— Jeff Conant, for GJEP
This year, 2012, marks the bicentennial anniversary of the British Luddite movement, which rose up in 1812 in an organized rebellion of ‘machine-breaking’ against industrial textile frames and other equipment found to be odious to workers’ dignity. The two-hundredth anniversary will be marked by widespread celebrations of the Luddites’ historic achievement, in the form of galas to be held at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C., Windsor Castle, Rockefeller Center, and Wall Street…wait, no, pardon: my fact-checking department tells me that’s not right. They’ll be held in impromptu squats and occupied factories in devastated rust belt cities like Flint, Michigan and empty granaries amidst the industrial soy plantations of Brazil’s Cerrado and the African Sahel. No, well, not that either…
Indeed, the poor old Luddites, great humanitarians that they were, and harbingers of the two-hundred year industrial blight-to-come, have lived on largely as a negative: anyone who questions the nature of technological progress is deemed a Luddite and summarily dismissed.
Historically, the Luddites, armed with hammers, pistols and a desperation to protect their livelihoods, seized the imagination of the British public in the early-nineteenth century. And they have held on to it. Two centuries later, the word ‘Luddite’ is still familiar all round the English-speaking world, even if vastly misunderstood.
Were the Luddites simply a band of destructive ne’er-do-wells who seriously thought that by smashing the new machines in the factories of the early 1800s they could ‘uninvent’ the technology that threatened to take away their jobs and their social status as elite craftsmen? That is how they are often seen today, and the word ‘Luddite’ is used for anybody who is reluctant to use a computer or a mobile phone. But there was more to the original Luddites.
A number of organizations, especially in the UK, are rising (up) to the occasion and bringing the Luddites back into our awareness. And the timing couldn’t be better: with the effects of industrial capitalism devastating the planetary ecosystem, and now devouring itself in a fit of austerity measures, rebellions, and economic collapse, perhaps it’s time to sit down for a chat with the mysterious Ned Ludd and his cross-dressing band of clandestine saboteurs.
A great resource to start with is Luddite Link; also worth visiting is the British People’s History Museum in Manchester, England, where, thanks to the direct action of a group called Luddites200, the Luddites will be put back in their rightful place in history after a long and silent banishment in obscurity.
Another great resource, for those interested in current issues around technology, is Friends of the Earth Australia’s recent issue of their magazine Chain Reaction. It includes an article by Luddites200 member Dave King and an excellent spread of articles from GM food to geoengineering to Fukushima to synthetic biology.
With the Rio+20 Environment Summit coming up this June, it is a fine moment to assess where twenty years of ‘sustainable development’ have gotten us, on top of two-hundred years of industrial resource extraction and exploitation. While policy-makers and big green NGOs lick their chops over emerging technologies like synthetic biology and geoengineering, technological ruses like ‘climate-smart agriculture’, biochar, and REDD; and while market-minded technocrats lay plans for the ‘green economy’ to promote these technologies and to facilitate trading in ecosystem commodities and services, perhaps we should pause for a long moment and consider the Luddite value of, well, pausing for a long moment.
The Andean Indigenous Peoples’ movements posit an alternative to industrial-progress-at-all-costs; they call it Buen Vivir – living well. The original Luddites, who might rather’ve spent their time lifting a pint after work rather than smashing machines and dodging the authorities, probably would’ve called it the same thing.