Luddites against capitalist technology

Posted: 21 March 2011 in Uncategorized
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Luddites were not opposed to the use of technology. They were critical of capitalist technology.

Being a Luddite has come to have two contemporary meanings, both wrong. First, it is often invoked to refer to people who want to “unplug” and otherwise refrain from using modern technologies. As Richard Conniff makes clear, the original Luddites—of King Ludd and Enoch fame—were opposed not to technology per se but to the capitalist use of technologies against workers.

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. Moreover, the idea of smashing machines as a form of industrial protest did not begin or end with them. . .

One technology the Luddites commonly attacked was the stocking frame, a knitting machine first developed more than 200 years earlier by an Englishman named William Lee. Right from the start, concern that it would displace traditional hand-knitters had led Queen Elizabeth I to deny Lee a patent. Lee’s invention, with gradual improvements, helped the textile industry grow—and created many new jobs. But labor disputes caused sporadic outbreaks of violent resistance. Episodes of machine-breaking occurred in Britain from the 1760s onward, and in France during the 1789 revolution.

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.

In other words, they were suspicious of attempts on the part of industrialists to create a new system of capitalist markets and production that would abolish set prices and make workers into the appendages of machines.

The term is also used as a epithet—the Luddite Fallacy—against those who, in the view of neoclassical economists, wrongly presume that labor-saving technologies increase unemployment. Like the mill owners of the early nineteenth century, neoclassical economists today refuse to see that capitalist technological change can and often does boost profits at the expense of workers, and that capitalism cannot guarantee—either for groups of displaced workers or for workers as a whole—that the combination of increased productivity and declining prices will lead to or maintain full employment.

The modern-day lesson of Luddism is not that new technologies should be shunned. It’s that the particularly capitalist use of new technologies means that those who have no say either in what technologies are invented or how they will be used will often pay the costs.

As the Luddites are reputed to have said, “Enoch med ’em an’ Enoch shall brek ’em.”

Comments
  1. Toby Miller says:

    The argument re Ludd is wel made in Thomas Pynchon’s famous 1984 New York Times book review marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Two Cultures, by CP Snow–another true son of Leicester. Pynchon explains the anti-capitalist nature of Luddism and contrast it with the vicious anti-workerism of Lord Byron. Read Pynchon’s most accessible-ever prose!

  2. […] Pynchon certainly understood the Luddites, as Toby Miller reminds us, and wrote about them in a remarkably prescient essay in 1984. Now, given that kind of […]

  3. Alisin Weis says:

    If you have the chance, listen to a podcast of NPR’s “This American Life” installment “Where your Crap Comes From.” Mike Daisey visits a factory complex in China and interviews workers who make electronics for Apple and other tech-heavy companies. Shocking stuff: child labor, nets around buildings due to thousands of suicide jumpers. I am in despair over the marriage of capitalism with totalitarian control over a labor force of hundreds of millions of people.

  4. David F. Ruccio says:

    Thanks, Alison. I heard the report yesterday and have already planned to include it in the new course I’m teaching this spring, titled “Commodities: The Making of Market Society.”

  5. […] problem is not, as Brynjolfsson and Skidelsky well understand (and the Luddites, too), getting more stuff for less work. It’s when the existing set of economic institutions […]

  6. […] that’s an old problem, which was confronted by forces as diverse as the Luddites and the John L. Lewis-led United Mineworkers of America, none of which was opposed to the use of […]

  7. […] that’s an old problem, which was confronted by forces as diverse as the Luddites and the John L. Lewis-led United Mineworkers of America, none of which was opposed to the use of […]

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