Micah Saul: This project is built on a hypoth­e­sis. There are moments in his­to­ry when the sta­tus quo fails. Political sys­tems prove insuf­fi­cient, reli­gious ideas unsat­is­fac­to­ry, social struc­tures intol­er­a­ble. These are moments of cri­sis.

Aengus Anderson: During some of the­se moments, great minds have entered into con­ver­sa­tion and torn apart inherit­ed ideas, dethron­ing truths, com­bin­ing old thoughts, and cre­at­ing new ideas. They’ve shaped the norms of future gen­er­a­tions.

Saul: Every era has its issues, but do ours war­rant The Conversation? If they do, is it hap­pen­ing?

Anderson: We’ll be explor­ing the­se sorts of ques­tions through con­ver­sa­tions with a cross-section of American thinkers, peo­ple who are cri­tiquing some aspect of nor­mal­i­ty and offer­ing an alter­na­tive vision of the future. People who might be hav­ing The Conversation.

Saul: Like a real con­ver­sa­tion, this project is going to be sub­jec­tive. It will fre­quent­ly change direc­tions, con­nect unex­pect­ed ideas, and wan­der between the tan­gi­ble and the abstract. It will leave us with far more ques­tions than answers because after all, nobody has a monopoly on dream­ing about the future.

Anderson: I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul. And you’re lis­ten­ing to The Conversation.


Aengus Anderson: Hey man, how’s it going?

Micah Saul: Not bad, how about your­self?

Anderson: Doing well. I left San Francisco. That was a good run back there, and just drove up to Eugene, Oregon. And tomor­row morn­ing I’m going be talk­ing to John Zerzan.

Saul: Excellent. I’ve been look­ing for­ward to— I feel like I say this every time, but I think it’s true every time. I’m look­ing for­ward to this one.

Anderson: John is going to push the extremes of thought, here. I think he’s going to present some­thing that is in many ways one of the most chal­leng­ing cri­tiques that we’re going to have in this project.

Saul: Absolutely. Let’s real quick, give a brief intro to him. So, John Zerzan is one of the fore­most neo­prim­i­tivist anar­chist thinkers, philoso­phers out there. Neoprimitivism being the sort of striv­ing for basi­cal­ly a return to Stone Age tech­nol­o­gy, as they believe that the most impor­tant part of human inter­ac­tion is— Well, it was exact­ly that, is human inter­ac­tion com­plete­ly unmedi­at­ed by tech­nol­o­gy. And it’s all about the com­mu­ni­ty. It’s all about the inter­per­son­al rela­tions. And every­thing since then has just sort of got­ten in the way of that which is fun­da­men­tal­ly good about human­i­ty.

Anderson: And there’s also a strong rela­tion­ship with nature that’s val­ued there.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And I think this is going to be a fas­ci­nat­ing con­ver­sa­tion on the heels of my talk with Ariel Waldman. I mean, we’re look­ing at two rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent ideas of pro­gress here, and we’ve seen them in in dif­fer­ent man­i­fes­ta­tions through­out this series thus far, and we’re going to see a lot more of it. Ariel and I talked a lot about what is pro­gress? Is it tech­no­log­i­cal? Is it sci­en­tific? When we talked to Max More ear­ly in the series, the ques­tion of pro­gress being is it an expres­sion of man’s cre­ativ­i­ty.

Saul: Right. And I think with a with Zerzan, it’s going to be none of the above.

Anderson: What is pro­gress? Is going to be human inter­ac­tion? Is it going to be a richer nat­u­ral envi­ron­ment? Is it going to be the way you exist in the envi­ron­ment? Is it going to be a dif­fer­ent type of free­dom and agen­cy, in which case will there be unex­pect­ed con­nec­tions with some of our more lib­er­tar­i­an thinkers?

Saul: Or, is pro­gress even some­thing that he’s inter­est­ed in?

Anderson: Right. Will he be some­one like Morton who sort of dis­pos­es [with] the idea of any sort of pro­gres­sive sense to his­to­ry and thinks about our exis­tence as some­thing that just is?

Saul: Right.

Anderson: There’s a lot of cool stuff here, and I have no idea where the con­nec­tions are going to go, but I think they’re going to be a lot of fun.

Saul: I think so, too.

Anderson: And with no fur­ther ado, John Zerzan.


John Zerzan: Well, I’m an anar­chist writer. I guess that’s the heart of it. I go way back to the 60s, after Stanford. So that start­ed things there, and I was also a union orga­niz­er in a kind of do-it-yourself union in San Francisco. And I think we were anar­chists, although we didn’t use that word. I had an inter­est in the begin­nings of unions. What is the orig­in of union­ism in England, for exam­ple, in the Industrial Revolution. And that kind of took me, slow­ly but sure­ly into the whole ques­tion of tech­nol­o­gy.

