The Enlightened Luddite

“Luddite” is a word that is thrown around a lot these days. It signifies someone who is opposed to technological progress, or who is at least not climbing on board the technological bandwagon. 21st century luddites tend to eschew social media, prefer presentations without PowerPoint, still write cheques, and may even, in extreme cases, get by without a cell phone. When used in the first person, “luddite” is often a badge of honour. “I’m a bit of a luddite,” usually means “I see through and am unimpressed by the false promise of constant technological novelty.” Used in the third person, though, it typically suggests criticism. “So-and-so’s a bit of a luddite,” is likely to imply that So-and-so finds the latest technology confusing and has failed to keep up with it, probably due to intellectual limitations.

The original Luddites were English textile workers in the Midlands and the North who organized themselves in secret and destroyed machines in the newly established factories and mills. They were called “Luddites” after their fictitious leader, “General Ludd.” Peak Luddism occurred around 1812-1813, although there were incidents of machine breaking before and after then. The most notable of these were the Swing riots that swept across parts of Southern England in 1830 when impoverished agricultural labourers, sometimes carrying out threats issued by the fictitious Captain Swing, smashed threshing machines, burned barns, and demanded higher wages.

A common view today of these machine-breakers in the early stages of the industrial revolution is that they represent a clearly futile attempt to block technological innovation. One can sympathize with their plight, of course. Weavers who were proud of skills they had spent years mastering could now be replaced by relatively unskilled workers operating the new machines. Agricultural labourers who counted on threshing with hand flails for several months of employment following the harvest now faced winters without work or wages. But the times they were a-changing. Quite simply, the new methods of production could produce much more in less time and at lower cost. Trying to halt progress of this sort is as pointless as ordering back the tide. Resistance is futile.

But this view of the people who smashed stocking looms and threshing machines is oversimplified and somewhat unjust. It also carries some questionable ideological freight. Let me explain.

The first thing to be clear about is that the luddites did not go around breaking machines merely in order to protect their jobs; their concerns were wider than that. At various times, spokespersons for the movement made a number of demands, including a legally established minimum wage, better working conditions for women and children in the factories, arbitration of disputes, help from employers in finding jobs for laid-off workers, laws against shoddy products, a tax on machine-made cloth, and the right to form trade unions.[1]

Luddism was thus not entirely backward-looking; it was also trying to exercise some influence and control over the process of industrialization that was already underway. But insofar as it was backward-looking, it was not only or even primarily about protecting the economic interests of artisans. It was, more fundamentally, about trying to preserve a stable and cherished form of life.

One doesn’t need to buy into the myth of “Merrie England” to understand why the introduction of industrial methods of production aroused such hostility. In the pre-industrial villages and towns, working people might be fairly poor. But their lives contained elements that were valued, especially retrospectively, once they had been irretrievably lost. Work was varied and skilled; an artisan, unlike a factory worker, had an individual identity and status as a weaver, a tailor, or shoemaker; a person could and would take pride in their product; families very often worked together at home as a unit, with the children doing short stints of age-appropriate tasks; and perhaps most importantly, many working people enjoyed some degree of autonomy, deciding for themselves which tasks to perform when, and for how long, as opposed to having their lives controlled by the factory whistle and overseen by a boss with whom they had only a financial relationship.

Industrial production, employing water and steam power, large machines, and the factory system, wrecked small-scale local economies, and thereby also destroyed whole communities and the stable, familiar, traditional way of life associated with them. This is one of the key reasons why the industrial innovations were viewed by many as positively immoral. Certainly, conditions in the dark satanic mills, where children worked twelve-hour shifts, adults were paid a pittance (since there was a labour surplus), and everyone’s health was quickly ruined, were also subject to moral criticism, as were the overcrowded, polluted and disease-ridden living conditions into which the new proletarians were herded by forces beyond their control. But at bottom, the protesters who smashed machines were posing a profound moral question to the emerging industrial society, one that still confronts us today.

As E. P. Thompson argues in The Making of the English Working Class, from the perspective of the workers the entrepreneurs who adopted the new methods and machine, and thereby undercut their smaller competitors, were acting unethically. For they were enriching themselves–often enormously–at the expense of entire communities. What moral code or table of values, the protesters were asking, justifies sacrificing so much and so many for the material prosperity of so few? A letter (written presumably by someone from the middle or upper classes) to the home secretary Lord Melbourne at the time of the Swing riots raises a similar question with respect to the introduction of threshing machines:

“can any excuse be offered for men who are so deaf to humanity & blind to their own permanent interest as to substitute Horse power for manual labour & leave the population born on the soil to subsist on a miserable pittance in idleness or unproductively employed on the roads.”[2]

At bottom, the issue is whether market forces alone should determine economic outcomes (what happens in the areas of production, employment, distribution, and consumption), or whether they should be trammeled by government in the public interest.

There are two standard responses to the question raised: one appeals to utility and efficiency, the other to individual rights.

