Luddites, computers and socialism

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Wed Jun 28 13:35:48 MDT 1995


Louis Proyect:
(I just posted this to the PEN-L list)

Interesting that Kirkpatrick Sale's new book would be cited on this list.
I'm actually mapping out an essay on computers and socialism that will
critique this book and defend a number of concepts in Cockshott and
Cottrill's "Toward a New Socialism".

My central ideas: the "second contradiction" between society and nature as
described by Jim O'Connor will emerge more and more as a central issue as
we slouch toward the 21st century. Early signs: the confused political
message of the ranchers described by Jeffery St. Clair in Doug Henwood's
recent post reflects clash over land, water, etc. The new, populist
resurgence in the USA can be understood in terms of the political
economy of the "second contradiction". Rwanda's civil war must be
understood against the backdrop of a 50% drop in grain yield through the
1960's.

I am not talking about environmentalism, a bourgeois ideology. I am
talking about socialist ecology. The 21st century will demonstrate with
terrible force the destructiveness of capitalism. All of the contention
in recent years over which system promotes more rapid growth: socialism
or capitalism will be re-thought. The "growth" of Walmart, Exxon, GM,
etc. is like a cancerous growth that will eventually destroy its host
body: the planet earth and its population.

The problem with Sale is the same problem as that of the 19th century
Utopians. As blissful (?) as the life of the Amish appears to him, this is
not a solution for the billions of people living in cities during the period of
late capitalism.

The solution would appear to be in a planned economy that is global in
scope. Resources must be balanced against human need. Computers will be
instrumental in effecting this change. The original Marxian vision of
communism as a global system will be revisited on a grand scale. All
socialist politics must embrace this new vision.

Traditional Soviet-styled planned economies and social democracy will not
match up to these tasks, since they are based on a national model of
growth and development. The end of the cold war has made Soviet-style
socialism obsolete. It has also made social democracy, market socialism
and other nationally-oriented, unplannned approaches based on capitalism
obsolete.

I'll have more to say on this subject but probably not on this list since
I am not a trained economist. I will be elaborating on it on the Marxism
list and expect to have an interesting discussion there.

Kirkpatrick Sale:

THE NATION 						June 5, 1995

LESSONS FROM THE LUDDITES

Setting Limits On Technology

Kirkpatrick Sale

As Newt Gingrich has assured us, and as our own daily experience has
convinced us, we in the industrial world are in the middle of a social and
political revolution that is almost without parallel.  Call it "third wave"
capitalism, or "postmodern," or "multinational," or whatever; this
transformation is, without anyone being prepared for it, overwhelming the
communities and institutions and customs that once were the familiar
stanchions of our lives.  As Newsweek recently said, in a special issue that,
actually seemed to be celebrating it, this revolution is "outstripping our
capacity to cope, antiquating our laws, transforming our mores, reshuffling
our economy, reordering our priorities, redefining our workplaces,- putting
our Constitution to the fire, shifting our concept of reality,"

No wonder there are some people who are Just Saying No.

They have a great variety of stances and tactics, but the technophobes and
techno-resisters out there are increasingly coming together under the banner
that dates to those attackers of technology of two centuries ago, the
Luddites.  In the past decade or so they have dared to speak up, to criticize
this face of high technology or that, to organize and march and sue and write
and propound, and to challenge the consequences as well as the assumptions
of this second Industrial Revolution, just as the Luddites challenged the first.
Some are even using similar strategies of sabotage and violence to make their
point.

These neo-Luddites are more numerous today than one might assume,
techno-pessimists without the power and access of the techno-optimists but
still with a not-insignificant voice, shelves of books and documents and
reports, and increasing numbers of followers-maybe a quarter of the adult
population, according to a Newsweek survey.  They are to be found on the
radical and direct-action side of environmentalism, particularly in the
American West; they are on the dissenting edges of academic economics and
ecology departments, generally of the no-growth school; they are everywhere
in Indian Country throughout the Americas, representing a traditional
biocentrism against the anthropocentric norm; they are activists fighting
against nuclear power, irradiated food, clearcutting, animal experiments,
toxic waste and the killing of whales, among the many aspects of the high-
tech onslaught.