I dis­cov­ered in the his­tor­i­cal lit­er­a­ture that the com­ing of the fac­to­ry sys­tem was not just a mat­ter of eco­nom­ics, it was also a dis­ci­pli­nary endeav­or. You have the­se peo­ple dis­persed around the coun­tryside and they’re rather autonomous and given to riot­ing if they don’t like some­thing. Classic hand­loom weavers would be one set of peo­ple like that. So author­i­ty had a lot of trou­ble con­trol­ling them. But if you can some­how get peo­ple in the fac­to­ries work­ing four­teen hours a day or more than that even, at the begin­ning, then you have con­trol. They’re tired, they’re cor­ralled, and so forth.

All of the­se social ques­tions start­ed occur­ring to me. It struck me that you can push this all the way back in terms of a kind of inten­tion­al­i­ty of tech­nol­o­gy, that may be tech­nol­o­gy always embod­ies cer­tain val­ues or choic­es in a soci­ety, even includ­ing Paleolithic soci­ety. And now, at the oppo­site extreme when you’ve got the whole high-tech world, the tech­no­cul­ture, you can read in the tech­nol­o­gy what are the dom­i­nant val­ues. I find that real­ly instruc­tive.

And I also am puz­zled by how much that’s avoid­ed polit­i­cal­ly. It’s not a polit­i­cal ques­tion. Because, as we’re told always on all sides, tech­nol­o­gy is neu­tral. Well, it isn’t neu­tral. It’s nev­er been neu­tral. And the ques­tion of civ­i­liza­tion occurs, too. What is the fun­da­men­tal part of tech­nol­o­gy? And I think the answer is sim­ply domes­ti­ca­tion. As Jared Diamond and quite a few oth­ers, actu­al­ly, have said, the move to agri­cul­ture, domes­ti­cat­ing ani­mals and plants, and our­selves in the process, is the worst mis­take in the whole human sto­ry. Once you move to con­trol away from a freer exis­tence in which you basi­cal­ly take what nature gives, when you get on that path, every­thing else real­ly fol­lows from that.

Up to the point now where where you’ve got every extreme of that, nan­otech­nol­o­gy, where the con­trol is so pen­e­trat­ing or deep-going that you’re even con­trol­ling it down to the atom­ic lev­el, in genet­ic engi­neer­ing and all the rest of it, too, that starts with domes­ti­ca­tion. It’s just a fur­ther work­ing out of that log­ic fur­ther down the road. 

And you know, I dis­cov­ered it quite by acci­dent. I was work­ing on oth­er ques­tions. And I dis­cov­ered the lit­er­a­ture of anthro­pol­o­gy. It just opened up every­thing of how things were before domes­ti­ca­tion. The peo­ple didn’t work much (and the­se are great big gen­er­al­iza­tions here but) but didn’t work much, wom­en weren’t objec­ti­fied, the nat­u­ral world wasn’t being sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly destroyed, and on down the line. Egalitarianism. Sharing. This is the car­di­nal fea­ture of mass soci­ety. And no anthro­pol­o­gy will tell you dif­fer­ent.

It sounds like it was made up by a bunch of utopi­an anar­chists, but it wasn’t. It’s amaz­ing. And to me that’s got the most rad­i­cal impli­ca­tions. If we lived that way for two mil­lion years, look what we’re doing now. Look how we’re liv­ing now. Community is gone. That was face-to-face soci­ety, which is the only real com­mu­ni­ty.

And we were real­ly laughed at. And I guess we still are by some peo­ple. You want to go back to the Stone Age. Well, actu­al­ly I do. That would be a good idea. But it’s not nec­es­sar­i­ly lit­er­al­ly that, or doesn’t have to be, I guess. But, are we inter­est­ed in com­mu­ni­ty? That’s the touch­stone for me. And every­body now has to face the fact that it’s gone. Well, what hap­pened to it? As mass soci­ety devel­ops and becomes more of a tech­no­cul­ture, you have less and less of it. And the results to me are just stag­ger­ing. And one of the things I do well on, the shoot­ings. The ram­pant shoot­ings. The fam­i­ly slaugh­ters. Now it’s becom­ing pret­ty much a dai­ly thing. And that’s what hap­pens when you don’t have com­mu­ni­ty any­more. You don’t have the social ties. You don’t have the sol­i­dar­i­ty. We get the most patho­log­i­cal stuff. It’s very scary. And that’s not an acci­dent. It’s not going to go away. Unless we start work­ing on the ques­tion of how can we have com­mu­ni­ty again.

