John Zerzan, "Globalization and Its Apologists: An Abolitionist Perspective"

"Globalization and Its Apologists: An Abolitionist Perspective"

John Zerzan

In its heyday in the American South, slavery never lacked for apologists. Writers, preachers, and planters chimed in to defend the peculiar institution as divinely ordained and justified by the racial superiority of whites over blacks. The Abolitionists, who burned the Constitution, hid fugitives, and attacked federal arsenals, were widely viewed as dangerous firebrands fit for prison or the gallows.In hindsight, the word “slavery” connotes a world of oppression, violence, degradation, and resistance. The vile, deluded racism of slavery’s 19th century apologists is unmistakable from our 21st century viewpoint, but how many see our century’s version of slavery in a similarly revealing light?

In the name of progress, world development and empire are enslaving humankind and destroying nature, everywhere. The juggernaut known as globalization has absorbed nearly all opposition, overwhelming resistance by means of an implacable, universalizing system of capital and technology. A sense of futility that approaches nihilism is now accepted as an inevitable response to modernity: “Whatever….” The poverty of theory is starkly illuminated in this fatalistic atmosphere. Academic bookshelves are loaded with tomes that counsel surrender and accommodation to new realities. Other enthusiasts have climbed onto the globalization bandwagon, or more commonly, were never not on board. From an abolitionist perspective, the response of most intellectuals to a growing planetary crisis consists of apologia in endless variations.

Patrick Brantlinger suggests, for example, that in the “post-historical” age we have lost the ability to explain social change. But the reasons behind global change become evident to those who are willing to examine fundamental assumptions. The debasing of life in all spheres, now proceeding at a quickening pace, stems from the dynamics of civilization itself. Domestication of animals and plants, a process only 10,000 years old, has penetrated every square inch of the planet. The result is the elimination of individual and community autonomy and health, as well as the rampant, accelerating destruction of the natural world. Morris Berman, Jerry Mander, and other critics have described the “disenchantment” of a world subordinated to technological development. Civilization substitutes mediation for direct experience, distancing people from their natural surroundings and from each other. Ever greater anomie, dispersal, and loneliness pervade our lives. A parallel instrumentalism is at work in our ecosystems, transforming them into resources to be mined, and imperiling the entire biosphere.

At base, globalization is nothing new. Division of labor, urbanization, conquest, dispossession, and diasporas have been part and parcel of the human condition since the beginning of civilization. Yet globalization takes the domesticating process to new levels. World capital now aims to exploit all available life; this is a defining and original trait of globalization. Early 20th century observers (Tönnies and Durkheim among them) noted the instability and fragmentation that necessarily accompanied modernization. These are only more evident in this current, quite possibly terminal stage. The project of integration through world control causes disintegration everywhere: more rootlessness, withdrawal, pointlessness…none of which have arrived overnight. The world system has become a high-tech imperialism. The new frontier is cyberspace. In the language of perennial empire, global powers issue their crusading, adventurous call to tame and colonize (or recolonize).

Marshall McLuhan’s “global village” concept is back in vogue, albeit with a clonal tinge to it, as everyone is designated to be part of a single global society. One interdependent McWorld, kept alive by the standardized sadness of a draining consumerism. It should be no surprise that among those who speak in the name of “anti-globalization” there are actually a growing number who in fact oppose it, whose perspective is that of de-globalization, who realize that a far more thorough-going critique and vision is urgently needed.

The “global village,” subject to almost instantly worldwide epidemics, has become a downright scary place. Since the 1980s the term “risk” has become pervasive in almost every discursive field or discipline in developed societies. The power of nation-states to “manage” risks has demonstrably declined, and individual anxiety has increased, with the spread of modernization and globalization. This trajectory also brings growing disillusionment with representative government and a rising, if still largely inchoate anti-modern orientation. These outlooks have strongly informed anti-authoritarian movements in recent years. There is a perceived hollowness, if not malevolence, to basic social institutions across the board. As Manuel Castells puts it, “we can perceive around the world an extraordinary feeling of uneasiness with the current process of technology-led change that threatens to generate a widespread backlash.”

A technified world continues to proliferate, offering the promise of escape from the less and less attractive context of our lives. Hoping no-one realizes that technology is centrally responsible for impoverished reality, its hucksters spread countless enticements and promises, while it continues to metastasize. Net/Web culture (a revealing nomenclature) is a prime example, extending its deprived version of social existence via virtual space. Now that embedded, face-to-face connectivity is being so resolutely annihilated, it’s time for virtual community.

