Kirkpatrick Sale Article: "UNABOMBER'S SECRET TREATISE"

Jamal Hannah jamal at
Fri Sep 22 18:48:16 MDT 1995

[Article from "The Nation"]


Is There Method In His Madness?


The central point the Unabomber is trying to make--that "the
industrial-technological system" in which we live is a social, psychological
and environmental "disaster for the human race"--is absolutely crucial for
the American public to understand and ought to be on the forefront of the
nation's political agenda.

I say this, of course, as a partisan. The Unabomber stands in a long line of
anti-technology critics where I myself have stood, and his general arguments
against industrial society and its consequences are quite similar to those I
have recently put forth in a book on the people who might be said to have
begun this tradition, the Luddites. Along with a number of people today who
might be called neo-Luddites--Jerry Mander, Chellis Glendinning, Jeremy
Rifkin, Bill McKibben, Wendell Berry, Dave Foreman, Langdon Winner,
Stephanie Mills and John Zerzan among them--the Unabomber and I share a
great many views about the pernicious effect of the Industrial Revolution,
the evils of modern technologies, the stifling effect of mass society, the
vast extent of suffering in a machine-dominated world and the inevitability
of social and environmental catastrophe if the industrial system goes on

We disagree, to be sure, about what is to be done about all this and the
means by which to achieve it. In the course of his career, at least as the
F.B.I. has reconstructed it, the Unabomber has carried out sixteen bombings,
killing three people and injuring twenty-three others, apparently choosing
targets in some way connected to modern technology--a technological
institute at Northwestern University, the University of Utah business
school, a Salt Lake City computer store, a University of California
geneticist, and a Yale computer scientist, among others--to try to
"propagate anti-industrial ideas and give encouragement to those who hate
the industrial system." That strikes me as simple madness. Maiming and
killing people does not normally propagate ideas, and in this case no one
knew what ideas were in the Unabomber's mind until he started writing
letters this past year and then delivered his treatise in June. As for
getting the message across, the only message that anyone got for sixteen
years was that some nut was attacking people associated with universities
and computers (hence the F.B.I.'s tag, Unabomber).(1)

"Industrial Society and Its Future" is the modest-enough title, and it is
labeled as "by FC," which the author describes as a "terrorist group" though
there is no sign from the writing style here that more than one person is
behind it, and the F.B.I. believes that the Unabomber is acting alone. (The
fact that he has escaped detection for seventeen years--especially during
this past year, when he has become the target of the largest manhunt in the
agency's history--would tend to support that.) "FC" is variously cited as
the initials for "Freedom Club" or "Freedom Collective," although it is
popularly thought to stand for a vulgar comment about computers; it is not
explained in his text.

The sixty-six pages that follow begin with two pages of trivial typo
corrections, showing the kind of fastidiousness one might expect from a
craftsman whose bombs the F.B.I. has described as "meticulously"
constructed; then come fifty-six pages of argument divided into twenty-four
subtitled sections and 232 numbered paragraphs; and it all ends with
thirty-six footnotes, mostly qualifying statements in the text. That form,
plus the leaden language and stilted diction, the fondness for sociological
jargon and psychobabble, and the repeated use of "we argue that" and "we now
discuss" and the like, make it certain that this was written by someone
whose writing style, and probably whole intellectual development, was
arrested in college.

The F.B.I. has said that it believes he was a student of the history of
science, but on the evidence here he was a social psychology major with a
minor in sociology, and he shows all the distressing hallmarks of the worst
of that academic breed. He spends twelve pages, for example, on a strange
and somewhat simplistic explanation of "something that we will call the
power process," consisting of four elements "we call goal, effort and
attainment of goal," plus "autonomy," all in an effort to explain why people
today are unhappy and frustrated. Only someone trapped in the social
sciences would talk that way.

Various professor types have been quoted in the papers saying how "bright"
this fellow must be, but the arguments here are never very original and the
line of reasoning is often quite convoluted. He has read a lot in certain
areas--no poetry, though, I'll bet--and has thought a lot about the
particular things that concern him, but aside from a few flashes there is no
suggestion of anything more than a routine mind and a dutiful allegiance to
some out-of-the-ordinary critics of modern society. I'm sure he makes good
bombs, but grading him on his intellect I wouldn't give him more than a C+.
I venture to say he didn't make it to his senior year.

The opus isn't helped by the fact that at least a third of it is essentially
irrelevant, social-psych padding and scholarly back-and-forthing,
one-hand-and-the-othering. Two long sections attacking "modern leftism" and
"leftish" academics have nothing to do with his thesis, and I suspect they
are offered because he had a bad time with certain sectarian groups in the
early 1970s--no surprise--and with certain progress-minded, pro-technology
Marxists he met in the academy. (2) Any good editor would have cut it.

