TECHNOLOGICAL SLAVERY: THE COLLECTED WRITINGS OF THEODORE J. KACYNSKI
Ed. by David Skrbina
Theodore Kaczynski knows how a revolutionary manifesto is supposed to begin. You don’t beat around the bush. Just blast out a slogan that can be painted on a placard or embroidered on a flag. “Man is born free and everywhere is in chains.” “A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism.” “The Industrial Revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”
Kaczynski’s call for revolution has a familial resemblance to those of Rousseau and Marx in being directed at an oppressive political system, or more broadly a system of power, that has to be dismantled. For Rousseau it’s the social contract, for Marx capitalism, and for Kaczynski industrial civilization, technological society, or the industrial-technological or technoindustrial system (the adjectives industrial and technological are used interchangeably, as are civilization, society, and system).
The technoindustrial system does not serve human needs, but rather constitutes an autonomous source of power that forces humanity to serve it. This is something humans are not evolved to do, so we are required to adopt various coping mechanisms (drugs, etc.). Now, as with Marx’s dialectic, the collapse of the present system is inevitable. It’s going to happen eventually anyway, though perhaps only when it destroys the planet itself. But Kaczynski thinks we can and should move the process along by taking revolutionary action. Things are only going to get worse if we keep going down the road we’re on, so better to pull the Band-Aid off with one quick yank. Which is one of the reasons Kacynski is in prison for life (though the mail bombs, he confesses, were mainly just a way of getting attention for his manifesto).
Getting rid of technological society and then seeding the ground with salt (“the factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc.”), will of course be massively disruptive and painful, though the payoff is that we will become physically and psychologically healthier in the long term, and save the planet. Civilizational collapse, however, is not something many people not already living off the grid in a shack in the woods are likely to vote for. They are the Last Men, addicted to their lives of comfort and convenience, even when such an existence is making them sick and undermines their human dignity.
As with so many such diatribes the analysis of the problem is fairly persuasive. Much of modern life is oppressive and damaging to ourselves and the planet. Far less convincing is the solution, which is radical in its simplicity. Even if we don’t go all the way back to hunting and gathering, which is Kacynski’s preferred outcome or “social ideal,” we’ll return to living in small agricultural communities, sort of like medieval villages without the feudalism, or, if you can imagine such a thing, libertarian communes. (Kacynski is against collectives, which he associates with leftism and slave/victim morality —ressentiment leading to a corrupted will to power and ultimately totalitarianism.) It should come as no surprise, given his life choices, that he comes across in these pages as a more than mildly anti-social person.
Kacynski is aware, however, that revolutions never have predictable outcomes. He even offers this up as a principle of history. So whatever plans he has for a future society, if it can be called a “society” at all, are necessarily provisional. The present task is only to destroy. Sticking with the way things are now will only lead to further human de-evolution as we become adjusted and conformed to the new technological environment, “reduced to the status of domestic animal.” Generation by generation we will become weaker and duller, while living with less dignity and freedom. Eventually we will be replaced by machines. So even if the future is cloudy, “It would be better to dump the whole stinking system and take the consequences.”
Such a rallying cry may be interpreted as despairing at the present situation or hopeful of the future. Kacynski wants it to be hopeful, as “one of the indispensable psychological preconditions for revolution is that people should have hope. If there’s no hope, there will be no revolution.” My own feeling is that such a revolution would turn out a lot worse than expected, and the return to a state of nature more problematic. Should nature be our final guide for a healthy and moral life? I can’t bring myself to wholly equate the natural with the good.
The strength of Kacynski’s manifesto is its absolutism. He won’t abide any half measures. And given how he defines the problem he may be correct in insisting upon such a root-and-branch approach. I don’t see any other way to effect his proposed great leap backward. Tearing down the factories and burning the technical manuals, however, is unlikely to prevent the same process that built the present system from doing so again. This is evolution too. For better or for worse, it’s our nature.
Review first published online March 30, 2021.