Letters: Ted Kaczynski to David Skrbina (Oct 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.


I.‪ I’ll begin by summarizing some information from Martin E.P. Seligman, Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. Here I have to rely on memory, because I do not have a copy of Seligman’s book, nor do I have extensive notes on it. Seligman arrived at the following conclusions through experiments with animals:

Take an animal, subect it to repeatedly painful stimulus, and each time block its efforts to escape from the stimulus. The animal becomes frustrated. Repeat the process a few times, and the state of frustration gives way to one of depression. The animal just gives up. The animal has now acquired “learned helplessness.” If, at a later time, you subject the animal to the same painful stimulus, it will not try to escape from the stimulus even if it could easily do so.

Learned helplessness can be unlearned. I don’t recall the details, but the general idea is that the animal gets over learned helplessness by making successful efforts.

Both learning and unlearning of helplessness occur within the specific area of behavior in which the animal is trained. For example, if an animal acquires learned helplessness through repeated frustration of its efforts to escape from electrical shocks, it will not necessarily show learned helplessness in relation to efforts to get food. But learned helplessness does to some extent carry over from one area to another: If an animal acquires learned helplessness in relation to electrical shocks, subsequently it will more easily become discouraged when its efforts to get food are frustrated. The same principles apply to unlearning helplessness.

An animal can be partly “immunized” to learned helplessness: If an animal is given prior experience in overcoming obstacles through effort, it will be much more restistant to learned helplessness (hence also to depression) than an animal that has not had such experience. For example, if caged piegons are able to get food only by pushing a lever on an apparatus that gives them one grain of wheat or the like for each push of the lever, then they will later acquire learned helplessness much less easily than pigeons that have not had to work for their food.

My memory of the following is not very clear, but I think Seligman indicates that laboratory rats and wild rats differ in that wild rats are far more energetic and persistent than laboratory ones in trying to solve themselves in a desparate situation. Presumably the wild rats have been immunized to learn helplessness through successful efforts made in the course of their earlier lives.

At any rat, it does appear that purposeful effort plays an essential role in the psychological economy of animals.

I first read Seligman’s book in the late 1980s. The book originally came out in the aerly 1970s, and I haven’t had much opportunity to read later work on learned helplessness. But the theory is believed to be valid also for human beings, and I believe it is the subject of continuing work.

I don’t necessarily accept a psychological theory just because some psychologists say its true. There’s a lot of nonsense in the field, and even experimental psychologists sometimes draw silly conclusions from their data. But the theory of learned helplessness squares very nearly with my own personal experience and with my impressions of human nature gained from observation of others.

The need for purposeful, successful effort implies a need for competence, or a need to be able to exercise control, because one’s goals can’t be attained if one does not have the competence, or the power to exercise control, that is necessary to reach the goals. Seligman writes:

Many theorists have talked about the need or drive to master events in the environment. In a classic exposition, R. W. White (1959) proposed the concept of competence. He argued that the basic drive for control had been overlooked by learning theorists and psychoanalytic thinkers alike. The need to master could be more pervasive than sex, hunger, and thirst in the lives of animals and men… J.L. Kavanau (1967) has postulated that the drive to resist compulsion is more important to wild animals than sex, food, or water. He found that captive white-footed mice spent inordinate time and energy just resisting experimental manipulation. If experimenters turned the lights up, the mouse spent his time setting them down. If the experimenters turned the lights down, the mouse turned them up.[21]

This suggests a need not only for power but for autonomy. In fact, such a need would seem to be implied by the need to attain goals through effort; for if one’s efforts are undertaken in subordination to another person, then those efforts will be directed toward the other person’s goals rather than toward one’s own goals.

Yet the inconvenient fact is that human individuals seem to differ greatly in the degree of autonomy that they need. For some people the drive for autonomy is very powerful, while at the other extreme there are people who seem to need no autonomy at all, but prefer to have someone else do their thinking for them. It may be that these people, automatically and without even willing it, accept as their own goals whatever goals are set up for them by those whose authority they recognize. Another view might be that for some reason certain people need purposeful effort that exercises their powers of thinking and decision-making while other people need only to exercise their physical and their strictly routine mental capacities. Yet another hypothesis would be that those who prefer to have others set their goals for them are persons who have acquired learned helplessness in the area of thinking and decision-making.

