Craving for Crisis - Science, the Unabomber and Militant Anti-Liberalism


SUBJECT: Phenomenological Study

L. Kurt Engelhart





Development of new paradigms of thought cannot be explained exclusively by the occurrence of anomalies in ordinary experience. However, when unresolved anomalies produce rising tension in a thinking community, these tensions interacting with other factors can become the stimulus for paradigmatic revolution. A rising level of tension surrounding increasing and unresolved anomalies I am here calling a "craving for crisis." This paper describes a militant anti-liberal atmosphere reflected in reactionary behavior in sectors of the scientific community and specifically in the actions of the so-called Unabomber, as evidence of such tension-building in US culture. Subsequent papers will address prominent voices within the scientific community and discuss the possible significance of these arguments in US culture.

Introduction The Unabomber Manifesto Analytic Summary
Discussion of the Summary A World in Tension Efficacy of Revolution
Social Effects of Technology Social Effects of Liberalism Conclusion
References   Email





Although a well-reasoned argument is a necessary condition for the success of a worldview, it is not sufficient. Thomas Kuhn (1970) argues that converting "a significant group of respected members" (Aronowitz, 1988, p. 264) of the community to the new worldview is also necessary. The process of this conversion takes on the characteristics of a "fight," not between competing ideas, but between competing individuals, for the attentions of this significant group. Thus, the perceived competence (related to power) of the individual combatants, as much as the reasonableness of their respective ideas, opinions, and positions, determines the acceptability of the new worldview.

I argue here that a significant portion of the discourse emanating from the scientific community in this last decade of the twentieth century addresses a potential major change in worldview, and that the whole conversation includes elements of society far beyond the scientific community.

We are witnessing the slow, discontinuous breakup of the old worldview according to which physical science offers context-free knowledge of the external world, knowledge whose certainty may be posited as a cultural ideal to which other disciplines should strive. This ideal is by no means shattered. (Aronowitz, 1988, p. 265)

The crucial challenge in the ongoing debate is to the possibility of absolute truth. Its existence determines the social dispensation of power and privilege, and its loss will require new ways of thinking about everyday life.

This is the first of three papers that will inspect evidence of this phenomenon in recent discourse. The first paper concerns the document called The Unabomber Manifesto (Anonymous, 1995). The second paper will concern a text titled Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Gross & Levitt, 1994). Finally, in the third paper, I will discuss the import of these two sources and draw conclusions


The Unabomber Manifesto


This analysis will be an interpretation of the "Manifesto" text, using newspaper articles concerning the alleged Unabomber to supply hypothetical characteristics of the unknown author, and considering the circumstantial events that may have surrounded the text being written. Of interest here will be to place the author, as represented in the text, in relation to the scientific community, and to understand the author's logic and argument as they may apply to a hypothetical social debate over the nature of truth. Where the text is indeterminate or ambiguous on these issues, the reader must understand that the analysis will include some of my own projection. I believe my projection will be purposeful because I am myself, by virtue of experience and research focus, deeply involved in these issues.


Analytic Summary of the Manifesto


This summary was created by combing the Unabomber text for those unequivocal propositions that are the foundations for the argument. The references in parens are to the numbered paragraphs of the Manifesto. The words in brackets are my own, or the author's in a position I have chosen.


"Freedom means having power; not the power to control other people but the power to control the circumstances of one's own life.(94) [The alternative] is totalitarian force.(219) Society requires people to live under conditions radically different from those under which the human race evolved and to behave in ways that conflict with the patterns of behavior that the human race developed [earlier].(46) Modern man's fate depends on the actions of persons remote from him whose decisions he cannot influence.(114) The value of opportunity is destroyed by the very fact that society gives it.(76) Thus, in order to avoid serious psychological problems, a human being needs [autonomous] goals whose attainment requires [autonomous] effort, and he must have a reasonable rate of success in attaining his goals.(37, 42) What makes us feel secure is not so much objective security as a sense of confidence in our ability to take care of ourselves.(68)


"People do not consciously and rationally choose the form of their society.(106) Science and technology constitute a mass power movement [that necessarily restricts our freedom].(90,114) [Serious] questions are asked about the foundations of scientific knowledge and about how, if at all, the concept of objective reality can be defined.(18) Thus there is no stable framework.(49) [Those with power react to this instability with self serving and futile efforts to engineer and control it with technology, resulting in abuse.] [The powerful] will be forced to use every practical means of controlling human behavior.(150) [Since man can not be adjusted] to this new environment by artificial re-engineering, he will be adapted to it through a long and painful process of natural selection [in the form of social conflict].(178) The line of conflict should be drawn between the mass of the people and the power-holding elite of industrial society.(190) [The only relevant] social conflicts [are those that address] the conflicts of power, elite vs. ordinary people, technology vs. nature.(191) [In resisting technology,] we must distinguish between two kinds of technology: [useful] small-scale technology and [abusive] organization-dependent technology.(208)"