  1. The argument from utility. This derives from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776). It claims that freely operating market forces will ultimately produce the best outcomes for all: technological innovation, efficiency in production, lower costs to consumers, and a dynamic economy, leading to general prosperity.
  2. The argument from individual rights. This rests on a particular moral axiom–the claim that individuals should be free to do whatever they please just so long as they don’t violate anyone else’s rights. It is a fundamental principle of the sort of libertarianism associated in more recent times with Ayn Rand.

Both in the early 19th century and today, defenders of laissez faire political economy often move back and forth between these two kinds of reasoning. Given the appalling situation of so many factory workers and agricultural labourers in early 19th century Britain, the argument from utility must have seemed like a bad joke to many at the time. But defenders of the system–who of course typically belonged to the class that benefited most from the system–could then fall back on the rights-based argument, appealing to the right of any entrepreneur to operate their business free from outside interference, hiring, firing, paying, pricing, and innovating as they saw fit. Workers who sought to continue the debate on this turf would learn that the rights in question did not, as it happens, include the right to a “fair” wage, the right to job security, or the right to not starve.

Today, the rights-based argument is still deployed, but rarely embraced to the full. Most people support laws requiring a minimum wage, safe working conditions, professional qualifications, product safety, truth in advertising, and so on. Even Republicans who like to repeat Ronald Reagan’s claim that government is not the solution to our problems but is itself the problem do not seriously entertain scrapping all government oversight and intervention in such areas. The argument based on long-term utility, on the other hand, is widely accepted. The free enterprise system is generally viewed as the principal engine driving the constant technological innovation that characterizes modernity and which has raised living standards for whole populations in most parts of the world.

Achieving a fair assessment of the utility argument is difficult: (a) because market forces never operate except in harness with other economically relevant elements that are not driven by competition and the profit motive (e.g. public education, state-funded research, publicly-funded infrastructure); (b) because there are legitimate disagreements over how a person’s standard of living should be measured; and (c) because it is ideologically charged. Question the claim, and one will be accused of being blind to the obvious; endorse it, and one will be branded as a complacent apologist for capitalism.

But putting that problem aside, I believe it is nevertheless fruitful to observe how the basic question raised by the 18th century machine breakers still confronts us today. Everywhere, we see traditional kinds of work superseded by technological and commercial innovations: e.g. coal mining by fracking and renewable energy; taxi driving by Uber and navigation software; retail stores by online shopping. Such innovations, like the first threshing machines or wide weaving frames, obviously carry benefits: consumers can often buy better products at lower prices more conveniently.

But they also carry costs. Individuals whose particular skills and experience are no longer needed must either retrain, move, or become economically and socially marginalized. Communities that depended for their vibrancy on certain industries or trades become economically depressed towns plagued by unemployment, poverty, substance abuse and other attendant evils. Cherished forms of life are remembered through nostalgic rituals but cannot be revived.

A recent article by John Harris in The Guardian describes a specific instance of the problem: the dire effects on towns across Britain of the rapid decline in retail trade due to competition from megastores and online shopping. Harris writes:

A lot of people I meet see the decline of previously bustling places as something beyond economics and more like a moral affront, routinely describing it is ‘disgraceful’, ‘awful’, and that great British commonplace ‘disgusting’. How they feel feeds into a widespread sense of being neglected by powerful forces that lie beyond anyone’s reach and almost beyond rational explanation.

The original luddites would have recognized this state of mind.

And so the question is still with us: Should the interest that a few have in making fortunes trump the interest that many more have in preserving things they cherish? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos is now the richest man in history, worth over $150 billion and counting. The Walton family, who control Walmart, are the richest family in the US, worth over $160 billion. And thousands have smaller retailers, unable to compete with these behemoths, have gone under, with the sort of consequences for local communities described by Harris.

The problem is not simple. Some will argue that people actually express their values most clearly through their behavior as consumers; after all, local stores only go out of business because local people prefer to shop elsewhere. Some will take a Darwinian standpoint, holding that the trends in question are irresistible, and lamentations for what cannot adapt in a constantly changing environment serve no useful purpose. Some will insist that what market forces bring about will usually be better–cars are faster than horses; e-mail is faster than snail mail–so nostalgia for what disappears is misplaced.

These points have to be taken seriously. And yet we can still learn something from the luddites who, as E. P. Thompson says, “to the rhetoric of the free market … opposed the language of the ‘new moral order’.”[3] For even though the laissez faire ideology has undeniably become part of the cultural atmosphere that we breathe in every day, it is still worth reminding ourselves that the laws of the market are not laws of nature. We can decide when and where they should be allowed free rein, when, where and how they should be constrained. And in making such decisions, we can and should privilege the rights and interests of the many over the few.

[1]See E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class(New York: Vintage, 1966), p. 552.

[2]Quoted in E. J. Hobsbawm and George Rudé, Captain Swing(London: Verso, 2014), p. 236.

[3]E. P. Thompson, ibid.,p. 206.