time. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was dampened significantly by what I think were flaws not only in the form but in the intention or trajectory of the piece.

John felt the need, it seems, to sledgehammer his readers with deluge of ambiguous and at times downright dubious quotations in order to defend a thesis which he had already set out to prove no matter what. Bob Brubaker, in the Summer 1983 issue of the FE, points out a number of such problems with citations, and having had the privilege of seeing the footnotes, I would concur. One also gets the eerie sensation that for all its “anti-time” spirit, the article follows a strangely linear and incremental development – the whole world from the Book of Genesis and the Fall into an eschatology of the apocalyptic dissolution of time (followed by paradise) – which forces the entire human universe from prehistory onward into a procrustean apparatus built around a single element. Hence it becomes “not inconceivable,” for example, that even the Bubonic Plagues of the mid-14th century were “in a sense a massive, visceral reaction to the attack of modern time”! (Of course, it’s obvious in this one extravagant case that a morbid time sense accompanied the plagues – evidenced by chilling protests against death in poetry and in the danses macabres. We tend to think of time when we think of death. But I plan to return to this question later.)

Perhaps we should all follow Brubaker’s advice to consider the article an impressionistic survey of sorts, get the footnotes and go over for ourselves the fascinating material that Zerzan has collated. And though I fully agree with Brubaker’s criticism, I would like to add my own two cents (or two minutes if you like) to the discussion. The mass of quotes and the occasional vagueness of their presentation make it impossible to respond to everything, but I should like to focus on four major areas which I think are problematic.

Continue reading ‘George Bradford: “Confronting the Enemy: A Response on Time” (1983)’

Chris Dugan & John Zerzan: “More Debate on Technology: Does FE View Mean ‘War or Big Brother?’” (1982)

MORE DEBATE ON TECHNOLGY

DOES FE VIEW MEAN “WAR OR BIG BROTHER?

Dear Fifth Estate:

The cover graphic of the mushroom cloud with the word WAR! in seven centimeter lettering across the front struck me as highly appropriate for the Fifth Estate (See FE Nov. 19, 1981). It would seem to me that a worldwide nuclear war would surely be a progressive step towards “Paleolithic Liberation.” In all your polemics against technology and in your point by point rebuttals to pro-tech arguments you never seem to deal with the sort of question I am inclined to raise. Namely, how do you expect 4 billion people to sustain themselves on the planet in a hunter gatherer mode of production?

The population of the planet in paleolithic times was a mere fraction of one percent of the present population. This was true for a reason; human beings needed to live within the carrying capacity of the environment. There is an optimal level in the ratio of the number of human beings to a given ecosystem for a given mode of production. I would suggest that the development of agriculture, the state, classes and technology has been a long term process of intensification of production in response to rising population pressures. With each new innovation (i.e. semi-nomadic agriculture to sedentary rainfall agriculture to irrigation agriculture, etc.) the carrying capacity of the environment is increased making further population expansion possible which leads to eventual depletions and pressure towards still more intensified production strategies.

With the development of newer modes of production for larger populations there have been various trade-offs. These have included the development of despotic bureaucracies such as the techno-managerial elite which solidified itself permanently as a class in China around 500 BC in control of the elaborate irrigation system which developed there in response to the food demands of a rising population. Although there have been “revolutions” and conquests by foreign invaders throughout China’s history, the region has always been ruled by a bureaucratic ruling class and continues to this day. Other trade-offs have included longer working hours and greater and greater degrees of alienation.

The Fifth Estate makes its strongest theoretical contributions in its analysis of alienation, dehumanized mechanized labor and the techno-wasteland culture. I find myself agreeing with practically all of your arguments while agreeing with virtually none of your conclusions. There can be no denying the role that technology, especially centralized heavy industrial production, has had in degrading the spontaneity and creativity of the human spirit in favor of a homogenized, docile workforce of obedient order-takers. To assert that this is an inevitable result of technology in any form misses the point entirely, though.

The factory as a force for social control did not develop though some sort of process inherent in technology itself, it was developed deliberately by capitalists in their efforts to secure greater control over the workforce. I would direct your attention to John Zerzan’s “Industrialization and Domestication (see FE April 1976) for a closer look at the late 18th and early 19th century class struggles I am referring to. The modern factory was developed, in part, as a weapon of the capitalist class in the class struggle.

Virtually all technology in history has developed within a class matrix of one sort or another. Yet you seem to regard technology as being an independent force with an intrinsic mad logic all its own and unconnected to any sort of class analysis. I am not arguing that technology in its present form will be liberating and non-alienating if only the “good guys” take it over from the “bad guys.” An assembly line will always be alienating to some degree, even if it is under total workers’ control.

