A TV drama has rekindled interest in anti-technology terrorist Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. Ironically enough, his followers now congregate online.
In 1978 Ted Kaczynski began building letter bombs designed to kill. They were made out of smokeless powder, match heads, nails, potassium nitrate, razor blades, and various other caustic substances. Kaczynski, a former academic and an alumnus of Harvard University, killed three people with these bombs and injured 23 others. His targets were airliners, university professors, and academics. Some of the bombs missed their targets and blew shrapnel into the bodies of postal workers and receptionists. The attacks were unscrupulous and vicious.
Kaczynski, dubbed the Unabomber by the FBI and the media, evaded capture for almost 18 years. He’d been hiding out in a self-contained wood cabin in the forests of Montana, writing a manifesto under the pseudonym “Freedom Club” (or FC) on a portable typewriter. After releasing his 35,000 word manifesto titled “Industrial Society and its Future” to the media in 1995, it became apparent that Kaczynski was fighting, in his mind at least, against the rise of technology and the perceived sickness it had infected the world with. The Unabomber was a militant neo-luddite.
Twenty-two years after Kaczynski’s bombing campaign and imprisonment, he now has a new following. Ironically enough, they all congregate on the internet.
Often characterised by putting pine tree emojis in their names on social media, the new Kaczynski inspired community of self-defined primitivists and neo-luddites is flourishing. They spend hours sharing memes that call for the destruction of modern civilisation, and discuss fringe politics in Twitter group chats or on messaging app Discord. This year they even sent Kaczynski a birthday card. On the face of it, Kaczynski’s new followers are angry, bored, and sick of the modern world.
It’s all been growing rapidly since a TV drama series called Manhunt: Unabomber aired in August 2017. The series tells a fictionalised version of the Unabomber investigation. In the process of catching the elusive felon, the main character, Agent Fitz, pores over Kaczynski’s manifesto until he develops an affinity with it. He comes to the conclusion that while the brutal bombing campaign was wrong, Kaczynski’s theories were actually right. The detective ends up moving into a log cabin in the woods. Kaczynski ends up moving into prison with eight life sentences.
Large parts of the series are factually inaccurate – for example the portrayal of Kaczynski as some kind of CIA experiment gone wrong, and the insinuation that he was mentally ill — but, overall, Manhunt: Unabomber seems to have provided an easily consumable entryway to Kaczynski’s politics for the pine tree community.
Like Agent Fitz in Manhunt, the new Kaczynski followers are drawn to his theories. In this sense, there is somewhat of a Freedom Club revival happening — hundreds of young men seeking to reconnect with nature, as an act of rebellion against the state of Western civilisation, all couched in Ted Kaczynski’s anti-tech ideas.
For a year now I’ve been chatting with various members of the pine tree community. They’re a mixed bag: some seem to actually want the total destruction of modern civilisation, and long for some kind of apocalyptic future; some are sick of the mainstream’s political correctness; some are, of course, just shit-posting. But all of them are disgusted with modernity. In an age of hyper-consumerism and ecological destruction, the pine trees don’t see a place for themselves anywhere within the current system. They long for something radical. “Modernity crushes your soul,” says Regi, who’s been part of the pine tree community from the beginning. “We see our jobs as soul crushing. Modern life is safe and boring and lacking cohesion. Many strive for a more simple and practical existence.”
Regi, 18, became aware of Kaczynski’s crimes and manifesto in December 2017 after seeing Manhunt: Unabomber memes posted online. He got hold of a copy of the manifesto and was immediately converted. “I read the manifesto and it blew my mind,” he said. “I thought it was a work of genius.”
In the six months I’ve been speaking to Regi, he’s gone from meme-posting daily about how much he wants the modern world to collapse, to actually going out and spending time immersed in nature, hiking through the forests where he lives in Canada. He’s seen online less and less.
But Kaczynski’s terrorism hasn’t influenced Regi. He doesn’t agree with his brutal murders and doesn’t believe that they were justified, as some pine trees do. “Killing innocents isn’t a good thing and I find his justification for it shitty,” said Regi. “If he wanted to kill someone, why not assassinate like, Steve Jobs, or one of those corporate assholes?”
Like Regi, most of the new young Kaczynskites don’t actually want to set the world on fire. They’re probably not about to start building bombs in their kitchens or ditching their smartphones to live in the woods. But they do feel something is wrong. Between the memes you see these young men putting on their timelines – often anything that mocks “society” or a semi-ironic wish for a war they can die in — you’ll see a genuine fury at the seemingly endless cycle of nature being destroyed in pursuit of profit. That’s not to say they side with environmentalists though — in fact, they laugh in the face of organisations like Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund. Their argument is that these people all work within “the system”, so how can they really change anything? The pine trees feel it’s all a little too late.
To quote the Dark Mountain Project, a group of former ecologists who went rogue and came around to a similar way of thinking as Kaczynski, “We were disillusioned with the state of environmentalism. It seemed that sustainability had come to mean sustaining the Western way of living at all costs.” Through their crass shit-posting and memes about militant groups like the Animal Liberation Front, the pine trees are often trying to say the same thing, albeit through the haze of a 21st century internet subculture.
