How the left misses the point on technology: comments on Chomsky and Morozov

The radical US magazine Z recently republished an interview with Noam Chomsky on the politics of technology which took place in 1991. Since Chomsky is so influential I thought it worthwhile to dissect his responses, which are very clearly shaped by his scientific outlook and his tenure for the last forty years at MIT. Although I don’t subscribe to the apparently primitivist outlook of his interlocutors, it’s very disappointing that someone with so much influence in radical politics is captive to the scientific ideology. The interview with Chomsky can be found at http://www.zcommunications.org/a-brief-interview-with-noam-chomsky-on-anarchy-civilization-and-technology-by-noam-chomsky.html , and my comments are posted below.

The well-known critic of internet hype and Silicon Valley technofixes, Evgeny Morozov, recently gave a talk at the London Cybersalon. Although he makes some good points about the way the latter are consistently part of a neo-liberal policy agenda, like Chomsky, his adherence to a traditional left-wing identification of technology with progress severely hampers his critique. See the video and a summary of the lecture and my comments can be found at http://www.cybersalon.org/daveking/

Ned Ludd

Comments on Chomsky

Firstly, I will not comment on the debate here about civilisation, except to say that the Luddites were by no means primitivists.  Luddism is a third way between liberal/Marxist techno-progressivism and primitivism.  The Luddites said that they would put down ‘machinery hurtful to Commonality’, which can be read as that which is against the interests of the common good and the common people.  Of course, in that period of enclosures, the word had overtones of commoning, which is not a hunter-gathering mode of existence.

Noam Chomsky’s comments on technology are completely incorrect and misleading.  It might seem unfair to take him to task for what were clearly off the cuff remarks made in a rather hurried interview, and he would probably want to qualify them if he were writing a proper article.  However in a sense the nature of that encounter is helpful because it reveals the core of the way he thinks about these issues.  His remarks are also of significance because they perfectly exemplify the utter blindspot that even our best critical thinkers have in the area of technology: here, he does no better than the liberals.

The central plank of his thinking is the repeated assertion that technology is ‘neutral’.  It is hard to understand how he could be so naive until we remember that Noam Chomsky is a scientist.  He spent most of his career at MIT ie in an intellectual milieu utterly dominated by scientists and engineers, and his chief contribution to linguistics is the biological determinist idea that grammar is hardwired in the human brain.

So what we have here is a scientist defending his professional ideology.  According to scientists, science is ‘value-free’ and ‘objective’.  This is not the place for a long discourse on that question but suffice it to say that you would be hard put to to find a single serious historian, sociologist, or STS scholar that would support this view, even before postmodernism came along and went to the absurd other extreme.  But that does not matter a bit to scientists. The function of the ideology is twofold: firstly, it allows scientists to preserve their little bubble, to maintain for themselves their self-image of purity and wanting to help the world through science, and not to take responsibility for the obvious fact that for the last 400 years the function of science as a social institution has been to support capitalism, the military and the state; secondly the ideology dominates public debate on the impact of science and technology upon society.  Saying that does not mean that, as the postmodernists would have it science is just another social text with no more claims to truth than any other discourse.  Of course, the whole point of science is to generate sound and reliable knowledge that works in practice for its masters.  Likewise, when we come to technology, the military do not need a bomb that looks good, they want one that works.  But with technology it is really ridiculous to claim that the elites and interests that design it leave no mark upon the products of their labour.

More importantly for the last 400 years there has existed a system of power that worked hand in glove with capitalism but is independent of it: technocracy.  Technocracy has its own ideology of domination of nature that preceded Adam Smith by a hundred years, and in fact in many ways the central element of capitalist ideology (efficiency) originated in the technocratic thinking of the fathers of the Scientific Revolution.  For me the best description of that is Carolyn Merchant’s The Death of Nature, in which she describes how the mechanical model of the universe led to the elevation of the machine as the ruling ideal of capitalist modernity and legitimated the wholesale domination of nature, the effects which we are now suffering. Technocracy provides for the domination of people through the domination of nature (ie through technology), and this came to its first full flowering in the Industrial Revolution, which the Luddites were rebelling against.  It is not enough to say that we live in a capitalist society: we live in a technocratic capitalist society.

So, to return to Chomsky’s claims, by using the word ‘neutral’ he is trying firstly to defend his cherished idea of progress through science from the suggestion that any technological product might be an inherently bad thing.  Part of this is just emotional: scientists have been put on a pedestal for the last 400 years and been told that they are the epitome of reason and goodness, and like any spoilt children they can only respond to even the mildest criticism with a knee-jerk reaction that the critics must be ‘antiscience’ and therefore wrong.  But Chomsky is a radical, and he therefore makes the classic move that radical scientists make: if science and technology create harm, this must be because of capitalism and bad people, not because there’s anything wrong with science or technology.  (It’s basically the same strategy that institutions, such as the Catholic Church make when confronted with their misdeeds: ‘no the structure/dogma is sound, it’s just that human beings are frail …). And so he scrambles for counterexamples, which certainly don’t prove that technology is ‘neutral’, just that it is not inherently utterly irredeemably bad, but whoever said it was?

Unfortunately, Noa lets him get away with this move by slightly misstating Jacques Ellul’s argument that technology is an autonomous force.  It is true that technology is not, in itself, literally an ‘autonomous force’, at least until the AI robots take over.  Everything that happens in our society is a result of things that go on inside the heads of human beings.  But the real point is that the human beings that run corporations, the military and the state are completely indoctrinated with the technocratic way of thinking and are caught in the logic of technocratic systems.  They really don’t have much choice in the decisions that they make, certainly not in the last 200 years.  And that technocratic way of thinking (rather than technology itself) is to a considerable extent autonomous from capitalism, which is why it became central to Soviet communism, and why even today the majority of members of the Chinese politburo are engineers.

So what we see in Chomsky’s counterexamples is that they perfectly illustrate the technocratic mindset in which he is stuck.  He tells us in all seriousness that worker self-management is not realistic without information technology to provide real-time information.  As if no one (boss or worker) managed an organisation before IT existed.  So it becomes clear that he is envisaging a scenario no different from what the Marxists have classically hoped-for, that we will simply kick out the capitalists and take over their systems, lock stock and barrel and run the megamachine for our benefit.  He even ends with the claim, no different from that currently being peddled by all the major corporations today in that the only thing that can possibly resolve environmental problems is advanced technology, which, by the way, they are going to sell us.  I really hope he has learned something since then.

In essence what he’s trying to do is to throw out the bath water and leave the baby but the reality of the world is much more complex than that, as his interlocutors try to explain.  Capitalism and Technocracy have been utterly intertwined for the last 400 years because their internal logics are entirely consistent with one another, and that is why technology is so good at producing things that capitalism can sell.  In order to try to rescue capitalist technology, to neutral-ise it, you have to employ a process of abstraction, which is central to the technocratic way of thinking, to ignore all the histories and power relations and cultural values that are written into capitalist technological commodities such as cars.  This is what the biotechnologists do when they tell us in all good faith that we need GM crops to feed the world, ignoring, for example that the problem is not inadequate food supply but poverty caused by unjust socioeconomic systems, and the fact that the crops are designed to fit into industrial agricultural systems.  They deal in ‘just-so stories’ about how they can make the world better, and the stories are beautiful and seductive, but we need to learn not to fall for them.  You cannot simply wrench the capitalist commodity or technological control system from its social, economic and cultural context and use it for your own benefit, because, as the Marxists correctly say, the problem is commodity fetishism, and as anti-technocrats say, the problem is the obsession with control.

So, to be clear, all of the above does not imply that Chomsky is completely wrong and that technology can never be useful for human benefit, without destroying nature.  Luddism is an anti-technocracy movement, not an anti-technology movement.  But in a way that is little short of liberal, he radically underestimates how difficult that will be and seems completely unconscious of his own technocratic way of thinking.

