Thoughts on the Unabomber's philosophy and sociology

Having recently read “Industrial society and its future”, I’d like to discuss Kaczynski’s diagnosis of the problem of industrial society in its psychological and anthropological perspectives. Irrespective of agreement with his proposed remedy, do you agree with his diagnosis of the problem or with some of his descriptions of human psychology and anthropology?
I will summarize his diagnosis while adding a minimum of commentary. I will skip over his description of what he calls leftism and his proposed remedy because mixing those with the diagnosis and psychological and anthropological descriptions would muddy the discussion. I ask that the moderators leave this thread in IMHO and not put it in GD because what I want is opinions on psychology and anthropology rather than arguments about the evils of capitalism (which would miss the point entirely) from people eager to engage in axe grinding during a recession.
Kaczynski provides an illustration which encapsulates his argument:
“Suppose Mr. A is playing chess with Mr. B. Mr. C, a Grand Master, is looking over Mr. A’s shoulder. Mr. A of course wants to win his game, so if Mr. C points out a good move for him to make, he is doing Mr. A a favor. But suppose now that Mr. C tells Mr. A how to make ALL of his moves. In each particular instance he does Mr. A a favor by showing him his best move, but by making ALL of his moves for him he spoils his game, since there is not point in Mr. A’s playing the game at all if someone else makes all his moves. The situation of modern man is analogous to that of Mr. A. The system makes an individual’s life easier for him in innumerable ways, but in doing so it deprives him of control over his own fate.”
Kaczynski is not against all technology. He draws a distinction between small-scale tech and organization-dependent tech. Small-scale tech can be used by individuals or small-scale communities without outside assistance. For example, just about any medieval craftsman could build a water wheel. Organization-dependent tech requires large-scale organization and standardization. For example, refrigerators would not be worth it if it were not for interchangeable parts, the availability of certain gases, electricity and wiring. All those technologies require large organization and standardization of human action.

An industrial society requires the cooperation of large numbers of people. The larger and more complex the organization, the more decisions must be made for the organization as a whole. For example, if one wants to make a computer, all workers must make it in the same way according to specifications drawn up at the company or industry level. All the inputs must be regular otherwise the computers will be unacceptably unreliable. Decision making must be taken from small group and individuals and given to large organizations.

Why is this negative? Because large-scale organizations and the affluence that came with industrialization have disrupted individual autonomy and the power process, a central psychological need detailed below.

Kaczynski defines autonomy as efforts undertaken by one’s own initiative, direction and control. When decisions are made by the individual or a small-scale organization which the individual can influence, the individual has power over the circumstances of his own life which satisfies his need for autonomy. Since industrialization, life has become greatly regimented by large organizations because it’s required for the proper functioning of industrial society and because the means of control by large organizations have become more effective. It’s true that before industrialization, nature imposed limits on man but limits imposed by nature itself are not a source of frustration of the need for autonomy.

The power process consists in autonomously choosing a goal, making an effort to reach it and having a good rate of success. Kaczynski splits human drives into three categories; Drives that can be satisfied with minimal effort, drives that can be satisfied with significant effort and drives that have no realistic chance of being satisfied no matter how much effort is exerted. The first category leads to boredom. The third category leads to frustration, low self-esteem, depression and defeatism. The power process is satisfied by the second category.

Yet industrial society pushes most goals into the first and third category for most people. Goals become either trivially easy or nigh impossible. For example, for most people, having enough to live requires little effort. Even when it requires effort, most have very little autonomy in their job. Industrial society also creates disruptions and dangers which are beyond the control of individuals and small groups.

The way most cope is by taking on surrogate activities. These are artificial goals pursued not for their own sake but for the sake of fulfillment. In other words, instead of hunting to eat and feeling fulfillment at having succeeded, someone collects stamps to feel fulfilled. Even if pursued autonomously, these artificial goals often fail to bring fulfillment.

By reducing the ability to autonomously exert significant effort to achieving real goals, industrial society has greatly hindered the individual’s ability to satisfy his power process. This leads to modern man’s unhappiness.

Here is the PDF if you want to read the whole thing:

Except that most people who lived in pre-industrial societies were subsistence farmers, barely able to get by, and with less control over their lives than your typical factory worker. Infant mortality was high, as was death in childbirth. Anyone who thinks you can pick and choose only the “right” technologies doesn’t understand how technology or the human mind works.