Discussion of the Summary


As I stated above, I have edited out propositions that are of questionable value in supporting the Unabomber's argument. However, this process has itself obscured one essential proposition that is crucial to this discussion: Unabomber believes the intolerable social conditions he describes are the result of a "leftist" movement motivated by what others might call "false consciousness" (see Aron, 1968, on Marx). This position seems enigmatic when coupled with the obvious liberalism of his own statements. I will argue that, although his intuitive grasp of social conditions is accurate, due to personal biases that are beyond the scope of this paper to explore, his conclusions concerning the causes of these conditions are mistaken. We will see, though, that the mistakes are themselves clues to more probable characteristics of a system that may, in the Unabomber's own terms, be producing the conditions he describes.


A World in Tension


Unabomber tells us that the form of enterprise on which world society is increasingly based is flawed from a fundamentally human perspective. Industrial-technological society is destabilized by placing too much emphasis on the interests of the powerful few at the expense of the powerless many. This is resulting in degradation of both people and nature. The symptoms of defeat by this system, feelings of inferiority and over-socialization, are the human responses to powerlessness on the one hand, and irrational support of authority on the other. The cause of defeat, disruption of human freedom, has resulted in frustration of personal accomplishment and preoccupation with technological progress. Humans are being denied essential autonomy in their lives and forced to assume artificial, surrogate, goals. These conditions therefore deny the "natural" human being as much as they do the "natural" environment in which the species has evolved to live.

Our artificial existence has become meaningless since our survival needs are satisfied by means out of our control and our development needs are either diverted to satisfy the needs of the system or rendered impossible to fulfill. Only the "reengineered" human can function, so our elite become biological and social engineers, forcing human behavior into inhuman, mechanical form, subordinate to the needs of the system.

The transition occurs as a rapid series of unplanned and unpredicted attempts to improve the system causing results over which we have no control. Attempts to reform the system only make matters worse. Technology is a more powerful force that seems always directly opposed to freedom, and is erroneously believed to enhance freedom. Only a revolution of all humans to overthrow the forces of industry and technology can effect desirable change in the system.

This is the picture Unabomber paints for us. He believes a critical mass of people are no longer willing to support the system. They see that the system no longer operates in their best interests and the system cannot operate without mass support. The system must either force people to support the system or change to support the masses on which it depends. Now, the system is attempting to produce the former, while Unabomber is encouraging the latter.

Unabomber is correct in believing he is not alone in feeling a strong anxiety over the current condition of society. The extent of the reading he has done on this condition has probably confirmed his feelings and motivated him to identify their source. A variety of analysts have noticed increasing tensions in the world that seem to be concerned with central control versus distributed control in social organization. Capitalism, long associated with industry and technology, may be the most powerful remaining force toward central control, and potential totalitarianism. Democracy is sometimes a simple euphemism for republic, or "elitist dictatorship." Economic freedom has come to mean a guarantee that the wealthy can use their resources any way they choose.


Efficacy of Revolution


Unabomber lays out for us some basic principles of history, showing that small changes have no appreciable effect on long term trends, and therefore advocating revolutionary changes. However, his third principle, "If a change is made that is large enough to alter permanently a long-term trend, then the consequences for the society as a whole cannot be predicted in advance," seems to preclude the possibility of any kind of revolutionary change being intentionally or predictably effective. This may be generally confirmed by the historical failures of anarchistic movements but specifically confirmed by the results of both the French and Russian revolutions. In the latter cases, the atavistic powers installed by revolutionary forces were eventually expelled to make way for more progressive stages of political structure. Violent revolution may have produced faster turnover of reactionary forces, but the evolution of society as a whole was not a result of conscious design and control by its members.

Revolutionary will is not synchronous with public opinion. Alexis de Tocqueville noted that revolutions occur after long-term trends toward change have become permanent. Revolution only becomes possible when it is no longer necessary.


Social Effects of Technology


Unabomber's distinction between two types of technology makes it clear that technology is not ultimately what is objectionable. The power of technology can be used and abused, and Unabomber objects to abuse of power. His ultimate, and classically liberal, objection is to totalitarian power that increases and consolidates centralized control through use of technology. We may infer that technology is intrinsically neither good nor bad and that its value is determined by the use to which the increased power is put. However, Unabomber has positioned himself as the enemy of totalitarianism, whatever its form. He has lost faith that totalitarianism can be successfully challenged in capitalist economies, especially on an intellectual level. He, and others, are terrified by prospects of helplessness in the face of tyranny and frustrated by the slow movement of public opinion on such matters.