They may also number-certainly they speak for-some of those whose
experience with modern technology has in one way or another awakened
them from what Lewis Mumford called "the myth of the machine:' These
would include those several million people in all the industrial nations whose
jobs have simply been automated out from under them or have been sent
overseas as part of the multinationals' global network, itself built on high-tech
communications.  They would include the many millions who have suffered
from some exposure, officially sanctioned, to pollutants and poisons,
medicines and chemicals, and live with the terrible results.  They include
some whose faith in the technological dream has been shattered by the recent
evidence of industrial fragility and error -- Bhopal, Chernobyl, Love Canal,
PCBs, Exxon Valdez, ozone holes -- that is the stuff of daily headlines.  And
they may include, too, quite a number of those whose experience with high
technology in the home or office has left them confused or demeaned, or
frustrated by machines too complex to understand, much less to repair, or
assaulted and angered by systems that deftly invade their privacy or deny
them credit or turn them into ciphers.

Techno-resisters could find their most useful analogues, if not their
models, in the Luddites.

Wherever the neo-Luddites may be found, they are attempting to bear
witness. to the secret little truth that lies at the heart of the modern
experience: Whatever its presumed benefits, of speed or ease or power or
wealth, industrial technology comes at a price, and in the contemporary
world that price is ever rising and ever threatening.  Indeed, inasmuch as
industrialism is inevitably and inherently disregardful of the collective human
fate and of the earth from which it extracts all its wealth -- these are, after all,
in capitalist theory "externalities" -- it seems ever more certain to end in
paroxysms of economic inequity and social upheaval, if not in the
degradation and exhaustion of the biosphere itself.

>From a long study of the original Luddites, I have concluded that there is
much in their experience that can be important for the neo-Luddites today to
understand, as distant and as different as their times were from ours.
Because just as the second Industrial Revolution has its roots quite
specifically in the first -- the machines may change, but their machineness
does not -- so those today who are moved in some measure to resist (or who
even hope to reverse) the tide of industrialism might find their most useful
analogues, if not their models exactly, in those Luddites of the nineteenth
century.

And as I see it, there are seven lessons that one might, with the focused lens
of history, take from the Luddite past.

1.	Technologies are never neutral, and some are hurtful It was not all
machinery that the Luddites opposed, but "all Machinery hurtful to
Commonality," as a March 1812 letter to a hated manufacturer put it --
machinery to which their commonality did not give approval, over which it
had no control, and the use of which was detrimental to its interests,
considered either as a body of workers or a body of families and neighbors
and citizens.

What was true of the technology of industrialism at the beginning, when the
apologist Andrew Ure praised a new machine that replaced high-paid
workmen -- "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" -- is as true today, when a reporter for
Automation could praise a computer system because it assures that "decision-
making" is "removed from the operator ... [and] gives maximum control of
the machine to management " These are not accidental, ancillary attributes of
the machines that are chosen; they are intrinsic and ineluctable.

Tools come with a prior history built in, expressing the values of a particular
culture.  A conquering, violent culture -- of which Western civilization is a
prime example, with the United States at its extreme -- is bound to produce
conquering, violent tools.  When-U.S. industrialism turned to agriculture
after World War II, for example, it went at it with all that it had just learned
on the battlefield, using tractors modeled on wartime tanks to cut up vast
fields, crop-dusters modeled on wartime planes to spray poisons, and
pesticides and herbicides developed from wartime chemical weapons and
defoliants to destroy unwanted species.  It was a war on the land, sweeping
and sophisticated as modern mechanization can be, capable of depleting
topsoil at the rate of 3 billion tons a year and water at the rate of 10 billion
gallons a year.  It could be no other way: If a nation like this beats its swords
into plowshares, they will still be violent and deadly tools.

