Luddites’ 200th anniversary comes at a timely moment, because, at
the beginning of the 21st century, the consequences of the whole
industrial capitalist path of development that began with the
Industrial Revolution are becoming so severe that millions of people
are coming to doubt its mythology of progress. From global warming,
resource depletion and biodiversity extinction to epidemics of mental
and stress-related illness, drug addiction and crime, these
inevitable products of industrial society are becoming impossible to
ignore. Now, as then, along with their benefits science and
technology often empower the powerful and marginalise the weak,
create unemployment, deskilling and dependency, destroy whole ways of
life and communities based upon them and create massive environmental
and health damage, generally to the most vulnerable.
many of the problems mentioned above are widely understood as being
the result of our free-market/industrial society, the crucial role of
science and technology within that system is often not well
understood. What makes the Luddite revolt so important was that it
highlighted the crucial importance of technology. As the great
apologist for industrialism, Andrew Ure, wrote in 1835, ‘This
invention …. confirms the great doctrine already propounded, that
when capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of
labour will always be taught docility.’ Because the Luddites so
shockingly exposed this best-kept secret of industrial capitalism
they have been subjected to the harshest ridicule, and have been
painted not just as another bunch of upstart troublemakers, but as
idiotic opponents of progress, people who ‘want to go back to the
stone-age’. Yet capital intensification, ie. the displacement of
labour by capital (machines) relentlessly continues to create
unemployment. In the 21st century, through digital technology, it is set to create major social
and economic problems.
celebrating the Luddites’ anniversary, therefore, we are trying to
shine a spotlight on technology itself. But of course, what the
Luddites were facing was not merely new machines but a whole new
political and socio-economic regime built around them, the Industrial
Revolution. The key political elements were free market economics and
a ban on trade unions. As the writer Kirkpatrick Sale puts it, the
Luddites were rebelling not against machines, but against ‘The
Machine’. Likewise, today, when people say they are ‘a slave to
their computer’, they do not mean it literally: of course, they
know they can turn the machine off, but what they are pointing to is
the way in which computers have facilitated a whole regime of
working, a speed of response and a set of standards and expectations
of personal performance. These are demanded as part of a whole social
regime that is very hard to resist of evade. In talking about the
politics of technology we are not trying to demonise or blame
inanimate objects: rather, we need to ask what values and interests
technology embodies, what kind of world does it imply, what systems
does it fit into and stabilise?
the Industrial Revolution, the idea that controlling nature through
technology automatically produces progress has become so widely
accepted that it has become unconscious, a kind of common sense that
is rarely questioned. Liberals of all shades and socialists
(especially Marxists) have made that dogma central to their entire
philosophy. The left has also often abandoned its traditions of
critical thinking and acquiesced in the liberal myth that science and
technology are somehow neutral, and free of the effects of social
power interests. As a result it is often difficult to have a balanced
and informed debate about policy issues. Yet despite the apparent
consensus, or perhaps because the consensus is so rigid, there is
still great unease about new technologies and this sometimes results
in a powerful backlash against new technologies, as for example in
the cases of food irradiation and genetic engineering.
of the worst aspects of the mythology of neutral and inherently
progressive science and technology is the development of a
technocratic class and general ideology, that sees science as the
solution to all social problems. The problem with this is that
technocrats tend to describe and frame social problems so that they
may be solved through technology. Thus, for example, hunger caused by
poverty due to unjust societies and economic policies is seen as due
to a lack of food, caused by low crop yields: the solution is
therefore genetic engineering of crop plants. Likewise, depression
and other mental ‘illness’ becomes a biological problem in
individual brains, to be treated with drugs, rather than a symptom of
oppression and the social conditions created by industrial
capitalism. In general, technocratic solutions involve the creation
of a new product which can be sold by corporations. The result of
this technocratic mindset is a distortion of policy and an avoidance
of difficult social issues. But inevitably, the solution generates
its own problem, since it does not address the real causes of the
original problem, and so another generation of technofixes, such as
'carbon capture’, or ‘ geoengineering’ is proposed. This
ongoing process is called progress.
