A serial killer speaks out on corporate life.

There lives a murderer whose thoughts on the toxicity of corporate life are so close to my own that it leaves me deeply disturbed. I’m talking about the Unabomber, Theodore “Ted” Kaczynski.

If Kaczynski hadn’t used mail-bombs to publicize his denunciation of industrialism, I think he could’ve become a modern-day Thoreau and a tremendous benefactor of the middle-class. Instead, he’s spent the last twenty-one years in solitary confinement at ADX Florence—the federal supermax prison sometimes called the “Alcatraz of the Rockies”—and his philosophy is largely dismissed as the product of a deranged mind.

But is it? Read this quote from his infamous manifesto as released by the FBI in 1995: “Industrial Society and Its Future.”

“People vary in their susceptibility to advertising and marketing techniques. Some are so susceptible that, even if they make a great deal of money, they cannot satisfy their constant craving for the the shiny new toys that the marketing industry dangles before their eyes. So they always feel hard-pressed financially even if their income is large, and their cravings are frustrated.” (Paragraph 80)

Sound crazy? Of course not…it’s a fundamental tenet of prudent money management. Doesn’t disturb me one bit.

But here in this article I’ll present five excerpts from Kaczynski’s manifesto that DO disturb me. Maybe you’ll find them disturbing too. Either way, I’d love to hear your opinion.

TL;DR: my interpretation of his thesis.

In an industrialized society, people lack personally fulfilling goals to work towards because the “system” demands obedience to its own rules to suit its own ends. Consequently there’s no real freedom of choice and no real human fulfillment. To satisfy their drive for fulfillment, then, people turn to socially-condoned “surrogate” activities. And since such activities are unnatural manifestations of industrialization, the only path to fulfillment is a return to pre-industrialization, i.e., harmony with nature, through destruction of the system by revolution.

Quite the broadside across corporate America, yes?

Edit: I got a comment on this article, attached below, to the effect that “harmony with nature” means living without the benefit of any technology at all, especially with respect to weapons and medicine. But in fact Kaczynski didn’t live that way. He inhabited a self-built cabin with no utilities, kept his monetary usage to a minimum, wore simple yet durable clothing, read books, etc. From all appearances his was an environmentally responsible lifestyle rather than a submission to primitivity.

And again, I don’t find that disturbing. Consider van-dwelling, tiny houses, and other forms of deliberate minimalism.

Quote #1: “Healthy” pursuits are actually symptoms of societal sickness.

“In modern industrial society only minimal effort is necessary to satisfy one’s physical needs. It is enough to go through a training program to acquire some petty technical skill, then come to work on time and exert the very modest effort needed to hold a job. The only requirements are a moderate amount of intelligence and, most of all, simple OBEDIENCE. If one has those, society takes care of one from cradle to grave…thus it is not surprising that modern society is full of surrogate activities. These include scientific work, athletic achievement, humanitarian work, artistic and literary creation, climbing the corporate ladder, acquisition of money and material goods far beyond the point at which they cease to give any additional physical satisfaction…” (Paragraph 40)

So given that materialism isn’t necessary for survival, it follows that science, art, and many other endeavors society considers good and even essential are only so to the extent that they serve as proxies–and poor substitutes–for natural living. And furthermore, since they feed the sickness of materialism, they’re doubly toxic.

This made the most sense in conjunction with the next point, but damn, man…when the connection hit me it stung like a bitch.

Quote #2: “Quality of life” is likewise a symptom of a sick society.

“We suggest that modern man’s obsession with longevity, and with maintaining physical vigor and sexual attractiveness to an advanced age, is a symptom of unfulfillment resulting from deprivation with respect to the power process. The “mid-life crisis” also is such a symptom. So is the lack of interest in having children that is fairly common in modern society but almost unheard-of in primitive societies.” (Paragraph 74)

(By “power process” Kaczynski meant autonomy of choice in “goal, effort, and attainment of goal.” He discusses this concept at length in paragraphs 33-37.)

So is the pursuit of what we think of as “quality of life” really a result of lack of freedom? And how oxymoronic would THAT be? Is fulfillment what we’re really achieving, or are we only–to use a cliche–self-medicating?