I see three major directions in which our species can go. The first is towards the continually expanding techno-managerial Orwellian computer Mega-state. This would involve greater and greater interlocks amongst the planet’s ruling elites, greater control over the lives and thoughts of individuals, and a steady erosion of individual liberty, free thought and free expression.

The second likely direction is mass self-destruction through a nuclear war or an eco-catastrophe. This second course would favor the FE’s goals, in my view, as it would drastically reduce the population pressures of the human species for obvious reasons. The question of how a reduced human population could live in a paleolithic mode of production and have enough for everyone to eat remains only partially answered at best.

The third choice which our species has is towards an ecologically sound, decentralized humanistic technology. There is simply no other way to support the basic needs of 4 billion people without some forms of technology or a massacre. If you can prove me wrong, please do so and I will eat my typewriter. That’s a promise!

Population control is going to be essential one way or the other. The techno-Megastate will accomplish this through war, genocide, family planning by government decree, and through forced sterilization of “undesirables.” The alternative is voluntary, rational population control by a cooperative planet-wide confederation of ecologically-based autonomous communities. The alternatives are Big Brother or the mushroom cloud on the cover of FE (or both!).

In Support of Your Paper
(even though we disagree).
Chris Dugan
The League for Evolutionary Anarchism & Freedom
Box 18488
Denver CO 80218

John Zerzan responds: To see class society as the “response to rising population pressures” is to view it as a natural, inevitable outcome and neglect the tragic struggle of communal life against its domination. For an anarchist, I would have thought Kropotkin’s stress on mutual aid and the perfectibility of society would be more pertinent to the question of population than Hobbes and Malthus, who seem larger influences and who bolstered bourgeois ideology by elevating the scarcity of resources and proclaiming the constancy of the ethical limitations of humanity.

Similarly, your prescription of a “planet-wide confederation” to somehow control population on a “voluntary, rational” basis seems to me way off for one who, presumably, desires a free, unmediated condition of life. I would think that either people will apprehend and express the dimensions of anarchy directly or they will need the lingering authority of global bureaux. Not both.

In the matter of technology, here also a couple of unsound notions. You cite my “Industrialism & Domestication” as a corrective to the idea, allegedly the Fifth Estate’s, that technology is independent of the social and political framework in which it is found. Yet the FE was the original publisher of this essay and I’ve seen no evidence that the paper’s staff has ever disputed the article’s thesis that a designed social control intentionality was the hallmark of factory-system technology.

On the other hand, there has been a willingness in the FE to consider the sense in which present and future technology tend toward a life of their own. Here there has been an effort to critically assess the extent to which Jacques Ellul is correct that technology is becoming itself an independent system dominating society.

Concerning the definition of technology, or rather the point at which “technology” becomes a destructive influence, here I think you have also misread the FE.

Recent anthropology (e.g. Marshall Sahlins, R.B. Lee) has completely reversed the view that original, hunter-gatherer life was nasty, short and brutish, in favor of recognizing in the Stone Age the original affluent society, in which work was neither valued in itself or needed in great amounts and in which the spirit of the gift dominated. But as I see it, the attention accorded this momentous discovery and its implications has not meant that a foraging way of life is an exact formula promoted to end the profound alienation of humanity from itself and nature. Eschewing blueprints, the FE has mainly tried to show that the myths of progress have concealed much about our origins, and has also tried to see through to the nature of the technology that now envelops us.

I tend to think the line should be drawn between tools and machines. It is here that division of labor, with its diminution of the individual, begins, and its consequence, the arrival of the effective power of specialists. The devitalization and depersonalization so vivid today perhaps finds its axial point back at the distinction between tools and machines. Langdon Winner, in his Autonomous Technology, put it this way: “One can seek the high levels of productivity that modern technological systems bring. One can also seek the founding of a communal life in which the division of labor, social hierarchy, and political domination are eradicated. But can one in any realistic terms have both? I am convinced that the answer to this question is a firm ‘no.’”

Of course, we are meant to believe that we would all die if technology were dismantled. We are so steeped in it that the simple idea of growing our own food is not what springs to mind but rather the artificial problem of how to “coordinate” its “production.” Instead of the notion of natural ways of birth control, related to the condition of being one with our own bodies, there is an unthinking assumption of factories that produce surgical steel, plastics and other dependency-maintaining substances. Today’s growing distrust of high technology, however, and the “surprising” recent movement, as noted in 1980 census analysis, away from the cities to small towns and rural areas are two phenomena that point away from massified, complex technology.

