Lessons of the Luddites

Eliane Glaser writes: Two hundred years ago this month, groups of artisan cloth workers began to assemble at night on the moors around towns in Nottinghamshire. Proclaiming allegiance to the mythical King Ludd of Sherwood Forest, and sometimes subversively cross-dressed in frocks and bonnets, the Luddites organised machine-wrecking raids on textile factories that quickly spread across the north of England. The government mobilised the army and made frame breaking a capital offence: the uprisings were subdued by the summer of 1812.

Contrary to modern assumptions, the Luddites were not opposed to technology itself. They were opposed to the particular way it was being applied. After all, stocking frames had been around for 200 years by the time the Luddites came along, and they weren’t the first to smash them up. Their protest was specifically aimed at a new class of manufacturers who were aggressively undermining wages, dismantling workers’ rights and imposing a corrosive early form of free trade. To prove it, they selectively destroyed the machines owned by factory managers who were undercutting prices, leaving the other machines intact.

The original Luddites enjoyed strong local backing as well as high-profile support from Lord Byron and Mary Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein alludes to the industrial revolution’s dark side. But in the digital age, Luddism as a position is barely tenable. Just as we assume that the original Luddites were simply technophobes, it’s become unthinkable to countenance any broader political objections to contemporary technology’s direction of travel.

The promoters of internet technology combine visionary enthusiasm and like-it-or-not realism. So dissent is dismissed as either an irrational rejection of progress or a refusal to face the inevitable. It’s the realism that’s particularly hard to counter; the notion that technology is an unstoppable and non-negotiable force entirely separate from human agency. There’s not much time for political critique if you’re constantly being told that “the world is changing fast and you have to keep up”. Which is a bit rich given that politics infuses the arguments of even technology’s purest advocates.

As Slavoj Žižek has noted, the language of internet advocacy – phrases like “the unlimited flow of information” and “the marketplace of ideas” – mirrors the language of free-market economics. But techno-prophets also use the lingo of leftwing revolution. It’s there in books such as James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds and Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, and in Vodafone’s slogan, “Power to You”; in the notion that blogs, Twitter and newspaper comment threads create a level playing field in the public debate; and it’s there in the countless magazine features about how the internet fosters grassroots protest, places the tools of cultural production in amateurs’ hands, and allows the little guy immediate access to information that keeps political leaders on their toes. This is not Adam Smith, it’s Marx and Mao.

In fact, both rhetorics – of the free market and of bottom-up emancipation – serve to conceal the rise of crony capitalism and the concentration of power and money at the top. Google is busily acquiring “all the world’s information”. Facebook is gathering our personal data for the coming world of personalised advertising. Amazon is monopolising the book trade. The abandonment of net neutrality means corporate control of the web. Once all our books, music, pictures and information are stored in the cloud, it will be owned by a handful of conglomerates.

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One thought on “Lessons of the Luddites

  1. Norman

    Does this imply that as everything moves to the cloud, control is in the hands of the few, are those few then the same as the Luddites of old? Losing net neutrality becomes just what took place in Hitlers time when he burned those piles of books, as when mayor Bloomberg had the police bulldoze the 5,000 plus books the other night in Zuccotti Park? This all seems to be a prelude to a show down, though I really can’t understand why the use of past methods of repression by the few will achieve their desired results, instead of hastening the reemergence of the Guillotine! One thing is for sure, the oligarchy are the Luddites today, not the masses.

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