Archive for September, 2010

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)


”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.

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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)


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)


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)’

“Technology & the State: An Introduction” (1978)


Perhaps the most insidious aspect of modern, centralized technology, even more than its pervasiveness, is its complete acceptance in almost all quarters as an integral part of the human experience (and among so-called “revolutionaries” as a prerequisite for a change to a humane society).

Humanoids and humans have spent the vast portion of our time on the planet with little or no technology and only in the last 10,000 years or so (an infinitesimal portion of our existence) has the rise of mechanical and technological improvements begun to affect us and the other species with which we share the planet. The capacity for innovation and invention seemed almost innate in humans once the first rudimentary developments of prehistoric times became wide-spread. The first inventions were employed as a means to improve what was often a harsh and dangerous existence, but they immediately put us on the road on which we currently find ourselves.

The simple but monumental development of stone weapons increased the available food supply for humans, but at the same time gave to one species the ability to obliterate others, which, in fact was accomplished in several cases.

The most important technological leap in history was the innovation of agriculture, which led to a complete redefinition of the human experience and altered people from a condition of wildness to one of domestication. As the system of agriculture began to predominate, humans became rooted to a fixed geographic region—and for the first time—could produce a surplus of goods. It was within this social setting that the most significant social institution in history emerged—the vertical bureaucratic hierarchy—and its expression in class society and the political state.

Since that epoch 10,000 years ago, both technology and the political rule of the State have snowballed to the extent that they now stand in the position of dominating all of human existence. Their development has continued unaltered since that period irrespective of the particular type of political rule or mode of production in a given era, to the point where human existence on the planet is threatened by both.

All of us want electric lights and indoor plumbing, but not the simultaneous developments of the hydrogen bomb and the pollution of the air which has been developed along with the conveniences of life. But the fact remains that we have both and it may be quite possible that one could not have been created without the other, so in tandem are the military machines of the State and the major inventions of the modern epoch. The two articles below detail the Frankenstein syndrome inherent in technology at the service of the State. Rudy Perkins describes how the development of nuclear power is tied directly into nuclear weaponry; and in the following piece, Duke Skywatcher demonstrates that Star Wars’ technology is not fantasy, but that contemporary Darth Vaders are planning bigger and better wars for us all the time—this time in space.

Though neither presents alternatives, neither could be expected to since a thorough analysis of the development and function of technology has yet to be made. However, if the term “revolution” is not simply to be a codeword for the next batch of political rulers, we have to begin an investigation of all of the elements of our lives and be prepared, if need be, to make fundamental alterations in any of them rather than accept the givens of that which oppresses us.

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from Fifth Estate #290 (Vol. 13. #2), March 2, 1978, p 7.

This is the introduction to “The State and Nuclear Power” by Rudy Perkins and “The Arms Race of the Future Is Now: Star Wars?” by Duke Skywatcher.

RADICAL ARCHIVES NOTE: The article is unsigned but Peter Werbe has confirmed that he is the author.

The First Primitivist Essay: “Gary Snyder Asks: Poetry or Machines? Back to the Stone Age” (1977)

Back to the Stone Age?

“The Politics of Ethnopoetics” in The Old Ways, Six Essays, Gary Snyder, City Lights Books, San Francisco, 40077 “(Reckoning roughly from the earliest cave paintings)”, 96 pp.

Ever since the dawn of industrial capitalism 200 years ago, a succession of philosophers, poets, social scientists, and mystics have written on the decline of the species since leaving the “state of nature” and entering the modern epoch. Hence, it could be charged, that there is little that is new in this book and much that has been heard from sources whose nostalgia for the days of yore is of a short lasting duration broken by a return to the middle-class life that spawns such ideas.

Almost all radical thought from Marxism through to anarchist thinkers like Murray Bookchin in his Post-Scarcity Anarchism take as a pre-condition for revolutionary change the continuing development of our productive capacity and view any reversal of the process as reactionary. However, just as we would never allow the conservatism of the ruling ideas to govern the direction of our thinking, neither should we allow what formerly passed as radical ideas to have a similar restraining effect.

Civilization is The Culprit

The value then of the book under consideration is that Snyder calls into question basic assumptions of modern society and very directly indicts the whole edifice of civilization as the culprit in the predicament humans have gotten themselves into.

What is being directly confronted is the concept of progress itself. The history of the species has always been taught to us as the history of progress—out of the oceans, out of the caves, onto the fields, into the factories, etc.—without ever really stopping to ask what was the yardstick being used that identified cave dwellers as unfortunate, while seeing the wage workers of Europe and North America as blessed. Nobody ever turned, looked at each group and said, “Gee, are they happy?”

People seem to have the capacity to simultaneously hold a positive notion of civilization and progress while compartmentalizing the knowledge that contact with the modern world by thriving and happy pre-industrial people has always led to their immiseration and extermination. Why is there not the realization that the same process occurred to our forebears as well and we are just their domesticated descendants who can be satisfied with camping in the wilderness for two weeks a year as a substitute for the life our species once led?

