The Problems with Ted Kaczynski’s Revolution

NOTE: After my attempt to live reasonably outside the bounds of civilization, and some further thinking on the problems we face, I have to reject the conclusion of this essay. Nature has, in fact, been destroyed enough to make escape mostly impossible; and most people suffering from the problems of industrial society have no option to escape anyway. In other words, I pretty much exactly agree with Kaczynski (again) after a similar failed excursion to the forest. My views have been updated in the posts under the Reflections portal. Perhaps most relevant: “Escaping Society Peacefully Is Not an Option.” 

In “Industrial Society and Its Future” the primitivist Ted Kaczynski recommends a revolution against industrial society. This, he says, will not be a political revolution, an attempt to overthrow or replace a previously-existing political regime. Instead, it will attack the economic and technological basis of society, and, if the revolutionaries follow Kaczynski’s instructions, it will not try to rebuild any new society from the ashes.

The Term “Revolution”

One of the biggest stumbling blocks most rewilders have with Kaczynski’s revolutionary program is simply that he calls it “revolutionary.” For example, the anarcho-primitivist Kevin Tucker has said that he supports collapse, not revolution. But clearly, Kaczynski supports collapse too — so what is the confusion?

“Revolution” has at least two main definitions:

  1. A rapid change, especially a rapid social change
  2. A specific form of mass revolt borne from the modern world[1]

Critiques like Tucker’s confuse the second meaning of the word, how Tucker defines it, with the first, how Kaczynski defines it. If we are to properly understand Kaczynski’s ideas, however, we need to forego definitional debates and expend energy instead on perceiving the actual phenomena Kaczynski is referring to. For example, Kaczynski writes in “The Road to Revolution“:

I hasten to add that I am NOT an admirer of the Bolsheviks. To them, human beings were of value only as gears in the technological system. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn lessons from the history of Bolshevism.

So for the duration of this critique, we will understand Kaczynski to be referring to the first definition of “revolution.”

That said, I tend to agree that the word “revolution” is nowadays too closely tied to progressive projects, like those of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks. Everyday people immediately think of communists and comrades, not primitives and collapse. Even if we adopt Kaczynski’s ideas, then, we should dispose of his language.

The Possibility of Revolution

Some, like the eco-extremists, have argued that revolution is not a viable strategy. But they, again, mostly seem to be talking past Kaczynski.

The Regionalist Critique

In “Algunas respuestas sobre el presente y NO del futuro” the eco-extremist cell ITS argues that revolutionary strategies have only succeeded tearing down their target society in specific regions. Consider the communists, who insisted on an internationalist revolution, but who, when it came down to it, confined their revolutionary project to Russia.

There are three problems with this critique. First, historically revolutions have been confined to specific locales because the economic, technological, and political basis of the target society were locally confined. Today, industrial civilization is global, thus every nation is tied to the other in unprecedented ways. One study, for example, points out that globalization has made the world economy susceptible to an “avalanche” process, where crisis in one of a few key nations rapidly spreads to others.

Second, it is unclear why a restricted collapse would be a bad thing. Even if global collapse is not in our future, isn’t it better for civilization’s stronghold to be loosened in some regions instead of none?

Finally, even before the hyper-connectedness caused by globalization, the world’s nations were connected enough for local revolutions to spread. The French Revolution, for example, only took place in France, but it influenced countries across the Atlantic through the U.S. revolutionaries and some Latin revolutionaries like Simon Bólivar. War further spread the revolutionary ideals.

Collapse is an Uneven Process

Also in “Respuestas,” ITS writes that Kaczynski’s ideal of a final showdown between rival pro-civilization and anti-civilization ideologies is oversimplified:

Perhaps these “revolutionaries” think they’re the only ones who are waiting for the collapse in order to achieve their goals, nothing is further from reality. Nowadays, several groups are waiting for that opportunity, such powerful political and economic groups to which these “revolutionary” cannot compare at all. So the strategy of waiting for “the neighbor (the system) to be sick to kill him”, brings an important problem, because there are many other “neighbors” even other “colonies” waiting for the system to get weak so they can strike it down and put themselves in its place.

