Reflections on Seattle 1999: An interview with John Zerzan
Platypus Review 125 | April 2020
The following interview took place January 5th 2020, Eugene, Oregon.
Andony Melathopoulos: What were your impressions of how the 20th anniversary of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle have been received? How did people remember it?
John Zerzan: The anti-globalization movement still resonates with people. I was at an event in Eugene, Oregon that was completely packed. People there either remembered it fondly or were compelled to know what it was all about. I certainly heard regrets that we don't have anything like the anti-globalization movement today. There is broad agreement that that movement fizzled out with 9/11. I wonder sometimes whether the energy behind that movement might have continued to grow without 9/11, or whether it had already reached its natural cycle. But the concerns of the movement are even more relevant today. Even more so than in 1999, the bloom had rubbed off the rose of technology. I was just reading the Sunday New York Times and there were several articles about how cyberspace has disappointed: it has failed at connecting and empowering people. People are questioning assumptions of progress and that was certainly part of Seattle.
AM: You have been an anarchist since the 1960s New Left. If you were to look back, how would you describe your development as an anarchist in the years leading up to 1999?
JZ: In the 1960s I was working for the Department of Social Services in San Francisco and we had formed an independent union; the standard union was so corrupt and do-nothing that we were forced to. We quickly discovered that organized labor was more hostile to us than management. So I was forced to rethink how unions functioned. I went back historically to see how unions developed; was it very radical in the beginning and just tended to become bureaucratic, or what? That led me to explore technology, because the first unions were associated with textile production in England which coincided with the Luddite movement. My personal experience with unions and my scholarly work led me to think that the whole factory mode, the whole industrial model, was severely disciplinary, sort of in the Foucauldian sense. It was not just an economic system, but a carceral structure, a prison. In this respect, Marx was completely wrong about industrialization: it didn't radicalize people, it domesticated them and took away their energy and their time.
I began to think the problem wasn't restricted to the Industrial Revolution, but situated at the very roots of civilization, going back to domestication of plants and animals in settled agriculture. I discovered the anthropological basis for this position, quite by accident, in the 1980s. One thing, literally, led to another. Since there wasn't anything going on in the 1980s—there were no social movements—I had time to think and pursue these problems. But by the 1990s, I was seeing the same kind of ideas appearing elsewhere. The Unabomber is an obvious example of this kind of civilizational critique.
Some people responded to growing social problems by returning to the 1960s. Stewart Brand, for example, had the illusions that we could better harness the potential of new technologies like personal computers and use it to connect people democratically. He literally posed the problem as “technology, yes or no,” and he answered with a resounding “yes.” Some of us said “no, that's not the right answer, who can honestly express that kind of optimism anymore?” I mean, the amount of depression and suicide and daily mass shootings, it's a catastrophe. I'm not saying it's all because of technology, but it's certainly the fabric that surrounds all these problems.
To be clear, in the 1960s we didn't even think about these issues. We were talking about ending the Vietnam War and racism. The 1960s ended with a sudden collapse of the movement. We were left wondering, “what was that all about, what were we missing, why did it fail?” That was another impetus for rethinking things.
AM: But as you were saying, the rethinking took place in isolation in the 1970s, but then by the 1980s you discovered you were not alone.
JZ: Exactly. Freddie Perlman, for example, became an inspiration for us, as did thinkers from Europe like Jacques Ellul. The theory journal Telos was translating work into English, making it accessible to us for the first time. Also, influential was Fifth Estate magazine based in Detroit. There was something clearly in the air about a deeper questioning along the lines I was thinking. It was in different languages, using different terms, but really was the same thing.
AM: Would you characterize what was bubbling up as a rejection of the Left as it had been traditionally defined, a sense of disaffection with the New Left?
