We’re all Luddites now
Gabriel Levy spoke about technology and socialism at Communist University 2013. The left has tended to worship productionism and therefore dismiss the rich tradition represented by Luddism
The Luddites of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Nottinghamshire rose up 200 years ago - not only against the employers who sought to cut wages and intensify exploitation, but also against the way that those employers used machinery for that purpose. Modern-day labour and social movements could take a leaf out of their book.
Nowadays it is often assumed, even by socialists and communists, that the key to bringing about a new post-capitalist society is to change the ownership of the productive forces: ie, to take those machines that grow, mine or make things out of the capitalists’ hands. Then, the argument often goes, people will work for themselves instead of for an employer who takes away the fruits of their labour. But what about the machines themselves?
Capitalism has developed machines not to meet human needs, but to serve the purposes of its own expansion; it has tried to make science and technology serve those same purposes; and it has shaped the labour process - the things that workers do with these machines - to serve those purposes. The movement towards a post-capitalist society will not only change the ownership of the productive forces. It will change those forces themselves.
If and when the movement is able to supersede capitalism, it will consign some machines to the scrapheap and develop other, new ones. Not only machines, but the infrastructure and ways of doing things based on those machines - such as the way that people live either in dirty, overcrowded cities or in countryside increasingly dominated by monoculture - will change. The place of science and technology in society will change.
A good start in rethinking these issues would be to embrace as our forebears the Luddites, who in 1811-13 rose collectively to resist employers who used machinery to impoverish workers - in the words of one Luddite letter, to combat machinery that was “hurtful to commonality”.
The word ‘Luddism’ has been misappropriated by society’s rulers and misapplied, to refer to those who are opposed to technical progress. Those who challenge the way that machinery is manipulated by elites are tarred with the same brush. And even in the labour movement, the Luddites are often misremembered as a failed byroad of struggle; the history of legal trade unionism and reformism is preferred to theirs. We should take back their history - that is, our history.
The Luddite uprisings of 1811-13 were the first mass workers’ movement in England for a decade. Towards the end of the 1700s, both England and Ireland had been hit by waves of revolt stirred up by the French and American revolutions. In response, in 1799 and 1800 parliament had passed the Combination Acts, which tried to outlaw collective working class action. In 1801-03 there was a wave of riots and of underground organisation, but then a temporary peace. That was broken by the Luddite rising of 1811 in Nottinghamshire, which in 1812 spread to Yorkshire and then to Lancashire, and up to 1816 echoed sporadically in various industrial areas.
The Luddites were by no means the first workers to resort to machine-breaking, but they were the most organised. They issued warning letters to employers, demanding that they removed certain machines from their premises, and then gathered at night to raid workshops and factories, and smash the machines of those who failed to respond. They targeted mainly employers who had introduced new machinery in order to impose wage cuts, substitute unskilled or child labour for skilled labour, or otherwise undermine workers’ conditions.
The Nottinghamshire Luddites were led by stockingers - ie, skilled workers who produced hosiery on stocking frames and who were fiercely opposed to the use of new, wide frames that churned out cheap, inferior-quality goods. In Yorkshire, the Luddites were led by croppers, highly skilled finishers of woollen cloth, who were better paid than other workers, and whose trade was destroyed by the introduction of the shearing frame. In Lancashire, cotton weavers and spinners worked at home under an putting-out system. They confronted factory-based power looms that were larger, easier to guard and more difficult to sabotage. The Luddite uprising culminated in Yorkshire with the murder of William Horsfall, a defiant anti-Luddite employer, and in Lancashire with the burning down of several mills.
Machine-breaking was punishable by death, and the Luddites swore oaths of secrecy and loyalty to each other and to ‘General Ned Ludd’, who was not a real person. The Luddites’ identities were well protected by working class communities, where support for them was strong.
The historian, Eric Hobsbawm, wrote that Luddism and other instances of machine-breaking amounted to “collective bargaining by riot”.1 But Edward Thompson, in his classic The making of the English working class, went further, arguing that Luddism was not just industrial, but also political. His pioneering account quoted numerous documents and memoirs to show how Luddism formed part of a more general wave of struggle, at a time when politicised Irish workers were flooding into the areas where Luddism was strongest, and when in London crowds were cheering the assassination of the prime minister.
Thompson poured scorn on historians who had portrayed Luddism as either primitive or a provocateurs’ conspiracy, and concluded that, “while finding its origin in particular industrial grievances, Luddism was a quasi-insurrectionary movement, which continually trembled on the edge of ulterior revolutionary objectives”. It was not a “wholly conscious revolutionary movement”, but had a tendency towards becoming one.2 The social historian, Peter Linebaugh, in his recent pamphlet Ned Ludd and Queen Mab,3 puts the Luddite movement into international context: not only was it infused by Irish migrants, many of them veterans of revolutionary struggle, but it also coincided with a wave of slave revolts in the Americas.
The Luddites were meticulously careful to smash some machines - eg, those owned by recalcitrant employers - and protect others. As an illegal movement, they left behind little documentation to explain their view of technology. But one key letter, sent to a shearing-frame owner in Yorkshire in March 1812, stated:
We will never lay down arms [until] the House of Commons passes an act to put down all machinery hurtful to commonality, and repeal that to hang frame breakers.4
It is this understanding that technology is not neutral - and that, where it is used against the collective interest, it must be resisted - that in my view is valuable and relevant to the 21st century.
Working people have failed to confront the evils of capitalist-controlled technology not only because of external forces (state oppression, economic hardship, etc) but because of a “fatalistic and futuristic confusion about the nature of technological development”, the late David Noble, a radical historian of technology, argued.
This confusion is “rooted in, and reinforced by, the political and ideological subordination of people at the point of production, the locus of technological development”.