 

Open letter to synthetic biologists

On July 8th activists from Luddites200 and Biofuelwatch leafletted attendees of the SynBio 6.0 conference, the main international conference of synthetic biologists.  In our view synthetic biology is one of the most dangerous technologies currently being developed, one that expresses in an extreme form many of the technocratic ideas that the Luddites were fighting.  In the industrial revolution machines were said to be more efficient than human workers; with synthetic biology the aim is to genetically redesign life itself from scratch in accord with engineering principles, in order to make it ‘more efficient’ than the messy results of evolution.

Here is the letter we sent them.

An open letter to attendees of Synbio 6.0.

As you arrive at this conference, you are probably feeling excited about the cornucopia of possibilities that this new technology seems to offer. This message is intended to help you think twice about some of your bright ideas.

The core of the problem with synthetic biology is the reductionist understanding of living organisms that it employs and the general attitude of contempt toward the ‘inefficiency’ of the products of natural evolution.  We understand so little about the workings of organisms and ecosystems, yet that hardly dampens your rush to manipulate.  But life is simply not, and can never be, constructed according to engineering principles: its elements are not standard nuts and bolts or ‘modules’, nor are living organisms like computers. So not surprisingly, most of the time your ‘Biobricks’ don’t work (Kean, S. 2011. A lab of their own. Science 333 (6047): 1240-1241). Trying to force life into your system is a form of violence.

Together with the capitalist drive to exploit nature without limit, it is this attitude of domination toward nature that has produced the environmental catastrophe that we face today. In fact, with synthetic biology domination has moved to a new level. Since the Scientific Revolution (whose philosophers expressed the idea of domination very explicitly), technocracy has adopted an imperialist attitude towards nature: ‘you will do what we want’. In synthetic biology, as in 20th century politics, imperialism becomes totalitarianism: ‘We are the authors of nature, you no longer exist as an independent entity’.

If the problem were just conceptual, it wouldn’t be so bad. But synthetic biology’s technocratic projects have massively damaging practical consequences. Time and again the cause of these disasters is that the technocratic mindset leads you to mis-define the problem as technical, when its real cause is social. Your tool is a hammer, so every problem looks to you like a nail. The real cause of climate change is industrial capitalism, and it can’t be fixed with biofuels. Such technofixes are always intended to keep the system that caused the problem going. And because they are part of the problem they perpetuate it: in the quest to supply our absurd overuse of energy and to prop up the profit-making of multinational companies, biofuels are already leading to environmental damage, hunger and the grabbing of land from Third World farmers.

And how will it be possible to even begin to guess at the environmental impacts of your ‘synthetic organisms’ when they escape from your labs and plants, or you deliberately release them into the environment?  We are learning that this is much more difficult than we thought with organisms that have one or two new genes, but ‘synthetic organisms’ will be radical novelties in the planet’s ecosystems.  Rather than a precautionary approach, with the encouragement of ‘biohackers’, who understand little about biology, we’re seeing an anti-precautionary attitude that is of a piece with synthetic biologists’ overall way of thinking about nature.

But you’re only trying to help, right? Well, it’s time that you learnt that your well-meaning desire to use science to help combined with your arrogant attitude towards nature is one of the most dangerous forces in the world today. We are not advocating some equally naïve ‘back to nature’ philosophy, but if humanity is going to get out of the hole that technocratic capitalism has dug, we need to stop digging.

If you would like to take part in a dialogue about these issues, contact synbiodialogue@yahoo.com.

THE LUDDITE LEGACY

Alan Brooke

Full text of a paper forming the basis of a talk given at York Guildhall, 19 January 2012, to commemorate the execution of the West Riding of Yorkshire Luddites in 1813.

In Huddersfield alone, where the Luddite tradition is the most tenacious, the Bicentenary has involved at least a couple of thousand people in events which have been covered by the media bringing the name Luddite to thousands more.

There have been numerous meetings, plays, folk sessions and poetry readings involving people with a wide range of interests in Luddism -  political and campaigning (such as Luddite 200), academic and cultural.  It has involved playwrights, poets, musicians and morris dancers as well as historians.  Some people have attempted to analyse Luddism and its continued relevancy – others have been happy to perpetuate the mythic and romantic view of Luddism.

There is no doubt that Luddism has left a vibrant legacy.  This talk looks at some aspects of that legacy, both local and international.

Whether the Luddites ever considered that they would be remembered by posterity we have no record.  In Yorkshire we have no speeches from the dock and the brief last words of George Mellor on the scaffold were soon after obscured by controversy about what he had actually said.

There was no attempt to claim martyrdom (1)   – and in that the mainstream labour movement has been glad to oblige them.  The cult of martyrdom, such as it is, is a very anaemic, apologetic  and self conscious phenomenon in the British Labour Movement which just doesn’t ‘do’ martyrs.  Martyrs seem only acceptable if they are ‘innocent victims’ such as the Peterloo  martyrs and the Tolpuddle martyrs. This is despite the long roll call of working class people who have died fighting for their rights.

As well as the 40 or so who fell during the Luddite rising, there are the 3 Pentridge insurgents of 1817,  Hardie, Baird and Wilson  executed in 1820, Dic Penderyn hung for his part in the Merthyr uprising in 1831, George Shell and the twenty or more others shot in the gunbattle with troopps at Newport in 1839 and John Clayton, Samuel Holberry and the other Chartists who died in gaol.  More recently we have David Jones and Joe Green who were killed in the great 84-85 Miners Strike.

Although some of these have been honoured with local plaques and monuments the example of their actions has not been assimilated into the tradition of the labour movement.

Certainly Shelleys’ imagery of martyrdom from his revolutionary poem Queen Mab’ has not gained wide acceptance in British working class culture as it has, for example among Irish republicans.

Love’s brightest roses on the scaffold bloom,

Mingling with freedom’s fadeless laurels there…

Shelley was writing this poem as the Luddite  rising was unfolding.  He was certainly aware of the York executions and suggested raising subscriptions to help the families, though I don’t know if this got off the ground.

I come from the village of Honley in the Holme Valley, three miles south of Huddersfield and a focus of Luddite activity in 1812.  From my house I can see the site of two workshops attacked in 1812 and a few hundred yards away is the Coach & Horses pub, where two of the Luddites said to be involved in the assassination of the mill owner William Horsfall, spent the evening after the attack.  I grew up on stories of the Luddites – it can safely be said that Luddism is part of my cultural heritage. (2)

But as a historian the problem for me remains – how much is this tradition genuine folklore, handed down orally in the community, and how much has it been derived from a literary tradition which has fed back into local consciousness.  How far is it acquired culture and how far real collective memory ?

Earlier last year I asked my uncle about my great grandfather who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War and if there was any family account of his imprisonment.  He replied,

 ‘They were a funny lot in those days.  I once asked about a relative who was supposed to be involved with the Luddites and was told “You don’t want to know about that.  There are some things best not talked about.’”

How much local knowledge of the Luddites was lost because people didn’t want to talk about events with which they, or those close to them, were involved?  A kind of omerta born partly out of loyalty and partly out of fear.   This reticence accounts for the paucity of references to Luddism in the generation after 1812-1820, and through the turbulent period culminating in Chartism.  It also accounts for the total absence of any accounts of ‘insiders’ in the later period which throw any light on the inner workings of Luddism.  For all the claims that late Victorian writers like Frank Peel drew on authentic oral tradition there is really little in his account which reveals anything about the Luddite movement.

However, despite this silence from the Luddite milieu itself, the Luddite rising did maintain a hold on the local imagination.  Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Shirley, both reflected this fascination and helped to perpetuate it, as did the accounts of Peel and D F E Sykes, author of ‘Ben o’Bills the Luddite.’  and others,  which mingled fact and fiction in varying degrees.

