Anti-Tech Revolution: Why and How
Theodore John Kaczynski
Fitch & Madison Publishers, 2016
Ted Kaczynski’s new book is divided roughly into two parts, as indicated by the title: the why, and the how. Looking at the two parts separately allows for a more generous reading of the book, so that’s what I’ll do.
The first two chapters deal with why modern society is bound to fail. I share the conviction that this is, sadly, all but an inevitability with TJK, and appreciate much of his analysis. In chapter 1, probably the most convincing chapter of the book, TJK makes the assertion that “the development of a society can never be subject to rational human control” (the chapter’s title). This is a logical place to start for an analysis of our civilization’s future, and the arguments in favor of this notion are convincing and plentiful, perhaps more so to someone already on board with the idea, but I think, with a little work, to any rational person. Our leaders are, by their own admissions and all available evidence, always playing catch-up with current events. They mostly react to what happens, and preferentially plan for the immediate and near-term future, and only marginally for the long-term.
One of the most important ideas of the book is introduced in this chapter. Competition between what TJK calls “self-propagating systems” (certain institutions, corporations, agencies, but also ideas, organizations, movements) works in such a way as to privilege short-term planning at the expense of survival in the long term. So, if a group of companies are competing in a certain area, they are under constant pressure from their competitors to use available resources with no thought for the future. If one of them decides not to extract resources as fast as is possible, they are quickly out-competed by the rest, which are all the while growing through reckless resource management. Of course, the combined rapacity of the competing companies will also condemn them to failure when they exhaust all available resources.
TJK chooses the unfortunate name “natural selection” for this process of competition between corporations, governments, nations, and movements. It is unfortunate for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that the interaction of international corporations and nation-states is only partially competitive: John Kenneth Galbraith argued convincingly in The New Industrial State and The Affluent Society that the relations of the biggest corporations are characterized largely by, if not cooperation, than a sort of detente. This should be self-evident in regard to nation-states. So, the dynamic described by TJK where short-term, rapacious planning is privileged due to cut-throat competition doesn’t apply at the level of the biggest players, since they are in most cases not competing, which opens a window of possibility for those interested in salvaging a little of our poor planet.
There are many other problems with the use of “natural selection” here. It is a vague term when applied outside of its biological context, and has already been misused egregiously by people using it to justify inhumane social policies (social darwinism). Even in its narrow biological meaning, it’s not clear how big a role natural selection plays in evolution: a recent trend has been to emphasize cooperation, as well as to give more credence to the complex web of relationships between organisms in ecosystems. As a widely used and misused term, “natural selection” also seems to discourage closer examination of the actual relationships in question. Lastly, and most importantly, when applied outside of its strict biological meaning, natural selection suggests that everyone is engaged in competition for survival at all times, that the basic condition of living things and man in particular is that of “nature red in tooth and claw,” which isn’t true. As discussed elsewhere, competition attributed to man in his natural state is a more accurate description of civilized life, and Hobbes’ famous “nasty, brutish and short” line describes the lives of civilized humans much more accurately than those of our “primitive” forebears.
Competition seems to be a condition of civilized life. It applies on most levels short of that of the biggest corporations and nation states, and plays an even bigger role in the official ideology of capitalist societies. It’s been noted by astute observers that capitalists would subject everyone to cut-throat competition leading to a reduction in labor costs and standards of living, while reserving welfare-state treatment for their own class, and they’ve largely succeeded in shaping many nations in this way. Ultimately, I agree with TJK’s premise that technologically advanced civilization is on its way to a catastrophe, and that competition is a driving force behind this process.
What, then, of collapse? The other work most sorely missing from the bibliography of Anti-Tech Revolution is Joseph Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies (there are many works sorely missing from this book’s bibliography, works which would have saved TJK from duplicating effort, simple errors, and even writing entire chapters). Collapse of Complex Societies analyzes diminishing returns on social complexity in a few historical civilizations, and finds evidence that the laws of diminishing returns apply in equal measure to contemporary civilization. Collapse, the point at which no further investment can offset the drag caused by the added costs of social complexity, is inevitable as civilizations age and grow top heavy, according to this model. Tainter’s analysis doesn’t take environmental costs and resource depletion into account, so collapse is simply a reversion to a less complex state to shed the burden of costs imposed by added complexity. We won’t be so lucky.
Besides providing support for his thesis, Tainter’s work would have saved TJK from speculating about things like artificial intelligence and “Moore’s Law”, the idea that the performance of computer chips would double every year or two, growing exponentially. Certain dreamers have taken this, as well as the intoxicating pace of technological development of late in general, to mean that technology as a whole is always developing at an ever increasing rate. “Moore’s Law” itself was formulated to come to an end within decades, but it shouldn’t take a scientist to see that this idea is at odds with the law of diminishing returns. It may happen that something which excites the imaginations of hordes of people (and is lavishly funded) defies the overall trend in diminishing returns for a while, but it’s pure folly to think that this is somehow a self-perpetuating phenomenon.