JZ: Well, I don't know. I might attribute it more to what was happening in anthropology in the 1960s and 1970s. We were realizing there was something utopian about humanity pre-civilization and pre-domestication. And many of the thinkers that influenced us in this respect were Marxists like Stanley Diamond. They had the intellectual honesty to put forward that the answer isn't industry and it isn't more and more machines. Another anthropologist who comes to mind is Marshall Sahlins and his idea that the original affluent society was hunter-gatherer.
Anthropology got us thinking about radical decentralization. We recognized that community is gone, it's been swallowed by mass society, and that what we have to have is a face-to-face society. A society of 50 or 100 people, not 300 million people with one ruler. We didn't see this as a utopian pipe dream, but as something anthropology was validating. That was thrilling.
AM: But you also mentioned that these discontents were not only being expressed in theory, but that they reflected changes in society. Before the interview you mentioned that in the 1980s people of my generation (Generation X) were particularly receptive to these ideas, for example, in the form of intense interest in the Unabomber (Ted Kaczynski) and his essay Industrial Society and Its Future.
JZ: Yes, it was striking the amount of connection with what Ted was trying to say. Certainly, I would encounter young Eugene punks who were very engaged, organizing benefit events for him, for example. But the appeal was broader than that. It was mainstream. By the early 1990s there was a general sense that all was not right in terms of faith in technology.
AM: What about the rising environmental activism in the 1980s and 1990s? Here in the Pacific Northwest it seemed that this was also the era of Earth First and the blockades of logging roads.
JZ: You're very right. Earth First's journal office was actually located here in Eugene in the late 1990s. There was also the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) and the arson of a new ski resort in Vale, Colorado in 1998. At the time you could ask people “was that cool, are you down with that?” and it would tell you where people stood. The Pacific Northwest was the place where you'd find people setting log trucks on fire, blocking logging roads and camping in tree canopies to prevent logging.
AM: Would you agree that this activism seems to anticipate the black bloc in Seattle?
JZ: I think some of the stakes were the same. I think of the case of Jeff Luers. He was a tree-sit person who transitioned to black bloc-type militancy in the streets of Eugene. He was arrested with one other guy and he got 22 years at the age of 22 for arson at a car lot. Then, when Jeff was in custody, there was a bigger arson at the same car lot that burned something like 30 SUVs. The powers that be wanted to make a lesson out of him. When you start doing shit like that, that's for real. The reactions and the repression inevitably follow. I mean, it can be exhilarating like nothing you've experienced before and/or it can mean kids go to prison for years and years. They had to be ready for that. It was an amazing time.
AM: Looking back again to the 1960s, do you see these kinds of tactics as being a break from something like the civil rights movement, or in continuity with it?
JZ: Oh I don't know. I do think the growth of movements is always a surprise. I mean take the 1960s. Until the mid-1960s it seemed like a continuity of the 1950s. There was nothing going on. There were Freedom Riders, there were civil rights, certainly. I don't discount that. But I mean in the general white society little or nothing was happening. You've got moronic TV, you've got massive consumerism; “buy, buy, buy,” the economy is raging forward, everybody can buy a car or two cars. There was no sign of what was about to break out. It broke out all of a sudden, starting at the University of Berkeley in the fall of 1964. I mean, who knew? The Marxists were looking for the collapse of the economy, for the downturn, but there was no downturn, the economy was growing and growing. I mean, you could get fired from someplace and go across the street and get another job. It wasn't that “when people feel the squeeze they're going to revolt.” In fact, it's usually the other way around. People revolt when they have free time. Take, for example, Watts in 1965. It was not getting worse for people there, in fact it was probably a little better. At the time the Situationist International referred to it as the first rebellion in history “to justify itself with the argument that there was no air conditioning during a heat wave.”
Marcuse's One Dimensional Man in 1964 took a similarly pessimistic tone, suggesting that there may never be a revolution or serious resistance because people are lobotomized. And within months he was very happy to take it back because the 1960s happened, he was proven wrong.
AM: But was he? Earlier you mentioned that your experience of the 1960s was that the New Left ultimately became a form of accommodation, a way of fitting into society.
