Review: Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How by Ted Kaczynski



I.     Introduction

According to an announcement released by one of the indomitistas, political associates of Ted Kaczynski, Kaczynski’s new book, Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How will soon be available. Fortunately, I have had a look at the pre-release version, and in this essay I will review it. I cannot guarantee that the contents will not change, but I suspect that they will not change in any significant way. The worse that could occur is the subtraction or addition of one of the essays,[1] in which case the essays that I have read still provide valuable insight into Kaczynski’s thoughts and proposals.

One might wonder how I got a look at the pre-release version of Kaczynski’s book. This is partially explained in the editorial for Hunter/Gatherer, Vol. 1, No. 6, “Some Context for Issue Six”: I used to be a political associate of Kaczynski’s, having written him when I became part of an anarchist group dedicated to sending radical (and non-radical) literature into prisons. Eventually, the man renounced me, as he does often, so I sought out his Spanish associates and eventually worked with them. Again, this is all explained in the aforementioned editorial.

Through my work with both Kaczynski and the indomitistas, I gained insight into the man’s current projects. Indeed, in his very first letter to me, he mentioned the forthcoming work, so in a summer following my “breakup” with him, I traveled to the University of Michigan’s Special Collections Library, where his works are stored, and I mined it for any unpublished work. Through my discussions with David Skrbina, who helped Kaczynski publish his first book, Technological Slavery, and my discussions with the curator of the library’s Labadie Collection, I learned that the book was soon to be released, and I could request a PDF scan of it when that date came, as anyone can do with any of the works in that collection.

So, when the date arrived, I sent in my request. I got back a faulty PDF, one that was missing all the odd pages, and after I sent in a complaint I was notified that I could not renew my request because Kaczynski had delayed the publication of his work. This was not surprising: the man is notoriously difficult to work with, as any accounts given by his previous publishers and editors indicate. Fortunately, the faulty PDF scan was enough for me to understand the gist of the book, and since it was mostly a collection of essays included as separate works in The Labadie Collection, I had read nearly all of the content as well. The only exceptions are a set of “Strategic Guidelines” and three of the four appendices written specifically for the book. This puts me in a position to review the ideas in a general sense, as I will now do for each included essay:

II.     The Development of a Society Can Never Be Subject to Rational Human Control

By far the best essay in the book, in it Kaczynski argues that cultural development is not and can never be subject to the rational control of human beings—all of them, not just elites. Although he does not explicitly reference theories of cultural evolution, such as those proposed by sociobiologists, philosophers, and economists, the essay is essentially a repeat of the ideas in different form. His central thesis is articulated clearly:

In specific contexts in which abundant empirical evidence is available, fairly reliable short-term prediction and control of a society’s behavior may be possible… Indirect or longer-term consequences are far more difficult to predict… In fact, failure is the norm.

In his characteristically thorough manner, Kaczynski yields more territory than could possibly be reasonable to his opponents (those who believe in rational development), one by one destroying their premises with more evidence. To support his thesis, he offers evidence from mathematics, logic, chaos theory, quantum theory, and general trends in history, and it is hard for me to imagine someone walking away from the piece unconvinced of his argument.

Kaczynski demonstrates that predicting the trajectory of a society, and therefore predicting the consequences of behaviors, institutions, or policies within a society, is akin to an economist trying to explain the economy or a weatherman the weather. Because of this, no one could possibly propose a set of policies that would change society so that “technology could be used for good.” Instead, we are carried along by cultural evolution, providing the motor, but not in control of the steering wheel. I argue a similar thing, albeit with more reference to theories of cultural evolution, in “Technical Autonomy,” featured in Hunter/Gatherer, Vol. 1, No. 3.

There is little else to say about this essay. It is written in a thoroughly logical manner that leaves the argument bare for analysis, and although at times I sensed Kaczynski was being a little hyperbolic, his argument seems to me irrefutable.

III.     Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself

This essay was actually leaked online several years ago. The version is from 2011, so it has probably been revised numerous times since then, but no revision I eyed in the Labadie Collection demonstrated any exceptional changes.

Here Kaczynski argues that “the technological system” is what he calls a “self-propagating system,” or “a system that tends to promote its own survival and propagation.” Other examples of self-propagating systems include biological organisms, again indicating that Kaczynski’s analysis, if not influenced by them, is certainly in line with theories of cultural evolution.

Throughout the essay Kaczynski proposes and defends a number of theses about self-propagating systems. For instance:

Proposition 1: In any environment that is sufficiently rich, self-propagating systems will arise, and natural selection will lead to the evolution of self-propagating systems having increasingly complex, subtle, and sophisticated means of surviving and propagating themselves.

