"More than machinery, we need humanity."
General Ludd is a television star! At last! Only, not so much a star as a crudely rendered villain, portrayed in such a way that rather sadly fits with the woebegone history of the Luddites. Considering that “Luddite” has become more of a putdown than a historical referent, it comes as little surprise that when the group is passed through the butcher shop of the culture industry what emerges has been hacked to pieces – the note on the glass case might claim this particular cut is “The Luddites” but it tastes of something entirely different.
“General Ludd” was the title of a recent episode (air date 11/11/13) of the NBC program The Blacklist – a show about a criminal mastermind (Raymond “Red” Reddington) who turns himself in to the FBI, but works out a deal for himself by promising to help the FBI hunt down dangerous criminals/terrorists, though clearly he has mischievous ulterior motives. The episode “General Ludd” begins with a plane exploding and its gruesome debris plummeting earthward. When the FBI agent Elizabeth Keen asks Red what he knows he quickly informs her that this not the work of a single individual rather: “it’s a movement.” As images of protestors clashing with riot cops flash across the screen a person in a red mask speaks threateningly through a voice changer:
“The storm has come, a wave of death and destruction aimed at the few who have left so little for so many. It will wash away the greedy and when it does you can thank General Ludd.”
The red-mask-wearing group is described as a disciplined group of anti-capitalist terrorists bent on bringing down the US economy. Despite Red’s admonishment that this is a “movement” the show almost entirely focuses on the group’s leader, Nathaniel Wolf, who walks around with bleached blonde hair planning “death and destruction.” [For those who care, be warned, spoilers ahead] After the bombing at the show’s outset, Wolf’s next plan is a similar bombing, though this – as it turns outs – is all just part of an elaborate plan to have the planes grounded so he can hijack an armored car carrying the plates for a new one hundred dollar bill. Wolf’s plan is to switch out the real bill design with a fake design thereby flooding the economy with billions of dollars that could later be revealed as fake. General Ludd is also given the opportunity to deliver another lengthy manifesto:
“We are General Ludd…our uprising against the undue influence of corporations on our government has begun…today marks the beginning of a war…our enemy the oligarchs of corporate America, who’ve destroyed the middle class on whose backs this country was built. Our fight is for the soul of this country. There will be protests, violent uprisings, planes will fall from the skies, the corrupt giants will be brought to their knees. As it begins, ask yourself, are you General Ludd?”
Luckily, Wolf and his followers can figure out how to create multiple identities, pay for extensive surgery (to get a new face), and spin a fairly vast conspiracy…but they have a tendency to leave all of their old clues around. As a result it is ultimately no surprise, that in the end Wolf is captured by the FBI, with the assistance of Red. Thus, this “movement,” which is supposedly bigger than just one man, is thwarted by arresting just one man.
At the outset it should be noted that The Blacklist is not a terrible show, which is entirely a result of James Spader being thoroughly watchable in the role of Red; however, this is not to say that the show is nuanced, complex, or interested in mining history except as a source for bogeymen. “General Ludd” is a rather unremarkable episode, and in the end it functions as just another piece of mass cultural content designed to portray leftist activists as dangerous terrorists hell-bent on attacking civilians. Therefore it is in some ways besides the point to be frustrated by the shows treatment of the legacy of the Luddites, because “General Ludd” is really just meant as a stand-in for some hodge-podge construction of groups. Indeed, “General Ludd” is just a mixture of paranoid renderings of Occupy Wall Street and Anonymous with a bit of Wikileaks thrown in for good measure (Wolf’s bleached hair seemed an allusion to Julian Assange) regardless of the fact that none of those groups have been tied to bombings, shoot outs with the police, armored car robberies, or being able to magically hold protests midday in Manhattan that fail to attract a massive police presence.
The history of the Luddites receives a very loose treatment in the episode, as The Blacklist is more interested in creating dangerous anti-capitalist terrorists than in portraying workers fighting to protect their livelihoods. Thus there are only two sequences in the episode that contain any real content in the way of discussing the historic Luddites. The first line is spoken in an FBI briefing session:
“They take their name from the leader of a 19th century group called the Luddites, a militant wing of a popular struggle against industrial capitalism.”
The above lines are spectacular in the way that they wind up being fairly accurate and yet also quite false. That “General Ludd” (or King Ludd or Captain Ludd or just Ned Ludd) was frequently named as the leader of the Luddites is true (though Ludd was always more of a mythical character than real person), likewise to describe the Luddites as engaged in a “popular struggle against industrial capitalism” is a fairly reasonable description. The aspect of the above lines that is odd is that the Luddites are cast as “a militant wing,” which is simply untrue. The Luddites were not a “militant wing” they were a militant movement, and in fact they were a “militant” “popular struggle” albeit one that was eventually destroyed through the deployment of military force and hangings (a case made excellently in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class).
The other line about the Luddites is spoken at the end when Red is helping Wolf escape (it’s a setup, of course) and Red scolds Wolf:
“A true Luddite would burn the plane rather than fly in it.”
