Review: Why Hope?

why-hope-460x746Why Hope? The Stand Against Civilization
John Zerzan
Feral House, 2015, 136pp., $13.00

John Zerzan could be described as defiantly hopeful. In a time when a seed of nihilism has been germinating in the anarchist milieu, Zerzan has published a new book in which almost every essay has an element of hope. Whereas pessimism and despair are currently fashionable postures, Zerzan’s more optimistic perspective is both refreshing and vitally important.

The first and largest section of the book is titled Origins–a topic central to Zerzan’s larger body of work and critical to his general methodology. In the book’s opening essay, titled “In the Beginning”, Zerzan writes that:

“Without interest in [Origin], without a conception of what is involved, there is less of a sense of possible arrival. Origin can liberate the future insofar as it retrieves our relation to what has come before.” (3)

That is to say, that to seek out, uncover, and examine our origins–both the origins of our species and the origins of our oppressive, crippling civilization–provides grounds for hope. And not merely naive wishful thinking but hope solidly grounded in the knowledge that our current situation is a gross aberration and not representative of the wide swathe of human experience. We within civilization have effectively been denied the human experience in the same way that animals confined in a zoo are denied a genuine experience.

It should be noted that while anarcho-primitivists may frequently be accused of being unrealistic, they are somewhat unique in not seeking a heretofore unknown utopia but instead aim at what statistically may be called normal human life. Likewise, anarcho-primitivists are accused of wanting to turn back time but the hope in Zerzan’s book is definitively forward-looking with an eye toward future possibilities for resistance. Seeking a return to health when “dis-ease is the fact of modern life” (128) should not be construed as a nostalgic attempt to turn back time simply because it would constitute a return to a more desirable condition.

Yet, for many, to inquire into origins is taboo but the inquiry allows Zerzan to confidently and credibly make statements such as:

“civilization is failing on every level, in every sphere, and its failure equates so largely with the failure of technology” (94)

“the global system now shows itself to be failing at every level, shows itself to have no answers at all” (134)

It is declarations of this sort that provide ample grounds for hope or perhaps where his hope is most clearly on display. In an essay titled “Arrivederci Roma: The Crisis of Late Antiquity” Zerzan explains that “a climate of futility and decay could not be dispelled by government” and that “a sense of decline had long been underway, along with a lurking fearfulness” (46). Fast forward to the present and flip ahead to Zerzan’s “What Does it Mean to be Healthy?” and it is noted that the current empire suffers in similar ways as “passivity and a sense of doom have settled on modern industrial society” (128). While Rome was in “just one more civilization that came and went” (54) it provides insight as to why the now global civilization is ailing and how it might be vulnerable to attack. It is threads such as this that knit together Zerzan’s wide-ranging collection of essays into a whole.

Amongst my personal favorites in Why Hope? are the essays “Faster! The Age of Acceleration” and “Animal Dreams”. “Faster!” accurately describes the lived, nightmarish experience of finding oneself in an ever-accelerating civilization where “[t]ime cracks the whip and mocks everything that doesn’t keep up” (89); where “the always faster colonization of life by technology commands an ever-fluctuating environment in which the self is destabilized” (90). Works such as this one are important because it validates the anxiety and discomfort that many of us routinely feel, bringing it to the forefront, and explaining where it comes from. It asserts that life doesn’t have to be like this and, in fact, hasn’t always been like this. “Animal Dreams” provides a path out explaining, in one of the book’s most memorable lines, that “We are lost, but other animals point to the right road. They are the right road.” (106). Animals who come into contact and under control of the civilized are subject to cracking whips but those who have resisted domestication do not know the lash.

Hope is necessarily entwined with meaningful, effective resistance for it makes possibilities visible that pessimism and despair obscure and deny. Hope keeps us looking for ripe moments, feeling for points of vulnerability, and ready to exploit any cracks in the armor. Civilization aims to project an image of invulnerability; those who oppose civilization should not be so credulous as to believe it.

8 thoughts on “Review: Why Hope?

  1. Pingback: Review of Zerzan’s new book Why Hope? | Anti Government

  2. Well, I just got the book in today’s mail and look forward to reading it. Enjoyed the review, thank you. John Zerzan is one of a kind and I read anything he writes. I finished “Origins” a week ago and thought it was outstanding. Never miss Anarchy Radio either! I guess I’m a fan. 🙂

  3. J.Z’s thoughts are always worth reading and, so is spending time mulling over them. However, John is an anarchist though not a vegan yet, rather contradictory, he is against oppression and hierarchy and, so surely that would induce someone to take the path of ethical veganism!! If we head out toward anarcho-primivitism, what would happen to all the stored used plutonium and other nuclear waste? Remember, this stuff now needs an on-going care plan based on the latest technology to keep it stable.