Aengus Anderson: When we talk about com­mu­ni­ty, how do we define it? I’ve heard it defined in a lot of dif­fer­ent ways. Some peo­ple say, I have friends. I have com­mu­ni­ty. I’ve got cowork­ers, I have com­mu­ni­ty.” But when you’re try­ing about the dis­ap­pear­ance of com­mu­ni­ty what does that mean?

Zerzan: You don’t have com­mu­ni­ty unless you have account­abil­i­ty and the chance to take respon­si­bil­i­ty. That requires face-to-face con­tact. I think that we’re see­ing com­mu­ni­ty being rede­fined. Digital com­mu­ni­ty now. I mean, real­ly that’s com­ing on strong. Oh, it’s just as good as the old-fashioned kind of com­mu­ni­ty.” But it isn’t. I think it’s com­plete­ly ersatz. 

I’m remind­ed of a 2006 soci­o­log­i­cal study in a jour­nal of American soci­ol­o­gy, a study of friends involv­ing how many friends peo­ple, talk­ing to thou­sands of peo­ple, adult Americans from the mid-80s to the mid-2000s. And two basic things came out. They defined, for the pur­pose of this study, a friend is some­body you con­fide in. Three friends. Average per­son had three friends in the mid-80s. Mid-2000s, two friends. And the the num­ber of peo­ple with no friends has tripled.

Anderson: So, they feel they have no peo­ple they can con­fide in.

Zerzan: Exactly. So, as dis­tinct from acquain­tances or cowork­ers or what­ev­er, that’s what they mean by friends, and I think that’s an impor­tant def­i­n­i­tion.

Anderson: I’ve talked to a cou­ple dif­fer­ent peo­ple about the idea of of dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty ver­sus I guess phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty. And I spoke to a guy recent­ly named Gabriel Stempinski. He’s writ­ing a book on how we can share more and more of our stuff to com­bat impend­ing resource scarci­ty. For him, this is done through tech­nol­o­gy and it also has the side-effect of being some­thing that real­ly gen­er­ates com­mu­ni­ty. I’ve kind of heard the Facebook and Twitter argu­ments before, but what Gabriel was talk­ing about were online social net­work­ing sites that cre­ate tan­gi­ble phys­i­cal con­nec­tions like couch­surf­ing, where you actu­al­ly go and meet peo­ple.

Zerzan: Yeah.

Anderson: And for him, he’s real­ly inter­est­ed in the idea of tech being the bridge to con­nect peo­ple again in the real world. For me, that was kind of new, bring­ing that into this dis­cus­sion of is it one or the oth­er, is it dig­i­tal or phys­i­cal, and for him it’s, Well, now there’s a lot of com­plex­i­ty out there. I use dig­i­tal to rebuild my phys­i­cal com­mu­ni­ty.” Can there be some val­ue to the dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ty in that way?

Zerzan: Well, I think so, yeah. That’s very good. I mean, he’s mak­ing use of it in a pos­i­tive way. But we shouldn’t for­get that while we all use it— I mean, as an anar­chist, I use it. I’ve con­nect­ed with peo­ple all over the world. I wouldn’t deny it. But at the same time, it’s just part of the larg­er move­ment of things. Of course I think it should be employed to the best of our abil­i­ties. But I would prefer it to go away because you can’t have the tech­nol­o­gy with­out all the rest of it.

The rea­son why we’re now real­ly already in the age of eco­cat­a­stro­phe is that most basi­cal­ly… Let’s just start with some­thing that’s kind of obvi­ous but we don’t think about it all that much. The indus­tri­al­ism nec­es­sary for the tech­nol­o­gy is there. It’s going on every­where. It’s going on in Brazil, India, China. We’re apt, I think all of us are apt to, Well, the nice clean com­put­er, and you push a but­ton and then your con­nect—,” but it par­takes of the larg­er process, which is the sys­tem­at­ic destruc­tion of the bios­phere. Just for exam­ple glob­al warm­ing is pret­ty much exact­ly a func­tion of how much indus­tri­al­iza­tion there is. Global warm­ing start­ed two hun­dred years ago, so did the fac­to­ry sys­tem. So you have the rise of both of them. They’re insep­a­ra­ble.

I always won­der about peo­ple that are very pro-tech on the Left, for exam­ple. Oh, we’ve got to keep all this. Of course. That’d be crazy.” You know, you want to pre­serve all of the lev­el of tech­nol­o­gy. The ques­tion that occurs to me is, oh so you want to keep how many hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple in the mines, in the smelters, in the foundries, in the assem­bly lines? I would like to see them be able to do some­thing else. But you’re going to have to keep them there one way or anoth­er if you want to have all this stuff.

