John Zerzan

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John Zerzan
John Zerzan, 2010 (cropped).jpg
Zerzan lecturing at the 2010 Bay Area Anarchist Book Fair
BornAugust 10, 1943 (1943-08-10) (age 76)
Alma mater Stanford University
San Francisco State University
Era Contemporary philosophy
Region Western philosophy
School Anarcho-primitivism, post-left anarchy
Main interests
Hunter-gatherer society, Civilization, alienation, symbolic culture, technology, mass society
Notable ideas
Domestication of humans, rewilding

John Zerzan ( /ˈzɜːrzən/ ZUR-zən; born August 10, 1943) is an American anarchist and primitivist ecophilosopher and author. His works criticize agricultural civilization as inherently oppressive, and advocates drawing upon the ways of life of hunter-gatherers as an inspiration for what a free society should look like. Some subjects of his criticism include domestication, language, symbolic thought (such as mathematics and art) and the concept of time.


His six major books are Elements of Refusal (1988), Future Primitive and Other Essays (1994), Running on Emptiness (2002), Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections (2005), Twilight of the Machines (2008), and Why hope? The Stand Against Civilization (2015).

Early life and education

Zerzan was born in Salem, Oregon. He received his bachelor's degree from Stanford University and later received a master's degree in History from San Francisco State University. He completed his coursework towards a PhD at the University of Southern California but dropped out before completing his dissertation. He is of Czech descent.


Zerzan's theories draw on Theodor Adorno's concept of negative dialectics to construct a theory of civilization as the cumulative construction of alienation. According to Zerzan, original human societies in paleolithic times, and similar societies today such as the !Kung and Mbuti, live a non-alienated and non-oppressive form of life based on primitive abundance and closeness to nature. Constructing such societies as an instructive comparison against which to denounce contemporary (especially industrial) societies, Zerzan uses anthropological studies from such societies as the basis for a wide-ranging critique of aspects of modern life. He portrays contemporary society as a world of misery built on the psychological production of a sense of scarcity and lack. [1] The history of civilization is the history of renunciation; what stands against this is not progress but rather the Utopia which arises from its negation. [2]

Zerzan is an anarchist philosopher, and is broadly associated with the philosophies of anarcho-primitivism, green anarchism, anti-civilisation, post-left anarchy, neo-luddism, and in particular the critique of technology. [3] He rejects not only the state, but all forms of hierarchical and authoritarian relations. "Most simply, anarchy means 'without rule.' This implies not only a rejection of government but of all other forms of domination and power as well." [4]

Zerzan's work relies heavily on a strong dualism between the "primitive" – viewed as non-alienated, wild, non-hierarchical, ludic, and socially egalitarian – and the "civilised" – viewed as alienated, domesticated, hierarchically organised and socially discriminatory. Hence, "life before domestication/agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, and health." [5]

Zerzan's claims about the status of primitive societies are based on a certain reading of the works of anthropologists such as Marshall Sahlins and Richard B. Lee. Crucially, the category of primitives is restricted to pure hunter-gatherer societies with no domesticated plants or animals. For instance, hierarchy among Northwest Coast Native Americans whose main activities were fishing and foraging is attributed to their having domesticated dogs and tobacco. [5] [6]

Zerzan calls for a "Future Primitive", a radical reconstruction of society based on a rejection of alienation and an embracing of the wild. "It may be that our only real hope is the recovery of a face-to-face social existence, a radical decentralization, a dismantling of the devouring, estranging productionist, high-tech trajectory that is so impoverishing." [4] The usual use of anthropological evidence is comparative and demonstrative – the necessity or naturality of aspects of modern western societies is challenged by pointing to counter-examples in hunter-gatherer societies. "Ever-growing documentation of human prehistory as a very long period of largely non-alienated life stands in sharp contrast to the increasingly stark failures of untenable modernity." [2] It is unclear, however, whether this implies a re-establishment of the literal forms of hunter-gatherer societies or a broader kind of learning from their ways of life in order to construct non-alienated relations.