    • Veganism is civilization. Factory farming too, is civilization. But there is no such thing as “ethical” veganism – think all the insects and microbes in the soil killed by chemical mono-cropping of the venerated and emasculating soy, cultivated by diesel burning combines. Think about it. I do. Overtime I look out my front door at my neighbor’s conventional fields. You can not eat without killing. “Cycle of life” and all that.
      Oh, and yes, I would eat my dog if it came down to it.

      • Interestingly, I never mentioned civilisation!!! Why have you linked ethical veganism to civilisation? You should read Ian Smith’s first blog submission and perhaps you understand more about ethical veganism with regard to ‘civilisation’? I never said that ethical veganism is perfect either, just to clarify. I don’t think anybody has argued that it is. I did mention the apparent contradiction that many (so-called) anarchists are for so-called equality so
        long as it is them who is not being eaten!! Veganism isn’t about soy either. I too would eat any dog IF it came down it. I would eat you Mole IF it came to it. Let me add, would you eat your dog raw or would you cook him or her? Could it not be argued that cooking food comes under ‘early’ civilisation?

      • Wattywatty,

        I’ve been ill lately and wasn’t able to get back to you.

        1. There is no such thing as “ethical veganism”. It is a secular cult whose members willfully ignore the internal contradictions in their argument.

        2. No, cooking is not an “early for of civ”.

        3. I brought up civilization because this is a review of a JZ text, ipso facto, civilization.

        When we go to ethics and morality we become religionists. In this case, your god is you fetish for NOT killing (even though plants must be killed, and bugs too in a monoculture situation in order for vegans to eat.) You say it ain’t about soy but the preponderance of the vegan diet is indeed soy, grown on factory farms that poison the soil, killing insects, microbes, and plant life. It is inherently nonsensical way of life. And the vitamin B12; another example of the vegan’s reliance on industrial civ.

        One can not be vegan and for primitivo, green anarchy



  4. Mole, sorry, I didn’t realise you had replied. Um, there’s no such thing called ‘ethical veganism’? Maybe, ONLY the people who say there’s no such thing ethical veganism believe there’s no such thing as ethical veganism? Cooking food (both flesh and plants), wearing the flesh of non-humans because our own bodies are now (evolved) so naturally ill-equipped, humans lacking the physical attributes to be so-called hunters. no other animal needs to wear the skin of another, no other animal needs to have fire, no other animal needs to make tools, humans don’t have claws, magnificent eye-sight nor hearing! Arguably, primitives seem to be primarily concerned about human needs: yeh, let’s go primitive so long as WE do the eating, the killing, so long as the human remains well on top tending HIS living edible landscape! Maybe, I would have some sympathy for eating flesh if the would-be primitives drop their need to remain supremacists, eat not just non-human but also human flesh, survive/live without fire, clothes made of non-human and human flesh. As for B12, I don’t take supplements and I don’t eat loads of soy/soy-based products and yes, I still occasionally eat junk food too and, I have just had my blood tested and the results came back satisfactory. Most soy is grown to feed non-human animals, duh, so you flesh eaters can have your flesh fix. If you worry about plants, then don’t eat flesh as eating flesh takes up the ‘lives’ of more plants than eating plants directly. However, I do believe JZ has a point in that the future will be in some way primitive, just when and how that happen nobody knows. Finally, there is an argument that the human were herbivores and still are. For sure, humans are eating way more flesh than did/do the primitives. My understanding is, for whatever reason, humans first started to scavenge dead corpses killed by better-adapted non-humans. From there, humans became gatherer/hunter (maybe Ian E. Smith or John Zerzan can shed some light here?). .Whether it is with modern technology or primitive technology, the game is that the humans remain on top: never on the menu, always using tools, fire and the lives of others. From there, domestication of plants and non-humans and humans. Possibly, the planet would be better off without humans? I know JZ has mentioned the ‘non-symbolic human’ from time to time but there is little information. Maybe the non-symbolic human was a herbivore or was indifferent to eating human/non-human flesh? I’m glad you’re feeling better

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