Against His-story, Against Leviathan

Fredy Perlman 

(From the opening pages of Fredy Perlman's volume Against His-story, Against Leviathan!)

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight
Where ignorant armies clash by night. (M. Arnold)

Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain...(T.S. Eliot)

The darkling plain is here.  This is the waste land:  England, America, Russia, China, Israel, France....

And we are here as victims, or as spectators, or as perpetrators of tortures, massacres, poisonings, manipulations, despoliations.

Hic Rhodus!  This is the place to jump, the place to dance!  This is the wilderness!  Was there ever any other?  This is savagery!  Do you call it freedom?  This is barbarism!  The struggle for survival is right here.   Haven't we always known it?  Isn't this a public secret? Hasn't it always been the big public secret?

It remains a secret.  It is publicly known but not avowed.  Publicly the wilderness is elsewhere, barbarism is abroad, savagery is on the face of the other.   The dry sterile thunder without rain, the confused alarms of struggle and flight, are projected outward, into the great unknown, across the seas and over the mountains.   We're on the side with the angels.

A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs...(W.B. Yeats) moving its slow thighs against the projected wilderness, against the reflected barbarism, against the savage face that looks out of the pond, its motion emptying the pond, rending its banks, leaving an arid crater where there was life.

In a wonderfully lucid book titled Beyond Geography, a book which also goes beyond history, beyond technology, beyond civilization, Frederick W. Turner (not to be confused with Frederick Jackson Turner, the frontiersman's advocate) draws the curtain and floods the stage with light.

Others drew the curtain before Turner; they're the ones who made the secret public:   Toynbee, Drinnon, Jennings, Camatte, Debord, Zerzan among contemporaries whose lights I've borrowed; Melville, Thoreau, Blake, Rousseau, Montaigne, Las Casas among predecessors; Lao Tze as long ago as written memory can reach.

Turner borrows the lights of human communities beyond civilization's ken to see beyond geography.  He sees with the eyes of the dispossessed of this once beautiful world that rests on a turtle's back, this double continent whose ponds emptied, whose banks were rent, whose forests became arid craters the day it was named America.

...a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

Focusing on the image, Yeats asked,

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?

The vision is as clear to Turner as it was to Yeats:

The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle.

Seers of old returned to share their visions with their communities, just as women shared their corn and men their hunt.

But there is no community.  The very memory of community is a fogged image out of Spiritus Mundi.

The seer of now pours his vision on sheets of paper, on banks of arid craters where armored bullies stand guard and demand the password, Positive Evidence.  No vision can pass by their gates.  The only song that passes is a song gone as dry and cadaverous as the fossils in the sands.

Turner, himself a guard, a professor, has the courage of a Bartolome de Las Casas.   He storms the gates, refuses to give the password, and he sings, he rants, he almost dances.

The armor comes off.  Even if it is not merely worn like clothes or masks, even if it is glued to face and body, even if skin and flesh must be yanked off with it, the armor does come off.

Of late, many have been storming the gates.  Only recently one sang that the net of factories and mines was the Gulag Archipelago and all workers were zeks (namely conscripts, inmates, labor gang members).  Another sang that the Nazis lost the war but their new order didn't.  Ranters are legion now.  Is it about to rain?   Is it the twilight of a new dawn?  Or is it the twilight in which Minerva's owl can see because day is all done?

*              *             *

Turner, Toynbee and others are focusing on the beast that is destroying the only known home of living beings.

Turner subtitles his book, "The Western Spirit against the Wilderness."   By Western Spirit he means the attitude or posture, the soul or spirit of Western Civilization, known nowadays as Civilization.

Turner defines Wilderness the same way the Western Spirit defines it, except that the term is positive for Turner, negative for the Western Spirit:  Wilderness embraces all of Nature and all the human communities beyond Civilization's ken.

In A Study of History, Arnold Toynbee expressed enthusiasm for history and for civilization.  After seeing the rise and fall of the Nazi Third Order and all the refinements it brought in its train, Toynbee lost his enthusiasm.  He expressed this loss in a book called Mankind and Mother Earth.  The vision in this book is kin to Turner's:  Mankind is rending Mother Earth asunder.

Toynbee's term Mankind embraces the Western spirit as well as the human communities beyond Civilization's ken, and his Mother Earth embraces all life.

