A conservative comedian of my acquaintance remarked to me recently, “I see New York Times editorial writer Ted Kaczynski has passed away.” This is a callback to one of the earliest reactions to the Unabomber’s famous manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future,” that led to his capture in 1996. The late Tony Snow of Fox News was the first to notice a number of striking—and embarrassing—similarities between the language of Kaczynski’s manifesto and Al Gore’s pretentious and cliché-ridden Earth in the Balance.
In other words, many arguments of the manifesto were entirely familiar and even conventional, which is why he could easily be confused for the rote-cliché writers of monotonous Times editorials. Today it could even be written by ChatGPT, which is maybe what drove Kaczynski to his reported suicide in prison. The eminent political scientist James Q. Wilson, whom Kaczynski cited in his manifesto, observed in 1998 that “his paper resembles something that a very good graduate student might have written based on his own reading rather than the course assignments. If it is the work of a madman, then the writings of many political philosophers—Jean Jacques Rousseau, Tom Paine, Karl Marx—are scarcely more sane.” But combined with the evidence that Kaczynski had corresponded with—and perhaps attended events of—environmental radicals such as Earth First, the image of the notorious Unabomber as a murderous eco-terrorist stuck, and stuck hard.
Thank the Earth Liberation Front.
A careful reading of his entire 35,000-word manifesto presents a more complicated picture, however, and one that in the end is more disturbing for what is missing from it, and hence the conclusions that should be drawn about him. And far from being a violent outlier, we ought to be concerned that the conditions that helped generate Kaczynski’s homicidal rage are more prevalent today than when Kaczynski formed his dark view of the world in the 1960s and 1970s.
It turns out that not very many people actually read the manifesto completely or carefully when it came out, and certain aspects of it read with prescience in the aftermath of Covid and the rising concerns about artificial intelligence and data privacy. Younger people who weren’t alive during the time of Kaczynski’s bombings today are coming to the manifesto with fresh eyes and discovering things they like about it. Suddenly there is a new chorus—including among some conservatives—who speak approvingly of being “Ted-pilled.”
It is startling to discover that Kaczynski’s strongest ire—aside from his primal hatred of industrial society—is for the left. His critique of and contempt for the left and especially the academic left, read in isolation, is one that easily matches any current conservative critic of wokeness and identity politics. Consider this passages from early in the manifesto:
Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. They hate America, they hate Western civilization, they hate white males, they hate rationality. The reasons that leftists give for hating the West, etc. clearly do not correspond with their real motives. They SAY they hate the West because it is warlike, imperialistic, sexist, ethnocentric and so forth, but where these same faults appear in socialist countries or in primitive cultures, the leftist finds excuses for them, or at best he GRUDGINGLY admits that they exist; whereas he ENTHUSIASTICALLY points out (and often greatly exaggerates) these faults where they appear in Western civilization. Thus it is clear that these faults are not the leftist’s real motive for hating America and the West. He hates America and the West because they are strong and successful.
Kaczynski goes on for 17 paragraphs in this vein, before returning at the close of his manifesto with another 19 long paragraphs denouncing the left again, calling leftism “a totalitarian force,” “a kind of religion,” whose thirst for power and domination are “dangerous.” The left is only obsessed with gaining and using power. He devotes just a single short paragraph to conservatives, dismissing them as “fools.”
They whine about the decay of traditional values, yet they enthusiastically support technological progress and economic growth. Apparently it never occurs to them that you can’t make rapid, drastic changes in the technology and economy of a society without causing rapid changes in all other aspects of the society as well, and that such rapid changes inevitably break down traditional values.
Maybe you should be.
Likewise Kaczynski’s image as a radical environmentalist becomes fuzzy on closer inspection. He viewed environmental extremists like Earth First as only potential allies—providing they eschewed leftist ideology, which he doubted they could do. He offers a sneering description that likely had people like Al Gore or John Kerry in mind, who he saw as “crypto-leftists,” having “some deep lack within him that makes it necessary for him to devote himself to a cause and immerse himself in a collectivity.” In another passage he dismisses out of hand the idea that a “Green” party electoral majority could succeed in doing what is necessary.
Why so much time devoted to attacking leftists, including environmentalists, who might seem Kaczynski’s natural allies against “the system”? Kaczynski must be understood as a radical revolutionary, but not a leftist revolutionary. At first glance he seems like a new-age Trotskyite: “The revolution must be international and world-wide. It cannot be carried out on a nation-by-nation basis.” But he was never bamboozled by the Frankfurt School’s fixation with culture, still less the orthodox Marxist obsession with means of production or economic class conflict, as the drivers of consciousness, history, political change, and power dynamics. He is scornful of “social justice,” and is uninterested in racial conflict. His target is not capitalism, but the industrial revolution as a whole.
Kaczynski’s preposterous claims that the industrial revolution has been a disaster for humanity, and that “factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc,” can be refuted by recalling a single New Yorker cartoon of two cave men sitting around a fire, with one wondering: “Something’s just not right—our air is clean, water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past thirty.” Whatever social problems and dislocations have occurred because of the industrial revolution, the gains to humanity are so overwhelmingly positive that there is little constituency, beyond nutty but noisy Luddite environmentalists, for turning it back.
