Please click above or download the file for the lecture.
I discuss page’s 1-35 in the Jolly Roger Press edition of
Industrial Society and its Future by Dr. Ted Kaczynski popularly known as the Unabomber. The Unabomber rose to fame through a serial bombing campaign stretching from 1979 to 1995 culminating in his arrest by the FBI after the forced publication of his manifesto. The Unabomber Manifesto is an Anarcho-primitivist clarion call for the acceleration of social breakdown through the destruction of its material foundation. As a pattern of rule and a political formation the United States – and any society claiming the mantle of ‘Modernity’ – is built upon a material, technological and extractive basis, constituted as functioning social machine, or “the System.” The Unabomber has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity both philosophically and within popular culture. Within the time he operated, Kaczynski was largely reading the writing on the wall and responded to the depression and malaise that characterized the ascendance of neoliberalism and the generational ennui of the 1990s. In order to understand him as a cultural phenomenon, we need to deal with his writings analytically to understand its moving parts, and the cultural zeitgeist experienced in the decades he terrorized America.
Kaczynski became both a philosophical darling in some anarchist communities and a banalized cultural joke following his arrest. The process of banalization both allowed the proliferation of his philosophy and the production of the image of the Unabomber as a psychologically unstable kook taking revenge on those who harmed him personally through the bombing of surrogates representative of a “system” that both produced and oppressed him. The above clip shows how the country immediately psychcologized Kaczynski’s actions while mildly poking fun at the targets of his bombing campaigns. The Unabomber is a conjunction of University and Airlines as his targets were largely engineers and scientists at universities who helped industrialists by expanding the system of technologies driving ecological destruction and the hollowing out the human soul as Kaczynski saw it.
The Unabomber as a topic of discussion has seen a recent resurgence as more people come to grapple with his philosophy. Netflix has authored a docuseries called “The Unabomber in his own Words,” that chronicles his life and how Kaczynski became the Unabomber. However, the broader conversation seems to be whether “technology” is helping or hindering society through the changes it creates within the subject. This is exactly the conversation Kaczynski wanted to have with his publication of Industrial Society and its Future.
Nirvana’s “In Bloom,” released in 1991, captures the malaise produced by the system’s expansion through Neoliberal development. The lyrics suggest a disaffected, listless, purposeless and pointless existence in a society built around consumption for consumption’s sake and the pointless pursuit of status that only causes people to subject one another to the demands of the social machine. The Grunge genre exhibits the depression and anxiety of the 1990’s as its sound trudges along to lyrics that hardly matter. The empty self is so tired of trying to fill the void with surrogate activities that fame becomes pointless within an environment that acculturates alienation. Instrumental rationality as a moral economy characterizes the Neoliberal attitude toward society, self and community through the senseless, and masturbatory pursuit of profits for remote interests. The music industry is heavily criticized for pretending to produce alternatives through a systems that instrumentalizes art and artists for the pursuit of profits showing how the system seized a space of resistance that led the way for the last generation’s cultural rebellion.
Politics becomes an arena of surrogate activities for Kaczynski as activists campaign for meaning in their own lives more so than the banner they rally behind. PC as a culture becomes a host of satellite “causes” that fail to address the system causing psycho-social problems among the disaffected and identity politics becomes a surrogate activity of rich white college students who, for the Unabomber, have no skin the game they’re playing. Their misguided behavior is evidence of oversocialization which Kaczynski names as a disorder affecting the minds of those on the Left. Further, he blames oversocialized individuals and activists for creating more problems by assimilating historically oppressed minorites to the demands of the system through cajoling people into socially acceptable behaviors through PC culture. This is captured in the 1994 film, PCU which explores the excluded middle of two warring camps: one of PC culture and the University administration representing the Left,; and the other composed of misogynistic, homophobic, racist elitists representing the Right. The university, after undergoing a series of transformations in the 1980’s that rearticulated it as a quasi-business project and thus a private good ripe for commodification, becomes a battleground for the soul of the country in empty displays of cultural politics.
The Unabomber Manifesto targets Society for producing psychological torture and cultural death through the interruption of the power process that reinforces hierarchy and organizational governance. The remote interests of individuals are served through the adoption of surrogate activities that distract people from the emptiness of their lives. The Offspring’s “Americana,” though released after Kaczynski’s arrest, shows the spirit of society as dead and run by the system’s lieutenants, priests, and sycophants who empower themselves through hierarchic organizations beyond the reach of democratic politics. The “Important decisions,” taken from the individual within the system are relegated to the functioning of machinery that doesn’t care about the individual insofar as the individual performs their duties to the machine. The environment itself is structured in a way that favors the uncritical adoption of mediocrity through social, economic, and cultural assimilation beyond the powers of formal politics. The “choices” presented are merely manufactured surrogate activities standing in for the power process reinforced by hierarchy that encourages boot-licking obedience.
Kaczynski’s suggestion for reclaiming the power process is a return to primitive communities by destroying the system. The subject is dominated and shaped into a consumer and this has followed the historical trajectory of industrial capitalism as the emptiness of the self is channeled through commodity fetishization. Habituation and the control of one’s environment are largely determined through technologies pretending to bring all good things to life as they circulate through machinic networks of production. The regime of the commodity encourages subjects to fill their meaningless lives and frustrated power processes through the pursuit of things such as science, and technology that are ultimately useful to the system and its expansion at the expense of excluding humanisitic or “frivolous” pursuits. This is the ascendance of instrumental reason as the only viable way of thinking in an environment that neither values the human, nor the planet. In the final analysis, the subject is a slave within a technological system who operates under the illusions that their lives matter or that they can find meaning in meaningless activities distracting them from the death of their wildness and autonomy. Kaczynski argues that there can be no return to autonomy without total destruction of the system itself and that reform is impossible.
Those who wish for and work towards reform, therefore are simply trying to subjugate others through social, cultural, political and economic domination. The modernizers of culture are merely agents of the systems whether or not they realize it. For Kaczynski, the plan is the destruction of the social machine if humanity is to be free and avoid their domination by the system and those who would use it to enforce their conceptions of society and empower themselves through weak-minded surrogate activities. The violence of systemic destruction is supposedly less than the violence the system has wrought on the planet and humanity.
Ihde’s Idols on Metanexus: See the linked article for further elaboration on Ihde’s idols and the post-human condition brought by the ascendance of the machine as the dominant social formation.
A Brief History of Neoliberalism, by David Harvey is an excellent introduction to the dominant political rationality of our age.