2.	Industrialism is always a cataclysmic process, destroying the past,
roiling the present, making the future uncertain.  It is in the nature of the
industrial ethos to value growth and production, speed and novelty, power
and manipulation, all of which are bound to cause continuing, rapid and
disruptive changes at all levels to society, and with some regularity, whatever
benefits they may bring to a few.  And because its criteria are essentially
economic rather than, say, social or civic, those changes come about without
much regard for any but purely materialist consequences and primarily for the
aggrandizement of those few.

Whatever material benefits industrialism may introduce, the familiar evils --
incoherent metropolises, spreading slums, crime and prostitution, inflation,
corruption, pollution, cancer and heart disease, stress, anomie, alcoholism --
almost always follow.  And the consequences may be quite profound indeed
as the industrial ethos supplants the customs and habits of the past.  Helena
Norberg-Hodge tells a story of the effect of the transistor radio -- the
apparently innocent little transistor radio -- on the traditional Ladakhi society
of northern India, where only a short time after its introduction people no
longer sat around the fields or fires singing communal songs because they
could get the canned stuff from professionals in the capital.

Nor is it only in newly industrialized societies that the tumultuous effects of
an ethos of greed and growth are felt.  What economists call "structural
change" occurs regularly in developed nations as well, often creating more
social disruption than individuals can absorb or families and neighborhoods
and towns and whole industries can defend against.

3.	"Only a people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted
with machines." This wise maxim of Herbert Read's is what Wordsworth and
the other Romantic poets of the Luddite era expressed in their own way as
they saw the Satanic mills and Stygian forges both imprisoning and
impoverishing textile families and usurping and befouling natural landscapes
such outrage done to nature as compels the indignant power ... to avenge
her violated rights," as Wordsworth said.

What happens when an economy is not embedded in a due regard for the
natural world, understanding and coping with the full range of its
consequences to species and their ecosystems, is not only that it wreaks its
harm throughout the biosphere in indiscriminate and ultimately unsustainable
ways, though that is bad enough.  It also loses its sense of the human as a
species and the individual as an animal, needing certain basic physical
elements for successful survival, including land and air, decent food and
shelter, intact communities and nurturing families, without which it will
perish as miserably as a fish out of water, a wolf in a trap.  An economy
without any kind of ecological grounding will be as disregardful of the human
members as of the nonhuman, and its social as well as economic forms --
factories, tenements, cities, hierarchies -- will reflect that.

The industrial regime has always had the power of the dominant
nation-states behind it.

4.	The nation-state synergistically intertwined with industrialism, will
always come to its aid and defense, making revolt futile and reform
ineffectual When the British government dispatched some 14,000 soldiers to
put down the uprising of the Luddites in 1811 and 1812-a force seven times
as large as any ever sent to maintain peace in England-it was sending a sharp
signal of its inevitable alliance with the forces of the new industrialism.  And
it was not above cementing that alliance, despite all its talk of the rights of
free Englishmen, with spies and informers, midnight raids, illegal arrests,
overzealous magistrates and rigged trials, in aid of making the populace into
a docile work force.  That more than anything else established what a
"laissez-faire" economy would mean-repression would be used by the state to
insure that manufacturers would be free to do what they wished, especially
with labor.

Since then, of course, the industrial regime has only gotten stronger, proving
itself the most efficient and potent system for material aggrandizement the
world has ever known, and all the while it has had the power of the dominant
nation-states behind it, extending it to every corner of the earth and
defending it once there.  It doesn't matter that the states have quarreled and
contended for these corners, or that in recent decades native states have
wrested nominal political control from colonizing ones, for the industrial
regime hardly cares which cadres run the state as long as they understand the
kinds of duties expected of them.  It is remarkably protean in that way, for it
can accommodate itself to almost any national system -- Marxist Russia,
capitalist Japan, China under a vicious dictator, Singapore under a
benevolent one, messy and riven India, tidy and cohesive Norway, Jewish
Israel, Muslim Egypt -- and in return asks only that its priorities dominate, its
markets rule, its values penetrate and its interests be defended, with 14,000
troops if necessary, or even an entire Desert Storm.  Not one fully
industrialized nation in the world has had a successful rebellion against it,
which says something telling about the union of industrialism and the nation-
state.  In fact, the only places where a popular national rebellion has
succeeded in the past two centuries have been in pre-industrial lands where
the nation-state emerged to pave the way for the introduction of
industrialism, whether in the authoritarian (Russia, Cuba, etc.) or the
nationalistic (India, Kenya, etc.) mold.

