The Decline and Fall of Everything
The landscape of capitalism is a global one, existing everywhere with only minor variations. But this universal reign of the paycheck and the price-tag is approaching a state of crisis, becoming noticeable to all but those whose idea of politics excludes everyday reality.
Naturally enough, this crisis of the spirit, this nearing collapse of daily routine, is reaching its most acute forms thus far in America, capital’s most advanced arena.
Dec 18, 2013
Who Killed Ned Ludd?
A History of Machine Breaking at the Dawn of Capitalism
The argument that the advent of capitalism brought a rise in the standard of living for workers has been refuted before, but is shown graphically in these two prints. Prior to the dominance of the capitalist economy and the establishment of the first factories in England, manufacturing was done in small shops and cottages overseen by a working master craftsman employing several apprentices and helpers. At left is a typical 18th Century establishment (1740) using foot and crank powered lathes. Large windows were the only source of light and regulated working time.
Nov 19, 2014
Do Unions Raise Wages?
A Note on “Labor Economics”
Although unions have long been identified by left revolutionaries as auxiliary organs of capital whose function is to regulate the sale of their members’ labor power, the myth still persists that they are “defense organs of the working class.” Even those who see no revolutionary potential for unions claim that at least unions have been responsible for a steady rise in workers’ income. John Zerzan attacks this thesis as being untrue and severs the last rationalization for their support. Revolutionary organization of workers will take place outside of the union structure.
Aug 11, 2015
Medieval Revolts against Church and State
In a fairly recent booklet, I came across a very standard view of pre-modern class society. It was stated that the life of the individual was completely controlled, and based on something quite external to him.
“The central mode of experience in pre-capitalist society was the event, principally the religious/historical event—Christ on the cross,” it explained further.
Jan 23, 2016
Unionization in America
The struggle for unionization in the 1930s has always been shrouded in myth and revered by both the labor movement and the Left as a period of labor militancy. A closer look at the developments shows a much different picture than was generally thought to be the case and exposes what the real role of the unions was.
Feb 20, 2016
Unions and the Nazi Labor Front
Both Marxist and liberal historians have always depicted the Nazi movement as the bitter enemy of unions and the victory of German fascism as the death knell of the labor movement. A critical examination shows that, in fact, the opposite was the case and the Nazis used the unions in the same manner as their predecessors.
Aug 4, 2016
Unionism and Taylorism
Labor cooperation with the “modernization” of production
Tay-lor-ism n. 1. The scientific management of industrial operations. 2. The systematic reduction of work within a given industrial operation to separate, distinct, routinized tasks devoid of policy decisions. Each aspect is measured and timed for its highest efficiency. 3. The system of such developed by Frederick Taylor in the late 1880s.
Aug 27, 2016
“Revolt Against Work” or the End of Leftism?
FE Note. The December 1976 Fifth Estate carried a critique by Charles Reeve (see “The Revolt Against Work or Fight for the Right to Be Lazy,” p. 9) of the contentions of John and Paula Zerzan that the crisis point in capitalism today revolves around worker alienation, job refusal, sabotage, absenteeism, etc. Reeve asserted that on one hand, the significance of this phenomenon is overplayed by the Zerzans and on the other, that to the extent that it does exist, it represents nothing new in workers’ struggles.
Jan 1, 2016
The transition from union shop to union world is underway, for unions have proven themselves the only integrative force even marginally capable of dealing with the definitive capitalist crisis, the crisis of participation. But “marginal capability” will not be nearly enough.
It has never been more clear that trade unionism is “ absolutely essential to the survival as well as to the stability of world capitalism. The trend toward the consolidation of unions, their closer integration with the state, and, most recently and remarkably, their development into a global network has finally presented, in fact, an unmistakable picture of modern fascism.
Oct 2, 2016
Notes on Captivity
“Few books today are forgivable. Black on the canvas, silence on the screen, an empty white sheet of paper, are perhaps feasible.”
— R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience
—a philosophy, a school: private property
—a substitute self-identity
—a barrier to life: mediation
May 1, 2017
New York, New York
The blackout of 1977
“Amid All the Camaraderie is Much Looting this Time; Seeing the City Disappear.”
—Wall Street Journal headline, July 15
The Journal went on to quote a cop on what he saw, as the great Bastille Day break-out unfolded: “People are going wild in the borough of Brooklyn. They are looting stores by the carload.” Another cop added later: “Stores were ripped open. Others have been leveled. After they looted, they burned.”
