A Skewed View: Rejecting Misanthropy

Human beings appear to be the problem. Human beings cause climate change, drive other species to extinction, turn the oceans to acid and fill them with plastic. Human beings build slaughterhouses, animal laboratories, and concentration camps. Human beings appear to be the common denominator in almost every atrocity.

It is no wonder that those concerned about other animals or the Earth itself have a tendency to be somewhat misanthropic. Misanthropy is commonplace even if often concealed as a tactical decision when interacting with others. But for many, the basic problem is that the human species is fundamentally flawed…and there is no fix for that. Even David Attenborough has referred to humans as “a plague on the Earth”. The commentary in radical circles is often quite similar.

And yet, the drift toward misanthropy is based on a very basic mistake. It is making a species level judgment based on a narrow sliver of individuals who are not in any way representative of the species as a whole. The vast majority of human beings who are currently alive are living in the midst of soul-crushing civilization. We are toothless and de-clawed tigers frantically pacing whereas most who have come before us lived in the world rather than this cage. To make any reliable judgment about the fundamental nature of humanity—suggesting that it’s incurably flawed or inherently destructive—based on this outlying historical moment is impossible. It is akin to visiting a fraternity house to gauge contemporary sexual mores.

In Wandering God, Morris Berman explains that one cost of civilization is that we lose trust in the world and in other human beings (56). This is a significant and underappreciated cost; it’s not quite tangible and so we seemingly forget to put it on the scale when calculating civilization’s toll. We ought to be able to trust other human beings and yet the keys in our pocket shows we can’t.

This misanthropy can have at least two distinct and destructive consequences. The first is a debilitating sense of hopelessness. And while it has been suggested that hopelessness can be an asset toward waging a fiercer fight it is more likely to produce a futile flailing of the limbs rather than any serious assault. It doesn’t help us avoid burnout but instead is the definition of burnout.

The second consequence is a temptation to implement highly repressive measures to contain the virus of humanity. In short, ecofascism (or perhaps plain old fascism). It is visible, for example, in the practice of evicting indigenous people from their land so that that land can be “preserved” as a park free from human habitation.

Fortunately, backing up and recognizing that most humans were never civilized subjects, were never harmed in that way, allows us to dismiss the misanthrope’s skewed view by correcting her sampling error. Berman again:

“Our experience of politics has been conditioned by aberrant circumstances. The state—an autonomous political unit having a hierarchical, centralized government capably of levying taxes, making war, and enforcing laws—has been with us for only about six thousand years. The majority of human political experience has been relatively (though not entirely) egalitarian” (2)

Mistrust of nature generally and of human beings specifically is a grave harm inflicted by civilization. Civilization suggests that human being are fundamentally flawed and too many people within radical circles are happy to accept that claim. I believe a fuller picture of human history provides ample grounds on which to defend ourselves and reject misanthropy.

by Mr. Fish (www.clowncrack.com)

by Mr. Fish (www.clowncrack.com)

An Unenviable Position

In the current issue of Fifth Estate (Fall/Winter 2014), John Zerzan writes:

“There is an understandable, if misplaced, desire that civilization will cooperate with us and deconstruct itself. This mind set seems especially prevalent among those who shy away from resistance, from doing the work of opposing civilization. There is also a tendency to see a dramatic showdown looming, even though history rarely seems to provide us with such a scenario.” [emphasis added] [1]

I immediately stopped, re-read, and churned over that potent phrase: “the work of opposing civilization”. To say it aloud is to wonder exactly what it’s comprised of. What exactly is the work of opposing civilization? To ask the question is to realize the unenviable position that those who oppose civilization find themselves in. We have the most grandiose of ambitions and yet possess the most meager of resources. For many or most of us, we barely know where to start.

Indeed, it is a question that is not too infrequently posed to Zerzan himself. Callers to his weekly radio show Anarchy Radio, sometimes new (and sometimes not) to anti-civ thinking ask: and now what? What is to be done? What should we be doing?

It’s an embarrassingly difficult question. There may be many answers but none seem to be entirely adequate.

Likewise, the recent issue of Black Seed (#2), includes an article from publisher Aragorn! in which he writes:

“Painfully, I don’t believe we are even at the stage of a debate about tactics, but are instead at a preliminary discussion on how to conceive of the problem, which at some point may turn into a sharing of ideas about strategy that may result in a debate about tactics.” [emphasis in original] [2]

So for Aragorn! “what should we do?” is not only a difficult question, it’s a premature question!

Given this unenviable position, which is exacerbated by the quickening pace of ecological devastation and the exponential spread of civilization’s poison, there exists the possibility that bad ideas will not be adequately scrutinized but instead acted upon by those who are understandably desperate for action.

A most obvious and fairly recent example of this is Derrick Jensen’s and Lierre Keith’s Deep Green Resistance (It’s a book! It’s group! It’s a new/old flavor of resistance!). The (seemingly brief) appeal of DGR is most readily explained by the fact that it is a plan even if it’s not a good plan. It’s a call for troops and with an evident war being waged against the planet there were many eager to sign up.

Another predictable reaction to the unenviable position of those opposed to civilization is to abandon hope, to accept and almost welcome defeat; to be aloof and above the fray, too cool to care. But this is a position more appropriate for a spectator placing bets on the outcome of a game than for a participant who has a stake in the matter. In the same issue of Black Seed as quoted above there is a column titled “It’s All Falling Apart” which is essentially a collection of somewhat absurd news items from the mainstream press included for their comic value. But the column itself is prefaced with the following text presumably from the editors:

“The end of the world will not come in a bang, a clarion call of trumpets, and the dawning of a new era. The end of the world will be decades, if not centuries, of immiseration and degradation that will humiliate and starve us…The end of the world isn’t going to be exciting or heroic, it’ll be bright, flashy, and mediocre.” [3]

The passage echoes Zerzan’s remark about the misplaced hope for a “dramatic showdown”; it is agreed that there will be no such event. But whereas Zerzan makes the point so as to urge greater levels of resistance, the Black Seed passage is thoroughly disempowering. No dramatic showdown on the horizon for Zerzan means that we must do the work of opposing civilization—whatever that may be. No dramatic showdown for Black Seed means a future of “immiseration and degradation” where we are starved and humiliated; the work to be done in this case would simply be to develop a thick hide and a tolerance for pain.

[1] John Zerzan. (Fall/Winter 2014) “A Word on Civilization and Collapse,” Fifth Estate (392): 17-18.
[2] Aragorn! (Fall 2014) “Answers to Questions Not Asked: Anarchists and Anthropology,” Black Seed (2): 10.
[3] “It’s All Falling Apart,” Black Seed (2): 26.