If you want to ignore that, then you’re oper­at­ing on a sur­face lev­el and you’re not tak­ing into account a much more fun­da­men­tal real­i­ty that’s at work here. We are priv­i­leged Americans here, so we do tend to ignore that. Well, that’s a prob­lem in Africa or some­thing. But well, that’s the nature of it. 

Anderson: There are some real­ly big val­ue ques­tions that have just come up. And when you were men­tion­ing peo­ple work­ing in mines extract­ing the stuff, I think of the tech con­ver­sa­tions I’ve had with peo­ple thus far. And I’ve talked to some peo­ple who are very pro-technological devel­op­ment. There is a def­i­nite sense that even­tu­al­ly the­se peo­ple who are out in mines some­where pro­duc­ing the­se things for us will, as we did here, devel­op a high­er and high­er stan­dard of liv­ing.

Zerzan: Lifting all boats. Well, you get the argu­ment, and I heard Henry Kissinger say this, actu­al­ly. This was on pub­lic tele­vi­sion may­be twen­ty years ago, some­thing like that. He was being inter­ro­gat­ed by some­body who was real­ly very very crit­i­cal of the US role in devel­op­ment in Asia. Just lash­ing out at Kissinger. And Kissinger seemed to be almost sleep­ing through this. And at the very end, he turned to the guy and just looked at him and he said, Let me get this straight. So you want to have a cred­it card and a car and a com­put­er, but you don’t want to have any Indians or Chinese have those, right?” Bang. He just swat­ted him away like a fly.

That’s a suf­fi­cient respon­se. But it isn’t if you don’t want those things. Then you’ve got a cri­tique which cops to the impli­ca­tions of it. And there you have the choice. You want more and more of this? More ruin for the nat­u­ral world? More dis­ap­pear­ance of indige­nous cul­tures? And all the rest of it? Like, say Noam Chomsky is just fine with that. He says to me and to oth­ers, Look, it’s mad­ness to mount this sort of cri­tique or alter­na­tive. We’ve got sev­en bil­lion peo­ple to feed.” Why are there sev­en bil­lion peo­ple? We didn’t have this crazy, unnat­u­ral pop­u­la­tion growth before domes­ti­ca­tion. Or before indus­tri­al­iza­tion. So in oth­er words if you remove the indus­tri­al­iza­tion and the domes­ti­ca­tion, prob­a­bly you would have a more sen­si­ble, sus­tain­able pop­u­la­tion lev­el.

And you know, if this fails, espe­cial­ly if it fails sud­den­ly, how many mil­lions of peo­ple are going to be dead with­in a week? But even if it wasn’t such a dra­mat­ic bang, we have to at least imag­ine and work toward the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a soft land­ing. We don’t want peo­ple to die. But we want to move away from this very vul­ner­a­ble and life-destroying over­all sys­tem. I want to bring it down, but not in some sud­den col­lapse. Of course that would be unspeak­able, a calami­ty.

Anderson: What is the alter­na­tive? What is the soft land­ing? What does that look like?

Zerzan: I think the soft land­ing has to even face up to de-domestication, to a return at some point— This would be my, and it’d prob­a­bly have to be a fair­ly dis­tant goal, reskilling our­selves in the lit­er­al sense of that word, too. How did we used to live? What were the solu­tions peo­ple had before fac­to­ries began to dom­i­nate the world? What do you have to know how to do? And that’s a huge order.

Anderson: I’ve spo­ken to a lot of peo­ple who I men­tioned have sort of a free mar­ket bent to their think­ing. There’s always a notion like, if you don’t want to par­take of this tech­nol­o­gy, don’t wor­ry no one’s forc­ing you to.

Zerzan: That’s not true what­so­ev­er. I did three hours with Art Bell, you know the all-night talk show guy. He was mak­ing that claim. It actu­al­ly was quite enjoy­able. He was quite open-minded. But he said, I’ve got a com­put­er and TV set, every room in my house. And you don’t want that stuff?” He just couldn’t get over it. But he fell back on—this is kind of fun­ny, and he wasn’t being nasty about it. But he said, Well, you should live in a cave, then. Or join some native group or some­thing. But you know the log­ic of your posi­tion.”

And he’s part­ly right. Of course that isn’t real­ly a pos­si­bil­i­ty, is it? I mean, where are the caves? Were are the peo­ple that would you like some white guy to come and join their indige­nous soci­ety? What’re you talk­ing about? That’s as if you have free choice. But you don’t. I mean, These peo­ple don’t even seem to notice that the real­i­ty works again­st that, in every sin­gle way. The illu­sion of choice, yeah. The tech­no­cul­ture is a free choice? I can choose to live in the Stone Age, if I want? Not real­ly.