For an excellent account of the literary heritage of Luddism one can do no better than read Steven Jones  ‘Against Technology – From the Luddites to Neo-Luddism’  -.

But as well as the literary and traditional heritage of Luddism, what of its’ practical political legacy.

Locally the Luddite influence on the immediate aftermath of 1812 is apparent.

Luddism did not end in 1813 with the hangings,  There was at least one incident of machine breaking in Huddersfield in 1815 and there is no doubt that the militancy of Luddism fed into the insurrections which were planned in the area in 1817 and 1820.  George Taylor a Holme Valley leader, was reputed to have been involved in Luddism in 1812 as was James Smaller of Horbury.  Thomas Riley, suspected of planning the assassination of the magistrate Joseph Radcliffe in 1812 was arrested for involvement in 1817 and committed suicide in York Castle. In the run up to the rising one man who asked what they should do if they didn’t have enough arms was told ‘They would go Ludding’, and one of the victims of just such a raid for arms in Honley also described the insurgents as ‘damned Ludding rogues’.  Ludding therefore did not just refer to machine breaking but was also associated with raids for arms and rebellion.  There is no doubt that the factors which contributed to the vitality of Luddism in Huddersfield in 1812 also played a role in the insurgencies of 1817 and 1820, making the area the only one in Britain to participate in all three risings..

Huddersfield also remained a stronghold of both demands for radical reform of parliament, Owenite trade unionism,  resistance to the factory system and to the new poor law in the late 1820s and 30s,  although now it was the handloom weaver rather than the cropper who was the backbone of the movement. Although there were no attacks on machinery Richard Oastler, the Radical Tory leader of the Factory Movement did advocate sabotage of  machines used to flout the Factory Acts and overwork children.  The culmination of these movements, the great general strike of 1842 did involve attacks on mills, but not to destroy machinery, only to force their closure and reinforce the strike.

Thanks to the literary tradition I have referred to , and particularly Sykes novel which was published by the Worker, the Huddersfield socialist weekly paper in 1911, the Luddite centenary was an opportunity to draw on the account of the Luddite rising in the popular domain in order  to point out parallels with contemporary events.

The 2012 Luddite Bicentennary has overshadowed the commemoration of more recent events in 1912. This was the high-tide mark of what has been variously called the Workers Rebellion or the Labour Revolt – a wave of industrial militancy between 1910 and 1914 which saw miners, dockers, seamen, railwaymen, builders and others locked in protracted and violent disputes with employers and the state.  People were killed in riots in Tonypandy, Llanelli and Merseyside, thousands of troops garrisoned towns and cities and gun boats were stationed on the Mersey and Humber.  These events gave impetus to the syndicalist movement which based its tactics, as the Luddites had done, on direct action and sabotage.

This development alarmed those on the left who believed that political action, was primary.  In October 1912 the executive of the British Socialist Party, led by the dogmatic Marxist H M Hyndman issued a statement condemning direct action:

‘There is no probability that Syndicalist methods will find favour in Great Britain.  The tactics of the Levellers and Luddites belong to a lower stage  of economic development and working class organisation than that to which we have attained.’

A few weeks later Ernest John Bartlett Allen, a leading industrial unionist and former associate of Tom Mann (that is Tom Mann the English trade unionist, not the German novelist) wrote an article reproduced in the Huddersfield socialist weekly, the Worker, entitled ‘Is sabotage un-English’.  E J B Allen had lived in Honley between 1910 and 1912, where, despite his Oxford education,  he was a labourer in a bobbin turning workshop and was well known in the local movement through his support for the maverick former revolutionary socialist MP, Victor Grayson.  He pointed out:

‘the textile workers created a sabotage of their own when they had their Luddite movement…In the Huddersfield area they had a specially heavy hammer made for this work…they sang the praises of this great hammer, Great Enoch, as they had named it.’ 

He has got hold of the wrong end of the stick, or rather hammer, in saying it was specially made – but his point that direct attacks on machinery were an indigenous form of struggle is valid.

The syndicalist claim to have the Luddites among their fore-fathers was given another twist at a meeting in 1914  when Guy Bowman, editor of the Syndicalist journal visited Huddersfield.  He had been gaoled in 1912 along with Tom Mann for issuing a ‘Don’t Shoot’ appeal to troops called out against strikers.  The chair of the meeting George Greensmith, a leading Huddersfield anarchist, claimed that one of the first manifestations of anti militarism had occurred locally when one of the soldiers stationed in Rawfolds Mill was flogged for  refusing to fire on the Luddites.

Greensmith has gone on record with his own startlingly modern Luddite prophecy.  This was  in a debate in 1912 with Fred Shaw, a Huddersfield engineer, leading local Marxist (and syndicalist sympathiser!)  Greensmith criticised Marx for reducing man to

‘the modern sport of the machines man had made in the factories man had built.  [but] When man desired they could chuck the machines into the gutter and refuse to go into the mines. It was no longer necessary.  They could chain the tides and harness the sunshine.’

Those who pointed out the differences between 1812 and 1912 had some justification.  The Luddites were resisting the introduction of machines in the infancy of industrial capitalism – the years before the first world war saw the zenith of heavy industry in Britain.  The main problem now was how to gain control over the industrial system.  Though the syndicalists embraced Luddite methods they were not seeking the curtailment or abolition of the machine.  However Greensmith’s quote shows that some anarchists, (as did aesthetic socialists like William Morris), saw the machine itself as an obstacle to a new society.

The dispute between Marxists and state socialists on one side and Syndicalists and Anarchists on the other about the relevancy of the machine and Luddism was not confined to Britain.  It was a dispute between those who saw socialism primarily in terms of the development of the productive forces and those who emphasised a new society based on changed social relations.  The most revolutionary and original among the latter was the German Anarcho-Sozialist Gustav Landauer.

In his stirring and poetic ‘Call to Socialism’ published in 1911 he slammed Marxism for its dependency on technology.

Marxism is the uncultured plodder who knows nothing more important, nothing more splendid, nothing more sacred than technology and its progress…. The father of Marxism is neither the study of history, nor Hegel. It is neither Smith nor Ricardo, nor any of the pre-Marxist socialists. It is neither a revolutionary democratic condition, nor even less the will and longing for culture and beauty among men. The father of Marxism is steam. Old wives prophecy from coffee dregs. Karl Marx prophecied from steam.

For Landauer socialism could not be produced from the same technological basis as capitalism – it requires a decentralisation and a move back to the land.  Above all it requires an assertion of the human soul, or spirit – the Geist.  For those of you who think I have wandered off the Luddites, the significance of this will become apparent at the close of this paper.

One who came to Landauer’s views over the following years was the young poet and dramatist, Ernst Toller, whose experiences on the Western Front turned him into a pacifist and who through the anti-war movement came into contact with the Independent Social Democratic Party.   Both Toller and Landauer found themselves leaders of the short lived Munich soviet in 1919 when Toller announced that they were making a revolution not of force, but of love.  Nevertheless Toller was projected into command of the soviet’s small red army and led an action which drove the whites out of the village of Dachau.

On 1 May 1919 the army of the German Republic and the proto- Nazi Freikorps paramiltaries took Munich, launching a white terror killing up to a thousand people, including Landauer who was beaten almost to death then shot. Ernst Toller, thanks to the intervention of prominent figures such as Max Weber and Thomas Mann, (that is the German novelist not the English trade unionist), was spared the firing squad.

