After Lucretius

A Naive Program

If the system breaks down the consequences will still be very painful. But the bigger the system grows the more disastrous the results of its breakdown will be, so if it is to break down it had best break down sooner rather than later.

Ted Kaczynski

The banality of Einstein’s remarks in matters outside his specialty is as astonishing as his genius within it. It seems as though the specialized application of all one’s faculties in a particular area inhibits the consideration of things in general.

Jacques Ellul

Despite being a mathematics prodigy with an IQ of 165, the Ted Kaczynski of Industrial Society and its Future is breathtakingly naïve. To take just one example before we grind our main axe, here is Kaczynski on how the anti-tech “revolutionaries” should approach political power: “The revolutionaries should not try to acquire political power until the system has gotten itself into such a mess that any hardships will be seen as resulting from the failures of the industrial system itself and not from the policies of the revolutionaries.” Otherwise, he tells us, they risk being voted out!

The Unabomber has tunnel vision. There is so much focus on the gruesomeness of the future of industrial society that Kaczynski never stops to wonder exactly how much future civilisation has left. There are two futures present in the Manifesto,1This is how Kaczynski likes to refer to Industrial Society and its Future, e.g. ‘Letter to an Anonymous German’ on the Anarchist Library: “As the Manifesto argues . . .”; “I should add that the remarks about leftism, here and in the Manifesto . . .” one in which the system’s precipitous growth threatens a terrible collapse if it falls, and one in which the system is made stable through the success of cybernetics. Kaczynski’s fear concerns the latter “possibility”, though we must ask whether or not it ever occurred to him to consider external causes of civilisational collapse. There is a vulgar and uncanny Marxism present in the Manifesto, where non-human nature is completely ignored as an object of serious analysis. Instead, Kaczynski focuses on what anti-tech revolutionaries may need to do in order to bring the system down. His recommendations, all laughable, include:

  1. Promote social stress and instability in industrial society to make a revolution against technology possible. Sow division between the power-holding elite and everybody else. Revolutionaries ought not to condemn the public for their consumption habit, but rather explain to them that they are victims of the advertising industry. Avoid identity politics at all costs.
  2. Avoid assuming political power. Any green party would see itself quickly removed from office for crashing the economy. Political power can be seized only when the public understands that the industrial system’s continued existence is worse than the alternative.
  3. Revolt worldwide and simultaneously, defeating the entire industrial system in one stroke. Trying to cut back on a nation-by-nation basis can only lead to nationalist hysteria as the public loses its nerve: “Holy robots! The world will fly off its orbit if the Japanese ever sell more cars than we do!”
  4. Support measures which bind the world economy into a unified whole. Global economic integration makes the industrial system easier to destabilise—a breakdown in one major nation will cause all industrialised nations to break down.

To be clear, this program is so ill-conceived it doesn’t really need to be critiqued, and I reference it only to demonstrate the truth of Ellul’s assertion that a mathematical genius need not have any particular wisdom in politics. It is obvious that a vanishingly small band of social outcasts and cranks are not going to be able to topple even one nation before the industrial system drives the human race to extinction. Capital is more than capable of recuperating itself, such that even if a systemic collapse occurred, we can reasonably assert it wouldn’t be long before the machines were up and running again. And what is all this nonsense about simultaneous worldwide anti-tech revolution? The communists couldn’t pull it off despite having a world-historic superpower on their side and a utopian vision of the future. What are the anti-tech revolutionaries offering? ‘Well, you’ll die. But at least you won’t be on anti-depressants.’

What Kaczynski didn’t realise is that by the time the system is truly struggling to the extent that it is unable to defend itself, famines, droughts, extreme weather, sea level rise and ecological collapse will have already foreclosed any possibility of a liberated future for the small number of people who may be able to struggle on as runaway warming takes over from industrial activity and pushes the Earth system into an unliveable hothouse state. Kaczynskian eschatology, just like its socialist equivalent, is religious—it consists in crossing one’s fingers and hoping for the best, when anyone serious knows to only ever expect the worst.

The Leviathan and the Herd

‘Well, it’s no good screaming now. We’ve already sawn the cap off.’

The scalp dropped into the metal bin with a muted thud. The procedure lasted about five minutes. By the time the inside of the skull had been vacuumed and scrubbed clean, the rest of the cadaver had already been shipped to the putrefactorium for processing.

The workers used to tell morbid jokes as they watched the bodies liquefy in the putrechamber. That was before they were all subjected to genomic lobotomy. CRISPR tech. Delivered by injection one morning at clock-in. It was easy enough for the technicians to design the RNA sequences. In the old days, the managers would have at least needed a pretext to placate the public with, but the class struggle was permanently settled a while ago thanks to gene drives for docility and obedience. Consequently, there is no longer any need for PR.

