Were the Luddites Right?

Luddite disguised as a woman

The Luddites were a group of factory workers who stirred up trouble during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution. We’ve been taught to think of them as a weird fringe group that couldn’t see the benefits of industrialism, but maybe we’re wrong about that.

There is no question that people lost jobs when machines started replacing workers. Steam powered looms took jobs away from workers and put money in the pockets of the people who owned the factories. The Luddites revolted. They took sledgehammers to machines and stirred up other kinds of troubles. In response, British authorities sentenced 19 Luddites to death and shipped many to Australia.

Granted, the Luddites were a sometimes radical group, but they had their reasons. The loss of a job meant severe poverty for them and increased wealth for a few already wealthy business owners. Eventually, trade unions were formed and things got better for workers, but is that the whole story?

Were the Luddites Right?

Lord Byron speech about LudditesThe Luddites may have been right after all. The industrial revolution has turned out to be the cause of a host of problems. For one thing, it has concentrated population centers into big cities. For another, it is the reason for pollution and the environmental crisis we face today. Since globalization, factory jobs have gone to places like China where workers get paid far less than their counterparts in America. Reagan fought against the trade unions and they have less clout today than they had in the past. When the Luddites revolted, trade unions were banned in England. That was one reason for their formation.

In 1812, the British government passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made frame breaking a capital offense. Lord Byron made a passionate speech on behalf of the Luddites, but it fell on deaf ears:

These machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were left in consequence to starve. By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment. Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality, not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation.

More recently, Thomas Pynchon wrote Is it O.K. to be a Luddite? Here are a few lines from the essay that appeared in the New York Times in 1984:

THE word ”Luddite” continues to be applied with contempt to anyone with doubts about technology, especially the nuclear kind. Luddites today are no longer faced with human factory owners and vulnerable machines. As well-known President and unintentional Luddite D. D. Eisenhower prophesied when he left office, there is now a permanent power establishment of admirals, generals and corporate CEO’s, up against whom us average poor bastards are completely outclassed, although Ike didn’t put it quite that way. We are all supposed to keep tranquil and allow it to go on, even though, because of the data revolution, it becomes every day less possible to fool any of the people any of the time. If our world survives, the next great challenge to watch out for will come – you heard it here first – when the curves of research and development in artificial intelligence, molecular biology and robotics all converge.

That time has come. A company has created a robot that can lay 1000 bricks per hour. Other companies in China have already been 3D printing houses. Robotics is taking jobs away from skilled workers and putting money in the hands of a wealthy few.

Before long, brick and mortar stores will be replaced by VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) stores. It’s bad enough that Walmart pays its employees so little their earnings are supplemented by food stamps, but what will happen when millions of employees lose their jobs? There may be another Luddite revolution, but on a larger scale. On the other hand, perhaps people will try to eke out a living in other ways: if they’re allowed to.

They say you can’t stop progress, but what is progress?

Maybe real progress would be a turn away from capitalism to a more populist approach. You don’t need to put a label on it. It doesn’t need to be socialism or communism. It can just be a more humane approach that sees great wealth for what it really is: greed. People can be far more self-sufficient if they live in villages outside of the cities. They can be more self-sufficient if they don’t have to pay a rich person to buy land. In the distant past, no one thought about owning land. That was a capitalist creation and was forced on us. The land and water belonged to everyone and it was our duty to take care of our resources.

That’s a far cry from the situation today. Land is exploited: water is stolen and polluted and villagers have their land stolen by large corporations. If they don’t comply, our governments send in the heavies to force them to comply. It’s all about money today. It should be about people and the environment.

Rather than concentrate wealth in the hands of a few who exploit the earth and other human beings, maybe we should look for solutions that benefit all of humanity and the environment. We could use some of our more benign technology to improve lives and toss out technologies that pollute the soil and water and inefficiently use enormous amounts of land. Or maybe I’m just a “Luddite.” You decide.