“Anarchy in the USA” is out now in Issue 113 of The Believer, and features a profile of the anarchist John Zerzan. Near the end of November, Zander Sherman, in Ontario, and John Zerzan, in Oregon, talked by phone about the Paris attacks, presidential debates, and the finding of happy places. Their conversation has been edited.
ZANDER SHERMAN: Let’s start with Paris. What dark corner of the psyche does this madness come from?
JOHN ZERZAN: What we’re seeing is the emptiness of modern technological society. We live in an era with no real sense of community or connection to nature. There’s a hollowness to civilized life. It doesn’t appeal to people, and some people react with extreme violence.
Of even greater significance, I would say, are the acts of what I call terrorism here in the U.S. In this morning’s news there was a report that six people had been killed at a campground in Texas. The alleged perpetrator wasn’t an Islamist. When that happens every other day, it adds up. These massacres are what we should be talking about. We’re breeding our own kind of jihad here in the States, where people just freak out and kill a bunch of people and then themselves. How is that any different than what’s happening in Paris or Beirut?
ZS: How is technology responsible?
JZ: The more the society becomes a technological society, the less it has to hold itself together. I think that’s probably the key thing. What is it that corrodes or dissolves community and erases these bonds? I mean, I don’t think it could be a coincidence that the more technological a society is, the less it connects people. And of course that’s the exact opposite of the propaganda. “We’re all connected now. We’re globally connected. We’re a millisecond away.” Except the opposite is true. We’ve never been so isolated or disconnected.
If you have a problem in mass society, you call the cops. The experts. You no longer have any operative connection with yourself or others, or with a functioning community. I mean, it’s still being called a “community.” The politicians and developers call it that, but to me it’s not that at all. Mass society has displaced real community, where people function together and account for their own lives. And you know, it’s getting worse. Now we’re at the pathological stage of these almost daily mass shootings, and still it doesn’t register with the approved people, I guess.
ZS: With authority.
JZ: Yeah, exactly.
ZS: Have you been following the presidential debates?
JZ: As much as I follow a football game. It’s a form of entertainment—everybody knows that. It’s avoidance, it’s baboonery, and it’s worse than it’s ever been before. That’s another thing that’s just kind of blindingly obvious. People know they have no real input. Their vote doesn’t count. “The people” aren’t running anything. That’s why, by the way, technology has replaced politics as the source of ideology. The ideological claims are hollow and absurd, and nobody believes them anymore. Everybody knows they’re a joke. And so it’s technology that has to come forth and make all these claims and promises.
ZS: How will these recent events—the Paris attacks and refugee crisis—shape the race, do you think?
JZ: I suppose it will drive it to the Right. There will be more fear-mongering and xenophobia and the nativist reaction that tends to become emboldened not just here but in France and elsewhere. That’s what you see. The nationalist fever pumped up to take the place of real analysis. These migrants become a scapegoat; it’s a well-known trope.
ZS: Anarchists want to abolish government. Republicans want to shrink it. Does that mean you’re closer to the political right than the political left?
JZ: Well, no, I don’t think so. Republicans don’t want to shrink government. They want more and more military, more and more surveillance. They’d like to have the government banning gay marriage and so forth. Where’s the shrinkage in that?
ZS:The New York Times recently introduced virtual-reality technology that lets you explore areas of the world in 3D. You’ve argued that technology alienates, but doesn’t VR bring us closer?
JZ: It’s just more escapism. You know, ten, twelve years ago there was a big VR push, and it kind of fizzled out, so we’ll have to see whether this second wave is going to last. I won’t be surprised if it does. If you have people who would rather be virtual friends than real friends because maybe they don’t have any real friends—once that has corroded away then yeah, of course, why not, you’d rather that as an alternative to nothing. That’s why people do it. That’s why people stare at their screens all day—the world is less inviting. If you’ve got nothing than you might as well be in your own little movie, an avatar or whatever. Why not?
ZS: Your latest book, “Why Hope?” is a plea for optimism, and has an Oscar Wilde quote on the cover. What’s going on?
JZ: What my book is addressing more specifically is this kind of nihilism and retreat within the anarchist movement. People like Paul Kingsnorth and Guy McPherson say it’s futile to think that you can do anything. I resist that because I don’t want to close the door on possibility. Yeah, it’s a grim world. It sure is. Damn. It’s getting more grim all the time. But it’s just about possibility—why close the door on that? We don’t know what’s going to happen. If we say we’re doomed, we are, full stop.
ZS: What’s it going to take for things to change?
JZ: I just keep writing and speaking and hoping that at some point, the door will open and we’ll have a freer exchange of ideas, a realer conversation. That’s just what I’m trying to do because I think pushing the ideas is important. I wouldn’t say it’s more important than action. You can’t really separate the two. But I’m not going to blow things up so I do what I do and hope that it might connect with people who are thinking along the same lines. Then there might be more force applied to the sanctions against the examination of things.
ZS: At age seventy-two, what makes you happy?
JZ: I’ve got a fantastic partner. I’ve got the most wonderful marriage, and grandkids. And I’ve got my work. I knew early on what I wanted to do, and I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to pursue that. And another thing: this sounds like a very distant deal, and it is, but I was blessed to be in the Bay Area in the 1960s. That was kind of an indelible experience. It’s had a huge impact on my temperament and outlook. Of course it didn’t go all the way, but it was a fairly magical time. I lived in Haight-Ashbury. I lived in Berkeley. I was right in the middle of it, and it was pretty amazing. I guess it sort of stuck with me.
Zander Sherman is the author of The Curiosity of School, and a frequent commentator in the field of education. He lives in Canada, where he is writing his second book.