I'll borrow Toynbee's term Mother Earth.  She's the first protagonist.   She's alive, she's life itself.  She conceives and births everything that grows.   Many call her Nature.  Christians call her Wilderness.  Toynbee's other name for her is Biosphere.  She is the dry land, the water and the earth enveloping our planet.  She's the sole habitat of living beings.  Toynbee describes her as a thin, delicate sking, no higher than planes can fly and no lower than mines can be dug.   Limestone, coal and oil are part of her substance, they are matter that once lived.   She selectively filters radiation from the sun, precisely in such a way as to keep life from burning.  Toynbee calls her an excressence, a halo or rust on the planet's surface, and he speculates that there may be no other Biospheres.

Toynbee says Mankind, human beings, in other words We, have grown very powerful, more powerful than any other living beings, and at last more powerful than the Biosphere.   Mankind has the power to wreck the delicate crust, and is doing it.

There are many ways to speak of a trap.  It can be described from the standpoint of the self-balancing environment, of the trapper, of the trapped animal.  It can even be described from the standpoint of the trap itself, namely from the objective, scientific, technological standpoint.

There are as many ways to speak of the wrecking of the Biosphere.  From the standpoint of a single protagonist, Earth herself, it can be said that She is committing suicide.  With two protagonists, Mankind and Mother Earth, it can be said that We are murdering Her.  Those of us who accept this standpoint and squirm with shame might wish we were whales.  But those of us who take the standpoint of the trapped animal will look for a third protagonist.

Toynbee's protagonist, Mankind, is too diffuse.  It embraces all civilizations and also all communities beyond Civilization's ken.  Yet the communities, as Toynbee himself shows, coexisted with other beings for thousands of generations without doing the Biosphere any harm.  They are not the trappers but the trapped.

Who, then, is the wrecker of the Biosphere?  Turner points at the Western Spirit.   This is the hero who pits himself against the Wilderness, who calls for a war of extermination by Spirit against Nature, Soul against Body, Technology against the Biosphere, Civilization against Mother Earth, god against all.

Marxists point at the Capitalist mode of production, sometimes only at the Capitalist class.  Anarchists point at the State.  Camatte points at Capital.  New Ranters point at Technology or Civilization or both.

If Toynbee's protagonist, Mankind, is too diffuse, many of the others are too narrow.

The Marxists see only the mote in the enemy's eye.  They supplant their villain with a hero, the Anti-capitalist mode of production, the Revolutionary Establishment.   They fail to see that their hero is the very same "shape with lion body and the head of a man, a gaze blank and pitiless as the sun."  They fail to see that the Anti-capitalist mode of production wants only to outrun its brother in wrecking the Biosphere.

Anarchists are as varied as Mankind.  There are governmental and commercial Anarchists as well as a few for hire.  Some Anarchists differ from Marxists only in being less informed.  They would supplant the state with a network computer centers, factories and mines coordinated "by the workers themselves" or by an Anarchist union.  They would not call this arrangement a State.  The name-change would exorcize the beast.

Camatte, the New Ranters and Turner treat the villains of the Marxists and Anarchists as mere attributes of the real protagonist.  Camatte gives the monster a body; he names the monster Capital, borrowing the term from Marx but giving it a new content.   He promises to describe the monster's origin and trajectory but has not yet done so.  The New Ranters have borrowed lights from L. Mumford, J. Ellul and others but have not, to my knowledge, gone further than Camatte.

Turner goes further.  His aim is to describe only the monster's spirit, but he knows it is the monster's body that destroys the bodies fo human communities and the body of Mother Earth.  He says much about the monster's origin and trajectory, and he speaks often of its armor.  But it is beyond his aim to name the monster or describe its body.

It is my aim to speak of the beast's body.  For it does have a body, a monstrous body, a body that has become more powerful than the Biosphere.  It may be a body without any life of its own.  It may be a dead thing, a huge cadaver.  It may move its slow thighs only when living beings inhabit it.  Nevertheless, its body is what does the wrecking.

If the Biosphere is an excrescence on the planet's surface, the beast that is wrecking her is also an excrescence.  The Earthwrecker is a rust or halo on the surface of a human community.  It is not excreted by every community, by Mankind.  Toynbee himself puts the blame on a tiny minority, on very few communities.  Perhaps the cadaverous beast was excreted by only one community among the myriads.