"Mrs. Ludd" and the culture of despair.
Unlike environmentalists or small-is-beautiful romanticists, Kaczynski’s beef with technology is not with its impacts on the environment, but that modern science and technology are the dominant means of tyrannical rule. His views on technology are neither original nor wholly ill-founded. Several passages were prophetic of the authoritarian “science” we experienced with Covid; he worried about data harvesting of private information, and offered speculations that anticipated the current worries about the advance of artificial intelligence. He had a thorough grasp of the leading critiques of technology, and had even corresponded with Jacques Ellul, the French thinker who wrote one of the earliest critical analyses of the subject back in 1965, The Technological Society.
Ellul, however, never became an anti-technology radical. To the contrary, by the 1970s Ellul had become an evangelical Christian, and largely discarded his early fixation on the evils of technology. But Kaczynski became a homicidal fanatic, writing that “in order to get our message [Kaczynski wrote in the voice of the royal “we” throughout the manifesto] to the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we’ve had to kill people.”
Kaczynski’s violent revolutionary ethos was generated not by leftism, but nihilism. The almost droll embrace of killing brings to light what is conspicuously missing from his manifesto: any sense of ethics or a ground of morality that would both foreclose violence, or offer a pathway to putting technology in perspective and finding meaning in life, as Ellul’s religion did for him. If asked, Kaczynski would say any ethical or moral code was impossible in our technocracy because the premises of modern science have proven that there is no objective ground for morality or meaning.
This is the case Alston Chase made in his remarkable 2003 biography of Kaczynski, A Mind for Murder: The Education of the Unabomber and the Origins of Modern Terrorism. Chase’s thesis in one short sentence: Kaczinski was made at Harvard, where he was a student from 1958-1962, immediately after Chase had matriculated there. “The ‘Unabomber Manifesto’,” Chase wrote, “embodied ideas with which I was familiar. And virtually all of these ideas could be found in the lectures and reading that students encountered at Harvard and other liberal arts colleges during Kaczynski’s undergraduate years.”
Do you hear the people sing?
Chase notes that Kaczynski was raised an atheist by his liberal parents (his father committed suicide), and his brother, a Columbia graduate, was equally disaffected by American society. By the time Chase and Kaczynski arrived at Harvard, “the faculty had lost faith in the idea that morality was rational. . . Although no one noticed, the religion of reason was giving way to something one could call the culture of despair. . . He became a true believer in the scientific method and its philosophy, positivism, which allowed him to think that morality was meaningless. It was there that, by his own admission, his developing alienation bloomed into disillusionment with society.”
Beyond the broad issue of technology or specific issue of "climate change," the general point that our universities teach an unremitting dogma of nihilism means that the ground for creating future Kaczynskis is fertile indeed. An acquaintance of mine recently described attending his 45th Harvard reunion, where fellow classmates were all highly prosperous and mostly at the top of their professional fields. And all bitterly disaffected from racist, retrograde America. Kaczynski nailed it when he said leftists suffer from low self-esteem.
Chase, not known as an especially conservative or political writer, concluded his assessment of Kaczynski thus:
The crisis of reason was a loss of faith in what the Declaration of Independence called the 'self-evident' truths that individual rights and the legitimacy of government derived from 'the laws of nature.' By the 1950s, this belief had been undermined in academic circles especially (as we have seen) by the success of science and its companion philosophy, positivism. And this philosophy convinced many—including Kaczynski—that as only empirically verifiable statements are meaningful, moral and political beliefs, such as those expressed in the Declaration, being untestable, are non-rational as well. Government rests, they concluded, not on 'laws of nature' as the founding fathers supposed, but on power alone. By removing ethics from the equation, positivism laid the foundation for radical ideologies—including Kaczynski's—which preached that 'the system' was illegitimate and violent overthrow acceptable.
Would that it were so simple.
Finally, even though Kaczynski disdained environmentalists, his overall anti-technology, anti-Western civilization view does illuminate the innermost character of the environmental movement. Most environmentalists are not (yet) homicidal maniacs, but Kaczynski’s line of thought does illuminate the actions of Extinction Rebellion and other groups that are blocking highways and defacing artwork and monuments on behalf of the fanatical "climate change" crusade.
Kaczynski dogmatically embraced the view that technology can offer no solutions to any of our problems, climate or otherwise. This explains the fanatical resistance of climate activists to carbon-free nuclear power, carbon capture, and “geoengineering” proposals to deal with "climate change."
Conventional climate policy wonks mistakenly think the issue is about carbon emissions, and can’t comprehend why leading climate activists have come out hard against hydrogen as an energy source, even though it is the cleanest source imaginable. Leave aside the massive production difficulties that make it impractical for the moment; like other technological answers to the supposed crisis of "climate change," leading environmentalists oppose hydrogen power because it won’t roll back the industrial revolution. When the climate crusaders utter “de-growth,” you should take them at their word. If we don’t, it will only be matter of time before the bombing resumes.