Letters: Ted Kaczynski to David Skrbina (March 2005)

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.


You and your colleague make a series of related assertions: We “would act … to restrict technology as it becomes necessary.” “People in the future will likely act to mitigate technological advances or effects that begin to significantly undermine their wellbeing.” Success in “adequately overcoming technologically-induced adversities” will be more likely through reform than through revolution. There’s a “general pattern: A technical problem arises and … [eventually] … a compromise solution is implemented that reduces the level of harm to ‘a generally acceptable level.'”

In my letter of 11/23/04, I answered these claims in part. Addressing your four examples of the purported “general pattern,” I argued that even assuming that the achieved solutions to the problem were adequate ones (which in three of the four cases was debatable at best): (i) The “solutions” came about largely through the operation of “objective” factors and independently of human will. (ii) In two of the four cases (political oppression, slavery) the solutions were reached, in important part, through warfare and violent revolution, hence could not fairly be characterized as reform. (iii) In the same two of the four cases, the solutions were not reached until thousands of years after the problems arose. In other words, the solutions did not happen when we needed them, but when the “objective” conditions were by chance right for them.

I.A. The most important point in the foregoing is:

-1. The course of history, in the large, is generally determined not by human choice but by “objective” factors, especially the kind of “natural selection” that I discussed in my letter of 10/12/04. Consequently, we can’t achieve a long-lasting solution to a major social problem by superficial tinkering designed merely to correct particular symptoms. If a solution is possible at all, it can be reached only by finding a way to change the underlying “objective” factors that are responsible for the existing situation.

There are several other reasons why acceptable solutions[120] to the problems of the technological society will not be reached through the “general pattern” of compromise and reform that you and your colleague propose.

-2. Generally speaking, reform is possible only in cases where the interests of the system coincide with the interests of human beings. Where the interests of the system conflict with those of human beings, there is no meaningful reform.[121] E.g., sanitation has improved because it is in the system’s interest to avoid epidemics. But nothing has been done about the unsatisfactory nature of modern work, because if most people worked as independent artisans rather than as cogs in the system, the economic efficiency of the system would be drastically impaired.

“Natural selection” is at work here: Systems that compromise their own power and efficiency for the sake of “human values” are at a competitive disadvantage vis-a-vis systems that put power and efficiency first. Hence, the latter expand while the former fall behind.

-3. You claim that people will act to mitigate problems “that begin to significantly undermine their well-being.” But often, once a problem begins to significantly undermine people’s well-being, it is too late to solve the problem; or even if the problem can be solved the cost of solving it may be unacceptably high.

For example, it is too late to solve the problem of the Greenhouse Effect (global warming). Whatever is done now, we will be stuck with its consequences for centuries to come. We can hope to “solve” the problem only to the extent of keeping the effect within certain limits, and it’s not clear that even that much can be done without drastic cuts in energy consumption that will have unacceptable economic consequences.

Apparently the threat represented by nuclear weapons has not undermined people’s well-being enough to lead to the abolition of these weapons. If there is ever a major nuclear war, people’s well-being will be undermined very dramatically; but then it will be too late.

Right now biotechnicians are playing with fire. The escape from the laboratory of some artificially-created organisms or genetic material could have disastrous consequences, yet nothing is being done to restrain the biotechnicians. If there is ever a major biological disaster, people’s well-being will indeed be undermined, but then it will be too late to correct the problem. For example, the so-called “killer bees” are a hybrid of South American and African bees that escaped from a research facility somewhere in South America. Once the bees had escaped, all efforts to stop them proved futile. They have spread over much of South America and into the U.S. and have killed hundreds of people. With the experimentation in biotechnology that is now going on, something much, much worse could happen. See Bill Joy’s article.

-4. Often a bad thing cannot be fixed because its specific cause is not known. Consider for example the steady increase in the rate of mental disorders that I discussed in my letter of 11/23/04. It seems almost certain that this increase is in some way an outgrowth of technological progress, since the entire lifestyle of modern man is essentially determined by his technology. But no one knows specifically why the rate of mental disorders has been increasing. My personal opinion is that the high rate of depression has a great deal to do with deprivation with respect to the power process,[122] but even if I’m right that still leaves a great deal unanswered, e.g., in regard to mania and anxiety disorders.

Again, it is believed that the rate of mortality due to cancer has increased by a factor of more than ten since the late 19th century,[123] and that is not a result merely of the aging of the population. This too is almost certainly in some way an outcome of the technoindustrial lifestyle, but, while some causes of cancer are known, the reason for the overall massive increase in the incidence of this disease is still a mystery.

-5. Even where a problem can be solved, the solution itself often is offensive to human dignity. For example, because the causes of depression, mania and attention-deficit disorder are either unknown or cannot be removed without excessive cost to the system, these problems are “solved” by giving the patients drugs. So the system makes people sick by subjecting them to conditions that are not fit for human beings to live in, and then it restores their ability to function by feeding them drugs. To me, this is a colossal insult to human dignity.