JZ: Well there you go, yes, at a greater depth, I would agree. Paul Picone wrote that the 1960s uprisings weren't really that radical for those very reasons. When we took it up later we realized we didn't go that far in the 1960s, we were engaged, but we realized there was so much we hadn't thought of.
AM: The Frankfurt School in general was not optimistic about the 1960s, Marcuse notwithstanding.
JZ: Right. They were hoping for utopian currents to emerge, but they also detected authoritarian tendencies in the German Left, and there still are. It raises the issue of theory. Adorno was dealing with students who said they didn't have time for theory, it was a time for action. They accused him of sitting in his ivory tower, of not being radical. But he insisted that theory is radical, you have to keep thinking, you have to keep deepening your questions. But there was so much impatience and passion and you can understand the sentiment that one could go on theorizing forever, but at some moment you have to act. That's understandable too.
AM: Talking about critical theory makes me think of Rousseau and his critical engagement with the very modern preoccupation with the “state of nature.” I mean, clearly, no one in the medieval period was even thinking in terms of the “state of nature,” let alone trying to understand society in these terms. How do you think about it?
JZ: I think about this in terms of contending flows, the Enlightenment versus Romanticism. These are distinct. In hindsight, the Enlightenment has proved to be a failure. More science, more technology, there won't be any more superstition; none of those things are true or have happened. It's fashionable now to mock Romanticism. “Oh, that's a bunch of noble savage stuff” is now the favorite slur of postmodernism. You can slur all you want but I always think that, while I don't really know what noble means, I know what ignoble is, that's what we've got, and postmodernism defends it.
I've tried to provoke postmodernists. It never happens because they're too fucking cynical. They just laugh. They say: “let's have a beer afterwards,” and I think if that was me being attacked, I'd try to defend my ideas. But you wouldn't if you don't have any values and don't stand for anything.
AM: Postmodernism had its own war with Marxism.
JZ: Yes, that was perhaps the good thing about postmodernism. When it challenged the idea of a “grand narrative” it was talking about Marxism. They were active in routing out Marxism in the 1970s. It just disappeared in France afterward, and gradually that extended everywhere. But does that mean you just rule out any kind of grasp of the whole? Why would you throw everything out with the bathwater? I was a Marxist and now I'm not, I don't take issue with that critique, but I disagree that after Marxism you can't know anything. What you are left with is a deflection of any kind of standpoint at all. Then you're absolutely helpless. Then you've got nothing. You don't even go out and fight and lose. There is no fight.
AM: There seemed to be a renewed interest in democracy in the 1990s. I mean, one of the iconic images of the protests in Seattle was a massive banner with an arrow labelled “democracy” going in the opposite direction to an arrow labelled “WTO.” What did you make of this renewed enthusiasm for democracy?
JZ: As an anarchist, I don't want democracy. I don't want representative rule. If you want something different, ultimately, it's not massified politics. We would need to get to a more face-to-face community. The demand for democracy, either from a small-d democrat or from the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), ends up in reformism, because it doesn't lead to a radical break with society. You end up fighting over better health care or better government programs, rather than drawing attention to the chronic ill health in society.
AM: Anarchists in the 19th Century emphasized civil social action, independent of the state, the vehicle for transforming society. Is this more in line what you think is called for?
JZ: The Left qua the Left wouldn't be the Left anymore if it began questioning its goals relative to social transformation. Its watchwords remain “smash the state” and “abolish capitalism.” Both are implausible in a modern world. You can't smash the state. There is a need for all kinds of regulation and coordination. Call it what you want, but it's still governmental. Abolishing capitalism is equally implausible. What does that even mean? It means people don't get paid. How do you get rid of the commodity and wage labor in a modern world? The only way that those two things will be possible is to get rid of industrial society. Then you could have those things. But the Left has no interest in that goal. Chomsky just froths at the mouth when we point out that these goals weren't even possible in the 1800s and how these goals have only grown more preposterous with time. These are just slogans. They have no meaning whatsoever. They don't want to get rid of this world.
