The End of the Whole Mess

Some rough notes on the Unabomber’s new book.

j.r. hennessy
Sep 19, 2016 · 9 min read

These are the facts. Over the course of seventeen years, beginning in 1978, Theodore John Kaczynski killed three people and injured twenty-three more. He killed them with homemade bombs, crudely-fashioned devices packed with nails and splinters. His targets were those he believed perpetuated and upheld technological society — from engineering professors, to timber industry lobbyists, to computer shop owners.

Kaczynski, a former mathematics professor at Berkeley, meticulously planned his attacks from his home, a shack in the Montana wilderness. He had retreated there in 1971, where he lived mostly off the land, sans electricity and running water.

The reason he chose violence, he told radical environmentalist group Earth First! in 1999, was that the techno-industrial system, which had destroyed the planet, eroded human autonomy and shattered natural social bonds, was so deeply embedded that few, if any, would free themselves of it voluntarily.

I don’t think it can be done. In part because of the human tendency, for most people, there are exceptions, to take the path of least resistance. They’ll take the easy way out, and giving up your car, your television set, your electricity, is not the path of least resistance for most people. As I see it, I don’t think there is any controlled or planned way in which we can dismantle the industrial system. I think that the only way we will get rid of it is if it breaks down and collapses.

He challenged would-be radicals who — by dint of their overly philosophical approach — refused to confront the fact that the dramatic changes to society they proposed would likely cause huge numbers of deaths. “When things break down, there is going to be violence,” he said. “There isn’t going to be enough food to go around, so then what happens? This is something that, as far as I’ve read, I haven’t seen any radicals facing up to.”

The fact that the Unabomber has been incarcerated at a maximum security prison in Florence, Colorado since 1998 hasn’t by any means stopped him from chipping away dutifully at the fortified battlements of technological society. His latest book, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How, was authored from his maximum security lodgings, serviced by whatever scraps of information he could extract from those he corresponded with.

I was offered a copy of this book for review. For a normal book this would be unremarkable. But being offered a pre-release copy of a convicted terrorist’s book invites some reflection on the circumstances. The copy came courtesy of a publisher named Fitch & Madison, whose website — which was registered this year — offers only Kaczynski’s book for purchase. The publisher claims that they distribute material related to “the interaction of technology with society and the environment” which provide practical programs for “substantive and lasting positive change”.

I take this to mean that Fitch & Madison is very likely a front for one or more of the anarcho-primitivist and radical environmental collectives that Kaczynski remains in contact with. The book’s preface thanks various individuals who have either redacted their names or operate under pseudonyms who are no doubt associated with radical environmentalism. Fine. Whatever. I have written things critical of tech culture in the past, so that’s probably why Ted’s book landed on my desk.

Why write this book? It’s certainly an unusual undertaking for someone who clearly has had little exposure to the current form of the technological society he loathes, and for whom prison is the only environment he will ever experience again. Anti-Tech Revolution is an instructional manual for green revolutionaries, not unlike a primitivist Rules for Radicals. In it, he methodically lays out why technological society is doomed by its very nature, and how a particularly focused radical group ought to work towards unwinding it without unwinding themselves in turn. He outlines mistakes to avoid — the construction and distribution of bespoke explosives is curiously not mentioned— and explains the lessons one might learn from failed revolutions throughout history (but not his specifically).

As a trained logician, Ted has nearly zero time for abstract philosophical musings. This book is muscular and workmanlike. He lays out his arguments in a frequently maddening analytical style: a series of propositions are made, followed by a painstaking analysis of their truth value, followed by a dot-pointed list of historical examples. It’s the kind of writing which, if you’re not careful, can have you accepting some reasonably deranged ideological assumptions, purely because he’s laid it out like a fucking flowchart.

If you come to Anti-Tech Revolution looking for a window into the mind of a nutter, you probably aren’t going to find what you’re looking for. Kaczynski’s writing is so far removed from the things he actually did that you almost forget that he actually got around to attempting some kind of radically violent program. I’m rarely inclined to criticise someone else’s praxis — glass houses and all that — but a bombing campaign against seemingly random targets over two decades strikes me as fairly misguided, to put it lightly, and it’s probably for the best that he doesn’t openly advocate it here.

But if you’re not a philosopher, the book is cogent, and it is easy to follow. Though his ultimate conclusion — that we should toss our looms into the Thames and revert to a largely hunter-gatherer social lifestyle — is probably not particularly agreeable to you, his line of argument is, in parts, quite applicable to a normal environmentalist analysis. It‘d work as a justification for clean energy, or an emissions trading scheme, or vegetarianism, or any number of green preoccupations.

The only problem is that if you accept his argument, you probably need to accept his solution. This train only goes to one stop and there are unfortunately no brakes.

The core of Kaczynski’s thesis is as follows: technological society is an enormous self-propagating system which by its very nature will use up all the resources it needs to survive until there are none left, at which point it will collapse catastrophically.

