Or: If there is a Hell in John Zerzan’s universe, I deserve to go there
You ever get that feeling that you walked into the wrong classroom on the first day of school? That seems to be the case here. Awkward.
But the show must go on, I suppose. Reading anything has been a challenge with two rug-rats in the home, a wife getting increasingly tired of my introverted scatter-brained ways (I have been called a “space cadet”, and I didn’t argue with that characterization), and a day job that sinks me deeper into the dark entrails of the inner workings of capital (but at least I can keep the door of my office closed and blast French baroque music from my computer much to the the dismay of my coworkers). The mortgage, the lawn, the neighbors with anti-Obama and Tea Party bumper stickers on their cars, the heat, the humidity, the crawfish, the swamp, the gators… all a far cry from my intellectual blossoming in Berkeley. I was just another Mexican kid from the fields getting radicalized and spending too much time at political meetings, thinking that changing the world was as simple as 3, 2, 1… But that all went to Hell, didn’t it? And now I have a two year old sleeping in the back seat, and I’m reading some book about how humanity went wrong when it first invented language. This is a new low. I just hope I remember to buy the right twelve pack of bar soap at the Sam’s Club.
The book in question is John Zerzan’s Twilight of the Machines. I won’t bother giving a summary, as I read most of it during my toddler’s nap time, and I couldn’t really tell you all of the main themes of the book. Besides, one thing that I am noticing with any modern theorist, be it Zizek, Chomsky, Zerzan or your other favorite leftist talking head is that they basically play the same set list over and over again, only in different permutations according to the circumstances. And who can blame them? Those who make their living from the gift of gab need to stick to the script. Zerzan’s script seems to be pretty straightforward: humanity veered into fatal error with domestication. Yes, the fact that you have a cat is the very reason that we can’t have nice things, or the reason our nice things are killing us, or something like that. And don’t even think about planting that tomato seed, you fascist! You are raping the earth, and creating the very conditions for war, empire, and exploitation. Oh, you just wanted something fresh to put on your summer salad? That’s how all atrocities start.
Okay, so that is the reductio ad absurdum of it. But such reductiones (see Father Mestre, I remember how to decline nouns in the third declension!) are necessary exercises, at least in my way of working through problems. Let me rewind for a second a couple of years back. After a long politically apathetic lull in my intellectual journey that included a long stint in Catholic religious life, I finally returned to Marxism in general and the thought of Raya Dunayevskaya in particular. Having worked my way through her complete published work, my ultimate conclusion was that what happens after that eschatological event known as “the Revolution” must inform what comes before. In Dunayevskaya’s explanation of the dialectic, if freedom (the work of the negative, or what have you) is not present at each stage of struggle, then revolutions turn into their opposite. You cannot at some point say to a group of people, “Okay, you people have to be used as objects in order for the rest of us to live better. Suck it up and take one for the team.” The problem with that approach is that these people get consistently treated as objects and not as free subjects. And these people get angry. They turn to religion, right-wing politics, anti-social behavior, or crime. Basically, this is what happened to the North American working class over the last half century, but that is the subject of another essay. The leaders of trade unions and mass movements took cushy positions where they ate organic food and discussed Adorno, while the unwashed masses ended up fighting in wars, in jail, on drugs, or at a Tea Party rally. Someone is laughing all the way to the bank, and it is not us.
But back to the main argument. Say the Great Red Spirit does come down in a new Commie Pentecost and bestow tongues of fire on the Great Proletarian Masses and the New International is born. Who takes out the garbage? Who goes down into the coal mine? Who changes the diapers in the nursing home? “Robots,” responds the comparative lit graduate student in the peanut gallery. “We’ll take turns,” responds the Internet Maoist living in his parents’ basement on his Youtube video #576 against the other revisionist Maoist across town also living in a parental basement. Okay, let’s consider the robot answer for a second. Robots have circuits, and those circuits need certain minerals to produce them. That mineral ore can be found on a certain plot of land in Africa currently inhabited by some farmers growing yams and cassava beans. Oh yeah, and China also wants those the same minerals. So what are we to do? Go over and ask them nicely to give up that plot of land, and also, since we would miss our hot showers and episodes of Downton Abbey (I don’t have a T.V. but I hear that’s what many of the cool kids are watching), would they mind terribly going down into those mines and pulling out the minerals for us? We promise to pay them well, we guess, and that it won’t be for long, at least until we make the robots to replace them, which is after we produce robots to do all of the things we wouldn’t want to do domestically, and if we don’t forget that they are down in the mines in the first place.
I don’t mean to be overly droll about it, but I will get to the provocative and perhaps exaggerated crux of this essay: my view is that Marxists, in spite of claims to being materialists, don’t really take matter seriously. And Zerzan and his kind do, at least from where I am standing. To very important and elementary questions as to who will mow my lawn and who will work at the Dairy Queen on a Sunday afternoon, Marxists and other socialists seem to just say, “We’ll figure it out later,” “That is for the masses to decide,” or, “That’s not what is important. Here, read more Lacan.” Perhaps I am just getting cantankerous as I enter my mid-30’s, but increasingly, to every single leftist meme, essay, quotation, or talk, I am beginning to have the same reaction: “I don’t think you’ve thought this through”. To the question of who will take out the garbage, my right-wing Tea Party neighbor has the perfect answer: the losers, because they deserve what they get. And taking out the garbage will motivate them to start their own businesses, work their way up, and thus create other losers they defeat on the free market who will have to take out the garbage. And all we come up with is robots, which assumes the current imperial order in a more benevolent form.
In that sense, Zerzan’s throwing the baby, the bathwater, the bathtub, and the bathroom out the window and going back to the days before speech doesn’t seem so absurd. I have to say that, while at Berkeley, I hated anarchists like any good “Trot”. I loathed lifestyle anarchists, and I despised those people who hung a platform from the Campanile with a sign saying, “End animal vivisection!” They were putting trees and animals before people while the great ghetto of Oakland and the rest of California seemed to be calling out to be saved. My feelings in that regard have not changed to a large extent, but I am beginning to more and more connect the dots between all of these struggles. I may not now, or ever, be ready to sign on to an “anti-civilization” critique. But I am under no illusions that any of this can be saved. Nor do I have any particular will to save a social order that robs Peter to pay Paul. As in any addiction, our own desires could be the cause of our own destruction. The very idea of trying to get “the masses” in a phalanx so that they can do what we tell them to do seems to betray that will to destroy.
So back to the parking lot. There is nothing miraculous or sacred about this place of abundance. My mother grew up in Mexico without running water, I grew up often without permanent housing to cover my head, and so on. We all have to make commitments, and mine is with the poor. And not just the “good poor”, the productive poor, or the “model proletarian”. I am talking about the unruly poor, the beggars, the people Jesus healed and preached to. The Left often thinks that it can save these people as long as they do exactly what it tells them to do. But all that these poor have seen is betrayal, over and over again. Someone moves up stepping on their backs. And they rebel, they rise up, they talk back. They stay home. And they will be the ones to survive this mess, because they always have. My own suspicion, perhaps unfair (but since when have I ever been fair?) is that leftist theorists fear collapse primarily because they would miss the onions, melons, and garlic of “Egypt”. Those who have never savored them, or savor them rarely, have no such attachments.