Vindicating the Luddites

I have for so long held the same ground – roughly where the anarchic end of Chestertonian Distributism overlaps the individualist end of Proudhonian Mutualism – that I am willing to go so far as to propose as a rule that getting it in the neck from both sides of a false dichotomy is a strong indication that one might be doing something right. Conservatives see me as a full-blown flag-waving Red; communists see me as either a shill or a brainwashed zombie for Capital – and whatever the case I cannot simultaneously be both. If as a matter of course I identify with the Left, it is not only because I share the Left’s concerns and broad ultimate aim, but also because “centrism” – as indeed claims in general to transcend the left-right spectrum as such – is today too often a euphemism for regions of the Right.

My ambivalence towards Karl Marx likewise places me in an unenviable position. My opinion of Marx’s work is that it is extremely valuable but deeply flawed. This makes me hated by the two mainstream responses to Marx: on the one hand the orthodox Marxists for whom Marx’s thought represents the final fulfillment of all political philosophy, for whom Marx’s philosophy of history automatically validates all subsequent orthodox Marxist thinking in advance, and for whom no critique of Marx is conceivable except from a position of ignorance; and on the other those for whom Marx is the literal antichrist, who hold that not a single sentence in Marx could be true lest the world end. Indeed the matter at hand now is one where Marx came within a hair’s breadth of getting it right – but it was, tragically, a hair’s breadth which might have made all the difference.

There is debate as to whether or not Marx was a technological determinist. Marx’s dialectical method would predispose us to expect that his position would be that the political determines the technological as much as the technological determines the political. And he does indeed say exactly that, once or twice. But he then proceeds to construct an elaborate theory on the basis of the latter movement of his dialectic while reducing the former movement to little more than a footnote. If Marx had said that the Factory sprang fully formed from the brow of History (i.e. of Chronos as a deity, as Jacques Maritain saw) his resulting schema could scarce have been different. One morning the Factory was simply there in a cardboard box between oddly-shaped bits of polystyrene foam, and by teatime everyone who had sixpence to invest was poring over the accompanying user’s manual, titled Capitalism. Like a cargo cult.

Did Marx entertain such a vision of technological Forms divinely ordained, however dimly? Did that inform his hand-waving dismissal of independent artisanal manufacture as irrelevant? Is that – or rather the mere fact that he was a political theorist and not an inventor or an artisan –why he was unable to envision independent artisanal manufacture of a radically different technological kind? Or had he too much invested in the macro-historical rise of “combined labour” to consider the possibility?

Whatever the case, we are today saddled with the image of proud, sovereign Technology marching where it would, pursued by breathless Capital, latterly proclaimed by Marxism and Madison Avenue alike. If the image were not so familiar to us it would have been blindingly obvious that it is wrong.

There have of late been a number of efforts to reassess the Luddites of early 19th century England, to redeem them from their popular status as a byword for cloud-cursing technophobic reaction. Of these, I am most eager to read Gavin Mueller’s 2021 book, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites are Right about Why You Hate Your Job. As I have not yet had the opportunity to read it, I do not know to what extent Mueller covers the same points I am making here, though excerpts I have seen are promising.

The historical Luddites were not technophobes. They were instead technical experts in their field, intimately familiar with the technology of their industry. Their programme of destructive protest was not indiscriminate but specifically targeted those enterprises which most flagrantly exploited cheap labour. It was driven not by philosophical objections to “progress” in the abstract: the Luddites did not oppose what we today call “technological unemployment” but the imposition of an entirely new regime of economic relations through the capitalists’ manipulation of technology. It was a worker’s movement, but most accounts of the history fail to place it adequately in the context of the Inclosure Act of 1773 less than four decades before, itself a piece of enabling legislation designed to streamline and accelerate the piecemeal enclosures of commons which had been occurring by Acts of Parliament with increasing frequency since the beginning of the 17th century. Indeed the Luddite movement was not unprecedented, but part of a series of worker’s rebellions which tended to trail the process of enclosure by about half a century. This process had changed not only the social proportionality but the very shape of the prevailing economic regime. 

Most saliently, the enclosures had the effect of releasing a substantial superabundance of cheap available labour for hire onto the economic landscape. The seminal importance of this process cannot be overstated. A historically engineered excess of available labour remains the single most central socio-economic fact the world over to this day.

The image of technology arising spontaneously out of history, even if mediated by scientific discovery, makes it hard for us to grasp how the combination of increased concentration of capital in land and abundant cheap labour determined the palette of expedients available to technological innovators at the time of the Industrial Revolution. The innovations which eventually came to happen were those which enabled capitalists to exploit the availability of cheap labour, through a production model based on the wage employment of large groups of people by a small elite. All innovation was ultimately expected to serve this goal and everything else was allowed to fade, if not actively nipped or stifled. There was nothing spontaneous and nothing inevitable about it. And technology has thus increasingly been a hot-house growth cultivated for the advantage of capital ever since.