But if one continues to think in terms of “production,” and sees the assembly line as merely alienating “to some degree,” then the essential point of the FE’s quest for the bedrock of freedom is being missed.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #309 (vol. 17, no. 2), June 19, 1982, p 2.

Marcus Graham on ‘Fifth Estate’, Anarchism, Technology & Bookchin (1981)

FE View Not New. . .

To the Fifth Estate:

The “Against the Megamachine” article in the July 1980 Fifth Estate ought to influence pro-machine marxists, anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists in realizing the Frankenstein that the scientists have created.

George Bradford’s essay, “On Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism,” in particular deals with this phrase most effectively. Bradford correctly points out that although anarchists are opposed to “authoritarian Marxism,” they have failed to realize what the technological megamachine implies.

Nevertheless, not all anarchists have followed Peter Kropotkin’s pro-machine position. In the weekly anarchist “Road to Freedom” (1924-1939), in an article entitled “Man’s Liberation,” appearing July 1925, this writer stated in part: “Man created machines. Machines that were to lessen man’s toil. But alas! The machine has increased the wealth of the idlers and brought misery to the many… .What is even worse, the machine has destroyed man’s joy of artisan creation. Man merely became a spook of the very machine that he himself created.”

I think the future will prove that Kropotkin, from an anarchist point of view, has, in accepting thus the machine, made one of the greatest errors. Such an attitude was perfectly logical for the Marxian school of thought, but certainly not for the anarchist. In reality, man will never be able to master the machine without the sacrifice of endangering human life.

Kropotkin’s pro-machine position received a new impetus when Murray Bookchin came out in favor of the machine under the alluring title Toward a Liberatory Technology in “Anarchos” issues 2 & 3, 1968-69. In a reply, “Questioning the Premises” of Bookchin which appeared in the October 1971 issue of the Match! of Tucson, Arizona, I wrote: “Technology rests on the basic principle of centralized authority, as its technique shows in every move that it makes. Anarchism, on the other hand, rests on the very opposite basic principle of decentralization. Whether by intent or not, Bookchin is correct when using the words ‘socialist ideal,’ since Marxism fits into technology as into a perfect glove. But when he implies that technology is related or conducive to the building of an Anarchist society, he is totally wrong.”

It is indeed good to find Bookchin changing his position by now as quoted by Bradford in his article.

Last but not least, the Fifth Estate, although not calling itself an anarchist publication, is nevertheless considered as such by “The Anarchist Review” of England, anarchist groups and individuals who materially support it ­– for the reason of its most consistent anti-authoritarian reaction towards every political and social question.

Marcus Graham
Los Gatos CA

= = =

from Fifth Estate #307 (vol. 15. no. 6), Nov. 19, 1981,  p 2.

“Defeated Spirit?” – John Zerzan to ‘Fifth Estate’ (1981)

Defeated Spirit?

To the Editors:

The latest issue, containing much excellent analysis of our techno-morass and its processes, nonetheless has bothered me.

The absence of a connection between the critique and its use is the most troublesome feature. From the articles I have a persistent sense of the too-remote, the academic; that of a profound indictment minus any everyday applications.

Aside from some very visionary-sounding phrases, the only concrete references to a radical anti-technology approach were calls for “a defense of every little commodity,” which strikes me as merely reformist, and for a “critical sociology,” which could suggest, of course, a retention of specialization of even the university!

To me the technology critique is the first coherent, contemporary attack on no less than every mediation and representation in social life, and therefore exhilarating. But it is not so far for the FE authors: “We are in eclipse; the human spirit is moribund,” says the introduction to the last issue.

This defeated spirit tends to inform the paper, and renders the goal of liberation an impossible (or even cynical) idea to the “Paleolithic Liberation Organization” which produces it. The depth of misery is laid out for all to see–only there’s really zero hope for breaking what we can so clearly understand. Thus, the critique remains a banality: everyone can know it and no one can win. Perfect example is quoting Jacques Ellul at great length–Ellul who is equally known as lay Catholic theologian as for his (trenchant) ideas about the “Technological Society.”

As the situationists used to counsel, “Nihilists! One more effort if you would be revolutionaries.”

Not in eclipse,
not even close,
John Zerzan
Newport, OR

= = =

from Fifth Estate #307 (vol. 15, no. 6), Nov. 19, 1981, p 2.