So the question of autonomy remains somewhat problematic. In any case, it’s clear how ISAIF’s concept of the power process is related to the foregoing discussion. As ISAIF explains in paragraph 33, the need for the power process consists in a need to have goals, to make efforts toward those goals, and to succeed in attaining at least some of the goals, and most people need a greater or lesser degree of autonomy in pursuing their goals.

If one has had insufficient experience of the power process, then one has not been “immunized” to learned helplessness, hence one is more susceptible to helplessness and consequently to depression. Even if one has been immunized, long-continued inability to attain goals will cause frustration and will lead eventually to depression. As any psychologist will tell you, frustration causes anger, and depression tends to produce guilt feelings, self-hatred, anxiety, sleep disorders, eating disorders, and other symptoms. (See ISAIF, paragraph 44 and Note 6.) Thus, if the theory of learned helplessness is correct, then ISAIF’s definition of “freedom” in terms of the power process is not arbitrary but is based on biological needs of humans and of animals.

This picture has support in other quarters. The zoologist Desmond Morris, in his book The Human Zoo, describes some of the abnormal behavior shown by wild animals when they are confined in cages, and he explains the prevalence of abnormal behavior (e.g., child abuse and sexual perversion) among modern people by comparing present-day humans to zoo animals: Modern society is our “cage.” Morris shows no awareness of the theory of learned helplessness, but much of what he says dovetails very nicely with that theory. He even mentions “substitute activities” that are equivalent to ISAIF’s “surrogate activities.”

The need for power, autonomy, and purposeful activity is perhaps implicit in some of Ellul’s work. Shortly after my trial, a Dr. Michael Aleksiuk sent me a copy of his book Power Therapy, which contains ideas closely related to that of the power process. A major theme of Kenneth Keniston’s study The Uncommitted is the sense of purposelessness that afflicts many people in the modern world. I think he mentions an “instinct of workmanship,” meaning a need to do purposeful work. In the first part of his book Growing Up Absurd, Paul Goodman discusses as a source of social problems the fact that men no longer need to do hard, demanding work that is essential for survival. Reviewing a book by Gerard Piel, Keyfitz wrote:

Among other signs of the lack of adaptation [in modern society] is … purposelessness. Our ancestors, whose work was hard and often dangerous, always necessary simply to keep alive, seemed to know what they were here for. Now ‘anomie’ and preoccupation with the isolated self recur as a central theme of U.S. popular culture. That they find resonance in every other industrial country suggests that the solving of the economic problem brings on these quandaries everywhere.[22]

Thus, I argue that the power process is not a luxury but a fundamental need in human psychological development, and that disruption of the power process is a critically important problem in modern society.

Because my lack of access to good library facilities I haven’t been able to explore the relevant psychological literature to any significant extent, but for anyone interested in modern social problems such an exploration should be well worth the time it would cost.

In answering your letters I’m not going to stick rigily with the definition of freedom given in ISAIF, paragraph 94, but I will assume throughout that the kind of freedom that really matters is the freedom to do things that have important practical consequences, and that the freedom to do things merely for pleasure, or for “fulfillment,” or in pursuit of surrogate activities, is relatively insignificant. See ISAIF, paragraph 72.

“Human dignity” is a very vague term and a broadly inclusive one. But I will assume that one essential element of human dignity is the capacity to exert oneself in pursuit of important, practical goals that one has selected either by oneself or as a member of a small, autonomous group. Thus, both freedom and dignity, as I will use those terms, are closely involved with the power process and with the associated biological need.