But as near as I can fathom it after three careful readings, the Unabomber's
argument would seem to be this:

"Industrial-technological society" has succeeded to the point where, because
of its size and complexity, it has constricted human freedom, meaning one's
power to "control the circumstances of one's own life." Such freedoms as we
do have are those permitted by the system consistent with its own
ends--economic freedom to consume, press freedom to expose inefficiency and
corruption--and do not in fact give individuals or groups true power, in the
same sense that they have control over satisfying "life-and-death issues of
one's existence: food, clothing, shelter and defense." "Today people live
more by virtue of what the system does FOR them or TO them than by virtue of
what they do for themselves.... Modern man is strapped down by a network of
rules and regulations, and his fate depends on the actions of persons remote
from him whose decisions he cannot influence."

Industrial society must perform this way in order to succeed--"The system
has to regulate human behavior closely in order to function"--and cannot be
reformed to work differently. "Changes large enough to make a lasting
difference in favor of freedom would not be initiated because it would be
realized that they would gravely disrupt the system."

Industrial society must increasingly work to constrict freedom and control
behavior since "technology advances with great rapidity" and on many fronts:
"crowding, rules and regulations, increasing dependence of individuals on
large organizations, propaganda and other psychological techniques, genetic
engineering, invasion of privacy through surveillance devices and computers,
etc." (3)

But the problem of "control over human behavior" continues to bedevil this
society, and right now "the system is currently engaged in a desperate
struggle to overcome certain problems that threaten its survival," primarily
social (the "growing numbers" of "rebels," "dropouts and resisters") but
also economic and environmental. "If the system succeeds in acquiring
sufficient control over human behavior quickly enough, it will probably
survive. Otherwise it will break down. We think the issue will most likely
be resolved within the next several decades, say 40 to 100 years."

Therefore, the task of those who oppose the industrial system is to advance
that breakdown by promoting "social stress and instability in industrial
society," which presumably includes bombing, and by developing and
propagating "an ideology that opposes technology," one that puts forth the
"counter-ideal" of nature "in order to gain enthusiastic support." Thus,
when the system becomes sufficiently stressed and unstable, a "revolution
against technology may be possible."

Now, this is a reasonable enough argument--the Unabomber is not irrational,
whatever else you can say about him--and I think it is even to some extent
persuasive. There is nothing wild-eyed or rabble-rousing about it (it could
actually use a lot more Paine-ist fomentation and furor) and the points are
most often buttressed with careful arguments and examples--though nowhere,
interestingly, a single statistic. It is too slow, too plodding, too
repetitive; but you have to say its case is made in a competent, if labored,

His critique of industrial society today is most telling, I think, and reads
as if he'd spent a lot of time defending it in the back rooms of bars.
(Excerpts presented in the Times and the Post for some reason concentrate on
the treatise's weaker and tangential early parts and give only limited
attention to this central message.) Just picking at random, I find these

The system does not and cannot exist to satisfy human needs. Instead, it is
human behavior that has to be modified to fit the needs of the system. This
has nothing to do with the political or social ideology that may pretend to
guide the technological system. It is not the fault of capitalism and it is
not the fault of socialism. It is the fault of technology, because the
system is guided not by ideology but by technical necessity.

If the use of a new item of technology is INITIALLY optional, it does not
necessarily REMAIN optional, because new technology tends to change society
in such a way that it becomes difficult or impossible for an individual to
function without using that technology.... Something like this seems to have
happened already with one of our society's most important psychological
tools for enabling people to reduce (or at least temporarily escape from)
stress, namely, mass entertainment. Our use of mass entertainment is
"optional"...yet mass entertainment is a means of escape and
stress-reduction on which most of us have become dependent.

The technophiles are hopelessly naive (or self-deceiving) in their
understanding of social problems. They are unaware of (or choose to ignore)
the fact that when large changes, even seemingly beneficial ones, are
introduced into a society, they lead to a long sequence of other changes,
most of which are difficult to predict.... In fact, ever since the
industrial revolution technology has been creating new problems for society
far more rapidly than it has been solving old ones. Not inspired, but
thoughtful, perceptive enough, when abstracted from its labored context.

