The Unabomber & the Plague of Anti-Politics

The Unabomber phenomenon shows how easy it is for crazedindividuals or small cults to strike fear into the heart of modern urban society. There are times when our dependency on sophisticated technology -- not to mention our global interconnections -- makes us frighteningly vulnerable to sinister forces that seem to be outside our control. We have seen it in the bombings of the World Trade Center in New York and the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the nerve-gas attacks in Japan by Aum Supreme Truth, and the myriad hijackings, bombings, and death threats by terrorist groups around the world. And we see it in the Unabomber, a skillful builder of explosive devices aimed at individuals who has hit 26 of these targets (killing three) since 1978. In the tradition of such terrorism, the Unabomber reflects the desperate, ultimately futile lashing out at hated symbols by people who feel isolated and powerless to influence the course of events. While it's impossible to analyze fully the psychological impulses of individual terrorists, we can probably assume that violent direct action generally provides a sense of catharsis and narcissistic self-expression that cannot be achieved through the mundane world of conventional politics. It may also give the terrorist a feeling of making history, especially if he or she receives plenty of media attention. More significantly, the Unabomber is yet another manifestation of a deep trend at work in late-20th Century American society: the flight from politics. We know that the Unabomber detests urban society and everything it stands for. We can also surmise that he cares very little about the prospects for real social change. His repeated assaults on individuals he regards as symbols of an oppressive technocratic order represent a form of childish rebellion that, if anything, will only solidify what he wants to overthrow. In his haste to transcend the messy, earthly realm of politics, the Unabomber shows his contempt for the public sphere and thereby makes himself impotent to fight those evils he describes in his "Manifesto." In the 35,000-word statement he sent to the New York Times and elsewhere, the Unabomber rails on about how urban life is eroding the foundations of human community, how science and technology are "permanently reducing human beings and many other living organisms to engineered products and mere cogs in the social machine," how industrialism is destroying "wild nature" and bringing us close to planetary destruction. He reserves special hostility for the "arrogance of modern science," with its elitist, manipulative approach to both human beings and the environment. None of this critique will come as earthshaking news to people in and around radical sectors of the ecology movement. Writers such as Murray Bookchin, E.E. Schumacher, Kirk Sale, and Dave Foreman, along with organizations like Earth First!, Greenpeace, and the Greens, have been laying out a thorough attack on industrialism for years. Nor is the Unabomber alone in his focus on the pernicious effects of technology, as any reader of Theodore Roszak, Rudolf Bahro, Jeremy Rifkin, or Neil Postman will know. Take the classic statement made by Bahro at a time when he was a leading figure in the German Greens: "I believe that human evolution began to go wrong with the English industrial revolution. I see exterminism as rooted in industrialism." These writers also advocate, in one form or another, a "revolution against the industrial system," though none of them to my knowledge has turned to making bombs. So the Unabomber is hardly alone in his stand against the perils of industrialism. And that stand is really not so far-fetched: we are on the road to environmental devastation unless we reverse our patterns of production and consumption, and soon. The Enlightenment has given us a dynamic paradigm -- social progress comes on the heels of industrial expansion made possible by the wonders of science and technology. But "progress" has turned out to be an ugly illusion insofar as our untrammeled power over nature has created economic systems that plunder the very biosphere we need for survival. Urban blight, deforestation, pollution of our air, water, soil, and food, worldwide diffusion of radiation, global warming, depletion of natural resources and arable land -- all of these constitute the dark side of the Enlightenment, the horrible price we've paid for "development." And sadly, because we endow science and technology with almost religious qualities, we instinctively look to these very causes of our predicament for a way out -- as if there were some magical shortcut to an ecologically balanced society. In truth, so long as multinational corporations rule the world, it's hard to imagine a purely technological solution to any pressing issue. As Kirk Sale points out in the July 5 issue of the Nation, industrialism tends to disrupt virtually everything in its wake. The growth mania of modern society creates not only ecological decay but also more crime, violence, corruption, disease, social dislocation, and anomie. It destroys community. In Sale's words, "An economy without any kind of ecological grounding will be as disregardful of the human members as the nonhuman, and its social as well as economic forms -- factories, tenements, cities, hierarchies -- will reflect that." If the Unabomber's hatred of technological society appears extreme, his views are really not that far removed from those of most of the authors and groups listed above. Of course, he offers no rational alternative, but then he is not alone in his failure to do so. It would be easy to lecture the Unabomber, as many have, about the evils of violent action. True enough, the killing and maiming of innocent people is a horrible, counterproductive deed. But let's not delude ourselves: violence is so deeply rooted in the American political tradition that we've come to take for granted the bombings, assassinations, death threats, and, above all, military interventions undertaken in the name of political values. Americans by the tens of millions watched the Gulf War on TV, celebrating the slaughter of 300,000 helpless Iraqis, many of them civilians, with displays of flags and yellow ribbons. Accordingly, the Unabomber no doubt is acting out of a sense of urgency and feels perfectly justified in what he's doing. (His constant use of the word "we" with regards to the "Freedom Club" in his communiques suggests a pallid attempt to legitimate his actions as part of a larger "movement.") The Unabomber must be condemned in political terms: he's a pathetic desperado caught up in the allure of primitive rebellion -- action lacking organization, ideology, a popular constituency, and a strategy for winning or influencing governmental power. It's possible to understand why frustrated dissidents might be driven toward this form of terrorism, given the fact that fundamental change within the public sphere seems hopeless, even when the terrorism is suicidal. But this is anti-politics nonetheless -- the combination of millenarial rejection of a despicable, unreformable status quo and a Luddite outburst against symbols of oppression by means of sabotage and violence. The Unabomber's desperado actions come from a profound, total rejection of the existing world and a passionate longing for a more perfect one: a communal order unfettered by the terrible mediating forces of science, technology, and bureaucracy. This outlook is bankrupt in two ways. There can be no leap backward into a mythic preindustrial past, and an agenda without politics is ultimately no agenda at all. The Unabomber in fact appears rather at peace with this state of affairs; catharsis, after all, can be an end in itself. Disavowing any connection with either the left or the right, he says, "We are apolitical. Politics only distracts attention from the real issue," which is technology and the "rule of elites." Indeed, the modus operandi chosen by the Unabomber has little in common with any recognizable leftist goals. Rosa Luxemburg addressed this same point 80 years ago when she observed that a truly popular revolution "requires no terror for its aims; it hates and despises killing. It does not need these weapons because it does not combat individuals but institutions, [and] it is not the desperate attempt of a minority to mold the world forcibly according to its ideal, but is the action of great massive millions of people." The Unabomber is surely correct about one thing: the industrial regime is getting stronger in the face of little mass resistance. And it's a pretty brutal regime, even if it lacks a totalitarian facade. But the retreat from politics, from any debates and struggles within the public sphere, will only ensure its survival. We need to expose the terrible costs and consequences of the industrial order in the hope of stimulating public debate and opposition. The desperado assaults of phantom bombers won't contribute to this process; if anything, they will only hinder it and play into the hands of the elites.

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