II. You ask for a “core reason” why things are getting worse. There are two core reasons.

A. Until roughly ten thousand years ago, all people lived as hunter-gatherers, and that is the way of life to which we are adapted physically and mentally. Many of us, including some Europeans,[23] lived as hunter-gatherers much more recently than ten thousand years ago. We may have undergone some genetic changes since becoming agriculturalists, but those changes are not likely to have been massive.[24] Hunter-gatherers who survived into modern times were people very much like ourselves.

As technology has advanced over the millenia, it has increasingly altered our way of life, so that we’ve had to live under conditions that have diverged more and more from the conditions to which we are adapted. This growing maladaptation subjects us to an ever-increasing strain. The problem has become particularly acute since the Industrial Revolution, which has been changing our lives more profoundly than any earlier development in human history. Consequently, we are suffering more acutely than ever from maladaptation to the circumstances in which we live. (Robert Wright has developed this thesis in an article that you might be interested to read.)[25]

I argue that the most important single maladaptation involved derives from the fact that our present circumstances deprive us of the opportunity to experience the power process properly. In other words, we lack freedom as the term is defined in ISAIF, paragraph 94.

The argument that “people now have more freedom than ever” is based on the fact that we are allowed to do almost anything we please as long as it has no practical consequences. See ISAIF, paragraph 72. Where our actions have practical consequences that might be of concern to the system (and few important practical consequences are not of concern to the system), our behavior, generally speaking, is closely regulated. Examples: We can believe in any religion we like, have sex with any consenting adult partner, take a plane to China or Timbuktu, have the shape of our nose changed, choose any from a huge variety of books, movies, musical recordings, etc., etc., etc. But these choices normally have no important practical consequences. Moreover, they do not require any serious effort on our part. We don’t change the shape of our own nose, we pay a surgeon to do it for us. We don’t go to China or Timbuktu under our own power, we pay someone to fly us there.

On the other hand, within our own home city we can’t go from point A to point B without our movement being controlled by traffic regulations, we can’t buy a firearm without undergoing a background check, we can’t change jobs without having our background scrutinized by prospective employers, most people’s jobs require them to work according to rules, procedures, and schedules prescribed by their employers, we can’t start a business without getting licenses and permits, observing numerous regulations, and so forth.

Moreover, we live at the mercy of large organizations whose actions determine the circumstances of our existence, such as the state of the economy and the environment, whether there will be a war or a nuclear accident, what kind of education our children will recieve and what media influences they will be exposed to. Etc., etc., etc.

In short, we have more freedom than ever before to have fun, but we cannot intervene significantly in the life-and-death issues that hang over us. Such issues are kept firmly under the control of large organizations. Hence our deprivation with respect to the power process, which requires that we have serious goals and the power to reach those goals through our own effort.

B. The second “core reason” why things are getting worse is that there is no way to prevent technology from being used in harmful ways, especially because the ultimate consequences of any given application of technology commonly cannot be predicted. Therefore, harm cannot be foreseen until it is too late.

Of course, the consequences of primitive man’s actions may often have been unpredictable, but because his powers were limited, the negative consequences of his actions also were limited. As technology becomes more and more powerful, even the unforeseeable consequences of its well-intentioned use, — let alone the consequences of its irresponsible for malicious use — become more and more serious, and introduce into the world a growing instability that is likely to lead eventually to disaster. See Bill Joy’s article, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Wired magazine, April 2000, and Martin Rees, Our Final Century.

III. A. “Objective” factors in history. I assert that the course of history, in large, is normally determined primarily by “objective” factors rather than by human intentions or by the decisions of individuals. Human intentions or the decisions of individuals may occasionally make major, long-term differences in the course of history, but when this happens the results do not fulfill the intentions of the individuals or groups that have made the decisions. Some exceptions, however, can be identified. Human intentions can sometimes be realized in the following three ways (see my letter of 1/2/04): (i) Intelligent administration may prolong the life of an existing social order. (ii) It may be possible to cause, or at least to hasten, the breakdown of an existing social order. (iii) An existing social order can sometimes be extended so as to encompass additional territory.[26]

I need to explain what the foregoing means. Human intentions often are realized, even for a long period, with respect to some particular factor in society. But, in such cases, human intentions for the society as a whole are not realized.