In short, what if it’s impossible to live both longer and well? If so, which state would you choose?

Quote #3: In our efforts to decrease social sickness, we increase it.

“Therefore two tasks confront those who hate the servitude to which the industrial system is reducing the human race. First, we must work to heighten the social stresses within the system so as to increase the likelihood that it will break down or be weakened sufficiently so that a revolution against it becomes possible. Second, it is necessary to develop and propagate an ideology that opposes technology and the industrial system. Such an ideology can become the basis for a revolution against industrial society if and when the system becomes sufficiently weakened. And such an ideology will help to assure that, if and when industrial society breaks down, its remnants will be smashed beyond repair, so that the system cannot be reconstituted. The factories should be destroyed, technical books burned, etc.” (Paragraph 166)

I’ve long been aware that by encouraging people to escape from corporate America I’m deliberately increasing social stress—i.e., discontentedness with the present moment—and encouraging nonviolent resistance and/or revolution. This is the reason I call the financial independence/early retirement movement a “movement.”

What’s troubling me, here, is that maybe I’m not going far enough. Most workers will never be able to escape employment with any real degree of financial security. Sorry, friends…them’s the facts. So by focusing most on those who have a shot at financial freedom am I consigning everybody else to toxic circumstances? In other words, simply ignoring them in favor of a privileged few? And if so, how do I change my work to benefit the greater good?

I have to do some heavy thinking about that, especially in the context of the manifesto’s Note 23 concerning Paragraph 137:

Self-interest is not necessarily MATERIAL self-interest. It can consist in fulfillment of some psychological need, for example, by promoting one’s own ideology or religion.

So why am I blogging about my ideology in the first place, then? And for that matter, trying to monetize it? Is it OK to do both, or am I really only being selfish?

Quote #4: And with apologies to George Orwell, “Freedom is slavery.”

“Constitutional rights are useful up to a point, but they do not serve to guarantee much more than what might be called the bourgeois conception of freedom. According to the bourgeois conception, a “free” man is essentially an element of a social machine and has only a certain set of prescribed and delimited freedoms; freedoms that are designed to serve the needs of the social machine more than those of the individual.” (Paragraph 97)

Many already say this, of course, which brings to mind an observation from another social critic: Noam Chomsky. Although I can’t dig up the exact words just now, the gist is that the “freedom” we cherish is only the freedom to choose which system of private tyranny to live under, which is, of course, all too often corporate America. Some workplaces might be more permissive than others, but still, the difference is ultimately inconsequential.

And so what’s freedom, really, if it’s only freedom to decide who tells you what to do?

Quote #5: Finally, we raise our kids to be cogs in the machine.

As a father, this one gets to me the most.

“The system HAS TO force people to behave in ways that are increasingly remote from the natural pattern of human behavior. For example, the system needs scientists, mathematicians and engineers. It can’t function without them. So heavy pressure is put on children to excel in these fields. It isn’t natural for an adolescent human being to spend the bulk of his time sitting at a desk absorbed in study. A normal adolescent wants to spend his time in active contact with the real world. Among primitive peoples the things that children are trained to do tend to be in reasonable harmony with natural human impulses.” (Paragraph 115)

The worst way to degrade a people, I think, is to make its members the instrument of their own oppression. So I have to consider yet again–for the umpty-umpth time and at a very deep level–whether I’m raising my daughter the right way.

See…at age thirteen, she’s “successful.” She’s a straight-A student, a fine gymnast, and understands the basics of sound financial management. And yes, we encourage–and sometimes over-encourage–her to excel because she’s certainly capable of it. You might call that “helping her grow up,” but what does “grow up” mean in this context?

I wonder whether all I’m doing is teaching her to conform to the very system I worked so hard to escape by retiring so young. In trying to educate her, I may have coerced her into believing that success requires living within the rigid boundaries of a set of unhealthy values. Should I be doing that? And if so, what healthier values–if any–am I burning out of her?

One’s ability to turn time into money is a very poor measure of success. My daughter is somehow able to turn oxygen into love. And by that measure, she’s the most successful person I know. I hope she and her mother and I can work together can keep it that way.

