Note: Here I will not completely explain the concept of “leftism” as Ted Kaczynski uses it. Readers of this essay should instead refer to “Industrial Society and Its Future” (especially paragraphs 6-32, 83, 213-232) and “Izquierdismo” by Último Reducto. These pieces should provide the requisite knowledge for following this critique.
Two Meanings of Leftism
Theorists following Kaczynski’s line of anti-civilization critique generally utilize two definitions of “leftism”: leftism-as-psychological-type and leftism-as-ideology.
The definition of leftism Kaczynski uses in “Industrial Society and Its Future” is mostly leftism-as-psychological-type. In his view, leftism is kind of pathology produced by industrial conditions, specifically industrial society’s inability to fulfill basic human needs. Symptoms of this pathology include a sense of purposelessness, helplessness, and depression, which leftist individuals will try to ameliorate by attacking anything they view as powerful or attaching themselves to a large social group that can exercise more power than they can as individuals.
Kaczynski’s analysis here is insightful, but it is bogged down by (I) his characterization of leftist symptoms as a unified pathology; (II) his tendency to associate leftism-as-a-psychological-type with leftist political ideologies and movements; and (III) his incendiary tone towards leftist behavior.
Leftism is not a single psychological type. In reality, the symptoms Kaczynski identifies as “leftism” can stand separately or together, and they are almost all widespread problems in industrial society. People everywhere feel powerless; people everywhere lack purpose.
In some individuals (but not all) these psychological problems create emotional attachments to mass movements or various social causes, which these individuals view as a means to cure their powerlessness or purposelessness. This is Kaczynski’s primary problem with leftism, and the reasons he sees it necessary to distance himself from it (see “The System’s Neatest Trick“). But even he recognizes that “leftism” is an extremely general concept that does not seem to account for nuances sufficiently (see especially the final paragraphs of ISAIF). For example, some people who experience all leftist symptoms do not, in fact, attach themselves to causes. Other people do not experience leftist symptoms much at all, yet dedicate their lives to social causes.
If leftism were a discernible, unified psychological type, it would be able to more fully account for these differences. Instead, “leftism,” for Kaczynski, is simply a term for nearly all the psychological ills produced by modern society. What Kaczynski is actually concerned about, though, is a certain expression of those ills. For this we must refer to another one of Kaczynski’s concepts, which is defined enough to be useful: “oversocialization.”
According to “Industrial Society and Its Future,” “oversocialization” is a phenomenon whereby a society excessively ingrains its moral code into an individual. This oversocialized individual then feels a profound sense of guilt at even minor deviant behaviors, or behaviors the individual interprets as deviant. To ameliorate this guilt, the individual embarks on a crusade to enforce society’s moral rules, sometimes strongly rebuking society itself on the grounds that it does not sufficiently live up to its own moral code. However, in the latter case, the oversocialized individual does not always recognize his moral code as the same as society’s. He often sees himself as a radical who is against society. This is because, Kaczynski writes, he is on such a tight psychological leash that he has an extremely repressed need for rebellion and autonomy.
According to ISAIF, the oversocialized underpin many social movements today. These movements claim that society is racist, sexist, homophobic, etc., even though the dominant values of industrial nations are multicultural, egalitarian, and humanist, as demonstrated by, e.g., the perspectives advocated by NGOs, universities, major news organizations, federal governments, and international governmental bodies like the UN.
If we dispose of Kaczynski’s concept of leftism as a psychological type, and instead we recognize that the symptoms of leftism are widespread, our critique of industrial society and its instruments of power become much clearer. Put simply: (1) Industrial society produces symptoms like helplessness, despair, and purposelessness; (2) It provides “medicines” for these symptoms, like mass movements, large organizations, and social causes; (3) The oversocialized preach on behalf of these institutions, or, when professing to be radical, provide other institutional “medicines” that advance society’s values while claiming to be against society.
If we accept this account, then we can dispose of the concept of “leftism.” We can simply point out various, sometimes unrelated, psychological problems instigated by industrial conditions.
Kaczynski tends to associate the psychological type of leftism with political leftism. But if the symptoms of leftism are widespread and not indicative of any unified psychological type, then large conservative organizations like the NRA or nation-states provide a means of ameliorating symptoms as much as leftist organizations do. They are as much of a problem, because they instigate just as strong an emotional attachment to the institutions of mass society.
“Oversocialization” is not confined to the political left either. Although world society is propped up by individuals oversocialized with a generally left-wing ideology (but see below on this meaning of “leftist”), right wing institutions also oversocialize its members. Consider some brands of populist conservative Christianity, which, although advocating basically the same values as mainstream Christianity, teach that mainstream Christianity is sinful and that true, rebel Christians have a duty to correct its problems. Oversocialization, then, is not a left-wing phenomenon, but a general psychological phenomenon.
If the symptoms of leftism are as widespread as I have suggested, then Kaczynski’s incendiary attitude toward these symptoms and behaviors is not just unhelpful, but harmful. When I read “Industrial Society and Its Future,” I certainly had a sense of purposelessness and helplessness, and I was attracted to many of the things Kaczynski identifies as indicative of these problems. I was also firmly planted on the political left. So the first several paragraphs of the manifesto, dedicated to an analysis of “leftism,” definitely hit me hard, and certainly enraged me. Most readers in my same position are turned off by this effect and never finish the rest of the manifesto. But I happened to be reading it with a friend who coaxed me to keep reading, and with whom I discussed some of its logical points. Eventually I could not deny the logic in the piece, especially in regards to its incisive critique of the technology problem, and I was convinced.
If Kaczynski had realized how widespread the symptoms of leftism truly are, and if he made the distinctions I outlined above, his critique could have produced a lot more individuals like me. Instead of turning people off immediately, he could have brought their attention to the source of their unease and pointed out how insufficient the system’s “medicines” for that unease truly are. This would have just as effectively countered the phenomenon he is most concerned about in regards to leftism, namely, the system’s ability to convince people that they are being radical by actually correcting errors in that system, or by advancing the system’s own values.
Because of the way Kaczynski’s concept of “leftism” lumps in several distinct elements of critique, some theories he has helped birth further obscure the concept of leftism. For example, Último Reducto (UR), in his essay “Izquierdismo,” defines leftism by its values. He argues that the three main values of leftism are equality, expanded or indiscriminate solidarity, and sympathy for victims. These, he says, form the dominant ideology of techno-industrial society.
UR was on to something, but I do not think that the best term to describe this is “leftism.” For one thing, some on the political left do not associate themselves with these values exactly. And as even he points out in the essay, some on the right can be included in this definition. In any case, whatever we call UR’s concept of leftism-as-ideology, it is yet another distinct element of the “leftism” concept, and must be clearly separated from the other, psychological elements. To address all these problems, I have been using the term “humanism” instead.
The concept of “humanism” needs to be fleshed out more, and may be altogether useless. For example, talking of a dominant ideology may suggest a cohesiveness to the values of techno-industrial society that simply does not exist. And “humanism” still may not be the best term. Still, this term allows us to seperate the ideological element from other elements in the original concept of “leftism”, and therefore to examine it on its own merits as we develop a more nuanced critique of technological civilization.