For example, in the Soviet Union the Communists achieved some of their goals, such as rapid industrialization, full employment, and a significant reduction in social inequality, but the society they created was very different from what the Bolsheviks had originally intended. (And in the long run the socialist system failed altogether.) Since the onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, people have succeeded in achieving material abundance, but the result is certainly not the kind of society that was envisioned by 18th-century proponents of progress. (And today people like Bill Joy and Martin Rees fear that industrial society may not survive much longer.) The Prophet Mohammed succeeded in establishing his new religion as the faith of millions of people; that religion has flourished for nearly fourteen centuries and may well do so for many centuries more. But: “At the end of the rule of the ‘rightly guided’ caliphs, the Prophet’s dream of ushering in a new era of equality and social justice remained unfulfilled…,”[27] nor has that dream been fulfilled today.

To explain further what I mean when I say that history is generally guided by “objective” factors and not by human intentions or human will, I’ll use an exampled that presents the issue in simplified form.

Given three factors:

(i) the presence of hunting-and-gathering bands at the eastern extremity of Siberia;

(ii) the presence of good habitat for humans at the western extremity of Alaska; and

(iii) the existence of a land-bridge across what is now the Bering strait, the occupation of the Americas by human beings was a historical inevitability and was in a certain sense independent of human intention and of human will.

Of course, human intentions were involved. In order for the Americas to be occupied, some hunting-and-gathering band at some point had to choose intentionally to move eastward across the land-bridge. But the occupation of the Americas did not depend on the intentions of any one hunting-and-gathering band — or any dozen bands — because, given the three conditions listed above, it was inevitable that some band sooner or later would move across the land-bridge. It is in this sense that major, long-term historical developments usually result from the operation of “objective” factors and are independent of human intentions.

The foregoing does not mean that history is rigidly deterministic in the sense that the actions of individuals and small groups can never have an important, long-term effect on the course of events. For example, if the period during the Bering Strait could be crossed had been short, say, 50 or 100 years, then the decision of a single hunting-and-gathering band to cross or not to cross to Alaska might have determined whether Columbus would find the Americas populated or uninhabited. But even in this case the occupation of the Americas would not have been a realization of the intentions of the single band that made the crossing. The intention of that band would have been only to move into one particular patch of desirable habitat, and it could have no idea that its action would lead to the occupation of two great continents.

B. Natural selection. A principle to bear in mind in considering the “objective” factors in history is the law of what I call “natural selection”: Social groups (of any size, from two or three people to entire nations) having the traits that best suit them to survive and propagate themselves, are the social groups that best survive and propagate themselves. This of course is an obvious tautology, so it tells us nothing new. But it does serve to call our attention to factors that we might otherwise overlook. I have not seen the term “natural selection” used elsewhere in connection with this principle, but the principle itself has not gone unnoticed. In the Encyclopaedia Britannica we find:

These processes were not inevitable in the sense that they corresponded to any ‘law’ of social change. They had the tendency, however, to spread whenever they occurred. For example, once the set of transformations known as the agrarian revolution had taken place anywhere in the world, their extension over the rest of the world was predictable. Societies that adopted the innovations grew in size and became more powerful. As a consequence other societies had only three options: to be conquered and incorporated by a more powerful agrarian society; to adopt the innovations; or to be driven away to the marginal places of the globe. Something similar might be said of the Industrial Revolution and other power-enhancing innovations, such as bureaucratization and the introduction of more destructive weapons.[28]

Notice that there is a difference between the “natural selection” that operates among human groups and the natural selection that we are familiar with in biology. In biology, more successful organisms simply replace less successful ones and are not imitated by them. But in human affairs less successful groups try to imitate more successful ones. That is, they try to adopt the social forms or practices that appear to have made the latter groups successful. Thus, certain social forms and practices propagate themselves not only because groups having those forms and practices tend to replace other groups, but also because other groups adopt those forms and practices in order to avoid being replaced. So it is probably more correct to describe natural selection as operating on social forms and practices rather than as operating on groups of people.