His five year imprisonment gave him time to reflect on the ethical and moral dilemmas raised by the revolution.  In 1920 to 21 in the Niederschonenfeld Fortress he composed a drama based on the Luddites entitled ‘Die Maschinensturmer’ -  ‘The Machine Wreckers’.  Toller was an Expressionist and did not seek just to portray historical events, which is just as well since the play is not at all accurate.  The events of 1812 were used to explore his views about revolutionary violence.  Ned Ludd is not a leader, mythical or otherwise, but an ordinary down to earth and somewhat naive worker who believes that smashing the machines will improve the situation. The leader of the ‘weavers’ as they are referred to is Jimmy Cobbett, a surname obviously taken from William Cobbett, who exhorts the men not to resort to violence and to take control of the machines, rather than smashing them.  It is he , rather than the millowner, who becomes the target of assassination by the Luddites. Toller explained that in his play the machine was:

‘..more than a mere thing. It is a ‘devil’ a ‘demon’ and it provokes its own destruction.’  It is ‘the  symbol of  our mechanistic age’.

The question of violence is not entirely resolved.  Though it is shown as ultimately futile it is not condemned.  Ned Ludd closes by saying:

‘We know what we have done and we shall atone for having killed him.  But others will come after us with greater knowledge, greater faith, greater courage than us.  Your kingdom is crumbling O rulers of England !’ 

The production of the play was met with both enthusiasm and violent hostility so strongly did people see the parallels with the situation in 1920s Germany.

The domination of the machine is a central theme of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film ‘Metropolis’ but here the culminating act of machine breaking also leads to the destruction of the worker’s city itself.

In Herman Hesse’s slightly bizarre surrealist novel of that year, Steppenwolf he describes;  ‘the long-prepared, long-awaited and long-feared war between men and machines.’

There is a passage so vivid and so resonant with the feelings of some neo-Luddites today that it is worth quoting in full:

 ‘On every wall were wild and magnificently stirring placards, whose giant letters flamed like torches, summoning the nation to side with the men against the machines, to make an end at last of the fat and well dressed and perfumed plutocrats who used the machines to squeeze the fat from other mens’ bodies,(3) of them and their huge fiendishly purring automobiles. Set factories afire at last ! Make a little room for the crippled earth.  Depopulate it so that grass may grow again, and woods, meadows, heather stream and moor return to this world of dust and concrete.’ 

We also have of course Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’ which has none of the violence of the above but portrays the life of the worker dominated by the machine which he sabotages in his own individualistically anarchic way.   Perhaps an even more powerful reference to  technological society is his closing speech at the end ‘The Great Dictator,  where he asserts that:

 ‘More than machinery we need humanity

 and he denounces militarism as ‘machine men with machine minds.’

The 1920s and 30s see a shift from concern about the machine’s effect in the workplace on workers and the labour process to a concern about its domination of society as a whole.

One response which perhaps is closest to the original Luddite concept of what they were fighting for was propagated by Hillaire Belloc and G K Chesterton.  In fact when they were discussing a name for their organisation established in 1927 the ‘Luddite League’ was in fact suggested.  They settled on the clumsy and uninspiring name of Distributist League.  It’s object – to restore the small producer and property owner which they saw was being destroyed by monopoly capitalism.  In his manifesto ‘The Outline of Sanity’,

To go mad and smash machinery is a more or less healthy and human malady, as it was in the Luddites. But it was really owing to the ignorance of the Luddites, in a very different sense from that spoken of scornfully by the stupendous ignorance of the Industrial Economists.  It was blind revolt as against some ancient and awful dragon, by men too ignorant to know how artificial and even temporary was that particular instrument, or where was the seat of the real tyrants who wielded it.

Note how Chesterton saw a dragon, where Toller depicted a devil or demon.  This I think owes more to the later 19th and 20th century concept of technology than it does to the actual Luddite perception.  The Chartist image was often of Moloch, the idol and consumer of infants.

By the way, Chesterton’s also refers to the Luddites in one of his best known verses:

‘I saw great Cobbett riding,

The horseman of the shires,

His face was red with judgement,

And the light of Luddite fires’.

Here he is obviously in fact referring to the Swing rather than the Luddite rising a reminder that Ned Ludd came in different guises to serve different causes – Swing, Rebecca,  or today’s ‘V’. .

Chesterton’s populist ideology, and again this perhaps in some respect bears a real similarity to the original Luddites’ aims of defending small scale domestic industry,   appeals more to a nostalgic merry England of rural artisans and yeoman.  In fact one of the alternative names proposed for the Distributist League,  the ‘League of the Little People’, though rejected because it suggested fairies,  would have been most appropriate,.

Chesterton’s world view has something Tolkeinesque about it, an aura of the Shire and Hobbitts.   Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings actually has its own Luddite episode, though unknown to many because it was not included in the film.  The penultimate chapter of the book, ‘The Scouring of the Shire’, deals with the Hobbits’ return home to find not only a police state but environmental destruction centred on a massive new mill with its smoke belching chimney.  What the mill does we are not told except it is ‘full o’wheels and outlandish contraptions’.  The Hobbits even, Luddite style, arm themselves with ‘heavy hammers’ and after a successful uprising against Saruman’s ‘ruffians’ the mill is destroyed and the Shire re-afforested.  This and other references in the trilogy reflect Tolkein’s own real sense of loss in the face industrialisation which destroyed the countryside of his childhood.  No wonder  that the book became a cult in both the New Age and environmental movement of the 60s.

The unmitigated evil of industrialism,  the demon of Toller, the Dragon of G K Chesterton seemed to be realised in 1939-45, with total mechanised warfare,  industrial scale genocide and nuclear weapons.  Lewis Mumford’s concept of the ‘Megamachine’, arising from the domination of an integrated system of technological, economic, political and military power, described in his ‘Myth of the Machine’ and the ‘Pentagon of Power’  also found horrific expression in the Vietnam War and many subsequent so called ‘small wars’. .

Growing consciousness of the pervasiveness of the Megamachine, coupled with concern about ecological damage, climate change, etc  has over the last forty years focused hostility on technology itself -  not just as a product, but also a cause of a destructive system and attitude to life that arguable threatens the basis of both its own survival and the biosphere of the planet.

The deep ecology movement and the ‘monkey-wrenchers’ have again turned to sabotage and direct action of the machine in order to raise awareness of the threat.  The re-adoption of the name Luddite as a symbol of resistance has been described by Kirkpatrick Sale and I can do no better than refer you to his book ‘Rebels against the Future.’  (although his account of the original Luddites is not without its faults).  The works of Ted Kascynski, John Zerzan, Green Anarchists and others who have laid claim to, or have been attributed with, the Luddite mantel, are available on the internet.  I have not time to go into the pros and cons of Neo-Luddism now – but I urge people not to be put off by some of the more anti-humanist strands of the movement. .

Although hostility to new technology has continued in the labour movement – the struggle of dockers against containerisation and of the Wapping printers being perhaps the best known examples – it has been the environmental and anti-globalisation movement which has really embraced neo-Luddism and its traditions of direct action, -  anarchists of various types, rather than socialists and trade unionists..

This discursive account has taken us from Huddersfield, via Bavaria to Middle Earth …and back again – and in case I have lost anyone on the way I should therefore recapitulate the main points in the process of the unfolding of the Luddite legacy.:

Opposition to machinery falls into three types, which broadly constitute three historical phases:

·            Opposition to particular machines because they directly effect the worker in a specific trade and in the immediate community.

·            Opposition to industrialisation as a whole because of the degrading and empoverishing effect on the working class.

·           And the phase that we are now in -  opposition to technology due to its scale and all pervasiveness,  since it is both fundamentally dehumanising our species and also threatens the ecological stability of the planet as a whole.

What then did the Luddites do for us ?

·           They left us the word Luddism which, once merely pejorative and derogatory, is now being reclaimed.

·           They left us the Luddite methods of direct action and the will to resist against massive odds.

·           They left us the Luddite ethos – which is to question received wisdom that ‘progress’ is to be found in technology and economic growth whatever the human cost.

George Mellor’s aphorism in his last letter from York Castle is I think worthy of Socrates or a Buddha….‘A SOUL IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORK OR GOLD…’

We don’t know exactly what he meant by it but the broad message is clear – humanity is more important than mere economic interests.

