Long Live the Luddites



Rock Island, IL. 

Having been called a “Luddite” by a few confused souls who fancy they’ve scored a point when in fact they’ve paid me a very high compliment, and having also been called a “prudish, technophobic, sexist, homophobic, misanthropic and an ahistorical anti-modernist elitist”—this by someone either unaware or unconcerned that I have volunteer spies who use another pernicious technology called, I think, “Facebook” (which involves neither faces nor books)—I find myself in a bit of a sticky wicket: once I have understood these two flattering benedictions, whom do I thank more profusely?

It is clear that the latter compliment (“prudish, technophobic, sexist, homophobic, misanthropic and an ahistorical anti-modernist elitist”) would require a fuller parsing, because there are so many . . . well, so many words, only one of which I feel obliged to quibble with, for I am anything but “prudish.”

But the former (“Luddite”) gives me plenty to quibble with. For one thing, the word is too readily tossed about–so readily, in fact, that clarifying the point might deprive the sophisticated non-Luddites of their best defense: flipping that switch that cuts the power to brain and conscience alike and calls down a quick and soporific darkness perfect for sleeping easy in.

And, for another thing, if we’re going to use the word “Luddite” we ought to know what it means. We ought to know what a Luddite is.

A Luddite is someone who, in the first place, doesn’t approve of policies that impoverish the many to enrich the few. He regards labor not as evil but as necessary. He is someone who knows too well that introducing into labor a labor-saving device doesn’t so much reduce labor as evict laborers, and he dislikes being evicted by such devices. You might even say he is someone impertinent enough to prefer people to machines. He will sometimes express his displeasure with machines by breaking them. If he is also a prudish, technophobic, sexist, homophobic, misanthropic and an ahistorical anti-modernist elitist, he may even—oh, I don’t know—walk around his lectern, take a cell phone out of a student’s hand, and throw it at a cinderblock wall—just to hear what kind of ringtone it makes on impact.

But let us attend to a better pencil:

“The situation in the wool economy of Hawkshead at the end of the eighteenth century was the same as that which, a little later, caused the brief uprising of those workers in England who were called Luddites. These were people who dared to assert that there were needs and values that justly took precedence over industrialization; they were people who rejected the determinism of technological innovation and economic exploitation. In them, the community attempted to speak for itself and defend itself. It happened that Lord Byron’s maiden speech in the House of Lords, on February 27, 1812, dealt with the uprising of the Luddites, and this, in part, is what he said:

By the adoption of one species of [weaving] frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous laborers were thrown out of employment. Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality; not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation. . . . The rejected workmen . . . conceived themselves to be sacrificed to improvements in mechanism. In the foolishness of their hearts they imagined that the maintenance and well-doing of the industrious poor were objects of greater importance than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement, in the implements of trade, which threw the workmen out of his employment, and rendered the laborer unworthy of his hire.

“The Luddites did, in fact, revolt not only against their own economic oppression but also against the poor quality of the machine work that had replaced them. And though they destroyed machinery, they ‘abstained from bloodshed or violence against living beings, until in 1812 a band of them was shot down by soldiers.’ Their movement was suppressed by ‘severe repressive legislation’ and by ‘many hangings and transportations.’

“The Luddites thus asserted [continues Wendell Berry, for it is he I’m quoting] the precedence of community needs over technological innovation and monetary profit, and they were dealt with in a way that seems merely inevitable in the light of subsequent history. In the years since, the only group I know of that has successfully, so far, made the community the standard of technological innovation has been the Amish. The Amish have differed from the Luddites in that they have not destroyed but merely declined to use the technologies that they perceive as threatening to their community. And this has been possible because the Amish are an agrarian people. The Luddites could not have refused the machinery that they destroyed; the machinery had refused them.

“The victory of industrialism over Luddism was thus overwhelming and unconditional; it was undoubtedly the most complete, significant, and lasting victory of modern times. And so one must wonder at the intensity with which any suggestion of Luddism still is feared and hated. To this day, if you say you would be willing to forbid, restrict, or reduce the use of technological devices in order to protect the community—or to protect the good health of nature on which the community depends—you will be called a Luddite, and it will not be a compliment. To say that the community is more important than machines is certainly Christian and certainly democratic, but it is also Luddism and therefore not to be tolerated. . . . If individuals or groups have the temerity to oppose an actual item on the agenda of technological process because it will damage a community, the powers that be will think them guilty of Luddism, sedition, and perhaps insanity” (Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, pp. 130-132).

Note that none of this is about progress qua progress. None of it is about “nostalgia for a past that never existed” (a phrase that should always be accompanied by armpit farts and prefaced by “this is a recording”). It isn’t about being against new things. It’s about honest accounting. It’s about belonging to something larger than yourself, knowing that you belong to something larger than yourself, and wondering what effects a given thing, hawked by someone who stands to benefit from your gullibility, will have on that larger thing you belong to. It’s about not tail-kicking your way after every shiny spinning lure that passes before your fisheyes. It’s about not swallowing treble hooks.

It’s about personal restraint exercised for the sake of the community, which in proper accounting includes the health of the land on which everything depends, as Berry has pointed out.

