‘Why don’t you go and live in a cave?!’
A conversation with John Zerzan
by Steve Wheeler
John Zerzan is an American anarcho-primitivist philosopher and host of the weekly radio show AnarchyRadio. His writings over the last 25 years, including Future Primitive and Running on Emptiness: The Pathology of Civilisation, comprise a powerful set of arguments against technological civilisation and mediated life. He became more widely known following his correspondance with Ted Kascynski, “the Unabomber”, during the mid-’90s. In common with many other primitivist authors, he has argued that civilisation is pathological in nature, and that the advent of agriculture, coupled with warfare and hierarchical power relations in societies, led to much of the physical, mental and emotional poverty we see today. He has also speculated that even earlier innovations, such as a sense of linear time, language or symbolic thought itself might have been a mistake.
As many other interviewers have noted, John’s philosophical reputation belies his personal warmth: he is as courteous and interested a co-locuter as one could hope for, as keen to talk about his grandchildren and the people he has met at his talks as he is to elucidate his own thinking. When I met John in London in the summer of 2012 – joined for some of the conversation by Alice Parman, John’s partner and co-editor of the anthology Questioning Technology – Facebook’s share offering had just flopped; the Shard, the tallest building in Europe, had just had its topping out ceremony; a man dressed as The Joker had opened fire on a cinema audience in Colorado days earlier; and the last vestiges of the Occupy London camp had recently disappeared from Shoreditch Park.
SW: OK, so if we were to construct a serious challenge to primitivism, I suppose it would look something like: Yes, all the critique of society primitivism provides is true, but what we have here is not a problem, it’s a predicament; complex civilisation has occurred, it is a thing that human beings do do, so even if we managed to bring it all down, we’d just re-invent it.
JZ: Well, that’s the bottom line problem with the discourse and its intended consequences. I can think of a number of conversations where people said ‘Oh, absolutely, I agree with every single point, but so what? You might as well argue against the sun coming up’. The inevitability, the inertia outweighs everthing else. So you have to get to the place where you can see that it’s only inevitable insofar as you accept it as inevitable – if you don’t, then anything is possible.
SW: It touches on the question: If everything was so great, and the shift into hierarchical agricultural civilisation was such an error, why did we make it, how did this happen in the first place?
JZ: Well, Stanley Diamond, I think, calls it a titanic struggle, a huge bloody struggle – it’s given short shrift in the anthropological literature, but people did not go willingly down this road, it was a battle to the death, and it still is in some places.
SW: Some people have suggested that it was a fear-based transition, that people were opting for the greater security of harvesting and storing food; but, in many ways, the evidence suggests the opposite – that they were less secure, and the hunter-gatherers actually did better in the lean times.
JZ: Yes, because they were almost immediately more dependent on the monocrops, in many cases, they were less robust; and we see this in dental caries, every infectious disease, every degenerative disease, unknown before domestication. And I’m looking at this literature, thinking, ‘no, this can’t be true, it’s almost like we’re designing this to make it fit our scenario’; but these are straight anthropologists who write this stuff – and then, of course, they avoid the implications. I have an archaeologist friend who’s always really bugged by this, because they know everything she knows – it’s just the orthodox stuff – but they don’t draw the conclusions: ‘well, this is crazy, we’ve got to abandon this’.
SW: It reminds me of the idea that it was some kind of unfortunate mutation that first converted a society to agriculture, but then the nature of that society was such that it had a greater capacity to impose violence; to kill off other people or force them to convert at the point of a sword. But this brings me back to the same question – if it is this kind of virus, that, when it occurs, spreads and forces everyone else to convert as well, is that not an innate problem of the system that needs to be dealt with? In a computer system, if there’s a potential bug, eventually it will go wrong, and the solution isn’t just to reset the system and hope it doesn’t happen again, it’s to try to program a patch to fix it. So is that not the situation we’re in – if we all magically managed to go back to a primitivist society tomorrow, we’d have no guarantee that the same virus wouldn’t creep back in and convert us all again? So do we not need to do something more sophisticated now to actually immunise ourselves against these mistakes in the future?