I think that this encapsulates the most potent part of the Luddite legacy which spans the centuries and is even more relevant today.

Mumford’ believed that the Megamachine could be beaten.  In the closing words of  the  Pentagon of Power he says :

‘for those of us who have thrown off the myth of the machine, the next move is ours: for the gates of the technocratic prison will open automatically, despite their rusty ancient hinges, as soon as we choose to walk out.’

But the Luddites showed us – it is not just an easy matter of walking out.

Some of those who chose to challenge technocracy  in 1812 ended up behind the very real gates of York Castle and other gaols.  But they have left us their legacy of sacrifice and their example of resistance in the face of the juggernaut of ‘progress’.

The best tribute we can pay to the Luddites is to continue their work    -     and ensure that we create a society where indeed life is revered and :

  A SOUL IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN WORK OR GOLD…’

1  In the course of the debate following this talk a member of the audience pointed out that the Methodist hymn sang by some of the victims on the scaffold did contain imagery of martyrdom ‘Behold the saviour of mankind/Nailed to the cruel tree…’  and that the Methodist ideology of some of the Luddites may have fuelled  their sense of self sacrifice.

2  Since writing this I came across another local story.  According to Stuart Christie in his biography ‘Granny made me an Anarchist’,  the house he rented in Honley, where he came to live after his acquittal in the Angry Brigade trials, contained an attic in which  Luddites had hidden after the shooting of William Horsfall ! I have not come across this story anywhere before, so whether this is a garbled account of a true event, a local legend – or a tall tale told by locals to humour Christie I don’t know.

3  The accounts of the use of the use of the body fat of concentration camp victims to make soap makes this a prophetic utterance rather than just lurid hyperbole.

Technocracy and Luddism

What is technocracy?

Technocracy is an underused concept, even amongst activists concerned with the politics of technology. Although it was popular in the 1970s, it has largely fallen out of use, for reasons which are not clear; nowadays, the main arena in which we encounter it is in use of the word to describe bureaucrats who are appointed to run governments, sometimes in situations where the political system is in crisis, for example in Greece and Iraq. In many cases, these technocrats are not even scientists or engineers, which points towards an important feature of technocracy: that it is about the use of complex systems of management, which may not actually be based upon scientific knowledge (although nowadays they are sure to involve the use of computers).

This current use of the term also illuminates a second important feature of technocracy, i.e. that is supposedly politically neutral. In the golden age of technocracy (as an explicit political movement) in the first half of the 20th century, this aspect was crucially important to the claims of those who argued that the governance of the world should be handed over to scientists and engineers, who would supposedly run it in a benign and progressive fashion. In a period in which saw extremes of left and right wing politics and the horrors of two world wars, these ideas were, not surprisingly, attractive to many.

Thus, we may be used to the idea of technocracy as the control of political power, by supposedly apolitical technical experts, and as such it is obviously not a good idea, because most people still believe that we should be ruled by people who are democratically elected. However, this crude understanding of what technocracy is fails to address the more subtle ways in which power and influence work in our societies, and the pervasiveness in modern culture of scientific and technological ways of understanding the world and of constructing definitions of the problem to be addressed. It is probably because these ways of understanding are so pervasive in our culture that they have become so normalised and invisible.

Science, capitalism and progress

Historians of the future will describe the society that arose after the dissolution of feudalism as ‘scientific capitalism’.  Modern science came into being in the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries.  In this period, the older image of nature as a living organism gave way to the concept of nature as a machine; the task of science is to reveal its workings.  Since the 17th century the ruling ideal of our society has been the smoothly functioning, efficient machine, and it is this that defines modernity.  The key philosopher of the Scientific Revolution, Francis Bacon, explicitly stated that the role of science is to dominate and control nature.  His work, and that of other scientists and philosophers of the period, is strongly imbued with gender metaphors: nature is seen as an unruly, rebellious female whose feminine secrets must be uncovered by a male science, if necessary by force.  Many environmentalist and feminist writers have argued that, notwithstanding the benefits science has brought to human beings, it is this arrogant attitude towards nature, which is at the root of many of the social and environmental problems of our society.

Although the underlying philosophies of science and capitalism are superficially different, a closer inspection reveals fundamental similarities that explain their fundamental compatibility, and the way in which science has served as a central tool of the capitalist system.  Fundamental to both is a rejection of an abstract theorising in favour of a close attention to ‘fact’, which demands quantification, measurement and accounting.  Capitalism only became possible after the rejection and dissolution of the fixed medieval worldview based upon theology and theories of the natural rightness of aristocratic rule.  This allowed the liberation of the bourgeoisie, and with the Renaissance and Reformation an emphasis on individual thinking rather than received dogma.  Arising directly from this new attention to ‘what actually is’ comes a shared philosophy of materialism and ruthless pragmatism: what matters is what works.  In science this can be seen in the Popperian theory, beloved of scientists, that the ultimate test of a hypothesis is whether it makes correct predictions. For the capitalist, under pressure from the competition, all that matters is whether s/he can do something that works in order to gain an advantage: morality appears as an arbitrary impediment to this. Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind, who insists, ‘Give me facts, not fancies’, is a perfect spokesperson for both scientific and capitalist worldviews.

Scientific research has two functions within the system of scientific capitalism. Firstly, by collecting facts about nature and organising empirical evidence through general laws and theories, science brings conceptual order to the bewildering variety of natural phenomena. The work of Linnaeus in imposing a classification system upon plants in the 18th century, the development of the laws of electromagnetism, Mendeleev’s Periodic Table and Darwin’s theory of evolution are good examples of this. Secondly, understanding the mechanisms of nature creates opportunities to manipulate it through technology and appropriate it to create wealth for particular social groups, and for other socially important goals such as development of new weaponry and state control of the population.

Because of the similarity in their underlying philosophies, science has been a close partner of capitalism for the past 400 years.  In the society which they have created, modernisation and ‘progress’ are defined as the better understanding and ability to control nature, including, increasingly, human nature.  In the late 18th century, this crystallised particularly strongly in the movements of Enlightenment (the birth of modern liberalism). and Industrial Revolution, which in turn provoked the reactions of Romanticism and Luddism.  The ideology of progress through technology is central to the politics of liberalism, in all its forms, from right-wing libertarianism, through social democratic managerialism and radical progressive liberalism, and thus it is a constant of politics whether the government is of left or right.

Technocracy

The last 400 years is the era not merely of capitalism, but of technocratic capitalism. What most radical critiques of capitalism, generally fail to grasp is that at least for the last 200 years, capitalism has been industrial capitalism. It is normally assumed, for example that the root of the problem is the power relations at the heart of the capitalist economic system, but I would argue that in many ways the economic and social domination actually takes its lead, its methods, concepts and structures from its technical partner.  Industrialism has its own inbuilt technical structures and imperatives that shape the system of economic and social domination.  The industrial system, and the capitalist economy are, themselves, supposed to function as machines and technocracy always strives to make society as a whole work in that way, most obviously in wartime.  It has been the practical achievement of this ideal that has required social domination (the division of labour) and allowed the achievement of national economic domination, through a combination of industrialism and the imperialism that industrialism empowers.  Capitalist techniques of management, of production, of nature and of society always evolve in the direction of scientific management.  At the beginning of the 20th century, in the Progressive Era in America, conditions were right for the technological criteria of efficiency, streamlining, uniformity etc. to be overtly expressed as social ideologies and political movements, such as ‘Taylorism’ or Scientific Management (best known for factory time and motion studies designed to increase worker efficiency), eugenics, and the linked Efficiency/Technocracy/Progressive movements.   Frederick Taylor expresses technocracy perfectly, when he states that, ‘In the past, the man was first: in the future, the system must be first.’

