George Walford: Forward to Nature

Humanity may have arisen from the apes rather than descended from the angels, but some thinkers see its later history as a decline; condemning our present ways of living they look back with nostalgia to the life of the original stateless communities. Engels set the theme with ‘primitive communism’ in his Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and although that theory had to be abandoned when the work (by Lewis Henry Morgan) on which it relied proved unsound, a revised version has since been constructed; in an article entitled ‘Future Primitive’ [1]. John Zerzan offers an unusually extensive and well-documented presentation of this. The human race, he claims, enjoyed two million years of leisure, bliss, sensual wisdom, sexual equality, health and direct authenticity within the bounds of nature, a condition of wholeness and natural order in which all shared a consciousness we would now regard as extrasensory. This was our human nature prior to enslavement by priests, kings, and bosses; from this high point we have descended. What orthodox thinking sees as progress would be better understood as regression.

The natural human condition, Zerzan tells us, was that of the original gatherer-hunters. After a couple of million years of this, somewhere around the late Upper Palaeolithic, deterioration set in, and the principal agents of destruction were the features so long regarded as humanity’s great achievements. Language came on the scene to act as as an inhibiting agent, stemming the open flood of images, sensations and communion, encouraging domestication and control. Number, art, division of labour, symbolic culture and reified time all entail alienation from the natural. The Venus figurines of some 25,000 years ago mark recognition of the female as a cultural category, wild and dangerous, to be controlled by way of representation. Significantly, subjection of the wild in the form of hunting large mammals, with ritual as an integral part of the enterprise, appeared around the same time. The famous cave paintings served the initiation of youth into the new complex social systems, with their order and discipline. Symbolic culture replaced direct contact with nature, and it came with an inherent will to manipulate and control.

No bibliography accompanies the article, and the references give only surname and date. This makes them hard to check, but some are familiar and these have been accurately quoted; we can accept that the sources do contain the statements attributed to them. Whether we can accept the construction into which Zerzan builds these statements is a different matter; his article includes, together with results of observation, a good deal of evaluation, some of it obtrusive. He tells us that ‘life before domestication / agriculture was in fact largely one of leisure, intimacy with nature, sensual wisdom, sexual equality and health,’ (emphasis added). It would be going too far to suggest that he has designed his own foragers to suit his argument, but he himself goes too far the other way in claiming simple factuality for this description; it contains a strong element of value-judgment. That intimacy with nature, seen from the other side, becomes exposure to all that unmodified nature can inflict. The original life lacked the cultural developments that now add depth to sexual relations, and he himself emphasises that sensual wisdom (whatever that may be) arises in the absence of art, ritual, literacy and science. One of the anthropologists Zerzan does not mention quotes an account of the Yupik people of Alaska. Starting from facts similar to those on which he bases his description it presents these people as ‘disgusting, evil-ridden, frivolous, profligate, immoral and unclean’ [2]. Being loaded the other way, this brings out the extent to which Zerzan’s account departs from the unprejudiced objectivity his phrase ‘in fact’ claims for it.

This ten-page article cites one hundred and eighty-seven different authors. (Things got a bit tense towards the end of the counting, when it began to seem that the obligatory reference to Foucault had been omitted, but he came galloping over the hill in the final paragraph). No matter how carefully Zerzan may work, he can hardly have integrated all the relevant results of all these investigators into one consistent account, and in fact he mentions that one of them (Foster) ‘appears oblivious to’ what Zerzan sees as the horrors of our present condition. Also, the article – if I may put it this way – includes significant omissions. In judging the validity of what Zerzan says we need to take account of things he does not say. Some of these have been mentioned above, and we shall find that one anthropologist he quotes draws attention to a feature of foraging life, not mentioned in ‘Future Primitive’ which radically alters the picture.

Overshadowing the whole article there hangs the big question: WHY? If the original human condition was as satisfactory as Zerzan claims, why was it ever abandoned? He brings forward no disadvantages, presenting early foraging life as nothing less than the reality underlying the myths of a Golden Age and a Garden of Eden. Why did the foragers exchange a life of peace and innocence, of freedom and ease, for penury, suffering, and a day-long grind? He speaks of ‘enslavement by priests, kings and bosses.’ This has the merit of simplicity, but it raises more questions than it tries to solve. Priests, kings and bosses are necessarily in the minority against believers, subjects and workers; in a society without coercive institutions, how did they manage to impose this enslavement? And, even before that, where did these deceivers, rulers and exploiters come from? The whole of humanity was living, we are told, peacefully and contentedly, without overlordship or means for maintaining social order (they had no need of them), when – Hey Presto! Abracadabra! – they were enslaved by priests, kings and bosses. We all know of the hero in the serial; left hopelessly pinioned, he gained his freedom in the next instatement: ‘with one bound, Fearless was free’; Zerzan’s foragers, also, leap from one condition to the next.

