Letters: Ted Kaczynski to David Skrbina (Jan-Aug 2004)

For the endnotes to these letters, please refer to the PDF of Technological Slavery. You can also view HTML versions of all correspondence between David Skrbina and Ted Kaczynski, as well as all the texts in the book.

2 Jan 2004

I’ve been able to identify only three ways (apart from modest reforms) in which human beings’ intentions concerning the future of their own society can be realized successfully: (i) Intelligent administration can prolong the life of an existing social order. (E.g., if 19th-century Russian Tsars had been a great deal less competent than they were, tsarism might have broken down earlier than it did. If Nicholas II had been a great deal more competent than he was, tsarism might have lasted a few decades longer.) (ii) Revolutionary action can bring about, or at least hasten, the breakdown of an existing social order. (E.g., if there had been no revolutionary movement in Russia, a new Tsar would doubtless have been appointed on the abdication of Nicholas II and tsarism would have survived for a while.) (iii) An existing social order can sometimes be extended to encompass additional territory. (E.g., the social order of the West was successfully extended to Japan following World War II.)

If I’m right, and if we want to exert any rational influence (beyond modest reforms) on the future of our own society, then we have to choose one of the foregoing alternatives.

29 Aug 2004

You sent me a copy of Bill Joy’s article “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” and you said you would be interested in my assessment of it. I read the article soon after it came out. I had already read elsewhere of most of the technological hazards described by Joy, but I considered his article useful because it gave further information about such hazards. Also, the fact that even a distinguished technophile like Bill Joy is scared about where technology is taking us should help persuade people that the dangers of technology are real. Apart from that I was unimpressed by Joy’s article. I assume that his technical expertise is solid, but it seems to me that his understanding of human nature and how human societies work is at a naive level. A couple of people who wrote to me about the article expressed similarly unenthusiastic opinions of it.

To give an example of what I consider to be Joy’s naivete, he writes:

Verifying compliance will also require that scientists and engineers adopt a strong code of ethical conduct … and that they have the courage to whistleblow as necessary, even at high personal cost… [T]he Dalai Lama argues that the most important thing is for us to conduct our lives with love and compassion for others, and that our societies need to develop a stronger notion of universal responsibility and of our interdependency…

If Bill Joy thinks that anything will be accomplished by this kind of preaching, then he is out of touch with reality. This part of his article would be funny if what is at stake weren’t so desperately serious.

I’ve reread Joy’s article to see if I had been missing anything, but I found that my impression of it was the same as before. Of course, it’s possible that the article has merits that I’ve overlooked.

I don’t particularly consider small-scale technology to be acceptable; it’s simply inevitable. See ISAIF, paragraphs 207-212. I see no way of getting rid of it. People can’t use organization-dependent technology if the social organization breaks down. E.g., you can’t drive a car if the refineries aren’t producing gasoline. But how could people be prevented from using small-scale technology? E.g., working steel, building a water-wheel, or ploughing and planting fields?

You may ask whether I would consider a primitive steam-engine to be small-scale technology. To give a confident answer I would have to know more than I do about primitive steam-engines and their possible applilcations, but I think that steam-engines probably cannot be small-scale technology. “[Newcomen steam-engines’] heavy fuel consumption made them uneconomical when used where coal was expensive, but in the British coalfields they performed an essential service by keeping deep mines clear of water…”[1] An autonomous local community, without outside assistance, would find it very difficult to build an adequate steam-engine, and the engine probably would be of little use to such a commodity. Considering the effort required to build and maintain the engine, to produce oil to lubricate it, and to collect firewood to fuel it, any work the engine might do for a small community could probably be done more efficiently with human or animal muscle-power. Steam engines very likely could have been invented much earlier than they were, but — I would guess — they would have been of little use until certain 17th- and 18th-century economic and technological developments offered work for which steam engines were appropriate.

I’m quite sure that it would be impossible to control post-revolution conditions, but I think you’re quite right in saying that a “positive social vision” is necessary. However, the social ideal I would put forward is that of the nomadic hunting-and-gathering society.

First, I would argue that in order to be successful a revolutionary movement has to be extremist. Jacques Ellul says somewhere that a revolution must take as its ideal the opposite of what it intends to overthrow.[2] Trotsky wrote: “The different stages of a revolutionary process [are] certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less…”[3] The nomadic hunting-and-gathering society recommends itself as a social ideal because it is at the opposite extreme of human culture from the technological society.