Technocracy, then, is the exercise of power through technology and scientific/technological ideas, methods and ways of thinking.  The Industrial Revolution is a prime example of the former: the seizure of social and political power and the engineering of society by a new class, the manufacturers, on the basis of ownership and mastery over new technology.  In the late 20th century we saw something similar, a bid for domination by certain corporations through control of genetic and information technologies.  But technocracy is much more pervasive and subtle than these relatively obvious examples.  In general, scientific knowledge has been established as the most authoritative form of knowledge, and all policies must conform to scientific criteria – under the World Trade Organisation agreements, for example, governments are not permitted to ban the importation of certain products simply because they want to, for cultural and political reasons.  They must provide conclusive scientific evidence that these products are a danger to public health.  Likewise, in order to be recognized as valid by government regulators, objections to GM crops must be couched in terms of risks of measurable environmental or health harms.  Other key manifestations of technocracy in our society are the all-pervading systems of social management through bureaucracy and surveillance, systems designed and implemented by technical experts and now inseparable from the use of computers.  As modern urban life becomes lived within a technosphere an even more pervasive effect develops: people begin to think and try to function more and more like machines, and technocratic ways of thinking come to seem like common sense.

As a result of their hegemony, technocratic ways of thinking become more and more difficult to notice.  One way in which they sometimes become visible is in techno-fixes – technical solutions for problems that are clearly social in origin and require addressing at that level.  Prominent current examples include geoengineering to deal with climate change and attempts to medicalise criminals and people who commit antisocial behaviours as suffering from genetic or neurological defects.  Technocratic thinking also becomes visible when it is applied outside its own cultural setting.  The history of Third World aid projects is littered with examples of disastrous attempts to impose Western technology and the technocratic systems in which it is embedded upon non-western cultures, in well-meaning attempts at creating ‘development’.

These examples illustrate two crucial features of technocracy: its claims to be ‘apolitical’ and progressive.  The supposedly apolitical nature of technocratic methods rests, of course, on the liberal model of science and technology as inherently ‘neutral’ and ‘value-free’, a proposition that has been utterly demolished by philosophers and sociologists, but which retains a tenacious hold on the minds of scientists and the public.  Because of their role in the overall system of social domination, technocratic systems and solutions are anything but apolitical; on the contrary, they always primarily serve the interests of existing holders of power and the claim that they are politically neutral because they are technological is a straightforward (and generally highly effective) deception.  Technocracy is social engineering by other means, and from above.  One way in which this works is by framing the problem in technical terms.  For example, hunger and malnutrition caused by poverty, due to unjust social and economic systems, is re-framed as being due to not enough food.  The solution then becomes clear: crop yields must be raised through genetic engineering.  By ‘taking the politics out of’ the problem definition, a technical ‘solution’ can be created and imposed that not-coincidentally a) preserves existing socio-economic structures and b) provides an opportunity for corporations to market a new product.  The move to ‘depoliticise’ the framing of the problem is the most political move that could be imagined, yet that is not even noticed by scientists trained in technocratic thinking.  Even better, such technocratic solutions can enthuse scientists and many others with the inherent benevolence of technology as part of the overall march of progress.

Environmentalism & green technocracy

It is important to realise that the environmental movement that began in the 1960s is, in part, merely another wave in the progressive movement towards better control of nature. Environmentalism bases its critique upon a better scientific theory of nature (ecology), which has a more sophisticated emphasis on complex systems.  These insights have been extremely important.  Although there are strands within that movement that are critical of capitalism, this tends to be on the basis of its drive towards perpetual economic growth on a finite planet, rather than because of the inherent exploitation and oppression of capitalism. Environmentalism has a more radical wing, which recognises the importance of corporate self-interest in the creation of environmental problems, but because its mainstream is liberal, with the exception of ecofeminism it lacks a clear understanding of the deep intertwining of science and capitalism.

We can see this liberal refusal to acknowledge the real roots of environmental problems in the following passage from an environmentalist website: “This uncontrolled lurch towards our planetary boundaries is often branded as the failure of capitalism, deregulated open markets or our obsession with growth. These economic mechanisms do have much to answer for but the root dysfunction is the externalization of social and environmental costs.” In the liberal environmentalist analysis, the problem is technical: an inaccurate accounting of production costs. It is not just that liberal environmentalism is deeply susceptible to the solutions proposed by scientific and corporate elites such as the ‘green economy’, with its promise of better accounting (a similar liberal move is the attempt to measure human well being or happiness, as part of GDP), or to more obvious technofixes such as ‘geoengineering’ and biofuels.  In many ways the environmentalist enterprise is inherently technocratic; it simply proposes a better, ‘cleaner’, ‘smarter’ way of controlling nature, rather than addressing the social and economic causes of the problem.

Luddism

In order to really address the causes of our current environmental crisis we need a politics that addresses both halves of the partnership of science and capital, a politics that is inherently anti-technocratic, and is not taken in by the supposed neutrality and progressiveness of technocratic solutions. Unfortunately, traditional socialist approaches have often been even more aggressively technocratic than those of capitalism.

The best example we have of such a politics is Luddism, which is not an anti-technology, but an anti-technocracy movement.  Although they did not express themselves in these terms, the Luddite rebellion was a revolt against both the economic and technological aspects of free market capitalism. As the writer Kirkpatrick Sale puts it, it was a revolt not against machines but against The Machine.  To embrace Luddism means being prepared to stand up to the full force of the liberal dogma of progress through technology, and the emotional blackmail that it employs. But if we really want to confront capitalist technocracy, we need to develop a new politics of Luddism appropriate to the conditions of the 21st century.


 

NO Geoengineering!

Dave King of Luddites200 wrote this letter to the Campaign Against Climate Change following their  conference in June, at which there were two workshops on ‘geoegineering’ – plans to engineer the global climate in order to overcome the effects of climate change.  There has been no reply.

Dear Phil,

I’m writing to express my concern about the inclusion of the workshop on geoengineering at the recent conference (which I otherwise found enjoyable and very positive).

In my view, it is vital that the green movement, and in particular organisations devoted to fighting climate change does not provide a platform for discussions about geoengineering, because to do so undermines our central agenda. Discussing geoengineering encourages the notion that there may be a technological fix for climate change which will make the vital work of reducing carbon emissions unnecessary.

Climate change and the other environmental crises are the result of 200 years of industrial capitalism, which is now crashing into the limits of the planet’s ability to sustain it. Faced with this, and in an attempt to continue with business as usual scientists and corporations are proposing the ultimate desperate technical fix. The ideas being proposed, such as mirrors in space are wild flights of fancy, dignified by scientific gravitas. If we step back from a moment from the details, it should be easy to see that the idea that scientists and corporations should be permitted to manipulate the climate system of the entire planet, a system about which there is so little basic understanding, is simply insane. The risks of such an enterprise are so enormous and the likely impacts upon countries that will have no role in controlling the technology so enormous, that it simply must not be contemplated. I won’t attempt to outline all these risks here, for further information visits www.handsoffmotherearth.org. As a technology geoengineering makes nuclear power look benign and safe.

I understand that the position of the two presenters at the geoengineering workshop is not that they support it, but that they are ‘merely’ researching it and discussing ‘governance mechanisms’. However, I know from long experience with other technologies that this is precisely the way by which promoters of new technologies try to legitimise them. Firstly they persuade the research councils to fund academic research. This research frames the issues in a depoliticised way which ignores the corporate interests that will profit from the research.  (It is not a coincidence that many of the promoters of geoenginerering, such as Richard Branson, have a financial interest in the continuation of eg. commercial aviation.) They then try to engage policy makers in discussion not of ‘should we use this technology at all’ but of ‘how it should be deployed and governed’. When the technology is ready for commercialisation the policy apparatus is ready to approve it. The idea that, should the research determine that geoengineering is not desirable, governements and corporations will simply agree to abandon it is laughably naive.