-6. Where a problem is of long standing, people may fail to realize even that there is a problem, because they have never known anything better. I’ve already suggested something like this in regard to stress. See my letter of 5/19/04.

-7. Some problems are insoluble because of the very nature of modern technology. For example, the transfer of power from individuals and small groups to large organizations is inevitable in a technological society for several reasons, one of which is that many essential operations in the functioning of the technological system can be carried out only by large organizations. E.g., if petroleum were not refined on a large scale, the production of gasoline would be so costly and laborious that the automobile would not be a practical means of transportation.

-8. Your formulations, as quoted on the first page of this letter, rely on such terms as “well-being,” “adversities,” and “generally acceptable level” of “harm.” These terms may be subject to a variety of interpretations, but I assume that what you mean is that when conditions make people sufficiently uncomfortable they will act to reduce their discomfort to an acceptable level. I deny that this is consistently true, but even if it were it would not solve the problem as I see it.

One of the most dangerous features of the technoindustrial system is precisely its power to make people comfortable (or at least reduce their discomfort to a relatively acceptable level) in circumstances under which they should not be comfortable, e.g., circumstances that are offensive to human dignity, or destructive of the life that evolved on Earth over hundreds of millions of years, or that may lead to disaster at some future time. Drugs (as I’ve just discussed, I.A.5) can alleviate the discomfort of depression and attention-deficit disorder, propaganda can recocile the majority to environmental destruction, and the entertainment industry gives people forgetfulness so that they won’t worry too much about nuclear weapons or about the fact that they may be replaced by computers a few decades from now.

So comfort is not the main issue. On the contrary, one of our most important worries should be that people may be comfortable with almost anything, including conditions that we would consider horrifying. Perhaps you’ve read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, a vision of a society in which nearly everyone was supremely comfortable; yet Huxley intended this vision to repel the reader, as being inconsistent with human dignity.

-9. What happens is that social norms, and people themselves, change progressively over time in response to changes in society. This occurs partly through a spontaneous process of adaptation and partly through the agency of propaganda and educational techniques; in the future, biotechnology too may alter human beings. The result is that people come to accept conditions that earlier generations would have considered inconsistent with freedom or intolerably offensive to human dignity.

For example, failure or inability to retaliate for an injury was traditionally seen as intensely shameful. To the ancient Romans, it was “the lowest depth of shame to submit tamely to wrongs.”[124] To the 17th-century Spanish playwright Calderon de la Barca, a man who had been subjected to a wrong was degraded but could perhaps redeem himself by seeking revenge. The same attitude — that to be wronged is a shame that can be wiped away only through revenge — persists today in the Middle East.[125] In the English-speaking world, even into the early 19th century, duels were fought over points of “honor.” (We all know about the famous duel in which Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton, and my recollection is that Andrew Jackson, before he became President, killed a man in a duel.)

Today, however, “revenge” is a bad word. Dueling and private retaliation not only are illegal, but by well-socialized people are seen as immoral. We are expected to submit meekly to an injury or humiliation unless a legal remedy is available through the courts. Of course, it’s easy to see why modern society’s need for social order makes it imperative to suppress dueling and private revenge.

Prior to the advent of the Industrial Revolution in England and America, police forces were intentionally kept weak because people saw police as a threat to their freedom. People relied for protection not primarily on the police but on themselves, their families and their friends. Effective law enforcement came to be regarded as desirable only as a result of the social changes that the Industrial Revolution brought.[126] Today, needless to say, hardly any respectable middle-class person sees the presence of strong police forces as an infringement of his freedom.

I’m not trying to persuade you to advocate the abolition of police or to approve of dueling and private revenge. My point is simply that attitudes regarding what is consistent with human dignity and freedom have changed in the past in response to the needs of the system, and will continue to change in the future, also in response to the needs of the system. Thus, even if future generations are able to “solve” social problems to the extent necessary to secure what they conceive of as human dignity and freedom, their solutions may be totally incompatible with what we would want for our posterity.

-10. When a problem persists for a long time without substantial progress toward a solution, most people just give up and become passive with respect to it. (Note the connection with “learned helplessness.”) This of course is one of the mechanisms that help bring people to accept what they formerly regarded as intolerable indignities as I described above.

For example, back in the late ’50s or early ’60s, Vance Packard published a book titled The Hidden Persuaders, which was an expose of the manipulative techniques that advertisers used to sell products or political candidates to consumers or voters. When the book first appeared it received a great deal of attention, and my recollection is that the most common reaction among intellectuals and other thinking people was: “Isn’t this scandalous? What is the world coming to when people’s attitudes, voting choices, and buying habits can be manipulated by a handful of skilled professional propagandists?” At that time I was in my late teens and was naive enough to believe that, as a result of Packard’s book and the attention it received, something would be done about manipulative advertising. Obviously nothing was done about it, and nowadays if anyone published a book about manipulative advertising it wouldn’t get much attention. The reaction of most well-informed people would be: “Yeah, sure, we know all that. It’s too bad … but what can you do?” They would then drop the unpleasant subject and talk or think about something else. They have lapsed into passive resignation.