In closing, make no mistake: the Unabomber’s a sick fuck.

But wisdom is where you find it…so if Kaczynski’s writing challenges us to reconsider our fundamental beliefs, isn’t that itself a form of wisdom? Know thyself?

I’m therefore, as I said, all kinds of conflicted this morning…which means I should slam this laptop shut and go for a long run to clear my head. Catch you later.

Author: ER Dude

Sick of your job? After a thirteen-year career, Early Retirement Dude fled corporate America for good. You can do it too! Visit http://EarlyRetirementDude.com or email EarlyRetirementDude@gmail.com.

11 thoughts

  1. Interesting points, and however I can accept some of his statements, I cannot step over the method he wants to fix the situation. I agree that the way the “system” works is wrong on so many levels, but don’t forget that it is a system built from human beings and the dysfunction and weird behavior driven by their sick minds (just like Unabomber’s) which works the very unnatural way is what infects the whole system.
    I think science and technology are the greatest things human race achieved and these are the solutions too. It is a different question how do we use these resources. A stick of dynamite itself is not evil, the man who uses it to blow up other people is. But I truly believe there is a right way for that, which could bring us closer to the “garden of Eden”.

    1. >don’t forget that it is a system built from human beings

      I think you’re right. However much his philosophy might’ve centered on “human fulfillment,” Kaczynski seemed to view his victims as symbols and publicity tools rather than human beings. Not what you’d do if you were truly operating from compassion.

  2. Wow this is a really interesting point that dovetails nicely with Tim O’Reilly’s new book, ‘WTF’ (around chapter 12 where he suggests ‘the market’ has a lot of the characteristics of an unfriendly AI).

    There is one thing that jumps out in many of the quotes you picked — the unabomber keeps referring to the ‘natural state’ of humans. That smacks of the natural fallacy to me — arsenic is natural but that doesn’t mean it is good for you.

    I think science, technology, philosophy, the arts, etc. are ways we become more than we ever have been before. What they have give us sure beats losing everything (likely even your life) to a bigger, stronger guy when he comes by with a sword.

    1. See my reply to Alex, above. But:

      >a bigger, stronger guy when he comes by with a sword.

      sounds totally Hobbesian. I’m not sure how Kaczynski would’ve dealt, or did deal, with Hobbes’s dilemma between the “unaccountable sovereign” and the “state of nature.”

  3. The main problem with arguments like this where they’re basically saying we should go back to a simpler time (or back to nature) is it seems like they forget that life was a lot worse then. People had to worry about food, disease, predators, the elements, etc. back when we lived with “nature.” I’d much rather deal with my first world problems than those problems. It just seems to me that we’d be moving from the system of corporations to the system of nature. They’re both systems.

    No system is ever going to be perfect. Our system is better not because it doesn’t have problems, but because it has better problems.

    1. >they forget that life was a lot worse then

      This gets back to the “What’s a life well lived?” question to which there’s no single answer. Seems like Kaczynski is saying, “At least I don’t have to sit in a box all day,” while you’re saying, “At least I don’t have intestinal parasites.” I think his point wasn’t so much reverting to a, quote, primitive life, as an autonomous one. He wasn’t dogging technology as much as industrialization. Guy lived in a cabin and used public libraries, for instance.

      As far as “better problems”…I could see us sitting down in some comfortable bar somewhere and having that discussion/debate over MANY beers. 🙂

  4. Heavy stuff.
    My wife’s Japanese and it sometimes feels like “conforming” to society is in her genes. To a point that I have to be the non-conformist parent, which sometimes brings conflict in the couple.

    So, the last part of the article really hit home with me. I want to raise my kids with enough tools to question established rules

    1. Thanks for sharing.

      >I want to raise my kids with enough tools to question established rules

      Raising them to be independent thinkers is tough, isn’t it? Especially, I think, when they see the opposite behavior in us–the blind acceptance of things that don’t appear sensible to them but we nonetheless do because it’s “the way things are done.”

  5. Wild read….I think of the Unibomber as the original Minimalists, except he didn’t have a blog available to share his thoughts (or another dude to drive around the country with in a Toyota Corolla). You know what they say able idle minds/hands….

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