Ted Kaczynski died in prison on June 10, 2023 from an apparent suicide.
You may remember him as “the Unabomber,” a terrorist who made a name for himself by sending mail bombs to people he thought were complicit in advancing our modern “technological society.” The view that said society is destructive to human freedom and meaning is often referred to as anarcho-primitivism, though Kaczynski rejected this label for himself.
I read his manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future, not long ago. As a free-market libertarian, I generally see our technological society’s ability to satisfy our basic needs and survival goals as one of modern capitalism’s greatest achievements. Kaczynski saw it as a major problem to be overcome.
Why? Because pursuing the goal of survival—hunting, foraging, fighting bears, etc.—gives humans a sense of fulfillment. When that goal is met for us by complex social structures, we are left to pursue “surrogate” goals that are artificial and less fulfilling (perhaps goals like writing anarcho-primitivist manifestos and sending pipe bombs to strangers?). To quote Kaczynski, it is “demeaning to fulfill one’s need for the power process through surrogate activities or through identification with an organization rather than through pursuit of real goals.”
In addition to feeling less fulfilled, he argued that we also feel less free. The fact that our primary desires are met for us upon the condition that we obey and become properly socialized—like diligently filing into an office building every morning—means control of our lives is placed into the hands of others: bosses, technocrats, and other organizers of society. In other words, individuals have less control over their own lives in a highly organized technological society and must become dependent upon others. For Kaczynski, freedom is the “opportunity to go through the power process” of taking command of our own lives without control or manipulation.
Kaczynski’s solution to all of this purposelessness and powerlessness was to destroy the technological society—all of the things that require specialized knowledge and a division of labor—and go back to pre-industrial society, where humans can go through the “power process” to meet their natural goals and thus be more fulfilled. Think Wendell Berry meets Friedrich Nietzsche.
His thoughts here bring to mind critiques from theorists like Joseph Schumpeter who argued that capitalism carried within it the seed of its own demise; and Jonah Goldberg whose book Suicide of the West contends that capitalism and the liberal tradition have been so effective at meeting our needs that we must invent new enemies, leading to divisive and pointless identity politics. Goldberg calls the alienation that reactionaries and progressives alike feel toward “liberal democratic capitalism” a form of romanticism, which is “the primacy of feelings.” He goes on to describe this romanticism as:
“the feeling that the world we live in is not right, that it is unsatisfying and devoid of authenticity and meaning (or simply requires too much of us and there must be an easier way). Secondarily, because our feelings tell us that the world is out of balance, rigged, artificial, unfair, or—most often—oppressive and exploitative, our natural wiring drives us to the belief that someone must be responsible. The evil string pullers take different forms depending on the flavor of tribalism. But the most common include: the Jews, the capitalists, and—these days on the right—the globalists and cultural Marxists.”
Or in the case of Kaczynski, the technologists.
In short, people on the far right and far left object to freedom because it gives them the right to the pursuit of happiness but it doesn’t actually give them the happiness. That requires something intentional on their part. The argument from some post-liberal Catholic integralists and Christian nationalists that classical liberalism has failed because even though we’ve nearly wiped out extreme poverty and starvation we still have drag queen story hour is an argument made by miserable nit-pickers.
Going back to one of Kaczynski’s central arguments, does the division of labor really make us miserable? Many of us, like artists, mathematicians, and people who write articles about the free market, thrive in the technological society but might not have in earlier stages of human development. Maybe some people genuinely like to understand how computers work, to study viruses, or to read ancient writings as valuable activities for their own sake and are not all that miserably attending to “surrogate activities”—this is one of the beautiful things about the division of labor, isn’t it? I can focus on what I do well, you can focus on what you do well, and we are both doubly enriched for it through trade.
Another critique of Kaczynski’s thesis is that he blamed our contemporary version of alienation on only one aspect of modern western living—our technology—when other factors may be more relevant to the problem. For instance, our philosophical individualism and belief in personal responsibility carries many benefits, but they can make finding a sense of belonging in a community more difficult—as does a welfare state that gives resources without the relationships that marked such dependencies in our past.
Kaczynski saw dependence on others as a problem; but the modern problem is that we are dependent on others but without genuine connection. For instance, I may technically be connected to the people who farm and process my food, but I don’t actually know them. Add to this all of the other transactional and impersonal relationships in my life, and I am left with a need that trade cannot fulfill—the need for intimacy and belonging.
Our core desire is not really to till the land, but to be accepted and find purpose. Our modern technological society certainly contributes to this loss by meeting basic needs that could once only be met within community and in communal bonds like religion. However, the solution is not to leave society, but to learn to find real community not as a mere accident of communal survival but as a result of deliberate intention—and not merely in online groups centered around “fandoms,” fads, and fetishes.
There’s also nothing wrong with asking if, as a society, we may be reaching our limits in some areas. Humans are adaptable, though not infinitely so. Perhaps, for instance, living our lives on social media for the “likes” could be stretching our elastic-like flexibility to the point of breaking. Maybe our dependence on the division of labor and the supply chain, as we’ve learned post-COVID, can begin to be a liability if too many links in that chain break and we are left unable to take care of ourselves and our neighbors. And maybe our dependence on the financial system is likewise a double-edged sword, as efforts to freeze the assets of Canadian trucker protestors and ordinary Russians in the early months of 2022 have also shown us.
Maybe more of us should, as John Prine suggested in his song “Spanish Pipedream,” blow up our TVs, throw away our papers, and build homes in the country.
But we definitely shouldn’t blow up other people.
Content syndicated from Fee.org (FEE) under Creative Commons license.
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