by Theodore Kaczynski (2016)
**I was provided a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for my review**
It is difficult to review this work without considering Kaczynski’s past actions, i.e. the fact that he is a confessed multiple-murderer serving eight life sentences due to a fanatical dedication to his ideology, an ideology which is the focus of this book.
Some would say that even reviewing this work lends unwarranted legitimacy to an immoral/insane/monstrous person, and they may have a point. I tend toward separating ideas from their bearers, but there very well may come a point at which a person’s heinous actions delegitimize entirely their motivations for said actions, philosophically-speaking at least. I don’t know if that’s the case, and furthermore I don’t know how to figure out if that’s the case apart from reading multiple philosophical tomes on the subject. Because I was asked by the publisher to do this review, I’m going to do my best to parse the message from its messenger, and explain where I think the latter detracts from the former.
I can say to begin with that I don’t believe Kaczynski to be insane. His writings — both this and his original Manifesto — are far too lucid, and the nature of his crimes involves entirely too much time and space for contemplation to be written off as fits of mania. When other people dedicate their lives wholly to an ideal from a very young age, even behaving in morally questionable ways to achieve it, they get our admiration; perhaps its only when we disagree with their ideals that we call them “crazy.”
To call him a sociopath may be closer to the mark, in the same sense that Hitler was undoubtedly a sociopath: both brilliant men in their own ways but with little ability to connect with anybody on a human level. In this sense one could maybe call Kaczynski “undersocialized” in allusion to his manifesto’s discussion of the term “oversocialization.” His known early life and academic career bear out the hypothesis that he was unable to relate to other humans, and that he therefore never developed the crucial ability to empathize with them.
Is being a sociopath enough to discredit one’s ideas entirely? I’m not sure. Our society certainly seems to reward sociopaths in certain sectors (business, politics, entertainment), so it doesn’t feel fair to condemn one solely on the basis of his academic sociopathy. But that’s not to say you shouldn’t weigh his sociopathy when considering his ideas, which is precisely what I intend to do in the remainder of this review.
From the outset this book feels like a less passionate version of Derrick Jensen’s compelling Endgame, and later on in its strategic discussion becomes a cross between Endgame and Gene Sharp’s influential From Dictatorship to Democracy. It begins as a logical, mostly convincing argument about why our technological society is doomed, but then devolves into vague “guidelines” that feel relatively punchless in the face of such daunting odds.
Whenever I pick up a book that is criticizing the trend of our society or political system, it’s always with the hope that finally, this time, the author will provide some simple, actionable solutions that can immediately address the issue at hand. I am almost invariably disappointed with the denouements of these books, as they often dissipate into vague platitudes, unfeasible strategies, or in the worst cases an unforgivable omission of any such discussion. Unfortunately that trend of disappointment continues here.
Given the issues I discussed above with the difficulty of Kaczynski presenting himself as an “expert” on any topic given his past actions, the book begins on a troubling note in the preface itself, where not only does the first footnote cite “many letters (I’ve received)” as the source for his statement, indicating a troubling lack of academic rigor, but he then proceeds to grandiosity in the 2nd paragraph of p.2, where he writes:
. . . I feel safe in saying that virtually all people — even people of exceptional intelligence — who merely read this book once or twice at an ordinary pace will miss many of its most important points. This book, therefore, is not a book to be read; it is a book to be studied with the same care that one would use in studying, for example, a textbook of engineering.
Okay then, Mr. If-I-do-say-so-myself. . .
Luckily the first chapter, describing how we will never be able to control or predict the development of an advanced society, largely avoids further evidence of these issues. Kaczynski uses clear, precise prose with a somewhat staccato rhythm. His historical examples of the inherent difficulty in controlling complex systems do not feel controversial, though they do feel random and somewhat tedious by the end of the chapter.
Chapter 2, “Why the Technological System Will Destroy Itself” (And Everything Else), also appears logical and presents little with which to argue. In his discussion of self-propagating systems and natural selection, his analogy between biological systems and social systems seems tenuous as there’s little to indicate that we have in any critical sense been able to replicate the seamless functioning of an organic system. Also, it does feel like Kaczynski dedicates an inordinate amount of space to technology-based immortality, which intuitively feels like an utter fantasy.
Overall, however, his point stands, and we get what appears to be the first formulation of his thesis on p. 68, when he says that instead of waiting for the system to destroy itself, “if the technological system were eliminated now a great deal could still be saved. The longer the system is allowed to continue. . . the worse will be the outcome. . .”
One quibble I have is with Kaczynski’s introduction of the concept of “Technianity,” which simply sounds clumsy. If you’re talking about the religion of technology, it’s not only analogous to Christianity (the only religion that ends in “-ianity”) but rather to all religions and dogmas, which are commonly referred to as “-isms.” It seems like it would both be more precise and aesthetically sound to call this concept either “Technism” or “Technologism.”