By the way, let me just add, I real­ly respect the peo­ple that are on the land, try­ing to work out some of the­se prac­ti­cal prob­lems. You know, the per­ma­cul­ture, the Fukuoka Method, or what­ev­er. These kind of anti-industrial projects. I’m not doing that work, you know. So I’m in no way poo-poohing it. But they’re not exact­ly liv­ing in caves or ful­ly going native or some­thing either. They’re not. They’re in this world, too.

Anderson: You’re up again­st a huge task of, there is a whole sys­tem of thought that is now con­sid­ered to not be a sys­tem of thought, right. It’s embed­ded into becom­ing nor­mal.

Zerzan: Well put.

Anderson: The tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems, sys­tems based on free mar­ket eco­nom­ics. When I was think­ing about this project, I was think­ing what are all the dif­fer­ent things I could iden­ti­fy as being assump­tions about nor­mal­i­ty. And those two were sort of the biggest ones. The idea of tech­no­log­i­cal pro­gress as being equat­ed to good, and there being sort of a tele­o­log­i­cal sense that we’re mov­ing towards some­thing. And then on the oth­er hand the notion that the free mar­ket is the nat­u­ral state of things, and that the indi­vid­u­al is the base unit of that. 

Both of those ways of think­ing seem very phys­i­cal­ist, like they’re about stuff in the world. You mea­sure pro­gress by hav­ing more stuff, more com­pli­cat­ed stuff, more choic­es for stuff. It seems like what you’re offer­ing is a world in which val­ue is root­ed in some­thing very dif­fer­ent. If we throw out tech­no­log­i­cal soci­ety and we lose things that peo­ple asso­ciate with val­ue, what do you get in return? I was curi­ous about that.

Zerzan: Well yeah, the­se are a lit­tle vague. I mean, whole­ness, imme­di­a­cy, which I think by the way are spir­i­tu­al val­ues as well. I think peo­ple haven’t lost the yearn­ing for con­nec­tion, real human face-to-face con­nec­tion. If they have, then all this is point­less. We’re wast­ing our time, right?

Anderson: Do you think that’s some­thing that’s a yearn­ing we actu­al­ly could lose?

Zerzan: I don’t know. I hate to think that. I remind myself it is con­ceiv­able that may­be peo­ple will all be tak­ing anx­i­ety med­ica­tions and drugs to sleep. I could imag­ine a world where everybody’s tak­ing drugs, just to get through the damn day. We’re get­ting there, get­ting there pret­ty fast. But it’s con­ceiv­able that it would still func­tion.

Anderson: So there’s a real ques­tion of the good here. Let’s say we look at one hypo­thet­i­cal, which is the cur­rent log­ic of the world con­tin­ues. We strive for more and more com­plex­i­ty, and we begin chang­ing our own genet­ic make­up, and we expand into space. That’s kind of the extreme tech­no end of some of the some of the inter­views I’ve had. What is not good about that? Can you have a sense that that isn’t good, com­ing from a place that is any­thing oth­er than spir­i­tu­al?

Zerzan: Well, that’s right. That’s some­thing I’m sort of come to late­ly, rel­a­tive­ly late­ly. I was in Croatia, and the wom­an there said, I think this whole green anar­chy move­ment is at base a spir­i­tu­al move­ment.” And I was real­ly floored by that. Because I just had this feel­ing, I think that’s right but I have no idea why. Because I’m an ex-Catholic. And jeez, at my age I mean it’s so late that I came to be more open to things like that. Mainly my thing was, Get away. I don’t want any­thing reli­gious. I’ve been burned by that. I was beat­en by the priests as a kid. I don’t want to hear about it.” 

And now I real­ize that ain’t the whole pic­ture. Come on. That’s throw­ing every­thing out with the bath­wa­ter. Because I’ve met more and more peo­ple, including—and some of this has just been so amaz­ing­ly refresh­ing. Like, a good friend of mine who’s almost a clas­sic Black Bloc anar­chist, ready to rum­ble, ready to mask up. Just a great per­son. And he had a whole spir­i­tu­al side which he nev­er brought out. Because it’s not, you know, in terms of the anar­chist thing…let’s face it, that’s not what we’re talk­ing about. But there is a spir­i­tu­al side, I think you’re right. We are talk­ing about fun­da­men­tal things. And that is a val­ue choice, just like the tech­nol­o­gy embed­ded in there are the val­ues and the choic­es of the dom­i­nant order, whether we make them con­scious­ly or not. They are choic­es.