Of course, nothing could be done about manipulative advertising because it would have cost the system too much to do anything about it. However insulting it may be to human dignity, the system needs propaganda, and as always happens when the needs of the system come into conflict with human dignity, the sytem’s needs take precedence. (See I.A.2 above.)

-11. There is the “problem of the commons”: It may be to everyone’s advantage that everyone should take a certain course of action, yet it may be to the advantage of each particular individual to take the opposite course of action. For example, in modern society, it is to everyone’s advantage that everyone should pay a portion of his income to support the functions of government, but it is to the advantage of each particular individual to keep all of his income for himself. (That’s why payment of taxes has to be compulsory.)

Similarly, I know people who think the technological society is horrible, that the automobile is a curse, and that we would all be better off if no one used modern technology. Yet they drive cars themselves and use all the usual technological conveniences. And why shouldn’t they? If individual X refuses to drive a car, the technological system will go on as before; X’s refusal to drive a car will accomplish nothing and will cost him a great deal of inconvenience. For the same reason, X in most cases will not participate in an effort to form a movement designed to remedy some problem of the technological society, because his participation would cost him time and energy, and there is at most a minimal chance that his own personal effort would make the difference between success and failure for the movement. People take action on social problems, even the most important ones, only under special circumstances. See my letter of 11/23/04, Note 101.

-12. Most people, most of the time, are not particularly foresighted, and take little account of social dangers that lie decades in the future. As a result, preventative measures commonly are postponed until it is too late.

If I remember correctly, the Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius predicted the Greenhouse Effect way back in the 19th century; certainly it was predicted at least as early as the 1960s. Yet no one tried to do anything about it until recently, when it was already too late to avoid many of its consequences.

The problem of the disposal of nuclear waste was obvious as soon as the first nuclear power-plants were set up decades ago. No one knew of a safe way to dispose of the waste, but it was simply assumed that a solution to the problem would eventually be found and the development of nuclear power-generation was pushed ahead. Worse still, nuclear power-generation was intentionally introduced to third-world countries under the “Atoms for Peace” program without any apparent consideration of the obvious question whether their often irresponsible little governments would dispose of the wastes safely or whether they would use their nuclear capacity for the development of weapons.

Today, in this country, nuclear wastes are still piling up, and there is every reason to think that they will keep piling up indefinitely. And there is still no generally accepted solution to the problem of disposing of these wastes, which will remain dangerous for many thousands of years. It is claimed that the disposal site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada is safe, but this is widely disputed. Experience has shown again and again that technological solutions, excepting only the most minor innovations, need to be tested before they can be relied on. Usually they work only after they have been corrected through trial and error. The Nevada disposal site is an experiment the result of which won’t be known for thousands of years — when it will be too late. Simply on the basis of the demonstrated unreliability of untested technological solutions, I would guess it’s more likely than not that the Nevada disposal site will prove a failure.

Of course, most people would rather stick future generations with the difficult and perhaps insoluble problem of dealing with our nuclear waste, than accept any substantial reduction in the availability of electricity now.

If the nuclear waste problem in the U.S. is worrisome, you can imagine how some of these irresponsible little third-world countries are disposing of their nuclear waste. Not to mention the fact that some of them have made or are trying to make nuclear bombs. So much for the foresight of the presumably intelligent people who promoted nuclear power-generation several years ago.

-13. The threatening aspects of technology often are balanced by temptingly attractive features. And once people have given in to the temptation of accepting an attractive but dangerous technological innovation, there is no turning back — short of a breakdown of technological civilization. See ISAIF paragraph 129. Biotechnology can increase agricultural production and provide new medicines; in the future it will probably help to eliminate genetic diseases and allow parents to give their children desired traits. As computers grow faster and more sophisticated, they give people more and more powers that they would not otherwise have. The latest electronic entertainment media give people new and exciting kicks.

Your claim that people will correct problems when these make them sufficiently uncomfortable, even if it were true, would have no clear application to such cases. Technical innovations make people comfortable in some ways and uncomfortable in other ways, and while the comforts are obvious and direct, the discomforts often are indirect and not obvious. It may be difficult or impossible even to recognize and prove the connection between the technology and the discomfort.

E.g., people directly experience the fun that they get from computers and electronic entertainment media, but it is by no means obvious that exposure of children to computers and electronic media may cause attention-deficit disorder. Some research suggests such an effect, but it remains an open question whether the effect is real. As for the possibility of correcting this problem through reform — let’s watch your efforts to curtail the use of computers in schools. If you have any great success even locally, I think you will be doing very well indeed. And I predict with 99.9% certainty that you will not succeed in curtailing the use of computers in the schools on a nationwide basis.

