Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
John Zerzan (born 1943) is an American anarchist and primitivist philosopher and author. His works critique civilization as inherently oppressive, and advocate drawing upon the ways of life of prehistoric humans as an inspiration for what a free society should look like. Some of his criticism has extended as far as challenging domestication, language, symbolic thought (such as mathematics) and the concept of time. His four major books are Elements of Refusal (1988), Future Primitive (1994), (1998) and Running on Emptiness (2002).
Zerzan was born in 1943 in Oregon, the son of Eastern-European immigrants. He studied as an undergraduate at Stanford University and later received a Master's degree in History from San Francisco State University. He briefly worked towards a Ph.D at the University of Southern California but dropped out before completing his dissertation.
He was arrested in 1966 while performing civil disobedience at a Berkeley anti-Vietnam War march and spent two weeks in the Alameda County Jail. He vowed after his release to never again be willingly arrested. He was friends with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters and was involved with the psychedelic drug and music scene in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.
As a Marxist-Leninist-Maoist in the late 1960s he worked as a social worker for the state of California. Becoming frustrated with the mundane life of a low-wage government worker he helped organize a social worker's union, the SSEU , and was elected vice president in 1968, and president in 1969. Local Situationist group Contradiction denounced him as a leftist bureaucrat. He became progressively more radical as he was exposed to what he considered to be the counter-revolutionary role of his and other unions. He was also a voracious reader of the Situationists, being particularly influenced by Guy Debord.
At this time, Zerzan's cousin, Kathan, was a member of the Weather Underground, a militant group that had grown out of the radical Students for a Democratic Society. Throughout the 1970s, the underground group planted bombs in dozens of buildings including the Pentagon, the U.S. Capitol, and the California Department of Corrections . This is regarded as a major influence on John Zerzan's growing radicalism.
In 1974 Black and Red Press published Unions Against Revolution by Spanish ultra-left theorist G. Munis that included an essay by Zerzan which previously appeared in Telos magazine. During this time he was also drifting into alcoholism, something that would afflict him for most of the decade. At one point, while living in San Francisco, he pulled all of his furniture out of his apartment in the Mission District and burned it in the middle of Valencia St. Over the next twenty years, Zerzan became intimately involved with the Fifth Estate, Anarchy: A Journal of Desire Armed (of which he is still an associate editor), Demolition Derby and other anarchist periodicals. After reading the works of Fredy Perlman, David Watson and others, he slowly came to the conclusion that civilization itself was at the root of the problem's of the world and that a hunter-gatherer form of society presented the most egalitarian model for human relations with themselves and the natural world.
In the mid-1990s Zerzan became a confidant to Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber, after he read Industrial Society and Its Future, the so-called Unabomber Manifesto. Zerzan became an outspoken supporter, arguing that while the taking of human life was certainly objectionable one could hardly portray Kaczynski's manifesto as insanity, saying that it was rather a highly cogent and insightful critique of Civilization. Zerzan sat through the Unabomber trial and often conversed with Kaczynski during the proceedings. It was after becoming known as a friend of the Unabomber that the mainstream-media became interested in Zerzan and his ideas.
Another significant event that shot Zerzan to celebrity philosopher status was his association with members of the Eugene, Oregon anarchist scene that later were the driving force behind the Black Bloc at the 1999 anti-World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, Washington. The Black Bloc was chiefly responsible for the property destruction committed at numerous high-end chain stores such as Starbucks and The Gap after Seattle police began brutalizing and arresting peaceful protestors.
News media coverage started a firestorm of controversy after the riots and Zerzan was one of the those that they turned to to explain the actions that some had taken at the demonstrations. After gaining this public notoriety, John Zerzan began accepting speaking engagements and giving interviews around the world explaining anarcho-primitivism and the more general Global Justice Movement. Recently Zerzan has been involved with the Post-left anarchist trend, which argues that anarchists should break with the Left, which they believe is mired in Ideology and mostly concerned with seizing state power and crushing individual freedom.
Zerzan is currently one of the editors of Green Anarchy, a quarterly magazine of anarcho-primitivist and insurrectionary anarchist thought. He is also the host of Anarchy Radio in Eugene on the Univesity of Oregon's radio station KWVA 88.1FM. He is still a contributing editor at Anarchy Magazine and has been published in magazines such as AdBusters. He does extensive speaking tours around the world. Zerzan is married to an archivist for the University of Oregon and resides in the Whitaker neighborhood of Eugene, Oregon.
Criticism of John Zerzan
Brian Oliver Sheppard has written an extensive critique of Primitivism and John Zerzan, which includes The Demonology of Primitivism: Electricity, Language, and other Modern Evils , The Primitivist: An Ignoble Savage , Realities of Tribal Lifeways , Primitivist Attacks on Anarchism , The Bloody Side of Primitivism  and Notes on the Conflations of Primitive Thought; or, A Guide to Decoding Primitive Babble . An excerpt from The Bloody Side of Primitivism :
- [Would] "millions will die immediately" if primitivists had their way[?] "Perhaps the key word in your question is 'immediately,'" Zerzan carefully responds. ...Tragically, the most fanatic segments of the primitivist movement welcome human death. ...In a May 1, 1987 edition of the Earth First! paper, for example, "Miss Ann Thropy" argued that AIDS is a "good" thing, and said that if that "epidemic didn't exist, radical environmentalists would have to invent one."
- Wisely, primitivists usually stop short of actually advocating mass killing... "[W]e aren't suggesting a strategy to deal with this [population growth]," the Green Anarchy Collective wisely adds. "[W]e just think there is data about the situation that should be known" - presumably so that others, too, may ruminate and also not suggest a strategy to deal with it.
- If a primitive life is so desirable, be it of a Stone Age or Iron Age type, then why haven't primitivists attempted to live this way? ..."Does Zerzan live like that?"
- Kropotkin once noted, "Competition is the law of the jungle, but cooperation is the law of civilization."
See Primitivism for more citations and criticism of Zerzan.
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