Contemplating anarcho-primitivism in a suburban parking lot

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.


  1. policywank · February 21, 2013

    I’m mostly with you. This is why I left “radicalism” behind in my late 20s for social democracy. I think some form of capitalism is, for lack of a better word, necessary, but it doesn’t have to be so brutal. There are no utopias on earth, but the Scandinavian model is better than anything else out there that’s actually happening.

  2. skepoet2 · February 21, 2013

    While I have not ever been a social democrat or a primitivist, I agree that there is something amiss about the absolute refusal to talk specifics anymore which primitivists don’t have. It’s a challenge and what that has to be answered seriously.

  3. Pingback: Two Critiques of Marxism: Zerzan’s and Burnham’s | The (Dis)Loyal Opposition to Modernity:
  4. Andrea Muhrrteyn · February 21, 2013

    It was not capitalism that created temporary abundance, but technological access to non-renewable resources, primarily oil and the minerals and metals (NNR’s) which are the foundation of any industrial civilization. Both capitalism and communism are based upon the erroneous theoretical premise of NNR abundance. The production of those minerals have peaked.

    I suggest: Scarcity, by Chris Clugston, for an indepth analysis of NNR reality.

    AnthroCorpocentric Flat Earth Society — Communist/Capitalist –Jurisprudence views the world from a firmly entrenched inaccurate anthropocentric (human-centred) perspective, where there is always a brighter future, because the implicit assumption of our anthropocentric political, economic and legal worldview is that there will always be “enough” Non Renewable Natural Resources (NNR‘s) to enable a brighter future, and all politics and economics needs to concern itself with, is how to use these NNR‘s to provide ever improving material living standards for our ever-expanding global population. From a broader Ecocentric Finite Resource Scarcity perspective, beyond Peak NNR , there is no hope for a brighter future, the future is one of depletion, austerity, resource wars & socio-economic and political collapse; because the fundamental assumption of ever-increasing NNR‘s, underlying our limited anthropocentric jurisprudence perspective is inaccurate.

    Domestic (US) & Global NNR Scarcity Analysis is based upon Mr. Clugston‘s analysis of the criticality and scarcity associated with each of the 89 analyzed NNRs, using data from USGS, EIA, BEA, BLS, Fed, CBO, FBI, IEA, UN, World Bank, etc; and concludes in general that “absent some combination of immediate and drastic reductions in our global NNR utilization levels, … we will experience escalating international and intranational conflicts during the coming decades over increasingly scarce NNR‘s, which will devolve into global societal collapse, almost certainly by the year 2050.”

    [122] At risk are: (a) Antimony: 8 yrs to Global Reserves exhaustion (used for starter lights ignition batteries in cars and trucks; (b) Bauxite: 40 years (only economically viable feedstock for aluminium); (c) Bismuth: 17 years (non-toxic substitute for lead in solder and plumbing fixtures); (d) Cadmium: 25 years; (e) Chromium: 26 years (stainless steel, jet engines and gas turbines); (f) Coal: 40 years (electricity generation); (g) Cobalt: 26 years (gas turbine blades, jet aircraft engines, batteries); (h) Copper: 27 years; (i) Fluorspar: 23 years (feedstock for fluorine bearing chemicals, aluminium and uranium processing); (j) Graphite (Natural): 23 years; (k) Iron Ore: 15 years (only feedstock for iron and steel); (l) Lead: 17 years; (m) Lithium: 8 years (aircraft parts, mobile phones, batteries for electrical vehicles); (n) Manganese: 17 years (stainless steel, gasoline additive, dry cell batteries); (o) Molybdenum: 20 years (aircraft parts, electrical contacts, industrial motors, tool steels); (p) Natural Gas: 34 years; (q) Nickel: 30 years; (r) Niobium: 15 years (jet and rocket engines, turbines, superconducting magnets); (s) Oil: 39 years; (t) Rhenium: 22 years (petroleum refining, jet engines, gas turbine blades); (u) Silver: 11 years; (v) Thalium: 38 years; (w) Tin: 18 years; (x) Tungsten: 32 years; (y) Uranium: 34 years (primary energy source, weapons); (z) Zinc: 13 years; (aa) Zirconium: 19 years (nuclear power plants, jet engines, gas turbine blades).