This alone isn’t a particularly interesting assertion. Most people intuitively know that resources are finite and our society is churning through them far too quickly, which is why most people are at least begrudgingly in favour of either governments or markets developing renewable energy solutions. Kaczynski, on the other hand, thinks these efforts are futile. Why? Two reasons, primarily.

Firstly, says Ted, no human society can ever be subject to rational controls. Nobody will ever be able to agree on what a ‘good’ society is supposed to look like, and even if they did, it would be thoroughly impossible for any government or institution to maintain a functional consensus for any lengthy period of time without the inevitable intrustion of other interests. He believes that all political movements inevitably collapse because of a conflict of wills. Even the Platonic conception of the philosopher-king is doomed, because the philosopher-king will eventually die and whoever replaces them will have a different way of doing things. No program of sustainability can be maintained longterm under these conditions.

He believes that political organisations, be they under liberal democracy or a dictatorship, inevitably end up as careerist perversions which apolitical people commit themselves to out of desire for money, glory and power. Anyone who has spent more than one minute in the proximity of a political party will likely agree with this sentiment, but perhaps not to the extent where they a) advocate the resumption of a hunter-gatherer existence; and b) mail pipe-bombs to computer shops. To each their own.

Because we can’t possibly either predict or control the future of politics, Kaczynski argues, we’re inevitably going to be pulled to one conclusion or another by cultural and technological evolution.

Secondly, Ted believes that human society is essentially a biological organism. It’s a self-propagating system, which means that by its nature tends to promote its own survival. Whether it’s a human being or an entire complex human society, Ted argues that it will focus primarily on its own continued existence; almost entirely in the short-term rather than the long-term. Long-term planning is ultimately punished. He believes that natural selection favours those systems which prioritise the full use of the resources available to them, with little regard for conservation.

Technological society has allowed this system to extend across the entire planet. Whereas our societies were once limited by how far one could travel, communications tech allows us to effectively maintain a enormous, impossibly resource-hungry system. This means that — unless a radical disruption takes place — we will not be able to stop ourselves draining all the resources available to us. We will we able to see a cataclysm coming but will be able to do little or nothing about it.

It’s interesting that Kaczynski, who by basically all accounts was a deeply antisocial weirdo who struggled to control a Berkeley college maths class let alone a successful revolution, spends much of the book outlining how a revolutionary group ought to function. Attempting to provide a theory of political organisation before you learn how to interact with other human beings on an interpersonal level strikes me as very much a running before you can walk type of situation.

“I don’t actually think Kaczynski’s ‘dark path’ is very dark,” writes ‘wildist’ author John Jacobi, who has corresponded with Ted in the past. “He’s in general a fairly normal dude. Only when it comes to interpersonal relationships does he get weird.”

Ted advocates a fairly rapid anti-technological revolution, driven largely by a small vanguard of footsoldiers. He postulates that this is quite possible if they manage to leverage ‘the masses’, who may not agree with the program its entirety, but are happy to ‘permit great uncertainty in their lives’. He wants to keep the group small, so people with outside interests don’t pollute the main goal — which he says ought to be very strictly defined.

And it has to happen fast, because as soon as the leaders of the original group are dead, it will rapidly become infected with careerists who are seeking only “money, security, social status, powerful offices, or a career”. Why people would be looking for those things among a ragtag group of possibly armed green anarchists is anyone’s guess. It doesn’t seem like fertile ground for nepotism.

Because he thinks the world really is careening towards destruction sooner rather than later, his idea of a mass movement doesn’t actually involve getting people onside with his struggle. Citing historical examples — the corruption of Christianity when the Romans got involved, the corruption of Marxist regimes, the corruption of the American republic — he argues that the goal of a real revolutionary is just to get on with it. Use the masses, don’t worry about convincing them, and just tear the whole thing down.

And you’ve gotta tear it down real good. As he writes:

If a movement aims to transform a society, then the objective selected by the movement must be of such a nature that, once the objective has been achieved, its consequences will be irreversible. This means that, once society has been transformed through the achievement of the objective, society will remain in its transformed condition without any further effort on the part of the movement or anyone else.

It seems a bit glib to say that I’m not totally sold on the political programme proposed by the Unabomber — duh — but Anti-Tech Revolution genuinely is a perfect example of what happens when you build an entire schema based around logical rationalism, and you expound upon it from a fucking prison cell.

The idea that you can lay out the steps to a revolution of any kind like some kind of logic puzzle is quite stupid, and obviously so. Human beings do not operate according to some abstractly conceived set of postulates, and it’s also deeply weird that Ted lurches from decrying political society as futile precisely because you can’t control mass human behaviour with rational methods, to then prescribing a set of painstakingly rational methods for undoing that very same system.

Kaczynski’s diagnosis of technological society is actually quite solid and compelling, even if it has been said before to some extent by anarcho-primitivist philosophers like Jacques Ellul or posters on internet forums with black and green colour schemes. You may even agree with his final solution. But his method of getting there is either fanciful, or so hypothetical in nature that it’s barely even worth considering.

My take? The Unabomber is wrong.

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