-14. Most people, most of the time, follow the path of least resistance. That is, they do what will make them comfortable for the present and the near future. This tendency deters people from addressing the underlying causes of discomforts of modern life.

The underlying problems are difficult to attack and can be corrected only at a certain price, so most people take the easy way out and utilize one of the avenues of escape that offer them quick alleviation of their discomfort. For those who are not satisfied simply with immersion in the pleasures provided by the entertainment industry, there are surrogate activities and there are religions, as well as ideologies that serve psychological needs in the same way that religions do. For many who suffer from a sense of powerlessness, it will be more effective to strive for a position of power within the system than to try to change the system. And for those who do struggle against the system, it will be easier and more rewarding to concentrate on one or a few limited issues in regard to which there is a reasonable chance of victory than to address the intractable problems that are the real sources of their discontent.

Consider for example the kook variety of Christianity that has become a serious political force in recent years. I’m referring to people who believe that the world will end within 40 years and that sort of thing (see enclosed article by Bill Moyers).[127] It seems fairly obvious that these people retreat into their fantasy world in order to escape from the anxieties and frustrations of modern life. Who needs to worry about nuclear war or about the environment when the world will end soon anyway, and all the true believers will go to heaven? For those who are disturbed by the decay of traditional morality, it is much easier to fight abortion and gay marriage than to recognize that rapid technological change necessarily leads to rapid changes in social values. See ISAIF, paragraph 50. In ISAIF paragraphs 219-222 and in “The System’s Neatest Trick,” I argue that the “causes” to which leftists devote themselves similarly represent a form of escapism.

Through recourse to these various forms of escapism, people avoid the need to address the real sources of their discontent.

-15. Technological progress brings too many problems too rapidly. Even if we make the extremely optimistic assumption that any one of the problems could be solved through reform, it is unrealistic to suppose that all of the most important problems can be solved through reform, and solved in time. Here is a partial list of problems: War (with modern weapons, not comparable to earlier warfare), nuclear weapons, accumulation of nuclear waste, other pollution problems of many different kinds, global warming, ozone depletion, exhaustion of some natural resources, overpopulation and crowding, genetic deterioration of humans due to relaxation of natural selection, abnormally high rate of extinction of species, risk of disaster from biotechnological tinkering, possible or probably replacement of humans by intelligent machines, biological engineering of humans (an insult to human dignity),[128] dominance of large organizations and powerlessness of individuals, surveillance technology that makes individuals still more subject to the power of large organizations,[129] propaganda and other manipulative psychological techniques, psychoactive medications,[130] mental problems of modern life, including, inter alia, stress, depression, mania, anxiety disorders, attention-deficit disorder, addictive disorders, domestic abuse, and generalized incompetence. If you want more, see the enclosed review of books by Jared Diamond and Richard Posner.[131]

The solution of any one of the foregoing problems (if possible at all) would require a long and difficult struggle. If your colleague thinks that all of these problems can be solved, and solved in time, by attacking each problem separately, then he’s dreaming. The only way out is to attack the underlying source of all these problems, which is the technoindustrial system itself.

-16. In a complex, highly-organized system like modern industrial society, you can’t change just one thing. Everything is connected to everything else, and you can’t make a major change in any one thing without changing the whole system. This applies not only to the physical components of the system, but to the whole mind-set, the whole system of values and priorities that characterizes the technological society.

If you try to fix things by addressing each problem separately, your reforms can’t go far enough to fix any one of the problems, because if you make changes that are far-reaching enough to fix problem X, those changes will have unacceptable consequences in other parts of the system. As pointed out in ISAIF paragraphs 121-24, you can’t get rid of the bad parts of technology and still retain the good parts.

Consider for example the problem of manipulative advertising and propaganda in general. Any serious restriction on manipulative advertising would entail intereference with the advertisers’ First Amendment right to free expression, so a radical restructuring of our First Amendment jurisprudence would be required. The news media are supported by advertising. If there were a drastic decline in advertising, who would support the vast network that collects information around the world and funnels it to the TV-viewer and the newspaper-reader? Maybe the government would support it, but then the government could control the news we receive, and you know what that implies.

Even more important, with an end to manipulative advertising there would probably be a major drop in consumption, so the economy would go to hell. You can imagine the consequences of that as well as I can.

Since the problems can’t be solved one at a time, you have to think in terms of changing the entire system, including the whole mind-set and system of values associated with it.

-17. What you ask for has no precedent in history. Societies sometimes fix problems of relatively limited scope; e.g., a country that has suffered a military defeat may be able to reorganize its army on new principles and win the next battle. But historically, short of a radical transformation of the entire social fabric (i.e., revolution), it has proved impossible for societies to solve deep-lying problems of the kind we face today. I challenge you and your colleague to produce even one example from history of a society that has solved through piecemeal reform problems of the number and seriousness of those that I’ve listed above (see I.A.15).