*                     *                      *  

The cadaverous beast excreted by a human community is young, it is at most two or three hundred generations old.  Before turning to it, I'll glance at human communities, for they are much older, they are thousands of generations old.

We are told that even human communities are young, that there was an age when all was water until a muskrat dived to the seabottom and brought earth to the turtle's back.   So we're told.

Supposedly the first walkers who benefitted from the muskrat's exertions were giants or gods who are nowadays called dinosaurs.

Modern graverobbers have been digging up these god's bones and displaying the bones in glass cases of Positive Evidence.  The graverobbers use these bone cases to bully all stories other than their own out of human memory. But the graverobber's stories are duller than myriad other stories, and their cases of bones shed light only on the graverobbers themselves.

The stories are as varied as their tellers.  In many of the stories, memory strains to reach an age when it, memory, was lodged in a grandmother who knew the swimmers, crawlers and walkers as her kin because she walked on her hind legs no more frequently than they.

In one ancient account, the first grandmother fell to earth from a hole in the sky.

In a modern account, she was a fish with a snout who, having playfully practiced breathing by sticking her snout above water, survived thanks to this trick when her pond dried up.

In another ancient account, the Biosphere swallowed several grandmothers before the general progenitor made here appearance, and is expected to swallow this progenitor's great grandchildren.  Toynbee may turn out to be wrong about the relative power of the two protagonists. 

Many stories tell of miniature grandparents, midgets; a modern account calls them tree shrews.

These midgets inhabited the earth while the giants, the dinosaurs, walked about in the light of day.  Prudent tree shrews climbed down to feast on insects at night, not because the giants were mean, but because of the discrepancy in size.   Many of the tree shrews were satisfied with this arrangement and they remained tree shrews.  Some, undoubtedly a small minority, wanted to walk about in the light of day.

Fortunately for the restless ones, the dinosaurs were among the grandmothers swallowed by the Biosphere.  Former tree shrews could bask in the sun, or dance and play in broad daylight, without fear of being trampled.  Minorities among these grew restless; some wanted to crawl, others to fly.  The smug, conservative majorities, happy with their capacities, fulfilled by their environments, remained what they were.

*                      *                    *

The managers of Gulag's islands tell us that the swimmers, crawlers, walkers and fliers spent their lives working in order to eat.

These managers are broadcasting their news too soon.  The varied beings haven't all been exterminated yet.  You, reader, have only to mingle with them, or just watch them from a distance, to see that their waking lives are filled with dances, games and feasts.  Even the hunt, the stalking and feigning and leaping, is not what we call Work, but what we call Fun.  The only beings who work are the inmates of Gulag's islands, the zeks.

The zek's ancestors did less work than a corporation owner.  They didn't know what work was.  They lived in a condition J.J. Rousseau called "the state of nature."  Rousseau's term should be brought back into common use.  It grates on the nerves of those who, in R. Vaneigem's words, carry cadavers in their mouths.   It makes the armor visible.  Say "the state of nature" and you'll see the cadavers peer out.

Insist that "freedom" and "the state of nature" are synonyms, and the cadavers will try to bite you.  The tame, the domesticated, try to monopolize the word freedom; they'd like to apply it to their own condition.  They apply the word "wild" to the free.  But it is another public secret that the tame, the domesticated, occasionally become wild but are never free so long as they remain in their pens.

Even the common dictionary keeps this secret only half hidden.  It begins by saying that free means citizen!  But then it says, "Free: a) not determined by anything beyond its own nature or being; b) determined by the choice of actor or by his wishes..."

The secret is out.  Birds are free until people cage them.  The Biosphere, Mother Earth herself, is free when she moistens herself, when she sprawls in the sun and lets her skin erupt with varicolored hair teeming with crawlers and fliers.   She is not determined by anything beyond her own nature or being until another sphere of equal magnitude crashes into her, or until a cadaverous beast cuts into her skin and rends her bowels.

Trees, fish and insects are free as they grow from seed to maturity, each realizing its own potential, its wish--until the insect's freedom is curtailed by the bird's.  The eaten insect has made a gift of its freedom to the bird's freedom.   The bird, in its turn, drops and manures the seed of the insect's favorite   plant, enhancing the freedom of the insect's heirs.

The state of nature is a community of freedoms.

Such was the environment of the first human communities, and such it remained for thousands of generations.

Modern anthropologists who carry Gulag in their brains reduce such human communities to the motions that look most like work, and give the name Gatherers to people who pick and sometimes store their favorite foods.  A bank clerk would call such communities Savings Banks!