Having said that, it is certainly true that we humans did not evolve, emotionally, to live in industrial societies. Alienation and loneliness can easily arise when interpersonal relationships dissolve in a modern society where people are not interdependent on a personal level. But the solution to that is to create interpersonal relationships that are fulfilling and enjoyable. Most people are able to do that without figuring they need to kill other people in order to remake the world into some fantasy version of reality.

Speaking as someone who just had a knee replaced, " . . . limits imposed by nature itself are not a source of frustration of the need for autonomy" is rubbish. My autonomy was very much frustrated. When standing up and taking three steps to the printer is a painful drag, when making it to the bathroom in time becomes a major challenge, one’s ability to set and meet goals becomes a tad challenged.

And if you’re low tech and personifying nature, you’ll react psychologically as if you were abused by a massive industrial system.

Fascinating topic. I remember printing out the entire text a few years ago and becoming engrossed in TK’s rationale and analysis (my girlfriend was not too happy about seeing the document on the couch!).

Fundamentally I think his analyses of autonomy and deprivation of control over one’s fate are spot-on. The concept of a power process as Kacyznski sees it is interesting to compare to the Nietzschean concept of “Will to power”; on one level Nietzsche might critique TK’s analysis by saying that humans who have attained basic sustenance and safety through minimal effort still strive for power (domination and acquisition) , which is an innate, driving force. But certainly I agree that “surrogate activities” cannot create true fulfillment and satisfaction for most people. I would add that the modern man is no longer recognized or valued for his work in a communal sense (even if well-paid or appreciated by family)- he is devalued as a consequence of living in a industrial world of production systems and institutions.

In a nod to Viktor Frankl, I will say that man’s search for meaning and the pursuit of a deeper peace or purpose can perhaps overcome the malaise of the those in the first category (those who have put trivial effort towards primary goals), although perhaps for only a fraction of the population.

Anyway, I need to give this some good thought and reflection to craft a true response that makes sense…

All this time I thought the Unabomber was just some anti-social fruitcake who went even more loony toons and blew up a bunch of people. Am I to believe that his actions had philosophical underpinnings and that these ideas, while monstrously implemented, were rational enough to be worthy of a deep discussion?

You can be both smart and fucking nuts. He went to Harvard at age 16, earned a math PhD from University of Michigan after that, and was a professor at UC-Berkeley by his mid-20s.

It probably didn’t help that at Harvard, he participated in a brutal psych experiment that seems to have been designed to help study things like military interrogation and resisting brainwashing. Kaczynski (and various others who were subjected to this mistreatment) reported serious emotional issues afterwards. If there was a genetic or other predisposition to schizophrenia or similar illnesses, which often emerge in young adulthood, that certainly could have contributed to how he chose to act afterwards.

Yeah, I’m aware of that. I just didn’t know he was smart. I knew he wrote stuff but I had assumed it was all crazy drivel, not something actually worthy of discussion.

Well, I wouldn’t vouch for any of the conclusions he drew in the work, especially the “A-OK and not at all crazy to kill lots of people, no matter what others say”* one, but he did do a crapload of reading on philosophy/sociology, studied logic in college, etc.

  • “I intend to start killing people. If I am successful at this, it is possible that, when I am caught (not alive, I fervently hope!) there will be some speculation in the news media as to my motives for killing… If some speculation occurs, they are bound to make me out to be a sickie, and to ascribe to me motives of a sordid or “sick” type. Of course, the term “sick” in such a context represents a value judgment…” -

[Quote from]
( one of his journals

The Atlantic article Ferret Herder linked to above is a very good article indeed.

As for the questions posed in the OP - hasn’t it always been thus for the vast majority of people? I’m in general agreement with ecoaster.


I think this is ahistorical nonsense. Plenty of pre-industrial societies, from the Pharaohs to the medieval Church, imposed tight man-made organizational controls upon their populace. Industrialization has vastly increased the autonomy of the individual by any measure – education, travel, disposable income.

As I see it, a big part of the very notion that an ordinary person has autonomy and self-worth only came about as a result of industrialization. Pre-industrial societies tend more toward a cyclical outlook on life, that the next year and the next generation will be much like the current one, because by and large that was true. Without the idea of progress at a societal level, there’s less impetus toward an idea of personal growth.