The principle of natural selection is beyond dispute because it is a tautology. But the principle could produce misleading conclusions if applied carelessly. For example, the principle does not a priori exclude human will as a factor guiding history.

C. Human will versus “objective” forces of history. In Western Europe, until recently, bellicosity — a readiness and ability to make war — was an advantageous trait in terms of “natural selection.” Militarily successful nations increased their power and their territory at the expense of other nations that were less successful in war. However, I think this is no longer true, because there is a strong consensus in Western Europe today that war between two Western European nations is absolutely unacceptable. Any nation that initiated such a war would be pounced upon by all the rest of Western Europe and soundly defeated. Thus, in Western Europe, bellicosity (at least as directed against other Western European nations), is now a disadvantageous trait in terms of natural selection, and it is so because of the human will to avoid war in Western Europe. This shows that human will can be a “selective force” involved in the process of “natural selection” as it operates in human affairs.

However (to the extent that it does not rely on the U.S. for protection) Western Europe as a whole still needs to be prepared for war, because outside Western Europe there exist other entities (nations or groups of nations) that might well make war on Western Europe if they thought they could get away with it. As it is, if any nation outside Western Europe made war on a Western European nation, and if the latter were unable to defend itself adequately, the rest of Western Europe would help it to defeat the aggressor. Thus, by eliminating internal warfare and acquiring a certain degree of unity, Western Europe has become more formidable in war than any outside entity.

What has happened in Western Europe is simply a continuation of a process that has been going on for thousands of years: Smaller political entities group together (whether voluntarily or through conquest) to form a larger political entity that eliminates internal warfare and thereby becomes a more successful competitor in a war against other political entities. Size does not always guarantee survival (e.g., consider the breakup of the Roman Empire), but in the course of history smaller political entities generally have tended to coalesce to form larger and therefore militarily more powerful ones; and this process is not dependent on human intention but results from “natural selection.”

Thus, when we take a relatively localized view of history and consider only Western Europe over the last several decades, human will appears to be an important factor in the process of natural selection, but when we take a broader view and look at the whole course of history, human will appears insignificant: “Objective” factors have determined the replacement of smaller political entities by larger ones.

Of course, it’s conceivable that human will might some day eliminate war altogether. A world government might not even be necessary. It would be enough that there should exist a strong worldwide consensus, similar to the consensus now existing in Western Europe, that war was unacceptable and that any nation initiating a war should be promptly crushed by all the other nations. Bellicosity would then become a highly disadvantageous trait in terms of natural selection. And, since the whole world would be encompassed by the consensus, there would be no outside competitor left against whom it might be necessary to make war.

But you can see how difficult it is to reach the necessary consensus. Efforts to end war have been going on at least since the end of World War I with the League of Nations, and outside of Western Europe there has been little progress in that regard. Moreover, even if conventional warfare could be ended through an international consensus, organized violence might well continue, because there are forms of organized violence (e.g., guerrilla warfare, terrorism) that would be extremely difficult to suppress even if vigorously opposed by every nation on Earth.

The purpose of the foregoing discussion is not to prove that it is never possible for human will to change the course of history. If I didn’t believe it were possible, then I wouldn’t waste my time writing letters like this one. But we have to recognize how powerful the “objective” forces of history are and how limited is the scope for human choice. A realistic appraisal will help us to discard solutions that appear desirable but are impossible to put into practice, and concentrate our attention on solutions that may be less than ideal but perhaps have a chance of success.

D. Democracy as a product of “objective” forces. In your letter of 7/27/04, you and your colleague offer “democracy” as an example of an improvement in the human condition brought about by “human action.” I assume that by “democracy” you mean representative democracy, i.e., a system of government in which people elect their own leaders. And I assume that in referring to “human action” you mean that representative democracy became the dominant form of government in the modern world through a process that more or less fits the following model: problem perceived — solution devised — solution implemented — problem solved. If this is what you mean, then I think you are wrong.

