John Zerzan

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John Zerzan discusses The Coming Insurrection during a lecture at the 2010 San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair.
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John Zerzan (1943–) is an American anarcho-primitivist political philosopher.


Zerzan's early life seems to have been a case of joining up with progressively more sharply leftward groups in succession, each time ultimately rejecting them as having compromised with something he understood to be inherently oppressive and thus abominable. Somewhat reflective of this by looking like a case of rhetorical outbidding among anarchists, his writings are critical of all civilization, which he deems to be the root of all oppression, discrimination, hierarchy, and alienation. He lauds the life of hunter-gatherers, or at least, the absolute held-in-common core of the known ones. Taking the elements that are in common to all of them, he has constructed an idea of a primal human methodology that manages to have quite a bit in common with the archetypal noble savage, and that all of humanity — the current hunter-gatherers included — needs to regress to that point, if they are to be free of oppression and corruption. Most anarchists disagree with this, seeing it as dangerous bullshit or at least over-simplifying, to put it mildly.[citation needed]

Zerzan has inveighed against art,[1] mathematics,[2] work,[3] and the very concept of time itself,[4] as he believes they deviate from his primal ideal. He regards agriculture and language as the original sins of humanity, the innovations that first alienated humans from nature and made civilization and all its ills possible.[5][6] He is willing to make some allowances for tool-making, particularly the "simple machines" (inclined planes, et al), justifying this by drawing a distinction between tools and technology; to him, technology controls its users while tools are controlled by their users. Essentially, he believes that any level of reification or distinction of objects is a distortion and alienation; little more than immediate desire, and openness to the totality of what one is interacting with, are acceptable.

To clarify the elements noted above, he believes that if a given group (a) has not developed a certain precept (say, numbers; this might be the case with a South American tribe named the Pirahã), and (b) is not obviously ravaged for it, then it follows that it isn't actually necessary for living and is probably never going to go much past "hindrance". Zerzan may be thought of as believing that only the absolute simplest life possible is the one humans are "meant" to live by (despite the fact that so many beyond the South American interior, and some within, evidently found a non-ruinous purpose for numbers).


On postmodernism:

Postmodernism advertises itself as pluralistic, tolerant, and non-dogmatic. In practice it is superficial, fast-forward, deliberately confused, fragmented, media-obsessed, illiterate, fatalistic, uncritical excrescence, indifferent to questions of origins, agency, history or causality. It questions nothing of importance and is the perfect expression of a setup that is stupid and dying and wants to take us with it. (p. 159, Running on Emptiness)

On Star Trek:

What Star Trek has to convey about technology is probably its most insidious contribution to domination… Always at home in a sterile container in which they represent society, the crew could not be more cut off from the natural world. In fact, as the highest development in the mastery and manipulation of nature, Star Trek is really saying that nature no longer exists. (p. 133, Running on Emptiness)

This, of course, disregards the crew beaming down to planets (usually in very "natural" environments) every freaking episode, spending time in very pastoral environments they always show great appreciation for.

Friendship with the Unabomber[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Unabomber

Zerzan was friends (to a measure, anyway) with the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.[7][8] Or at least, the motivation of self-defense against civilization's encroachment; he doesn't approve of the means, on account of the severe risk of killing innocents. Curiously, Kaczynski was dismissive of leftward primitivism like that espoused by Zerzan; rather, he believed civilization is baleful to humanity because of its liberal and leftward qualities, obstructing what he sees as honest resolve, desire for might and splendor. In other words, unlike Zerzan, Kaczynski was a rugged individualism-primitivist, and regarded civilization's errors as being based on succoring the weak and dragging down and obstructing the strong and proud in the process. Whether Zerzan has internalized this is open to debate. In 2008, Kaczynski published an essay called "The Truth About Primitive Life: A Critique of Anarchoprimitivism" that dissects the philosophy, showing its idiocy.[9] Zerzan's work is the main target of the piece, indicating a possible falling-out between the pair.

External links[edit]


  • John Zerzan. 2002. Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilization. Los Angeles: Feral House. ISBN 092291575X.