Articles and Essays by Mark Engler
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The Luddites Revisited

Since it is the 200th anniversary of the British Luddite protests this month, that movement has been getting some attention. Some of it has raised the valid and interesting question of whether those demonstrators of old should really be described as anti-technology.

Those of us who have been involved in global justice protests have gotten used to being labeled Luddites by advocates of corporate globalization. A main strategy for enforcing the idea that “There Is No Alternative” to neoliberal policies of radical deregulation and privatization has been to paint critics of such policies as backward-looking hypocrites. Right-winger Jonah Goldberg penned a prototypical example of this back in 2000, criticizing demonstrations at the World Bank:

This is the real irony of these protests. These Very Serious Young People, who espouse a hatred of all that is modern, themselves reap the fruits of the very system they despise….They spoke on cell phones by Nokia and drank coffee made from beans grown in Colombia. They organized over an Internet that is the central nervous system of the new global economy they oppose…

This argument was ridiculous from the start. Global justice protesters never opposed modernity; they merely had the gall to ask whether a global society should be managed by and for multinational corporations. As part of a fundamentally transnational movement—linking environmentalists, unionists, indigenous rights, and other activists across borders—they proposed a very different type of internationalism than the one favored by the U.S. Treasury Department and the International Monetary Fund.

As the historians among us will already know, the Luddites have been similarly slandered. They did not oppose technology per se, but rather asked some important questions about the ends to which new technological discoveries were being used and who in society would benefit from them.

Over at Smithsonian, Richard Conniff writes of that movement, which was led by a fictional commander named “General” Ned Ludd:

Despite their modern reputation, the original Luddites were neither opposed to technology nor inept at using it. Many were highly skilled machine operators in the textile industry. Nor was the technology they attacked particularly new….

The Luddite disturbances started in circumstances at least superficially similar to our own. British working families at the start of the 19th century were enduring economic upheaval and widespread unemployment. A seemingly endless war against Napoleon’s France had brought “the hard pinch of poverty,” wrote Yorkshire historian Frank Peel, to homes “where it had hitherto been a stranger.” Food was scarce and rapidly becoming more costly. Then, on March 11, 1811, in Nottingham, a textile manufacturing center, British troops broke up a crowd of protesters demanding more work and better wages.

That night, angry workers smashed textile machinery in a nearby village. Similar attacks occurred nightly at first, then sporadically, and then in waves, eventually spreading across a 70-mile swath of northern England from Loughborough in the south to Wakefield in the north. Fearing a national movement, the government soon positioned thousands of soldiers to defend factories. Parliament passed a measure to make machine-breaking a capital offense….

As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.“

Conniff concludes by noting that arguments about technology (much like those about international economic policy) often come down to legitimate debates over values:

Getting past the myth and seeing [the Luddites’] protest more clearly is a reminder that it’s possible to live well with technology—but only if we continually question the ways it shapes our lives. It’s about small things, like now and then cutting the cord, shutting down the smartphone and going out for a walk. But it needs to be about big things, too, like standing up against technologies that put money or convenience above other human values. If we don’t want to become, as Carlyle warned, “mechanical in head and in heart,” it may help, every now and then, to ask which of our modern machines General and Eliza Ludd would choose to break. And which they would use to break them.

One of the more prominent supporters of the Luddites in the U.S. today is poet-farmer Wendell Berry. I wrote a profile of Berry back in 2004, on the occasion of his seventieth birthday:

[Berry writes:] “Like almost everybody else, I am hooked to the energy corporations, which I do not admire. I hope to become less hooked to them. In my work, I try to be as little hooked to them as possible. As a farmer, I do almost all of my work with horses. As a writer, I work with pencil or a pen and a piece of paper.”

Thus began the essay that, perhaps more than any other, has generated controversy and criticism for Wendell Berry: his 1987 work, “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer.” As far back as [his landmark 1977 book] The Unsettling of America, some supporters had suggested that Berry’s unabashed admiration of the Amish gave his detractors too easy a target. But it was the writer’s rejection of Windows and Mac that really hit a nerve. The essay, which was published in Harper’s, prompted a spray of derisive letters.

Berry was undeterred. Then as now, when branded a Luddite, Berry rises to the group’s defense. “These were people who dared to assert that there were needs and values that justly took precedence over industrialization,” he writes; “they were people who rejected the determinism of technological innovation and economic exploitation.”

We would do well to maintain such skepticism today, Berry contends. He does not reject new inventions out of hand. He flies in airplanes, drives a car, and cuts wood with a chainsaw. But he is not willing to accept technological “advances” for their own sake. He challenges us to ask “what higher aim” each new innovation serves, and what its likely impact on our communities will be.

At the end of his essay on “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” Berry puts forth a set of standards that he uses to evaluate the adoption of new tools. While I don’t believe that these serve as particularly practical rules to live by, I’ve found that they are a trusty means of provoking lively discussion about the many new devices that come into our lives each year. Berry believes that:

1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces.

2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces.

3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces.

4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces.

5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body.

6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools.

7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible.

8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair.

9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.

***

On a closing aside: the publication for which I wrote the essay on Wendell Berry, Grist magazine, likes to use irreverent humor and often includes puns as subtitles in articles. In the Berry profile, for the section that included mention of the unfair modern-day reception of Ned Ludd and the Luddite movement, I had proposed the subtitle, “You Give Ludd a Bad Name.”

I was pretty proud of that one, but the editors saw fit to cut it.

Given that several years have now passed, it is probably too late for readers to protest this grave journalistic injustice. But I will nonetheless appreciate your votes of sympathy.

 

Mark Engler, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus, is author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books). He can be reached via the web site www.DemocracyUprising.com.
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