This “twofold subordination of workers, not alone by capital, but also by the friends of labour (union officials, left politicians and intellectuals), has hardly been accidental”: it has served the interest of those who “wield control over labour’s resources and ideas”. Noble pulled no punches in apportioning some of the blame to socialists:
Where capitalists maintained that unilinear technological progress, spurred by the competitive spirit and guided by the invisible hand, would usher in a new day of prosperity for all, socialists insisted that such progress would have a double life: moving behind the backs of the capitalists, without their knowledge and in defiance of their intentions, the automatic process of technological development would create the conditions for the eclipse of capitalism and the material basis for prosperity under socialism.5
Both capitalists and socialists had come to “worship at the same shrine”, Noble argued. And if one expands the meaning of the word ‘socialist’ to include the leaders of the Soviet state and of the ‘official communist’ parties that supported it - which I would not do, but Noble clearly did - then he certainly had a point. His argument might have applied to large swathes of bureaucratic workers’ organisations in the late 20th century.
Assuming, as I do, that we are now working towards a reconstitution of the workers’ movement in the 21st century, these old attitudes to technology need to be rejected. A clearer understanding of how capitalism uses technology against us, and of what might be done with it by movements to supersede capitalism, is needed.
In the USA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, a group of activists and writers named themselves ‘neo-Luddites’. They campaigned against technologies that they considered most obviously enhanced the power of capital and the state - from nuclear power and genetic engineering to computers and television. They supported protests such as those by opponents of weapons technology, by Indian environmentalists against deforestation and by Japanese anti-airport campaigners.
In 1990, the writer and psychologist, Chellis Glendinning, drafted a neo-Luddite manifesto,6 whose main points included:
- Opposition not to technology as such, but to “the kinds of technologies that are, at root, destructive of human lives and communities. We also reject technologies that emanate from a world view that sees rationality as the key to human potential, material acquisition as the key to human fulfilment, and technological development as the key to social progress.”
- Opposition to technologies “created by mass technological society” that serve its perpetuation, and “tend to be structured for short-term efficiency, ease of production, distribution, marketing and profit potential - or for war-making”.
- “Learning to critique technology demands fully examining its sociological context, economic ramifications and political meanings. It involves asking not just what is gained - but what is lost, and by whom. It involves looking at the introduction of technologies from the perspective not only of human use, but of their impact on other living beings, natural systems and the environment.”
- A call for the dismantling of “destructive technologies”, such as nuclear technology, chemical technologies, TV, electromagnetic technologies and computer technologies, and “the creation of technologies that are of a scale and structure that make them understandable to the people who use them and are affected by them”.
This manifesto, and books by such ‘neo-Luddite’ writers as Kirkpatrick Sale and Jerry Mander, are worth reading. Here are some thoughts about this issue. as it looks now:
Firstly, the ‘neo-Luddites’ were dead right that technology has to be understood in its social context. But, although they described pretty clearly the relationship between technology and social and economic power, they did not seem to have a particularly coherent view of how, or by whom, that social and economic power could be overturned.
Secondly, the ‘neo-Luddites’ surely had a point when they argued that technologies should be developed by those who use them, and be as far as possible of a scale and structure that make them understandable to all. It is large-scale technologies, designed to be centrally controlled by their owners and managers, that confront as an alien power the workers that use them and society as a whole.
The socialist writer, Andre Gorz, many decades ago argued in his book Ecology and politics that decentralisation of energy and other infrastructure, and the development of small-scale technologies, are a necessary part of the movement to overcome state power and democratise decision-making.
This kind of logic makes more sense to me than some of the specific prescriptions against specific technologies by the ‘neo Luddites’. For example, Glendinning’s manifesto opposes computers because they “enhance centralised political power and remove people from direct experience of life”. It may have looked that way to her in 1990, but it looks quite different to me now.
Thirdly and finally, what probably matters most is the way that ideas about new technologies take shape in labour and social movements. In the UK, the ‘Luddites at 200’ group7 have been working at making this link, through Breaking the Frame discussions8 and other stuff, and I hope such initiatives go further.
An example of movement in the right direction is the joint struggle by workers and the local community to determine the future of the ILVA steel plant at Taranto in Italy, one of the biggest in Europe. In the summer of last year, a government order to close the works on health grounds brought the danger of division between the local community (who have for decades suffered the extreme effects of pollution from the plant) and the workers (whose jobs were on the line).
A Committee of Thinking Citizens and Workers was founded9 to demand that the government and the plant’s owners both preserve workers’ jobs and pay for the upgrades necessary to reduce pollution. The best part of a year later, the government representative in charge of sorting this out is trying to deny the link between the plant’s poisonous processes and cancer,10 and the plant’s owners have been caught up in an investigation of massive tax evasion and fraud.11 But the fight goes on.
Last year I suggested that the principle on which the community operated - that they were rejecting the false choice (jobs or health) was a good place to start.12 I still think so. Such a principle could be applied to many struggles in which, rather than combat anti-worker and anti-human technologies, trade union bureaucrats defend such technologies on the grounds that their members’ jobs depend on them. That is always a false choice and, taking the lead from Taranto, we should reject it.
By breaking through such barriers, movements will be getting closer to refounding the relationship between people, the tools and machines they use, and nature.
This article was first published on the People and Nature website.13
1. E Hobsbawm Labouring men London 1964, pp5-17.
2. EP Thompson The making of the English working class London 1980.
3. P Linebaugh Ned Ludd and Queen Mab Oakland 2012.
4. K Binfield (ed) Writings of the Luddites Baltimore 2004, p210.
5. DF Noble Progress without people Chicago 1993, pp12-13.
6. ‘Notes towards a neo-Luddite manifesto’ Utne Reader March-April 1990.