A good thing too. It just held things up.

In some industries, workers are modified to remove their mortality salience. This is necessary for jobs like mining and construction, where resources have long since become too scarce to be wasted on luxuries like safety equipment and healthcare. You order a few hundred workers with the appropriate base specifications and make the necessary edits on-site. In other industries, mortality salience remains useful, either as a weapon of fear or simple amusement for the overseers. It sounds ridiculously, eye-rollingly sci-fi to imagine torture-as-entertainment, until you remember the lurid glee with which thousands watched ISIS militants torture and murder Jordanian pilot Muath Safi Yousef al-Kasasbeh by placing him inside a cage, dousing him with gasoline, and setting him on fire. There isn’t a whole lot to do during industrial society’s final act but produce the essentials and enjoy the torture. Hence the scalps in buckets, the putrefactorium, and the babbling, neutralised workers, who are good only for repetitive tasks and screaming as they die. Highest bidder gets to take the skull home.

Beats a walk in the desert.

Friedrich Nietzsche thought humankind could go down two routes: either it could become the bridge to the Übermensch, or succumb to its worst—its most human—impulses and drift through the end of history as the Last Man. At our current juncture, it’s pretty clear what path was taken. To say this path was chosen, however, is to make the bourgeois error, to assign agency where there is none, to invoke the obscene notion of the freedom of the will, first principle of the hangman’s metaphysics. Good Spinozists that we are, we understand that there is no room in this world for guilt, evil, wrongdoing, or error—only the chain of necessity of perfect nature.

Still, what a thing it is to be a herd animal. And there really is no question here that you and I both are herd animals. Even the toughest survivalist exists by tacit permission of the state, and would be quickly shot or jailed if they seriously tried to defend their “property” from the sovereign authority. If you think that anything can shield you from the universal becoming-bovine of the 21st century, you are coping. Petty politics is an open invitation to imagine yourself better than others because you happen to have nobler reasons than they do for supporting your ill-thought out policy prescriptions. Great politics is the future’s cynical antidote, a closed invitation for your owners to let you perish—and it is really no good bringing up your rights here, civilised one. As ecological collapse and political dementia bring the system as we know it to a screeching halt, despotic metastasis turns the lights back on, but not before jettisoning the decaying fragments of the liberal-democratic order once and for all—“The time for petty politics is over.”2Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, tr. J. Norman (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 102; §208.

With that, we enter the age of the Neoleviathans. While we cannot predict what these states will do, being, by their very nature, completely novel, we might be able to get an idea by looking at one of their predecessors, which I call Anteleviathans.

ISIS: A Case Study

Taking advantage of the weakness of Iraq and Syria’s governments, ISIS rapidly became a world-renowned and formidable force, at one point claiming 8 million subjects, with thousands of foreign fighters recruited from across the world with the help of slick propaganda videos—essentially snuff porn with high production values, which the Western media was more than happy to share as long as it brought in the ad revenue. ISIS unleashed genocide against Yazidis, Shia Muslims, and Christians; assassinated political enemies and executed POWs; took control of dams and displaced communities through deliberate flooding and drought;3Tobias von Lossow, ‘Water as Weapon: IS on the Euphrates and Tigris’ (2016). “In April 2014, after IS had the Falluja Dam floodgates closed, the retained water flooded large areas upstream and submerged Iraqi government facilities on the banks . . . Between Falluja and Abu Ghraib over 10,000 houses and around 200 square kilometres of fertile farmland were destroyed; almost the entire harvest was wiped out; and livestock was killed. Up to 60,000 locals who had lost their livelihood in the flood were displaced.” inspired numerous terror attacks abroad; and established a widespread, violent fundamentalist state with captured military technology. For a group most people hadn’t heard of before the summer of 2014, and which had lost 98% of its territory by late 2017, this is an impressive and horrific record, one we can nonetheless expect to be outdone by the Neoleviathans of the future without even breaking a sweat.

See, a Neoleviathan has no qualms about making do with whatever falls into its lap. Its soldiers and commanders aren’t scared of international courts or a bad reputation—they know they’d sooner die than face what the enemy calls “justice”. They don’t hesitate or worry, and they know beggars can’t be choosers. Unimpeded by the institutional gangrene that plagues democratic states, that is, unimpeded by a lazy, entrenched, ill-incentivised political class and the capitalists who own them, Neoleviathans and their Anteleviathan counterparts are capable of the sort of vigour and creativity only a starving proto-state or a sovereign territory on the edge of survival can muster up.4In truth, the distinction between a Neoleviathan and an Anteleviathan is really nothing more than context. Neoleviathans exist amongst Neoleviathans. When everyone treats each other as if they are Neoleviathans, the process is complete. Until then, for as long as the majority play pretend, there are only good, decent, legitimate states, and the Anteleviathan rogues. This will be elaborated on in a future instalment of my monograph on the subject. There was an unmistakable sense of bloat watching European government leaders wonder how to stop ISIS propaganda falling into the hands of their citizens while ISIS crowdsourced execution methods on Twitter. In the end, foreign powers were able to bomb ISIS back into oblivion, but one has to wonder, as the lights start to go out on globally-integrated, internationalist civilisation, what happens when the power vacuums open back up, and nobody from the outside gives a shit? What happens when all that are left are power vacuums—and the Neoleviathans that seek to fill them?