Immediately it is important to note that this line has exactly one purpose: to allow Red to demonstrate that he is so much smarter than every other character. After all, he knows what “a true Luddite” would do, unlike this young rapscallion Wolf. Red’s line is nonsensical, but it is also the only moment in the program during which “Luddite” gets deployed in the way it is generally (if incorrectly) used – as an insulting descriptor for a certain unthinking hatred of technology. The “General Ludd” group in The Blacklist are portrayed as quite technologically adept, but Red’s comments about what “a true Luddite” would do actually serves the opposite purpose of what is intended, for it shows that Red’s knowledge of the historic Luddites can be reduced to a vague notion that they were opposed to technology. Would a historic Luddite (a “true Luddite”) have burned a plane? Hard to say, planes had not been invented yet. But the topic of burning the plane serves to make it seem that the Luddites targets were the technological results (technology as such) rather than the technological processes that rendered them destitute. Thus it is doubtful that the Luddites would have burned a plane, but they might have targeted the factory producing those planes if it replaced all of the workers therein with automatons. [for more on the history of the Luddites click here]
The treatment that the Luddites receive on The Blacklist is frustrating; however, part of the reason for this is that the treatment is so loose and so vague as to be not wholly inaccurate whilst still coming across as totally wrong. There are really only two lines about the Luddites on the show, and each is such a densely packed mess of exposition and smarminess as to make debating them a topic only of interest to those preoccupied with the history of the Luddites (guilty as charged). Most defenders of the Luddite legacy find themselves engaging in debates about the degree to which the Luddites opposed technology “as such” versus the degree to which they opposed technologies “harmful to commonality” (as one famous Luddite letter put it), yet the technological question hardly enters into The Blacklist.
Though this is hardly too surprising as any program supported by as many advertisements for smartphones and laptops as The Blacklist is going to steer clear of a message that even faintly smells of technological critique.
Indeed, as was stated earlier, obsessing over the usage of “General Ludd” as the group’s name is to miss the point about this episode, it is not a slander against the Luddites…but it is a wholesale attack on leftist activism by the culture industry. Granted, this is what the culture industry does – as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer put it in Dialectic of Enlightenment:
“the culture industry sweeps aside objections to itself along with those to the world it neutrally duplicates. One has only the choice of conforming or being consigned to the backwoods” (Adorno and Horkheimer, 118/119)
“General Ludd” is clearly meant to resonate with recent images of activists from the Occupy Wall Street movement and from Anonymous, and in so doing acts as a warning to those watching at home that such groups are a hotbed of terrorist sleeper cells that at any moment may start blowing up planes. That “General Ludd” aired only a few days after Jeremy Hammond – an activist involved with Occupy and Anonymous – was sentenced to 10 years in prison for exposing governmental misdeeds (non-violently, of course) serves as a darkly ironic twist on The Blacklist – for the activists that The Blacklist tries to cast as dangerous and violent consistently refuse to fit the caricature that the culture industry crafts of them; hence making it all the more important for television to craft such caricatures.
That there is violence present in the history of the original Luddites is undeniable, and that the flash-in-the-pan Neo-Luddites of the early to mid-90s were undermined by their (unjust and media enabled) association with Ted Kaczynski’s spate of anti-technology bombings is also undeniable (though the association is unfair); however, all of this is besides the point in The Blacklist which is a lesson and a tutorial in acceptable “criminality” along with a serious warning. The lesson comes courtesy of the fact that the charismatic criminal Red is the show’s center, and while there is a long tradition in pop culture of glamorizing police and criminals (especially criminal masterminds like Spader’s character), Red stands as a particularly fascinating example. As Red puts it when dressing down Wolf: “I, unlike you, happen to believe in capitalism” – Red may be a dastardly criminal (who murders somebody in the episode) but he’s a capitalist criminal, so how bad can he really be? Thus the danger is not the criminals who function in the system, or the criminality of the system itself, but those who stake out positions outside of the system. A capitalist criminal like Red may be many things, but a systematic threat? Not truly. At the episode’s end Red has stolen the plates for the hundred dollar bill for himself and the viewer is left uncertain as to whether or not he turns them over — regardless the sentiment is clearly that the plates are safe in Red’s hands as his malicious intent is thoroughly capitalist, he poses no threat to the capitalist system for he is simply a manifestation of the system. These are stances that, as Adorno and Horkheimer note, serve to banish individuals of a contrary position “to the backwoods” where, as rendered by The Blacklist, they seem to take up an ideological apprenticeship in Kaczynski’s cabin.
“General Ludd” is a carefully coded warning, one that casts leftist activists as dangerous terrorists who may speak in lofty terms but who are eager to blow up civilians: that is the true message of the episode far more than any historically vapid treatment of the Luddites. The Luddites, in The Blacklist, are simply a cipher, a stand-in that can be used to slander whole sets of diverse activists about whom the uniting factor may be that they have not and do not engage in the types of tactics they are accused of in “General Ludd” (even militant actions such as those staged by the ELF are notable for not targeting people). The trick that “General Ludd” is it portrays some real world systematic problems (the power held by corporations and the like) but then portrays those trying to respond as crazy terrorists, the subtle message: “yeah things are bad…but you know what’s worse: terrorism! And clearly that’s the only possible response.” Which effectively neutralizes that groups like Occupy Wall Street responded to the excesses of capitalism in distinctly non-violent ways.
What arises from The Blacklist is not a flawed reminder of the Luddites, but a reminder of the McCarthy era blacklists used to target those who – non-violently – dared to have an opinion contrary to that of the dominant capitalist ethos. Granted, one can easily imagine the media firestorm that would have ensued had the activists in “Genera Ludd” been portrayed as denizens of the other end of the political spectrum, if the episode had been called “The Tea Party” or “John Galt” it would have been denounced by now in Congress. But just as Red’s character makes clear, the crime is not capitalist criminality – the crime and danger is daring to criticize capitalist criminality. And advancing such stances is a key role of the culture industry, as Thedor Adorno wrote (in Culture Industry Reconsidered):
“the advice to be gained from manifestations of the culture industry is vacuous, banal or worse, and the behavior patterns are shamelessly conformist” (Adorno, 103)
Ultimately the point is not whether or not The Blacklist is a terrible television show, the point is that the ideology it advances is terrible. And contrary to what Red may think he knows about the Luddites…“a true Luddite” would recognize that.
Adorno, Theodor. The Culture Industry. Routledge Classics, 2001.
Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford University Press, 200