What's surprising about all this, though, is that it reads as if the
Unabomber thinks he's the first person who ever worked out such ideas. It is
hard to believe, but he seems woefully ignorant of the long Luddistic strain
in Western thought going back at least to William Blake and Mary Shelley,
and he does not once cite any of the great modern critics of technology such
as Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul, Paul Goodman, Max Weber, E.F. Schumacher or
Rachel Carson, nor any of the contemporary laborers in this vineyard. In one
of his letters to the Times he does say that "anyone who will read the
anarchist and radical environmentalist journals will see that opposition to
the industrial-technological system is widespread and growing," so he must
know something about the current critics, although he does not mention
specific articles or authors or particular periodicals. (If I had to guess
which has been most influential on him, I'd say the Fifth Estate, a feisty
anti-technology paper published out of Detroit for the past thirty years,
but he does not name it anywhere.)

That failure to ground himself in the Luddistic tradition, where both
utopian and dystopian models proliferate, may be the reason that the
Unabomber is so weak on envisioning the future, particularly the kind of
revolution he seems to want.

I would agree with the Unabomber's general position that "to make a lasting
change in the direction of development of any important aspect of a society,
reform is insufficient," and I might even agree that in certain
circumstances therefore "revolution is necessary." But I can't figure out at
all what kind of revolution this is to be. He says that "a revolution does
not necessarily involve an armed uprising or the overthrow of a government,"
a conviction he is so certain of he repeats it twice more, adding that "it
may or may not involve physical violence," and in two footnotes he suggests
that it might be "somewhat gradual or piecemeal" and might "consist only of
a massive change of attitudes toward technology resulting in a relatively
gradual and painless disintegration of the industrial system."

This is a somewhat peculiar position for a man who has been killing and
injuring people in service to his dream of a new society, and I'm not sure
what he thinks revolutions are or how they are achieved. If he has in mind
something more like the Industrial Revolution or the Copernican revolution,
he doesn't suggest how that might come about, and the sorts of strategies he
ends up advocating--promoting social instability, destroying and wrecking
"the system," seeing "its remnants...smashed beyond repair"--sound an awful
lot like a revolution with a good deal of violence. He even suggests at one
point that the models are the French and Russian revolutions, both pretty
bloody affairs.

The whole question of violence indeed is confused in the Unabomber's mind,
oddly enough after seventeen years during which he must have been thinking
about it a little. He never once addresses the reasons for his own string of
bombings or explains what he thinks he has been accomplishing, other than to
say that this was the way to have "some chance of making a lasting
impression." He is critical of "leftists" who commit violence, because it is
only "a form of `liberation'<FU10>" they justify "in terms of mainstream
values...fighting against racism or the like," and later is critical of
leftists because they are "against competition and against violence." His
revolution is not necessarily to be violent, yet he never confronts the idea
of a nonviolent revolution or how it would be strategically carried out.

The one task of revolutionaries the Unabomber is clear about is the business
of producing an anti-technology "ideology," although he doesn't anywhere
concern himself with the hard business of saying what that would consist of.
But it doesn't much matter to him, since the primary purpose of this
ideology is "to create a core of people who will be opposed to the
industrial system on a rational, thought-out basis," an intellectual cadre
who can then dish it out "in a simplified form" for the "unthinking
majority" who "like to have such issues presented in simple, black-and-white
terms." "History is made by active, determined minorities," you see, and "as
for the majority, it will be enough to make them aware of the existence of
the new ideology and remind them of it frequently." Lenin couldn't have put
it better.

The Unabomber's idea of a systemic breakdown is, I think, more plausible
than his concept of revolution; one could see how, as the system was
breaking down of its own weight and incompetence, unable to manage the
problems its technology creates, this might be "helped along by
revolutionaries." Just how the breakdown would come about is not spelled
out. The Unabomber gives only a passing glance to the multiple environmental
disasters the system is producing for itself and never mentions the
likelihood, as chaos theory predicts, that the complex industrial house of
cards will not hold. At least he does posit a "time of troubles" after which
the human race would be "given a new chance."

I should note that the Unabomber, on the evidence here, does not have any
special vision of an ecologically based future, as the newspapers have
suggested. Indeed, he is no environmentalist, and I'd say he has only the
faintest grasp of the principles of ecology. It's true that he refers to
nature at one point--"That is, WILD nature!"--as a "positive ideal," but
this is almost entirely cynical, nature as a concept that he figures will be
useful in propaganda terms because it is "the opposite of technology,"
because "most people will agree that nature is beautiful" and because "in
many people, nature inspires the kind of reverence that is associated with
religion." He shows no real understanding of the role of technology in
enabling industrial society not only to exploit nature but to pass that off
as legitimate, and not one individual environmental problem is addressed
here, except overpopulation. (And on that one the Unabomber, though
acknowledging that it produces overcrowding and stress, indicates no
awareness of its awful consequences for all the other species of the world,
whose endangerment and extinctions we are causing by our exploding numbers,
or for the natural systems of the world, whose degradation we are causing by
our exploding consumption.)

