Archive for May 2012


Industrial Society and its Future

May 21st, 2012 — 6:44pm

This is the title of an essay written by Theodore (Ted to his friends) Kaczynzki, otherwise known as the Unabomber. It was published by the New York Times and The Washington Post in full (all 35,000 words) after Kaczynski said that he would halt his campaign of bombings, which had gone on for nearly 20 years and killed 3 people and wounded 23, on that one condition.

Far too many words have probably already been wasted on Kaczynski and his case. What is always striking when you read the stories of men like this, killers, terrorists, would-be revolutionaries, is how pathetic (and never tragic) they are. When you read about Tim McVeigh for instance, or even Anders Breivik, what is remarkable is how empty their lives were, how slender their accomplishments, and most of all their loneliness. In McVeigh’s case, his shyness and lack of success with women is often cited as one of the factors that finally drove him to commit his appalling crime.

Allied to this is a seeming inability truly to contemplate the devastation they have wrought. McVeigh seemed to admit during his trial that had he known there was a daycare facility at the Alfred P. Murrah federal building, he would have selected a different target. The implications of this are somewhere between the grotesque and preternaturally naive. Did he suppose that if he had only killed scores of adults, his bombing would have been somehow more morally justifiable, less repulsive? The division of victims into adults (fair game) and children (sacrosanct) in the killer’s mind is somehow both warped and ridiculously sentimental.

What has often fascinated people about Kaczynski is his extreme intelligence. McVeigh was not a stupid man, and nor, by all accounts, is Anders Breivik. But Ted Kaczynski was something else. His IQ was off the charts. He was hired as an assistant professor of Mathematics by Berkeley at 25, and wrote a groundbreaking paper on an obscure mathematical topic called ‘Boundary Functions ‘ that was regarded by some of his colleagues as an absolutely amazing feat of logic. He was perhaps one of the 20 most gifted mathematicians of his generation. He possessed a truly powerful mind.

But what becomes very clear to the reader of his essay ‘Industrial Society and its Future’ is that this is a mind that is out of sync, out of kilter. It is insane, in the sense that it has lost its balance. The essay is full of vituperative attacks on loosely defined groupings – ‘Leftists’, and so on… as well as bizarre obsessions that recur and recur throughout the writing. Of course Kaczynski’s style, if we may call it that, is well-bred – at least to the extent that he makes use of formal and rhetorical tropes that are familiar from philosophical, sociological and other critical discourses. But the argument he makes, when all is said (and believe me he says a lot) is bonkers. And in many ways, if it weren’t so beside the point, it would be sad to find a mind so capable and so exact having gone off on such a fruitless tangent.

It’s also a highly unoriginal tract, full of familiar ideas about the destructive exploitation of nature by industry, and the alienating impact this has on people. Kaczynski tries to set this out in a new way, through what he calls the ‘power process’, which he believes is disrupted by modern industry and technology. He claims that men’s natural ‘drives’ (here he hardly elaborates) are replaced with synthetic ones in the industrial society, in the ‘system’ and that this replacement, or displacement, causes a sort of spiritual emptiness which is dangerous and possibly even fatal.

Anyway, this could go on, and on, but despite the almost total lack of interest in this essay, there is one short passage which did strike me:

“The moral code of our society is so demanding that no one can think, feel and act in a completely moral way. […] Some people are so highly socialized that the attempt to think, feel and act morally imposes a severe burden on them. In order to avoid feelings of guilt, they continually have to deceive themselves about their own motives and find moral explanations for feelings and actions that in reality have a non-moral origin. We use the term “oversocialized” to describe such people.”

What on earth does he mean by this? Does he really believe that somehow moral ethics stand outside our relationships with each other, that they and the process of ‘socialization’ are inimical? Certainly he believes that we can be ‘oversocialized’ and that this makes it too difficult for us to live and think morally. The complexity of our social system and our social networks (for want of a better phrase) seem to rule out the possibility of anybody adhering strictly to a moral way of life. But what here does he mean by ‘moral’ and by ‘non-moral’. How can feelings and actions have either a moral or non-moral origin?

There seems to be a conflict, for the author, between some perceived higher law of how we should live – call it the good life – and the increasing demands placed on us by our highly developed, and concentrated, society. So, rather than more frequent human contact helping us to become ‘better’, it actually militates against a properly ‘moral’ way of life. It’s hardly surprising, after reading this, to learn that for much of his life Kaczynski was a recluse who lived alone in a wooden cabin he had built without electricity or running water.

For me, Kaczynski’s critique of ‘Industrial Society’ then is really not a critique of technological progress at all. It is fundamentally a rejection of the greater frequency and velocity of human exchange, of human contact, brought about by urban living and civilisation. It is a hermetical and solipsistic attack on living together, based on an attempt to dissociate the good life from the life well-lived, the social life, the life that takes joy and learns its moral lessons from being with others. It is emblematic of the psychology of the narcissistic killer, and it has nothing at all to say about the future, except as an unintended warning to stick together, to cling to each other, to belong to one another.

Update – having re-read this short passage a few times I think I have completely mis-interpreted it. I reach the same conclusion now, only by a slightly different route. What Kaczynski actually seems to be saying is that the process of ‘socialization’, and therefore by extension our Industrial Society itself, imposes on people a very strict set of moral rules which make them feel very guilty. They therefore cannot any longer acknowledge their more primitive or animal nature and instincts. Instead they have to ascribe moral values to these feelings – hence guilt and shame. So, he argues, this increasing superposition of a moral framework on our human natures drives us away from our true selves, restricts us and makes us weak. It prevents us from doing what we would like to and ought to do by binding us up in imaginary moral dogmas.

This is related to (but distinct from) a kind of Rousseau-ian argument, that civilisation itself de-natures human beings and makes them less truly themselves. It is society that is dangerous and evil. Man in his natural state is simple, primitive and inscrutably noble. This is rot. And hardly worth dealing with.

But again, at its root (for Kaczynski if not for Rousseau, who at least apparently had much more complex motivations) this is an attack on the idea of humans living together in large numbers, a yearning for the pastoral, the simple, but above all the private, the wild, the remote. It is a desire to be alone, or nearly alone, for there to be no other people around you to interfere with your own individual nature at its most pure. It is not an appealing vision.

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