A Critique of the Concept of “the System”

Ted Kaczynski (TK) repeatedly writes that a revolutionary movement needs an enemy. Variously he names the enemy as “modern technology,” “the industrial system,” “the techno-industrial system,” just “the system,” and, in addition to one of the foregoing, “the technician class.” But these terms are vague or unintuitive, they confuse the enemy of a revolutionary movement with its target, and they fail to motivate.

The Enemy is Not Civilization

First, a clarification. Ted Kaczynski never actually names “civilization” as the enemy, but his involvement with the anarcho-primitivist movement in the 90s and early 2000s has confused some outside observers on this point.

In terms of critique, it is necessary to point out that civilization as a whole is of questionable benefit, and that nearly all of the major problems of our modern world originate in the problem of civilization (see “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race” by Jared Diamond). This, however, only makes us philosophical anti-civilizationists, not political anti-civilizationists. Kaczynski repeatedly states that while he believes civilization is a problem, he only sees a practical course of action against “the industrial system.” For more on this distinction, see “Some Comments In Response to GA,” the letters between David Skrbina and TK, “A Critique of the NHG Ideal,” etc.

What Is “The System”?

In footnote 3 of “The System’s Neatest Trick,” Kaczynski writes:

In this section I’ve said something about what the System is not, but I haven’t said what the System is. A friend of mine has pointed out that this may leave the reader nonplussed, so I’d better explain that for the purposes of this article it isn’t necessary to have a precise definition of what the System is. I couldn’t think of any way of defining the System in a single, well-rounded sentence and I didn’t want to break the continuity of the article with a long, awkward, and unnecessary digression addressing the question of what the System is, so I left that question unanswered.

Unfortunately, in neither his public writings nor his private correspondences has Kaczynski gone on to sufficiently explain what the system is, beyond general indications. Here is what I understand him to mean.

Kaczynski uses a materialist framework for analyzing the origins, development, and collapse of societies. In one version of this framework (see Cultural Materialism by Marvin Harris), societies are seen as consisting of three “levels”:

  1. The infrastructure is the material basis of society, and the primary determinant of the shape that society will take. It includes geography, demography, technology, and some aspects of economy. These are such strong factors in determining the shape of a society because no matter what, at base people are going to preserve their means of getting food and producing children.
  2. The structure is the organizational level of society, such as how resources are distributed, the means of dividing labor, institutions like banks, governments, and the church, etc. These exist to organize people in a way that is compatible with their means of subsistence and reproduction.
  3. The superstructure is the ideological level of society, such as its national, religious, and scientific myths. These exist to inspire people’s loyalty to society and its institutions.

For example, in the feudal phase of Western civilization, the infrastructure of society consisted of an agricultural mode of subsistence, which was organized by the structural layer of church and and the feudal system, and which was legitimated by the superstructural layer of Christian ideology. In many primitive societies, the infrastructure of society consisted of a hunting-and-gathering mode of production, was organized by various gendered divisions of labor and a small degree of specialization among warriors and leaders, and was legitimated by various religious mythologies.

Although this framework is generally deterministic, feedback between the various levels of society are taken into account. For example, sometimes the structure of society does not respond properly to a change in infrastructure, which results in social tumult. One historical instance includes the delayed reaction of U.S. social progressive programs to reorganize the structural layers of society after a shift to the Industrial Revolution. Due to the new industrial society’s inability to account for people’s health and wellbeing in structural factors like housing, economics, and waste disposal, there was widespread disatisfaction that largely drove anarchist and communist movements of the time.

“Industrial society” would include all three levels of a society based around an industrial mode of production, that is to say, based on an infrastructure that is technologically dependent on the steam engine and the production of electricity. It is harder to tell what Kaczynski means by “the industrial system,” but, taking into account his numerous rejoinders to attack “the material basis of society,” we can assume that “the system” includes mostly infrastructural and perhaps some structural factors that prop a society up.

“Techno-industrial society” is a term only used losely before Kaczynski and his associates developed it more fully, at which point it took on a more specific theoretical meaning. Último Reducto explained to me in one of our exchanges that “techno-industrial” refers to a generally more advanced form of society, based around computing technologies. This would make it largely compatible with terms popular in academia, like “late industry,” “late capitalism,” “information society,” “postmodern society,” etc. The same distinction that applies to industrial society and the industrial system applies to techno-industrial society and the techno-industrial system.

The Enemy Versus the Target

In terms of facts, I am in accordance with everything outlined above: the materialist method of analyzing society, the distinction between industrial and techno-industrial, and the emphasis on targeting the material basis of society. However, it is important to draw a distinction between a revolutionary enemy and a revolutionary target.