It's clear enough that the Unabomber counts "radical environmentalists" as
among those rightly opposing technology, and his use of wood in some of his
bombs and his killing of a timber lobbyist in California suggests a further
affinity. But he indicates no sympathy for the kind of biocentric "deep
ecology" and bioregionalism espoused by most of them, and his concerns are
exclusively anthropocentric, his appreciation of other species and natural
systems nil. He also mocks those who believe in the "Gaia theory" of a
living earth, common in many environmental groups: "Do its adherents REALLY
believe in it or are they just play-acting?"

In short, it feels to me that his appeal to nature is entirely utilitarian
(like adding another little mechanism to your bomb to make sure it works)
rather than a heartfelt passion, of which he seems to have very few in any

But if nature does not inspire his vision of the future, it is hard to tell
what does. Presumably he would want, as a self-described anarchist, some
kind of world where "people live and work as INDIVIDUALS and SMALL GROUPS,"
using "small-scale technology...that can be used by small-scale communities
without outside assistance." But he nowhere bothers to hint at how this
future society would operate (other than to say it would burn all technical
books), nor does he refer to any in the long line of anarcho-communal
writers from Kropotkin to Bookchin who have given a great deal of thought to
the configurations of such a society.

It's true that the Unabomber offers the defense at one point that "a new
kind of society cannot be designed on paper" and "when revolutionaries or
utopians set up a new kind of society, it never works out as planned." That
gives him leeway to avoid discussing what kind of world he wants (even in a
three-page section called "THE FUTURE"); unfortunately, it also leaves a
gaping hole in his treatise. Even those who agree that the industrial system
should be torn down will want to get some idea of what is supposed to
replace it before they are moved to endorse the cause, much less become the
revolutionaries the Unabomber wants.

So, in sum, what are we to make of this strange document? So important to
its author that he is prepared to kill people (even though he has written
that he is "getting tired of making bombs") to get it published in a major
newspaper. So embarrassing to those newspapers that they don't know what to
do with it.

It is the statement of a rational and serious man, deeply committed to his
cause, who has given a great deal of thought to his work and a great deal of
time to this expression of it. He is prescient and clear about the nature of
the society we live in, what its purposes and methods are, and how it uses
its array of technologies to serve them; he understands the misery and
anxiety and constriction this creates for the individual and the wider
dangers it poses for society and the earth. He truly believes that a
campaign of social disorder led by misfits, rebels, dropouts and saboteurs
(and presumably terrorists), coupled with the concerted propaganda work of a
dedicated intellectual elite, has a chance to cause or hasten the breakdown
of industrial society, and this motivates him in his grisly work.

The document is also the product of a limited and tunnel-visioned man, with
a careful and dogged but somewhat incoherent mind, filled with a catalogue
of longstanding prejudices and hatreds, academically trained, occasionally
inventive, purposeful and humorless. He is amoral, not to say coldblooded,
about acts of terrorism, which are regarded as an effective tactic in
service to the larger cause. He is convinced enough in his cause to have
produced this long justification for it, complete with numerous bold
assertions and his own "principles of history," but he repeatedly finds
qualifications and reservations and indeed ends up calling the article no
more "than a crude approximation to the truth," as if to suggest that
somewhere within he is not quite confident

All in all, I think despite its flaws it is a document worth publishing, and
not only because that could presumably help stop the killing. There is a
crucial message at the core of it for those with fortitude enough to get
through it, and unless that message is somehow heeded and acted on we are
truly a doomed society hurtling toward a catastrophic breakdown.

Kirkpatrick Sale, a Nation contributing editor, is the author, most
recently, of Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the
Industrial Revolution (Addison-Wesley).
Excerpted with permission from The Nation, September 25, 1995. Copyright
1995, The Nation Co., L.P. All rights reserved.

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(1) The "a" stands for "airline" because one early target was an airline
executive, but I remain unconvinced that this was a genuine Unabomber
victim. I'd render him "Unibomber," considering nine of the sixteen bombs
were aimed at university targets or professors.

(2) The F.B.I. has leaked the idea that the Unabomber is really Leo
Frederick Burt, one of the "New Year's Gang" that bombed the Army Math
Research Center at the University of Wisconsin in August 1970 and who has
been a fugitive ever since. If so, he probably was steeped beyond human
endurance in the kind of fractious sectarian stews aboiling in those days
and comes by his dislike of what he thinks is leftism legitimately.

(3) Oddly, the Unabomber's antipathy toward technology is more in the
abstract than the particular. He actually likes certain
technologies--"electricity, indoor plumbing, rapid long-distance could one argue against any of these things?"-- and
argues that revolutionaries should use "some modern technology."

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