5.	But resistance to the industrial system, based on some grasp of moral
principles and rooted in some sense of moral revulsion, is not only possible
but necessary.  It is true that in a general sense the Luddites were not
successful either in the short-run aim of halting the detestable machinery or in
the long-run task of stopping the Industrial Revolution and its multiple
miseries; but that hardly matters in the retrospect of history, for what they
are remembered for is that they resisted, not that they won.  Some may call it
foolish resistance ("blind" and "senseless" are the usual adjectives), but it was
dramatic, forceful, honorable and authentic enough to have put the Luddites'
issues forever on record and made the Luddites' name as indelibly a part of
the language as the Puritans'.

What remains then, after so many of the details fade, is the sense of Luddism
as a moral challenge, "a sort of moral earthquake," as Charlotte Bronte saw it
in Shirley -- the acting out of a genuinely felt perception of right and wrong
that went down deep in the English soul.  Such a challenge is mounted
against large enemies and powerful forces not because there is any certainty
of triumph but because somewhere in the blood, in the place inside where
pain and fear and anger intersect, one is finally moved to refusal and
defiance: "No more."

The ways of resisting the industrial monoculture can be as myriad as the
machines against which they are aimed and as varied as the individuals
carrying them out, as the many neo-Luddite manifestations around the world
make clear.  Some degree of withdrawal and detachment has also taken
place, not alone among neo-Luddites, and there is a substantial
"counterculture" of those who have taken to living simply, working in
community, going back to the land, developing alternative technologies,
dropping out or in general trying to create a life that does not do violence to
their ethical principles.

The most successful and evident models for withdrawal today, however, are
not individual but collective, most notably, at least in the United States, the
Old Order Amish communities from Pennsylvania to Iowa and the traditional
Indian communities found on many reservations across the country.

For more than three centuries now the Amish have withdrawn to islands
mostly impervious to the industrial culture, and very successfully, too, as
their lush fields, busy villages, neat farmsteads, fertile groves and gardens,
and general lack of crime, poverty, anomie and alienation attest.  In Indian
country, too, where (despite the casino lure) the traditional customs and
lifeways have remained more or less intact for centuries, a majority have
always chosen to turn their backs on the industrial world and most of its
attendant technologies, and they have been joined by a younger generation
reasserting and in some cases revivifying those ancient tribal cultures.  There
could hardly be two systems more antithetical to the industrial-they are, for
example, stable, communal, spiritual, participatory, oral, slow, cooperative,
decentralized, animistic and biocentric -- but the fact that such tribal societies
have survived for so many eons, not just in North America but on every other
continent as well, suggests that there is a cohesion and strength to them that
is certainly more durable and likely more harmonious than anything
industrialism has so far achieved.

6	Politically, resistance to industrialism must force the viability of
industrial society into public consciousness and debate.  If in the long run the
primary success of the Luddite revolt was that it put what was called "the
machine question" before the British public during the first half of the
nineteenth century-and then by reputation kept it alive right into the
twentieth-it could also be said that its failure was that it did not spark a true
debate on that issue or even put forth the terms in which such a debate might
be waged.  That was a failure for which the Luddites of course cannot be
blamed, since it was never part of their perceived mission to make their
grievance a matter of debate, and indeed they chose machine breaking
exactly to push the issue beyond debate.  But because of that failure, and the
inability of subsequent critics of technology to penetrate the complacency of
its beneficiaries and their chosen theorists, or to successfully call its values
into question, the principles and goals of industrialism, to say nothing of the
machines that embody them, have pretty much gone unchallenged in the
public arena.  Industrial civilization is today the water we swim in, and we
seem almost as incapable of imagining what an alternative might look like, or
even realizing that an alternative could exist, as fish in the ocean.