Unabomber intends to give his life in the fight against institutionalized rights to exploit natural resources, including people, in the name of narrow self interest. This position may be unnecessarily extreme, considering the progress in countries all over the world to extend "human rights." In fact, awareness of this problem has become embedded in the human psyche (not universally, but increasingly) and advocates of human rights have successfully used technology to further the progress of democratic principles.

However, Unabomber fears collectivism because it has historically harbored totalitarianism. Yet to be against all collectivism is to also be against democracy, an untenable position. We may not have democracy, but some of us see very clearly what it is we want, and public opinion is very slowly swinging to support it. I believe evidence for this can be seen in the gradual shift of the source of legitimate authority from God (religious authority) to Nature (scientific authority) to People (collective authority).


Social Effects of Liberalism


I have mentioned the enigma of Unabomber's anti-liberal words coupled with his clearly liberal position. I believe I have shown the latter but the former, the anti-liberal, needs to be introduced.


"We argue that a very important and influential segment of the modern left is over-socialized and that their over-socialization is of great importance in determining the direction of modern leftism. Leftists of the over-socialized type tend to be intellectuals or members of the upper-middle class. Notice that university intellectuals constitute the most highly socialized segment of our society and also the most left-wing segment. (27) Some over-socialized leftists have gone so far as to rebel against one of modern society's most important principles by engaging in physical violence. By their own account, violence is for them a form of "liberation." In other words, they usually justify their rebellion in terms of mainstream values. (30)


"The leftist is anti-individualistic, pro-collectivist. He wants society to solve everyone's needs for them, take care of them. (16) Leftists tend to hate anything that has an image of being strong, good and successful. (15) Modern leftist philosophers tend to dismiss reason, science, objective reality and to insist that everything is culturally relative. They are deeply involved emotionally in their attack on truth and reality. For one thing, their attack is an outlet for hostility, and, to the extent that it is successful, it satisfies the drive for power. (18) He can feel strong only as a member of a large organization or a mass movement with which he identifies himself. (19) Notice the masochistic tendency of leftist tactics. Self-hatred is a leftist trait. (20)

"Leftism is totalitarian force. (219) Leftism is in the long run inconsistent with wild nature, with human freedom and with the elimination of modern technology. Leftism is collectivist; it seeks to bind together the entire world (both nature and the human race) into a unified whole. But this implies management of nature and of human life by organized society, and it requires advanced technology. (214) If leftism ever becomes dominant in society, so that the technological system becomes a tool in the hands of leftists, they will enthusiastically use it and promote its growth. (216) The leftist has a deep conviction that leftism is morally right, and that he has not only a right but a duty to impose leftist morality on everyone. (218)"


Unabomber is strong on the process by which liberalism converges with totalitarianism. I will forgive him for this skewed focus because, if he is actually Ted Kaczynski, he may be reacting to the authoritarian liberalism of his parents (Powers, p. M6; Who is Ted?, p. A10; Morgenthau, pp. 33-34; Gibbs, pp. 44-45; Thomas, April 15; Duffy, p. 34; Lacayo, p. 46). Even more likely, he is responding reasonably to Western reports of 70 years of (leftist?) Russian Communism. What he misses from this perspective is 1) that he is himself a liberal, by his own definitions, and 2) that conservatism can also converge with totalitarianism.

The Unabomber's own perspective is clearly collective. He sees himself as one of a society-wide group of individuals dedicated to a single goal. Also, it is easy to attribute to him the feelings of inferiority, powerlessness, and depression that he claims are characteristic of leftists. Isn't he a white male heterosexual middle-class university (ex-)professor? We can discount the secure employment and comfortable salary part based on special circumstances. Doesn't he tend to hate the current image of what is strong, good and successful? Doesn't he justify his drive to hostility and power by the illusion he is fighting for a cause? Isn't this same drive explained by masochism, the desire to identify with a mass movement, and over-socialization? These characteristics of leftists, in Unabomber's definition, seem to match his own behavior conclusively. Consequently we have to infer he is not really against liberalism.

Unabomber's enemy is totalitarianism, tyranny, and the abuse of power. The one regret he has is that he too is required to abuse power to get attention. "In order to get our message before the public with some chance of making a lasting impression, we've had to kill people." He doesn't seem to see that the people who have been his targets have been exclusively part of the conservative power structure. I am prepared to say he is confused on this issue. However, he has a lot of company. Fundamentalists across the country and even in other countries are pushing militantly for increased freedom against the increasingly draconian forces of centralized control. It is difficult to see these latter forces as anything but the ugly head of fascism, but what are the fundamentalists? Liberals?