It’s very post­mod­ern. It’s very hip now. Everything is a social con­struc­tion. Nature is in quotes. There is no nature, there’s nev­er been any nature. it’s just our con­cep­tion. I think of an Earth First wom­an. I remem­ber one thing she said, I can take you by the hand into the forest. Does this look like a con­cept you?” And some peo­ple, they would still may­be cling that. That’s just real­ly hard to fath­om. But some peo­ple are pret­ty far gone. 

Anderson: Well, I spoke to a philoso­pher in Davis awhile ago. He’s writ­ten a book called Ecology Without Nature.

Zerzan: Oh, Morton?

Anderson: Yes. He cer­tain­ly talks about the idea that think­ing about nature as a sep­a­rate thing is actu­al­ly an imped­i­ment to under­stand­ing that we’re part of a holis­tic sys­tem.

Zerzan: Maybe you could help me with this. I find that real ambigu­ous. I think that could be put to obvi­ous­ly bad uses. Bad in my def­i­n­i­tion, any­way. I sort of think he’s try­ing to have it both ways. He’s going with the post­mod­ern tide, but he’s also try­ing to say it’s help­ful to go that way in sup­port of nature. When you start going down that road…

I found it inter­est­ing that a cou­ple of years ago Žižek took up Morton, big time. Was thrilled to dis­cov­er this ecol­o­gy with­out nature idea. Now Žižek is a Stalinist pig, in my view. And he finds it won­der­ful that glob­al warm­ing is going on. Why would this guy be so in favor of Morton’s key thing? He’s not on the side of of the nat­u­ral world. Maybe Morton should pay atten­tion to that. What is your own respon­si­bil­i­ty for the­se things? I mean, he can have any idea he likes, but look at the con­se­quences.

Anderson: It seems like you have a real sense that nature has val­ue.

Zerzan: Yeah, intrin­si­cal­ly.

Anderson: And where does that come from?

Zerzan: I don’t know. Maybe that’s just very intan­gi­ble. I haven’t real­ly thought about that all that much, but if you can’t see that, then I don’t know. Then then we real­ly are in bad shape. It’s absolute­ly clear to me. I want whole­ness. I want to get rid of all the­se lay­ers of medi­a­tion. And I know the assump­tion for me is every­body wants that. But not every­body wants that.

Anderson: Right.

Zerzan: But I’m think­ing (again, my opti­mism), if this is made artic­u­late, then we may dis­cov­er that pret­ty much may­be every­body does want that. but in the absence of alter­na­tives, in the absence of access to oth­er ways of look­ing at all this, peo­ple haven’t even heard of this. If you’re look­ing, well then you can find stuff. But if you’re not even think­ing of look­ing, why would you be look­ing?

Anderson: That con­nects into some­thing I’d been want­i­ng to get to, which is the idea of the Conversation. We have the­se dif­fer­ent ideas of what is good. How do we bring them togeth­er? How do we talk about them? Does talk­ing even mat­ter?

Zerzan: I’ve tak­en up the point of view that you’ve got to have the actu­al mil­i­tan­cy. That’s what dri­ves the ideas. That’s what puts it on the map. I mean, I remem­ber 60 Minutes came here after anti-WTO at the end of 99, the rather famous Seattle deal. Because the Eugene anar­chists were sup­pos­ed­ly behind smash­ing up down­town. I think that goes to who might have done what. But any­way we were call­ing the tune. Because peo­ple want­ed to know, why would peo­ple do that?

To me, when you do some­thing like that and you com­bine it with a coher­ent com­mu­niqué, a state­ment, then a cer­tain num­ber of peo­ple get to read that. And they would have the same ques­tion: why would peo­ple do some­thing like that? That’s crazi­ness, you know. But they say, this is why we did it. And they go, Ah.” Some peo­ple, I’m not say­ing every­body, sud­den­ly goes, Shit. I nev­er heard that before.” But you know, it’s potent. And that’s why you have the [boat?].

Anderson: Is this a move­ment that can’t par­tic­i­pate in con­ver­sa­tion because of that? I’ve spo­ken to a lot of dif­fer­ent peo­ple with a lot of dif­fer­ent beliefs, and I don’t think any of them would espouse prop­er­ty dam­age. Does it estrange peo­ple?

Zerzan: You’ve got to get seri­ous at some point. It’s unavoid­able. Yeah, some peo­ple are going to be hor­ri­fied. They’re going to be opposed to it. You’ve got to go through that. You’ve got to show why, how seri­ous this is, and how the rest of it hasn’t worked. And they’ll agree or they won’t, but there’s no get­ting around it. You can hold your sign and do what the cops tell you to do, and noth­ing will change. It will only keep get­ting worse. 

Anderson: To change minds, it seems like con­ver­sa­tion isn’t enough?

