John Zerzan may well be the most extreme author on the
planet. It is somewhat ironic that the release of the Unabomber's
Industrial Society and its Consequences should have brought Zerzan's views
to national attention--ironic because his writings are far more extreme
than those of the bomber he was believed to have influenced. For Zerzan,
humanity's fall from grace did not commence with industrialism nor even
with agriculture, but in the embrace of symbolic culture, i.e., language,
art, and number. Culture, rather than being viewed as our great
emancipator, is a mediation which distances us from a sensual embrace of
reality, our capacity to realize ourselves within the moment. Language is
communication become subject-bound, art is a stand-in for an infinitely
more rich reality, number is the practice of an illusory sameness which
drains our world of interest.
His essay collections, Elements of Refusal and Future
Primitive, map a primitivist critique he has been pursuing in the
anarchist milieu for the past two decades. His recent fame, commencing
with a New York Times article and continuing with radio and television
interviews, largely focus on his status as one of the few critics of
technology who has not denounced the Unabomber from the outset. But his
perspective goes deeper than this. With the advent of a world based on
biotechnology and genetic engineering, Zerzan may stand in the tradition
of the Taoist sages, Diogenes, and Rousseau as the last of the great
exponents of the unfettered wild man--or perhaps he's the first in a new
tradition whose impact has yet to be seen.
Q: Environmentalism has always been a rather depressing topic for me . By
contrast, primitivism has always seemed empowering in its strivings to
reconcile the tensions between humans and the natural world. Instead of
being at odds with nature, we seek to realize our desires in a ways that
our world of television and strip malls can never fulfill. What
comparisons would you make between traditional environmentalism and
A: I like the distinction you make here, which seems to me a fruitful one.
To me primitivism provides a grounding for environmentalism. It refers, as
a touchstone or inspiration, to the couple of million years during which
humans lived in harmony with the environment, not as an alien power over
Environmentalism too often
stays with the reformist outlook of only seeing so many issues. A sense of
the long history of the problem helps, however, in seing the origins of
the degradation of nature and how all its facets are thus linked.
Q: Though you have critiqued such fundamentals of civilization as art,
language, and number, you have so far refrained from a critique of tool
use . This is interesting, as most would see the use of tools as a direct
precursor to our technological society. At what point would you see tool
use culminating in alienated activity?
A: The assertion is often made that there is a smooth continuum between
the use of simple tools and the high-tech world of today, that there is no
qualitative distinction that can be made anywhere along this line of
development, no place to "draw a line" separating the positive
from the negative.
But my working hypothesis is
that division of labor draws the line, with dire consequences that unfold
in an accelerating or cumulative way. Specialization divides and narrows
the individual, brings in hierarchy, creates dependency and works against
autonomy. It also drives industrialism and hence leads directly to the
Tools or roles that involve
division of labor engender divided people and divided society.
Q: What examples does the past offer us of people who abjured a given
level of technology in favor of a more holistic and natural lifestyle?
A: A North American example of people abjuring a technicized or
domesticated existence is that of the colonists "gone to Croatan."
[This refers to the colonists inhabiting the first English colony at
Roanoke, who abandoned it to live with a local Indian tribe. They left the
inscription "gone to Croatan," referring to the tribe--J.F.]
Evidently quite a few Europeans abandoned civilized outposts in the 17th
and 18th centuries and joined various Native American communities.
Q: Your writings would seem to posit a Golden Age for humanity during much
or all of the Paleolithic. And yet I don't feel your ideas are contingent
upon the idea of a past Eden in the most extreme and literal sense. Life
may once have been far more immediate and fulfilling, but there had to
have been some flaws at some level to bring us to the present. I am
curious to what extent you feel attached to the idea of a past utopia
(which is clearly impossible to completely prove), as opposed to the
application of useful concepts from the past on a present-value basis.
A: I think you are right to suggest that we should avoid idealizing
pre-history, refrain from positing it as a state of perfection. On the
other hand, hunter-gatherer life seems to have been marked, in general, by
the longest and most successful adaptation to nature ever achieved by
humans, a high degree of gender equality, an absence of organized
violence, significant leisure time, an egalitarian ethos of sharing, and a
disease-free robusticity. Thus it seems to me instructive and inspiring,
even if imperfect and and perhaps never fully known to us.