Bob Brubaker: “Community, Primitive Society and the State” (1981)

Community, Primitive Society and the State
Introduction

by Bob Brubaker

Primitive culture, Marshall Sahlins has argued, is not fetishized utility. “The practical function of (primitive) institutions,” he tells us, “is never adequate to explain their cultural structure….People employ customs and categories to organize their lives within local schemes of interpretation, thus giving uses to material circumstances which cultural comparison will show, are never the only ones possible.” Consequently, diversity is the rule in the primitive world, as much because of the multifarious systems of meaning and interpretations peoples employ to constitute their worlds, as because of the varying climates and landscapes in which they are situated.

It follows that history cannot be summarized in the manner of Marx, as merely “the production by men of their material life.” The “struggle for existence,” so called, does not determine the cultural forms of primitive society. The notion that production and culture are separate spheres (or separable analytically), with the mode of production as (ultimately) determinant, dies once one accepts the interpretations of ethnographic evidence offered by Sahlins, Pierre Clastres, Jean Baudrillard, and Stanley Diamond.

This essay is intended to open up discussion about what constitutes community by examining societies worthy of the term. In a time when the last vestiges of the primitive are being rooted out and destroyed, an elementary self-education about what is being lost is crucial. A part of ourselves, a possible mode of human being, is being irrevocably lost.

The very concept of what community is has virtually disappeared, if we are to judge by the pronouncements of Marxists and anarchotechnocrats, whose vision is of life organized around a vast nexus of production and consumption. A world of difference is not anticipated by the visionaries of perfected technology, but is the province only of those whose hatred of abstract order is tempered by a longing for community, diversity, and the human scale.

It is necessary to take seriously Stanley Diamond’s “search for the primitive,” understood as an exploration and elaboration of a “pre-civilized cross-cultural human potential,” and employed as a standard by which to criticize civilized existence. This search is not an effort to idealize a primitive “golden age” to which we can return. What it entails, rather, is the identification of subtle human attributes which have been lost amid the cacophonies of civilization, and an assessment of their possible relevance to our lives.

Continue reading ‘Bob Brubaker: “Community, Primitive Society and the State” (1981)’

George Bradford: “Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism” (1981)

Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism

Subjection of nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?

Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Here as everywhere else, we must distinguish between the increased productiveness due to the development of the social process of production, and that due to the capitalist exploitation of that process.

Marx, Capital

For us communists, builders of the most advanced society in the history of mankind, scientific-technological progress is one of the main ways of speeding up the plans of the party regarding the transformation of nature.

Leonid Brezhnev, 1968

As Jacques Camatte wrote in The Wandering of Humanity, Marx’s work “seems largely to be the authentic consciousness of the capitalistic mode of production.” Indeed, Marx’s thought matured during the apogee of the vogue of nineteenth century scientific positivism, and reflected that religion of industrial progress both in its exaltation of scientific rationalism and its notion of material progress based on mechanization and industry. Like other positivist schemata of its time, “scientific socialism” operated by way of a deterministic materialism which saw human nature as productivist and which reduced all cultural creation to a mere reflection of “material practice,” seeing humanity’s relation to the world in almost crude, naturalistic images as a struggle to conquer nature. The complex mythical structures of ancient communities were seen as infantile attempts to realize and intervene in natural processes, which could ultimately be superseded by scientific instrumental rationality.

Like other aspects of scientistic ideology which grew out of that ever-so-bourgeois of centuries, Marx’s vision delineated human experience into neat, philosophical  “stages of development,” each bounded and characterized by its particular “mode of production,” and all leading irrevocably toward the universalization which capital would create, and finally, to its “dialectical negation” – socialism. As Marx put it himself, De te fabula narratur – that is, the “advanced” societies represented the destiny, with minor divergences, of the “barbarian, pre-capitalist” societies. Progress demanded that the ancient communities be uprooted and the old ways of life destroyed; the imperative of the developing “mode of production” burst the fetters of the old societies, but this time motion would undermine the bourgoisie, “the first to show what man’s activity can bring about,” and usher in the socialist paradise.

This bloody, painful process is “material progress” to the historical materialists, and in the eyes of these bourgeois intellectuals, industrialization was an inevitable “stage” on the road to socialist destiny. The worker had first to lose his tools, the farmer his land, and become mere appendages of the machine in order to ultimately become its masters. Even the earliest class divisions could be justified by virtue of the fact that they destroyed the former “backward conditions of scarcity,” and laid the foundations for progress. Progress would destroy the “infantile” myths and strip the world of its halos and its mystifications. It would urbanize the countryside, centralize production, and rescue people from the “idiocy of rural life.”