    “Because the underlying cause associated with our transition from prosperity to austerity is ecological (geological), not economic or political, our incessant barrage of economic and political “fixes” – fiscal and monetary “stimulus” – is misguided and inconsequential. Our national economies are not “broken”; they are “dying of slow starvation” for lack of sufficient economically viable NNR inputs.

    “Ownership of the means of production—from private ownership to state ownership; the methods by which scarce resources are allocated—from free markets to central planning; and our forms of government—from democracy to autocracy—have no bearing on humanity‘s ultimate destiny.

    “All industrialized and industrializing nations, irrespective of their economic and political orientations, are unsustainable and will collapse in the not-too-distant future as a consequence of their dependence upon increasingly scarce NNRs.

    We can voluntarily reduce population and consumption, or NNR scarcity depletion will force it upon us, in our inevitable transition to a sustainable, pre-industrial lifestyle paradigm.


    Secondly, as far as I am aware: CommonSism (Common Sense Guerrylla Laws for a Sustainable Commons) is one of, if not the only ideology which ideologically and more important legally confronts the Tragedy of the Commons: finite NNR resources.

    Simply put:

    CommonSism Guerrylla Laws regulate human procreation and resource utilization behaviour, by means of legally defining the procreation and consumption difference, and consequent related Sustainable Rights/Penalties, between a Leaver and a Taker, to ensure sustainability.

    CommonSism asserts that a majority of society’s problems – crime, violence, unemployment, poverty, inflation, food shortages, political instability, vanishing species, garbage and pollution urban sprawl, traffic jams, toxic waste, energy and non-renewable resources (NNR) depletion and scarcity are symptoms of Ecological Overshoot, resulting from the Consumptionist Left and Right Wing’s war against nature, and the failures of Anthropocentric Jurisprudence.

    Ecological Overshoot is a consequence of all other ideologies and their adherents failure to legally (a) define the difference between sustainable and unsustainable procreation and consumption behaviour; and (b) provide legal rights to sustainable practices, and legal penalties to unsustainable individuals, corporations and organisations.

    These Guerrylla Laws must (A) simply and very specifically clarify the difference between the consumption and procreation behaviour of an Unsustainable Taker (Scarcity Combatant) vs a Sustainable Leaver (Eco-Innocent); (B) be used in courts to (a) provide legal rights and socio-political rewards of recognition to Sustainable Leaver’s for their Heroic lifestyle choices and practices; (b) confront Taker Scarcity Combatants of their Breeding / Consumption combatant behaviours aggravation of Scarcity induced socio-economic problems, by means of aggravated legal penalties, in accordance to their ‘Taker Scarcity Combatant’ status.

  5. Andrea Muhrrteyn · February 21, 2013


    Personally I consider the Mosuo (Gender balanced culture in SW China) to be, by far, the best model out there.

    The Ecocentric Gender-Balanced Culture have no murder, rape, war, jealousy, jails or unemployment. They also have no police and courts.

    The households — large, including cousins, aunts, etc — are run by the matriarch; whereas their politics is managed by the men. Men hold political power, women hold the social/family power. Because women have no desire for capital accumulation, but a greater desire to manage effectively, maintaining strong relations, they have one of the most stable family structure in the world, which survived even Mao’s communism. The matriarch also ensures that the family does not become overpopulated, in terms of its ability to be self sufficient. Children live within their family, and take care, and contribute to the tribe’s resources.

    They do not have a western form of marriage, which is the source of much friction in western societies. In the Na culture, they have what is referred to as ‘walking marriages’. the woman remains part of her own family, as does the man, part of his family. If a man and woman are interested in each other, and wish to begin a relationship, then the woman invites him to visit him, and so he walks to her home for the night. Because the relationship is not about possession, of property or children, but about emotional and psychological company; if or when the parties no longer find pleasure from each other, they have an amicable ending to the relationship, without related arguments and conflict about property and/or children. The man remains part of his family, and he can be involved in the upbringing of his own biological children, if he wishes, but his primary duties are to be an uncle-father to the children of his sisters and nieces, in his own family.

    Imagine that: a gender balanced culture, run by illiterate old women, which has no murder, rape, war, jealousy, jails or unemployment!!!

  6. Pingback: Management At the Gates: Several Years Reflections on James Burnham | Symptomatic Commentary

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