Q: One of the most frequently asked questions regarding primitivism is
whether its adherents seek a literal return to primitive lifeways, or are
simply mining the past for useful concepts.
A: [Detroit anarchist paper] Fifth Estate, in its partial critique of
civilization, has long insisted that a return to non-civilization is not
what they see as either possible or desirable. I am not convinced that a
real "return" should be ruled out. If not a literal return, then
what? That is, I see it as an open question.
Q: Well, let’s assume for the moment that a literal return to a
primitive state is desirable. Your writings have gone so far as to
critique art, number, even language. How would you visualize a world, say,
A: Thinking of a world without language entails an enormous speculative
leap. From where we are now it is extremely difficult to posit or fathom a
life-world based on non-symbolic communication, though of course some of
that exists even now. Freud guessed that a sort of telepathy held sway
before language; lovers need no words, as the saying goes. These are hints
in the direction of unmediated communication. I’m sure you can think of
Q: Several critics have charged that your rejection of symbolic culture
leaves the potential radical without a basis for challenging the existing
A: My tentative position is that only a rejection of symbolic culture
provides a deep enough challenge to what stems from that culture. I may be
wrong, but so far haven't seen persuasive grounds for abandoning this
point of view. And even if it turns out to be wrong-headed maybe the
debate will be fruitful in unintended ways.
Q: What is your response to people who claim that the course of
technological progression is irreversible?
A: It is quite possible that it is irreversible, but the only way to know
is to challenge it. If one concludes that the course of techno-progress is
proving disastrous then one is obliged to stop it, to reverse it. This is
a matter of basic morality, it seems to me.
Q: I think it is interesting to note how little genuine and constructive
criticism is aimed at technology, perhaps making the sentiment that it is
irreversible self-fulfilling. Everywhere one can find criticisms of almost
any aspect of technological society, but rarely one that faces the whole.
A: How very much opposes a critique of the whole! For example, one of the
cardinal tenets of the reigning postmodern ethos is rejection of the
totality, rejection of the very idea that we can grasp the whole.
And in general the system has
never exactly rewarded such oppositional, against-the-grain thinking. The
culture of denial is very strong—think of how extremely little gets
questioned in the dominant political discourse. Very hard to get
published, very hard to break the monopoly of enforced ignorance. And yet
reality, I think is starting to force an opening. We hear some, not many,
but some voices who do confront the whole picture, its fundamental
Q: Your response to the usual claim that technology is neutral.
A: Technology has never been neutral, like some discreet tool detachable
from its context. It always partakes of and expresses the basic values of
the social system in which it is embedded. Technology is the language, the
texture, the embodiment of the social arrangements it holds together. The
idea that it is neutral, that it is separable from society, is one of the
biggest lies available. It is obvious why those who defend the high-tech
death trap want us to believe that technology is somehow neutral.
Q: Must not the gradual abandonment of technology occur on a worldwide
basis, lest we become vulnerable to those who won't drop the reins?
A: Yes, it does seem necessary that an anti-tech movement become global as
quickly as possible for it to succeed. The system of technology and
capital is global and highly interdependent, and is only as strong as its
weakest link. To this fact must be added the spreading disenchantment with
the "promise" of technology. The two are, or will be, a potent
combination for our side.
Q: Do you think the general population is more leery of technology than
our so-called intelligentsia?
A: Everyone today is pretty saturated by media and its constant pro-tech
message at every level. But those the Unabomber manifesto calls "oversocialized"
are perhaps more apt to be middle class intelligentsia and for that reason
are probably less leery of technology's siren song.
Q: Any thinker(s) or theorist(s) you would like to take to task for a lack
of understanding of the issues concerning technology?
A: There are still all too many theorists who seem to little understand
the question of technology. Many if not all postmodern
"thinkers" avoid the issue for the simple reason that they
contest nothing, rejecting the very idea of oppositional thinking.
Accepting everything in their cynical, reltivist way, they (e.g.
Baudrillard) certainly do not face technology or resist it.