Machines the Key to Liberation

It wasn’t the new massified, industrial technology which was oppressive, only the manner in which the bourgeoisie used it for its own benefit at the expense of the great majority. The problem was that the new modern mode of production had not reached full maturity; when it did, the oppressive conditions of capitalism, according to Engels, would be “swept away by the full development of the modern productive forces.”

In fact, it is the contention that bourgeois capitalism fettered the means of production and their free development that became the central criticism of capitalism by Marx and Engels and later by their epigones. After all, if the machines and the industrial system were fundamental to the oppression and dispossession of the human being, they were also destined to be the key to liberation.

Continue reading ‘George Bradford: “Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism” (1981)’

David Watson: “Against the Megamachine” (1981-1985/1997)

Against the Megamachine
By David Watson

“Industrialism is, I am afraid, going to be a curse for mankind… To change to industrialism is to court disaster. The present distress is undoubtedly insufferable. Pauperism must go. But industrialism is no remedy….” — Gandhi

How do we begin to discuss something as immense and pervasive as technology? It means to describe the totality of modern civilization—not only its massive industrial vistas, its structural apparatus; not only its hierarchy of command and specialization, the imprint of this apparatus on human relations; not only  the “humble objects,” which “in their aggregate … have shaken our mode of living to its very roots,” as Siegfried Giedion has written; but also in that internalized  country of our thoughts, dreams and desires, in the way we consciously and unconsciously see ourselves and our world.

Questioning technology seems incoherent in the modern world because, invisible and ubiquitous, it defines our terrain, our idea of reason. You cannot “get rid of technology,” you cannot “destroy all machines”; we are dependent upon them for our survival. In any case, the story goes, technology has always been with us. When an ape pries termites out of a tree with a twig, that, too, is supposed to be technology. Everything changes, and yet stays the same. Plugging into a computer is no more than an improvement on prying termites out of bark. Therefore, one is expected never to discuss technology as a totality but only specific styles or components of technology, which are to be embraced or discarded according to the criteria of the technological religion: efficiency, velocity, compatibility with the entirety of the aggregate.

No one denies that different modes of life existed; but they have been, or are rapidly being, forgotten. Hence the idea they must have been defective, backward, underdeveloped, and eventually surpassed by progress. You can’t “go back,” “return to the past”—“you can’t stop progress.” When mercantile capitalism emerged, the individualistic, entrepreneurial spirit was thought the essence of human nature. Even non-western and indigenous societies came to be judged mere preparatory stages of modern market society. As mechanization took command, humanity was seen fundamentally as the “tool user,” Homo faber. So ingrained was this notion of human nature that when the paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira were discovered in 1879, archaeologists considered them a hoax; Ice Age hunters would have had neither the leisure (due to the “struggle for existence”) nor the mental capacity (since sophistication is demonstrated first of all by complex technical apparatus) to create such graceful, visually sophisticated art.

Taking the part for the whole—ignoring the complex languages, symbolic exchange, rituals, and dreamwork of diverse peoples, while fetishizing their technics—this ruling idea continues to see all cultural evolution as only a series of advances in technical activities. There is never any suspicion of qualitative difference; the mathematics, techniques, and technical implements of early peoples are seen only as incipient versions of modern cybernetics, rational mastery, and industrial apparatus.

Technology is a way of life

To define technology as any and every technical endeavor or artifact, to think of it as the means by which human beings do everything from picking fruit to firing missiles into space, is to render the word meaningless. This ideology can make no sense of the dramatic changes that have occurred in life; it conceals the fact that technology has become a way of life, a specific kind of society. It assumes that a society in which nearly every sphere of human endeavor is shaped by technology is essentially the same as a society with a limited, balanced technics embedded in the larger constellation of life.

Just as capital has been reductively confused with industrial apparatus and accumulated wealth, when it is more importantly a set of social relations, so has technology been reduced to the image of machines and tools, when it, too, has become a complex of social relations—a “web of instrumentality,” and thus a qualitatively different form of domination. Technology is capital, the triumph of the inorganic—humanity separated from its tools and universally dependent upon the technological apparatus. It is the regimentation and mechanization of life, the universal proletarianization of humanity and the destruction of community. It is not simply machines, not even mechanization or regimentation alone. As Lewis Mumford pointed out in Technics and Civilization, these phenomena are not new in history; “what is new is the fact that these functions have been projected and embodied in organized forms which dominate every aspect of our existence.” (Thus critics of technology are commonly accused of being opposed to tools, when in reality modern industrial technology destroyed human-scale tools, and in this way degraded human labor.)

Continue reading ‘David Watson: “Against the Megamachine” (1981-1985/1997)’



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