I.B. If, in spite of the foregoing, you still think that reform will work, just look at our past record. To take only a few of the most conspicuous examples:

-1. Environmental destruction. People damaged their environment to some degree even at the hunting-and-gathering stage. Forests were burned, either through recklessness or because burned-over lands produced more food for hunter-gatherers.[132] Early hunters may have exterminated some species of large game.[133] As technology increased man’s power, environmental destruction became more serious. For example, it is well known that the Mediterranean region was largely deforested by pre-modern civilizations.[134] But forests are only one part of the picture: Preindustrial societies had no radioactive waste, no chemical factories, no diesel engines, and the damage they did to their environment was minor in comparison with what is being done today. In spite of the feeble palliative measures that are now being taken, the overall picture is clear: For thousands of years, the damage that humans have done to their environment has been steadily increasing. As for reform — there is an environmental movement, but its successes have been very modest in relation to the magnitude of the problem.

-2. War. War existed among nomadic hunter-gatherers, and could be nasty.[135] But as civilization and military technology advanced, war became more and more destructive. By the 20th century it was simply horrible. As Winston Churchill put it: “War, which once was glorious and cruel, has now become sordid and cruel.” Private efforts to end war began at least as early as the 1970s,[136] and efforts by governments began at least as early as the end of World War I with the League of Nations. You can see how little has been accomplished.

-3. Psychological problems incident to modern life. I discussed these in my letter of 11/23/04. But the presence of such problems was already evident early in the 20th century in the neurotic tendency of the arts. In reading a history of Spanish literature recently, I was struck by the way neurotic made its appearance as the historian moved from the 19th to the 20th century. E.g.: “The poetry of Damaso Alonso [born in 1898] … is a cry … of anguish and anger; an explosion of impotent rage against his own misery and against the pain of the world around him.”[137] Artists of this type can’t be dismissed simply as individuals with psychological problems peculiar to themselves, because the fact that their work has been accepted and admired among intellectuals is an indication that the neurosis is fairly widespread.

And what has been done about the psychological problems of modern times? Drugs, psychotherapy — in my view insults to human dignity. Where is the reform movement that, according to your theory, is supposed to fix things?

-4. Propaganda. As I mentioned above (see I.A.10), the problem of propaganda was well publicized by Vance Packard ca 1960, and the problem was certainly recognized by others (e.g., Harold Lasswell) long before that. And what has been done to correct this insult to human dignity? Nothing whatsoever.

-5. Domination of our lives by large organizations. This is a matter of fundamental importance, and nothing effective has been done to alleviate the problem. As I’ve pointed out (see I.A.7), nothing can be done about this problem in the context of a technological society.

-6. Nuclear weapons. This is perhaps the star exhibit. Of all our technologically induced problems the problem of nuclear weapons should be the easiest to solve through reform: The danger presented by those weapons is in no way subtle — it is obvious to anyone with a normal IQ. While such things as genetic engineering and superintelligent computers promise benefits that may seem to offset their menace, nuclear weapons offer no benefits wahtever — only death and destruction. With the exception only of a tiny minority of dictators, military men, and politicians who see nuclear weapons as enhancing their own power, virtually every thinking person agrees that the world would be better off without nuclear weapons.

Yet nuclear weapons have been around for 60 years, and almost no progress has been made toward eliminating them. On the contrary, they proliferate: The U.S., Russia, Britain, France; then China, Israel, India, Pakistan; now North Korea, and in a few years probably Iran …

If reform can’t solve the problem of nuclear weapons, then how can it solve the far more subtle and difficult problems among those that modern technology has created?

So it’s clear that reform isn’t working, and there’s no reason to hope that it will ever work. Obviously it’s time to try something else.


II.A. There are several reasons why revolution may succeed where reform has made no progress.

-1. Until ca 1980 I used to think the situation was hopeless, largely because of people’s thoughtlessness and passivity and their tendency to take the easy way out. (See I.A.6, 8-14, above.) Up to that point I had never read much history. But then I read Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution, and it opened my eyes to the fact that, in time of revolution, the usual rules do not apply: People behave differently. Subsequent reading about revolutions, especially the French and the Russian ones, confirmed that conclusion. Once a revolutionary fever has taken hold of a country, people throw off their passivity and are willing to make the greatest efforts and endure the greatest hardships for the sake of their revolution. In such cases it may be that only a minority of the population is gripped by the revolutionary fever, but that minority is sufficiently large and energetic so that it becomes the dominant force in the country. See ISAIF paragraph 142.