JZ: Well, Thierry Sallantin – he’s a very interesting French guy, he was in Guyana and sort of went native – he was talking to a bunch of anarchists in Spain, saying ‘they have so much to teach us, maybe we should all go to Guyana’, but also that we have things to teach them. He was canoeing along the river, and this other group had just got an outboard motor, and they zoomed by him, saying ‘Sallantin, what are you doing? We’ll be there in 30 minutes and you won’t be there till sundown!’ and he thinks to himself, ‘Yeah, this looks like a good deal to you now, but you don’t see that it’s going to undo your whole set-up’.
SW: Just the reliance on the chains of supply, mining the ore…
JZ: Yeah, the whole deal, and so, he said, that’s what we need to give them, because we have that perspective. So maybe that’s why it wouldn’t recycle – we know the record, we know it’s not a good deal, so why would you do it again?
SW: There a nice chapter in Peter Lamborn Wilson’s Escape from the 19th Century, where he talks about visiting Native Americans in Ohio, who have these huge earthwork snake mounds, and his interpretation, based on conversations he’s had with people, is that, when what was actually quite a fairly largescale civilisation in North America collapsed, they built these things as a reminder to themselves not to make the same mistakes again.
JZ: Wow, I hadn’t heard that. Yes, he has some very interesting ideas.
SW: Another thing that people throw at primitivism is a challenge to this binary idea of hunter-gathering versus agriculture, pointing to a whole range of things that people did in between, intermediate versions of gardening, nomadic tribes encouraging the growth of certain plants in the forest. After the native population crash in America, settlers arrived and were surprised at how congenial the environment was: ‘Oh, look at all these fruit trees in the forest, how helpful for us, it must be manifest destiny or something.’
JZ: Well, that’s quite true, and one of the difficulties is that, in talks, I don’t really have the opportunity to make it as nuanced as it should be. But I did have the opportunity last night to point out that there are horticultural societies that are very egalitarian – that the virus, if you want to continue using that metaphor, hasn’t poisoned the well so much – and when you look at forest horticulture, there’s a garden there, but you’d have difficulty seeing it, because it’s not weeded or fenced in. So it’s a reminder that there are lots different gradations and different approaches.
SW: And vice-versa – there are hunter-gatherer tribes that have a lot of violence and gender inequality.
JZ: Right, although those that do generally all have some sort of domestication. But yes, to get away from the black and white thing, you have to look at the evidence. And I know I’ve been guilty of implying a state of perfection and absolute differentiation. I would rationalise that by saying that you’re still giving a fair picture of the overall trend – the specifics are not out of whack.
SW: That’s something I’ve noticed from our conversations: that your views on primitivism grew out of engaging with the real world back in the ’60s and ’70s – that they were part of what was, at the time, a revolutionary project – so it was never a pristine philosophy that you were scared of allowing to engage with the real world in case it got soiled in any way; it was something to expand people’s ability to be effective in the real world and to do things now.
JZ: Yes, I think that’s the way to proceed – and things can be accidental; one thing in your work leads to another, but that doesn’t mean you’re not prey to believing that you’ve found The Answer.
I was talking to a Trotskyist woman last night who said, ‘I just realised 4 weeks ago, that the problem went deeper than modern capitalism – that ultimately it is about this shift away from hunter-gatherer lifestyle. But I dare not say it to my boyfriend, let alone the other Trotskyists, they would have thought I was a lunatic.’
SW: A lot of people are happy to keep the Marxist tools of criticising, the critical theory of society, and jettison the whole ideal utopian industrial civilisation at the end of history.
JZ: Sure, there’s a lot to learn from Marx, that’s for sure. And actually, I didn’t realise this at first, but a lot of these anthropologists are Marxists, so obviously they’re not likely to start trashing the idea of progress, and the lovely industrial world; but without them we wouldn’t know much. I mean, I don’t do any field work, I don’t know anything first hand – except from the native folks I know, who are really interested in holding on to their traditions, or rediscovering them. That’s been fantastic, as one practical or tactical thing. You don’t always have that opportunity: in North America there’s still native folks around, in lots of places actually, more than most Americans know about. Here, in Europe in general, where do you go to find traditional, indigenous people? I mean, there aren’t any in England, are there?
SW: Well, this is another interesting thing, because in Britain, you start off with the Picts, then the Celts come in, who were kind of pastoral, kind of semi-agricultural, but they weren’t building big cities or having particularly complex civilisation; and there was a lot of violence going on, but they were also matrilineal, and there was quite a lot of gender equality. So some people look to the Celts and say they were so much more equal and free; but then they arrived here and conquered and killed and suppressed all the Picts. So we’re back to these spectrums again: at what point do you draw a line and say, ‘well, before this, everyone was just lovely’? It’s probably never – but you can still learn things from every stage in history.