Zerzan: Well, I don’t know. And nobody knows what’s effec­tive. We haven’t been effec­tive yet. I’m not say­ing, Oh, it’s sim­ple propo­si­tion. Anarchists know how to do it. Look how well we’re doing.” But since I see the oth­er stuff is not work­ing, let’s go this way and may­be we’ll break through. Maybe not. Maybe that was wrong.

You know dur­ing the Unabomber thing, (I think of this some­times.) when the media was ask­ing us when Kaczynski was send­ing his bombs in the mail, they want­ed to catch us say­ing, Oh, we’re down with that.” And I always said, if they asked me, I’m not in favor of send­ing bombs in the mail, but those peo­ple that got the bombs in the mail, they’re not inno­cent, either.”

Anderson: But is any­one inno­cent?

Zerzan: Well, there you go. There you go. We’re all stuck in this. We are all a part of it. And you know, I embody all the­se con­tra­dic­tions. Or hypocrisies. And it reminds me of Art Bell. You should live in a cave. But I’m try­ing to con­tribute to the dis­cus­sion. I’m try­ing to write and offer some­thing. And you’re right, that’s a con­tra­dic­tion. Here’s the prim­i­tivists who flies around the world and every­thing. But that wasn’t my choice. I didn’t ask for this world. Tentatively, any­way, I’m mak­ing the deci­sions as they go as to how to try to do my lit­tle bit.

Anderson: And yet you’ve said you’re an opti­mist.

Zerzan: When I was a child in the 50s, I real­ly wasn’t get­ting it. I just felt on the out­side. I just was not… I just felt like, stu­pid. I’m not say­ing I saw through it but I just didn’t seem to fit. When the 60s came, wow. It was just a mir­a­cle. You just got this feel­ing like the wind had turned. Just a sense of pos­si­bil­i­ty and inno­cence, and it was just fab­u­lous. And it seems to me once you taste that, you still have that taste. I feel just blessed that I was in that time and place.


Micah Saul: Well, damn.

Aengus Anderson: I feel like we need a new exple­tive at the begin­ning of every con­clu­sion.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: And Well, damn,” might be kin­da light for this one. That was a great con­ver­sa­tion

Saul: That was awe­some. I don’t know what I was expect­ing, but that blew my expec­ta­tions out of the water. I was also real­ly impressed at just how well he con­nect­ed to a bunch of oth­er peo­ple. We pre­dict­ed ear­lier that he and Lundberg were going to have some sim­i­lar­i­ties. I think in some ways he’s going a hell of a lot far­ther than Lundberg. I thought the rela­tion­ship between him and Gabe was real­ly inter­est­ing, talk­ing about com­mu­ni­ty. He seemed actu­al­ly real­ly respect­ful of the fact that tech­nol­o­gy can engen­der real com­mu­ni­ty in the real world. I found an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion to you

Anderson: Hm.

Saul: He was talk­ing about the hor­ri­ble increase in shoot­ings we’ve seen, and he links that direct­ly to a decrease in com­mu­ni­ty.

Anderson: Yes.

Saul: And it just made me think of the arti­cle you wrote short­ly after the Giffords shoot­ing.

Anderson: For the Tuscon Sentinel, yes.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: Where I was argu­ing that a lack of com­mu­ni­ty sense basi­cal­ly made the shoot­ing of our Congressional rep­re­sen­ta­tive Gabrielle Giffords pos­si­ble.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And may­be this is one of the many sur­pris­es in the con­ver­sa­tion that I had with John. Many of his ideas res­onate with me far more than I expect­ed they would.

Saul: It seemed like you were both hav­ing a real­ly good time.

Anderson: Definitely a lot of fun, and real­ly provoca­tive. At the same time, while I think there’s an amaz­ing cri­tique, I don’t buy the solu­tion. And I feel like we got into the ques­tion of the good a bit. I real­ly liked that at the end of the day he’s will­ing to say that he’s essen­tial­ly a bio­cen­trist, that life and nature has intrin­sic val­ue.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: And that’s a dif­fi­cult, may­be impos­si­ble thing to explain why. Maybe that’s some­thing that you can only get in an ara­tional sense, call it a spir­i­tu­al sense. But the same ara­tional sense that makes Doctor More want to nev­er die. It felt like we got down to that point of the good. And there’s some­thing kind of cool about that, but there’s also some­thing kind of alarm­ing when I think of John and Dr. More. Because both of them will admit that they have ara­tional desires, one case bio­cen­tric, and the oth­er case anthro­pocen­tric. And those things are kind of non-negotiable.

Saul: Exactly.

Anderson: And I think there’s a self-assurance there because of that that I find a lit­tle alarm­ing, in both cas­es.