For a picture of fascism, let's listen to Alfredo Rocco, Mussolini's Fascist Minister of Justice. For Rocco, the organic concept of the state gives to society a continuous life over and beyond the existence of the several individuals. . . . Instead of the liberal-democratic formula, "society for the individual," we have, "individuals for society. . . ." Fascism does not submerge the individual in the social group. It subordinates him but does not eliminate him. . . . [T]he development of individuals in each generation, when coordinated and harmonized, conditions the development and prosperity of the entire social unit. . . . For Fascism, society is the end, individuals the means, and its whole life consists in using individuals as instruments for its social ends. (Cohen, 1972, p. 323)

Now, doesn't that sound more like what the Unabomber is objecting to? In fact, these fundamentalist groups may themselves be fascist in their emulation of the absolute autonomy of a centrally controlled government. Maybe their confusion stems from local manifestations of their own philosophy writ large. Rocco says, "For Fascism, society has historical and immanent ends of preservation, expansion, improvement, quite distinct from those of the individuals which at a given moment compose it; so distinct in fact that they may even be in opposition" (Cohen, p. 323).




I am aware that my interpretation of these conditions and events has competition. For example, pacifists might explain the object of Unabomber's hatred as an addiction to violence and power shared by both the right and the left. Such explanations are inadequate for me because they require me to divide ordinary people into the super-good and the super-bad. I am looking for a systemic explanation rather than assigning blame.

At this point I am prepared to say that Unabomber's enemy, industrial-technological society, as well as the fundamentalist "freemen" who seem to be springing up all around, are all part of a common system, a fascist system. The Unabomber is different, he is liberal, and he is against what he perceives as a fascist society.

My next step will be to look at that society from the viewpoint of a couple of insiders. Part II will deal with the text, Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science (Gross & Levitt, 1994). Here two well established and contemporary (white, heterosexual?) university professors give a perspective that is relevant. In the final paper, Part III, I will discuss my overall conclusions.




Anonymous. (1995). The Unabomber Manifesto. [On-line]. Available: Internet

Aron, R. (1968). Howard, R. & Weaver, H. (Trans.), Main Currents In Sociological Thought - Volume I. New York: Doubleday.

Aronowitz, S. (1988). Science as Power: Discourse and Ideology in Modern Society. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bruni, F. (1996, April 4). Hunt was FBI's most frustrating. The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), pp. A1, A14.

Cohen, C. (1972). Communism, Fascism and Democracy: The theoretical foundations. New York: Random House.

Duffy, B. (1996, April 15). The mad bomber? U.S. News, Vol. 120 No. 15, 28-36.

Gabler, N. (1995, August 13). Outrageous leaps of illogic, Los Angeles Times, in The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), p. G1.

Gibbs, N. (1996, April 15). Tracking down the Unabomer. Time, Vol 147 No. 16, 38-46.

Greening, T.C. (1971). The psychological study of assassins, in W.J. Crotty (Ed.), Assassinations and the Political Order. New York: Harper & Row.

Gross, P.R. & Levitt, N. (1994). Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Isikoff, M. & Klaidman, D. (1996, April 22). A delicate balance. Newsweek, 34-38.

King, P. (1996, April 10). Unabomber Manifesto revisited. Los Angeles Times.

Klein, J. (1996, April 22). The Unabomer and the left. Newsweek, 39.

Kuhn, T.S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lacayo, R. (1996, April 22). A tale of two brothers. Time, Vol 147 No. 17, 44-50.

Morrow, L. (1996, April 15). The power of paranoia. Time, Vol 147 No. 16, 37.

Morganthau, T. (1996, April 15). Probing the mind of a killer. Newsweek, 30-36.

Powers, T. (1996, ?). Look back in anger. Opinion, M1-M6.

Robin, M. (1996, March 4). Progress, technology, and society according to Kirkpatrick Sale. Microtimes, 139-284.

Sale, K. (1996, April 8). 15 really big minutes of fame. Los Angeles Times.

Taylor, B. (1996, May 17). Ecologist to Unabomber? Los Angeles Times.

Thomas, E. (1996, April 15). The end of the road. Newsweek, 36-42.

Thomas, E. (1996, April 22). Blood brothers. Newsweek, 28-34.

Unabomber suspect seized. (1996, April 4). The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), pp. A1, A14.

Who is Ted? (1996, April 15). Los Angeles Times, in The Press Democrat (Santa Rosa, CA), pp. A1, A10.

Part II: Science and Militant Anti-Liberalism

Index of Essays

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