I understand that some people would view a clear no to discussions of geoengineering as a form as censorship. I would argue that it is simply a matter of the green movement not providing a platform for discussions which undermine its basic agenda. There are no doubt many forums within which the geoengineers and academics can discuss the subject. But we would not for example, expect the peace movement to provide a platform for nuclear war planners to discuss the ‘insurance policy’ of building bunkers to survive a war. The problem with entertaining a plan B is that it undermines plan A and eventually replaces it. Whilst there are some technologies which may have a role in combating climate change, and which it is profitable to discuss, geoengineering is not one of them. The job of the green movement must be to reject geoengineering absolutely, not to negotiate with it or discuss it.

I would therefore suggest that the Campaign Against Climate Change does not hold workshops on geoengineering at future events. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this.

Best wishes

David King

Enlightenment? Progress?

A set of religious bigots is rampaging across Britain, claiming billions of pounds of taxpayers money, infiltrating and controlling key institutions, supported by blanket hype from a totally uncritical media and the strong arm of the law and forcing their opinions down everyone else’s throats. Right wing Christians, Muslims and Jedi Knights? No, and this is the confusing bit, these are the supporters of what Stephen Fry, now one of their key cheerleaders, has called ‘Castle Enlightenment’.  (Castle indeed, for if we are to follow the prescriptions of one of their chief ideological warriors, Mark Henderson, what society needs most is to hand over the reins of state power to unelected scientists, engineers and other technocrats.)

It really is confusing, especially for scientists like me who grew up believing in humanism and rationalism, to see how those who claim to believe in ‘fact’, ‘evidence’, ‘no dogmas’, ‘open debate’ and ‘critical thinking’ behave when subjected to the slightest challenge. Time and again they respond just like any other group whose institutional power and dogmas are threatened, not with argument and evidence, but by trying to demonise, rubbish and destroy their critics, and eventually with physical force. Critics of GM crops, for example, are labelled as ‘anti-science’, ‘Luddites’ (by which they again, ignorantly, mean people supposedly against technology and progress), and recently as ‘Nazi book burners’. As one who lost members of my extended family in the Holocaust, I will thank NFU President Peter Kendall to keep his filthy mouth shut on that subject.

If the much-vaunted scientific method, upon which the prestige of science ultimately rests, is really any better that any other way of gaining knowledge, it is because it ultimately comes down to relentless critical thinking about the quality of evidence and its interpretation. Sadly, the science lobby, which loves to say that critics are distorting scientific evidence to fit their own agenda, is very often guilty of the same crime.  One example of this, where the science lobby was caught red-handed was the campaign to legalise the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos in 2007-8, in which Nobel Prize winners and medical research charities were lined up to insist that this was vital medical research.  But once the legislation was passed and research funding applications submitted to the medical research council, they were rejected as being of little scientific merit, as I had predicted they would be.

Sadly, where scientists fail again and again to do better than anyone else, is in applying critical thinking to their own overall worldview and unexamined assumptions; when challenged, on the contrary, all they are capable of is to reassert self-righteously their own view of themselves as the champions of reason, progress and enlightenment. Aside from the extraordinary arrogance of their dismissal of ordinary people’s concerns as ‘irrational’, it is this inability to be self-critical that marks them, philosophically, as just another religious institution, and by their behaviour as just another power lobby.  (If you think my characterisation of them as a religion is exaggerated take a look at this wonderful piece of eschatological metaphysics.)

To some extent, I can forgive scientists for their ignorance and naivety. In Britain at least they are allowed to give up learning anything about the humanities at age 16. So it is not surprising that they are unable to realise the utter philosophical bankruptcy of their professional ideology (the supposed ‘objectivity’ and ‘value-neutrality’ of science) and the way that this ideology serves to make them enthusiastic but oblivious servants of the capitalist power machine. Neither can we expect them to know much about the efforts  in philosophy and sociology to come to terms with the way that Enlightenment rationality and modernism underlay the great horrors of the 20th century, Stalinism and the Holocaust. They will not have read the Frankfurt school philosopher-sociologists, or Levinas, Derrida and the post modernists (who ended up stupidly going to the other extreme).

Stephen Fry, on the other hand, is not to be excused for not having read or ignoring Adorno and Horkheimer’s ‘Dialectic of Enlightenment’ and its critique of what he calls ‘Castle Enlightenment’.  Crucially, even in the face of the Holocaust, Adorno and Horkheimer insist that what is needed is not abandonment of Enlightenment but an Enlightenment that includes itself in its critique of dogma.

But it is precisely that challenge that the self-appointed apostles of reason and progress must refuse, because it opens up too many difficult questions. Liberals have always been much too busy congratulating themselves for being nice, and for slaying the dragon of aristocratic privilege to take a look at the way in which their own ideology serves their own very particular class interests. What has become apparent to me over 20 years of involvement in debates about technology is the way in which those class interests dictate that liberalism always manages to justify whichever new technology scientists and corporations want to impose upon us.  And they always manage to make it sound nice, humanitarian and creating more choice and freedom. Technocracy comes with a kind smiling face, but just wait and see how nasty they turn if you can’t be persuaded.

Over the past 20 years, liberalism has acquired a radical new fundamentalist clergy. This grouping first gained attention in the 1990s when it produced a magazine ‘Living Marxism’ (LM), and was ostensibly organised as the ‘Revolutionary Communist Party’. The magazine was glossy and controversialist, consistently embracing positions that seemed to owe more to right wing libertarianism than collectivist Marxism.  However, that dichotomy is misleading, especially on issues related to technology: orthodox Marxism has always strongly emphasised that industrial capitalism and the technology that drives it is a progressive force in history. Whilst LM and the ‘RCP’ came to a sticky end after a disastrous lawsuit concerning its pro-Serbian stance in the Balkans conflict, the grouping, centred around Prof Frank Furedi of the University of Kent, has continued to flourish. It has set up a series of organisations, or placed its members in key positions within other policy making institutions. These include The Institute of Ideas, The Science Media Centre, the online magazine Spiked and Sense About Science. The group has continued to advocate anti-environmentalist positions, notably in the TV series ‘Against Nature’. I had personal experience of their manipulative methods in the making of that series, in which environmentalists were described as Nazis, intent on denying Third World countries the fruit of western science and technologies. Sense About Science has coordinated the current campaign against the anti-GM Take the Flour Back group, including rallying large numbers of scientists. The remarks of Mr Kendall, bizarre as they seem, do not spring from nowhere.

I do not intend here to mount a full-scale analysis of the LM group. Their corporate funding is well-documented and it is futile to try to attempt to determine to what degree they operate as a genuine conspiracy, see here for more background. Personally, I tend to agree with Susan George’s analysis of the degree of conspiracy amongst western banks and governments involved in creating the Third World debt crisis of the 1980’s: they come from the same social backgrounds, went to the same schools and universities, believe in the same values; they do not need to conspire. What’s more important is to understand their ideological role.

Like the clergy of any religion, their job is to be the keeper of the flame, the guardians of the pure doctrine, and to whip the followers into shape when they waver into errors like environmentalism. Above all they must relentlessly construct all issues as being about progress and enlightenment versus reactionary conservatism. In that way, confused liberals can always be induced to support as progressive not merely projects which serve obvious corporate interests like GM foods, but the whole system of industrial capitalism and its relentless drive to manipulate nature for private profit.  They must preserve the feeling of self-righteousness that comes from fighting the baddies, such as pro-lifers and religion in general and supporting progressive causes such as gay rights. In my own field, the politics of reproductive and genetic technologies, they and their media servants consistently frame the debate as being between science and reactionary anti-women religion, and thereby ensure their victory and silence critical green/left voices.