This is a critique of Kaczynski’s reasoning style more than it is a critique of his reasoning. As I point out in “Ted Kaczynski and Why He Matters,” the man is ridiculously smart. He was accepted into Harvard at 16, taught as a professor at Harvard and Berkeley, wrote a mathematics thesis on boundary functions that is still cited today, has read many books on international relations, revolutions, and the problem of civilization… His mathematics professor, George Piranian, said of the man, “It’s not enough to say he was smart.” Kaczynski knows that collapse and revolution are uneven processes. He even writes as much in his later works:

A revolution in the modern world will be no dinner party. It will be deadly and brutal. You can be sure that when the technoindustrial system begins to break down, the result will not be the sudden conversion of the entire human race into flower children. Instead, various groups will compete for power. If the opponents of technology prove toughest, they will be able to assure that the breakdown of the technosystem becomes complete and final. If other groups prove tougher, they may be able to salvage the technosystem and get it running again.

But Kaczynski is also a propagandist, and a mathematical thinker at that. Like a mathematician, he sometimes simplifies the problem so that extraneous considerations do not distract from the main point he is trying to make — in this case, that the time to take down the system is when it is weak.

With that out of the way, is there anything in this critique that is worth salvaging? Not really. That revolution has to fight against multiple forces isn’t fundamentally different from the knowledge that revolution has to fight against just one. It should only give us pause insofar as it relates to another idea: that civilization and its various forces are too powerful to defeat.

Civilizing Forces are Too Powerful

Some have said that civilization and its various institutional forces are much too powerful to oppose. We should be immediately skeptical of these claims. They have been made about every proposed revolution, yet revolutions have repeatedly succeeded at the one thing Kaczynski needs them to: destroying a target society.

Often, people intuitively think that civilization must be too powerful to defeat because they think of conflict in symmetric terms: two armies battling each other on a field, two men fighting in the street… But radical and revolutionary forces almost always fight asymmetrically. They do not try to enter into an unwinnable arms race with much more powerful forces. Instead, they hit those forces where it hurts, at their weakest points; or they exploit the advantages their small stature gives them. For example, extremely weak forces may dedicate a lot of energy to keeping up morale (with, e.g., common myth) while extending its war for as long as it takes to decrease the morale of the opposing side.

This civilization has many weaknesses. Consider, for instance, that the internet is functional because of something called the Domain Name System (DNS). Periodically, though, DNS servers need to have their keys renewed, a hierarchical process that at the very top includes only seven keys, each held by a different individual, each individual a part of a distinct geographical territory, all of whom meet several times a year to renew the DNS keys. Without only seven keys, entire portions of the internet would be in disarray.

Or consider how fragile our physical infrastructure is. Multiple news stories have popped up in recent years of individuals who, usually accidentally, cut off large regions from the internet by damaging fiber optic cables. In one case, the damage was caused by an anchor being dragged along the ocean floor.

As another example, a report was recently issued naming just nine electric substations that would shut down all three power grids in the US, causing a blackout that could last more than a year. Not long before the report became known, a group orchestrated a highly skilled attack on a California substation by shooting the radiators, causing the station’s electronics to overheat and shut down. No suspects have yet been identified, and, as politicians speaking on the issue noted, similar attacks are fairly likely given how insecure much of U.S. infrastructure still is.

None of this would be sufficient to tear down industrial society, but it certainly demonstrates that in periods of crisis, and perhaps even outside of them, radicals could do a lot of damage. This is all that is necessary. As Kaczynski points out in his manifesto:

The industrial system will not break down purely as a result of revolutionary action. It will not be vulnerable to revolutionary attack unless its own internal problems of development lead it into very serious difficulties. So if the system breaks down it will do so either spontaneously, or through a process that is in part spontaneous but helped along by revolutionaries.

Utility and Virtue

The real problem with Kaczynski’s revolution is moral: it doesn’t align with anything else rewilders believe.

Most obviously, the immediate consequence of engaging in revolution, of the kind Kaczynski imagines, is further domination of the revolutionaries’ natures. It may, to some degree, unleash them from the rest of civilization, but only to make them into a cog of yet another machine: the revolutionary machine. Kaczynski imagines that a revolution will come from an organized force, one that will be relatively small for most of its existence, and then, at the decisive moment, grow exponentially. The Bolsheviks, for example, had a party of only about 8,000 members until the revolution was in full force. But organized groups that large will, like all organizations, acquire an instinct for self-preservation, and will require instrumentalizing some members to achieve a goal loftier than any of those of the individual will. In other words, individuals are to subordinate themselves, to imbue themselves with utility, rather than break down those things that keep them from expressing their natures, those things that keep them from rewilding. Indeed, one can imagine many scenarios where a revolutionary machine further restricts the individual, preventing him not only from rewilding, but from preserving what wildness he still has.