Second, if one takes the position that certain appurtenances of civilization must be saved, e.g., cultural achievements up to the 17th century, then one will be tempted to make compromises when it comes to eliminating the technoindustrial system, with the possible or probably result that one will not succeed in eliminating the system at all. If the system breaks down, what will happen to art museums with their priceless paintings and statues? Or to the great libraries with their vast stores of books? Who will take care of the artworks and books when there are no organizations large enough and rich enough to hire curators and librarians, as well as policement to prevent looting and vandalism? And what about the educational system? Without an organized system of education, children will grow up uncultured and perhaps illiterate. Clearly, anyone who feels it is important to preserve human cultural achievements up to the 17th century will be very reluctant to see a complete breakdown of the system, hence will look for a compromise solution and will not take the frankly reckless measures that are necessary to knock our society off its present technological-determined course of development. Hence, only those can be effective revolutionaries who are prepared to dispense with the achievements of civilization.

Third, to most people, a hunting-and-gathering existence will appear much more attractive than that offered by preindustrial civilization. Even many modern people enjoy hunting, fishing, and gathering wild fruits and nuts. I think few would enjoy such tasks as ploughing, hoeing, or threshing. And in civilized societies the majority of the population commonly have been exploited in one way or another by the upper classes: If they were not slaves or serfs, then they often were hired laborers or tenant-farmers subject to the domination of landowners. Preindustrial civilized societies often suffered from disastrous epidemics or famines, and the common people in many cases had poor nutrition. In contrast, hunter-gatherers, except in the far north, generally had good nutrition.[4] Famines among them were probably rare.[5] They were relatively little troubled by infectious diseases until such diseases were introduced among them by more “advanced” peoples.[6] Slavery and well-developed social hierarchies could exist among sedentary hunter-gatherers, but (apart from the tenency of women to be in some degree subordinate to men), nomadic hunter-gatherer societies typically (not always) were characterized by social equality, and normally did not practice slavery. (Though I now of one exception: Apparently some Cree Indians who were probably hunter-gatherers did take slaves.)[7]

Just in case you’ve read anarcho-primitivist writings that portray the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as a kind of politically correct Garden of Eden where no one ever had to work more than 3 hours a day, men and women were equal, and all was loe, cooperation and sharing, that’s just a lot of nonsense, and at your request I’ll prove it with numerous citations to the literature. But even when one discounts the anarcho-primitivsts’ idealized version and takes a hard-headed look at the facts, nomadic hunter-gatherer societies seem a great deal more attractive than preindustrial civilized ones. I imagine your chief objection to hunter-gatherer societies as opposed to (for example) late medieval or Renaissance European civilization would be their relatively very modest level of cultural achievement (in terms of art, music, literature, scholarship, etc.). But I seriously doubt that more than a small fraction of the population of modern industrial society cares very much about that kind of cultural achievement.

Hunter-gatherer society moreover has proved its appeal as a social ideal: Anarcho-primitivism seems to have gained wide popularity. One can hardly imagine success for a movement taking as its ideal — for example — late medieval society. Of course, one has to ask to what extent the success of anarcho-primitivism is dependent on its idealized portrayal of hunter-gatherer societies. My guess, or at least my hope, is that certain inconvenient aspects of hunter-gatherer societies (e.g., male dominance, hard work) would turn off the leftists, the neurotics, and the lazies but that such societies, depicted realistically, would remain attractive to the kind of people who could be effective revolutionaries.

I don’t think that a worldwide return to a hunting-and-gathering economy would actually be a plausible outcome of a collapse of industrial society. No ideology will persuade people to starve when they can feed themselves by planting crops, so presumably agriculture will be practiced wherever the soil and climate are suitable for it. Reversion to hunting and gathering as a sole means of subsistence could occur only in regions unsuitable for agriculture, e.g., the subarctic, arid plains, or rugged mountains.

I’m not terribly interested in questions of values of the kind you discuss here, such as “herd values” versus the “will to power.” As I see it, the overwhelmingly dominant problem of our time is that technology threatens either to destroy the world or to transform it so radically that all past questions of human values will simply become irrelevant, because the human race, as we have known it, will no longer exist. I don’t mean that the human race necessarily will become physically extinct (though that is a possibility), but the way human beings function socially and psychologically will be transformed so radically as to make traditional questions of values practically meaningless. The old-fashioned conformist will become obsolete as the old-fashioned individualist.

Since this is the most critical juncture in the history of the human race, all other issues must be subordinated to the problem of stopping the technological juggernaut before it is too late. If I advocate a break with conventional morality, I do so not because I disapprove of the herd mentality, but because conventional morality acts as a brake on the development of an effective revolutionary movement. Furthermore, any effective revolutionary movement probably has to make use of the herd mentality. Imitativeness is part of human nature, and one has to work with it rather than preach against it.