Zerzan's political project calls for the destruction of technology. He draws the same distinction as Ivan Illich, between tools that stay under the control of the user, and technological systems that draw the user into their control. One difference is the division of labour, which Zerzan opposes. In Zerzan's philosophy, technology is possessed by an elite which automatically has power over other users; this power is one of the sources of alienation, along with domestication and symbolic thought.

Zerzan's typical method is to take a particular construct of civilisation (a technology, belief, practice or institution) and construct an account of its historical origins, what he calls its destructive and alienating effects and its contrasts with hunter-gatherer experiences. In his essay on number, for example, Zerzan starts by contrasting the "civilized" emphasis on counting and measuring with a "primitive" emphasis on sharing, citing Dorothy Lee's work on the Trobriand Islanders in support, before constructing a narrative of the rise of number through cumulative stages of state domination, starting with the desire of Egyptian kings to measure what they ruled. [7] This approach is repeated in relation to time, [8] gender inequality, [9] work, [10] technology, [11] art and ritual, [6] agriculture [12] and globalization. [13] Zerzan also writes more general texts on anarchist, [4] primitivist theory, [2] [5] and critiques of "postmodernism". [14]

Zerzan was one of the editors of Green Anarchy , a controversial journal of anarcho-primitivist and insurrectionary anarchist thought. He is also the host of Anarchy Radio in Eugene on the University of Oregon's radio station KWVA. He has also served as a contributing editor at Anarchy Magazine and has been published in magazines such as AdBusters . He does extensive speaking tours around the world, and is married to an independent consultant to museums and other nonprofit organizations.

Political development

In 1966, Zerzan was arrested while performing civil disobedience at a Berkeley anti-Vietnam War march and spent two weeks in the Contra Costa County Jail. He vowed after his release never again to be willingly arrested. He attended events organized by Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and was involved with the psychedelic drug and music scene in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood. [15]

In the late 1960s he worked as a social worker for the city of San Francisco welfare department. He helped organize a social worker's union, the SSEU, and was elected vice president in 1968, and president in 1969. [16] The local Situationist group Contradiction denounced him as a "leftist bureaucrat". [17]

In 1974, Black and Red Press published Unions Against Revolution by Spanish ultra-left theorist Grandizo Munis that included an essay by Zerzan which previously appeared in the journal Telos . Over the next 20 years, Zerzan became intimately involved with the Fifth Estate , Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed , Demolition Derby and other anarchist periodicals. He began to question civilization in the early 80's, after having sought to confront issues around the neutrality of technology and division of labour, at the time when Fredy Perlman was making similar conclusions. [18] He saw civilization itself as the root of the problems of the world and that a hunter-gatherer form of society presented the most egalitarian model for human relations with themselves and the natural world.

Ted Kaczynski

In the mid-1990s, Zerzan became a confidant to Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, after he read Industrial Society and Its Future, the so-called Unabomber Manifesto. Zerzan sat through the Unabomber trial and often conversed with Kaczynski during the proceedings. After Zerzan became known as a friend of the Unabomber, the mainstream media became interested in Zerzan and his ideas.

On May 7, 1995, a full-page interview with Zerzan was featured in The New York Times . [19] In Zerzan's essay "Whose Unabomber?" (1995), he signaled his support for the Kaczynski doctrine, but criticised the bombings:

[T]he mailing of explosive devices intended for the agents who are engineering the present catastrophe is too random. Children, mail carriers, and others could easily be killed. Even if one granted the legitimacy of striking at the high-tech horror show by terrorizing its indispensable architects, collateral harm is not justifiable ... [20]

However, Zerzan in the same essay offered a qualified defense of the Unabomber's actions:

The concept of justice should not be overlooked in considering the Unabomber phenomenon. In fact, except for his targets, when have the many little Eichmanns who are preparing the Brave New World ever been called to account?... Is it unethical to try to stop those whose contributions are bringing an unprecedented assault on life? [20]

Two years later, in the 1997 essay "He Means It — Do You?," Zerzan wrote:

Enter the Unabomber and a new line is being drawn. This time the bohemian schiz-fluxers, Green yuppies, hobbyist anarcho-journalists, condescending organizers of the poor, hip nihilo-aesthetes and all the other "anarchists" who thought their pretentious pastimes would go on unchallenged indefinitely — well, it's time to pick which side you're on. It may be that here also is a Rubicon from which there will be no turning back.

