John Zerzan mounts a head-on challenge to the workings of modern society
Self-described neo-Luddite John Zerzan made news in his home state of Oregon a few years ago for befriending Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski and defending Kaczynski’s manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future (although not Kaczynski’s campaign of bombings). In 1999 the anarchist writer and researcher garnered national attention for his part in mentoring young anarchists who protested World Trade Organization policies in Seattle. A Wall Street Journal article outlining his radical views elicited a suggestion from one reader that Zerzan ought to be “wearing animal skins, living under rocks, and hunting rats for dinner with a branch torn off a tree with his bare hands.”
The man who inspires such an outcry is a congenial 57-year-old who spent the 1960s in the fertile milieu of the San Francisco Bay Area, attending Stanford as an undergrad and earning a master’s degree in history at San Francisco State University. After pursuing a doctorate at the University of Southern California, he moved in 1981 back to Oregon, where he now helps run a housing cooperative in Eugene, does odd jobs, and volunteers at a YMCA, where he assists disabled people with weight training.
In his books Elements of Refusal (Left Bank Books, 1988)—a collection of writings that speculate on the origins of human alienation—and Future Primitive and Other Essays (Autonomedia, 1994), Zerzan has examined a broad range of topics from tonality in music (even punk rock “calms the nerves”) to “niceism” (the dysfunctional tendency to “approach reality in terms of whether others behave cordially”). With Alice Carnes, Zerzan co-edited Questioning Technology: Tool, Toy or Tyrant? (New Society Publishers, 1991). Most recently he compiled Against Civilization: Readings and Reflections (Uncivilized Books, 1999), a collection of critiques of industrial society by writers from Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau to modern-day techno-skeptics Chellis Glendenning and Kirkpatrick Sale.
Zerzan cites Jean-François Steiner’s study of the German concentration camp at Treblinka as a book that instilled him with the sense that people in even the direst situation could—and did—revolt. He’s also “strangely optimistic” about the future, saying, “I believe we’re seeing the beginning of a movement that will dwarf the ’60s.”
Zerzan’s views pose a challenge even to many young radicals and aging flower children. He believes, for instance, that all technology is inherently dangerous. Even a return to a hunting and gathering society should not be discounted, he says. Certainly he makes concessions in his own life—using “a big old heavy one-speed bike,” for example. But he owns no car, no computer, and when his manual typewriter gave up the ghost a few years ago he did not replace it. One imagines his mind roaming in the direction of a new urban wilderness, a place perhaps not far in the future, in which car alarms and beeping cell phones have gone silent.