Ignis Fatuus

Were the Luddites right?

or the friend who refuses to join Twitter and Facebook, for the cousin who’s still putting film in her camera, and especially for the co-worker who still doesn’t carry a cellphone, there’s only one label. Not “technophobic” — too clinical, and sounds like an actual, treatable pathology from the pages of the DSM-IV. When it comes to stubborn refusal to get with the times, it has to be Luddite.

Luddites like things the way they used to be. They think technology is just a parade of whizz-bang gizmos designed to separate fools from their money, and visiting to the bank was better when someone still made eye contact and asked you how your day was going. But why “Luddite”?  Reach back as far as your 10th grade history class and you might recall something about rioters smashing their looms, but what’s the connection to the epithet we use today?

Surprisingly, you can draw a relatively straight line from the birth of Luddism in the early 1800s to today. The Luddite movement began in Britain in the long years during and after the Napoleonic wars, when the solution to a strain on economic output was increased mechanization — in fact, the period of rapid industrialization catalyzed by the war between France and the UK fell smack in the middle of what is in hindsight called the Industrial Revolution. At the time, the benefits of mechanization weren’t felt by Britain’s craftspeople, though; all they knew was that their skilled labour was being replaced by unskilled workers operating machines, and fewer of them at that.

No “ism” is complete without its own icon, and Luddism’s eponym is Ned Ludd, variously attributed the titles “General” and even “King,” but who was in reality just a weaver from Anstey. One day in 1779, Ludd was criticized one time too many, reached the end of his rope, and took a hammer and smashed his knitting frames to smithereens. While not intended as a form of political protest, Ludd nonetheless gained enough notoriety that he took the blame for every smashed weaving frame in the years that followed. In time, he assumed mythical qualities, becoming a symbolic leader who supposedly — and tellingly — lived in Sherwood Forest.

As working conditions deteriorated for England’s skilled workers in the dawn of the 19th century, textile workers found their jobs disappearing, and those machine-tending jobs that remained were mindless, low-paying, and undignified compared to their earlier jobs as self-employed artisans. Karl Marx was unborn and a half-century away from describing labour’s alienation from the means of production; what else were unemployed weavers to do but to direct their wrath at the perceived cause of their problems, and smash the looms that took their jobs?  It was either that or move to Canada.

Of course, many did. Here, the anti-industrialist philosophy mutates, takes on a more agreeable form. You’ll find it laced with Protestant morality in the writings of the transcendentalists, in Emerson, in Thoreau, in Fourier and New World utopian experiments like Brook Farm. They revered nature, distrusted the corrupting influence of society, and wanted to live off the land the way God intended. This effectively brings us to the present, and the romanticism we still attach to nature, rural living, and self-sufficiency.

Present-day economic theory remembers the movement only for what it calls the “Luddite Fallacy”: it holds that jobs lost to increased efficiency and automation will be offset by increases in consumption. Here’s a representative and oft-quoted passage from Henry Hazlitt, hero of the Austrian School, writing on the subject in 1964:

Among the most viable of all economic delusions is the belief that machines on net balance cre­ate unemployment …. In Adam Smith’s time, machinery had thrown from 240 to 4,800 pin-makers out of work for every one it kept. In the pin-making indus­try there was already, if machines merely throw men out of jobs, 99.98 per cent unemployment. Could things be blacker?

This implies that with a little retraining all those unemployed weavers and pin-makers could become assembly-line workers, increasing overall efficiency and production, resulting in a glut of cheap textiles, and ushering in an era of abundance that brings the cost of these goods within the reach of any unskilled labourer.

Luddites also pointed to the fact that even where increased demand and output could create jobs, the “unskilled” part, along with what Marx would later identify as the reserve army of labour leveraged to depress wages, always meant the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. It has a familiar ring to it.

It all begs the question: were the Luddites right?  This is not to provoke another wave of revolt against technology — the revolt has already begun. But this time it’s not taking the form of people sabotaging factories. Emerson and Thoreau’s Luddism is still with us in the open-source Do-It-Yourself ethic, or in a localism that boycotts WalMart in favour of co-ops and businesses owned by people in your neighbourhood, selling local product. The increased emphasis on artisanal goods, sustainable off-the-grid energy and organic farm-to-table locavorism — they can come across as elitist, but they’re all just another way of finding alternatives to technology that’s disruptive as often as it is helpful, and takes money from the local economy and redirects it to the global one. Ironically, technology enables a lot of these practices — the Internet, social networking, open-source information, and even 3D printing help make localism possible. Luddism doesn’t reject technology, it questions technology, and whether it really makes our lives richer. Beyond the short-term consumer benefits of faster service, higher yields, and cheaper sticker prices, does automation make us better off?

The counter-resistance is ready. Google the word “Luddite” and you’ll find columns and policy papers deriding everyone from Obama (who thinks ATMs cost tellers jobs) to the head of Canada’s postal workers union (who sees union jobs lost to automation). Their response is always the same: from the wheel to the iPad, technology has progressed unstoppably, disproving detractors with each step, and here we are, better than ever.

There may be some truth to that. Employment fluctuates, wildly even, especially when viewed over the long term. In 16th-century Ypres, France, unemployment was so widespread that proposed tax-funded “workfare” programs tried to create jobs out of thin air with the introduction of the Poor Laws, which banned begging and drafted the able-bodied into work — not only in ditch-digging and the erection of battlements, but also, funnily enough, in textile shops. The Elizabethans were also compelled to pass Poor Laws in 1601 to address a shortage of work so pernicious it threatened civil order. In 1932, in the last year of the volatile Weimar Republic, one in four workers was unemployed, and we all know how that turned out. As disastrous as these periods were at the time, they didn’t spell the end of prosperity for France, England, or Germany. It may be worth noting, though, that neither the Tudors, Elizabethans, nor the Weimar Republic is around anymore; in their stead, we saw an overall increase of the standard of living, and new industries with increased output and a more democratized workforce.

That said, isn’t it worth considering our relationship to technology, and the role it plays in industry?  You can mock Obama for his concern over the bank tellers replaced by ATMs, but can you then criticize him for the high unemployment rate?  The Luddite fallacy treats technology holistically, but all forms of technology are not equal. It’s at least worth entertaining the possibility that vaccines and clean energy improve our lives, but we’d be better off if those bank tellers had been allowed to keep their jobs. (For all the bank tellers downsized since the 80s, have you seen your bank fees shrink?) Don’t think of Luddism as an irrational phobia or knee-jerk paranoia of innovation, but rather as a healthy scepticism or rational self-interest, and it starts to make more sense. We can afford to question everything. Post-Marx, instead of sabotage, we have access to information and constructive alternatives.

Given the long view, it seems that technology and industrialization have improved our lives, and made them less nasty, brutish, and short. Of course, employment, distribution of wealth, and even job satisfaction are all valid concerns. The best we can hope to do is to fairly weigh our choices and fight the urge to smash a few weaver’s frames and take to the hills.