According to Rob Shields’ chilling formulation, “the presence of absence is virtual.” “Community” is unlike any other in human memory; no real people are present and no real communication takes place. In convenient, disembodied virtual community, one shuts people off at the click of a mouse to “go” elsewhere. Pseudo-community moves forward on the ruins of what is left of actual connections. Senses and sensuality diminish apace; “responsibility” is interred in the expanding postmodern Lost Words Museum. Shriveled opposition and fatalistic, resigned shirkers forget that anti-slavery abolitionists, once a tiny minority, refused to quit and eventually prevailed.

Certainly none of this has happened overnight. The AT&T telephone commercial/exhortation of some years back, “Reach out and touch someone,” offered human contact but concealed the truth that such technology has in fact been crucial in taking us ever further from that contact. Direct experience is replaced by mediation and simulation. Digitized information supplants the basis of actual closeness and possible trust among interacting physical beings. According to Boris Groys, “We just have to deal with the fact that we can no longer believe our eyes, our ears. Everyone who has worked with a computer knows that.”

Globalization is likewise scarcely new on the economic and political scene. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels predicted the emergence of a world market, based on growing production and consumption patterns of their day. The Spanish empire, 300 years earlier, was the first global power network.

Marx contended that every technology releases opposing possibilities of emancipation and domination. But somehow the project of a humanized technology has proven groundless and result-free; only technified humanity has come to pass. Technology is the embodiment of the social order it accompanies, and in its planetary advance transfers the fundamental ethos and values behind that technology. It never exists in a vacuum and is never value-neutral. Some alleged critics of technology speak, for example, of advancing “to a higher level of integration between humanity and nature.” This “integration” cannot avoid echoing the integration that is basic to civilization and its globalization; namely, the cornerstone institutions that integrate all into themselves. Foremost among them is division of labor.

A state of growing passivity in everyday life is one of the most basic developments. Increasingly dependent—even infantilized—by a technological life-world, and under the ever-more complete effective control of specialized expertise, the fractionated subject is vitiated by division of labor. That most fundamental institution, which defines complexity and has driven domination forward ab origino. Source of all alienation, “the subdivision of labour is the assassination of a people.” Adam Smith in the 18th century has perhaps never been excelled in his eloquent portrait of its mutilating, deforming, immiserating nature.

It was the prerequisite for domestication, and continues to be the motor of the Megamachine, to use Lewis Mumford’s term. Division of labor underlies the paradigmatic nature of modernity (technology) and its disastrous outcome.

Although the wind is shifting in some quarters, it’s somewhat baffling that theory has seldom put into question this institution (or domestication, for that matter). The latent desire for wholeness, simplicity, and the immediate or direct has been overwhelmingly dismissed as futile and/or irrelevant. “The task we now face is not to reject or turn away from complexity but to learn to live with it creatively,” advises Mark Taylor. We must “resist any simple nostalgia,” counsels Katherine Hayles, while granting that “nightmare” may well describe what’s been showing up lately.

In fact, even more confounding than lack of interest in the roots and motive force undergirding the present desolation is the fairly widespread embrace of the prospect of more of the same. How is it possible to imagine good outcomes from what is clearly generating the opposite, in every sphere of life? Instead of a hideously cyborgian program delivering emptiness and dehumanization on a huge scale, Hayles, for instance, finds in the posthuman an “exhilarating prospect” of “opening up new ways of thinking about what being human means,” while high-tech “systems evolve toward an open future marked by contingency and unpredictability.”

What’s happening is that a “what we have lost” sensibility is being overwhelmed by a “what have we got to lose/try anything” orientation. This shift testifies profoundly to the depth of loss and defeat that civilization/patriarchy/industrialism/modernity has engineered. The magnitude of the surrender of these intellectuals has nullified their capacity for analysis or vision. For example, “Increasingly the question is not whether we will become posthuman, for posthumanity is already here.”

Technology as an injunction to forget, as a solvent of meaning, finds its cultural voice in postmodernism. Articulated in the context of transnationalism whereby globalization renders its totalizing nature glaringly evident, postmodernism pursues its refusal of “any notion of representable or essential totality.” Helplessness reigns; there are no foundational places left from which to think about or resist the juggernaut. As Scott Lash states, “We can no longer step outside of the global communications flows to find a solid fulcrum for critique.” His misnamed Critique of Information announces total abdication: “My argument in this book is that such critique is no longer possible. The global information order itself has, it seems to me, erased and swallowed up the possibility of a space of critical reflection.”

With no ground from which to make judgments, the very viability of criteria dissolves; the postmodern thus becomes prey to every manner of preposterous and abject pronouncement. I. Bluhdorn, for example, simply waves the little matter of environmental catastrophe away: “To the extent that we manage to get used to (naturalize) the non-availability of universally valid normative standards, the ecological problem…simply dissolves.” The cynical acceptance of every continuing horror, clothed in aesthetized irony and implicit apathy.