Irreligious Pessimism

Before they started doing it to everyone, they began by re-cognitising the undesirables, which is what they called the genomic lobotomy back then. The public loved the idea, which was sold to them by the obsequious pro-Neoleviathan cognoscenti. These people had gotten a hold of some book, called Neoleviathan: Political Blueprints for the Post Collapseand were utterly convinced its predictions, painted in broad enough strokes to be almost truisms, would come to pass. ‘We really ought to get ahead of the curve on this one!’ its convinced readers would say. ‘We don’t want the other side beating us to it!’ The Neoleviathan integrates the arms race of the Schmittian political and the cutting-edge of technology to ensure stability by any means necessary, and so the opposition was promptly re-cognitised and put to work on fracking sites, farms, oil rigs—just about anything the respectable majority had no interest in doing. Resources were less scarce back then, there was still enough water for everybody and the grasses hadn’t gone extinct yet. Really what the opportunists were pursuing was only the process of leviathanisation. The Neoleviathans hadn’t truly arrived until even its supporters were being sent down the mines or having their heads split open for the few moments of amusement it would bring to the ever-dwindling ruling class.

There used to be more Neoleviathans. In the beginning, that is, after the end of the old system, there was an incredible scramble for territory, setting innumerable wars and petty skirmishes in motion. This blood-soaked economy of conflict produced much political diversity, though the willingness to use all sorts of chemical and biological weapons, to target and exterminate entire civilian populations, poison water and food supplies, assassinate military and political leaders, and all sorts of previously-frowned upon behaviours quickly selected the weaker Neoleviathans out of existence, as well as the most reckless. Now, a select few exist in a tired stalemate as their outer limits shrink. Deserts claim much of the once fertile land, and nobody is all that bothered about fighting any longer. Most of the time everyone keeps to themselves, and even the fights which do occur are perfunctory, disinterested—nobody bats an eye at another ten thousand dead.

In the night, there’s this eerie silence. There are no vehicles out, of course. The roads have long since fallen into disrepair. But there are no birds, no bats, no animals of any kind—few living people even know there was once something other than cracked soil as far as the eye can see. Everything is grown in repurposed shipping containers with salvaged LEDs. The air is sterile. The sky is brown. “In this way the ramparts of the great world also will be breached and collapse in crumbling ruin about us. Already it is far past its prime. The earth, which generated every living species and once brought forth from its womb the bodies of huge beasts, has now scarcely strength to generate animalcules . . . Already the ploughman of ripe years shakes his head with many a sigh that his heavy labours have gone for nothing; and, when he compares the present with the past, he often cries up his father’s luck and grumbles that past generations, when men were old-fashioned and god-fearing, supported life easily enough on their small farms, though one man’s holding was then far less than now. In the same despondent vein, the cultivator of old and wilted vines decries the trend of the times and rails at heaven. He does not realize that everything is gradually decaying and nearing its end, worn out by old age.”5Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books Limited, 1951), pp. 94–95.

What comes after Lucretius? After one realises it really isn’t over until it’s over, and that, with humanity, nature has perfected its inner tendency towards self-destruction? It is, of course, ridiculous to imagine that anthropogenic climate change will be reversed—before the age of the Neoleviathans, there will not exist a state concerned enough for the future to try and do it, and after the age of the Neoleviathans has begun, any state which diverts resources to such an endeavour will quickly find itself smashed to pieces. Everybody knows there will not be a worldwide simultaneous revolution as Kaczynski correctly recognised would be necessary for the system (capital, industrial society, whatever you’d like to call it) to be toppled. If you are honest with yourself, you know that we won’t clean the oceans of plastic, suck all of the greenhouse gases back out of the atmosphere (and keep them out), decarbonise our economies or otherwise do anything other than business-as-usual. The future looks like a slow winding down, followed by a spectacular period characterised by strange combinations of atavism and modernity, followed by a gradual ebbing, then a rapid crumbling, away. And that’s if we’re lucky.