On the other hand, for example,
I recommend Lorenzo Simpson's Technology, Time and the Conversations of
Modernity, which shows how technology--with its intellectual counterpart,
postmodernism--empties out social existence and creates a climate of
Q: There has been surprisingly little opposition to the installation of
surveillance cameras throughout cities in the U.S.. What do you think
might be the implementation of a technology which will finally provoke a
serious backlash? The cloning of a human being? A computer implanted in
A: Many acquiesce regarding video surveillance out of personal safety
concerns, apparently. But yes, one would think that human cloning or
bionic brains would horrify most people. Luddites like me hope that new
invasive heights of an ever-colonizing technology will bring folks to
question its entire trajectory and logic.
As Paul Shepard said of Gary
Snyder's fondness for farming, he forgets that even very simple
horticulture is but the first step on the road to genetic engineering.
It's all about domestication, in other words. To step in and control or
reshape nature is to commit to an orientation that brings us toward human
cloning and all the rest.
Q: From what quarters have you found an unexpected support for a worldview
which questions the value of technology?
A: A Latino friend of mine recently said that he thinks fewer Third World
people are now hungering for the technology of the First World. Insofar as
this is true, it would signal a shift of huge importance.
Also, I notice some young
people seeing through the lures of technology. This is less surprising, I
suppose, and I don't know how many kids are open to "primitivist"
ways of seeing, but this is a vital development that is spreading, at
least to some degree.
Q: When did you yourself first see through the “lures of technology?”
Have you always felt in opposition to it at some level? Was there some
event or field of study that first prompted you to develop such an
A: In the 1970s it slowly began to dawn on me, among others, that the
concept of “revolution” was somehow very inadequate. This gnawed at me
at a time when I was doing graduate work in social and labor history. The
first “breakthrough” for me was in terms of the Industrial Revolution
in England. Namely, it became clear that the factory system was introduced
in large part as a means of social control. The dispersed craftsmen were
deprived of their autonomy and brought together in factories to be
de-skilled and disciplined. This shows that technology was not at all
This discovery helped me begin
to see how division of labor is basically disempowering and alienating.
One needs to look at technology as a system which contains the deeper
values of the social order it embodies. It is never simply a matter of
“tools” or devices.
Q: What are some of your upcoming projects that we can look forward to?
A: Working on an essay on nihilism and trying to publish some books, too.
There has got to be more anti-tech, even anti-civilization writing
available to people. Even most anarchist publishers, like AK and
Autonomedia, haven't caught on to the importance of or the interest in
Q: I would like to ask you some questions regarding the Unabomber. When
Industrial Society and its Future was first made available, you were
recognized early on as a possible influence on the views of FC. Do you
have any comments on the Unabomber treatise?
A: I consider Industrial Society and its Future an extremely important
text. Basically, it shows how techno-society makes it impossible to attain
either freedom or fulfillment. In very clear, accessible prose it explains
the dead-end that is industrialism.
Jacques Ellul is clearly a big
influence, but I have no knowledge of any contemporary U.S. influences,
anarchist or otherwise.
Q: Overall, what is your take on the Unabomber’s methods?
A: The Unabomber’s methods were the result of frustration. Evidently, he
couldn’t find others who wished to confront the techno-madness, nor
could he find a publisher for Industrial Society and its Future, despite
efforts for years on both fronts.
Q: Having your own views linked with someone who is the subject of a
massive investigation is not necessarily an enviable position. Did any
unusual incidents occur prior to the arrest of Ted Kaczynski?
A: In the summer of '95, that is, the year before his capture, my house
was broken into. The odd thing about it was the fact that my address book
and some old gym shoes were taken, while a few portable and visible things
of some value were left alone. Also that summer, some of my mail was
intercepted somewhere along the line. In at least three cases that I
verified, letters were sent but never arrived.
Q: You have met with Ted Kaczynski on a number of occasions, and continue
to stay in contact with him. What is your impression of him on a personal
A: In my visits with Ted, I found him polite, friendly, very sharp, and
possessing a sense of humor. He certainly put on no airs whatsoever and
has seemed a very patient and self-disciplined person. Lawyer Tony Serra
and I agree: Ted is not crazy.
Q: Were there any irregularities in his trial you would like to draw
A: There was no trial. He was coerced into accepting a plea agreement (for
life in prison) after the judge denied both his attempt to fire and
replace his defense attorneys and his attempt to defend himself. He was
left with no other alternative but an "insanity" argument that
he'd always rejected. What stands out is the fact that the ensemble of
legal and political institutions stood together in their refusal to allow
him to stand trial and present his ideas. The system demonstrated this by
making clear that the death penalty was a lower priority than denying Ted
his right to be heard.
