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Who’s Afraid of General Ludd?

When a person – or a group of persons – dares to oppose a new technological development it is inevitable that somebody will call them a “Luddite(s).” The application of the term is generally meant as an insult, as the term has been entangled with ideas of backwardness, futile resistance to technology, and opposition to progress. That these societal associations lack grounding in the actual history of the Luddites is besides the point – what matters is that the term can be hurled as an epithet, reducing legitimate grievances to griping, which casts those it targets as “not being with it.”

“It” is, of course, technological progress as dreamed of, designed and driven by those advancing schemes that subject ever more spheres of life and labor to the influence of technology; while pooling the subsequent profits in the hands of the technologies’ owners. This “it” is automation in all of its market-celebrated glory (from actual machines to apps) where workers – including skilled workers – find that their jobs have been carved up (if not outright destroyed). Thus laborers are forced to once more look for work at a time when ever more of the world of work is being subjected to automation. This is the “disruptive” logic of neo-liberal capitalism in technological societies: those in control using new technologies to further concentrate their control and increase their profits.

“Disruption” – for all of its hip veneer is really just another way of saying “the wealthy figuring out new ways to fire workers, extract more money from them, or monetize previously protected spheres.”

The technological promise that automation and new devices would liberate people from the drudgery of work, grant them god-like or super-hero like powers, and free them to pursue whatever it is they would do if they were not always working – is in no way a new promise. This is a vow that continually crops up to justify automation but which always goes unfulfilled – indeed, thinkers like Jacques Ellul and Lewis Mumford were warning against this false promise decades before anybody had ever heard of the Internet. For automation has not freed people from unpleasant labor, instead what it has done is further enrich those at the top (those who design or own the machines). While the champions of automation generally crow that “these people will get newer, better jobs” – such is largely a lie they need to tell society so that they can paint what they are doing as “creative destruction” instead of simply “profitable destruction.” After all, as technology and automation steadily encroach upon “safe” professions the new jobs people are often forced to take are generally a step down, and that is if the jobs even exist.

When those involved in the tech sector are asked, “what profession will technology disrupt/make obsolete next” – there is little if any thought given to the people being “disrupted.” Such a concern could be shrugged off – perhaps – if those being “disrupted” were genuinely being freed to live a life of technologically supported leisure, but the only ones enjoying such leisure tend to be those being asked to extol on the wonders of “disruption.”

In such a status quo one can understand why some might begin to question this technological view of progress; and one can appreciate why a worker threatened with being automated out of a job may express their outrage. At this point it is quite clear to whom the benefits of automation accrue.

Though separated by two centuries there is a certain resonance between the historic conditions that produced the original Luddites and the current conditions that are earning some critics the label “Luddites.” The historic Luddites – active in England between 1811 and 1813 – were skilled laborers who saw in the encroaching technologies a set of machines and techniques that would impoverish them and their communities, whilst making the machine owners rich. The Luddites were not opposed to technology, or to machinery, but they were opposed to the deployment of technology in such a way that it eviscerated the lives of many for the profits of the few. When attempts to appeal to the government for assistance failed the Luddites were forced to rely on other means – means that would make them famous – they engaged in what the historian Eric Hobsbawm has called:

“collective bargaining by riot” (Hobsbawm, 59)

They destroyed the machines – which is really just another way of saying that the Luddites committed the ultimate and unspeakable sin: the Luddites disrupted back.

When the “good news” of technology becomes the catechism of the market, opposition becomes heretical. Thus, it is somewhat inevitable that the term Luddite starts cropping up with increasing frequency. For it functions as a simple put-down for those who dare question technological progress – it carries a taunting threat “look at these fools who do not want to share in technological progress.” Though it is a taunt that generally ignores that it is precisely because these people are not fooled by the myth of a “share in technological progress” that they are speaking up. Progress is not a neutral term, and what may be “progress” from the view of tech companies, venture capitalists, and business owners is not necessarily going to be “progress” from the view of displaced workers (to say nothing of a blighted ecosystem).

Of late, the term Luddite has been appearing with renewed frequency – as futurist investors denounce those who would dare question technology – but also in direct reaction to a group of workers resorting to direct action to express their fury over a new technology. The most recent group of workers to be tarred is taxi drivers (largely in Europe) responding to the app “Uber.” This is another iteration of the tale of a group of skilled workers finding their trade “disrupted” by a tech firm that does not have any concern for workers or their communities, but is certain that there is profit to be made. Though companies like Uber represent a new front in the battle of technological automation – the “sharing economy” is really just putting a positive spin on the same old capitalism. Having enclosed the commons the technology driven market is now moving on to enclose the personal (“your car/apartment can be monetized” [which is “renting” not “sharing”]).