Possibly you misinterpret my motives for emphasizing the “power process.” The purpose of doing so is not to exalt the “will to power.” There are two main reasons for discussing the power process. First, discussion of the power process is necessary for the analysis of the psychology of the people whom I call “leftists.” Second, it is difficult to get people excited about working to avoid a future evil. It is less difficult to get people excited about throwing off a present evil. Discussion of the power process helps to show people how a great deal of present dissatisfaction and frustration results from the fact that we live in a technological society.

I should admit, though, that I personally am strongly inclined to individualism. Ideally, I shouldn’t allow my individualistic predilections to influence my thinking on revolutionary strategy but should arrive at my conclusions objectively. The fact that you have spotted my leanins may mean that I have not been as objective as I should have been.

But even leaving aside all questions of “political” utility and considering only my personal predilections, I have little interest in philosophical questions such as the desirability or undesirability of the “herd mentality.” The mountains of Western Montana offered me nearly everything I needed or wanted. If those mountains could have remained just as they were when I first moved to Montana in 1971, I would have been satisfied. The rest of the world could have had a herd mentality or an individualistic mentality or whatever, and it would have been all the same to me. But, of course, under modern conditions there was no way the mountains could have remained isolated from the rest of the world. Civilization moved in and squeezed me, so…

Yes, growth in the population of nations and increasing racial/ethnic diversity no doubt affected social values. But increasing racial/ethnic diversity was unquestionably a consequence of technological events, namely, the development of relatively safe and efficient sailing ships, along with economic (therefore also technological) factors that provided incentives to trade, travel, and migrate widely. Presumably, population growth too was dependent on technological factors, such as improvements in agriculture that made it possible to feed more people.

I’ll draw a distinction between a revolutionary movement and a reform movement. The distinction is not valid in all situations, but I think it is valid in the present situation.

The objective of a revolutionary movement, as opposed to a reform movement, is not to make piecemeal corrections of various evils of the social order. The objective of a revolutionary movement are (i) to build its own strength, and (ii) to increase the tension within the social order until those tensions reach the breaking point.

Correcting this or that social evil is likely to decrease tensions within the social order. This is the reason for the classic antagonism between revolutionary movements and reform movements.

Generally speaking, correction of a given social evil serves the purposes of a revolutionary movement only if it (a) constitutes a victory for the revolutionary movement that enhances the movement’s prestige, (b) represents humiliating defeat for the existing social order, (c) is achieved by methods that, if not illegal, are at least offensive to the existing social order, and (d) is widely perceived as a step toward dissolution of the existing order.

In the particular situation that the world faces today, there may also be another case in which partial or piecemeal correction of a social evil may be useful: It may buy us time. For example, if progress in biotechnology is slowed, a biological catastrophe will be less likely to occur before we have time to overthrow the system.

To address specifically your argument that a focus on population reduction is appropriate, at least as an “ancillary approach” I disagree for two reasons: (I) An effort to reduce population would be futile. (II) Even if it could be achieved, population reduction would accomplish nothing against the system. For these reasons, a focus on population reduction would waste time and energy that should be devoted to efforts that are more useful.

(I) If you were as old as I am and had watched the development of our society for 50 years, I don’t think you would suggest a campaign against population growth. It has been tried and it has failed. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, concern about “the population problem” was “in.” There was even a national organization called “Zero Population Growth” whose goal was its name. Of course it never accomplished anything. In those days, the fact that population was a problem was a new discovery, but nowadays it’s “old hat,” people are blase, and it’s uch harder to get people aroused about population than it was back in the 1960s. Especially since the latest predictions are that population will level off at about 9 billion some time around the middle of this century. Such predictions are unreliable, but they nevertheless reduce anxiety about runaway population growth.

In any case, you could never get large numbers of people to have fewer children simply by pointing out to them the problems caused by overpopulation. As professional propagandists are well aware, reason by itself is of little use for influencing people on a mass basis.[8] To have any substantial effect, you would have to resort to the system’s own techniques of propaganda. By dirtying its hands in this way, an anti-system movement would perhaps discredit itself. Anyhow, it’s wildly improbably that such a movement could be rich enough to mount an effective worldwide or even nationwide compaign to persuade people to have fewer children. “Propaganda that aims to induce major changes is certain to take great amounts of time, resources, patience, and indirection, except in times of revolutionary crisis when old beliefs have been shattered…[9] The Encyclopaedia Britannica Macropaedia article “Propaganda” provides a good glimpse of the technical basis of modern propaganda, hence an idea of the vast amount of money you would need in order to make any substantial impression on the birthrate through persuasion. “Many of the bigger and wealthier propaganda agencies … conduct ‘symbol campaigns’ and ‘image-building’ operations with mathematical calculation, using quantities of data that can be processed only by computers…,”[10] etc., etc. (This should lay to rest your suggestion that “Propaganda can be opposed by counter-propaganda.” Unless you have billions of dollars at your disposal, there’s no way you can defeat the system in a head-on propaganda contest. A revolutionary movement has to find other means of making an impact.)