Which echoes the ideas of cultural evolutionists exactly. Or:

Proposition 4: Problems of transportation and communication impose a limit on the size of the geographical region over which a self-prop system can extend its operations.

Which, as an information science major, sounds to me very much like the problems Claude Shannon was trying to solve in devising information theory. Or:

Proposition 7: Where (as today) problems of transportation and communication do not constitute effective limitations on the size of the geographical regions over which self-propagating systems operate, natural selection tends to create a world in which power is mostly concentrated in the possession of a relatively small number of global self-propagating systems.

Which echoes a study published by PLoS One, entitled “The Network of Global Corporate Control,” which identified “a giant bow-tie structure” of transnational corporations that manage or strongly influence every other node in the financial network.

As should be clear by now, few if any of the theses are even arguable, and in them, he argues in the second half of the essay, there are seeds of destruction for the technological system.

He argues that because of the nature of competition, no single self-prop system will ever be able to maintain, or perhaps even amass, total control. Among the problems facing this quest are the problem of disaster—that is, the issue of increasing instability inherent in any system becoming increasingly complex—and the problem of new self-prop systems competing to survive. “The most crudely obvious of the (relatively) new self-prop systems are those that challenge law and order head on, such as terrorist networks, drug cartels, and hackers’ groups (e.g., Anonymous, or the now-defunct LulzSec).”

But, he says:

Probably more significant at the present time are emerging self-prop systems that use entirely legal methods…and those that try to keep their use of illegal methods to a minimum… Two competing, entirely legal self-prop systems that have arisen in the U.S. during the last several decades are the politically correct left and the dogmatic right (not to be confused with the liberals and conservatives of earlier times in America). …suffice it to say that in the long run their bitter conflict may do more to prevent the establishment of a lastingly peaceful world order than all the bombs of Al Qaeda and all the murders of the Mexican drug gangs.

Clearly the essay is full of invigorating content. And, once again, I am sure there is no reasonable counter to his argument. It seems to me quite likely that technical systems tend toward collapse, as the record of history, among other things, indicates.

IV.     How to Transform a Society: Errors to Avoid

I had access to this essay long before I even met the indomitistas, much less gathered Kaczynski’s work from the Labadie, because a friend of mine, who formerly corresponded with Kaczynski, received a copy of it in one of his letters. He, like I do now, thought that the essay was at times naïve. Indeed, as I will argue, it is completely contradictory to many of the other ideas the man has espoused, including and especially the ones in the previous essays.

In the essay, Kaczynski offers a number of postulates about revolutionary movements concerning how they develop, how they achieve their goals, and how they end. They are worth noting here:

Postulate 1: You can’t change a society by pursuing goals that are vague or abstract. You have to have a clear and concrete goal…

Postulate 2: Preaching alone—the mere advocacy of ideas—cannot bring about important, long-lasting changes in the behavior of human beings, unless in a very small minority.

Postulate 3: Any radical movement tends to attract many people who may be sincere, but whose goals are only loosely related to the goals of the movement. The result is that the movement’s original goals may become blurred, if not completely perverted.

Postulate 4: Every radical movement that acquires great power becomes corrupt, at the least, when its original leaders…are all dead or politically inactive. In saying that a movement becomes corrupt, we mean that its members, and especially its leaders, primarily seek personal advantages (such as money, security, social status, powerful offices, or a career) rather than dedicating themselves sincerely to the ideals of the movement.

His arguments in support of these postulates are convincing. For instance, foreseeing a criticism to Postulate 2, he argues that Marx does not provide an exception, because he was ineffective as a man of action and historically a mere advocate of ideas. It was the men of action—Lenin or Stalin—who instituted his vision (albeit revised). And in support of Postulate 4 Kaczynski offers nearly every significant radical or revolutionary movement you can think of as an example: the Christians became corrupt after being endorsed by the Roman Empire; every Marxist regime became corrupt; American revolutionaries became corrupt far before the U.S. government was even implemented; and so on.

The only postulate to which Kaczynski provides a notable exception is the first. He notes, for instance, the American Revolution, which pursued not only independence—a concrete goal—but also a “Republican form of government,” something not at all concrete. Yet they achieved their objective. This, Kaczynski writes, is because the objective was already compatible with a general historical trend, and that explanation applies to all the other exceptions as well, such as the feminist movement. This reflects his philosophically materialistic perspective on the development of society, one that I hold in common with him, so I cannot disagree.