-2. Long before that large and dominant revolutionary minority develops, that is, long before the revolution actually begins, an avowedly revolutionary movement can shake a much smaller minority out of its apathy and learned helplessness and inspire it to passionate commitment and sacrifice in a way that a moderate and “reasonable” reform effort cannot do. See ISAIF paragraph 141. This small minority may then show remarkable stamina and long-term determination in preparing the way for revolution. The Russian revolutionary movement up to 1917 provides a notable example of this.

-3. The fact that revolutions are usually prepared and carried out by minorities is important, because the system’s techniques of propaganda almost always enable it to keep the attitudes and behavior of the majority within such limits that they do not threaten the system’s basic interests. As long as society is governed through the usual democratic process — elections, public-opinion polls, and other numerical indices of majority choice — no reform movement that threatens the system’s basic interests can succeed[138], because the system can always contrive to have the majority on its side. 51% who are just barely interested enough to cast a vote will always defeat 49%, no matter how serious and committed the latter may be. But in revolution, a minority, if sufficiently determined and energetic, can outweigh the relatively inert majority.

-4. Unlike reformers, revolutionaries are not restrained by fear of negative consequences (see I.A.16, above). Consider for example the emission of greenhouse gasses and/or creation of nuclear waste associated with the generation of electric power. Because it is unthinkable that anyone should have to do without electricity, the reformers are largely stymied; they can only hope that a technological solution will be found in time. But revolutionaries will be prepared to shut down the power plants regardless of consequences.

-5. As noted above (see I.A.15), reformers have to fight a number of different battles, the loss of any one of which could lead either to physical disaster or to conditions intolerably offensive to human dignity. Revolutionaries whose goal is the overthrow of the technoindustrial system have only one battle to fight and win.

-6. As I’ve argued (see I.A.1), history is guided mainly be “objective” circumstances, and if we want to change the course of history we have to change the “objective” circumstances to that end. The dominant “objective” circumstances in the world today are those created by the technoindustrial system. If a revolutionary movement could bring about the collapse of the technoindustrial system, it would indeed change the “objective” circumstances dramatically.

-7. As I’ve pointed out (see I.A.17), your proposed solution through piecemeal reform has no historical precedents. But there are numerous precedents for the elimination through revolution of an existing form of society. Probably the precedent most apposite to our case is that of the Russian Revolution, in which a revolutionary movement systematically prepared the way for revolution over a period of decades, so that when the right movement arrived the revolutionaries were ready to strike.

-8. Even if you believe that adequate reforms are possible, you should still favor the creation of an effective revolutionary movement. It’s clear that the necessary reforms — if such are possible — are not currently being carried out. Often the system needs a hard kick in the pants to get it started on necessary reforms, and a revolutionary movement can provide that kick in the pants.

Further, if it is an error to attempt revolution — that is, if adequate reforms are possible — then the error should be self-correcting: As soon as the system has carried through the necessary reforms, the revolutionary movement will no longer have a valid cause, so it will lose support and peter out.

For example, in the U.S. during the early part of the 20th century, insufficient attention was paid to the problems of the working class. Labor violence ensued and provided the kick in the pants necessary to get the government to pay attention to the problems. Because adequate reforms were carried through, the violence died down;[139] this in contrast to what happened in Russia, where the Tsarist regime’s stubborn resistance to reform led to revolution.

II.B. You write: “Perhaps it would be useful to focus on specific actions necessary to alter our present technological path rather than to use loaded terms like ‘revolution,’ which may alienate as many, or more, supporters of change as it would galvanize adherents. Or so my colleague suggests.”

-1. Once one has decided that the overthrow of the technoindustrial system is necessary, there is no reason to shrink from using the word “revolution.” If a person is prepared to embrace a goal as radical as that of overthrowing the technoindustrial system, he is hardly likely to be alienated by the term “revolution.”

Furthermore, if you want to build a movement dedicated to such a radical goal, you can’t buid it out of lukewarm people. You need people who are passionately committed, and you must be careful to avoid allowing your movement to be swamped by a lot of well-meaning do-gooders who may be attracted to it because they are concerned about the environment and all that, but will shrink from taking radical measures. So you want to alienate the lukewarm do-gooders. You need to keep them away from your movement.

A mistake that most people make is to assume that the more followers you can recruit, the better. That’s true if you’re trying to win an election. A vote is a vote regardless of whether the voter is deeply committed or just barely interested enough to get to the polls. But when you’re building a revolutionary movement, the number of people you have is far less important than the quality of your people and the depth of their commitment. Too many lukewarm or otherwise unsuitable people will ruin the movement. As I pointed out in an earlier letter, at the outset of the Russian Revolution of 1917 the Social Revolutionary party was numerically dominant because it was a catch-all party to which anyone who was vaguely in favor of revolution could belong.[140] The more radical Bolsheviks were numerically far inferior, but they were deeply committed and had clear goals. The Social Revolutionaries proved ineffective, and it was the Bolsheviks who won out in the end.