To Snyder (after Levi-Strauss and Sahlins), the species began its decline at the end of the Paleolithic Age when hunting and gathering ceased to be the dominant form of sustenance and was replaced by the agriculturally-based Neolithic Age. With the ability to produce large surpluses through stored crops, the centralized state, the patriarchal family and class structure emerged, first only on a small section of the planet involving a limited number of people, but that process now nears completion after eight thousand years of “civilization” with the final destruction at hand of the remaining Stone Age cultures still lingering in the hinterlands of Brazil, Australia and the Philippines.

The decline comes about as the form of human association changes. In an unpublished manuscript, Gerry Winstanley makes the point, “Once a group of people came to rely on agriculture completely, and forgot how to live by hunting and gathering, they could no longer run away en masse into the wilderness to escape slavery.” Hence, the State becomes permanent. Or as Snyder writes,

“Society providing buffers and protection of an increasingly complicated order so that as it became larger in scope and populations larger in size, it protected individuals from those demands for speed, skill, knowledge, and intelligence that were common in the Upper Paleolithic. The personal direct contact with the natural world required of hunters and gatherers—men and women both—a tremendous continual awareness.”

The quick answer, “Well, who doesn’t want to be safe from tigers,” misses entirely what also that “safety” brings—a domesticated species that has all of its affairs that were once handled directly now mediated by the State and commodity relationships so that it seems perfectly natural and reasonable that all aspects of what we do with both our labor and leisure time, where we live and how we live are chosen for us with humans figuring in the equation only as an afterthought.

Rapacious Dangers of the State

Safety from the elements was “won” (a dubious victory) only at the expense of being now exposed to the rapacious dangers of the State and, most importantly, the loss of community with its concept of “place” and definition for the species. Missing those elements, articulated through song, dance, myth and poetry and accepting instead, a society of mediation, is what Camatte calls the “wandering of humanity.”

Snyder knows his anthropology and his ecology, but seems to be influenced by Marxists in those fields even though he realizes their limitations. He states, “Marxists, granted the precision of their critique on most points, often have a hard time thinking clearly about primitive cultures, and the usual tendency is to assume that they should become civilized.” Snyder sees this as a flaw rather than realizing what he has stated puts him into direct opposition with the Marxist project.

As a part of the intellectual development of the bourgeois era, Marxism contains all of its assumptions including the one mentioned by Snyder. To Marx and Engels people were not even human until they entered class society and to them (including their modern epigones like Evelyn Reed in Women’s Evolution) the destruction of primitive communism is a positive and progressive thing, just as the development of capitalism is positive, all enveloped in the mystical view of progress that along this continuum will be created a wonderful world out of the stuff that heretofore has created mostly misery.

Drive Toward Monoculture

Again there is never the central evaluation of the effect all of this progress of the last 8,000 years has had on the planet and its inhabitants. Snyder contends that it has been a disaster, and one that is increasing in its intensity with civilization’s drive toward world-wide monoculture. The tendency away from species-diversity makes our lives extremely precarious since we have become totally dependent upon the continuous smooth functioning of a highly centralized political and technical apparatus. Yet, all of this is built into both the capitalist and Marxist view of the world. Although none of us are willing to relinquish the comforts of modern life, if we take as our starting point the technology created in the modern epoch, we will be sure to continue its social forms as well. At some point there has to be a sorting out of what we want in terms of human relationships and only then think about what is possible technologically.

People in the Upper Paleolithic era worked only about 15 hours a week according to Marshall Sahlins in his Stone Age Economics and never tried to maximize production or produce a surplus apparently preferring to spend more of their time in play, dance, song and magic. That choice of preferences is gone from our epoch where the work-a-day world has been steadily increasing in time spent since that “primitive” era. Are those the choices then?—machines or song and poetry? It’s not entirely clear, except that for certain, the former has obliterated the latter where ever it has touched the folk and people always mirror what is at the center of their society—in ours it’s the machine.

Snyder says the “politics of ethnopoetics” is seeing what “industrial technological civilization is doing to the earth,” but none of this should be taken as a call to return to the caves of our ancestors (the only way that will be done is Gen. Curtis LeMay-style). It means to stop accepting the planet as we find it, to reinhabit it as free humans, and to re-define ourselves through our song and poetry.

Snyder ends thusly, “Such poetries will be created by us as we reinhabit this land with people who know they belong to it… The poems will leap put past the automobiles and TV sets of today into the vastness of the Milky Way (visible only when the electricity is turned down)… These poesies to come will help us learn to be people of knowledge in this universe in community with other people—non-humans included—brothers and sisters.

This is a vision of survival and revolution.

= = =

from Fifth Estate #286 (vol. 12, no. 10), September 1977, p 4.

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RADICAL ARCHIVES NOTE: Steve Millet has identified this as the first primitivist article to appear in Fifth Estate. It is unsigned, but Peter Werbe has confirmed that he wrote it.