Downright bizarre is the incoherent celebration of the marriage of the postmodern and the technological, summed up in a title: The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. According to authors Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, “The postmodern adventure is just beginning and alternative futures unfold all around us.” To speak of defending the particular against universalizing tendencies is a postmodern commonplace, but this is mocked by the eager acceptance of the most universalizing force of all, the homogenization machine which is technology.

Andrew Feenberg discusses the all-pervasive presence of technology, arguing that when the Left joins in the celebration of technological advances, the ensuing consensus leaves little to disagree about. A leftist himself, Feenberg concludes that “we cannot recover what reification has lost by regressing to pretechnological conditions, to some prior unity irrelevant to the contemporary world.” But such “relevance” is what is really at issue. To remain committed to the “contemporary world” is precisely the foundationless foundation of complicity. Postmodernity as the realization or completion of universal technology, globalization’s underlying predicate.

When the basics are ruled off-limits to contestation, the resulting evasion can have no liberatory consequence. Infatuation with surface, the marginal, the partial, etc. is typical. Postmodernism billed itself as subversive and destabilizing, but delivered only aesthetically. Emblematic of a period of defeat, the image consumes the event and we consume the images. The tone throughout Derrida’s work, for instance, seems never far from mourning. The abiding sadness of Blanchot is also to the point. The postmodern, according to Geoffrey Hartman, “suggests a disenchantment that is final, or self-perpetuating.”

The subject, in the current ethos, is seen on the one hand as an unstable, fragmented collection of positions in discourse –– even as a mere effect of power, or of language –– and on the other hand as part of a positive, pluralist array of alternatives. By avoiding examination of the main lines of domination, however, postmodernists blind themselves to the actual, deforming characteristics of technology and consumerism. The forgetful self of technology, buffeted by the ever-shifting currents of commodified culture, is hard-pressed to form an enduring identity. There is, in fact, an increasing distance between dominant global forces and the endangered coherent individual.

The high-tech network of the world system is completing the transformation of classes into masses, the erosion of group solidarity and autonomy, and the isolation of the self. As Bamyeh points out, these are the preconditions of modern mass democracies, as well as the basic political features of global modernity itself. Meanwhile, participation in this setup dwindles, as a massified, standardized techno-world makes a joke of the idea that any of it could be changed on its own terms. Elections, for instance, are widely understood to be insulting and meaningless rituals, technicized and commodified exercises in manipulation. Fulfillment and freedom are fast evaporating, while the predominant note of social theory seems to be completely uncritical. The subject is merely a shifting intersection of global networks; “the I is a moment of complexity,” says Mark Taylor in unconcerned summary.

Along with health-threatening obesity (largely due to the rapid spread of “fast food” and other processed foods), depression has become an international scourge. Among various consequences of development, depression testifies directly to the loss of deeply important ingredients of human happiness. But as Lyotard has it, “despair is taken as a disorder to control, never as the sign of an irremediable lack.” Already the fourth leading cause of disability in the U.S., depression is projected to take second place by 2020. Despite the general reactionary focus on genetics and chemical palliatives, depression has much more to do with the growing isolation of individuals within developed society. The figures about declining social and civic membership or affiliation are relevant; the rise of autism, binge drinking, and illiteracy betoken depression’s progress as an even more profound phenomenon. “At the time of the so-called triumph of the West, why do so many people feel so crappy, so lonely, so abandoned?” asks philosopher Bruce Wilshire.

It should no longer appear paradoxical that a deepening malaise co-exists with the escalating importance of expertise in managing everyday life. People distrust the institutions, and have lost confidence in themselves. Elissa Gootman’s “Job Description: Life of the Party” discusses hired party “motivators,” professionals who guarantee successful socializing. On a more serious note, instrumental rationality penetrates our lives at ever-younger ages. Kids as young as two are now routinely medicated for depression and insomnia.

An array of postmodernisms and fundamentalisms seems to have displaced belief in the future. Marcuse wondered whether narcissism’s yearning for completeness and perfection might not contain the germ of a different reality principle. Even whether, contra Hegel, reconciliation could only happen outside of historical time.

Such “critics” as there be (Chomsky, Derrida, Ricoeur, Plumwood, for example) call for a global governance/planning apparatus –– under which, it must be said, the individual would have even less of a voice. Anti-totality Derrida wants a “New International,” apparently ignorant of the actual zero degree of “democracy” that obtains in the current political jurisdictions. Such superficiality, avoidance, and illusion surely constitutes acceptance of the ongoing devastation. Of course, if statist regulation could be an answer it would necessarily be totalitarian. And it would be partial at best, because it would never indict any of civilization’s motive forces, such as division of labor or domestication.

