Protean magazine recently published a critique of primitivist, specifically Kaczynskian, thought based on the New York Magazine article, “Children of Ted.” Primarily the article, written by Conor Arpwell of the Democratic Socialists of America, critiques primitivism on the basis that it is “ableist,” or oppressive to disabled minorities; as an alternative Arpwell advocates eco-socialism, which promises ecological sustainability, keeping technological amenities, and things like universal healthcare. Apart from the inherent naivete of his ecosocialist alternative, Arpwell’s article suffers from a number of problems. Nearly every paragraph contains an erroneous claim, and it is clear from the very beginning that he is not even close to being familiar enough with primitivist thought, or Kaczynski, to make as strong a critique as the article attempts to be.
His most egregious errors are flat out false claims about primitivists, Kaczynski, and me. For instance, he says that the New York Magazine article portrays me as a kind of “leftist radical.” But Arpwell, who is familiar with the writings of Kaczynski, must know that anyone who can be described as a “child” of the Unabomber cannot be a leftist. The beginning and end of Kaczynski’s manifesto, as well as several articles from his books, explicitly reject leftism as a basis for political organization. True, I reject Kaczynski’s terminology and conceptualization of leftism, but his basic critique rings true: contemporary social movements are more a symptom of industrial society’s psychological problems; and modern humanist ideologies are, far from being revolutionary, the dominant ideology of world society, a concretization of the values preached by large corporations, international organizations, and other world governing bodies.
Arpwell does recognize that Kaczynski rejects fascism in his writings, but later says that Kaczynski’s followers “revel in … fantasies of human carnage because they buy into the fascist mythos of white supremacist and ableist purity. Kaczynski’s own writings demonstrate his commitment to this violent ideology.” He then goes on to cite Kaczynski’s denigration of “leftism.” But in a letter published in his book Technological Slavery (2010), Kaczynski writes:
I’ve never had anything but contempt for the so-called ”’60s kids,” the radicals of the Vietnam-War era. (The Black Panthers and other black activists are possible exceptions, since black people had then, and still have today, more genuine grievances on the score of discrimination than anyone else does.)
Arpwell also claims that “Kacyznski’s views declaims [sic] individuals and minority group [sic] as uniquely culpable and elides any rational systemic analysis that challenges existing power structures,” unlike ecosocialist thought, which “recognizes that a handful of massive corporations and the inherent wastefulness of capitalism are largely responsible for our ongoing ecological disaster.” This is the exact opposite of what Kaczynski says. In 1970, before his infamous bombing campaign as “F.C.,” Kaczynski wrote a letter to the editor of the Saturday Evening Review:
Griffin would put the blame for our environmental problems on excessive individual freedoms. Actually, most of the problems are direct or indirect results of the activities of large organizations—corporations and governments. It is these organizations, after all, that control the structure and development of society. Perhaps the most unfortunate thing that has ever happened to individual liberty was its being used as an excuse for the misdeeds of huge corporations.
Elsewhere, Arpwell repeatedly claims that Kaczynski’s ideas on human nature envision the human animal as a “bedrock of selfishness,” that Kaczynski does not give enough thought to man’s altruistic capacities, that this vision of man underlies “fascistic” ideologies. I’m not even sure where Arpwell gets this from. I suppose he is extrapolating from the material he has read. In reality, Kaczynski’s views rest on a biological view of man that is common to many philosophies, not just eco-radical ones. And while the biological understanding does indeed present problems for the humanist moral pretensions of universal love and compassion, they explicitly recognize the role altruism has to play in human social life. The argument is only that altruism has boundaries, limits, largely because of selection pressures put on the organism during its evolutionary history.
In fact, the whole field of sociobiology was largely borne from research on the biological origins of altruism, drawing from Triver’s concept of “inclusive fitness.” But of course, leftists, particularly socialists, denounced sociobiology, too, as “fascist,” as a “revival of social darwinism,” as portraying man as a “bedrock of selfishness.” Indeed, all of Arpwell’s comments on this matter have less to do with primitivist ideas than with a larger academic debate about human nature that was largely resolved in the late 20th century — and the biological perspectives won! See The Triumph of Sociobiology by John Alcock for more on this debate and some of the political motivations underlying attacks on the new sciences of human nature.