Dec 28, 2017
Industrialism & Domestication
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the rise of capitalism was met by bitter and intense resistance. Its establishment was only effectuated by the imposition of the factory system as a method of social control. The result was a tamed working class and a degradation of labor which lives today at the core of the marxist conception of socialism.
Feb 23, 2018
The Practical Marx
FE Note: The following article, an attempt to come to grips with the implications of Karl Marx’s everyday life by long-time FE contributor John Zerzan, has stirred considerable controversy among those of us presently working on the paper and necessitates, we feel, a few brief introductory observations.
Jan 13, 2015
The Promise of the ‘80s
For many, the 1970s were—and the 1980s bid fair to continue—a kind of “midnight of the century,” an arrival at the point of complete demoralization and unrelieved sadness. What follows is one attempt to gauge the obviously unhappy landscape of capital’s American rule and see whether there indeed exists no prospect for the ending of our captivity.
Dec 12, 2018
The Refusal of Technology
FE Introduction: Members of the Fifth Estate staff and our friends (as well as some not so friendly) have been debating the role of technology and its function within the larger system of domination almost since the inception of our tenure with this paper. At that time we were greatly influenced by the writings of the French Situationists and giddily shared their utopian dreams of cities on tracks that could be wheeled to the seashore each day and similar exotic visions of what a “liberated” technology could bring.
Dec 23, 2018
Anti-Work and the Struggle for Control
“Anti-Work and the Struggle for Control” continues John Zerzan’s work demonstrating the massive erosion of traditional American values, in this case centering on popular allegiance to the work ethic. Following it [in this issue, FE #309, June 19, 1982] is a rebuttal from Tim Luke, which appeared in Telos magazine No. 50 (Box 3111, St. Louis MO 63130, $5); this is followed by a reply from Zerzan and a comment from Bob Brubaker from the FE staff.
Mar 10, 2019
Discussion on Anti-work
Crisis of capital or its success?
“Anti-Work and the Struggle for Control” in this issue [FE #309, June 19, 1982] continues John Zerzan’s work demonstrating the massive erosion of traditional American values, in this case centering on popular allegiance to the work ethic. Below is a rebuttal from Tim Luke, which appeared in Telos magazine No. 50 (Box 3111, St. Louis MO 63130, $5); this is followed by a reply from Zerzan and a comment by Bob Brubaker of the FE staff.
Mar 16, 2019
A People’s History of the United States
a review of
Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, Harper & Row, New York, 1980, 600 pages plus index.
Howard Zinn is a “radical revolutionary,” whose People’s History is aptly named given its kinship with the various “Peoples Republics.” In fact, this “wild” book was conceived as a means of slaking Zinn’s “thirst for notoriety in the pecking order of the radical left,” as well as for the enrichment of himself and Harper & Row. So saith the reviewer for Barron’s  the financiers’ weekly.
Jun 3, 2019
Beginning of Time, End of Time
Just as today’s most obsessive notion is that of the material reality of time, self-existent time was the first lie of social life. As with nature, time did not exist before the individual became separate from it. Reification of this magnitude—the beginning of time—constitutes the Fall: the initiation of alienation, of history.
Dec 19, 2019
A World is Faltering
The ‘80s so far
It is impossible to give any credence to the statistics of disaffection and disintegration assembled here by John Zerzan and at the same time take seriously a recent survey in which the vast majority of Americans asserted to pollster George Gallup that they were “satisfied with their lives.” Our tendency, as the reader might imagine, is to accept John’s wide-ranging compilations as closer to the truth than the response to a simplistic question posed by a poll-taker.
Jan 3, 2020
George Bradford (David Watson)
Confronting the Enemy
A response on Time
[three_fourth padding=“0 25px 0 0”]In response to “Beginning of Time, End of Time” by John Zerzan, FE #313, Summer, 1983.
A project such as ours, based as it is on our mutual desire to abolish technological civilization, capital and domination, had to eventually take up the problem of time. All of us know with a visceral vengeance the horrid role of the clock in our lives. We don’t have to be convinced: we measure out our precious, limited im/mortality against the days, the hours and the minutes of captive time. So it was with great sympathy that I began John Zerzan’s ambitious essay on time. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm was dampened significantly by what I think were flaws not only in the form but in the intention or trajectory of the piece.
Jan 3, 2020
Origin and Meaning
When Winston Smith, in Orwell’s 1984, sits down to begin the diary which he has secretly acquired and which in and of itself is a criminal possession, he is mortified to discover that he has nothing—and everything—to say, that to begin means to start from scratch, to recreate language and meaning, to challenge everything, to make a statement large enough to identify the horror which pervades life and yet which can transcend that horror.