How difficult it would be to reduce the birthrate can be seen from the fact that the Chinese government has been trying to do that for years. According to the latest reports I’ve heard (several years ago), they’ve had only very limited success, even though they have vastly greater sources than any revolutionary movement could hope to have.

Furthermore, a campaign against having children could be a kind of suicide for a movement. The people who were with you wouldn’t have children, your opponents would have children. Since the political orientation of children tends statistically to resemble that of their parents, your movement would get weaker with each generation.

And, to put it bluntly, a revolutionary movement needs an enemy, it needs someone or something to hate. If you are working against overpopulation, then who is your enemy? Pregnant women? I don’t think that would work very well.

(II) Even assuming you could reduce the birthrate, a population decline would be of little use and might well be counterproductive. I fail to understand your statement (page 7 of your letter) that population growth “seems to drive the whole technoindustrial process forward at an accelerating rate.” Population increase no doubt is an important stimulus for economic growth, but it’s hardly a decisive factor. In developed countries, economic growth probably occurs more through increasing demand for goods and services on the part of each individual than through an increase in the number of individuals. In any case, do you seriously believe that scientists would stop developing supercomputers and biological technology if the population started to decline? Of course, scientists need financial support from large organizations such as corporations and governments. But the large organizations’ support for research is driven not by population growth, but by competition for power among the large organizations.

So I think we can say that population is a dependent variable, technology is the independent variable. It’s not primarily population growth that drives technology, but technology that makes population growth possible. Furthermore, because overcrowding makes people uncomfortable and increases stress and aggression, a reduction of population would tend to decrease the tensions in our society, hence would be contrary to the interests of a revolutionary movement, which, as already noted, needs to increase social tension. Even in the unlikely event that a victory in the population issue could be achieved, I don’t think it would satisfy any of the conditions (b), (c), (d) that I listed earlier in this letter. Arguably, population decine could “buy us time” in the sense that I’ve mentioned, but when this is weighed against the other factors I’ve just described I think the balance comes down decisively against an effort to reduce population. But a revolutionary movement can make use of the population issue by pointing to overpopulation as one of the negative consequences of technological progress.

I don’t think the U.S. situation is as unique as oyu do. In any case, I wouldn’t emphasize the U.S. situation, because there are too many people who are too ready to focus on the U.S. as the world’s villain. I’m not a patriot and not particularly interested in defending the U.S. But obsessive anti-Americanism distracts attention from the technology problem just as issues of sexism, racism, etc., do. Given the present global technological and economic situation, if the U.S. weren’t playing the role of the world’s bully then probably some other country or group of countries would be doing so. And if the Russians, for example, were playing that role, I suspect they would play rougher than the U.S. does.

I’m not sure exactly what you mean by your final remark that there are “many roads to revolution.” But I would argue that a revolutionary movement can’t afford to be diverse and eclectic. It must be flexible, and up to a point must allow for dissent within the movement. But a revolutinoary movement needs to be unified, with a clear doctrine and goals. I believe that a catchall movement that tries to embrace simultaneously all roads to revolution will fail. A couple of cases in point.

A. Under the Roman Empire there were several salvational religous movements analogous to Christianity. You’ll find a discussion of this in Jerome Carcopino’s Daily Life in Ancient Rome. It seems that, with the exception of Christianity, all of these religious movements were syncretistic and mutually tolerant; one could belong to more than one of them.[11] Only Christianity required exclusive devotion. And I don’t have to tell you which religion became in the end the dominant religion of Europe.

B. In the early stage of the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Social Revolutionary Party was dominant; the Bolshevik Party was small and isolated. But the Social Revolutionary Party was a catch-all party that took in everyone who was vaguely in favor of the revolution. “To vote for the Social Revolutionaries meant to vote for the revolution in general, and involved no further obligation.”[12] The Bolsheviks, in contrast, were reasonably unified and developed a program of action with clear goals. “The Bolsheviks acted, or strove to act … like uncompromising revolutionists.”[13] And in the end it was the Bolsheviks, not the Social Revolutionaries, who determined the outcome of the revolution

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