The zeks on a coffee plantation in Guatemala are Gatherers, and the anthropologist is a Savings Bank.  Their free ancestors had more important things to do.

The !Kung people miraculously survived into our own exterminating age.   R.E. Leakey observed them in their lush African forest homeland.  They cultivated nothing except themselves.  They made themselves what they wished to be.   They were not determined by anything beyond their own being--not by alarm clocks, not by debts, not by orders from superiors.  They feasted and celebrated and played, full-time, except when they slept.  They shared everything with their communities:   food, experiences, visions, songs.  Great personal satisfaction, deep inner joy, came from the sharing.

(In today's world, wolves still experience the joys that come from sharing.   Maybe that's why governments pay bounties to the killers of wolves.)

S. Diamond observed other free human beings who survived into our age, also in Africa.  He could see that they did no work, but he couldn't quite bring himself to say it in English. Instead, he said they made no distinction between work and play.   Does Diamond mean that the activity of the free people can be seen as work one moment, as play another, depending on how the anthropologist feels?  Does he mean that they didn't know if their activity was work or play?  Does he mean we, you and I, Diamond's armored contemporaries, cannot distinguish their work from their play?

If the !Kung visited our offices and factories, they might think we're playing.   Why else would we be there?

I think Diamond meant to say something more profound.  A time-and-motion engineer watching a bear near a berry patch would not know when to punch his clock.  Does the bear start working when he walks to the berry patch, when he picks the berry, when he opens his jaws?  If the engineer has half a brain he might say the bear makes no distinction between work and play.  If the engineer has an imagination he might say that the bear experiences joy from  the moment the berries turn deep red, and that none of the bear's motions are work.

Leakey and others suggest that the general progenitors of human beings, our earliest grandmothers, originated in lush African forests, somewhere near the homeland of the !Kung.  The conservative majority, profoundly satisfied with nature's unstinting generosity, happy in their accomplishments, at peace with themselves and the world, had no reason to leave their home.  They stayed.

A restless minority went wandering.  Perhaps they followed their dreams.   Perhaps their favorit pond dried up.  Perhaps their favorite animals wandered away.  These people were very fond of animals; they knew the animals as cousins.

The wanderers are said to have walked to every woodland, plain and lakeshore of Eurasia.  They walked or floated to almost every island.  They walked across the land bridge near the northern land of ice to the southernmost tip of the double continent which would be called America.

The wanderers went to hot lands and cold, to lands with much rain and lands with little.   Perhaps some felt nostalgia for the warm home they left.  If so, the presence of their favorite animals, their cousins, compensated for their loss.   We can still see the homage some of them gave to these animals on cave walls of Altamira, on rocks in Abrigo del Sol in the Amazon Valley.

Some of the women learned from birds and winds to scatter seeds.  Some of the men learned from wolves and eagles to hunt.

But none of them ever worked.  And everyone knows it.  The armored Christians who later "discovered" these communities knew that these people did no work, and this knowledge grated on Christian nerves, it rankled, it caused cadavers to peep out.  The Christians spoke of women who did "lurid dances" in their fields instead of confining themselves to chores; they said hunters did a lot of devilish "hocus pocus" before actually drawing the bowstring.

These Christians, early time-and-motion engineers, couldn't tell when play ended and work began.  Long familiar with the chores of zeks, the Christians were repelled by the lurid and devilish heathen who pretended that the Curse of Labor had not fallen on them.  The Christians put a quick end to the "hocus pocus" and the dances, and saw to it that none could fail to distinguish work from play.

Our ancestors--I'll borrow Turner's terms and call them the Possessed--had more important things to do than to struggle to survive.  They loved nature and nature reciprocated their love.  Wherever they were they found affluence, as Marshall Sahlins shows in his Stone Age Economics.  Pierre Clastres' Society Against the State insists that the struggle for subsistence is not verifiable among any of the Possessed; it is verifiable among the Dispossessed in the pits and on the margins of progressive industrialization.  Leslie White, after a sweeping review of reports from distant places and ages, a view of "Primitive culture as a whole," concludes that "there's enough to eat for a richness of life rare among the 'civilized.'"  I wouldn't use the word Primitive to refer to a people with a richness of life.  I would use the word Primitive to refer to myself and my contemporaries, with our progressive poverty of life.