‘A Book in Five Minutes’ no.23
View the accompanying video on YouTube video

‘Running on Emptiness – The Pathology of Civilisation
John Zerzan (2002)

All religions have problems with ‘unbelievers’, but that response is insignificant compared to their visceral hatred of ‘apostates’.

‘A Book in Five Minutes’ No.23 Podcast:

Download podcast as an MP3 or an Ogg Vorbis file.

Click for keyboard instructions (or press hotkey ‘X’)

Cover of ‘Running on Emptiness – The Pathology of Civilisation’ (2002)
‘Running on Emptiness – The Pathology of Civilisation’ (2002):

First edition (paperback), Feral House, 2002. ISBN 9780-9229-1575-0.

FREE on-line copy, via Archive.org.

Progress is an ‘uncontested good’: Theoretically, that means scientific and technological progress is assumed to be a positive irrespective of any evidence to the contrary; practically, though, it means the moment technological or scientific progress is questioned it will often illicit silence, or ridicule, or in the worst case, abuse. Questioning ‘progress’ picks at an unhealed sore – our severance from nature – which all those enmeshed in industrial society must endure.

For over forty years, one person who has consistently picked at the contradictions between the purpose and the reality of human progress is John Zerzan. Published twenty years ago, his collection of essays and interviews, ‘Running on Emptiness’, is a milestone not only in his examination of the folly of technological progress, but also his promotion of anarcho-primitivism as the lens through which to view that idea.

Image of John Zerzan.
John Zerzan

As Zerzan states near the end of the first essay:

“Massive, unfulfilling consumption, within the dictates of production and social control, reigns as the chief everyday consolation for this absence of meaning... More of what has failed for so long can hardly be the answer... Culture has led us to betray our own aboriginal spirit and wholeness, into an ever-worsening realm of synthetic, isolating, impoverished estrangement. Which is not to say that there are no more everyday pleasures, without which we would lose our humanness; but as our plight deepens, we glimpse how much must be erased for our redemption.”

Posing questions like this has a long history, going back to the Ancient Greeks; and Zerzan is not alone in this today. But too often, when people consider the issue of technology and well-being they focus on the ‘hardware’ – on machines. Likewise, they look at the inevitable detritus created by modern technology, in the form of intractable pollutants which nature cannot ameliorate, and decry the thoughtlessness of their creation.

Zerzan, though, goes further; looking at how it was the abstract, intellectual basis of modernity – the human duality of body and mind – which was, and continues to be the basis for our severance from the natural world. As he says in the second essay:

“Just what is ‘time’? Empirically... We have gone along with the substantiation of time so that it seems a fact of nature, a power existing in its own right. The growth of a sense of time – the acceptance of time – is a process of adaptation to an ever more reified world. It is a constructed dimension, the most elemental aspect of culture. Time's inexorable nature provides the ultimate model of domination.”

Ramblinactivist’s Video 2021/9: ‘Time Without The Machine’
Ramblinactivist’s Video 2021/9:
‘Time Without The Machine’

As other thinkers, such as E.P. Thompson, have outlined how the core of industrial society is ‘time discipline’. It forces us to co-ordinate our actions, to within increasingly small divisions of existence, that are imperceptible to our natural being: Days and lunar months are ‘natural’; minutes and seconds are for most people, abstract.

Over the next few essays, Zerzan discusses how it is the abstract nature of technology, not simply the mechanics of living with technology, which orders people’s lives to allow their domination and exploitation.

As he says:

“There have been analyses by people who have been pretty worried about the whole development... If technology is not neutral, [as Horkheimer and Adorno] argue very forcefully, reason isn’t a neutral thing either, when you think about it. They raise a critique of what they call ‘instrumental reason’. Reason, under the sign of civilization and technology, is fundamentally biased toward distancing and control.”

Ramblinactivist’s Video 2022/40: ‘The Utopia of Rules’
Ramblinactivist’s Video 2022/40:
‘The Utopia of Rules’

In my last review, I note how David Graeber makes the argument that ‘being realistic’ first requires someone to define what ‘realism’ is. Zerzan is making this same point: That ‘rationalism’ in industrial society has a particular meaning skewed towards the maintenance of industrial technology; but more importantly, the systems of control and domination which flow from that are all framed by ‘industrial rationalism’, not ‘natural’ human perceptions.

