A culture of alienation

published 27 May 2013

Upon returning from Paris, I struggled to make sense of the counter-culture that I had been exposed to and the anarchist ideas that were influential within it.  After the mental shocks that I had experienced, I now considered myself an absolute beginner when it came to political thought. That trip to Paris represented my first encounter with anarchism as a living thing rather than a set of philosophical ideas or a historical episode. It was not at all obvious to me, however, how the ideas and the historical tradition that I had read about were connected with the contemporary counter-culture that I had encountered. I hoped that the literature I had been introduced to might fill in the gaps. 

I diligently read the books that Toner had recommended and while I found them full of new information and novel ways of looking at the world, any sense of coherence escaped me.  At first glance, they appeared to be random snippets of information about topics that had little or nothing in common.  However, as my first introduction to this world of ideas, they made a big impression upon me and I eventually came to understand that, on a philosophical level, they encompassed a representative sample of the core theoretical ideas that were in circulation within the anarchist-influenced counter culture. Thus, it is worthwhile to briefly describe the ideas that I found therein.

The English language books that I came across were produced by 3 small, independent specialist publishing houses: AK Press based in the UK, and Autonomedia and Semiotexte, both based in New York.  Even the names of these publishers suggested  subversion and adventure to me.  Taken together they conjured up images of autonomist rebels with AK47s in one hand, the iconic weapon of third world guerrillas, and semtex grenades in the other, the favourite explosive of the IRA.  (I later realised that the semtex association was probably not intended, as it would have been quite obscure to non-Irish people, and that the name referenced the infinitely less glamorous topic of semiotics). 

Future Primitive

The first book was entitled “Future Primitive and other essays” by John Zerzan.  Compared to much of the other theoretical material that I came across, it had the benefit of being clearly written.  It set out the argument, based upon archaeological evidence, that the Neolithic revolution, when early humans had adopted agriculture, was a significant regression in human civilization.  The birth of agriculture had seen the rise of private property and class society - elites and commoners - and all the repression that went with it.  With greater population density and longer working hours, the health, life expectancy and well-being of early farmers had been significantly worse than their hunter-gatherer forebears. Although, by modern times, we had made up the gap, the improvements of industrial civilization came at the expense of a profound alienation from the natural world and from our own feelings and sensations.  The solution was for us to return to our pre-civilized state and to live once again in harmony with nature. 

I found this book interesting because, for the first time, it challenged my assumption that human history had been essentially progressive in nature.  I had subconsciously adopted the idea that, with technological progress, things had by and large got better over time for humanity. I took Zerzan’s presentation of the evidence at face value. Since then, however, I have looked into the archaeological records myself.  His argument concerning the significant regression in life-quality that agriculture introduced is valid as is his identification of agriculture with the emergence of private property and class society (for example, see this paper).  On the other hand, he was certainly guilty of cherry-picking the evidence to suit his thesis.  In particular, his description of hunter-gatherer society as being free of warfare and lethal violence was wrong – modern archaeological evidence suggests that violence is proportionally a greater cause of death among hunter-gatherer people than agriculturalists. 

Temporary Autonomous Zones

The second book was entitled “Temporary Autonomous Zones” (shortened to TAZ) by Hakim Bey.  It put forward the argument that, the modern machine of capitalism and the state is all pervasive and has so many structures of control that it cannot be directly challenged. All that people of an anarchist inclination can hope for is to create temporary spaces where non-hierarchical social systems can be constructed. Within these spaces, free from formal structures, individual creativity can flourish which is where real empowerment lies.

Bey is far inferior to Zerzan as a writer.  His prose is unclear and peppered with pseudo-scientific language and complex sentences which mask their lack of meaning. On the other hand, Bey’s book addressed the concerns of his counter-cultural audience much more directly than Future Primitive did. Squats, infoshops and alternative social spaces could easily be conceived of as the TAZs of which he spoke.  Bey’s alternative was far less ambitious than that of Zerzan, for he did not put forward any real picture of what a better future might look like, leaving it to the imagination of his readers.  However, his goal of achieving empowerment through freeing creativity from the chains of formal structures is closely related to Zerzan’s ideal of unmediated experience – both consider that the fundamental goal of life is to liberate the individual from the restrictions that modern industrial mass-society places upon them. 

Society of the Spectacle

The third book was “Society of the Spectacle” by Guy Debord.  Debord was the principle thinker of the Situationist International, a tiny communist grouping which rose to some prominence during the 1968 student uprising in Paris, largely due to the resonance among the students of their pithy, enigmatic slogans such as: “Metro – Boulot – Dodo” (metro – work – sleep) “be realistic, demand the impossible”, “unbutton your mind as often as your fly”.  Debord’s book focused on the alienating and soul-destroying nature of modern life in the face of “the spectacle” – the capitalist machine which packaged up commodities, events and feelings and sold them back to the public in the form of advertisements, marketing and a life mediated through media.  His solution to this problem was to interrupt and subvert the spectacle, by inserting discordant snippets into its flow, thereby destroying the audience’s suspension of disbelief and making the choreographed nature of the spectacle clear to all. 