The technological state of the textile industry in the time preceding the Luddite rebellion had indeed not been static. The textile workers who would become the Luddites had hitherto actively embraced technological innovations which made their work less onerous, less time-consuming, and less perilous, and doubtless anticipated enjoying further such innovations in the future. They objected not to innovations such as these, but to innovations specifically developed to be incompatible with their organizational model. The increasingly common use of these latter innovations by capitalists placed these independent weavers in a position of having to compete against the stolen labour of desperate former subsistence farmers, often leaving them with little option but to abandon their long-cultivated trade and take employment at whatever wage the capitalists chose to pay them. The Luddites faced not only the loss of their modest wealth but also the diminution of their status from respected independent artisans to de-facto slaves.

Insult was soon added to this injury through the development of a linear model of technological development. Objective improvement is the only driver of technological change, and that no development has ever been possible except that which did in fact happen as well as that this is inevitable, sovereign, and self-ontological – a contextless process unto itself. Was this model known to Marx when he began to write about these matters only decades after the end of the Luddite rebellion? Was he aware of the Luddites at all? If so, how did he fail to see the interest the British authorities had, having quelled the movement with considerable violence, in painting the Luddites as madmen raging against the obviously inevitable, against “progress” as automatic as the rising and setting of the sun? Did Marx miss this “ruling idea” of the “ruling classes” or was it merely convenient for him to ignore it?

Thus to recap, four observations are missing from most accounts of the historical Luddite movement:

  1. The historical context of the movement is the establishment – at an unprecedented scale through the Enclosures of the Commons – of the wage system as the overwhelming default economic relation, and not a mere proportional change in the relations of employers to employees.
  2. The Luddites did not object to the introduction of “technology” where there had been “none,” but to the enclosure, to the benefit of capital, of the possible types of technology which could thenceforth be developed — which has been a central aspect of capitalism from the start.
  3. Ideas prevailing today about the development of technology, its relation to scientific discovery, the nature of history, etc. have fairly obvious historical political origins.
  4. Technology developed for capitalism actively displaced other possible technological trajectories, raising counterfactual questions about the technology we’ve missed out on over the years.

There does seem to be a shift in emphasis at present, from inevitability to possibility, in many fields of study. The theoretical framework of the Social Construction of Technology was developed in the 1990s and invites further elaboration. More recently this shift was a pervasive tenor in The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber and David Wengrow: the idea that early humanity was not bound as much by fixed, necessary processes as formerly supposed, but instead characterized by a profusion of extremely diverse experimentation. In engineering and design it ought to tell us that technological possibility is not restricted to the very growth-tip presented to us by capitalism, but can happen at any point in a wealth of technological history, given a thorough understanding of what we variously actually want to achieve. This is what the history of the Luddites ought to reveal.

This means that we are able to reconsider the point in, say, the history of the wind turbine, where the lift-and-drag device augmented the pure drag device, and ask ourselves if the subsequent pursuit of pure lift devices in the name of abstract efficiency was not misguided in light of whole socio-technological systems. What did that do to the economic-political powerscape? Might intensive development of drag-(plus-lift) devices perhaps have served our real needs, the needs of ordinary people, better? The state of the art in windmills as of, say, 1900 is amply documented: there are numerous sites at which to graft the benefit of subsequent discovery.

In terms of the obstacles to releasing this deluge of possibility, a particularly difficult one is the tendency to think in a design language determined by the technological requirements of capitalist industry. The evolution of techniques of design illustration has been shaped by these requirements, as can be seen in the widespread adoption of felt-tip pens from the ‘60s. The tendency of these pens to bleed at the beginnings and ends of lines suited the small corner radii dictated by the design language of injection-moulded thermoplastic. Drawings created in this way almost necessarily depicted injection-moulded plastic objects and, exemplifying as they did by their look and feel the work of professional designers, created an expectation that expertly designed objects should embody the design language of injection-moulded plastic. Subsequent changes to techniques of rendering have likewise determined this appearance of designedness, always reflecting the chosen production technology of capitalist industry.

To take one example of very many, there are plastics materials with truly incredible capabilities, but that is not the reason why the Modern Widget is made of plastic. The plastic widget is often objectively worse than the wooden, metal, ceramic, etc. widget which common sense would dictate. The Modern Widget is made of plastic because, contrary to all logic, it is cheaper; and it is cheaper because generating an abundant supply of artificially cheap plastic is one of the ways in which heavily capitalized extractive petrochemical industries in hostile territories are kept alive (among other things). These are the most cynical of reasons, yet we seem incapable of imagining a better widget – a revolutionary widget, a future widget – without automatically imagining that it will be mass-produced shoddily in polypropylene. Ascetically renouncing plastic is no good: we need to be able to imagine the use of plastics materials where they actually make sense, which will represent a drastically smaller scale of production than is currently the case, and carry with it the challenge of making these materials, and indeed better ones, in such small quantities. Hopefully we are simultaneously envisioning a far greater number of people free to be clever enough to do that.

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