Insofar as Kaczynski acknowledges this, he would justify it with the same reasoning he gives for revolution overall: better some sacrifices now than bigger sacrifices later. But this argument only makes sense relative to humanity, not the individual and his small, natural social groups. No matter when revolution happens, it will almost always destroy the revolutionaries in the process. Without some good reason for this sacrifice, then, individuals and small communities would not join a revolutionary effort.

In the case of rewilding, “the betterment of humanity” doesn’t hold up as a good reason. One of the central problems with civilization is the neuroticism it causes by its overextensive moral code. The only reason we are taught to make “humanity” our moral community instead of our natural social groups is because unity between subjects is absolutely necessary for a global system of production to operate efficiently.[2] We would expect those who have the most anxiety from the demands of civil life to not be too keen on the idea of sacrificing their remaining autonomy for the sake of the same demands. Kaczynski acknowledges this problem:

In private life pure reason may often move a person to follow a good plan. For example, if through the use of reason we can convince a person that one doctor is more skillful than another, then the person will probably consult the more skillful doctor, because he knows that in this way he will recover better from his ailment.

On the other hand, if we can convince a person that a certain plan will be useful to society provided that a sufficient number of people follow the plan, this provides the person with at most a very weak motive to follow the plan, for he knows that it is very unlikely, or even impossible, that his own individual participation will by itself have any perceptible effect on society. For example: Many people know that it would be better for the world if everyone refused to use automobiles. Nevertheless, apart from rare exceptions, each one of these people has his automobile, because he says to himself that if he refuses to drive he will suffer great inconvenience without doing any perceptible good for the world; for the world will derive no perceptible advantage unless many millions of people refuse to use automobiles.

Nothing to Sacrifice?

Perhaps we might be able to convince rewilders to engage in a revolutionary effort by arguing that they have nothing too much to sacrifice as individuals. Civilization’s domination has been near total, we might say, and the consequences of doing nothing do not differ too much from the consequences of revolutionary sacrifice — specifically in regards to the wildness of our individual natures. If this is the case, revolution may have an upper hand. At least in the latter case, one has the possibility of living a wilder life as industry’s stronghold is loosened. This is not a perfect argument, of course. As Kaczynski writes, revolutionaries “may have to wait several decades before the occasion for revolution arrives.” So, he writes, we must instead motivate the revolutionary by giving him an opportunity to “fulfill his own psychological or physical needs or to experience some form of pleasure.” These include:

  1. Sense of purpose, the feeling that one has a goal around which to organize one’s life.
  2. Sense of power.
  3. Sense of belonging, the feeling of being part of a cohesive social group.
  4. Status or prestige within the movement; the approval of other members of the movement.
  5. Anger, revenge; the opportunity to retaliate against the system.

The way Kaczynski writes about this topic makes it difficult not to regard his ideas as yet another domesticating project. How different are his suggestions for a well-oiled revolutionary machine from suggestions that would be good for oiling the gears of the Great Machine of civilization? Does not civilization exploit various tendencies of our nature for the sake of its own functioning, e.g., as it does by exploiting natural sociability to convince us that “humanity” is our moral community?

Let’s place this aside for a moment, though, and take a more charitable reading. Assume that Kaczynski believes that many people don’t have much to lose in the way of wildness, and that a revolutionary movement would at least offer them a way to fulfill other deeply-held desires while it gives them the possibility of rewilding. Sure, we might say, we can find a sense of belonging and prestige in any of the artificial communities that make up civilization without risking death and without subordinating ourselves to the dictates of revolutionary leaders; but in those cases we are simply subordinating ourselves to the dictates of non-revolutionary leaders, and perhaps the risk of death is part of the point.

This seems a convincing argument, but there is one big problem with it: we have not lost wildness to such a degree that the calculus makes sense. And if a revolutionary movement ever makes great strides, the logic will only continue to lose its force. Still today we have opportunities to escape civilization’s stranglehold on us. We would of course have to sacrifice some things, like the fulfillment of certain social drives and strong connections to our family members (due to the ensuing isolation). However, at best these sacrifices are no different from the prospects of revolution, and offers the individual something more in line with his values. Why, if an individual feels no ties to the prison community as a whole, would he attempt to destroy the prison when he can simply escape it?