SW: In your work, you go beyond what a lot of anti-civilisation writers would say and actually get to the point of critiquing symbolic thought itself. That’s one of the things you’re known for.
JZ: What I probably failed to do is make it clear that that’s just speculation, I don’t believe it’s irrefutable, but I guess I am stuck with it as well. I mean, I’m not discarding it, but some of it is stronger than other parts. But when I was was writing that in the ’80s I felt really isolated, so I was probably, [laughs] you know, coming on very strong with it.
SW: It’s really refreshing to hear you being… honest, I guess, and relaxed about the fact that your ideas may have changed a bit and that they don’t come in one Stalinistic totality. From some activists and theorists, there is that totalising view; that we have to have an absolute, uncompromising view of how the world must be different, and only that is good enough, and any variance from it is a betrayal of the cause – and in many ways that’s just a recreation of the kind of mentality we have right now. And actually, if anarchism is to mean anything, it has to mean a greater toleration of diversity and variation.
AP: Right, because who has answers? We’re all trying to work out the answers. And I think a lot of people are surprised when they come in to see John give a talk, they’re expecting a diatribe, and actually, he’s much more interested in what other people have to say.
SW: It’s also interesting that you’ve written a lot about the dangers of abstraction and symbolic thought – yet you’re writing, perhaps not in an academic style, but in a very rigorous style, and you’re writing, and that’s your primary level of engagement, so that’s quite intriguing to me.
JZ: One more contradiction! Like the case against art. I’m writing, that’s for sure, and I’m not blowing anything up. But we’re just trying to see it: If we want to have wholeness, if we want to be present, all those things that sound so spiritual (and, I think, are), then what stands in the way? People don’t want to be present in an ugly world – so why are we letting them do this?
SW: So it’s useful to trace these ideas back, follow the logic out all the way…
JZ: Media is another one: I respect anarchists who don’t have anything to do with media, and obviously I do; I think part of the practical needs of this momentum or whatever we’re trying to have is that you’ve got to open the public conversation, you’ve got to demand that other things are on the table instead of the bullshit that passes for politics. But other people we know say ‘what the hell are you doing?’ And flying: I know people who won’t do that, who think you have to live the right kind of life. But it’s like Art Bellum said to me on a radio show years ago – ‘Well, you should live in a cave then! Why don’t you go live in a cave?!’ And we could sit in caves, but are you trying to contribute? Others would say that is the contribution, and I respect people who live on the land. I don’t know much about the practical skills, the primitive skills or whatever. But I noticed one thing about these guys I know who live in Portland, Oregon; they have these amazing skills, flintknapping, and learning native plants, what you do when it starts getting cold… and what I noticed was how politically empowering that kind of autonomy was. They weren’t less likely to get involved when something important starts happening – quite the opposite, whereas the stereotype of primitivism is just living in the woods and paying no attention to anything.
SW: It reminds me of what Dmitri Orlov says in Reinventing Collapse about how in Russia most people had their dachas in the countryside where they grew vegetables – because people were already having to do that anyway – and how that gave people the baseline to support themselves when other systems started failing. It would be awesome to have partnerships between people who do live in the country and are growing lots of food, and people who are living in the city and doing things the others want to support – engaging with systems and creating new things and trying to stimulate public consciousness.
JZ: Those ties endure in lots of places. In some countries, you ask where someone’s from and they’ll tell you the village, even though they haven’t lived there in some time.
SW: That’s what’s happening in Greece at the moment, with lots of graduate 30-somethings moving back to the land because there’s no jobs in Athens, but their grandfather still has his little plot of land out in the village; but it’s something that just can’t happen in this country because the link was broken so much longer ago and so totally, with the industrial revolution, that people no longer have any familial connection to the land and the country. It’s another thing people are wary of talking about – belonging, about reconnecting to the land – because it all sounds a bit too ‘blood and soil’.
JZ: Yes, and that also brings to my mind the few times I’ve been in German-speaking countries. Invariably, if you start talking about what we talk about, the first thing is “Nazis talk about that” – you know, as if we’re Nazis, because they talked about green issues, and the environment and health. You’ve got to get through that, really, you’ve just got to pass through it. And you know, if we’d lived through that history, maybe we’d feel the same, but it just seems like such an incredibly dumb thing to say – you know, ‘we’re anarchists, do you know what that word means?’