I think the problem of political oppression has been perceived for thousands of years. Presumably, people have resented political oppression ever since the beginning of civilization; this is indicated by numerous peasant revolts and the like that have been recorded in history. If representative democracy is the solution to the problem of political oppression, then the solution, too, has long been known and sometimes implemented. The idea and the practice of representative democracy go back at least to ancient Athens, and may well go back to prehistoric times, for some of the aborigines of southeastern Austraia practiced representative democracy.[29]

Sixteenth-century Cossacks had “a military organization of a peculiarly democratic kind, with a general assembly (rada) as the supreme authority and elected officers, including the command in chief…”[30] Seventeenth-century buccaneers elected their own captains, who could be deposed by the crew at any time when an enemy was not in sight.[31] Fifteenth-century Geneva had a democratic government, though perhaps not strictly speaking a representative democracy since the legislative body consisted of all citizens.[32] In addition to fully democratic systems, there have been some partially democratic ones. Under the Roman Republic, for example, public officials were elected by the assembled people, but the aristocratic Senate was the dominant political force.[33]

Thus, representative democracy has been tried with varying degrees of success at many times and places. Nevertheless, among preindustrial civilized societies the dominant forms of government remained the monarchical, oligarchic, aristocratic, and feudal ones, and representative democracy was only a sporadic phenomenon. Clearly, under the conditions of preindustrial civilization, democracy was not as well adapted for survival and propagation as other forms of government were. This could have been due to internal weakness (instability or a tendency to transmute into other forms of government), or to external weakness (a democratic government may have been successful in competing economically or militarily with its more authoritarian rivals).

Whatever it was that made preindustrial democracy weak, the situation changed with the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Suddenly people began to admire the (semi-)democratic systems of Britain and the United States, and attempts were made to imitate those systems. If Britain had been economically poor and militarily weak, and if the United States had been a stagnant backwater, would their systems have been admired and imitated? Not likely! Britain was economically and militarily the most successful nation in Europe, and the United States was a young but dynamically growing country, hence these two countries excited the admiration and envy of the propertied classes in other countries. It was the propertied classes, not the laboring classes, who were primarily responsible for the spread of democracy. That’s why Marxists always referred to the democratic revolutions as “bourgeois revolutions.”

The democracies had to survive repeated contests with authoritarian systems, and they did survive, largely because of their economic and technological vigor. They won World Wars I and II, and they didn’t do so because soldiers were more willing to fight for a democratic than for an authoritarian government. No one has ever questioned the bravery or the fighting spirit of the German and Japanese soldiers. The democracies won largely because of their industrial might.[34]

Notice that fascism was popular, even to some extent in the U.S.,[35] between the two World Wars. (Here I use the term “fascism” in its generic sense, not referring specifically to Mussolini’s Fascists.) After World War II, fascism lost its popularity. Why? Because the fascists lost the war. If the fascists had won, fascism undoubtedly would have been admired and imitated.

During much of the Cold War, “socialism” was a watchword throughout the Third World. It represented the state of bliss to which most politically-conscious people there aspired. But that lasted only as long as the Soviet Union appeared to be more dynamic and vigorous than the U.S. When it became clear that the Soviet Union and other socialist countries could not keep up with the West economically or technologically, socialism lost its popularity, and the new watchwords were “democracy” and “free market.”

Thus, democracy has become the dominant political form of the modern world not because someone decided that we needed a more humane form of government, but because of an “objective” fact, namely, that under the conditions created by industrialization, democratic systems are more vigorous technologically and economically than other systems.

Bear in mind that, as technology continues to progress, there is no guarantee that representative democracy will always be the political form best adapted to survive and propagate itself. Democracy may be replaced by some more successful political system. In fact, it could be argued that this has already happened. It could plausibly be maintained that, notwithstanding the continuation of democratic forms such as reasonably honest elections, our society is really governed by elites that control the media and lead the political parties. Elections, it might be claimed, have been reduced to contests between rival groups of propagandists and image-makers.

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