What’s the Alternative?

One might say that the prison metaphor is inadequate. Civilization may be a prison, but it is a prison that is affecting everything outside of its walls — such as through climate change, the threat of nuclear war, or various biological threats. Thus, even when escaping civilization, the impetus to destroy it remains.

This I admit is true. Indeed, I will even compound the reasons we should still fight by insisting that some individuals possess a warrior spirit, a drive to fight, even in cases that others, with their own values and considerations, would regard as reckless. This drive should be respected.

But I imagine that resistance rooted firmly in the value of wildness will result in something much better than resistance done by the same logic as civilization. Kaczynski, because he devised his solution in relative solitude, is now forced to engineer a small community of believers to carry out his plan. These believers will probably not come from those who truly understand what it means to live in wild conditions. (Those who already live well in wild conditions are unlikely to sacrifice their lives for an abstract revolutionary project). Instead the individuals attracted to Kaczynski’s revolution will be atomized, lonely, frustrated; individuals who, though they hate or believe they hate industry, will not be able to live without it.

Kaczynski’s answer is to plug them into another machine. Better to point them toward the wild, and let the tension civilization will inevitably produce with its stumbling blocks motivate the individuals to act. In this case, the focus is not on instantiating an abstract idea through a feat of social engineering; it is instead rooted in preserving and restoring the very thing whose destruction motivates rewilders to turn away from civilization — wildness.

I will further explore these ideas at some future time. For now, my critique of Kaczynski made, I wish only to say that this approach will result in something much different from the revolution Kaczynski imagines, or at least the revolution as he has written about it.


[1] Using this definition, Steven Smith writes in Modernity and Its Discontents:

The very idea of progress came to be inseparable from the great revolutionary movements of the modern world. Revolution had initially signified circulation, in the naturalistic sense of a return to a fixed point of origin. Polybius used the word “anacylosis” to indicate the cyclical returning of a state and its return to first principles. The ancient idea of revolution was conservative, in the sense of a return to first principles as suggested by the prefix “re” in the word “revolutio.” What distinguishes modernity is its claim of revolution as the absolute new beginning point. Revolutions were to be the veritable engines of human progress from which there could be no return. Revolution itself, rather than being seen as a rebellion against an ancient and venerable tradition, or even as a restoration of a noble beginning, was viewed as the harbinger of a better future. The progress of history may be thought of as a linear development, as conceived by Kant and Condorcet, or through dialectical stage, as imagined by Hegel and Marx, but this does not change the inexorable forward motion of the historical process. Revolutions came to be seen not simply as singular events in time but as a process of acceleration that drives history relentlessly forward, even despite the intentions of political actors. It was but a single step to see the whole of world history as a site of permanent revolution.

[2] In The Technological Society, Ellul explains this process:

. . . a systematic campaign was waged against all natural groups, under the guise of a defense of the rights of the individual; for example, the guilds, the communes, and federalism were attacked, this last by the Girondists. . . . There was to be no liberty of groups, only that of the individual. There was likewise a struggle to undermine the family. . . . Revolutionary laws governing divorce, inheritance, and paternal authority were disastrous for the family unit, to the benefit of the individual. And these effects were permanent, in spite of temporary setbacks. Society was already atomized and would be atomized more and more. The individual remained the sole sociological unit, but, far from assuring him freedom, this fact provoked the worst kind of slavery.

The atomization we have been discussing conferred on society the greatest possible plasticity — a decisive condition for technique. The breakup of social groups engendered the enormous displacement of people at the beginning of the nineteenth century and resulted in the concentration of population demanded by modern technique. To uproot men from their surroundings, from the rural districts and from family and friends, in order to crowd them into cities still too small for them; to squeeze thousands into unfit lodgings and unhealthy places of work; 110 to create a whole new environment within the framework of a new human condition (it is too often overlooked that the proletariat is the creation of the industrial machine) — all this was possible only when the individual was completely isolated. It was conceivable only when he literally had no environment, no family, and was not part of a group able to resist economic pressure; when he had almost no way of life left.

Such is the influence of social plasticity. Without it, no technical evolution is possible. For the individual in an atomized society, only the state was left: the state was the highest authority and it became omnipotent as well.

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