Beyond the Fragments: A Reaction to Industrial Society and Its Future
Two polar positions have been assumed by most commentators on ‘the Unabomber’, even within the anarchist milieu. On the one hand, there is the predictable ‘fluffy’ repudiation of violence. On the other hand, there is a romanticization of the bomber(s) as outlaw hero(es — never -ines). Both responses are in error. The first can be rejected out of hand as just another symptom of bourgeois playacting at being revolutionary, all the more irritating when it is accompanied by praise of violent activity in other times and other places. The second is more problematic because ‘the Unabomber’ does raise a crucial issue of our time: the urgent necessity of outright assault on the industrial system. Rather, however, than appraise the acts of ‘the Unabomber’ (which others can do much better), this essay focuses on something more tangible: the ‘Unabomber’ manifesto, Industrial Society and Its Future. If the following discussion remains largely critical of FC, this is due, not to any condemnation of the bombings, but to a question of ideological motivation. Emma Goldman refused to condemn Leon Czolgosz when he assassinated President McKinlay, even though was suspicious of his motivations and disagreed with his action, and this seems like an admirable anarchist example — even in the present instance, when I offer critical support for FC’s acts. But FC, unlike Czolgosz, act from a set of formulated principles, and these demand scrutiny. This essay questions FC’s commitment to anti-authoritarian radicalism and thus is intended to give pause for thought to those who would lend uncritical support to ‘the Unabomber’.
Introduction: Bomb culture
Baudrillard asserts that the explosion of the terrorist’s bomb causes an implosion of meaning, a gaping hole in the social fabric that power frantically seeks to cover in order to restore the tyranny of meaning. If this is correct, then Industrial Society and Its Future is unwittingly on the side of power.
On reading FC’s text, I feel, not disgust, horror or outrage, but disappointment. Given the opportunity, on a national or even international platform, to express at length a damning critique of the totality and pose a radical alternative, FC fail miserably. As other commentators indicate, the acts of FC are not unethical: they are scandalous, yet inadequate. But the words of FC are worse — they are inept. In place of critique, in place of vision, FC offers more dreary ideology. When rebel words are needed, FC gives tawdry tag-ends from the shopworn ideas of pop culture. Silence might have been better. In this instance, acts might have spoken louder than words. The acts may have been insufficient, but they do not need the apology of Industrial Society and Its Future.
Scattered among the garbage, the careful examiner can find some gems in FC’s text, although they need to be carefully disentangled from the ideational debris, the detritus of this system of institutionalised misery. The essays ‘Whose Unabomber?’ and ‘Letter Bombs and Fixed Ideas’, reproduced elsewhere in this volume, ably undertake this scavenging, and I do not intend to replicate their work. Rather, focusing largely on theses 180–206 of Industrial Society and Its Future, which concentrate on issues of strategy, I will intend to move discussion beyond the fragments of FC’s explosions.
Ideology and strategy
Like the Leftists critiqued in the opening theses of the manifesto, FC have little to offer except ideology. Summarising their attitude toward social change, they state (Thesis 166):
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 society if and when the system becomes sufficiently weakened.
The notion of ‘social stresses’ is ambivalent, but in the context of FC’s actions it presumably refers (in part) to the letter bombs for which they are notorious. The problem with such a notion is that capital, in such a state of perpetual crisis, feeds on social stress, and power uses such stress as a way of reinforcing its controls — particularly in the present era, where socio-economic restructurations daily usher in a new form of democratic managerialist totalitarianism. Increasing such ‘social stresses’, in the absense of any radical alternative, thus plays into the hands of the control complex. But the only ‘alternative’ offered by FC is more of the same — just a different brand of ideology (Thesis 183):
But an ideology, in order to gain enthusiastic support, must have a positive ideal as well as a negative one; it must be FOR something as well as AGAINST something. The positive ideal that we propose is Nature. That is, WILD nature; those aspects of the functioning of the Earth and its living things that are independent of human management and free of human interference and control. And with wild nature we include human nature, by which we mean those aspects of the functioning of the human individual that are not subject to regulation by organized society but are products of chance, or free will or God (depending on your religious or philosophical opinions).
Nature — and particularly wild nature — is of course an ideological construct and one cannot escape from the clutches of ideology by posing ‘nature’ — a relatively recent concept in human thought — over and against culture. Here, FC just repeats the mistakes of deep ecologist biocentrists and the older philosophical errors of Rousseau. Moreover, at this advanced stage in civilisation’s trajectory, it is rather too late to take of human nature. Human ‘nature’ has been lost, compromised by civilisation’s restructurings of the human, and we can no longer determine what the natural behaviour of human beings might be. Human beings can only now consciously choose to go wild: such a condition is no longer spontaneous ‘second nature’. The tiger (for example) does not need to think about acting ‘naturally’, it just does. For humans, going wild means consciously choosing to imitate which behaviours of one or another animal species which are coded as ‘wild’ in the dominant ideological system. Such an action is not an escape from civilisation, but a further binding into its categories. Nature (or wilderness) is at best a metaphor for certain qualities that are regarded as valuable — and this is how FC uses it. But it is a very suspect metaphor, precisely because it is a product of civilization’s ideological categories, not an opponent of them.