even the most cursory inspection reveals that technology is anything
but ‘neutral’ and it is anything but inevitable which
technologies end up in widespread use. In fact, technologies are
extensively socially shaped, especially by those who develop them,
and since the developers are generally corporate or military,
technologies tend to primarily serve their interests, even though
people always find ways to turn technology to their own purposes,
e.g. in the use of the internet to enable the recent revolutions in
the Arab world. Another way of saying this is that power relations
are embedded in all technologies, yet they are hidden by a façade of
neutrality. In their turn, technologies create far reaching changes
in society, generally in ways that suit the interests of the
developers. In this way, the central process in the development of
our societies, the process of capitalist modernisation, escapes
democratic control and becomes the preserve of technocratic elites.
repeatedly sets up a situation in which these elites then try to
impose the new technologies on society. Most of the time, however,
ordinary people tend to accept the 'inevitability' of technological
change and the social upheaval and degradation of old values and ways
of life that it causes: as the sign above the 1933 Chicago World Fair
proudly proclaimed ‘Science Discovers, Technology Executes, Man
Conforms’. Because the technocrats are taking the initiative they
put their critics in the position of having to defend existing
arrangements, and can therefore always portray themselves as
progressive, and their opponents as ‘backwards-looking’ and
“reactionary”. But as one of the Luddite songs says, ‘that
foul Imposition alone was the cause, which produced these unhappy effects’.
Likewise, a very strong element in the opposition of the British
public to GM foods was indignation that corporations such as Monsanto
were introducing these new foods without ever having consulted the
public about it.
do we judge technologies?
we noted above technologies need to be looked at in terms of the way
that they work in concert with social forces. However, there are some
basic criteria that relates specifically to technology itself. One
general question to ask about a technology is, ‘who is in charge,
the person or the machine?’. Writers such as Ivan Illich argue that
most modern technology is so powerful that it forces us to conform to
its way of doing things, rather than being a tool that we can
flexibly use according to our own needs. Of course, this was exactly
what the Luddites were facing in the steam powered machines of the
Industrial Revolution. As John Kay, the inventor of the flying
shuttle put it, bluntly: “Whilst the engine runs the people must
work - men, women and children are yoked together with iron and
steam. The animal machine – breakable in the best case, subject to
a thousand sources of suffering – is chained fast to the iron
machine, which knows no suffering and weariness.
way of thinking about the politics of technology is to ask: what does
the Luddite phrase ‘hurtful to Commonality’ mean now? Commonality
means the common good, but it also refers specifically to The
Enclosures, which had displaced many agricultural labourers and rural
artisans, creating the new proletariat of workers denied access to
the land and the means of subsistence and wholly dependent on wages
for survival. In 1812, the year of the Luddite revolt, Parliament
passed 133 Enclosure Bills. ‘Commonality’, for the Luddites
invoked the whole rural social world of mutual aid and sharing based
on access to the common land that was being destroyed by the
Enclosures. Based on that criterion, technologies are bad if they
increase our dependence on the market, and reduce the ability of
local communities to be self reliant.
the 21st century although capital intensification and the
displacement of labour which led to the Luddite uprisings continue to
be a key issue, the politics of technology has expanded to include
many other concerns. The table below gives a far-from-complete list
of such issues.
Hurtful to Commonality?
Who benefits, who loses?
Whose interests served?
Who is in charge: you or the machine?
‘Technofixes’ for social problems?
What kind of a world is implied by the new technology?
What alternatives are ruled out?
Substitution of commodities and products form developing counties?
Concentrating market power?
Deskilling, creating dependency?
General effect on equality of minorities, women, disabled people and young people etc.
High price of technology excludes access for poor people, (e.g. ‘the digital divide’, pharmaceutical development only for industrial countries) or creates debt (the Green Revolution).
Concentrating power or democratising it?
Facilitating freedom or social control?
Does it depend upon hierarchical and authoritarian power structures to support it (e.g. nuclear)?
Atomising society or encouraging community?
Effect on farming and rural communities.
Encouraging uniformity or diversity?
Speeding up or slowing down the pace of life?
Energy/resource consumption/carbon footprint.
Pollution in extraction of raw materials and disposal of waste.
Destruction of biodiversity.
Effect of technology on users (eg computer games, repetitive strain injury)
Inventing new ‘diseases’/medicalisation of society?
Prevention or cure?