Zerzan develops this idea in, ‘The Things We Do’:

“Technology is ‘the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it’. We are expected to deny what is living and natural within us in order to acquiesce in the domination of non-human nature. Technology has unmistakably become the great vehicle of reification. Not forgetting that it is embedded in and embodies an ever-expanding, global field of capital, reification subordinates us to our own objectified creations.”

‘Reification’ – the act of treating something abstract as if it were a real thing – is the core of how society is able to be dominated by a very few people, using the power of systems: Be that a measure of time; an ideology; or the the mechanised, 24-hour noise of the mass media.

Blogs images: ‘It's time to unhinge the wheels of progress’

Though I’ve tried to summarise the framework of its arguments, I’ve barely gotten halfway through this book. I’ll deal with Zerzan’s advocacy of anarcho-primitivism at length in a future review; but for now, what’s important to understand is that it is the displacement of our ‘natural’ experience by technological systems – to the point where it overrides our perceptions of the ‘real world’ – which permits our domination by technology.

Zerzan has an easily readable, discursive style, but the true substance of what he writes can’t be easily gained directly from the text. If many people criticise John Zerzan’s work it is precisely because – as they are so buried in the abstract reasonings of technological society – they cannot understand what he says. Likewise, those who appreciate his work are often those who feel the greatest alienation from that industrial process. Zerzan is raising arguments which have plagued ‘modernism’ for well over 2,000 years. What makes this a pressing matter today is that resolving this may be our only means of saving future generations from impending ecological catastrophe.

Afterthoughts on ‘Running on Emptiness’

As I bend open my old copy of, ‘Running on Emptiness’, to write this review the brittle glue in the spine cracks. It is getting rather old, and has been well used over the years. Nothing lasts; and the more highly engineered human society becomes, the more resources it takes simply to maintain it at it’s particular point of development, let alone expanding or improving it. That, ultimately, is the lesson of progress: Running faster to stand still.

That is not a new idea. As Lewis Carroll said in ‘Alice in Wonderland’: “My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” If we go back over 2,000 years Greek philosophers, such as Epicurus, were warning, “The wealth required by nature is limited and is easy to procure; but the wealth required by vain ideals extends to infinity”.

This will be the last thing I write for a couple of weeks. I’m about to carry-out a major overhaul of my computer system – necessitating disconnecting my work from the rest of the world for a short while. Perhaps the anticipation of that process made me think of writing a review of one of Zerzan’s books.

Ramblinactivist’s Video: BBC Newsnight – ‘Protest and the Net’ (1999)
BBC Newsnight:
‘Protest and the Net’ (1999)

I ‘do’ computers: As I often say to people, “I could have been a serious hacker but I did far too much backpacking”. It is that chasm I bestride – between being deeply involved in the world of computers and the Internet since the 1980s, while simultaneously being deeply involved in spending time outdoors in ‘natural’ pursuits – which gives me a perspective, a ‘frame’, to contrast the ideas of people like Zerzan with the experience of what it means to live in industrial society.

As the years have passed, and the evidence accumulates for why industrial society is the root of many human ills – from endemic violence to the global ecological crisis – I find that my knowledge of science and technology both becomes more valuable, and yet at the same time more unwelcome to many of those I try and share it with. As society becomes more complex, as individuals and communities we have less control: As the economic and political chaos of recent years demonstrates, greater technology and affluence does not create satisfaction, it creates a reactionary insecurity; and with that, less control, except under conditions of ever-harsher repression (which is arguably one of the drivers of the drift to the right in the UK over recent years).

People dismiss Zerzan because they perceive what he says as ‘extreme’, ‘nonsensical’ – or to use the phrase I remarked on earlier – ‘unrealistic’. The fact is these ideas are presented to us routinely, within our everyday culture, from news articles about nonsensical computer glitches to dystopian stories; but because this ‘noise’ does not directly challenge the foundation of modern culture, these events usually pass without reflection.

A brilliant example of this are ‘The Matrix’ films. For example, there’s a wonderful scene in ‘Matrix Reloaded’, which seemingly passes without note amidst the crescendo of action and violence across the arc of the storyline. Neo accompanies a Council Member down to the ‘engineering level’:

“Almost no one comes down here unless of course there’s a problem. That’s how it is with people; nobody cares how it works as long as it works. I like it down here. I like to be reminded this city survives because of these machines. These machines are keeping us alive while other machines are coming to kill us. Interesting isn’t it. The power to give life, and the power to end it.”