After Lucretius comes Darwin: the belief that things can always get worse in the absence of a hard limit. The question is not one of revolution, then, but of escape—whether spatially or mentally—of producing a world within the world, of becoming disillusioned but not despondent. Foucault: “Do not think that one has to be sad in order to be militant, even though the thing one is fighting is abominable.”6Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), p. xiii. And yet, is there really anything to look forward to? Has everything not been burned down to the substrate? No morality and no meaning, no exit and no hope, only the rushing wind of the outside as progress generates extinction? Why bother? What should we do? “The highest values devalue themselves . . .”7Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power: Selections from the Notebooks of the 1880s, tr. R. Kevin Hill and Michael A. Scarpitti (London: Penguin Classics, 2017), p. 15; §1. Was this really it? Did you really slog through all that Proudhon just to die for some rich man’s greed? Am I telling you that you shouldn’t have bothered handing out those papers at the student union? And what about the long history of the revolutionary movement? Was it all for nothing? Why are you even here? The crisis of meaning: the great zero, death itself.

Abandoning the Rubicon

Contact with the outside: I am standing amongst the beautiful graves of the Necropolis, taking advantage of the first dry spell we’ve had in days. Along the grassy bank of the exit path stand a queue of elm trees, their skeletal branches gnarled and twisted in petrified supplication, like leprotic beggars, hands around the alms bowl of the autumn sky.

I’m here to visit the departed in their great grand tombs, interned forever by the grace of God. William and his whole family buried together from the looks of it: Christina, Robert—two young kids—Connell, his wife, and Margaret, born 16 days before Connell’s death—dead less than a year later. Mary made it to 21 before she died. Certrude lasted 10 days. Must have remarried.

I can’t look anymore.

It’s hard not to be struck by the ostentatiousness of bourgeois death, the one-upmanship of the grave. Imagine them in their heaven, sucking pipes: ‘My family got me a lovely grave, you know. It’s a good 20 feet tall. Pierces the sky like a javelin. Of course, no expenses were too much. I noticed yours was a little petite—must have been a lean business year for your family, eh? Eh, old boy?’

‘My God,’ some must have said as they saw that light at the end of the tunnel. ‘I am coming home. So what of all this? I am free at last.’

The old cathedral bells chime as I go. A paper windmill spins in the wind. Crisp leaves, burnt brown, trip towards the bridge. Fresh weeds, green and vivacious, shoot up by the memorial benches. Saccade. “Lest we forget.” Saccade. Lest I do. The sunlight blooms diffuse, another beautiful domed church almost seems to swell in joy, like your sunlight-kissed skin on that beach that summer. We were at the edge of the world then, tumbling through space but calm, so calm, by those sweet and sparkling waves. And you, stranger whose name I barely had the chance to learn, on that bench with the world roaring by, how long did we kiss? Four seconds? I swear the world stopped tumbling for that, my body thrown and broken as the Earth hit the brakes. I should wonder if that’s how beautiful death can be—defenestrated out of this world.

So then! A lot of shit I give about your crisis of meaning! Ask the dead if meaning saved them! You think you love life because it has meaning? How dull, how sick, how sad. Tell me: did you ever have a moment where the world stopped tumbling? Did you dare ask at that moment what it meant?

We should never have set up some transcendent goal or all-consummating utopian ideal for ourselves. To do so is to become a slave to a fixed idea, to invite vitrifying passions into our wheelhouse, to lay the foundations for the nihilism of disillusionment. We have had enough of the cop, the moralist, and the dreamer in our heads. “Thou shalt not, thou shalt, thou art.” After all this time, why are you still seeking after commandments?

The only way out is out: strategically calculated withdrawal or running headlong, screaming, into the desert—it doesn’t matter. To stay is to die, for the state will not go quietly. Unbound from the injunction to build the new world, we can perhaps imagine a true existentialism, a true reckoning with what we are: temporary assemblages of organs, machines running strange software, backseat spirits tethered to base matter, undulating modes of God or Nature. To recognise what we are is to lose all fear. Socrates laughed at his penalty—as if death was a penalty, he said, something he could have avoided by playing nice. It comes to us all. What does it matter when? And why? If it matters at all it is because it matters to you, in all your anguish and all your joy, in your desire, for you love life, not meaning! You love the body and its sensations! Disillusionment need not lead to catatonic withdrawal and lifeless miserabilism. You still love, don’t you? Then love! But save yourself the pain of believing in fairy tales, and don’t bother us about the revolution either. We are packing our bags.

Defeatist? Perhaps. But all the time we are running, we’ll be searching for our guns!

Ulysse Malcoeur is a writer interested in philosophical pessimism, the ecological crisis, and the intersection of both. He runs a podcast and posts essays on his Substack, as well as a few other things, including editing this journal. You’ll find him on Twitter here.