A very good treatment is Bill
Finnegan's "Defending the Unabomber" in the March 16, 1998 New
Yorker. Finnegan brings out the above points persuasively, and is the only
writer who has done so.
Q: If I had to guess, I would say that very few people supported the
Unabomber's actions, but many understood the sense of desperation and
helplessness which drove him on. What has your impression been of popular
sentiments towards the Unabomber? What, if any, reservations do the mass
of his supporters have?
A: The media covering the case, especially the legal ordeal, have never
seemed so craven or lap-dog in their reporting . They never once
questioned the validity of the constant defense lawyer's leaks as to Ted's
"delusional" thinking. The main examining shrink readily
admitted to Bill Finnegan that she found Kaczynski delusional precisely on
the grounds of his indictment of the technological system and its effects
on people! An astoundingly political finding, needless to say.
It is little wonder that the
public, denied any independent thinking on the matter, probably didn't
become real sympathetic to him. Another factor is that his lawyers told
those of us who wanted to try to organize understanding and support to
desist. Ted reluctantly went along with their counsel, trusting person
that he was. (He trusted them and they lied to him, keeping him unaware
until time ran out on his options that they were in fact doing just what
they said they wouldn't do, namely portraying him as insane.) All this
obviously worked against any fair reading of what he stood for.
Q: The Unabomber's exploits have engendered one of the deepest rifts in
memory amongst anarchists, primitivists, and assorted eco-radicals. Your
thoughts on the rift, and perhaps ways to move beyond it.
A: I'm not sure it is that deep a rift because I've seen signs that it has
already healed somewhat. For example, there was a vocal pro-Ted presence
at the '98 Round River Rendezvous, the annual Earth First! national
gathering. And the latest Live Wild or Die (#7) actively identified with
his cause and his defense. All along there has been resonance among some
kids; I see this as having grown. I think there's less antipathy toward
him, less fear of being identified with what the Unabomber represents.
Of course, the larger reason
that the rift has lessened--if it has--is that the anarchist milieu seems
to be steadily more anti-tech and primitivist, especially among younger
Q: Despite the current disavowal of leftism by many anarchists, the
Unabomber's critique of leftism is more trenchant than anything else I
have seen written by anarchists. Do you think anarchists still have a ways
to go in rejecting all forms of authoritarianism masquerading as
A: Leftism--meaning a workerist, productionist orientation and the
"organizer" mentality--is in decline everywhere. The demise of
Class War in England in '97 and Love & Rage here in the U.S. in '98
are clear signs of it. Leftism is going the way of the dodo, though there
are still some remnants around. AK Press is one example, with their
penchant for embarassing relics like Bookchin and Chomsky.
Q: Industrial Society and its Future took a more explicitly psychological
approach (e.g. discussion of surrogate activity, the effects of
overcrowding, individual fulfillment, etc.) than is commonly seen in the
literature that opposes technological domination. Do you feel that the
Unabomber was emphasizing a much-needed but overlooked approach for those
of us who question technology and its consequences?
A: Yes, Industrial Society and its Future is, I would say, essentially a
psychology. It focuses on what is unavoidably happening to the individual
as long as technology holds sway. This is its appeal and importance, the
reason why it is a compelling read. I think its type of approach has been
largely overlooked in the anti-authoritarian literature but is consonant
with what people are interested in. So despite being uniformly trashed, it
manages to get around, including its multiple translations throughout the
Q: What social effects, if any, have you seen stemming from the whole
A: The “social effects” of the Unabomber affair cannot be seen, I
think, in isolation. In other words, the Unabomber is just one part of a
larger phenomenon, the emerging awareness of the fate the technological
system has in store for us and the planet. This spectacular case opened up
vital, basic issues, which were already beginning to come to the fore.
Q: Finally, your thoughts on getting from where we are now to a better
A: The worsening situation for the biosphere, society, and the
individual--the crisis at every level--is the strongest impetus for a
rethinking of so many of the old commonplace assumptions and institutions.
Division of labor, domestication, even the very components of our symbolic
culture and civilization itself--all these now stand with question marks.
When denial begins to collapse, we may well see a challenge to the
existing order that will make the '60s movement seem very tame and