Karl Marx and the Unibomber
Jude Wanniski
August 10, 1995

 

It came as quite a surprise when I opened the newspaper last Wednesday, read excerpts from the Unabomber's tract against technological advance, and found myself enormously impressed with his insights and his arguments. There is nothing quite like them in current political literature, and I was amused to see that the FBI has trudged off exactly in the wrong direction in attempting to trace his academic roots "showing the document to 50 to 60 academics who study the history of science and technology, psychology and sociology." None of these specialists can have any real appreciation of the Unabomber's anxieties about the course of civilization, but if Karl Marx were alive, he would know exactly what was going on. In the August 14 New Yorker, Daniel J. Kevles takes a stab in "E Pluribus Unabomber," making the obvious connection with the Luddites of North England, hand weavers who in 1811 and 1812 "rose up against the new machines that were displacing them; they smashed power looms and burned down textile mills. The authorities retaliated by making the destruction of machinery a capital crime." By 1813, twenty-four of their followers had been hanged. Kevles goes on to pigeonhole the Unabomber's "gauzy romanticism" for the myths of our pre-industrial past, although allowing that "There's a little of him in all of us."

There's actually a lot of him in most of us, a rage against the system that he has taken to a calculated extreme. Perhaps the Oklahoma mass bombing had something to do with the Unabomber's decision to surface his motives in such detail after 17 years of making his points with carefully selected bombings of individuals. Where we suspect young Timothy McVeigh of rationalizing the Oklahoma bombing as an act of supreme patriotism, the Unabomber tells us straight out that he has been forced to kill on our behalf. This, in order to shock us into realizing we are committing mass suicide. His line of reasoning is most often identified with Goethe's Faust, who trades his soul for a hormone injection not yet approved by the PDA, a fair maiden in wait. Even further back, we find Adam at the tree of knowledge, an apple stuck in his throat, Eve spurring him toward technological advances that await East of Eden. Classical literature abounds with fables that warn of quick fixes to profound dislocations in the human condition.

In 1983, Alvin Toffler called me up one day and invited me to dinner in Manhattan (February 15, 1983), and I braved harsh winds and icy roads from New Jersey to meet the author of Future Shock (1971) and The Third Wave (1980), two chronicles that bracket the Unabomber's first assault (1978) against future shock and the third wave. Toffler made quite a name for himself (and an abiding close friendship with Newt Gingrich) by warning of the fiendish, quite unavoidable social typhoons that were about to lash all mankind. These would be the result of Adam plucking a third, electronic apple from cyberspace (the second having been machine tooled at the dawn of the industrial revolution). At my dinner with Toffler, I suggested that most of what he worried about was the result of President Nixon going off the gold standard in 1971, an event that ushered in the worst global inflation in recorded history. The inflation, in turn, impacted progressive tax systems throughout the planet, wrecking the ability of people to form capital. I assured him that once the Reagan tax cuts took hold and we again anchored the dollar to gold, the social typhoons would abate. Alas, Toffler remains to this day an apostle of technology as a solution to mankind's social ills. His pupil, Speaker Gingrich, would pass out free laptop computers in the inner city and pay kids $2 each to read the instruction manuals. This is fool's gold.

Karl Marx worried almost exclusively about high-tech. He was among the most astute social scientists to observe the unfolding of the industrial revolution. Capital (1867), his magnum opus, was about nothing less than the mother's milk of that revolution. His concern derived from the same forces that produced the Luddite hangings. It was a concern about the pace of change that requires the ploughing under of human capital in the name of scientific progress and economic efficiency. A classical economist with an admiration of Adam Smith, Marx understood the gains to be had by mass production techniques, exemplified by Smith's pin factory. A man could make one pin per day, but with the help of a machine could make 100,000. Two separate questions arise: What happens to the 99,999 men displaced? What happens to the one man who remains, tied to a machine? The second question, of interest to the Unabomber, also concerned Marx. Indeed, it concerned Smith, whose observation in Wealth of Nations (1776) Marx quotes in Capital: 'The understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations... has no occasion to exert his understanding... He generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become." Smith recommended public education as an antidote, which Marx endorses, i.e., the taxing of the capitalist to subsidize the education of the workers.

Marx, though, sees graver problems associated with capitalism relating to the first question, about the army of unemployed displaced by technology. In my January 24, 1994 essay, Karl Marx Revisited: A Fluid Society, I covered these economic issues at length. The Unabomber, who sees that the Marxist socialist answer does not work, sees no alternative to the outright destruction of the industrial system to prevent the dehumanization of mankind. My greater optimism rests on continued faith that the United States, "the last, best hope of mankind," will complete the reforms necessary to restore a fluid society, which is what the Unabomber wants. By this I mean a society that permits the least to become the most, and vice versa, with no social stratification requiring class struggle. We will also, I think, spend the century ahead sharing our understanding of the mechanisms of a fluid society with the rest of the world. The end of the Cold War permits us the luxury of time and the redeployment of our intellectual energies just as the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 ushered in a global economic expansion built around the principle of individual freedom, honest money, and light taxation. Note that the Luddite movement occurred just prior to 1815, and similar movements invariably occur during periods of contraction. By the end of his life in 1883, even Marx was surprised at how the benefits of technological advance had circulated, forcing him to suggest to his followers that the revolution be postponed.

The November 8 elections gave us a watershed for Toffler's waves, I think, and the reform process that began with the Reagan tax initiatives has resumed. The monetary typhoons that have been at the heart of the social disruptions have calmed to gale force, thanks to Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and to his predecessor, Paul Volcker, who began steering with an eye on gold in 1982. Toffler is still running around predicting electronic money will destroy the powers of the Fed to control the dollar, but he is dead wrong. A refixing of the dollar and gold will dramatically increase the political power of every person on earth, in the sense that every currency in the world is now either firmly or loosely linked to the dollar. When elites lose power, ordinary individuals gain. Although small at first, a re-established dollar/gold link eventually will have major positive social values reaching into every family unit on Earth. The issue is not at the moment in public discussion, but it will be soon if Steve Forbes enters the GOP presidential race as currently planned next month. On Tuesday, he addressed the top staff people of the U.S. Senate at their weekly lunch, where most of the questions focused on his suggested monetary reform.

My general sense of optimism also leads me to suggest a revival of the influence of organized labor. When real wages are in decline and the general work force is underemployed, collective bargaining is a defensive game. The price of this kind of labor peace is paid out in social distress of all kinds; we note a story in today's New York Times that there are now 1.5 million Americans in the prison system and another 3.5 million men and women on probation and parole. The total number is approaching the 6 million in four-year colleges and universities. At current growth rates, in a decade the number of convicted felons will exceed 7.3 million, the size of New York City. In a real expansion, we would have vigorous activity in organized labor as the productivity pie expands, and we would also see the numbers reverse in the prison system. Violence would diminish down to the family unit. Perhaps even the Unabomber would bomb no more.