We had the benefit of being reminded in the comments to my latest bit of Luddism, sedition, and insanity of Berry’s criteria for innovation, which he set down in a harmless little essay (“Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer”) for which he ended up being venomously traduced by people who, one senses, flip the aforementioned switch almost hourly. Berry’s “tiny dissent” from the PC is often regarded as an example of Luddism. And indeed it is, but not for the reasons the scorners think. Berry’s dissent is an example of Luddism not because he has declined what everyone else has accepted and in doing so rejected Progress and Innovation; it is an example of Luddism because for him the computer does not meet the standards of that larger thing to which he belongs.

Now rather than point out how unindividualistic this standard is—and therefore how repellent to both of our political parties, which are nothing if not champions of the rights of the individual—I would like to suggest that anyone who wants to understand Berry’s “tiny dissent” must pay at least some attention to an earlier essay out of which it emerged.

I am speaking of a piece titled “Horse-Drawn Tools and the Doctrine of Labor-Saving” (in The Gift of Good Land). Discussing mechanical and economic limits, Berry says that we could have used “improved horse-drawn tools, or even the small tractor equipment that followed, not to displace workers and decrease care and skill, but to intensify production, improve maintenance, increase care and skill, and widen the margins of leisure, pleasure, and community life. We might, in other words, by limiting technology to a human or a democratic scale, have been able to use the saved labor in the same places where we saved it. . . . I am aware that all this is exactly the sort of thinking that the technological determinists will dismiss as nostalgic or wishful. I mean it, however, not as a recommendation that we ‘return to the past,’ but as a criticism of the past; and my criticism is based on the assumption that we had in the past, and that we have now, a choice about how we should use technology and what we should use it for. As I understand it, this choice depends absolutely on our willingness to limit our desires as well as the scale and kind of technology we use to satisfy them. Without that willingness, there is no choice; we must simply abandon ourselves to whatever the technologists may discover to be possible.

“The technological determinists, of course, do not accept that such a choice exists—undoubtedly because they resent the moral limits on their work that such a choice implies” (109-112).

What Berry contributed in the 1970s to the discussion of technological immersion was nothing less than that resilient business of limits—limits on desire, scale, and kind, all of which add up to the moral limits hardly anyone wants to talk about.

Plenty of technological gluttons regard themselves, and want to be regarded, as careful consumers of technology. They are nothing of the sort. They are large-mouth bass with treble hooks deep in their throats. The principal feature of our economic lives–that we use the world up when we make things and poison it when we throw them away–is no concern of theirs.

But there’s the rub. We’re not going to be able to operate for much longer by eating out and driving home to shit in our own nest. It astonishes me that the sophisticated non-Luddites don’t get this.

But what really astonishes me is how few people want to talk about technology outside the narrow concerns of usefulness. “A certain thing is useful to me; end of discussion.”

They have adopted the frat-boy approach: A certain girl puts out; end of discussion.

So here’s where I would bring to bear Thoreau, who let the imagination judge. Now I like my ’83 Dodge Ram four-speed pick-up truck plenty—like it more, I’m sure, than I would a new Dodge. But what I don’t like is the image of my going through life behind the wheel. The automobile is, in the end, at odds with my sense of myself as a man. It is incommensurate with a proper anthropology–just as movies and Egg McMuffins are. As Thoreau might say, they cannot satisfy us essentially.

And so to bring this round to last week’s seditious insanity: my imagination is not satisfied with the image of a man walking around with wires hanging from his ears and plunging into an iPod humming away somewhere down near his scrotum. It is not satisfied by the image of an electronic device glued to his ear. I can’t get excited about having all kinds of information available to me at the brush of a screen or touchpad. I can’t get excited about being able, at the push of a button or the click of a “mouse,” to scratch every itch of an idle curiosity. Imagine John Donne, in the age of the Kindle, writing this:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

Maybe the latest “text” can be read, or the next dinner reservation made, while you drive the Yukon to pick up Reese and Colt from soccer practice, but Truth doesn’t come so easily. It comes only by great labor. I’ll take the mountain top and the strenuous journey to the guru who lives there over whatever information-delivery system is currently for sale and scaled to fit in the front pocket of your pre-ripped jeans.

For if we want to preserve our communities and the land on which they depend, then we’re going to have to learn to refuse most of what’s for sale. We can’t have it both ways.

And—to come even nearer the matter of communication technology—I’d like to suggest that while it makes perfect sense to launch sidereal junk into “outer space,” which we know to be empty, it is a special kind of blasphemy to litter “the heavens” thus and to disrupt the music of the spheres. The gee-whizzery we’re so enamored of and distracted by has come at the price of the full and living cosmos, the cosmo-cosmema, the ordered ornament. We’ve decided that we inhabit a cold dark and ever-cooling universe, so we might as well warm it with mePods and MeTube and electronic “friends.”

I understand the hypocrisy of what I am saying and the means by which I am saying it. I have said many times that hypocrisy is our default mode. It is our default mode, I suppose, because the world we have is the world as we found it. We were all habituated to it long before we became conscious of it—certainly before we were conscious of habitude. But all of that notwithstanding, to decline the latest shiny spinning lure is to draw a line and refuse to cross it. By such measures—by drawing such lines and refusing to cross them, and then by drawing more lines—we may hope to improve the world as we found it.

This, I hold, is what a Luddite should do. Long may he live.

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