Those who want to defend nature and create an economically just society need to realise that, in the current social and environmental crisis, the liberal concept of progress through technology must be challenged fundamentally.  That means being proud to call yourself a Luddite ie. someone who has a real rational, sceptical philosophy.  Just don’t be surprised when those nice liberals turn nasty.

General Ludd sends solidarity message to anti-GM campaigners

On May 27th the largest anti-GM event for a number of years took place in Harpenden, near London, close to the site of the GM wheat trial at Rothamsted Research.  Some members of General Ludd’s army attended and gave the campaigners a message from him:

Why I’m supporting Take the Flour Back.

200 years ago, my supporters broke machines that were hurtful to Commonality, because they were destroying their trades and livelihoods and forcing them to work in the hellish mills and be paid a pittance.

Now, the industrial capitalist system that we were fighting has led to an environmental crisis that threatens to destroy our civilisation. But they have come up with another way to use science to serve the interests of the masters (now called corporations), by manipulating nature at a deeper level.

In 1812 we were fighting enclosures of land and the privatising of our knowledge and skills, now they are privatising the very molecules of nature, and destroying the commonality of our shared genetic heritage of plants and animals – the heritage that provides our daily bread. In 1812 people were rioting about the price of bread, but if the corporations succeed in patenting genes, and gain control over the food production system such riots will become a permanent feature.

The industrial system has a way of invading and destroying everything in its path. In my time the factories put small domestic producers out of business, now genetic pollution will make non-GM farming impossible. But the industrial ‘innovations’ always lead to less reliance on human skill and labour, and more dependency upon the machines.

GM crops are hurtful to Commonality!

Down With All Kings But King Ludd!

London Luddites200 supporters Edward and Eliza Lloyd today visited their local Jubilee street party with a message inspired by Byron’s Song for the Luddites.  The text in the bottom half of the placard reads ‘Celebrate the Luddites’ 200th Jubilee, not the monarchy!  Their contribution attracted much acclaim from local residents and was taken in good part, with a number of badges with the same message being sold.

As Ed Lloyd remarked however, there is a serious issue here.  ”In 1812 the Prince Regent was holding lavish balls for hundreds of guests, while ordinary people in the North starved due to bad harvests and economic recession.  Now we have austerity and millions of people, including disabled people like me, are losing their benefits or having them cut, whilst the rich get tax cuts.  But it seems the government has millions to spend on the Jubilee celebrations.  In that respect things were better in 1812: at least the Prince Regent was only spending his own money, not that of taxpayers.”

Luddites fight for climate justice

Last weekend Luddites 200 and a group of environmental and social justice organisations organised a teach-in in London on the RIO+20 summit, which is coming up in June. The summit is 20 years on from the 1992 Earth Summit, which gave us the UN convention of Biodiversity and Agenda 21, and was regarded by many as a high point for the global environmental movement. This time round, there seems to be nothing by way of binding international agreements on offer: instead there will be a general political declaration and some attempts to beef up the UN environmental organisations. More alarmingly the summit seems set to endorse plans for the ‘green economy’, plus technological ‘fixes’ for climate change, including synthetic biology and geoengineering.

Many environmental and social justice organisations, both in Britain and the global south have criticised the ‘green economy’ as yet another attempt to enclose and then commodify nature. The basic idea is that conservation of bio-diversity cannot happen until a financial value is put on eco-systems such as forests, wetlands etc. Once these are properly valued they can be included in economic calculations and in financial derivatives, thereby creating a market in them as has already happened for carbon emissions. Groups such as Via Campesina have denounced these plans as yet another attempt by northern corporations to get their hands on bio-diversity that forms the common heritage of humanity.

Meanwhile, highly dangerous technologies such as synthetic biology (also known as ‘extreme genetic engineering’) and geoengineering are being re branded as ‘green’ technologies that are essential to combat climate change. At our event speakers from ETC Group, Econexus and Bio Fuels Watch explained the dangers of these technologies and how such techno fixes actually undermine the crucial task of cutting carbon emissions. In the closing plenary a speaker from the One Million Climate Jobs Campaign explained how switching to renewable energy technologies, and boosting efforts to redesign and insulate buildings can not only help solve the climate crisis but also address the economic crisis. The overall message was that a sustainable society cannot be achieved without economic justice. We are hoping to add audio and video recordings of the days events to the website: https://network23.org/invite/.

The event was timed to coincide with a London scientific/corporate conference called Planet Under Pressure at the Excel centre in London, the organisers of which are advocating the use of synthetic biology and geoengineering as key solutions for climate change. General Ludd decided to send two representatives to make his feelings about the conference known (see photo) whilst climate justice group Rising Tide invaded the conference stage during a speech by a Shell executive, and were warmly applauded by large sections of the audience.


General Ludd said: Technofixes For Climate Change? No Thanks!!
You can’t fix social and political problems with a techno-bandaid

We are facing catastrophic climate change caused by industrial capitalism, but the solutions proposed by the organisers of the Planet Under Pressure conference will make the problem worse not better. Many of these technocratic ‘solutions’ are more about saving a greedy economic system that doesn’t work than about helping people, communities, and cultures threatened by desperate climate crisis. The ‘green economy’ is just the same old greed economy: this time, the aim is to enclose and commodify all remaining parts of the natural commons.

The technological solutions being proposed, synthetic biology and geoengineering are examples of the most extreme scientific arrogance and disregard for risk. Science is only beginning to scratch the surface in understanding how life works, yet scientists already propose to ‘synthesise’ life from scratch. The public has rejected GM foods, but scientists now propose to employ much more extreme forms of genetic engineering, based on a totally crude engineering model of life. We understand even less about the Earth’s climate systems, yet with ‘geoengineering’ they blithely propose to tamper with it, with all the incalculable and potentially catastrophic risks that this entails. Such technofixes are bad science and distract from and undermine the real need to drastically cut carbon emissions, by pretending that we can carry on with business as usual and leave the problem to scientists and corporations. These industrial technocratic ‘solutions’ are part of the problem.

The Real Solution

We must address the real roots of environmental crisis in the industrial capitalist system that has produced it. 200 years ago, in 1812, we Luddites rebelled not against technology per se, but against machinery ‘hurtful to Commonality’, i.e. to the common good. We were fighting against the imposition of the industrial capitalist system, and 200 years later, the environmental crisis it has produced has proved us right!

Reduce production, redistribute wealth!
Cut carbon emissions, don’t trade them!
Democratic not corporate control of technology!

Huddersfield Luddites 200 Festival Poetry Competition

2012 is the 200th anniversary of the uprising by Luddite machine breakers, which inspired great poetry by Byron, Shelley and others. The defeat of the Luddites by thousands of soldiers led to two centuries of industrialism. Its ugliness and beauty, its wealth and its poverty have all been inspiration for truly brilliant pieces. Now we live in a world dominated by science and technology, but on the brink of environmental disaster. What do the Luddites and their mythical leader, General Ned Ludd mean to you?

Luddites 200 is launching a poetry competition, with prizes to be awarded by Andy Croft at our festival in Huddersfield on April 28th/29th. Poems can be in any style, with a maximum length of 40 lines.

Categories 1st Prize

Under 16 £40
Over 16 £40

There will be second and third prizes of books and/or merchandise, to be confirmed on the day.

There is no entry fee, but we would appreciate donations to cover the costs of running our festival. This can be made by visiting luddites200blog.org.uk and using the donate button on the right, or on the day.

Poems, which should not previously have been published, should be sent to huddersfieldluddites200@gmail.com, or by post to Luddites200 Organising Forum, c/o Flat 5 The Old Warehouse, Henry Street, Huddersfield, HD1 4AA. Please remember to also include your name, age and contact details or we won’t be able to include your submission! The deadline is April 14th. We may subsequently post your poems (with your permission) on the Luddites 200 website.

For more information on the festival, visit:

https://www.facebook.com/events/295701293828114/