Friday, 17 June 2011

Ludd

One of my favorite essays on the Luddites is Thomas Pynchon's “Is it O.K. to be a Luddite?” from  1984. Perhaps because it tells me something about Pynchon, something about where his heart is, that makes me like him. Perhaps also because he manages to tie together Ned Ludd with Frankenstein and King Kong ("your classic Luddite saint"). And how I smile at the ending fanfare, the theatrical and oh so beautiful quote by Lord Byron: "And down with all kings but king Ludd!".

Why write about the Luddites? Well, I thought it might be timely, now when so many others - Krugman, for instance - have started sounding almost serious about the risk that highly educated people will have their skills devalued by technology. And, of course, in an age when nuclear power plants are exploding people's trust in technology isn't what it once was.

However, there is something facile, something a little bit too respectable, about the "Ludditism" that rests satisfied with protecting consumer interests in the interest of cleaner energy. Why is it, for instance, that Hannah Arendt's defence of the "Luddite machine smashers" of 1968 in On Violence sounds so utterly harmless? Is it because her portrayal of the student revolt as a desperate Luddite reaction against a technology that has turned apocalyptic contains too many echoes of Heideggerain philosophy? Or is it because metaphors always lack something compared to the real thing, and the students didn't really break any machines? Is it because it sounds so much more noble and commendable to be concerned about technology in general than to smash it because it threatens to make you jobless?

Far more interesting is Eric Hobsbawm's old essay The Machine Breakers” (from Past & Present, No. 1, 1952). It helps you understand history (read it!), how rational and reasonable the breaking of machines could be, and how far it often was from any hatred of technology per se. Perhaps most crucially, it never pretends that the Luddites were something else but workers.

Whenever we speak of Luddites, I feel that there is a distinction we should at least try to be aware off. Breaking machines as part of the struggle of producers threatened by the capitalists in whose interests the machinery is installed is something else than protesting against the risks that technology will pose to the survival of mankind in general. Going back to Pynchon, we can in fact see that part of the brilliance of his argument probably derives from his skill in moving between these two kinds of Ludditism: the anger of workers and the fear inspired by an uncanny technology that goes berserk.

To the machine-breaking workers, the original Luddites, it's hard to imagine that the machines were uncanny. Probably it was rather the Luddites themselves who appeared uncanny (at least to the capitalists), as the representatives of an avenging force or a return of the repressed. By contrast, when we turn to Frankenstein's monster or Fukushima Daiichi, it is clearly technology itself that has become uncanny and threatens to lay the dreams of order and progress into ruins.

The people Arendt call Luddites are people who fear that avenging ghost and, anxious about the "risks", call for restrictions on technology. But if we agree with Pynchon that King Kong is the typical Luddite saint, then mustn't we also agree that today it is technology itself that has turned Luddite? To Pynchon, ludditism is not necessarily a reaction against against technology at all; it is a reaction against injustice. It is to take sides with the ghosts and make the victors pay. I imagine King Ludd saying: Go ahead and protest against technology, but it's not enough. The real issue is justice. What we're smashing is not just technology, but our oppressors' illusion that they will get away with what they're doing, that we count for nothing, and that they have the right to oppress us.  

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