Archive for September, 2010



“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)’

Introduction to ‘Fifth Estate’ #306 (1981)

INTRODUCTION

”When I pronounce the word civilization, I spit.” —Gauguin

We are all trapped within the technological labyrinth, and at its center awaits our annihilation. We have already lost more than we can imagine to civilization’s insatiable hunger for power and uniformity. We live in the shadow of an enormous edifice, a monstrosity which teeters and threatens to collapse upon us in a moment. We sing, make love, struggle and despair amid its decomposing limbs. But the smell of decomposition is general. We are in eclipse; the human spirit is moribund.

Urban civilization is a vast junkyard. Everything from the cells of our bodies to the planets is contaminated by its poisons and excreta. To resist it seems incoherent and hopeless. But the flaming trajectory of progress is what is truly mad, because its false optimism conceals a vicious cynicism and despair at the possibility of life. Realizing that all is lost, this consciousness surrenders to the momentum: after all, this is the Machine Age, and there is no room for human beings in a world of automata.

When we began this issue, frustrated with the lack of clarity which characterized the previous discussions, we had in mind to say something definitive about technology. We spent most of May and June in the library under fluorescent lights going through the endless literature on the subject. Besides being made vengefully aware of the contradictions involved in our activities, we learned that we were at least correct to trust our instincts and our visceral loathing for this technological desert and its obliteration of the human and natural universe. Everywhere we turned we found more horrors, more corruption, more decay and a greater urgency to somehow resist its conquest. Everything started to come under question, every commonplace of this civilization and its instruments, its way of life. If we learned that we could not necessarily foresee all of the implications of a geometrically expanding technological system, we could be certain about what it excluded from the realm of possibility: community, diversity, love and freedom, for starters. Just in the last few days, someone found a note in the newspapers that computer experts have coined the word “servoprotein” to refer to human beings such as programmers and technicians who work on the computers. This little bit of news demonstrates with frightening transparency that we will either recreate a natural and human world or perpetuate a world of machines which renders us superfluous by transforming us finally in “servoprotein.”

This is our challenge: to renew our humanity or lose it entirely to this behemoth which we have created and which has become the measure of all things. As E.M. Cioran has written, “. . . everything is virtue that leads us to live against the strain of our civilization, that invites us to compromise and sabotage its progress.” We will either find a way out of the technological wilderness or we will lose ourselves in it.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #306 (vol. 15, no. 5), July 1981, p 3.

This is the introduction to Fifth Estate #306, which includes the first version of “Against the Megamachine” by T. Fulano, “Marxism, Anarchism and the Roots of the New Totalitarianism” by George Bradford, “Indigenism & Its Enemies” by P. Solis, “‘The Snowmobile Revolution’ – Technological Invasion” (unsigned), and “Community, Primitive Society and the State” by Bob Brubaker. All except Bob Brubaker are actually pen names for David Watson.

RADICAL ARCHIVES NOTE: This article is unsigned but David Watson has confirmed that he wrote it. In our opinion, Fifth Estate #306 represents the emergence of a fully-formed primitivist perspective. This came after years of discussions regarding the role of organization, technology and radical change – but also a couple years before John Zerzan starts publishing his “Origins” essays.

“On Having Nothing to Say” (1979)

ON HAVING NOTHING TO SAY

The long delay between this issue and the last one published at the end of January resulted from our being confronted by a bout of cerebral paralysis which left us feeling empty of words and ideas. We mostly articulated this feeling to one another by stating rather aimlessly that perhaps “we no longer had anything to say,” which carried with it the vague suggestion that maybe we should even close up shop.

It’s not that we were bereft of the concepts or desires that had motivated us in the past, but rather that we wanted to continue to meet the criteria we have somewhat rigorously always demanded of ourselves. We’ve always felt that if we aren’t involved in continually turning over new ground and challenging our old assumptions, maybe we should pack it in and leave the propaganda work and political glad-handing to others.