While the historic Luddites are all dead at this point (thus, nobody is really a “Luddite” these days) the taxi drivers are in some ways branches off the Luddite family tree: they clearly do not oppose all technology, but are opposed to the usage of technology in such a way that will benefit a sliver of wealthy individuals while giving no concern to those being economically harmed. That taxi drivers are expected to follow certain government laws and regulations while Uber seeks to sneak by them represents not a liberal appeal to government for restitution but proof of the ways in which neo-liberal capital is weighted in favor of business.

Yet, at the base of all of the “Luddite” name-calling there simmers a subtle if significant aspect to all of these insults. Though many who deploy the term “Luddite” most effectively as a put-down have learned to acknowledge one or two historic facts, it is what is unacknowledged by them about the Luddites that is most important. For two essential things for people to know about the historic Luddite are that: firstly, the Luddites were a mass movement with broad public support in their communities (and on a broader scale); and secondly, the Luddites defeat was not because the new machines delivered on the promise of a better life for the community; instead the Luddites were defeated when the machine owners called in the army/magistrates/hired guns to violently suppress the Luddites (many Luddites were hanged or “transported” [sent abroad as punishment]). It should not be ignored that the Luddites engaged in violent acts themselves – but the Luddites responded with the tools they had for countering the economic violence (and physical violence) being perpetrated against them and their kin.

To restate: the Luddites were a movement with sufficiently strong support in their communities that the arrival of men with guns was required to force their compliance. The significance of these two factors lurks under the surface of current attempts to defame critics of technology – for they point to what may be the undergirding emotional aspect of hurling the term “Luddite” as a derogatory.

That emotion?

Fear, or at least paranoia.

Fear that people are no longer falling for the ruse (or the “bribe” as Lewis Mumford put it) that automation and new technology will lead to more autonomy and more wealth for all. Fear that people enjoy technology but are becoming suspicious of the way that it seems to disrupt everything except the rule of rich white men. Fear that technology is pushing too far and too fast and that it might inspire an oppositional movement. And most of all, the fear that such a movement can catch on.

Our current historical moment is one wherein a space is opening wider and wider in which a movement critical of technology (which is not the same as being anti-technology [as such]) can grow. From the threats of automation looming over once “safe” career fields, to the recognition that our digital devices are empowering a massive surveillance operation, to new devices that strike people as transparent examples of tech designer’s lack of interest in what people think, to a world threatened by ecological destruction (much of which is the result of thoughtless use of technology) – this is a moment at which people are primed to hear a critique of technology. Especially as tech firms drown in money whilst venture capitalists and Wall Street froth at the mouth – people can see that behind the shiny ideology of modern technology sit the descendents (at least in spirit) of the machine owners who have been enriching themselves by “disrupting” the lives of the less powerful for hundreds of years. At a time when a dense economic tome about inequality can become a surprise best seller even as tech firms merrily purchase competitors for billions the old Luddite saying “no general but Ludd means the poor any good” returns with a certain unnerving truth. After all, the tech firms might happily bring out all manner of new “goods” but their “disruptive” mantra makes it clear that they have no interest in “the good.” One of the better-known Luddite letters sets up this opposition magnificently:

“we will never lay down our Arms. The House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality, and repeal that to hang Frame Breakers.” (quoted in Binfield, 210)

The key terms are “Machinery hurtful to Commonality” – this anonymous author is not raging against all machinery, but against that which harms the community. Which may be another way of saying against that which is “thoughtlessly disruptive.” Thus the Luddites did not align themselves as enemies of progress – far from it – they were simply sophisticated enough to recognize that progress does not count for much if all that it represents is the progressive growth of the coffers of the rich. To emphasize “commonality” in questions about machinery is to break away from the tantalizing allure of “the goods” to focus once more on a notion of “the good” and to have the audacity to state that many of the new technologies on offer are simply new schemes by which the rich will get richer.

Whenever the term “Luddite” appears as an insult it acts less as a reflection of the motives of those being slurred and more as a reflection of the fears of the person delivering the insult. But far from undermining Luddism, all that these insults do is underscore the tremendous power that a critique of technology couched in “commonality” can still command.