“all that was once directly lived has become mere representation” ~ Guy Debord

In contrast to Bey and Zerzan, Debord was coming from an explicitly Marxist, rather than anarchist, point of view and was situated in the Marxian tradition of critical theory.  This meant that he couched his argument in terms of well-known Marxist concepts such as “commodity fetishism” and looked at alienation as a manifestation of the expropriation of surplus value.  It also meant that, true to his tradition, his meaning was often as clear as mud, full of rhetoric and dominated by clever turns of phrase that masked the banal sentiments that underlay them.  On the other hand, what his turns of phrase lacked in insight, they made up for in poetic resonance.  Nevertheless, despite its different starting point, at its heart, his philosophy was extremely close to that of Zerzan – the problem with the modern world is that “all that was once directly lived has become mere representation”. The goal was to somehow return to a state where directly lived experiences triumphed over mediated existence.

Alienation and its theorists

The common theme of these books was the alienating nature of modern society - a society which reduces the individual to a passive observer, a mere cog in an industrial machine.  They were each, in their own way, impassioned cries of despair from individuals who felt powerless in the face of the great industrialised, highly-structured societies in which they found themselves. On the plus side, they all resonated with their audience and addressed sentiments that are commonly felt by many individuals who live in industrialised Western societies.  Who has not looked at the great institutional and economic structures of modern society and felt themselves to be powerless and passive observers of the world? 

or c) eccentric revolutionaries image: Roswitha Siedelberg (flickr)

However, impassioned laments about the alienating nature of industrial capitalism are all very well - but figuring out what to do about the problem is a different kettle of fish.  Each of their proposals for change required healthy dollops of magical thinking in order to fill in the logical gaps. In Zerzan's case, there is the inconvenient fact that agriculture and industrialisation have greatly increased the earth's carrying capacity. Coming up with a politically attractive way of reducing the population of the world from its current figure of 7 billion to something like 100 million in order to make the hunter-gatherer solution viable is not trivial. It is safe to presume that 98.5% of the population aren't going to suddenly disappear.

In Bey's case, while there is nothing particularly challenging in the idea that people could establish temporary autonomous zones; the problem is in coming up with a plausible mechanism whereby these might actually have an impact on the overall structure of society. 

In Debord's case, the problem is similar: it is very hard to see how interruptions to "the spectacle" might lead to structural social changes.  Indeed, the attention grabbing 'detournements' championed by the situationists have long been incorporated into the standard repertoire of advertising agencies, who frequently use counter-conventional methods that subvert the norms of their business in order to grab the attention of their audience.  Capitalism and the consumer society remain resolute in the face of such spectacular interruptions.

image: South Park

On a deeper level, however, the theorists of alienation face an even greater problem.  Their shared goal, of eliminating alienation by returning to directly lived experiences and intimately felt sensations is ephemeral and hard to pin down.  They express a yearning for a feeling of direct connection to the world which they perceive as lacking in their current existence. Depending on how one interprets this goal, it is either entirely trivial to achieve - just stab yourself in the hand and you'll have a very direct experience of your sensations.  Less facetiously, nature and the outdoors are rarely beyond the reach of anybody who lives in the industrialised world who wants to experience them.  Similarly, there's nothing that structurally prevents people from having inter-personal relationships that are as meaningful as any relationships our ancestors enjoyed. 

On the other side of the coin, the goal can be interpreted in a more far-reaching and messianic sense. In this sense the concept of direct experience approaches the christian conception of heaven - a pure spiritual connection between the individual and the world, free of all mediation by structures, systems and technology.  Zerzan goes furthest down this road. For him, symbolic thought is itself a cause of alienation – it intervenes between us and our sensations.   However, a pure unmediated sensation is just a neuron firing in the brain.  Symbolic thought is what differentiates humans from ants.  Without it, we would be little more than simple stimulus-response machines.  The alienation that he seeks to escape is the alienation that comes from the capacity for reflection and emotional richness, side-effects of having a highly evolved brain. 

Beyond alienation

Although the alienating nature of modern society and the yearning to escape it, was a central idea that ran through the theorists of the anarchist-influenced counter culture, there were many other influential strands of thought. 