TJK claims that the collapse of this civilization will wipe out all complex life forms on the planet: “…the extinction event that has now begun is of a fundamentally different kind than all of the previous mass extinctions that have occurred on this planet.” This may be a minor point, but I still wish that the exact nature of the collapse was discussed, and the reasons why TJK believes in the total destruction scenario fleshed out. As it is, no reasons are given other than cursory and hodge-podge mentions of some of the ills we face today.
In any case, since civilization is doomed, TJK believes a timely revolution is the only way to steer our course away from total disaster. Chapters 3 and 4 deal with the shape this revolution, and the movement leading up to it, must take, and the errors to avoid in pursuing this goal. They read like the thoughts of someone who’s never participated in a group project.
Manual for Revolutionary Leaders by Fredy and Lorraine Perlman (written under the pen name Michael Velli) is an extremely high-brow spoof of what it would take to pull off a revolutionary usurpation of power. Anti-Tech Revolution reads as if it could be a less-literate part of that spoof, except, of course, TJK is dead serious. I’ll try to keep this short, because I’m getting tired of talking about this book while all kinds of seemingly important things, like U.S. election drama, are happening, but here’s a quote:
A revolutionary movement can’t be successful if it allows its pursuit of its objective to be limited by reservations or qualifications of any kind, for these can only lead to fatal hesitation at critical times. (p.153)
Yes, it’s what it looks like it is: TJK is saying that moral qualms are fatal to a successful revolutionary group, the kind he is writing the manual for building. He also says that this group can’t be democratic in its decision making, must have the rank and file follow the leadership’s directives to a letter, must exclude well-wishers and fellow travelers to remain “pure,” and so on. In a word, he is describing an authoritarian-style group, a group along Stalinist or Maoist lines. Plenty of these have always existed, and those of us who have actually had the experience of working on common projects with members of such groups know that their members cultivate the attitude of humorless automatons, and that the eventual outcome of such endeavors is bloodshed and misery. In the words of Raoul Vaneigem, “those who speak of revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.”
TJK justifies the bloodshed and the misery the revolution he is calling for will cause by evoking the image of a ravaged, uninhabited planet Earth, the result of our civilization’s hubris and greed if we don’t drastically change course soon. This is a relevant point. To me, it seems that any kind of revolution that is executed in the spirit of authoritarianism and inflexibility, and is undemocratic and immoral to boot, can only create a new order that is more of the same: hatred, oppression, and misery. It may be argued that this wouldn’t be the case with a successful anti-technological revolution, since once there is no technology more complicated than a knife, any tyrant will have to content him/her self with a fairly small domain. This may be so– I would certainly take my chances in such a world over this one, and once there, perhaps it won’t matter what road we took. But until technological society is overthrown, TJK is basically asking a lot of us to do really awful, immoral, inhumane things, perhaps for the rest of our lives, perhaps longer, in the name of this revolution. The sad thing is, I know there are plenty of people (with corpses in their mouths) who will gladly do those exact things, but I think that even for them, this project will have to be coated in much sweeter terms than are found here.
The thing that is most disappointing to me about Anti-Tech Revolution is the fact that TJK seems to have gotten human nature utterly wrong in so far as he pegs us as motivated by competition. This may be because the only ethnological or anthropological work he uses is Jared Diamond’s Collapse, an unfortunate choice on many levels. If people are so hopelessly competitive that they need to be protected from their own destructive instincts and delivered into a more humane utopia, pretty much against their natures (yet, ironically, by a revolutionary organization run by an undemocratic and immoral elite), why bother? If people are this nasty, they will make the garden of eden into a concentration camp. Let them rot.
I believe that people are not driven by competition. Rather, people adopt the qualities that they see their neighbors possessing, and their neighbors adopt the qualities that society says they should possess. Everyone simply wants to fit in, and does their best to do so. Paradoxically, if everyone practices anti-social behaviors such as excessive competitiveness, selfishness, or greed, our need to fit in will drive us to act in an anti-social way as well. But there it is. It can be unlearned. Many societies didn’t, and don’t, practice greed and competitiveness.
Materialism, greed, is the common factor underlying the pathology of our lives, our civilization’s reckless race to the bottom, to its’ doom. Seriously! I realize how uncool that is to say, since even the Christians view harping on greed as outdated and passe. But that’s really all it is. Societies choose what values they will adopt and to what extent, and a wide range exists among societies in the world today. Scandinavian countries have made a collective decision to support the weakest members of their society; the U.S.A., by contrast, has made a collective decision to blame the weakest members of society for their own problems, and to celebrate those with the most instead. In fact, so much of American society is geared solely to excuse and justify greed that people are literally bewildered by the contradictions and paradoxes this creates. To take something everyone knows is bad and to spin an entire ideology around it to transform it into something good can leave anyone not sure which way is up.
Getting rid of technology and sending society back to the stone age would certainly solve the problem of greed by getting rid of anything anyone might covet. I am not against this solution at all. But, I find it very hard to see anything good coming from pursuing this goal (in such a way) for my generation, who won’t yet be the beneficiaries of a greed-free world, but will have to spend our lives living out the worst things our present society has to offer, and then some. Yet, the future of our planet hangs in the balance.