Against the Megamachine: Essays on Empire and its Enemies
by David Watson
Autonomedia, New York and Fifth Estate, Detroit, 1999
Paperback / 334pp / no price given / ISBN 1-57027-087-2
Fifth Estate (FE), the US's longest running anarchist publication, has been criticised by some anarchists of note lately for having lost its critical edge. Even if this is true, the people involved with FE over the years - close to 30 now - set such a high standard that few anarchist publications can aspire to approach what they've accomplished. They, along with only a few philosophical allies, have spent much of the past 15-20 years examining the very foundations of civilisation to describe how thoroughly its subjects have been conquered - body, mind and soul - by the Megamachine of this book's title; AKA Leviathan in Fredy Perlman's epic book Against His-story, Against Leviathan! In addition to Perlman and Watson, FE can also claim to have nurtured the explorations and writings of John Zerzan as well as Noam Chomsky and Murray Bookchin. When, as promised in the author's introduction, FE publishes an anthology of many of the more outstanding of its essays, articles and rants, it will arm many eco-anarchists with the intellectual background they need to solidify their stance in the fight against the Megamachine. Sad to say, but anthropologists and archaeologists are far ahead of the anarcho-primitivists in publishing broad-ranging condemnations - or inquiries into the wisdom of - the world's conquest by the West. The forth coming FE Reader will do much to help make up for the lack of anarcho-primitivist literature when it appears. Until then, we have this collection of some of Watson's more meaningful writings, not only from FE, but also from publications such as The New Internationalist.
This is his third published book, the previous two being a critique of the US radical environmental/Earth First! movement in How Deep is Deep Ecology? and an even more critical analysis of Murray Bookchin's Social Ecology sect in Beyond Bookchin: Preface for a Future Social Ecology. Altogether, these books display Watson's keen dissident intellect and emphasise his eco-anarchist dialectic. The best aspect of Against The Megamachine (ATMM), though, is the inclusion of his writings which delve into subjects not often addressed enough by anarchist theorists - the imperial use of language, spiritualism from an anarchist perspective and the effects of militarisation on society and the militarised (soldiers and their increasingly civilian targets).
For those whose opposition to the never-satiated demands of technological corporate states is based mostly on intuition and personal observation, this book is an invaluable introduction to contemporary philosophy, psychology, anthropology and other fields of study which have - unwittingly or not - served to reinforce some of anarchy's most damning criticisms of society. Watson's take on many of these issues is very much enhanced by the influence of other-than-Western ways of thinking, as well as by radical eco-feminism. Considering anarchy's condemnation of falsely imposed boundaries, both internal and geographical, one would think there would be more such cross-germination. This is, unfortunately, not the case and we suffer greatly by not spending more time and energy communicating across linguistic and national boundaries. Some of the freshest, most exciting anarchist ideas are coming from South America these days, and Korea seems ripe for massive social change (if the US and China would butt out of their affairs).
ATMM offers the reader introductions to some of the most notable dissident archaeologists and strongest critics of 'First World' society to have emerged in the last century: Lewis Mumford, Stanley Diamond, Marshall Sahlins, Mircea Eliade, Vandana Shiva, Ivan Illich and Jacques Ellul. Also included are some barbs directed at other notable contemporary anarchist writers, particularly Jason McQuinn (Lev Cheryni), John Zerzan and Feral Faun. Though he engages these three in some back and forth discussions, Watson really lowers the boom on Bookchin and Chomsky, mostly for their refusal to break out of 19th Century notions - like 'progress' - in order to bring their dialectic into the 21st Century, which they have failed to do.
This is precisely what places publications like FE and Anarchy - A Journal of Desire Armed in the forefront of opposition to the all-consuming technocratic/industrial states. For much too long, tradition laden anarchists and syndicalists have tried - and usually failed - to convince the general public that 19th Century anarchist ideals have relevance and meaning to present day society. The traditionalists in the anarchist milieu - along with their fellow travellers in mainstream socialist and communist groups - continue to cling to ideologies so outdated that they've lost touch not only with discontent amongst the working class, but dissident scholars as well. We have the Situationists to thank for helping to bring an anti-capitalist critique into a contemporary idiom, and those they inspired - Perlman, for example - for expanding their dialectic far beyond an examination of the failures of capitalist society.
I feel a strong need to interject something of a personal aside here, since right now - as I write this - I am also engaged in an exchange of letters and ideas with a number of New African and other Black Liberation prisoners here in the US. The notion of 'progress', the slow evolutionary process which has nurtured Western civilisation and enabled it to spread and grow into the cancer-upon-the-earth that it is today, is a racist concept - amongst many of its other failings. It would give the anarchist perspective a great deal more relevance to the plight of exploited people the world over if this point were to be more thoroughly incorporated into the eco-anarchist/primitivist critique.
To be fair to the anarcho-traditionalists and their antecedents, though, it needs to be mentioned that Peter Kropotkin's Mutual Aid: A Factor in Evolution definitely introduced the mixture of anthropology with anarchist criticism of the state. Kropotkin's failing was that he didn't follow through with this line of inquiry. Maybe it was his era's fascination with new gadgets and peoples' infatuation with their own cleverness that blinded him to the dangers run away industrialism would bring. Even the great bore Bookchin - one of the earliest radical ecological philosophers - failed to put one and one together, and two of his books that should stand out as his greatest achievements (Remaking Society and The Ecology of Freedom) are instead utter failures, as he spends half the books condemning technological society and praising simpler lifestyles in contrast, then uses much of the rest of the books praising technology - provided that it is used for good and not evil ends. Not all 19th Century anarchists were taken in by the spectacle of industrialism though - Voltairine de Cleyre comes to mind. Anarchists would also do well to rediscover the writings of Henry David Thoreau - war tax resister, insurrectionary abolitionist theorist and nature lover.
Watson's book benefits greatly from his having had a chance to rework his writings. Some of the best - and longest - essays are combinations of related pieces that were published separately. The result is a book filled with examinations of radical scholarship and thought not often accessible to a casual, self-motivated reader. Though I don't see a price printed on the cover, I can't imagine it being so great as to make it unaffordable to just about any 'First World' consumer, it being a paperback only offering. Be warned, though, that ATMM is a gateway book and reading it could lead to more reading, even to the use of hard-covered books. If David Watson - or his pen names George Bradford and T. Fulano - are not familiar to you, you should seek out this book. The well-read anarchist will already be familiar with many of the concepts presented here, and his approach to some subjects from non-rational perspectives may well provide stodgy intellectuals a much needed break from concrete reality and offer a glimpse of a softer, more relaxed state of mind. That is probably the best thing that can be said of ATMM.
In the Church of Western Civilisation Superiority, Watson has tossed an intellectual brick through the stained glass windows that colour our perceptions of what lies beyond, and has shed light on the gloomy wasteland that engulfs us. The challenge now is to explore the terrain beyond.