TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Primitivism as the New Opium for the Masses? Reading Zerzan Through Žižek

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Joseph van der Naald looks at John Zerzan’s “Why Primitivism?” from Telos 124 (Summer 2002).

Is humanity’s need to control nature ultimately working against us? Are the modern ecological crises we face today the inevitable result of the accelerating technologization of society? Can we conclude that what appears to be widespread anomie, as evidenced, for example, by the now almost monthly school shootings in the United States, and the genocidal totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century both have their “premises, dynamics, or preconditions” (169) in industrialization’s alienation of mankind from nature? In “Why Primitivism?” John Zerzan hopes to convince us that the answers to these questions are yes. Through a nuanced critique of both modernity and the thoughts of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ canonized intellectual Left, Zerzan draws the conclusion that we should look far back into human pre-history to find solutions to the problems that face humanity in the present. In this post, I will explore the primitivist position and provide a critique of Zerzan’s thought using Slavoj Žižek’s explorations into ecology’s ideological character.

Zerzan begins his article with a question, posed in the words of Joseph Wood Krutch, that underlies the whole of his analysis: namely, “What has become of that opportunity to become more fully human that the ‘control of nature’ was to provide?” (166). Arguing that contemporary diagnoses to societal problems are quickly being deemed inadequate, Zerzan calls for, and develops, a radically different analytic strategy to assess humanity’s ever more dire situation.

What Zerzan develops—named later in the piece as the “primitive alternative” (171)—is a two-part proposition that, first, identifies the locus of this conglomeration of modern maladies in modernization and industrialization’s increasingly technologized control of nature and, second, suggests a tentative solution in the form of primitivism, which he supports largely with anthropological data.

Zerzan argues that while civilized society’s ideological foundations begin with Hobbes’s formulation of pre-civilized life as “nasty, brutish, and short,” thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Herbert Marcuse have continued to perpetuate modernity’s legitimacy in place of pre-modern social formations. Zerzan does away with all of this, arguing instead that, according to relatively recent anthropological research, before civilized society, “most people had ample free time, considerable gender autonomy or equality, an ethos of egalitarianism and sharing, and no organized violence” (171).

Zerzan locates the chief antagonists to his account in scholars embroiled in academic fads. Postmodernism and its adherents, Zerzan claims, reject binaries and interrogate metanarratives only to ignore evidence suggesting that the technology they embrace unquestionably is laying the planet to waste. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, too, garner criticism for their analysis of new productive forms of labor and their search for an alternative modernity within the Renaissance humanist tradition, which leaves unscathed the classic “productionist Marxist” (169) tenets that push modernity along its destructive trajectory. The commonality that Zerzan locates in both postmodernity and Marxism is a drive towards civilization, which depends necessarily on harnessing control of the natural world. This, for Zerzan, is a paradox: “The human condition becomes less stable and more chaos-prone the further one moves away from nature, contrary to the dominant ideology of progress and development” (167).

The solution is, of course, a move away from civilization, and a return to “primitive” methods of existence, where humans sustain themselves via hunting and gathering rather than through animal husbandry or industrialization.

While Zerzan’s call for a return to nature is tempting, his primitivist alternative seemingly fails to escape the same ideological preconditions that underlie many banal ecological discourses. As Žižek develops in his article “Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses,”[1] liberal ecology today is an ecology of fear. The world is fragile place, and any change in the world’s ecology, which is thought to be naturally in balance, is portrayed as dangerous to human existence. In this way, the ecological balance of nature, Žižek argues, begins to replace religion as the “unquestionable authority which can impose limits” (42) on the finitude of humanity’s existence.

Importantly, Žižek, like Zerzan, is concerned with ecological crisis, and believes that a radically different form of analysis is required in order to assess the extent of said crisis. Žižek, however, argues that philosophies that treat nature as something in balance disturbed by human interference are conservative, as the liberal ecological perspective begins to function as a secular version of the fall of man, treating nature as inherently beneficent, balanced, and sacred. Ecology, with its fear of change, Žižek claims, has the potential to become a new “opium for the masses,” developing into the new dominant ideology of global capitalism.

Instead of extolling a return to an idealized Earth pre-civilization that is less “chaos-prone,” Žižek emphasizes that nature is actually composed of, and our existence is dependent on, immense chaos. Žižek likens liberal ecology’s uneasiness toward chaos and its call to cease meddling with nature to the Lacanian subjective position of fantasy, where the observer is reduced to a gaze that watches life unfold without them, hoping to preserve a fictional equipoise. Žižek instead declares that “Nature does not exist” (42), in the sense that there is no unified equilibrium to which humanity can return. What humanity needs instead is to come to terms with nature’s radical contingency, realize that “there is no big Other” (43), and that our understanding of nature as something balanced to which we should return only perpetuates the lack of action that birthed our impending ecological crisis in the first place.

Returning to Zerzan’s primitivist alternative, it is important to note that Zerzan’s call for a return to pre-civilized life does indeed advocate radical systemic change. The return to a hunter-gatherer society, in Zerzan’s account, is designed to ameliorate the massive social inequalities brought upon by capitalism, and, on the surface, does not appear to be conservative. Unfortunately, the ideological underpinnings of his position, namely, the portrayal of nature as sacred and balanced pre-civilization, are fraught with many of the same pitfalls as liberal ecology. For this reason, if for no other, one should call a primitive alternative into question.


1. Slavoj Žižek, “Censorship Today: Violence, or Ecology as a New Opium for the Masses,” 18 (2008): 42–43. Additional references will be cited parenthetically.

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