Blogs images: ‘Bars-code’

Of course, the power of ‘science fiction’(?) is that it can poke ridicule at the everyday frustrations of technological life, therein creating a compelling narrative – because it speaks to our inner lived experience.

Neo then remarks, “but we control these machines, they don't control us... if we wanted we could shut these machines down”.

To which the Councillor replies: “That’s control. If we wanted we could smash them to bits. Although if we did, we'd have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air.”

He then continues:

“There is so much in this world that I do not understand. See that machine. It has something to do with recycling our water supply. I have absolutely no idea how it works, but I do understand the reason for it to work. I have absolutely no idea how you are able to do some of the things you do, but I believe there's a reason for that as well. I only hope we understand that reason before it's too late.”

To parody Churchill, never in human history have so many understood so little about the things which influence so much in the course of their everyday lives.

This is the cognitive dissonance which traps the residents of technological society: In one sense most people are aware that modern existence is increasingly irrational and unsustainable; and yet at the same moment they know that without these processes, everything they know to be certain would disappear; and in any case, even if they felt a need to enact change, their lack of understanding makes anything other than a catastrophic, ‘smash them to bits’ response impossible.

If the modern environmental movement has failed, it is because it cannot offer a convincing alternative to that system – merely a different form of consumerism – which is arguably why people will not change. To enact ‘change’ implies ‘control’; and as outlined throughout The Matrix films, ‘control’ is often an illusion based within factors we cannot in reality control. The reality of the modern, ‘technological’ world is that very few people actually have enough knowledge, or economic power, to control and so change the world around them – and those that do, like the tech. billionaires, are not necessarily guarding our interests.

Ramblinactivist’s Video: ‘'electrohippies' extract from 'Infowars: The Hacktivists'’
‘Infowars: The Hacktivists’ (2002)

My work as a computer activist peaked in the 1990s, and then drifted away. I refused to accept certain elements of what the modern technological system – in particular mobile communications and social media – required me to do. For example, the debate over the creation of web browser ‘cookies’ in the 1990s elicited a large campaign from digital freedom activists. It was generally ignored by a society and media who just didn’t understand the reality of this issue. And yet today, those cookies are the basis for the Panopticon of digital surveillance that pervades peoples lives – creating it’s own fears and controlling outcomes.

Zerzan is not a ‘novel’ thinker. His skill has been to assimilate thousands of years of commentary on technology and society, and express that succinctly within the framework of today’s ‘peak’ of human material existence.

For example, take the statement quoted earlier, “as our plight deepens, we glimpse how much must be erased for our redemption”. 2,300 years ago Diogenes of Sinope is reputed to have said: “Self-taught poverty is a help toward philosophy, for the things which philosophy attempts to teach by reasoning, poverty forces us to practice.” Even in Ancient Greece, the gap between the then ‘height’ of urban existence, and what was perceived as the ‘natural’ state of being, was already enough to perceptibly lower the living standards of those wanting to make such a transition.

Now consider that reality today.

People know that to create real change – to solve the climate crisis, ecological destruction, or economic inequality – the result would be to live in a society which is, ‘not like this’. Given today’s reactionary responses, from people driven seemingly mad by the pressures modern life puts upon them, is it no surprise that they wish to cling on to what little they perceive they have.

Blogs images: ‘Consumerism’
Is this all we have to look forward to?

What Zerzan and other ‘primitivists’ are calling for is the ‘right to secede’ from technological society. Given how comparatively disempowering that choice would appear to render them, why should society feel so threatened by this? It is threatening precisely because it highlights – it picks at the common sore – of modern society’s instability and meaninglessness.

Since ‘The Enlightenment’ swept across Europe, modern thinkers have always looked upon less developed societies as ‘noble savages’; when in fact, there is now ample evidence from archaeology and anthropology to demonstrate precisely the opposite. To call for the freedom to return to ‘a more primitive’ way of living is to attack the core of modernity – or rather, the unequal and destructive set of economic relations which hold people trapped within the confines of industrial society.

In that sense, Zerzan’s call for a return to a less intensive, non-consumerist, and less ‘developed’ mode of living, is doubly offensive: Not only because it appears to attack people’s access to the modern lifestyle; but also, by highlighting the abstract, demonstrably make-believe ideas at its heart, it debases the values of that lifestyle. All religions have problems with ‘unbelievers’, but that response is insignificant compared to their visceral hatred of ‘apostates’.