In a similar vein, Arpwell dismisses “overpopulation” as “a myth belied by the realities of demographics, logistics, and productive capacity.” The problem is not too many people, he writes, but an “unequal distribution of resources — thanks to capitalism.” This is the typical socialist rejoinder to ideas about overpopulation, and the content of the critique is wholly political-moral, lacking any proper analysis. And, once again, although Arpwell uses his argument to critique Kaczynski’s ideas, this is actually a larger debate between socialists and much of environmentalism. Predictably I, Kaczynski, and other eco-radicals fall on the green side of the debate: it is simply a reality that current population levels are incompatible with any realistic transition to a sustainable society. No matter how equal our distribution of resources gets, the fundamental problem is how we get those resources, how much we need to get, and where they come from. Equalizing them only solves problems on the structural layer of society, its organization and economics; the idea of overpopulation is rooted in an understanding of the infrastructural level, its technological and ecological base.
Misrepresentations of Primitivism
Arpwell does not even understand primitivism. For example, he claims that primitivists, at least those inspired by Kaczynski, are motivated by “a cynical desire to destroy every trace of modern human development.” This is blatantly untrue. Kaczynski, for example, explicitly acknowledges that technology cannot be eradicated wholesale. He is only concerned with disrupting the overall technological system by targeting centers of production and maintenance. In a letter published in Technological Slavery, Kaczynski writes:
What could “make them go back to the forest” would be an end to the functioning of the world’s industrial centers. The Mexican Indians couldn’t use their TV sets if the TV stations were no longer broadcasting. They couldn’t use motor vehicles or any internal combustion engines if the refineries were no longer producing fuel. They couldn’t use any electrical appliances if the electrical power-plants were no longer producing electricity. Or, even if the Indians relied on small, local, water-powered generators, these would become useless when parts of the generators or of the appliances wore out and could not be replaced with new parts produced in factories. For example, could a group of Mexican Indians make a light bulb? I think it would be impossible, but even if it were possible it would be so difficult that it would not be worth the trouble. Thus, if the world’s industrial centers stopped functioning, the Mexican Indians would have no choice but to revert to simple, preindustrial methods.
But what could make the TV stations stop broadcasting, the power plants stop generating electricity, the refineries stop producing fuel, and the factories stop making parts? If the power-plants stopped producing electricity, then the TV stations would no longer be able to broadcast, the refineries would no longer be able to produce fuel, and the factories would no longer be able to make things. If the refineries stopped producing fuel, then the transportation of goods and people would have to cease, and therefore the factories would no longer be able to make things. If the factories were no longer able to make things, then there would be no more replacement parts to keep the TV stations, power-plants, and petroleum refineries functioning. Moreover, every factory needs things produced by other factories in order to keep operating.
Thus, modern industrial society can be compared to a complex organism in which every important part is dependent on every other important part. If any one important part of the system stops functioning, then the whole system stops functioning. Or even if the complex and finely-tuned relationship between the various parts of the system is severely disrupted, the system must stop functioning. Consequently, like any other highly complex organism, the modern industrial system is much easier to kill than a simple organism. Compare a human being with an earthworm: You can cut an earthworm into many pieces, and each piece will grow into a whole new worm. But a human being can be killed by a blow to the head, a stab to the heart or the kidney, the cutting of a major artery-even a psychological condition such as severe depression can kill a human being. Like a human being, the industrial system is vulnerable because of its complexity and the interdependence of its parts. And the more the system comes to resemble a single, highly organized worldwide entity, the more vulnerable it becomes.
He gives more specific suggestions in the essay “Hit Where It Hurts.” In the end it is clear: the goal is not the eradication of every trace of development, but an end to the process of development.
Later in the essay Arpwell interprets Kaczynski as saying we must “sculpt society around … our primordial roots.” This is a common misunderstanding of primitivist ideas, but it is a more egregious error when it is applied to Kaczynski, especially by someone who has read the man’s manifesto. In reality, Kaczynski only claims — like every single evolutionary biologist — that human beings remain, essentially, nomadic hunter-gatherers, and that the rapid pace of modern technological development is causing problems for our Stone Age biology. And while some primitivists do devolve into utopian prescriptionism, attempting to model their alternative communities off of (often erroneous) anthropological accounts of primitive societies, Kaczynski is much more practical. He — and I — only note the Stone Age / Space Age divide as a basis for critique. In fact, the New York Magazine article quotes a passage from my book where I say exactly that!:
My focus on the hunter/gatherer is based on a tradition in political philosophy that considers the natural state of man before moving on to an analysis of the civilized state of man. This is the tradition of Hobbes, Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Paine.