Jul 17, 2017
its origin & evolution
In his article on the idea of number, John Zerzan completes what appears to have become a trilogy on the origins and development of abstraction, and the accompanying alienation of humanity from nature and from the sources of its own being. Despite the difficult and inaccessible character of any anthropological-philosophical investigation of such cultural abstractions as time, language and number, his underlying motive is immediate and urgent—to discern in order to break out of “the wrenching and demoralizing character of the crisis we find ourselves in, above all, the growing emptiness of spirit and artificiality of matter.” He argues, “Who could deny that, in practice, quantity has been mastering us,” adding, “From knowledge, to information, to data, the mathematizing trajectory moves away from meaning...”
Jul 16, 2020
Fifth Estate Collective
Anarchy in the Age of Reagan
Two Views for Our Friends in Italy
The two essays printed here were written in response to a questionnaire sent out by the Italian anarchist magazine, Rivista anarchica, investigating the present situation for North American anarchist and libertarian groups and publications. Rivista anarchica, a monthly publication, is publishing a special issue on “Anarchism in America,” and asked each group to describe its point of view and activities, and to respond to the following two questions: 1) In the “Reagan era,” what do you see as the important areas of social conflict in North America from an anarchist perspective? and 2) In your opinion, what are the most relevant differences between the radical movements of the 60s and the radical movements of the ‘80s? Each question was to take about 20 to 30 lines. We’ve never been famous for brevity, so we did our best to talk about our concerns in the space allotted. The other response is from Anti-Authoritarians Anonymous (P.O. Box 11331, Eugene OR 97440), long-time collaborators of the FE whose articles have frequently appeared in these pages. We thought that the responses to Rivista anarchica would be appropriate for our 20th Anniversary issue as an indication of where we’re at and what we’re thinking.
Oct 14, 2020
The Case against Art
Art is always about “something hidden.” But does it help us connect with that hidden something? I think it moves us away from it.
During the first million or so years as reflective beings, humans seem to have created no art. As Jameson put it, art had no place in that “unfallen social reality” because there was no need for it. Though tools were fashioned with an astonishing economy of effort and perfection of form, the old cliché about the aesthetic impulse as one of the irreducible components of the human mind is invalid.
Nov 6, 2020
But It Doesn’t Move
a review of
And Yet It Moves: The Realization and Suppression of Science & Technology, by Boy Igor, 1986, 120 pp., $5, Zamisdat Press, GPO Box 1255, Gracie Station, NY NY 10028.
Boy Igor’s provocatively titled text gets off to a start that suggests a real depth. It challenges modern science as inseparable from the development of capitalism and pronounces “proletarian” science as bourgeois as proletarian art or the proletarian state.
Sep 9, 2017
E.B. Maple (Peter Werbe)
Objections to Councilism
In response to “More Minneapolis Anarchy”
FE Note: This is a response to “More Minneapolis Anarchy,” the letters beginning on page 15 of this issue.
The desire to maintain the technology developed under Capital’s reign after a libertarian revolution demands that it continue to be administered. The very scope of the productive process means that a similarly large deliberative and decision-making apparatus would exist to coordinate its functions. Those within the anti-authoritarian milieu, usually anarcho-syndicalists or councilists, advocate worker self-management through a system of councils as the best way to democratically and non-bureaucratically administer the capitalist means of production in a manner consistent with a revolutionary vision.
Aug 4, 2017
Agriculture: Essence of Civilization
Almost all John Zerzan essays feature accompanying introductions in which the word most frequently used to describe his method and conclusions is “provocative,” (see, for instance, Anarchy, Summer 1987). Some may think this only an ugly little term meant to distance a publication from the wild assertions that John so often makes in his writings (“wild,” by the way, is a word which I know he will not take as a pejorative). Realistically though, provocative accurately describes what is the common reaction to reading a Zerzan article—you are provoked, to anger or to thought.
Nov 21, 2020
“If we reach ‘alarming’ conclusions, then we do.”
Bob Brubaker’s defense of agriculture [this issue, FE #330, Winter, 1988–89] seems to have two main components, one in which agriculture itself recedes in favor of “symbolic exchange.” Here it is argued that “symbolism, not agriculture, was the sun around which primitive life revolved,” and that “where there is symbolic interaction with nature, ecological destruction doesn’t take place.” But while it is more pleasant to hear the voices of ceremonials and rituals than to contemplate the ravages of agriculture, reality must also be encountered.
