Saturday, December 12, 2009

Anarchism in America by Evan Wright

Doug Peacock, the ex-Green Beret medic and a Vietnam vet who was a member of the actual "Monkey Wrench Gang" on which the 1975 book was based, argues that the radical environmentalism, including monkey-wrenching, he practiced in the 1960s and 1970s didn't go far enough. He believes the only hope for saving the environment lies in dismantling the entire system. When I spoke to him shortly after the WTO protests , Peacock said, "I'm right up there with those Eugene kids when it comes to throwing bombs at the system. Out of monkey-wrenching came Earth First! and out of Earth First! came anarchy. Monkey-wrenching ( sabotaging property in defense of the environment) was never enough by itself to take on the system. I see new hope in the upswing of the anarchist movement. I thank those kids for what they are doing in Seattle."

Anarchism as a political philosophy was originally more concerned with the deleterious effects of the state on the human condition than the harmfulness of technology. In the nineteenth century, when anarchism became fashionable in England, it was embraced as much as an aesthetic and moral philosophy as it was an actual political movement. If the point of anarchism was to explore the untapped potential of humankind free from the tyrannies of the state, the next logical step would be to imagine the liberated, natural human in harmony with wild nature. Technology, like the state, came to be viewed as a tyrannical force that corrupted humankind and nature alike. Mary Shelly- daughter of seminal anarchist thinker William Godwin and wife of anarchist-inspired poet Percy Bysshe Shelly- would pen the original horror story of technology, Frankenstein.

Utopian anarchist thought and musings of Romantic poets permeated the back-to-nature spirit of 1960s environmentalism. While Earth First! activists adopted, or at least talked about, use of militant, destructive tactics like spiking trees, the idea of anarchism as both means and end of the environmental movement didn't take root until the 1990s.

Wingnut's * hero, Ted Kaczynski, advocated waging war against technology, corporations and the political order in order to restore humankind to its proper state of subservience to nature. Where Mary Shelly's fable about Dr. Frankenstein's monster served as a warning about the dangerous effects of technology on the human race, Kacyznski's Manifesto, published in The New York Times in 1995, was both anti-technology and anti-human, calling for murder, if necessary, to protect nature from humankind's rapaciousness.

Kacyznski's rise as guiding light of radical environmentalists like Wingnut was promoted by Portland, Oregon-based author and thinker John Zarzan, who describes himself as a "leading theorist of the anti-civilization movement"- what he sometimes calls the "primitivist movement". Zerzan came of age as an antiwar protester in San Francisco in the 1960s. Employed as a social worker by the city, he earned a master's degree in history from San Francisco State University and gradually evolved from being a garden-variety left-wing activist to an anti-technology theorist. In 1988 he published Elements of Refusal, a collection of essays in which he began to formulate his argument that all technology developed since about the time of the Paleolithic era has harmed the human race. [ see]

After Kaczynski's arrest in 1996 for his seventeen-year Unabomber terror campaign that injured eleven people and killed three- all strangers to him selected because of their roles in fostering technology- Zerzan began meeting with him in prison and sharing ideas. He later dedicated the second edition of Elements of Refusal to the Unabomber. Wingnut and the other anarchists speak of Zerzan and the Unabomber in the same breath, and Zerzan's books are as widely read as the Unabomber Manifesto.

One of Wingnut's friends puts me in touch with Zerzan and we meet at an upscale pasta and panini shop in a gentrified section of Portland, which Zerzan selected. Zerzan, fifty-six, would not look out of place at a college faculty meeting. He wears dark loafers with cream-colored socks, and a brown leather jacket over a University of Paris sweatshirt. His graying beard is neatly clipped.

Zerzan describes himself as an anarchist opposed to nonviolent protest on the grounds that "civil disobedience is just the agreement that we respect the law. It's a very explicit consecration of the system."

Both of us order salads. As we wait, Zerzan speaks movingly of Kaczynski as a martyr who was "willing to put his life out there. The most humiliating thing for Ted was to be portrayed as crazy. He was not crazy at all."

By the time our salads arrive, Zerzan is explaining the desired end state of the current anarchist-environmental movement as he and Kaczynski see it: to dismantle civilization and turn the clock back to the Paleolithic era, aka the Stone Age.

"You mean so we can live like cavemen?" I ask.

Zerzan laughs and assumes a professorial air as he labors to erase my ignorance. "Think of our ancestors as wonderful primitives, not cavemen," he says. "Before agriculture and animal husbandry," Zerzan states, "when we were a hunter-gather society, there was equality between people and between genders. There was no war and no pollution. There was leisure time. Disease was unknown. Cancer did not exist." Zerzan smiles. "How wonderful the Paleolithic era was."

Zerzan refers to the harbingers of this new age- young anarchists like Wingnut- as 'future primitives". As I get to know Wingnut better, the influences of Zerzan become clear. "What needs to happen for Earth to survive is for a few billion people on this planet to be killed off," Wingnut tells me. "I'm not saying I want it to happen, or that I would try to make it happen. But people are a disease to the planet. If there is nuclear war, good riddance. Some of us will be out here surviving at the hunter-gathering level, where we belong."

Wingnut, his anarchist friends and mentors like Zerzan and Kaczynski have somehow managed to turn love of "Mother earth" into a cult of apocalyptic doom.

*Craig Marshall, alleged member of Earth Liberation Front, accused of causing more than $43 million of property damage during a period of five years; convicted, in a plea bargaining deal, of settling fires to several SUVs at a car dealership in Eugene Oregon and sentenced to five and half years. Evan Wright's report originally appeared as "Swamp's Last Day on Earth and other True Tales of the Anarchist Underground", Rolling Stone, March 30, 2000. "Wingnut" specifically refers to the decoration tied into Craig's beard.

1 comment:

  1. "Hella Nation; Looking for Happy Meals in Kandahar, Rocking the Side Pipe, Wingnut's War Against the Gap, and Other Adventures with the Totally Lost Tribes of America" by Evan Wright; G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 2009.

    I cannot resist remarking on the irony that apocalyptic visions of the future of America have considerable currency on both sides of the political spectrum, on the 'Religious Right" as well as among these anarchists. Same for lack of respect for the law as in the case of the late Bush Administration whether in the case of the resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, the Geneva Conventions, Habeas Corpus or EPA regulations. Furthermore, even mainstream environmentalist suggest solutions that often seem to presuppose the extinction of at least hundreds of millions of people, and a reversion to some kind of Paleolithic era. Of course all this is not only debatable, it is often debated- look how difficult is has been to close down the Guantanamo prison! Since "man-made global warming" is a scientific hypothesis and therefore, on principle, subject to eternal re-examination and criticism, how is it that its advocates are so eager to establish it as an indisputable certainty and its opponents as something along the lines of a "Satanic Conspiracy?

    This is the reason I included a link to a sympathetic review of Zerzan's 'Elements of Refusal" not included in Mr. Wright's essay. With wingnuts on all sides of the question, it's only fair to give everyone as full a hearing as possible, or at least minimal recognition of the importance of doing so.