As far as political action goes, well, I just explained it: we must disrupt the functioning of industrial society beyond repair. This is not the same as advocating a society “sculpted” around this or that version of primitive life. In fact, Kaczynski outright rejects any kind of “sculpting” at all, writing in his manifesto: “We have no illusions about the feasibility of creating a new, ideal form of society. Our goal is only to destroy the existing form of society.” This is because he believes it is impossible to rationally control the development of society, a perspective explained below, and the main reason no advocate of Kaczynski’s could ever be swayed by ecosocialist delusions.
Errors in Ecosocialist Thought
Throughout the article Arpwell advocates ecosocialism as a solution to our ecological and social ills. Unfortunately, his basic understanding of social change is flawed. He consistently claims that a sustainable society can have its cake and eat it too: we can reduce carbon emissions, species extinctions, industrial-scale pollution, and so on, all while reducing poverty, feeding everyone, and giving everyone amenities such as universal healthcare. He writes:
In a system that is centered on human need and environmental sustainability, the lifestyles of wealthy people in the imperial core will change dramatically. But everyone will be adequately fed, and the number of people who have access to medically necessary healthcare will be drastically expanded.
Never, though, does he go into the actual mechanics of our ecological problems, which reveal clearly that the vision is an impossibility, mere wishful thinking. This is a typical socialist tactic: promise the utopian vision of socialism, and tack it onto any popular cause. But the reality of ecological devastation and its technological roots belie the socialist agenda. We cannot, for instance, hope to feed every person on earth adequately, especially at current population levels. While it is theoretically possible to create a distribution system that does this, in practice such reorganization of technological infrastructure would disrupt our most productive agricultural centers. And to maintain most of our medical technological infrastructure presupposes, for instance, dams, roads, electric grids, server farms, and so on, all of which are at the root of the industrial destruction of earth.
Again, socialism focuses mainly on changing the structural layer of society: it is trying to reorganize society on top of already-existing technological infrastructure. Ecological thought, however, is much more radical, a challenge to even the infrastructure of society. No socialist would ever put opposition to roads on his agenda; to radical environmentalists, roads are a primary issue.
More, Arpwell’s strain of revolutionary socialism tends to assume that a society can be reorganized in a rational, planned way. Prevailing theories of cultural evolution and development show that this is false. Technologies, cultural institutions, and even economic growth proceed in a mostly evolutionary manner: humans provide the motor for development, but greater-than-human selection pressures, like geography, climate, population levels, the already-existing economic landscape, and so forth, actually decide the direction development goes. I cite a number of examples in my book, Repent to the Primitive, pp. 38-48. For instance, in The Evolution of Everything, Ridley explains:
…some scientists have begun to notice that cities themselves evolve in predictable ways. There is a spontaneous order in the way they grow and change. The most striking of these regularities is the “scaling” that cities show — how their features change with size. For example, the number of petrol stations increases at a consistently slower rate than the population of the city. There are economies of scale, and this pattern is the same in every part of the world. The same is true of electrical networks. So it does not matter what the policy of the country, or the mayor, is. Cities will converge on the same patterns of growth wherever they are. In this they are very like bodies. A mouse burns more energy, per unit of body weight, than an elephant; a small city burns proportionately more motor fuel than a large one. Like cities, bodies get more efficient in their energy consumption the larger they grow. There is also a consistent 15 per cent saving on infrastructure cost per head for every doubling of a city’s population size.
The opposite is true of economic growth and innovation — the bigger the city, the faster these increase. Doubling the size of a city boosts income, wealth, number of patents, number of universities, number of creative people, all by approximately 15 per cent, regardless of where the city is. The scaling is, in the jargon, “superlinear.” Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute, who discovered this phenomenon, calls cities “supercreative.” They generate a disproportionate share of human innovation; and the bigger they are, the more they generate. The reason for this is clear, at least in outline. Human beings innovate by combining and recombining ideas, and the larger and denser the network, the more innovation occurs. Once again, notice that this is not policy. Indeed, nobody was aware of the supercreative effect of cities until very recently, so no policymaker could aim for it. It’s an evolutionary phenomenon.
Elsewhere, a paper on the evolution of the violin’s f-hole shows how its development was shaped more by the pressures of physics and economics more than by culture. George Basalla in The Evolution of Technology gives a great overview of technological evolution overall; Gary Cziko in Without Miracles gives an overview of how evolutionary theories apply to many complex phenomenon; and theories in cultural anthropology apply an evolutionary framework to cultural development overall (Marvin Harris, Cultural Materialism), as do some more biologically-rooted thinkers (Boyd and Richerson, Culture and the Evolutionary Process). In other words, the literature on the subject is vast, and while partly informed by Marx’s original materialist theories, human ecological science has moved far beyond it and remains the greater explanatory and predictive framework.