Dec 31, 2020
PBS, Power & Postmodernism
The Public Broadcasting System produces “programming” toward a more manageable society. In fact, it is the network rather expressly for managers, and what it airs can best be understood by keeping in mind this service to the managing class. The exact ration of corporate to government funding of PBS is inconsequential to its basic nature and function.
Apr 8, 2016
A Gorilla Takes On Civilization--Sort Of
a review of
Ishmael, Daniel Quinn, 1993, Bantam/Turner, New York, 262 pp., $6.00.
Ishmael is a gorilla who places classified ads in search of those who would learn “how to save the world.” The narrator of Daniel Quinn’s critique of civilization is the (human) applicant to Ishmael’s one-gorilla school on what went wrong with humanity. In Socratic dialogue-type style, the nameless student learns the story of how Homo lived as a “Leaver” for two or three million years, only to become a planet-destroying “Taker” in the last 10,000 years.
Apr 14, 2016
Anarchy in Eugene
A Sleepy College Town Explodes
The “Whiteaker” is Eugene, Oregon’s oldest and poorest neighborhood. Over the past few years some significant anarchy-type situations have developed in Eugene, especially in Whiteaker.
Icky’s Tea House, open from 1994 to 1997, was an anti-institution institution, a haven for the dispossessed and disaffected. Everything at Icky’s was mainly free, including a library, video night, food for the homeless, and bike repair.
Feb 21, 2021
Fifth Estate Collective
E.B. Maple (Peter Werbe)
Excerpts from Fifth Estate history
Much of primitivist theorist John Zerzan’s early work appeared in the Fifth Estate. His Cassandra-like predictions of imminent collapse of modern society began in 1976 with his FE article, “The Decline and Fall of Everything”--a compendium of statistics of social dislocation.
With the FE, he explained the human dilemma as rooted in the institutions of civilization itself. He indicted not only agriculture, but also music, art, numbers, and even language itself as being the agents of human alienation. His provocative and often maddening articles that appeared in these pages were always answered by counter-critiques from our staff and led to feisty exchanges of letters. Eventually, we parted company with him.
Mar 6, 2014
Vagaries of the Left
John Zerzan answers liberal columnist Chris Hedges, who charges the Black Bloc has “hi-jacked” the Occupy Movement.
On February 6, progressive columnist Chris Hedges wrote a fairly predictable attack on Black Bloc militancy, “The Cancer in Occupy,” in Truthdig, the on-line news site.
It voiced, in general, the perspective of the liberal-moderate-reformist folks who have been mostly predominant in Occupy. Hedges’ screed against anarchists and others who “go too far” shows just what anti-authoritarians have been up against and why so few of them, in my experience, have been interested in Occupy.
Sep 6, 2013
John Zerzan in London, but not for the Olympics
The first half of August 2012 found my wife Alice and I in London, but not for the Olympic Games. The nonprofit contemporary art gallery Raven Row invited me to participate in a series of talks and displays titled “The Real Truth: A World’s Fair.”
The talks took place on successive weekends at the gallery on Artillery Lane in the East End just north of Whitechapel. We arrived too late to take in the first one on the history of wor
Apr 14, 2013
Last remaining lair of unparalleled wildness. Too big to fail?
The whole world is being objectified, but Melville reminds us of all that remains. “There you stand, lost in the infinite series of the sea.” What could be more tangible, more of a contrast with being lost in the digital world, where we feel we can never properly come to grips with anything?
Oceans are about time more than space, “as if there were a correlation between going deep and going back,” he writes. The Deep is solemn; linking, in some way, all that has come before. Last things and first things. “Heaven,” by comparison, is thin and faintly unserious.
May 20, 2013
Industrialism and its discontents
the Luddites and their inheritors
Download PDF [174 KB]
Nearly two hundred years ago, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley gave us a classic warning about the hubris of technology’s combat against nature. Her late Gothic novel, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus (1818), depicts the revenge nature takes upon the presumption of engineering life from the dead. Victor Frankenstein and his creation perish, of course; his “Adam” is as doomed as he is. If this monster cannot be saved by his father/creator, however, today’s cyborg/robot/Artificial Intelligence products do expect to be saved. For those at the forefront of technological innovation today, there will be no return to a previous, monster-free state.
Jun 13, 2013
Numb and Number
The digital age is pre-eminently the ultimate reign of Number. The time of Big Data, computers (e.g. China’s, world’s fastest) that can process 30 quadrillion transactions per second, algorithms that increasingly predict--and control--what happens in society. Standardized testing is another example of the reductive disease of quantification.