Saul: I guess the con­cept of the ara­tional is alarm­ing to me, in some ways. Even though I know that any notion of good or any notion of val­ues is going to come down to some deep-seated belief that you can exam­ine all you want, but it’s hard to explain because it’s just deep-seated. And it may be ara­tional. Now, even though I believe that, I have a hard time accept­ing it, that…I don’t know, that your belief sys­tem can be based on… not noth­ing, but on some­thing you can’t describe.

Anderson: And it may be inflex­i­ble.

Saul: I tend to view myself as a fair­ly ratio­nal per­son. And it’s dis­turbing to me to think that if I go down deep enough, I’m prob­a­bly com­plete­ly ara­tional as well.

Anderson: Yeah, and it prob­a­bly wouldn’t take many steps to get there.

Saul: No. Not at all. Look how quick­ly you’re able to get there with peo­ple.

Anderson: And if that is dis­turbing. If the ara­tional­i­ty that under­lies all of the­se dif­fer­ent ideas of the good, right… Because essen­tial­ly, all of the­se dif­fer­ent things are val­ue claims. All of those are com­ing from an ara­tional point. It makes you won­der, how do you have the Conversation? Or do you just have one side that ulti­mate­ly blud­geons the oth­er side down? 

Saul: Maybe that’s anoth­er rea­son that we find it dis­turbing.

Anderson: You mean because we want the Conversation to be pos­si­ble?

Saul: Because we want the Conversation to be pos­si­ble.

Anderson: Yeah. And I didn’t feel from from my talk with John that it real­ly was. He men­tioned with a lot of anar­chists you break stuff, and that’s how in the­o­ry you make your point. And he said, well look, we don’t know that this method has been tried and test­ed. Maybe there are bet­ter ways to do it. But it didn’t seem like con­ver­sa­tion, in the way that we’re think­ing of it, was real­ly on the table. Because for them too much is at stake. The threat to the plan­et is so grave, the threat to what is good, the threat to human nature as they define it… It’s real­ly hard for me to be sym­pa­thet­ic with that sense of sure­ty about any­thing, much less that con­vic­tion that you have to make state­ments that involve dam­ag­ing prop­er­ty. Isn’t every­one com­plic­it in this sys­tem? Where do you draw the line? Even when I like some of the cri­tique, it’s hard for me to not just see the real­ly right­eous side of this.

Saul: Right. Regardless of how strong your beliefs, or may­be even the stronger your beliefs are, the more impos­si­ble it is to live a non-hypocritical life.

Anderson: Which is some­thing that John him­self says. Like, he can’t go live in a cave. There’s no way to opt out. As with every good con­ver­sa­tion, in every big set of ideas there are always a lot of incon­sis­ten­cies.

Saul: Yes. And it’s those incon­sis­ten­cies in some ways that make peo­ple so inter­est­ing.

Anderson: I com­plete­ly agree. They’re work­ing through all of the­se ideas, too. And they’re work­ing through them in their own ways. But ulti­mate­ly they’re tackling…we’re all tack­ling the same ques­tions.

Saul: Right.

Anderson: And none of us have cre­at­ed this uni­fied field the­o­ry of how the world works. None of us have a con­vinc­ing meta­physics for what is good and what is bad in all sit­u­a­tions.

Saul: There’s no sil­ver bul­let, but may­be if we strive for it, we find some­thing.

Anderson: And that’s where the opti­mism comes from, right?

Saul: Yeah. No, exact­ly. Everybody’s an opti­mist. Are you an opti­mist?

Anderson: I don’t think I’d want to go on the record as one, but after Morton’s treat­ment of cyn­ics, I’m pret­ty wary of say­ing I’m one of them. I mean, Morton’s right. We wouldn’t be doing this project if we weren’t in some way opti­mistic.

Saul: No, exact­ly.

Anderson: It just comes back again and again. And I think that’s what I like so much about our inter­vie­wees who real­ly push us. And John cer­tain­ly does that.

Saul: Yes.

Anderson: He is look­ing for a rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent and much bet­ter way. He’s got the guts to dream it and artic­u­late it and be dis­missed as a crazy man. In the same way that I think you can say that of Dr. More.

Saul: Absolutely.

Anderson: And in both cas­es, though there is much I dis­agree with, there is much that I respect. 

That was John Zerzan. record­ed June 22, 2012 in Eugene, Oregon. 

Saul: This is The Conversation. You can find us on Twitter at @aengusanderson and on the web at find​the​con​ver​sa​tion​.com

Anderson: So thanks for lis­ten­ing. I’m Aengus Anderson.

Saul: And I’m Micah Saul.

Further Reference

This interview at the Conversation web site, with project notes, comments, and taxonomic organization specific to The Conversation.


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