Kaczynski himself spends a great deal of his manifesto explaining these principles in plain, laymen’s terms. Arpwell claims to have read the manifesto, but if that is the case he didn’t read it well enough. Otherwise he would recognize why Kaczynski, and those who agree with him, would take issue with the idea that we could implement “the conscious ground-up redesign of society” or hold hope in a large-scale “repurposing [of] devices that were originally created for profit towards a socialist society.” See paragraphs 99-142 of his manifesto and chapter one of his most recent book, “The Development of Society Can Never Be Subject to Rational Human Control.”
The Charge of Ableism
Since the main thrust of the article is ostensibly that Kaczynski’s ideas oppress disabled minorities, you may be wondering why I saved this section for last. But by the end of his article, Arpwell has only mentioned disabilities a handful of times, mostly in passing; it is clear that he is primarily concerned with polemicizing for ecosocialism. He seems to charge Kaczynski with “ableism” only because he believes that is where primitivism is weakest, and where ecosocialism offers a strong alternative. Neither are true.
The decline and collapse of industrial society would put many people at a disadvantage regardless of age, class, gender, ability, or any of the other typical identity-categories cited by the modern left. That these are singled out as particularly affected just seems preposterous. But in regards to disabled people in particular, there are three main problems.
First, “disability” is a broad term. People missing an arm or a leg might be at a disadvantage in less high-tech social conditions, but they certainly wouldn’t be doomed to a life of despair. Similarly, people with many mental disabilities have lived just fine in smaller social groupings, and in fact it is only as society becomes more “massified” and anonymized that institutions like mental wards become necessary. In intimate conditions you might be able to have a few town kooks, but in mass society it is important to keep the streets regulated for the sake of economic production. And some mental disorders, like schizophrenia, even manifest positively in traditional social settings. Overall, the anthropological record shows a wide variety of attitudes toward certain kinds of disabilities, but among every form of society, from nomadic hunter-gatherers to modern industrial subcultures, there are instances of both care and neglect. “Ability” and “disability” turns out not to be a very useful category for social analysis.
Second, individuals entirely reliant on the technological system for their survival would, by way of simple tautology, not survive the collapse of the technological system. But revolutionary socialism does not really stand on any higher ground here. Crises of capitalism, the collapse of the stock market, economic depressions, or anything of the sort would have a similar kind of effect, even if not as drastic. More, there is no evidence that any instance of communism treated its “disabled” citizens any better than do wealthy industrial nations today. To claim that “the liberation of disabled people is impossible without the destruction of capitalism” is clear and utter nonsense. Arpwell is trying to say that under capitalism disabled people are used as an exploitable source of labor. But this is no different from anyone else’s lives under capitalism, and those who are most dependent on the technological system usually don’t work anyway.
Third and finally, Arpwell’s critique implicitly, and often explicitly, relies on false assumptions about the impact medical technology has had on human life. As I write in “Toward a Critique of Industrial Medicine,” most of the biggest achievements of medical science are actually the result of improved environmental conditions, like cleaner water or sewage, which themselves were solutions to problems caused by earlier phases of technological development (and by overpopulation). In addition, our medical establishment — and I’m sure Arpwell agrees — tends to rely on sickness as a means of gaining profit. Hospitals, for example, are just a terrible idea all around, a breeding ground for sickness and medical accidents; the same goes for pharmaceutical companies. Lastly, medical technologies that are most beneficial are also some of the simplest. The only drastic changes would be in the availability of vaccinations and antibiotics (and the latter are becoming less and less useful by the day — because of industrial society). Most of the “high-tech” medical technologies, like surgical procedures, tend to be mostly useless and the cause of greater problems down the line.
In the end, Arpwell’s article turns out to be pretty terrible. Not only does it contain a number of factual errors, its critiques rely on faulty beliefs about primitivism and Kaczynski’s ideas. Beyond that, his ecosocialist alternative holds no water whatsoever, and does not even fare well against his own charges of “ableism.” It is a shame that I feel the need to respond to such uncritical writing. Unfortunately, ecosocialism is only gaining ground. And because it appeals to the prevailing bias for “sustainable development” and “ecological justice” in global politics, it threatens to build a generation of “watermelon” environmentalists: green on the outside, red on the inside. But we must avoid this ideological drift. If anything, environmentalism needs a stronger return to its old guard roots, with a renewed focus on wilderness preservation, land restoration, and a healthy skepticism of technology. Only with more drastic and widespread opposition to technological development will our political solutions begin to actually address our ecological problems.