But in any case, after almost half the book I was on board with Kaczynski’s thesis and intrigued to see his proposals. Chapter 3, however, which lays out the postulates and rules for transforming society, begins on a relatively ominous note. First of all, Mao’s epigraph discusses a “principal contradiction,” which seems itself to contradict Kaczynski’s entire first chapter dedicated to the inherent complexity and insolubility of system-level problems. Next, the chapter’s very first paragraph, with its prescription of “success,” recalls the principal issue anyone might have when approaching this book: given his past actions, how credible can Mr. Kaczynski really expect us to find him as a determiner and prescriber of a political movement’s success? His past actions don’t grant him much benefit of any doubt.
The chapter itself is fairly innocuous, as Kaczynski’s “postulates” on the nature of radical political movements are sound and the “rules” based on these postulates are logical. A minor organizational issue I had would be solved by simply shifting the explanation of the postulates to precede the rules in order to provide a more intuitive transition.
The bulk of the chapter, however, is dedicated to tedious and over-explanatory examples of these postulates and rules in action, focusing chiefly on the Irish independence movement and the Bolshevik revolution. These are frankly unnecessary, and they divert the momentum of Kaczynski’s argument.
The end of this chapter is where Kaczynski really began to lose me, as he engages in needlessly harsh attacks on other thinkers in the field, beginning with Chellis Glendinning and Arne Naess. He then proceeds to refer to basically the entire group of writers — including Ivan Illich and John Zerzan — as “useless.” This is not merely unprofessional; Kaczynski’s arrogance and belligerence undermine the merits of his arguments and put his readers on the defensive (and in my case, more intent on finding holes). Furthermore, his lack of civility immediately reminds readers of his past crimes, which one would think he would want to avoid.
With regards to the content of his closing argument in this chapter, Kaczynski’s goal is to “(bring) about the collapse of the technological system,” but this goal appears to violate his very first rule in that it is anything but “simple.” It’s also not readily apparent how this would be “irreversible,” in violation of Rule III.
The first two pages of the last chapter — where Kaczynski writes among other things, “No specific route to victory for an anti-tech movement can be laid out in advance.” — deflated any hope I had of the book offering real, practicable solutions. The first three guidelines for revolutionary movements are: “build its own internal sources of power,” “build power in relation to its social environment,” and “do what it can to undermine people’s faith in the technological system.” For those keeping track, none of these are “clear, concrete, simple” objectives, thus violating his 1st rule.
Two pages later Kaczynski makes the unfortunate choice of pointing to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban and jihadist suicide bombers as examples of those with the necessary dedication to a movement. I can’t imagine many people wanting to be included in such company, and its at best a dubious association to conjure for somebody already on questionable moral ground.
Throughout the rest of the chapter, which again gets bogged down in justification of theory by way of over-explanation of history, Kaczynski skates around addressing certain points which seem far more relevant to the discussion, and the omission of which makes his argument feel incomplete. For example, on p. 153 he mentions and dismisses the concern over nuclear winter as something in which “serious students of this matter do not believe.” He offers no evidence for this claim besides a lone, unelaborated book citation.
A few pages later he reluctantly recommends undemocratic hierarchy as a method of political organization while only acknowledging in passing the danger of this method and not giving any specifics at all as to how this hierarchy should be organized to prevent abuse/corruption of power. Frankly, this feels not only misdirected but lazy, and one can’t help but feel that he should have devoted much more energy to these points than he did to the history of Ireland and Russia, or to the fantasy of immortality. By this point my confusion over his reliance on these exhaustive historical examples had been resolved, as it became clear that he was substituting these historical events for any proof of the legitimacy of his theory. As someone who spent the first half of his life in academia’s hard sciences, he should have had a better grasp on academic and scientific rigor.
Finally, a big hole in Kaczynski’s argument was the absence of any discussion of capitalism as one of the root problems of global society. I was pleased to see that he addressed it in one of his appendices, but I feel that it should have been a much larger part of chapter 2’s discussion. His argument that capitalism is “subordinate” to technology is not entirely convincing despite his lone example of Soviet communism. Furthermore, arguing communism as the only alternative to capitalism is facile, and he certainly must understand that lone communist/socialist countries (e.g. Cuba, N. Korea) attempting to exist in an overwhelmingly capitalist global system can never survive.
I would be curious, for instance, to see what Kaczynski thinks of E.F. Shumacher’s Small Is Beautiful, which discusses economics as the global driving force, superior even to technology. He lays out some interesting — and in my inexpert opinion, much more concrete than Kazcynski’s — steps for how we can transform our capitalist economy into one that harnesses technology for the good of humans on a small scale. Given Kaczynski’s opinion of the rest of his ideological cohort, he would probably scoff at Schumacher as “utterly naive” (p.121) and “useless” (p. 124). . .
In conclusion, Kaczynski presents a compelling argument on the need for anti-technological revolution, but he fails to convincingly explain (especially vis-a-vis capitalism and more general economical factors) why it is the most pressing need. Also, while childishly criticizing others for their lack of concrete solutions, he simultaneously fails to provide his own beyond a framework laid out in more concrete terms by Derrick Jensen and Gene Sharp. In fact, with his last two chapters I can’t escape the impression that Kaczynski is neither as ground-breaking nor as brilliant as he believes himself to be in the arena of global revolution. He would do well to accept outside counsel in this regard.