SW: My reading of it is that the Nazis basically exploited every important trend in 20th century culture. So they were simultaneously exploiting ideas of technology and progress and modernity, and they were also exploiting all of these powerful Romantic ideas of getting back to nature and reconnecting to roots and the primal self and throwing away the dead hand of the bourgeois 19th century, and almost anything you can name that was really important – Nietzsche, Wagner, the way they used cinema and the radio – they just exploited absolutely everything, so so much has been tarred with the brush of it.
AP: They also exploited the occult and eastern religions.
SW: Exactly, and if you look at the arc of that from the 19th century – Madame Blavatsky and table tapping [sic] and so on – through to the modern New Age movement, the Nazis are exactly on that curve, they aren’t anomalous in their interest in the occult. So, unfortunately, a lot of important conversations we need to be able to have sound a little bit like talking about Nazism.
JZ: I remember the de-oil group, which was a small green anarchist anti-civlisation group, I think I met them in Spain, they were just completely suppressed, even physically, they were just… squelched. We were talking about the Lutz Dammbeck movie Das Netz, it’s a very serious movie about the rise of the computer and the whole digital thing, and it was premiered in Berlin, and they asked me to come because I had a very small hand in it.
And at the beginning of an Attac event – a large festival in Berlin – I was on the panel, and man, was there hell to pay. All these old lefties, who were just furious, they were just so pissed off: ‘You can’t talk about technology’. And of course, the Unabomber was mixed in there too, because he was corresponding with the others, so they quoted some excellent Kaczynski, and people were just furious. The guy who had made the film was an art history professor at Leipzig, and he was just a babe in the woods, man; even though he was German, he was completely unready for it, he didn’t know why they were screaming at him. He just didn’t have an understanding of the toxic political culture in Germany on those issues.
SW: And it’s always a sign that you’ve touched on something important, that you’ve shaken some foundational story. And I think, certainly in Germany, there’s still this fear of any kind of spontaneous, passionate movement. They have this upper layer of rational liberalism, which in many respects is one of the most mature political cultures in the world, where everyone is on point about civil rights and understanding the social contract – but at the same time, you still can’t show the swastika; there’s still that fear and rigidity about anything coming up from beneath.
AP: I spent some time in East Germany in the late ’80s around the time the wall came down and I think it was very different – there was this explosion of Nazism and racism; they had just papered over a lot of that stuff.
SW: So there’s another issue here – of explosive de-repression. We have this civilisation of suppression and oppression and rigidity in all sorts of ways, and a lot of people want to move back to more spontaneity, more connection to the body, to the emotions, to the deeper psyche, but there is that fear, which is justified in many ways, that, if you just take the lid back off it when you’ve been repressing something for so long, it doesn’t come back in a beautiful shower of flowers and niceness, it will emerge in some mutant form with the primal energies driving some kind of fragments of leftover fascist ideology.
SW: So actually, I guess one of my biggest problems with the whole anti-civilisation thing has always been: that I love loads of things about civilisation! You know, cathedrals, Beethoven… I think a lot of people have this issue. Is it just a question of being so moral and self-denying that you can say ‘OK, I love all this stuff but I’m prepared to do without it, because I see the bigger picture and how destructive it is’ – or can we keep some bits of it?
JZ: I always think of what Bob Black said – ‘You’ll never make the revolution by promising people less’. If it’s going to be sacrifice, who’s going to be onboard with that? But it may not be too long before all this is less: if everyone is medicated, and it’s all just so unsatisfying and unpleasurable, and you can’t even enjoy anything… My guess is that the leverage point is not going to be the collapsing environment, the ecosystems or the extreme weather, but it’s going to be if you wake up in the morning and you can’t even get through the day without drugs; that’s when people are going to say ‘well, what else have you got?’ And when people think about their kids or their grandkids… Because ‘the environment’ as a concern, is by definition external, but what people are carrying around inside them all the time is torturing them more and more – and the weight of the denial is getting worse. In the US it’s probably worse – I’ve been looking at this since the seventies, what is the toll of everyday life, versus the pleasures of everyday life – and it’s really getting grim. Of course, you can tell people how awful it is, but if they don’t think it’s awful, then it ain’t awful, you’re just talking and they don’t even know what you’re talking about.