-2. This brings me to your argument that if the nomadic hunting-and-gathering (NHG) society is taken as the social ideal, the pool of potential revolutionaries would be minimal. You yourself (same page of the same letter) suggested a possible answer to this, namely, that the NHG might “draw in the most committed activists,” and that is essentially the answer that I would give. As I’ve just argued, level of commitment is more important than numbers. But I would also mention that of all societies of biologically modern humans, the nomadic hunting-and-gathering ones were those that suffered least from the chief problems that modern society brings to the world, such as environmental destruction, dangerous technological powers, dominance of large organizations over individuals and small groups. This fact certainly weighs in favor of the NHG ideal. Moreover, I think you greatly underestimate the number of potential revolutionaries who would be attracted by such an ideal. I may say more about that in a later letter.


You challenge me to present evidence that “the situation is so urgent that truly revolutionary action is demanded,” and you write: “If in fact the situation is as serious as you portray, then surely there would be other rational thinkers who would come to the same conclusion. Where are the other intelligent voices that see this reality, and likewise conclude that revolution is the only option?.” But there are two separate issues here: The seriousness and urgency of the situation is one question and the call for revolution is another.

III.A. I shouldn’t have to offer you any evidence on the seriousness and urgency of the situation, because others have already done that. You’re familiar with Bill Joy’s article. Jared Diamond and Richard Posner (U.S. Circuit Judge, conservative, pro-government) have written books about the risk of catastrophe. I’m enclosing herewith a review of these two books.[141] According to a review[142] of Our Final Century, by the British Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees estimates that “the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.” (E.g.: “[E]xperiments at very high energies, perhaps a hundred times those reached by today’s particle accelerators, [could create] a tiny bubble which then [would] expand[] at almost the speed of light, consuming our entire galaxy for a start. In 1983 Martin Rees helped to convince physicists that no all-destroying bubble could be born inside the accelerators of those days. He now stresses the need for caution as accelerator energies grow.”)[143] I don’t think your colleague will dismiss any of the foregoing people as “raving anarchists.”

The people mentioned in the preceding paragraph warn of dangers in the hope that these can be forestalled. I think there are many others who see the situation as hopeless and believe that disaster is inevitable. Several years ago someone sent me what seemed to be a responsible article titled “Planet of Weeds.”[144] I didn’t actually read the article, I only glanced through it, but I think the thesis was that our civilization would cause the extinction of most life on Earth, and that when our civilization was dead — and the human race with it — the organisms that would survive would be the weed-like ones, i.e., those that could grow and reproduce quickly under adverse conditions. Many of the original members of Earth First! — before it was taken over by the leftists — were political conservatives and I don’t think your colleague could reasonably dismiss them as “raving anarchists.” Their view was that the collapse of industrial civilization through environmental disaster was inevitable in the relatively near future. They felt that it was impossible to prevent the disaster, and their goal was merely to save some remnants of wilderness that could serve as “seeds” for the regeneration of life after industrial society was gone.[145]

So I think there are significant numbers of intelligent and rational people who see the situation as more serious and urgent than I do. The people I’ve mentioned up to this point have considered mainly the risk of physical disaster. Ellul and others have addressed the issues of human dignity, and if my recollections of his book Autopsy of Revolution are correct, Ellul felt that there was at most a minimal chance of avoiding a complete and permanent end to human freedom and dignitiy. So Ellul too saw the situation as worse than I see it.

III.B. Why then is rational advocacy of revolution so rare? There are several reasons that have nothing to do with the degree of urgency or seriousness of the situation.

-1. In mainstream American society today, it is socially unacceptable to advocate revolution. Anyone who does so risks being classified as a “raving anarchist” merely by virtue of the fact that he advocates revolution.

-2. Many would shrink from advocating revolution simply because of the physical risk that they would run if a revolution actually occurred. Even if they survived the revolution, they would likely have to endure physical hardship. We live in a soft society in which most people are much more fearful of death and hardship than the members of earlier societies were. (The anthropologist Turnbull records the contempt that traditional Africans have for modern man’s weakness in the face of pain and death.[146])

-3. Most people are extremely reluctant to accept fundamental changes in the pattern of life to which they are adapted. They prefer to cling to familiar ways even if they know that those ways will lead to disaster 50 years in the future. Or even 40, 20, or 10 years. Turnbull observes that “few of us would be willing to sacrifice” modern “achievements,” “even in the name of survival.”[147] Instead of “achievements” he should have said “habitual patterns of living.” Jared Diamond has pointed out that societies often cling stubbornly to their established ways of life even when the price of doing so is death.[148] This alone is enough to explain why calls for revolution are hardly ever heard outside of the most radical fringe.