The communists, who had a similar materialist framework, also advocating targeting the material basis of society for their revolution (although their intention was to sieze power over it rather than destroy it). But their enemy was capitalist society. Similarly, one might make the distinction between the enemy of techno-industrial society, but the target of “the techno-industrial system.”

Still, there are obvious problems with our terminology, particularly its clarity. “System” is a vague word, and is attempting to cover concepts that our materialist framework already more accurately describes: infrastructure and structure, “the material basis of society,” or “the technological and economic basis of society.” All these terms and phrases are not only more exact, but also more intuitive.

“Techno-industrial” is also unintuitive. I agree that the technological turn around WWII to computing technologies, data, and other such things mark a major change in the infrastructural layer of society (see The Control Revolution by James Beniger; The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham). For this, perhaps “techno-industrial mode of production” is a useful concept. But in terms of naming our enemy, it is not very strong.

A stronger enemy is “world society.” This is clearly the logical consequence of a techno-industrial mode of production. Various historical trends support this contention, such as the formation of the UN and the European Union, the converging ways of life in nations that have been industrialized, the increasing connection between urban centers through transportation and communications technologies, a world identity being cemented by the existence of the internet… The terminology is also more intuitive and inspires greater motivation than a vague “system” identified only by an idiosyncratic theoretical term, “techno-industrial.”

There is already widespread opposition to world society. Observe the overwhelming numbers in support of the anti-globalization movement, the various regional conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa that explicitly oppose a global order, and the right-wing’s recent use of the concept of “globalism.” This is a much stronger motivator than an enemy of “modern technology.” For years I have attempted to frame technology itself as the enemy in people’s minds, and it simply does not work. People can agree that technology is the source of problems. But in terms of an enemy, they need something more tangible, more personal, and more involved in their day-to-day concerns. “World society” provides all of this.

Naming world society as the enemy also streamlines different elements of our analysis. If world society is the enemy, then we can demonstrate with our materialist mode of analysis why the technological and economic basis of world society is the target, and we can explain why typical targets of “globalism,” like politicians, are much less important than those belonging to the technician class, like the scientists, engineers, and businessmen who contribute significantly to technological progress. It also makes clearer the importance of the dominant ideology of the technician class, humanism (but see the final section in “A Critique of the Concept of ‘Leftism.'”)

Finally, naming world society as the enemy prevents us from giving undue focus to single issues, like biotechnology. In his essay to the anti-globalization movement, “Hit Where It Hurts,” Ted Kaczynski writes that radicals should focus on an issue that “the system” can’t afford to relax its position on. He suggests as an example the issue of biotechnology, which he argues (correctly, I believe) will be necessary to sustain order in the coming century. This is because biotechnology will be necessary to eradicate and control disease, to intensify agricultural production, to respond to ecological impacts of climate change, and perhaps even to manipulate human behavior.

However, biotechnology is not a good enemy because of what I have already stated above: people need something a little more personal, concrete, and “political.” Furthermore, a focus on biotechnology is much too narrow, limiting our ability to instigate tension in other areas that “the system” is disrupting.

Focusing on the project of world society does not have any of these problems, and is just as much an area “the system” can’t afford to compromise on. Almost every great analyst of the problems of technological society has suggested, as a solution, greater unification and cooperation between nations, more connectedness between world people, etc. Bertrand Russell, in The Prospects of Industrial Civilization, and Robert Wright in A Short History of Progress explicitly advocate a world government. So do some environmentalists who point out ecological problems with industrial technological production, such as Club of Rome in Limits to Growth, writing:

In Nature organic growth proceeds according to a Master Plan, a Blueprint. Such a ‘master plan’ is missing from the process of growth and development of the world system. Now is the time to draw up a master plan for sustainable growth and world development based on our global allocation of all resources and a new global economic system.

Various technicians, like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, also advance a globalizing project. These technicians, wholly dependent on continued technological progress, cannot afford to renege on this project. Thus, a movement against world society would be able to constantly instigate tension with the technicians who openly advocate the mission of world society, without the threat of them changing their minds for political expediency.

Finally, a focus on world society allows us to form political alliances with a huge swath of actors who, although not necessarily anti-civilization in orientation, are certainly against the world globalizing project. These include movements that have been active for decades, like fights for ethnic and national autonomy, and which are much too entrenched in the social groups of their respective political constituents to ever be annihilated completely.

The Target is Still Technology

Again, although the enemy is world society and its technician class, the target remains the technological and economic basis of that society. There is no reason to think that a focus on world society would significantly divert radicals from this focus, especially given how effectively the communist forces convinced its members that the means of overthrowing capitalist society could only ever be achieved by siezing the mode of production.

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