Luddism Reconsidered

Luddism was a 19th-century British working class movement whose members occasionally destroyed automated looms and other machines. Their grievance was that the machines were replacing workers, thereby depriving them of income and laying waste to a traditional and highly valued mode of independent life.

An excellent account of Luddism can be found in E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class. Thompson makes the following interesting comment:

…the conventional picture of… Luddism… as a blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less and less tenable. What was at issue was the 'freedom' of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages, undercutting his rivals, and undermining standards of craftsmanship. We are so accustomed to the notion that it was both inevitable and 'progressive' that trade should have been freed in the early nineteenth century from 'restrictive practices' that it requires an effort of imagination to understand that the 'free' factory-owner or large hosier or cotton-manufacturer… was regarded not only with jealousy, but as a man engaging in immoral and illegal practices. The tradition of the just price and the fair wage lived longer among 'the lower orders' than is sometimes supposed. They saw laissez faire not as freedom, but as 'foul imposition'. They could see no natural law by which one man, or a few men, could engage in practices with brought manifest injury to their fellows.1

To be called a “Luddite” today means that one rejects technological advances, especially for the purpose of improving productivity. Although this usage distorts historical reality, the term is used here in this modern sense.

Karl Marx was careful to distinguish between machines themselves and the manner in which they are employed in a capitalist system. In Capital, after pointing out that the Luddite movement gave conservative forces a useful pretext for violent measures against workers, he says,

It took both time and experience before the workpeople learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and to direct their attacks, not against the material instruments of production, but against the mode in which they are used.2

Harry Braverman echoes Marx:

…it is not the productive strength of machinery that weakens the human race, but the manner in which it is employed in capitalist social relations. It has become fashionable, however, to attribute to machinery the powers over humanity which arise from social relations.3

The Marxists are substantially correct on this point. Under capitalism the purpose of technology is not to advance human well-being, but to increase profits. Marx addressed this crucial point earlier in Capital:

John Stuart Mill says in his Principles of Political Economy: ‘It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.’ That is, however, by no means the aim of the capitalistic application of machinery. Like every other increase in the productiveness of labour, machinery is intended to cheapen commodities and, by shortening that portion of the working-day in which the labourer works for himself, to lengthen the other portion that he gives, without an equivalent, to the capitalist. In short, it is a means for producing surplus-value.4

For Marxists, this restricted use of technology will be transcended once capitalists are no longer in charge and workers can relate to each other as “freely associated producers”.5

Braverman expresses this vision as follows:

An automatic system of machinery opens up the possibility of the true control over a highly productive factory by a relatively small corps of workers, providing those workers attain the level of mastery over the machinery offered by engineering knowledge, and providing they then share out among themselves the routines of the operation, from the most technically advanced to the most routine.6

At present, therefore, there are two main viewpoints regarding the application of technology to production.

The standard view is that this is invariably a good thing, purportedly because it improves a society's “standard of living”, but in reality because it increases surplus-value and thus profits for capitalists.

The Marxist view is that it can invariably be a good thing, once the capitalist mode of production has been superseded and workers have organized the labor process in accordance with their interests.

Both viewpoints reject the idea that technology itself might be harmful to humankind.

The ideas presented in this section nevertheless indicate that the latter may be true: under certain conditions, technology applied to productivity can be detrimental to both workers and society at large, irrespective of the social relations that govern the labor process.

Once increased labor productivity has been fully exploited to increase aggregate health in production, further innovations in this area will cause health to decline. At this point the machine itself becomes the enemy of humankind, and must therefore be “destroyed”. In this narrow sense, a modern form of Luddism would be justified.

Does this mean that technological change should cease when the health-increasing potential of productivity has been fully exhausted?

Not at all. On the assumption that higher technological complexity has been socially accepted, technological change can generate a continuous increase in ecological efficiencies.

Ecological efficiency is defined in ENL as output quantity divided by natural flow quantity. Technological innovations can decrease these flow quantities without limit, thereby reducing environmental impact continuously for the benefit of present humankind, future humankind, and non-human species. The denominator in the quantity/flow equation can continue to decrease indefinitely, thus providing infinite scope for human inventiveness.

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