SW: And that’s something that’s happening now: the consolations are getting thrown at us quicker and quicker; it used to be that a lot of the technology that was supposed to distract us wasn’t all that impressive, and now you’ve got the new ipad or holographic DVD player coming out every year – you know, these amazing things we used to dream of when we were kids – and they’re satisfying people less and less, they’re making up for the rest of it less and less. James Howard Kunstler’s new book Too Much Magic – well, Kunstler’s got certain things he likes to complain about: not enough railways, 1000-mile Caesar salads, adults wearing children’s clothing; and also this culture of entitlement and wish fulfillment, of which his favoured example is Harry Potter books teaching children to believe in getting whatever they want out of thin air by using magic. And actually, I sympathise with his argument – yes, people do expect too much in lots of areas, particularly material goods – but it also seems to me that that culture of entitlement also has a positive aspect to it, in that at least people are still desiring and demanding things, and they’re not so beaten down that they don’t want anything. That belief in magic is fighting against the restrictions that have been placed on us. It comes out of a fundamental dissatisfaction.
JZ: Yes, that’s the ambivalence of narcissism; that’s people are infantile or lazy or whatever, but there’s also a definite subversive side to it too, that you’re not going to go quietly into the realm of nothing. These consolations – religion or whatever – are present throughout the story of civilisation; you get something to take the place of what was taken away. It’s mysterious to me – it’s partly generational, of course – when you see everybody glued to their phone and they’re walking into you all over the place; but from their point of view, that’s something they can control, however pitiful. But I do think: how long can that be a big draw? It’s kind of addictive, but it’s also kind of paltry. And we see that already, with Facebook’s stock going down.
SW: I guess the big worry is that the people who understand this perspective remain in a minority, and there are just so many people out there who get on with their life and do what they do and just accept reality as it’s presented to them. You’re right, it’s quite hard to tell someone they’re unhappy if they don’t believe it themselves, even if they are. But you can’t force this on people. It’s a commonplace in therapy, even if you know a certain change would be good for people, you can’t force them to do it, you have to just create a space for them to move into.
JZ: That’s a great insight. You’ve got to have some sense of how things work, listening to people and working out what they need.
SW: I feel so lucky for having got to the age of 21 without the internet, because I had that experience of reading in analogue, and reading at your own pace, and stopping and thinking about things; and, yes, my brain has been rewired by the amount of internet I’ve looked at over the last ten years, but at least I had that initial experience to compare it to, so that I can tell when my brain is getting really fragmented and ADHD-y. And I wonder what it’s like for kids who have grown up mostly reading off screens, where something novel is always just a click away. And my fear is that people are so immersed in these things that they don’t know there’s anything different – unless you drag them out to the wilderness for a week and let them go through that phase of boredom and distraction.
AP: Our grandkids are having an unplugged summer, no computers at all, and we were talking to them about it and we said, ‘well how does that feel?’, and Hugh said ‘oh, we do things! We’re actually doing stuff!’
JZ: He’s six!
SW: Yes, I think we can have a certain trust in people’s natural desires; when you actually take kids outside and let them run around, they say ‘oh this is so much better’. Dan Bartlett pointed out once that human beings, whenever they’re given the opportunity, revert to a tribal state; whenever they’re given the chance, they get together with their friends and family and cook meat outdoors over an open fire – generally as close to a tribal state of being as possible. And in a sense, if you have that, no-one needs a bigger purpose, a bigger story to believe in.
I guess what I’m interested in at the moment is the psychology of the situation, how people are thinking. I wrote an essay called ‘Reality as Failed State’ which was looking at this idea of fragmentation: that different people no longer inhabit the same reality any more, so you have Tea Partiers and climate change activists, and there’s no argument to be had, because they’re just not in the same dimension, even in terms of what they think a conversation should be like; and also fragmentation within each individual’s own mind. What is it that makes people understand climate change and then keep flying? I realised this yesterday; when you think ‘If I fly to Rio, it will emit 4 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere’, you probably imagine a map of the world, with a dotted line from London to Rio, maybe a little graph of CO2 output; but when you actually come to book your holiday and think ‘Shall I go to Rio?’, you picture yourself looking out on Copacabana beach, and everything being sunny and beautiful, and the feeling tone of those two pictures is completely different – in people’s minds they don’t actually see them as the same thing, and it takes an enormous amount of mental effort to connect those two experiences.