In a 2001 interview with The Guardian , he said:

Will there be other Kaczynskis? I hope not. I think that activity came out of isolation and desperation, and I hope that isn't going to be something that people feel they have to take up because they have no other way to express their opposition to the brave new world. [15]

In a 2014 interview, Zerzan stated that he and Kaczynski were "not on terms anymore." He criticized his former friend's 2008 essay "The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism" and expressed disapproval of Individuals Tending Towards the Wild, a Mexican group influenced by the Unabomber's bombing campaign. [21]

Eugene anarchist scene

Zerzan was associated with the Eugene, Oregon anarchist scene. [22]


In his essay "Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism: An Unbridgeable Chasm", Murray Bookchin directed criticism from an anarchist point of view at Zerzan's anti-civilizational and anti-technological perspective. He argued that Zerzan's representation of hunter-gatherers was flawed, selective and often patronisingly racist, that his analysis was superficial, and that his practical proposals were nonsensical.

Aside from Bookchin, several other anarchist critiques of Zerzan's primitivist philosophies exist. The pamphlet, "Anarchism vs. Primitivism" by Brian Oliver Sheppard criticizes many aspects of the primitivist philosophy. [23] It specifically rejects the claim that primitivism is a form of anarchism.

Some authors such as Andrew Flood have argued that destroying civilization would lead to the death of a significant majority of the population, mainly in poor countries. [24] John Zerzan responded to such claims by suggesting a gradual decrease in population size, with the possibility of people having the need to seek means of sustainability more close to nature. [25]

Flood suggests this contradicts Zerzan's claims elsewhere, and adds that, since it is certain that most people will strongly reject Zerzan's supposed utopia, it can only be implemented by authoritarian means, against the will of billions. [24]

In his essay "Listen Anarchist!", Chaz Bufe criticized the primitivist position from an anarchist perspective, pointing out that primitivists are extremely vague about exactly which technologies they advocate keeping and which they seek to abolish, noting that smallpox had been eradicated thanks to medical technology. [26]

Theodore J. Kaczynski, better known as the Unabomber, is a surprisingly harsh critic of the current anarcho-primitivist mainstream and Zerzan in particular for what he sees as a foolish and invalid projection of leftist values such as gender equality, pacifism and leisure time onto the primitive way of life. Kaczynski holds that the values of gender equality, pacifism, leisure time, etc., while still admirable, are exactly the values of techno-industrial civilization and its promised techno-utopia. Second, he holds that having such an interpretation is counter-productive to the ultimate anti-civilization/anti-tech goal as it attracts "leftist types" who are by nature uncommitted and act to dilute the movement. Kaczynski insists that the core values of freedom, autonomy, dignity, and human fulfillment must be emphasized above all others. [27]

Selected works

Books and pamphlets


See also

Related Research Articles

Anarcho-primitivism form of anarchism

Anarcho-primitivism is an anarchist critique of the origins and progress of civilization. According to anarcho-primitivism, the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence gave rise to social stratification, coercion, alienation, and overpopulation. Anarcho-primitivists advocate a return to non-"civilized" ways of life through deindustrialization, abolition of the division of labor or specialization, and abandonment of large-scale organization technologies. Many traditional anarchists reject the critique of civilization while some, such as Wolfi Landstreicher, endorse the critique but do not consider themselves anarcho-primitivists. Anarcho-primitivists are often distinguished by their focus on the praxis of achieving a feral state of being through "rewilding".

Green anarchism, or eco-anarchism, is a political philosophy and anarchist schools of thought that puts a particular emphasis on environmental issues. A green anarchist theory is normally one that extends anarchism beyond a critique of human interactions and includes a critique of the interactions between humans and non-humans as well. This often culminates in an anarchist revolutionary praxis that is not merely dedicated to human liberation, but also to some form of nonhuman liberation and that aims to bring about an environmentally sustainable anarchist society.

<i>Green Anarchist</i>

The Green Anarchist, established in 1984 in the UK, was a magazine advocating green anarchism: an explicit fusion of libertarian socialist and ecological thinking.