Number surpasses all other ideas for its combination of impact and implication. Counting means imposing a definition and a control, assigning a number value. It is the foundation for a world in which whatever can be domesticated and controlled can also be commodified. Number is the key to mastery: everything must be measured, quantified. It is not what we can do with number, but what it does to us. Like technology, its intimate ally, number is anything but neutral. It tries to make us forget that there is so much that shouldn’t or can’t be measured.
Dec 14, 2013
A History of Agriculture Misses the Mark
a review of
A History of Agriculture: From the Neolithic Age to the Current Crisis by Marcel Mazoyer & Laurence Roudart. Monthly Review Press, 2006, 528 pp., $50 paperback
Monthly Review was established in 1949 as a Marxist, Soviet-oriented Stalinist journal. In recent years it has changed its stripes somewhat, now pushing, for example, a green/eco Marx (!) and a reformist outlook. The latter outlook typifies Mazoyer and Roudart’s History of Agriculture which bills itself as “a path breaking and panoramic work.”
May 29, 2014
A Word on Civilization & Collapse
“Th-th-th-that’s all folks!” Has the human race’s grandest achievement--civilization--assured its collapse? It doesn’t look good!
Civilizations have come and gone over the past 6,000 years or so. Now, there’s just one----various cultures, but a single, global civilization.
Collapse is in the air. We’ve already seen the failure, if not the collapse, of culture in the West. The Holocaust alone, in the most cultured country (philosophy, music, etc.), revealed culture’s impotence.
Nov 4, 2014
The Practical Marx
Marx as opportunist & reformist politician
Karl Marx is always approached as so many thoughts, so many words. What connection is there between lived choices--one’s willful lifetime--and the presentation of one’s ideas? By 1846 Marx and Engels had written The German Ideology, which contains the full and mature ideas of the materialist concept of the progress of history. Along with this tome were the practical activities in politics. In terms of his Communist Correspondence Committee and its propaganda work, Marx (also in 1846) stated: “There can be no talk at present of achieving communism; the bourgeoisie must first come to the helm.”
Mar 19, 2015
To many, it seems there will be no escape from the dominant reality, no alternative to an irredeemably darkened modernity as civilization’s final, lasting mode. We are indeed currently trapped, and the nature of our imprisonment is not subject to scrutiny. Its very existence is off-limits to discourse.
Jul 29, 2015
We live in a technological life-world, more so by the hour. Our ecology is now all too largely technology, which has been irreversible, directional, and cumulative. The process that now characterizes civilization is a generalized technicization. Its success is measurable by how totally it has insinuated itself into society and into our consciousness––with grave consequences.
Apr 4, 2019
From Red Anarchism to Green Anarchy
From its Eat the Rich Gang incarnation in the 1970s, Fifth Estate has been an unparalleled source of new ideas. Thinkers like Fredy Perlman, Jacques Ellul, and Jacques Camatte were introduced and moved anti-authoritarian perspectives forward very significantly.
I was happy to be a part of an exciting opening, as many of us pondered the limitations and defeat of the 1960s. Foundational critiques of technology and civilization emerged.
Sep 22, 2019
Transhumanism, which rarely rates a mention in the media, suddenly had a brief moment of infamy recently due to the reported interest in it by the late, evil, child sex trafficker, Jeffry Epstein.
Transhumanism claims that by utilizing technology it can artificially enhance the human body, and, if pursued far enough, will solve everything including victory over death, as futurist Ray Kurzweil and others promise. It involves a headlong leap of faith, viewing advanced technology as a transcendent breakthrough. Bio-ethecist Amy Michelle Debaets termed transhumanism “the Rapture of the geeks.”
Feb 7, 2020
Withdrawal & Re-Entry
Alone in Mass Society
Maybe the best single word that describes things today is withdrawal.
From less sexual intimacy to NASCAR attendance, there’s just little interest. Clubs are closing as people retreat further into their little screens. When people go out, they are so very likely to be at their tables on their phones. Might as well be at home on the couch. (As obesity rates shoot up in an ever more sedentary culture.)
Apr 9, 2020
Death & the Zeitgeist
We are in mass society’s Age of Pandemics. At this stage of civilization nothing is stable or secure. The Age of Pandemics is also the Age of Extinction, as in no longer existing.
Death as an existential, ontological matter.
Nursing homes, prisons, meat packing factories—where humans and other animals are warehoused under the sign of Death. Meanwhile, life continues at the extremes of representation, the time of the virtual spectacle. Digital validation is the norm in hypermodernity. What exists is what is on the screen, displayed on the display screen and not elsewhere.
Oct 9, 2020