And I think this is what’s going on: we don’t live in a unified consciousness any more. So we say ‘OK, now I’m thinking about politics, I’m against immigration and I want economic growth’; ‘now I’m thinking about the environment, yes, I want us to protect the environment’; ‘OK, now I’m thinking about my family, oh, I want my family to be safe,’ – but no-one’s connecting up all these realms and saying ‘How can I have all of these things? What are the contradictions, what are the paradoxes?’
AP: So where do we start?
SW: I think you have to start from your core, from the source. Part of this problem is that people aren’t connected into their own lived experience any more, so when you’re just living in abstractions, its very easy to simply shift from abstraction to abstraction and not notice the buffers in between.
AP: If you lived in an indigenous way, it would all be one thing, it would be place-based; you would see the changes, the bad things that were happening, or the signs you had to pay attention to – but we don’t have to.
SW: And you actually see in indigenous societies that their entire mental cosmos, their model of the universe is geographically located, they will have a totem pole at the centre of the village and it’s like ‘this is where meaning is, and out there is the rest of the world, and here’s our mythological structure to understand it.’
AP: Or like in California, everywhere where people lived there was a place where everything started, and every place had its own story, and that was OK.
SW: Is there anything you would like to be talking about when you travel around, but your reputation as John Zerzan precludes getting onto those topics?
JZ: Well, basically I like to know how people see it, how does it hit them, what’s going on now with the crisis. And, kind of a sidebar to that, since I’ve been doing this for about twelve years now – before that I didn’t really do a lot of speaking – I’ve been to some places twice, and you can see the difference. Previously it was more of a novelty interest – ‘oh let’s check this out, pretty wacky stuff, never heard that before’ – but now, in terms of what people have been thinking about and realising, there is much more engagement. But you see people staying and talking (with each other, it doesn’t have to be with me); they see the extremity of where we are at – it’s really not just the novelty, this is the real shit. Being in India three times in the last four years has just been astounding, just an incredible chance to hear a very different take, because the cultural traditions, the spiritual traditions are so different.
SW: But you’ve had a positive response to your ideas out there?
JZ: Yes they have a group, a network called the coalition against work, career and civilisation (anhilaal.org) – they’re trying to get stuff in English and Hindi. It’s not very big, but there’s some great people, and it’s great to be with them on a tour going around, and getting those reactions.
SW: Do you see any prospect of all this interest from different places and individuals actually coalescing into something that’s actually going to help people make structural changes in their own lives?
JZ: I don’t know, sometimes that seems very hard to get, we’re really all just wandering around, I think. What is the practical thing? Everyone wants to know that. That came up last night. Our friend Keith, who’d bicycled 70 miles from Chichester on his bamboo bike – he’s 73! – he said on that point, ‘there’s a tonne of things you can do!’. He’s done a load, he was involved in the poll tax riots back in the ’80s, he’s involved in Transition Chichester, but doesn’t think it’s radical enough… I mostly write and talk, but the point is, you can pick up any part of it.
SW: It’s that intersection with voluntary simplicity – as soon as you can live with less, then you can make bigger structural changes in your life, but if you’re caught up with living in the city, paying your mortgage and doing the job and so on, then you don’t have a lot of room for manoeuvre at all.
JZ: Right. And if you want to pull down civilisation and you have no skills or autonomy then you’re probably going to hesitate – me as well, really. How are you going to figure it out? What are you going to do?
SW: I’m almost more interested in this intermediate zone we may be entering as people are getting more and more interested in these idea and more critical of the system. What happens when we move from a very superficial level to, not necessarily pulling the whole thing down, but when a few thousand people want to make a big structural change in the way they live? What leverage do they have? What kind of things can they do? And we’re starting to see little things coming through. There’s Grow Heathrow, for example, in Sipson, one of the villages that would be wiped off the map by the third runway, where these Climate Camp activists took over an abandoned glasshouse, cleaned it up, started growing vegetables in it and turned it into a market garden. So this village is full of very non-politicised working class people who suddenly have a reason to defend their homes, and now they are interacting with these activists and realising that they’re not all just dirty hippies with dreadlocks. And the same thing is happening now in Spain, where the anarchists are helping working class people to learn how to squat in their own homes when they’ve been evicted. So the crisis is actually helping to build these new coalitions.