So, you can't do without either the state or capitalism. You can say, you want a nicer form of capitalism. That was always a prominent feature of some currents of the anti-globalization movement and certainly the World Social Forum. They would say: “we want a bottom-up globalization, a people's globalization, etc.” Maybe you have a leftist politician instead that doesn't change things in a fundamental way. Some of us, however, were truly anti-globalization. We didn't want a globalized world. We didn't want an integrated world where everyone is plugged in.
AM: Your point about anti-globalization vs. alter-globalization is interesting in hindsight. Some might say that 1999 and 2019 bookend the discontents with globalization in different ways. Protesting the WTO was seen as a progressive cause in the 1990s. Only fringe conservatives like Pat Buchanan would agree and call the WTO an “embryonic monster.” But today it is conservatives who are calling for the renegotiation of global trade. Are you surprised by these developments?
JZ: I was having an exchange with Paul Kingsnorth in England. He was writing about Brexit and he was trying to remind people that maybe the upside of Brexit is you have more local control. Not that there was much of a radical edge to Brexit, but he was at least interested in exploring the possibilities within it. We actually don't want to be part of this totalizing world, where you can't get outside of it at all. I am not sure I agree with their arguments, but it is striking how some of these conservatives are, in a way, closer to where we're at. Because what is the most reactionary position of all? It's to go back to the Stone Age. I mean that's, in a certain way, what we are talking about.
AM: It must be quite remarkable to you. People who would have been protesting against trade deals for 30 years are suddenly arguing for their continuance.
JZ: Yes and no. The term “globalization” was used in ways that were ultimately hard to pin down. Globalization meant many different things to different people. The current discontent around globalization should be an opportunity to be more specific. We should be listing down all the horrors associated with globalization. Why is the ocean full of plastic, and rising and warming? Everyone knows this is horrible at some level. But to connect the dots would mean imagining something quite different. In other words, connecting the dots is not the main problem. The main problem is inertia. I remember talking to this woman in Turkey and she recounted explaining primitivism to someone and finally he said “I think you're exactly right and I agree with everything you said.” He continued “but you might as well argue against the sun coming up,” in other words, it has no meaning, there's nothing behind it. That's what we have to get over. Then we need to start thinking about 1999, or other possible '99s to shake things up.
AM: Regarding the return of 1999 in the 21st century, do you envision your ideas finding a hearing among a new generation?
JZ: I can only see small signs. There's some new anarchist zines popping up just in the past few months, like Oak, Backwoods and Blackbird. But there are also signs that it is going in the opposite direction. Greta Thunberg, for example, is now a spokesperson for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. That's unbelievable and is precisely against what she is talking about. I thought, “no, no, that can't be right.”
But I think that people will start to say, “you know things are getting so bad, so much worse, are we going to keep swallowing these mainstream assumptions?” I can understand why they don't want to become anarchists or primitivists, but at some point they should become skeptical of progressive illusions. I wouldn't be surprised if there's all kinds of DSA members who start to find us. I've talked to some that are very sympathetic to a green, primitivist, radical approach. They're still in DSA simply because they don't see anything else. But they are not going to go to their dying days worshiping Bernie. They might just as well hop off the train and join the revolution.
It doesn't have to start out as anything radical. I mean, Paris 1968 started out as nothing but a campaign to modernize the university system. There was absolutely nothing radical about that, but as we know it just kept going, and kept bursting the bounds of that starting point. By the peak, ten million people were on strike and occupying their workplace. So you never know. It might start out as one thing, before growing into something else.| P
Transcribed by Andony Melathopoulos. Guy Debord, “The Decline and Fall of the Spectacle-Commodity Economy,” (1965) <https://www.cddc.vt.edu/sionline/si/decline.html>.