Here, though, is where Kaczynski falters: from these postulates he attempts to devise a set of rules which revolutionaries should, in general, follow to avoid the errors or setbacks described. It seems as though he believes a rational schema could help prevent the worst of the problems—despite writing just two essays before that rational schemas are in general not the guiding force of complex systems, which revolutionary movements, and the societies they seek to change, certainly are. Of course, Kaczynski doesn’t believe that these outcomes can be avoided per se. For instance, he believes that Postulate 4 is “invariably true.” However, to mitigate this problem he proposes Rule (ii) and Rule (v):

Rule (ii): If a movement aims to transform a society, then the objective selected by the movement must be of such a nature that, once the objective has been achieved, its consequences will be irreversible. This means that, once society has been transformed through the achievement of the objective, society will remain in its transformed condition without any further effort on the part of the movement or anyone else.

Rule (v): Once a revolutionary movement has become powerful enough to achieve its objective, it must achieve its objective as soon as possible, and in any case before the original revolutionaries (meaning those who joined the movement while it was still relatively weak) die or become politically inactive.

Kaczynski’s recommendation that revolutionaries make “the complete destruction of the technological system” their concrete goal fits both of these criteria. If a society’s industrial base were to collapse even just partially, it would take several decades to several hundred years, depending on the damage, to rebuild, even without any further work by revolutionaries. And, given his plan succeeds, one can imagine an anti-tech movement doing this at a decisive moment, before they become corrupted.

This, however, is a long chain of hypotheticals, and one that relies on the most untrustworthy things in existence: human beings. That is, not only is this plan inherently unstable because of its reliance on external conditions, it is also made untenable because of its susceptibility to human folly. Yet Kaczynski’s only recourse is to a set of hypothetical human beings who will set aside their self-interest, implement the abstract rules into some concrete organizational schema, maintain a sect of individuals who will not pervert the schema, not pervert the schema themselves, continue to do this until a revolutionary condition comes to a head, immediately act such that their goals are achieved, live in circumstances where that is possible, and so on. Of course, such a thing is possible, but could such a thing be planned? It isn’t likely.

That said, Kaczynski’s observations aren’t necessarily useless. Only the framing is misleading. For instance, an individual who hopes to rewild in an effective manner would do well to study trends in history, so that he might better judge his own condition. This, however, is a matter of prediction rather than planning, and its focus is not on a hypothetical mass movement but the immediate group of rewilders that exists already, even if it consists of only one person. And once again this doesn’t preclude Kaczynsi’s ideas about mass movements—but this, too, is a matter of prediction. In a more modest analysis in line with ideas of cultural evolution, we would do better to regard the mass movement as something that will arise spontaneously and something a minority could take advantage of, not something that will spring out of conscious, planned efforts.

Consider, for instance, that the indomitistas of Spain follow Kaczynski’s most important recommendations almost to a line. Nevertheless, their impact has been unpredictable: much of their theory has been taken up by the eco-extremists in Mexico; they have also been a profound influence on me; etc. No amount of clarity about their theory could have fixed this. Indeed, they are abundantly clear, excessively so. The issue, rather, is one of simple disagreement, and that didn’t seem to factor into Kaczynski’s analysis at all.

Or consider Kaczynski’s brief discussion of the strategic advantages of an underground movement versus and aboveground movement. An underground movement weeds out opportunists and not particularly serious enthusiasts by applying a high level of pressure and implicating members in conspiratorial activity. However, such a movement would also be likely to attract psychopaths or people in it solely for the thrill of criminal activity. On the other hand, a movement that is totally aboveground would have to find other means of weeding out the undesirables.

Kaczynski presents these options as though they were a rational choice, but I doubt that this is the case. Again, consider the indomitistas and the eco-extremists. Indomitistas are an aboveground movement that tries to weed out leftists, criminals, and other kinds of crazies through a hard-line conversational manner and a smothering culture of critique and counter critique. However, they didn’t fall into this position because they thought initially that it would be the most strategic option. In all honesty, there wouldn’t have been (and still isn’t) enough information available for them to reliably make that call. Instead, they were forced to work aboveground because they wanted to work with Ted Kaczynski, who is in prison, so who could not have communicated with them otherwise.