The grave threat of Luddism – the reason it must always be insulted and sneered at by those who celebrate “disruption” – is that Luddites represent the greatest fear of those being made rich in technological society: that the disrupted may dare to disrupt back.

 

Works Cited

Binfield, Kevin (Editor). Writings of the Luddites. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004.

Hobsbawm, E.J. “The Machine Breakers.” Past & Present, no. 1 (Feb, 1952) 57-70.

Related Content

Luddism for these Ludicrous Times

Disrupt Everything! As long as it’s profitable…

The Curious Case of “Reform Luddism”

From Ned to Ted to Red – General Ludd gets Blacklisted

The Specter of General Ludd at SXSW

[Looking for more on the history of the Luddites? E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class may be the classic work on the topic; though if you’re looking for something shorter you might consider Peter Linebaugh’s Ned Ludd & Queen Mab (which has recently been re-printed in Linebaugh’s collection Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosure, and Resistance)]

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About TheLuddbrarian

“I have no illusions that my arguments will convince anyone.” - Ellul librarianshipwreck.wordpress.com @libshipwreck

18 comments on “Who’s Afraid of General Ludd?

  1. doughill50
    June 21, 2014

    Thank you for this excellent essay.

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  5. Thanks for this thought-provoking read. You have spoken to my skeptical side, which I often find trying to reconcile my frequent use of technology with my concerns about it.

    You also made me think of this essay: http://www.themodernword.com/pynchon/pynchon_essays_luddite.html

    As an engineer, Pynchon understands technology, but in his fiction he exhibits an intense but very nuanced skepticism towards it.

  6. Dina
    July 5, 2014

    This is well-researched and provocative essay, and I really appreciate you voicing a critical perspective on how technology effects labor.

    You mention Uber as an example of disruptive tech, compassionlessly ruining the livelihoods of people working in the classic taxi industry. While I cannot speak for the state of private transportation services in Europe, in a place like San Francisco, Uber has provided a much-need alternative to a local cab industry where unreliabilty and deplorable customer service had become de rigeur. Just two months ago a Yellow Cab driver sped off with my laptop while I had stepped out of the vehicle for one of the two stops we’d agreed to make during my trip. I had to have building security track down the vehicle number from security footage before anyone at Yellow Cab SF would be helpful, and eventually my laptop was returned. Not to mention, Uber drivers in the Bay Area with whom I have spoken are widely pleased by how well they are paid and how much flexibility they have to make their own schedules. The potential for disruptive technology to enrich our lives with better jobs and services is real and in the case of Uber in San Francisco it’s certainly been realized.

    However, there seem to be many more examples of tech companies failing to reach this vision, or not aiming for it at all. In a recent TechCrunch article, Josh Constine comments on “a compassionless new wave of self-serving startups that exploit small businesses and public infrastructure to make a buck and aid the wealthy.” It’s a great read, a bit frightening actually, and highly relevant to your essay as it identifies exactly the kind of regressive attempts at “progress” you discuss:
    http://techcrunch.com/2014/07/03/go-disrupt-yourself

    I feel like the movement of technology is as unstoppable as the capitalist obsession for greater and greater margins. I think the best thing we can do is teach people how to learn, stay curious, and engaged with the ever changing work environment. If business owners and founders are thinking innovatively about profit, laborers would do well to follow-suit about refining and growing their skills.

  7. Richard Silver
    July 8, 2014

    An interesting historic & social insight! Thanks for the reading.
    Now I have to think out loud…

    The problem here is with the term ‘Commonality’ in ‘Machinery hurtful to commonality’. Of course, the Luddites were seeking protection from themselves (their business, livelihood) and it’s the exactly same case with taxi drivers protesting against Uber.

    But there might be dozens or hundreds of different groups who could feel (or could have felt) threatened by various aspects of evolution. In the recent past a mailman might have been endangered by the internet and emails, musicians or theater actors by TV, radio, digital media carriers, etc.

    There’s always someone endangered, but how do you define how far the protection of individual groups should go?

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  18. darkfader
    March 1, 2017

    And that would nicely explain why people high a high level of “job-related” education are just so wunderfully prone to praise the machine god and push away any request to reflect, or think. It’s not like they disagree, they might only have this one direction of education. Which is of course not a totally bad thing if it allows you to be free of doubt, to never accept any responsibility for indirect consequences of your – repeated like a literal constant drop of water on the stone.
    If they understood, they would need to question and act.
    Safer to just step harder on those under your boot.

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