-4. Even people who might otherwise accept a radical change in their way of life may be frightened at the prospect of having to get by without the technological apparatus on which they feel themselves to be dependent. For instance, I know of a woman in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan who hates the technological system with a passion and hopes for its collapse. But in a letter to me dated August 19, 2004, she wrote: “A lightning strike on June 30 ‘fried’ our power inverter at the cabin. For three weeks I lived without electricity. …I realized how much I was dependent. I grew to hate the night. I think that humans will do whatever possible to preserve the electric power grids…”

-5. Many people (e.g., the original Earth First!ers whom I mentioned above, III.A) think the system will collapse soon anyway, in which case no revolution will be necessary.

-6. Finally, there is hopelessness and apathy. The system seems so all-powerful and invulnerable that nothing can be done against it. There’s no point in advocating a revolution that is impossible. This, rather than that revolution is unnecessary or too extreme, is the objection I’ve heard from some people. But it is precisely the general assumption that revolution is impossible that makes it impossible in fact. If enough people could be made to believe that revolution was possible, then it would be possible. One of the first tasks of a nascent revolutionary movement would be to get itself taken seriously.

III.C. Your colleague insists that “the case for revolution needs to be demonstrated virtually beyond doubt, because it is so extreme and serious.” I disagree. The possible or probable consequences of continued technological progress include the extinction of the human race or even of all the more complex forms of life on Earth; or the replacement of humans by intelligent machines; or a transformation of the human race that will entail the permanent loss of all freedom and dignity as these have traditionally been conceived. These consequences are so much more extreme and serious than those to be expected from revolution that I don’t think we need to be 100% certain, or even 90% certain, that revolution is really necessary in order to justify such action.[149]

Anyway, the standard that your colleague sets for the justification of revolution (“virtually beyond doubt”) is impossible high. Since major wars are just as dangerous and destructive as revolutions, he would have to apply the same standard to warfare. Does your colleague believe, for example, that the Western democracies acted unjustifiably in fighting in World War II? If not, then how would he justify World War II under the “virtually beyond doubt” standard?

III.D. Even if we assume that it is not known at present whether revolution will ever be necessary or justifiable, the time to begin building a revolutionary movement is now. If we wait too long and it turns out that revolution is necessary, we may find that it is too late.

Revolutions can occur spontaneously. (For example, the way for the French Revolution was not consciously prepared in advance.) But that is a matter of chance. If we don’t want to merely hope for luck, then we have to start preparing the way for revolution decades in advance as the Russian revolutionaries did, so that we will be ready when the time is ripe.

I suggest that as time goes by, the system’s tools for forestalling or suppressing revolution get stronger. Suppose that revolution is delayed until after computers have surpassed humans in intelligence. Presumably the most intelligent computers will be in the hands of large organizations such as corporations and governments. At that point revolution may become impossible because the government’s computers will be able to outsmart revolutionaries at every step.

Revolutions often depend for their success on the fact that revolutionaries have enough support in the army or among the police so that at least some elements of these remain neutral or aid the revolutionaries. The revolutionary sympathies of soldiers certainly played an important part in the French and Russian Revolutions. But the armies and police forces of the future may consist of robots, which presumably will not be susceptible to subversion.

This is not science fiction. “[E]xperts said that between 2011 and 2015, every household will have a robot doing chores such as cleaning and laundering.”[150] The Honda company already claims to have “an advanced robot with unprecedented humanlike abilities. ASIMO walks forward and backward, turns corners, and goes up and down stairs with ease… The future of this exciting technology is even more promising. ASIMO has the potential to respond to simple voice commands, recognize faces… [O]ne day, ASIMO could be quite useful in some very important tasks. Like assisting the elderly, and even helping with household chores. In essence, ASIMO might serve as another set of eyes, ears and legs for all kinds of people in need.”[151] Police and military applications of robots are an obvious next step, and in fact the U.S. military is already developing robotized fighting machines for use in combat.[152]

So if we’re going to have a revolution we had better have it before technology makes revolution impossible. If we wait until the need for revolution is “virtually beyond doubt,” our opportunity may be gone forever.

III.E. Here’s a challenge for your colleague: Outline a plausible scenario for the future of our society in which everything turns out alright, and does so without a collapse of the technoindustrial system, whether through revolution or otherwise. Obviously, there may be disagreement as to what is “alright.” But in any case your colleague will have to explain, inter alia: (1) How he expects to prevent computers more intelligent than humans from being developed, or, if they are developed, how he expects to prevent them from supplanting humans; (2) how he expects to avoid the risk of biological disaster that biotechnological experimentation entails; (3) how he expects to prevent the progressive lowering of standards of human dignity that we’ve been seeing at least since the early stages of the Industrial Revolution; and (4) how he expects nuclear weapons to be brought under control. As I pointed out above (see I.B.6), of all our technology-related problems, the problem of nuclear weapons should be by far the easiest to solve, so if your colleague can’t give a good and convincing answer to question (4) — something better than just a pious hope that mankind will see the light and dismantle all the nukes in a spirit of brotherhood and reconciliation — then I suggest it’s time to give up the idea of reform.

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