What is clear to some of us is that a turn away from the virtual, global networks of power, unlimited media, and all the rest is a necessity. A break with this worsening world toward embeddedness, the face-to-face, non-domination of nature and each other.

Todd Gitlin, while rejecting such a refusal as mere “wishfulness,” is helpful on the subject: “So consistent abolitionists have little choice but to be root-and-branch, scorch-and-burn primitivists, scornful of the rewards of a consumer society, committed to cutting the links in the invisible chain connecting modern production, consumption, and the technologies implicated in both. Only unabashed primitivists can create postindustrial wholeness."


1 Anthony King, “Baudrillard’s Nihilism and the End of Theory,” TELOS 112 (Summer 1998).

2 Patrick Brantlinger, “Apocalypse 2001; or, What Happens after Posthistory?” Cultural Critique 39 (Spring 1998).

3 To speak in terms of a supposedly “unfinished project” of idealized modernity is bizarrely out of touch with reality.

4 The globalization of the dominant culture is revealed in “The Culture of Globalization” by Klaus Muller (Museum News, May-June 2003). Eighteen of the world’s leading museums, including the Louvre, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Hermitage, announced in December 2002 that artifacts of various cultures must be available to an international public, and therefore would not be returned, even if they had been seized during colonial rule.

5 Christine McMurran and Roy Smith, Diseases of Globalization (Earthscan Publications Ltd.: London, 2001) discusses deteriorating conditions.

6 See Joost Van Loon, Risk and Technological Culture: Towards a Sociology of Virulence (Routledge: London, 2002).

7 Manuel Castells, The Internet Galaxy (Oxford University Press: New York, 2002), p. 276.

8 Rob Shields, The Virtual (Routledge: London, 2003), p. 212.

9 Lee Silver proposes an extropian and horrific solution: the bionic transfer of the sense organs of bats, dogs, spiders, etc. in Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family (Avon Books: New York, 1997). For his part, Gregory Stock sees no likely opposition to such grotesqueries. “To ‘protect’ ourselves from the future reworking of our biology would require a research blockade of molecular genetics or even a general rollback of technology.”-from Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future (Houghton Mifflin: New York, 2002), p. 6.

10 Boris Groys, “The Insider is Curious, the Outsider is Suspicious,” in Geert Lovink, ed., Uncanny Networks: Dialogues in Virtual Intelligentsia (MIT Press: Cambridge, 2002), p. 260.

11 Andrew Feenberg, Transforming Technology (Oxford University Press: New York, 2002), p. 190.

12 D. Urquhart, Familiar Words (London 1855), quoted in Marx, Capital I, p. 363.

13 Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations [1776] (Modern Library: New York, 1937), pp 734-740.

14 “The great leap backward,” according to Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, The Imperial Animal (Holt, Rinehart and Winston: New York, 1971), p. 126.

15 Mark C. Taylor, The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 2001), p. 4.

16 Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1998), p. 106.

17 Hayles, ibid., p. 285.

18 Hayles, ibid., p. 246. The occasional assertion by such commentators that this reality is at the same time being “highly contested” is the height of irony, as is the mandatory repeated use of the buzzword “body” in virtually every postmodern work of the 1990s.

19 Very helpful here is Lorenzo Simpson, Technology, Time, and the Conversations of Modernity (New York: Routledge, 1995).

20 Mohammed A. Bamyeh, The Ends of Globalization (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, 2000), p. 100.

21 Scott Lash, Critique of Information (Sage: London, 2002), p. 220.

22 Lash, ibid., p. 1.

23 I. Bluhdorn, “Ecological Modernisation and Post-Ecologist Politics,” in G. Spaargaren, A.P.J. Mohl, and F. Buttel, eds., Environment and Global Modernity (Sage: London, 2000).

24 Steven Best and Douglas Keller, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium (Guilford Press: New York, 2001), p. 279.

25 Feenburg, op.cit., pp 4, 189.

26 Geoffrey Hartman, Scars of the Spirit (Palgrave/Macmillan: New York, 2002), p. 137.

27 Bamyeh, op.cit., p. x.

28 See Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, 2003).

29 Taylor, op.cit., p. 232.

30 Jean-Francois Lyotard, Postmodern Fables (University of Minnesota: Minneapolis, 1997), p. 31.

31 Bruce Wilshire, Fashionable Nihilism: A Critique of Analytical Philosophy (SUNY Press: Albany, 2002).

32 Elissa Gootman, “Job Description: Life of the Party” (New York Times, May 30, 2003).

33 Bonnie Rothman Morris, “Lullabies in a Bottle” (New York Times, May 13, 2003).

34 Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization (Little, Brown: Boston, 1955), p. 153, for example.

35 Todd Gitlin, Media Unlimited (Metropolitan Books: New York, 2002), p. 163.