This itself likely had non-rational motivators. If I had to guess, I would say that working with Ted Kaczynski provides a sort of thrill or sense of importance, and that this was at least a partial motivator. Regardless, if one reads old texts by Último Reducto one notes a radical turn from an anarchist, vegan, animal rights ideology to the Kaczynski line, due to Kaczynski’s influence; so UR himself evolved in a way he couldn’t have predicted, and the current aboveground status of the indomitista groups likely has something to do with a similar process in each of the individuals. Once they found themselves willing to embark on indomitismo political work, they also found that they were already aboveground and had worked with someone whose communications are clearly being monitored. All this, and they live in an industrial nation where surveillance is being conducted at a large scale. In sum, external conditions, the inertia inherent in human nature, and the unpredictability of personal evolution were and are all strong contributors to the indomitistas’ aboveground status—rational argument is likely only an afterthought.

But then consider the eco-extremists. These groups are underground, so weed out undesirables through the intense commitment inherent in their work. And, just as Kaczynski noted, they do have a worrying tendency to fetishize criminality, espousing illegalism for its own sake. Yet, while it is impossible to embark on a full analysis of the tendency at this time, given its hazy beginnings, it is at least defensible to argue that their position is similarly unplanned. For one thing, they wouldn’t have lasted this long if not for the political and economic turmoil of Mexico and South America. For another, they themselves were unsure of their beliefs and motivations for several communiques, going through an evolution—which they acknowledge—that was influenced by on-the-ground realities of underground work. Of course, whether they survive or not is an open question, but it, too, is likely to be outside of their control, dependent on large-scale and unpredictable factors like economic crisis or political crackdowns.

The point, then, is this: even those most closely related to Kaczynski’s ideology could not have possibly planned their evolution to this point, and at least in the case of the indomitistas, this is not for lack of trying to follow Kaczynski’s recommendations. The simple fact is that these kinds of events are out of our control. Thus, our work should be less about planning and more about prediction; it should rest less on a hope in hypotheticals and more on a conviction that we are acting according to our will and values. In this way, even if our fate is to die without any grand event like collapse, we can be convinced of our own achievements as individuals.

V.     Strategic Guidelines for an Anti-Tech Movement

I am most frustrated with not having been able to read this essay. The others parts of the book I had only partial access to were tangential or were meant to support things that I did not need to be convinced of. However, this essay along with “Errors to Avoid” provides the true insight into Kaczynski’s vision of an anti-tech revolution. Thus, while I will need to buy the book to review this piece fully, I can at least provide partial comments here, based on the excerpts I have available.

By far the most important point Kaczynski stresses in this piece is the need for revolutionary movements to remain flexible. It may be useful to have a general plan, he admits, but by and large the developments that will allow revolution will be unpredictable, which leaves revolutionaries in a responsive position more than anything.

His organizational proposals center around this idea. For instance, he argues that revolutionary organizations must be self-correcting as well as unwavering; and he strongly supports a small core in order to prevent people with tangential or self-interested concerns. He also indicates that tactics like entryism may help the revolutionary minority multiply their power without necessarily increasing their numbers.

It is clear that Kaczynski has in mind a mass movement. That is, it is not necessary that the masses explicitly endorse an anti-tech revolution. All that is necessary is a revolutionary organization that can utilize the masses for their own ends. Often in history, he notes, this means the masses in question will only implicitly endorse revolution, by, for example, permitting a great deal of uncertainty in their personal life.

He also seems to anticipate the unpopularity of any revolutionaries who may take on his ideas. He notes, for example, that they must be willing to discard dominant values and should not be concerned with “offending the moral or other sensibilities of the general public.” Instead, they must gain a reputation as the most extreme and uncompromising challenge to the dominant power.

He writes of several other things, such as the importance of splits when the issue in question is irresolvable; the importance of studying previous revolutions and organizational techniques; the need for an effective decision-making process, which he tends to imagine will be strictly hierarchical; the importance of social groups predisposed to anti-tech ideas; and the importance of studying technology and technical developments. In all, it is a fairly conventional “revolutionary” approach to our situation, one that takes many cues from the Marxists’ “science of revolution.”

My own thoughts on these proposals have been sufficiently outlined in the previous section and the essay “Revisiting Revolution.” It is enough to say now that I think this highly conventional approach is not properly attuned to the conditions of our current society—neither the technical, social, political, or economic conditions. Furthermore, many aspects of Kaczynski’s proposal directly contradict wildist eco-radical values in unacceptable ways; and, perhaps worse, rely on assumptions that contradict the wildist analysis, such as our critique of Progress and our understanding of technical evolution. Thus, while the essay is worth reading, it seems that Kaczynski will be no Lenin to history, his book not a “What is to be done?”