Other remarks that may be intended as solutions to the problem are no more helpful. Zerzan speaks of the will to production breaking through and, repeatedly, of domestication and division of labour, but rather than providing an explanation these are the very things that need one. Once these practices have started they do, as he says, tend to escalate; the greatly enlarged population permitted by agriculture brings a demand for more intensive cultivation. This still leaves the big question: Why did they ever start? He does not tell us, rather presenting the original condition as so satisfactory that it rules out any motive for change.

The novelties began to appear something like 25,000 years ago, and only as they developed did the communities in question begin to leave any very informative traces. Our best evidence for the behaviour of the original hunter-gatherers comes from observation of the peoples following this way of life in modern times, and even this has to be treated with caution. Zerzan properly reminds us that modern foragers have been driven out to marginal lands and influenced over many centuries by other ways of life; we cannot simply read off the original condition from accounts of modern gatherer-hunters. Ideas about the first human communities have to remain partly speculative, but two imperfections of this early life, two likely reasons for its abandonment, can plausibly be suggested.

Natural food supplies, especially the vegetable resources to which Zerzan largely limits his early people, offer an ample and varied diet but rarely a continuing sufficiency in any one place. The modern peoples without food-production live largely nomadic lives and it is hard to see how the first foragers, even in more fertile areas, can have survived without doing the same. To moderns pent in their populous cities the idea of a free-ranging life may sound attractive, but this feeling would be unlikely to survive the experience; the early foragers abandoned their wanderings and settled into permanent locations when his became practicable. It was mainly in the rain-forests and near-deserts, where agriculture could hardly be practised without modern technology, that foraging continued. Nomads often show an emotional attachment to their range, the Australian Aborigines in particular being famous for this, and although often quoted to their credit, this is better seen as a limited version of a feeling only sedentary peoples can enjoy in full measure; it needs the institution of the family hearth, the abiding place, the home, to carry it to completion. Agriculture rendered this generally available, providing what looks very much like one incentive for adoption of the new methods.

Another feature of the wandering life suggests an even stronger motive for change. Pastoral nomads can travel in style with the yurt and household goods on their carts or travois but foragers, having neither vehicles nor domesticated animals, can take with them only what they carry. Zerzan correctly reports that many of them die with pretty much what they had as they came into the world, but he presents this rather as a deliberate decision, linking it with a supposed preference for nature over culture and wealth; in fact their way of living leaves them little choice.

One can readily envisage life without bedding, furniture, carpets, crockery and other household encumbrances; it may even have its attractions. But what of the children? On level city pavements a mother with even one infant can hardly do the local shopping without a pushchair. How were foragers, having no wheels, dogs, horses or cattle, to manage more than the most limited numbers of young children on long journeys over rough country?. This question links up with the absence of any rapid growth in numbers among foragers early or modern; only with the advent of agriculture does the population curve turn steeply upwards. Having no reason to believe foragers less inclined than other people to engage in child-producing activities, we are compelled to ask: What happened to the missing children? Zerzan suggests that early forager women may have been able to control their own fertility. One can only say ‘Well, perhaps,’ and add that modern foragers use other methods. Marshall Sahlins, an anthropologist whom Zerzan cites though not in this connection, speaks of: ‘infanticide, senilicide, sexual continence for the duration of the nursing neriod, etc., practices for which many food-collecting peoples are well known.’ [3] Joseph Birdsell, making a quantitative study of infanticide, found that in the not very distant past the Australian Aborigines he studied had been killing something between 15% and 50% of their children, not because of any racial characteristics but as a necessary part of the foraging life. [4]

I mentioned above some of the features, reasonably ascribable to early gatherer-hunter life, which do not appear in Zerzan’s article; when we add abstinence from sexual activity for months or years at a time, and the need to kill off many of the old and young, still more of the glamour evaporates, making it easier to understand the willingness to enter upon a way of life which looked as though it would remove such burdens. It did not succeed in doing so at all completely, even in favoured areas, until much later (infanticide, particularly of female children, persists in some peasant countries even today), but the people who first started to grow crops had no way of foreseeing that.