JZ: Yeah, that’s the real stuff. You can talk about it, but we’ve got to move to doing it.
SW: It seems a very paradoxical time now; that, simultaneously, people are more disaffected with everything than they’ve ever been, but at the same time they’re more apathetic. It’s this kind of disassociative state people have entered.
AP: I think this is connected to the personalisation of communication – everyone looks at whatever they want to look at, there’s no general line of communication any more, so it takes some kind of spectacular event to make it for everyone to notice – I mean, these shootings flare up for a day or two and then go away, because you know there’s going to be another one.
JZ: Yes, I think that’s so important in what it shows you about society. And I think you’re right, it is very paradoxical, but part of the paradox is, I think there’s also a lot of energy. It feels to me so different from the end of the ’60s, which just felt like falling off a cliff – like ‘that’s it, the movement’s over’. As an organiser, I remember it was almost overnight; you knew if you called a meeting, nobody would come, so you didn’t even try. And I don’t have that feeling now, even though, obviously, the anti-globalisation movement stalled ten years ago
SW: That’s what I felt about the Occupy movement, there were so many people stepping in and giving advice and saying, OK, what you need to do now is to organise yourselves better and get some steering groups and lay down your demands and all of this, and to me that was just a complete misunderstanding of what the phenomenon was – that this was just a symptom of something much bigger, like a mushroom sticking itself above the ground; if it goes away, it doesn’t matter, because the rhizomatic network is still there.
JZ: Talk about paradoxical – it doesn’t have any content, which is a problem. It’s just what you said, there’s something that people don’t see, that it’s not the general assembly proclamations at all, but whatever that thing is, it’s elusive.
SW: Yes, people lost sight of whatever that elusive thing is, and they said ‘how can we keep Occupy going, how can we hold on to this space?’ And to me, it was more of a situationist thing – although without being just an aesthetic pose – that the phenomenon was the achievement; that to come together like that and have that community and connect to other people in real life – once you’ve done that, you’ve achieved everything you wanted to achieve, so go away, disperse, come back as something else with a whole new brand name next year; that’s fine, because it’s the experiences people had that’s important.
JZ: Yeah, that’s a great way to look at it, that’s really healthy – so, in other words, instead of grieving that it seems to be dead now, you just appreciate what flowered.
SW: When Occupy first happened, I thought of Hakim Bey’s book Immediatism, erm, immediately – that everyone in Occupy has to read this book, that this defines exactly what you’re trying to do; that the revolution is a sewing bee, it’s a potlatch dinner; that any gathering of people outside the mediation of capital is the goal; that you’ve already won when you do that.
AP: And John hears how widespread it is, doing the Action News part of the radio show, it’s astounding, all over the place there are people doing actions, and in the name of something, not just to raise hell – that’s part of that rhizome.
SW: When you look at the big picture, so much of it is about people’s consciousness and mentality; we don’t need a hundred people doing extreme actions, we need just the majority of people to actually understand the situation, so where you put your energy with that is a really interesting question.
AP: John and I have been together almost 30 years, and when I first told people I’d met this guy and fallen in love with him, they asked me what does he do, and I’d tell them, and they’d say – because my first husband became mentally ill – they’d think…
JZ: -you’d picked another nutcake [laughs].
AP: Right. But now – I’d say for the last ten years – when I explain his ideas, people totally get it, they just completely get it; everyone knows we’re headed south.
SW: And I think a lot of the Dark Mountain Project’s value is just allowing people to have that conversation. So many people discover this stuff for themselves ‘by the ghostly lantern-light of a laptop late in the night’ as I think I wrote somewhere, and they get scared and they feel alone, and everyone around them seem to just be doing what they’re doing and getting on with normal life. So the power of actually connecting to other people – particularly face-to-face, in real life – is just huge, and people suddenly become much more optimistic, even as they’re getting support in their view of how screwed we all are in this situation we’re in.
AP: People say to John, ‘well how can you live with this?’, and he always says, ‘I’m very optimistic!’ – and its true, you do become more optimistic when you realise what’s going on, because then there’s a reason; you feel like maybe you can do something. But if you feel like there’s no reason, then why not just go and shoot somebody?
JZ: And it’s such a load to carry all the denial, it strikes me – so it’s liberating to let go. It’s still the same world, but at least you’re engaging with it. I mean what could be more exciting than to act, to fucking take after it, rather than just hiding?