To the extent that modern society breeds alienation and anomie, I would argue that it does so by fostering autonomy, rather than by restricting it. Pre-industrial people didn’t have options; mostly, they lived the lives that they were born to, and if they wondered what life was like in the next valley over, they could conclude (correctly) that it was probably very much like their own. In modern society, you have choices and you know it, so every time you pick a direction for your life, part of you may be left wondering whether that was the best option, or whether you’d be happier in a different career or different city. It’s the problem that some people have with the TV remote, writ large: If you settle on one program, you may be missing something better on a different station.

Kaczynski fled this fear of choices essentially by imagining them away in his philosophy. Ironically, he made his philosophy a reality in his own life, having ceded all effective control over his choices to the state for the rest of his life.

Exactly. Those pre-industrial people had neither the time nor luxury to fret about how miserable they were.

-Since bombing people depreives of them of the right to life, the actions of the unabomber are highly suspect. His politics are another story all togther.

Gee, do you think?

ISTM that this is an argument that technology leads to more autonomy, not less. As pointed out in this thread, in a pre-industrialist society you spend a lot of your time trying not to die. Technology frees you from that. So you have time and energy to spare for doing things you want - I kind of doubt a subsistence farmer in 14-century China worked an eight hour day so he had time for his hobbies.

I don’t see why this should be the case. Why is it less frustrating to say “I gotta plant wheat with a digging stick, and if it doesn’t rain my children will starve” that to say “my job processing insurance claims doesn’t fulfill my need for inner autonomy”?

Crazy people have crazy thoughts. Smart crazy people have crazy thoughts, but the justifications are more elaborate.

Poor bastard, sitting in his shack in the mountains putting together bombs and thinking everyone else was as miserable as he was.


One of Kaczynski’s few possessions was a well-worn and heavily underlined copy of Al Gore’s “Earth in the Balance”.

Here’s a quick little quiz comparing some of their statements:
Did Al Gore say it? Or was it the Unabomber?

I got 67%. I guess I know my delusional environmentalist whackballs better than I thought.

The Unabomber too.


“You think Einstein walked around thinkin’ everyone was a bunch of dumb shits? Now you know why he built that bomb.”
I always wonder if people like the Unibomber or that guy who shot up that movie theater see the entire world the way we see a bunch of dumbasses lighting themselves on fire and jumping off the roof so they can put it on YouTube.

Emotionally we are not really designed for the society we live in, and I can see TKs point that technology makes goals too easy, so we fill our lives with meaningless things to fill the time.

I haven’t read his entire manifesto, just parts of it. However what we fill our lives with isn’t always meaningless. Children spend the first 18-24 years of their lives being educated instead of working in a field. Adults spend the last 20 years of their lives retired instead of working when work is too painful to physically continue doing. Things like education are a noble pursuit of our free time. So are self improvement (physical and psychological). So is giving back to society or your family. There are meaningful outlets out there, it isn’t all stamp collecting.

Even if life had more meaning if the means of my survival were in my own hands (hunting my own food, etc) that doesn’t mean I want that life. Considering how much higher the rates of violence and death are in hunter gatherer societies (something like 20% of males die from violence in some cultures), it is a good trade off. It is like pouring alcohol into a wound, the drawbacks of instant pain are minor compared to the benefits of stopping an infection. I will take a life of boredom, perceived powerlessness and ennui in exchange for living in a safe, fairly non-violent, medical society.

Yes, agreed.

My belief is that basically humans are hardwired to make decisions primarily for survival. For much of human history people lived a cognitively simpler life, if you will. There were basic and limited decisions they had to make about food, shelter and security. People may not have been autonomous in the way we think of it, but even a serf had to rely on his own hard labor to ensure survival. I think that is what TK is getting at- autonomy is not really about having unlimited decisions, its about being connected to a small-scale systems that ensure survival.

I think as a consequence of easier living we have become more inward (internal) and cognitively more active: bombarded by thoughts, anxieties, choices, comparisons and doubts that did not plague people centuries ago. We are more stimulated by outside information, though almost all of it is totally meaningless to our basic survival. We lack a natural balance in some sense, although it seems perfectly reasonable to me that meaning and purpose and work can coexist for people (just not most people).

I skimmed the manifesto years ago. What I came away with was a relentless focus on the self as the motivator for all things.

This might just mean it was the work of a sociopath, or it might actually be truer than we sometimes care to admit. How much of altruism is left once we rule out superego, self-delusion or a sublimated form of “what’s in it for me”?