Although these suggestions remain largely speculative – we have no direct evidence to support or contradict them and are not likely to get any – we can feel reasonably certain that there must have been more to the condition of the early foragers than appears in Zerzan’s article. He tells us, and I know of no reason to question the assertion, that their level of intelligence deserves our respect. How, then, did they come to do anything so stupid as to exchange the delightful way of life he describes for one grossly inferior? The rational answer, the one best supported by such evidence as we have, is simple: they didn’t. Foraging life suffered from radical disadvantages which Zerzan does not mention, and the people familiar with it moved on to one which they found preferable.

Zerzan believes the original way of life to be the true expression of human nature, and examination shows this belief to be deeply flawed. High though the intelligence of the first people may have been their knowledge and resources were limited, so that in order to survive at all they had to follow the narrow path permitted by their physical circumstances. They lived under subjection to all that nature could throw at them, but we are not entitled to think of them as choosing this; they had no option. As soon as another way of life became available, one offering a degree of freedom from the limitations imposed by nature, they went for it. Once they learnt how to produce food the new method spread over the whole world, omitting only the areas where climate or terrain made it impractical, and with food-production went the social organisation that both presupposed and enabled it. This indicates a natural inclination towards the wider opportunities these developments made available, an inclination formerly inhibited by lack of knowledge. The original way of living was determined by nature, yes, but mainly by a nature external to humanity; only as they gained a degree of freedom from nonhuman influences did human beings become able to follow their inherent inclinations. It has not been the first people but the later generations, those exercising greater control over external nature, who have enjoyed the greater liberty to live in accordance with their human nature. That liberty remains always conditional, external restrictions never completely disappearing, but it grows with humanity’s ability to assert its preferences against the outside world. We now carry greater responsibility for our own condition than ever before and rational thinking has to accept what we do in these circumstances, rather than when we were helpless in the grip of our physical and biological environment, as the expression and embodiment of human nature.

The dangers now overhanging us are more obvious than former ones, and perhaps more urgent, but the worst of them we have created for ourselves. To a greater extent than ever before our salvation lies in our own hands, and the outlook will improve when thinkers like John Zerzan come to see that the society fully consonant with human nature lies in front of us rather than behind.

[1] John Zerzan, ‘Future Primitive’ in Anarchy, a Journal of Desire Armed #33 Summer 1992.
[2] Quoted by Jonathan Bentall, in Anthropology Today, Volume 5 No.5 October 1989.
[3] Sahlins M. 1974 Stone Age Economics London & NY: Routledge.
[4] Quoted in Pfeiffer 1978 The Emergence of Man NY: Harper & Row.



Although the term has come to be used for the worldwide economic system, the market in the old sense of an open-air display of goods for sale is still with us. In London the Caledonian Market has been turned into football pitches but Portobello Road, Ridley Road, Camden Passage and many other gatherings of stall-holders keep an ancient tradition alive. Jumble-sales flourish although church bazaars have dropped away, and car-boot sales have multiplied to a point where the police worry about them as a way of recycling stolen goods. The market, in the sense of a place to which sellers bring their goods on each occasion, seems to have been the original method of organised trade. (With the system of exchange by leaving goods in a particular place without the parties meeting as a sort of proto-market). And as private trade starts to move more freely among the ruins of attempted communism this is one of the shapes it takes.

Under the title ‘Samovars and Sex on Turkey’s Russian Markets,’ [5] Chris and Ildiko Hann report on recent developments along the border between Turkey and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. The collapse of centrally-planned economies brought an upsurge of petty trading throughout Eastern Europe, and now the ‘Russian market’ appears in every Turkish town along a strip of several hundred miles. A few dealers come in their Mercs bringing cameras and colour televisions, but more arrive in convoys of Ladas, by chartered coach or even the regular bus service, sometimes with only a single holdall, bringing everything from small machine tools to secondhand clothes and plastic tanks intended for young Pioneers – and sometimes also sex for sale.

All prices are low by Turkish standards, especially if the buyer has American dollars, and things are becoming more organised as the flow of information improves. Like petty traders elsewhere in Eurasia, the sellers from the former USSR have shown ‘that generations of socialist rule have hardly impaired their ability to act and react like optimizing entrepreneurs.’

[5] Anthropology Today, August 1992.

from Ideological Commentary 58, November 1992.