  • From classical socialism came the idea that the current distribution of wealth and power was illegitimate and based upon exploitation.  
  • From classical anarchism came the idea that the state was an inherently illegitimate institution based on violence and oppression.  As a consequence illegal non-violent actions were not only condoned, but were positively celebrated as long as the victims were considered to be either wealthy or large institutions.  Violent actions against the armed forces of the state or large corporations were also generally celebrated.  
  • From the anti-colonialist and civil rights movements of the 1960s came the idea that white supremacy was a significant force in the world.  Consequently, militant anti-racism and anti-imperialism was pervasive.
  • As an extension of this, a general sympathy for guerrilla actions was fairly common.  In particular, groups like the Black Panthers, the American Indian Movement and, to a lesser extent, the European urban Guerrillas of the 1970s were celebrated, particularly when it came to their iconography - from the German Red Army Faction, to the English Angry Brigades and the Italian Red Brigades.  Feelings towards nationalistic movements closer to home such as ETA and the IRA were more ambiguous. 
  • Hip-hop culture was an influential current - its music and its graffiti in particular - and urban black American culture was a reference point.  As hip hop became big business, this faded away and punk staged a come-back, but in the mid 1990s, hip-hop was in the ascendancy. 
  • Feminism and the politics of gender and sexuality had a presence but were less influential within the anarchist-influenced counter-culture of the 1990s than they became in later years. This was probably due to the predominance of young men involved in squatting and running social centres. 

After my introduction to this world in early 1995, I spent the next 3 years exploring many aspects of the European counter-cultural movement. However, I was never more than a visitor and observer. For one thing, I lacked the desire to discover a new cultural home. Those who most readily identify with niche sub-cultures normally have personal experiences of feeling excluded from the mainstream culture that they were brought up within. This feeling of exclusion can come from all sorts of sources: an individual’s family, sexuality, hobbies, schooling, friendship groups and relationships can all differ significantly from the norms presented by the dominant culture around them. These differences can lead to a feeling of exclusion and a longing to find an alternative cultural world from which they are not excluded. None of this applied to me.

While I had serious problems with what I saw as a deeply unfair, dishonest and hypocritical political and economic system, this came from observation and political theory, not from a personal feeling of exclusion or victimhood.I was interested in this counter-culture primarily because of the anarchist ideas which were influential within it. And while I thought that the squats, social centres and infoshops that I came across were interesting examples of how it was possible to organise things on a non-commercial and collective basis, the prospect of dropping out of my relatively mainstream life to become a squatter did not seem at all appealing.

I was also very keen on seeing as much of the world as I could. Having adopted a new analytic framework courtesy of Chomsky, I realised that most of what I thought that I had known about the world beyond the wealthy nations of the West was little more than a ragtag collection of prejudices and superficial assumptions. Thus, upon returning from Paris, once my college exams were completed in May of 1995, I set my sights on travelling to the third world, to try to gain some insight into how societies outside of the world I knew actually functioned.

That will be the subject of the next installment, which I will publish on Thursday.

Comments (5)


Interesting.....my education continues!


I like your honesty. Keeping things clear and, with each new chapter, beginning anew.

Jock Ular

Buddhists (meditation for nirvana), Quakers (waiting worship) and others all go for the "lived now" experience. Fairer to say that it's a spiritual current which purports to offer direct experience of a reality to an individual adherent.

I hadn't really thought about the situationist stuff being an appeal to "feeling" connected to reality. Nice point.

Good, interesting writing. Will definitely be coming back for the next installment.


Great writing, Chekov.
If you haven't read it, I'd recommend the book 'Don't Sleep, There Are Snakes' by Daniel Everett which is peripherally pertinent to the subject above. Everett writes of his attempts to bring Christianity to the Piraha tribe way up the Amazon, almost completely beyond the reach of western influences, including language. Illiterate and totally innumerate they are ripe for conversion, he believes. Eventually he comes to the conclusion that the Piraha are the happiest people he has ever encountered and they should be left alone.
So, if you want to read of a genuinely alternative life this book gives you a pretty good insight.
Keep up the good writing.

Thanks Always R...

Dear Chekov,

I'm writing to let you know about my new ebook / website, at www.thanksalwaysreturns.net. It's a collection of poetry and dialogs, written from the perspective of a person who grew up alienated. As difficult as it is to grow up that way, an advantage is that one reaches a viewpoint that's unique, and maybe helpful to others. Writings like yours, and the titles you've shared here, have been an inspiration throughout my effort to bring my own stories and thoughts forward.

I think our modern society is very successful at leaving many of its brighter, or more unusual, youth feeling unloved and unlovable. Though the costs are hard to measure, I've dug into an exploration of them, at least metaphorically. I hope my website will help you and others to consider how one individual's alienation can deeply affect many lives.

Thanks Always Returns