The political task of "resistance" today, then-beyond the quiet acts" of
personal withdrawal Mumford urged-is to try to make the culture of
industrialism and its assumptions less invisible and to put the issue of its
technology on the political agenda, in industrial societies as well as their
imitators.  In the words of Neil Postman, a professor of communications at
New York University and author of Technopoly, "it is necessary for a great
debate" to take place in industrial society between, "technology and
everybody else" around all the issues of the "uncontrolled growth of
technology" in recent decades.  This means laying out as clearly and as fully
as possible the costs and consequences of our technologies, in the near term
and long, so that even those overwhelmed by the ease/comfort/ speed/power
of high-tech gadgetry (what Mumford called technical "bribery") are forced
to understand at what price it all comes and who is paying for it.  What
purpose does this machine serve?  What problem has become so great that it
needs this solution?  Is this invention nothing but, as Thoreau put it, an
improved means to an unimproved end?  It also means forcing some
awareness of who the principal beneficiaries of the new technology are-they
tend to be the large, bureaucratic, complex and secretive organizations of the
industrial world-and trying to make public all the undemocratic ways they
make the technological choices that so affect all the rest of us.  Who are the
winners, who the losers?  Will this invention concentrate or disperse power,
encourage or discourage self-worth?  Can society at large afford it?  Can the
biosphere?

7.	Philosophically, resistance to industrialism must be embedded in an
analysis-an ideology, perhaps-that is morally informed, carefully articulated
and widely shared One of the failures of Luddism (if at first perhaps one of
its strengths) was its formlessness, its unintentionally, its indistinctness about
goals, desires, possibilities.  If it is to be anything more than sporadic and
martyristic, resistance could learn from the Luddite experience at least how
important it is to work out some common analysis that is morally clear about
the problematic present and the desirable future, and the common strategies
that stem from it.

All the elements of such an analysis, it seems to me, are in existence,
scattered and still needing refinement, perhaps, but there: in Mumford and
E.F. Schumacher (Small Is Beautiful) and Wendell Berry (The Unsettling of
America) and Jerry Mander (In the Absence of the Sacred) and the Chellis
Glendinning manifesto (Utne Reader, March/April 1990); in the writing of
the Earth First!ers and the bioregionalists and deep ecologists; in the lessons
and models of the Amish and the Iroquois; in the wisdom of tribal elders and
the legacy of tribal experience everywhere; in the work of the long line of
dissenters-from progress and naysayers-to-technology.  I think we might
even be able to identify some essentials of that analysis, such as:

Industrialism, the ethos encapsulating the values and technologies of Western
civilization, is seriously endangering stable social and environmental
existence on this planet, to which must be opposed the values and techniques
of an organic ethos that seeks to preserve the integrity, stability and harmony
of the biotic communities, and the human community within it.

Anthropocentrism, and its expression in both humanism and monotheism, is
the ruling principle of that civilization, to which must be opposed the
principle of biocentrism and the spiritual identification of the human with all
living species and systems.

Globalism, and its economic and military expression, is the guiding strategy
of that civilization, to which must be opposed the strategy of localism, based
upon the empowerment of the coherent bioregion and the small community.

Industrial capitalism, as an economy built upon the exploitation and
degradation of the earth, is the productive and distributive enterprise of that
civilization, to which must be opposed the practices of an ecological and
sustainable economy built upon accommodation and commitment to the earth
and following principles of conservation, stability, self-sufficiency and
cooperation.

A movement of resistance starting with just those principles as the sinews of
its analysis would at least have a firm and uncompromising ground on which
to stand and a clear and inspirational vision of where to go.  If nothing else, it
would be able to live up to the task that George Grant, the Canadian
philosopher, has set this way: "The darkness which envelops the western
world because of its long dedication to the overcoming of chance"-by which
he means the triumph of the scientific mind and its industrial constructs-"is
just a fact.  The job of thought at our time is to bring into the light that
darkness as darkness." And at its best, it might bring into the light the dawn
that is the alternative.
---------
Kirkpatrick Sale, a Nation contributing editor, is the author most recently of
Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial
Revolution: Lessons for the Machine Age (Addison-Wesley), from which this
article is adapted.



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