This becomes all the more clear when FC proceed to outline the target for this ideology(Theses 187, 188):
On the more sophisticated level the ideology should address itself to people who are intelligent, thoughtful and rational. The object should be to create a core of people who will be opposed to the industrial system on a rational, thought-out basis, with full appreciation of the problems and ambiguities involved, and of the price that has to be paid for getting rid of the system. It is particularly important to attract people of this type, as they are capable people and will be instrumental in influencing others .... On a second level, the ideology should be propagated in a simplified form that will enable the unthinking majority to see the conflict of technology vs. nature in unambiguous terms.
FC accept the hierarchical divisions of civilisation, rather than challenge them. And lurking beneath the overt distinction between thinking and unthinking or sophisticated and unsophisticated individuals is a barely concealed class agenda. FC share more in common with Leftists than they care to admit — hence perhaps the virulence of their (thoroughly justified) attack on the Left at the very beginning of the manifesto. Like the Left, FC are not only articulating a political ideology, and thus are already talking in terms of control structures and governance; they are also propounding a bourgeois ideology which aims at the continued subjugation of ‘the unthinking majority’. The asceticism, monomania and authoritarianism of the political vanguard cannot be far away, and it isn’t (Theses 200, 201, 206):
Until the industrial system has been thoroughly wrecked, the destruction of that system must be the revolutionaries’ ONLY goal. Other goals would distract attention from the main goal .... Suppose for example that revolutionaries took “social justice” as a goal. Human nature being what it is, social justice would not come about spontaneously; it would have to be enforced. In order to enforce it revolutionaries would have to retain central organization and control ... Not that we have anything against social justice, but it must not be allowed to interfere with the effort to get rid of the technological system .... With regard to revolutionary strategy, the only points on which we absolutely insist are that the single overriding goal must be the elimination of modern technology, and that no other goal can be allowed to compete with this one.
The shrill rhetoric and imperative language (’must be the revolutionaries’ ONLY goal’, ‘must not be allowed’, ‘we absolutely insist’, ‘no other goal can be allowed’) indicate the presence of an authoritarian politics. This mixture of arrogance and myopia is just as likely to result in totalitarianism as in a world of self-realization and self-enjoyment. Social justice — — i.e., equitable treatment within the current system of dominance — remains a very limited goal. But even social justice is rendered subordinate to the destruction of the industrial system: even minimal impulses toward human liberation must not be permitted to ‘interfere’ or ‘compete’ with ‘the single overriding goal’ of eliminating modern technology. And such is the bad faith of FC that despite their earlier assertion of spontaneity and ‘wild nature’ as an oppositional ideological position, they now reveal their cynicism, referring to human nature as a fixed category (’human nature being what it is’) as a justification for an inevitable need for post-revolutionary ‘central organization and control’. Just as women were told by Leftists that ‘after the revolution’ women’s issues would be addressed, so after the anti-industrial revolution, social justice issues might (not even will) be ‘fixed’ — no doubt by the same central committee!
The drums and the spears
Leaving aside the plainly absurd and often reactionary elements of Industrial Society and Its Future (such as the notion that (Thesis 204)),
Revolutionaries should have as many children as they can. There is strong scientific evidence that social attitudes are to a significant extent inherited
this is the essence of FC’s strategies for change. The fact that these strategic considerations are framed in terms of an authoritarian, political discourse (’revolutionary strategy’) is telling in itself. It suggests that at least in the manifesto, FC have nothing new, no radical alternative to offer. Although they rightly pose the necessity for the destruction of the industrial system, they fail to situate this aim as part of a wider project of human regeneration through negation of the totality. And in the absence of such a contextualisation, their ideas are recuperated by the lure of authoritarian politics. Their ideological emphasis, and hence ideological bankruptcy, merely reflects the bankruptcy of the social formulation of which their ideology is a product.
To put it bluntly, at best FC have got things arse-backwards. Human regeneration can only emerge from cultural regeneration. (By ‘cultural’ I mean not the system of commodified mediations that currently pass under this term, but freely chosen actions and interactions characterised by spontaneous creativity). The attempt to prompt human regeneration in the absense of cultural regeneration can all too easily result in totalitarianism. Human and cultural regeneration are dialectically interrelated, but the latter provides the all-important context within which the former can succeed.
Fredy Perlman, talking of indigenous resistance to civilisation, says (Against His-story, Against Leviathan!, 258):
The resistance is not primarily a clash of arms ... The resistance is in the drums, not in the spears; it is in the music, in the rhythms lived by communities whose myths and ways continue to nurture and sustain them
This passage raises the question of the relationship between drums and spears, culture and armed resistance. but we are not in the position of these indigenes: civilisation has deprived us of those things that Perlman sees as the heart of resistance. We have no free communities of individuals, no life-sustaining myths and ways, no substantive community. So we cannot resist in the same way. We have no drums, and so FC suggest that we should just use the spears. Perlman indicates that this just leads to more war machines, more control systems. So what options are left?
Clearly, for us, there must be a closer, more informed relationship between the drums and the spears, even if the latter are subordinate to the former. But to forego the spears would be madness. The spears must have their place — but their place remains rooted in the world of the drums. And if the drums no longer sound, then we must beat them. And if we have no drums, we must build them. And if we’ve forgotten how to play them, we must remember or learn again. And if we can’t renew our continuity with the past, then we must make a virtue of our discontinuity and make it all anew.
Anarchists can best show their solidarity with the flawed if historically significant interventions of ‘the Unabomber’ by reformulating FC’s anti-industrial insurgency in radical anti-authoritarian terms — i.e., by advancing the insurrectionary project through direct actions and regenerative projects aimed at abolishing power in its totality.