In fairness to ourselves, however, we should state that the last two issues seemed quite decent to us and met at least part of the criteria just mentioned. Hence it would be easy to see these current doldrums as just episodic, since we have published some real stinkers in the past without ever having come to the conclusion that we had run entirely out of steam. What is different at this juncture, is that we have reached a critical period; one which we are just beginning to realize has been developing for a long time.

Even while we were describing history we failed to recognize our role in the contemporary process of creating it in a period when it would have been crucial for us to have done so. The beginnings of what we are now faced with trace back to the origins of our project long before the involvement of the current staff.

New Left Origins

For most of its existence (beginning in 1965) the Fifth Estate was a quintessentially New Left publication, but the period which gave rise to it was in a severe eclipse by 1974-75 as was the newspaper itself when we first began to function with it, first as the Eat the Rich Gang and then as the staff. It was evident to us at that time that we were in a period of declining political activity and disintegrating forms of rebellion which had typified the aforegoing period. Yet we were bright with enthusiasm about our new project, and the host of recently discovered ideas we had just come across—such as situationsim, anarchism, and council communism—animated us all the more.

We felt we were the inheritors of the ‘sixties but now armed with a much more potent formula for revolution than the statist and authoritarian muck which had been previously carried. Ultimately, we thought we were at the beginning of things, not at their end.

We were soon dispossessed of that optimism as the disintegration continued and now, almost at the ‘eighties, any continuity with that previous period has been broken. All that was “The Movement” seems now only fit subject matter for TV specials, leaving us back at ground zero suddenly truncated from our past or any tradition of rebellion.

Continue reading ‘“On Having Nothing to Say” (1979)’

John & Paula Zerzan vs The Fifth Estate Staff: “FE Criticized and Our Response” (1978)

FE CRITICIZED AND OUR RESPONSE

To the Fifth Estate:

The letter from “Kirk Johnson” (March 2, 1978 FE), which equated Fifth Estate’s practice of running a profit-making book service (to support itself) with Search & Destroy’s record company ads (for the same end), makes public a discussion that has been private for too long.

That the opening of this critique—which really began with FE’s important remarks on Black Rose Books’ capitalist procedures—finally arrives via a spokesman for Search and Destroy is a sad irony. S&D is a completely uncritical promo rag which hopes to be accepted by what it sees as the latest fad, punk rock. Done anonymously, it (characteristically) helped organize a recent two-day benefit for the UMW strike, this piece of liberal/leftist reformism easily coexisting next to censored interviews and ads for rip-off night clubs.

But what of FE, to us the only critical publication in North America? Ammunition Books fulfills exactly the same function as do S&D’s ads. In neither case do the publishers wish to give their own money to their projects. Likewise, as with S&D’s complete public anonymity, FE’s articles are presented almost entirely unsigned or accompanied by clever pseudonyms. Is anyone’s life really involved, or are both enterprises just separate hobbies, just words on a page?

With Search & Destroy, despite a tiny sprinkling of “radical” verbiage—a highly insulting pretension—one would not really expect any quality, any radical break, in the first place. With Fifth Estate one expects a great deal more; why, then, the chilling similarities?

It seems that one factor is FE’s enthusiasm for the ideas of Camatte. C., of course, sees the world as completely domesticated, where virtually no activity can do other than reinforce the totality of capital, where the only thing revolutionary is the revolution itself. Behind this outlook, one’s answer to criticism is that since no project can be revolutionary, why be too concerned with its details?

It is precisely this kind of cynicism (whether or not C. is its sole inspiration) which leads to such deathly separations between FE’s radical language and the daily lives of its creators. Camatte writes of the totality of the revolution required to break the hold of capital—and is a tidy little professor, living as any other bourgeois. It’s arguable that some of the FE “staff” hold jobs which provide the most active forms of service to the commodity and the state.

Continue reading ‘John & Paula Zerzan vs The Fifth Estate Staff: “FE Criticized and Our Response” (1978)’