John Moore was a British anarchist author, teacher, and organiser.

Green Anarchy was a magazine published by a collective located in Eugene, Oregon. The magazine's focus was primitivism, post-left anarchy, radical environmentalism, African American struggles, anarchist resistance, indigenous resistance, earth and animal liberation, anti-capitalism and supporting political prisoners. It had a circulation of 8,000, partly in prisons, the prison subscribers given free copies of each issue as stated in the magazine. Green Anarchy was started in 2000 and in 2009 the Green Anarchy website shut down, leaving a final, brief message about the cessation of the magazine's publication.

Species Traitor is a sporadically published journal of insurrectionary anarcho-primitivism. It is printed as a project of Black and Green Network and edited by anarcho-primitivist writer, Kevin Tucker.

Neo-Luddism or new Luddism is a philosophy opposing many forms of modern technology. The word Luddite is generally used as a derogatory term applied to people showing technophobic leanings. The name is based on the historical legacy of the English Luddites, who were active between 1811 and 1816.

Primitivism art movement

Primitivism is a mode of aesthetic idealization that either emulates or aspires to recreate "primitive" experience. In Western art, primitivism typically has borrowed from non-Western or prehistoric people perceived to be "primitive", such as Paul Gauguin's inclusion of Tahitian motifs in paintings and ceramics. Borrowings from "primitive" or non-Western art has been important to the development of modern art. Primitivism has often been critiqued for reproducing the racist stereotypes about non-European peoples used by Europeans to justify colonial conquest.

Anarchism in the United States began in the mid-19th century and started to grow in influence as it entered the American labor movements, growing an anarcho-communist current as well as gaining notoriety for violent propaganda of the deed and campaigning for diverse social reforms in the early 20th century.

Criticism of technology is an analysis of adverse impacts of industrial and digital technologies. It is argued that, in all advanced industrial societies, technology becomes a means of domination, control, and exploitation, or more generally something which threatens the survival of humanity. Some of the technology opposed by critics includes everyday household products, such as refrigerators, computers, and medication.

<i>Future Primitive and Other Essays</i> book by John Zerzan

Future Primitive and Other Essays is a collection of essays by anarcho-primitivist philosopher John Zerzan published by Autonomedia in 1994. The book became the subject of increasing interest after Zerzan and his beliefs rose to fame in the aftermath of the trial of fellow thinker Theodore Kaczynski and the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle. It was republished in 1996 by Semiotext(e), and has since been translated into French (1998), Turkish (2000), Spanish (2001), and Catalan (2002). As is the case with Zerzan's previous collection of essays, Elements of Refusal, Future Primitive is regarded by Anarcho-Primitivists and technophobes as an underground classic.

<i>From Bakunin to Lacan</i> book by Saul Newman

From Bakunin to Lacan: Anti-Authoritarianism and the Dislocation of Power is a book on political philosophy by Saul Newman, published in 2001. It investigates the essential characteristics of anarchist theory, which holds that government and hierarchy are undesirable forms of social organisation. Newman seeks to move beyond the limitations these characteristics imposed on classical anarchism by using concepts from post-structuralist thought.

<i>Against His-Story, Against Leviathan</i> book by Fredy Perlman

Against His-Story, Against Leviathan! is a 1983 book by Fredy Perlman, for which he is best known. It is a personal critical perspective on contemporary civilization and society. The work defined anarcho-primitivism for the first time, and was a major source of inspiration for anti-civilization perspectives in contemporary anarchism, most notably on the thought of philosopher John Zerzan. In 2006 the book was translated into French under the title Contre le Léviathan, contre sa légende and into Turkish as Er-Tarih’e Karşı, Leviathan’a Karşı. In 2019 it was translated into Spanish as Contra el Leviatán y contra su historia.

Rewilding means to return to a more wild or natural state; it is the process of undoing domestication. The term emerged from green anarchism and anarcho-primitivism. The central argument is that the majority of humans have been "civilized" or "domesticated" by agrarianism and sedentary social stratification. Such a process is compared to how dogs have been domesticated from what was a common ancestor with wolves, resulting in a loss in health and vibrancy. Supporters of rewilding argue that through the process of domestication, human wildness has been altered by force.