But war and conflict are a constant presence on pine trees’ timelines. They spread their message through tweeting things like “SHUT THE FUCK UP URBANITE!” at tech-bros, “normies”, or basically anyone who doesn’t agree with them. Instead of engaging others in public debate, they’d rather trash them. They don’t want allies. And the aesthetics of war plays a big part too. Photos of the Provisional IRA, the EZLN, and even Russian-backed separatists in east Ukraine are often posted alongside joking messages such as “I wish that were me”. One user, Ecoretard, recently tweeted: “Can I get [an] urban conflict with a faction I support so I can die for something I believe in?”
The glorification of war is perhaps another way of expressing their frustration at feeling trapped. As Regi says, “Modern life is safe and boring”. War, or at least the glorification of it, is not.
Now, this community of Kaczynski adherents, misfits, and so-called political extremists, is less a cohesive movement than a loosely connected online subculture. For a while though, there was a pine tree leader of sorts. He was less concerned with the shit-posting and more seriously occupied with the Kaczynski worldview. His name is Rin. He wanted to build an “organisation” of “dedicated people”. He indexed Kaczynski’s prison letters, memorised paragraph numbers of the manifesto, and corralled the first new wave of Kaczynskites into a community. Rin, 24, also ran the most extensive online Kaczynski archive that has probably ever existed. That is until he pulled it all down in disgust last month.
“I decided to dedicate myself to the Ted Kaczynski project because everyone was talking about the Unabomber, but nobody was talking about Ted Kaczynski’s ideas,” Rin says.
Rin has been involved in post-leftist and green-anarchist politics since he was 18. He lives in “a Spanish speaking country”, considers himself a neo-luddite, and tries to follow the teachings of Kaczynski wherever possible. I’ve spent a lot of time in the last six months debating Rin and discussing his radical ideology with him. He’s intelligent and well-read. Despite his preoccupation with Kaczynski, I never got the impression that Rin is actually dangerous, although he can most definitely be considered a Kaczynski sympathiser. He used to run three different Twitter accounts, two of which were the Ted Kaczynski Archive and Ted Was Right. Kaczynski’s victims are never a focus of his discussion and simply shrugged off as a consequence of war.
When Rin noticed the emergence of a small online community of young men interested in all things Unabomber at the start of 2018, he began to round them up. He formed a group chat on Twitter and a radical book club where he would suggest new political literature for the pine trees. He and the rest of them embraced edgy irony and warlike aesthetics as a means to draw the youth in further. It was all very deliberate.
“Manhunt: Unabomber was the perfect breeding ground to introduce the ideology to suitable people,” Rin says. “The people attracted to the ideas began interacting with each other and formed themselves [into] a social base. They were able to form a community and slowly develop a culture. This is what eventually became Prim Twitter [Primitivist Twitter being another name for the pine tree community].”
Whilst the pine tree members were from a variety of different political milieus, they were all united by Rin under a popular front that “embraced collapse” and “loved nature”.
But Rin’s place at the head of the community didn’t last. His own creation began to morph into something unforgivably ugly, when some members began drifting from edgy luddite memes and the embrace of wild nature, to outright far-right ideologies. “Some in the community began flirting with fascism,” Rin says. “And not the left-wing type where everything they dislike is labelled ‘fascism’ — but actual genuine fascism. That was the final drop in the bucket for me. Totalitarian ideologies like fascism and communism are something I’m extremely hostile against.”
Rin is quick to emphasise that despite many on the left considering Kaczynski a fascist (mostly due to the fact he attacked them constantly in his manifesto), he actually describes fascism as “kook ideology” (“page 150 of his book Technological Slavery!”) and says Nazi ideology is “evil” in one of his letters. Rin also points out that Kaczynski has never tried to align himself with fascists, he was in favour of radical black liberation groups, and always saw green anarchist types as his natural comrades. This doesn’t change the fact that many fascist groups today use Kaczynski as an icon. Even Atomwaffen Division, the esoteric neo-Nazi militant group in the US, have made graphics using his face.
Some of the pine tree community are now splintering off into different groups, deviating from Kaczynski’s work to that of Pentti Linkola, who is a self-described eco-fascist. This coincides with new ecologically-focused Neo-Nazi groups that are now cropping up. Green fringe politics is all very much in vogue on the internet, as is the resurgence of neo-fascism. The two are starting to merge.
Rin scrapped his online Kaczynski archive in June due to the creep of fascism amongst the pine trees. But he still believes that a new generation of neo-luddism is coming.
“There is very much an interest in Ted Kaczynski growing deep down,” he says. “It’s in its infancy, but it seems Ted being in prison has finally paid off. He’s gotten some extremely dedicated neo-luddites ready to contribute to the collapse of technological society.”
Rin may sound militant, but the likelihood of a major neo-luddite terror attack remains pretty low. The Freedom Club revival is still mostly spreading via memes online, not via letter bombs. The idea that our interaction with technology has reached a crisis point, is spreading further than the pine tree fringe ideology though. This year the theme has been featured often in the press. Even Silicon Valley, which made tech junkies out of us all, is having a twinge of guilt. Some reformed tech-bros have created “humane tech” organisations such as the Time Well Spent movement, founded by former Google employee Tristan Harris.
The pine tree community is a radical response to what writer Grafton Tanner once called “the mall”: a digital hellscape where people are nostalgic for something that never existed, constantly “doped on consumer goods, energy drinks, and Apple products.”
In Rin’s opinion, it’s all falling down already. “Our technological civilisation is complex and unsustainable. Its breakdown is inevitable,” he says. “It will be slow and boring, but technological civilisation has already signed its death warrant.”
By Jake Hanrahan on Wired