VI.     Appendix One and Two

I had only partial access to the first and second appendices, entitled “In Support of Chapter One” and “In Support of Chapter Two,” respectively. However, from that I can see that they are not necessary reading for anyone already convinced of the first two chapters. Really they only consist of possible, usually obscure, arguments against his theses. Furthermore, his presentation of the counter-arguments guarantees his own victory. The first section of Appendix One opens with:

In answer to the arguments of Chapter One, true-believing technophiles like Ray Kurzweil and Kevin Kelly are likely to answer: “Technology will solve all those problems! Human beings will be transformed step by step into man-machine hybrids (cyborgs), or even into pure machines, that will be incomparably more intelligent than our human ancestors. With their superior intelligence, these beings will be able to use the technological miracles of the future to guide the development of their society rationally.”

I will not, then, review these two appendices.

VII.     Appendix Three: Stay on Target

This piece is an excerpt originally written for an interview Kaczynski conducted for a student magazine, The John Jay Sentinal, which I’ve published on the website’s “Ted Kaczynski Archive.” In it, Kaczynski reiterates a point he had previously made in “Hit Where It Hurts,” namely: industrial technology, not capitalism, bureaucracy, or anything else, should be the target of eco-radicals. Although he simplifies to the extreme, likely because of the intended audience, the point generally stands: it is the technical and economic basis of a society that props it up and provides it its power; thus, if the whole of society is in question, it only makes sense to target the technical base.

There are some probable exceptions to this advice, but they are not worth enumerating here. Suffice it to say that the essay is interesting and worth reading, although, because of its lower quality, Kaczynski was smart to include it as an appendix rather than a piece of the main book.

VIII.     Appendix Four: The Long-Term Outcome of Geo-Engineering

Along with “Strategic Guidelines” and the first and second appendices, this piece was written specifically for the book, so I could not read it in its entirety. However, there seems to be nothing of particular note here—that is, nothing that a person couldn’t easily find elsewhere. All Kaczynski basically does is explain geo-engineering—or the technical modification of climate, proposed to combat climate change—and then suggest that it may make a viable target for revolutionaries. And indeed, geo-engineering is quite dangerous, as many scientists have also noted. Nevertheless, given the technical hurdles any such scheme would have to overcome, and given the absolute insanity of the idea, I cannot see it being a particularly useful target for the future. Instead, it would behoove eco-radicals to pay attention to Kaczynski’s first suggestion, in “Hit Where It Hurts,” to target biotechnology, which because of its medical, agricultural, economic, and governmental benefits, is quickly becoming a pervasive and indispensable part of industrial society.

IX.     Conclusion

In all, this book is certainly worth reading, if for no other reason than that it is a unified source of knowledge on the problems that face radical movements. It also provides insight into the man who inspired all of the most serious anti-industrial groups today (see, e.g., “Ted Kaczynski and Why He Matters” and “Some Context for Issue Six”).

Nevertheless, the book is rife with problems, perhaps the most pervasive of these being the idea that revolutions can be pursued rationally and that rationality can improve the chances of a revolution’s success. This flies in the face of Kaczynski’s determinism and it stands in mild, sometimes direct, contradiction to the ideas he outlined in the first and second essays of the book.

Of course, I do not recommend that radicals discard of rationality completely. Among other reasons, it would be impossible. However, the overarching assumption that rationality can drive a revolutionary or radical effort in “the right direction” is simply false, incompatible with the universal selection theory that helps drive the wildist eco-radical critique of Progress. Instead, it is much more likely that revolutionary or radical efforts will evolve according to trial and error, and in a way that is mostly unpredictable to the people living now. Our best path forward, then, is to pursue the recommendations in “Revisiting Revolution”: act in the present with a relentless and uncompromising commitment to our values, not expecting any significant future development, but willing to take advantage of those developments when they present themselves.

[1] One piece that was not in the book when I received it but may be included in later editions is Kaczynski’s commentary on Saul Alinksy’s “Rules for Radicals.” There is a divide between Kaczynski and his associates on the usefulness of this text. For instance, in one of his letters stored in the Labadie Collection, Kaczynski wrote: “UR (Último Reducto) is a valuable person. If I didn’t believe him to be valuable I wouldn’t correspond with him and I wouldn’t have recommended him to you. But, like everyone else, he has faults. It is a fault of UR that he is excessively inclined to make negative judgements. Because Alinsky was a leftist and a reformer, UR regards his entire book as useless and would reject all of it without taking the trouble to consider whether some of his ideas could be adapted to our purposes. Consequently, he considers my commentaries on Alinsky to be a waste of time. UR has admirable qualities that we should respect, but we should nevertheless avoid being misled by his exaggerated negative judgements. You should make up your own mind as to whether any of Alinsky’s ideas can be useful for our purposes.”

Review: Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How by Ted Kaczynski


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