Anarcho-naturism appeared in the late 19th century as the union of anarchist and naturist philosophies. In many of the alternative communities established in Britain in the early 1900s, "nudism, anarchism, vegetarianism and free love were accepted as part of a politically radical way of life". In the 1920s, the inhabitants of the anarchist community at Whiteway, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, "shocked the conservative residents of the area with their shameless nudity". Mainly, it had importance within individualist anarchist circles in Spain, France, Portugal and Cuba.

Kevin Tucker is an anarcho-primitivist writer and speaker who lives in rural Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Species Traitor, an insurrectionary anarcho-primitivist journal, an editor and contributor to Green Anarchy magazine, and co-founder of the Black and Green Network. Black and Green Press and FC Press put out a book of Tucker's writings in April 2010 called For Wildness and Anarchy

Anarchy State of a society being without a governing body

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Layla AbdelRahim Canadian comparatist anthropologist and anarchoprimitivist author

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Post-left anarchy is a recent current in anarchist thought that promotes a critique of anarchism's relationship to traditional leftism. Some post-leftists seek to escape the confines of ideology in general while also presenting a critique of organizations and morality. Influenced by the work of Max Stirner and by the Situationist International, post-left anarchy is marked by a focus on social insurrection and a diminution of leftist social organisation.

Anarchism is the political philosophy which holds ruling classes and the state to be undesirable, unnecessary and harmful, or alternatively as opposing authority and hierarchical organization in the conduct of human relations.


  1. John Zerzan – The Mass Psychology of Misery Archived March 23, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  2. 1 2 3 John Zerzan – Why Primitivism? Archived December 14, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  3. Campbell, Duncan (April 18, 2001). "Profile of American anarchist John Zerzan". The Guardian . ISSN   0261-3077.
  4. 1 2 3 John Zerzan – What is Anarchism? Archived June 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  5. 1 2 3 "John Zerzan – Future Primitive". Archived from the original on April 2, 2009. Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  6. 1 2 "John Zerzan – Running on Emptiness: The Failure of Symbolic Thought". Archived from the original on January 31, 2009. Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  7. John Zerzan – Number: Its Origin and Evolution Archived June 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  8. John Zerzan – Time and its Discontents Archived June 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  9. John Zerzan – Patriarchy, Civilization, and the Origins of Gender Archived February 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  10. John Zerzan – Organized Labor versus "The Revolt Against Work" Archived June 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  11. John Zerzan – Technology Archived June 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  12. John Zerzan – Agriculture Archived August 31, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  13. John Zerzan – Globalization and its Apologists: An Abolitionist Perspective Archived February 6, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  14. John Zerzan – "Hakim Bey," Postmodern Anarchist
  15. 1 2 "Profile of American anarchist John Zerzan | World news". The Guardian. UK. April 20, 2001. Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  16. History of the union Archived August 28, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  17. Contradiction. "Open Letter to John Zerzan, anti-bureaucrat of the San Francisco Social Services Employees Union". Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  18. "Interview: Anarcho-Primitivist Thinker and Activist John Zerzan | Conservation & Conservatism". December 7, 2008. Archived from the original on October 2, 2011. Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  19. Prominent Anarchist Finds Unsought Ally in Serial Bomber (New York Times article)
  20. 1 2 John Zerzan – Whose Unabomber? Archived June 18, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  21. "The Anarcho-Primitivist Who Wants Us All To Give Up Technology". Vice Media Inc. USA. June 25, 2014. Retrieved June 26, 2014.
  22. "Part. III: Eco-Anarchy Imploding". Eugene Weekly . November 22, 2006. Archived from the original on April 3, 2016. Retrieved September 1, 2010.
  23. "Anarchism vs. Primitivism by Brian Oliver Sheppard". Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  24. 1 2 "Civilization, Primitivism, Anarchism by Andrew Flood". Retrieved November 13, 2011.
  25. Archived September 10, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  26. Chaz Bufe (1987). "Listen Anarchist!". See Sharp Press.
  27. Technological Slavery: The collected writings of Theodore J. Kaczynski, pp. 128–189.

Further reading