Long Live the Luddites

by Jason Peters on October 28, 2009 · 58 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Economics & Empire,Politics & Power


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.

{ 56 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Robin Goodfellow October 28, 2009 at 5:10 am

Well, this post requires a lot more scrutiny than I can attend to at this point. Since we are dealing merely with the term “Luddite” and the historical movement of Luddism and King Ludd, I’ll start there. And since “sophisticated non-Luddites” apparently don’t seem to have a grasp of Luddite history like you do, I’ll raise you one and suggest that a more mature understanding of the movement can be found in E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class than in Wendell Berry’s rather cursory account of the matter. I respect Wendell Berry to some degree even if his romance with the idea of “community” can be rather muddled at time. He is after all satisfied with a certain irrationality, a way of ignorance, unlike that shrill Malthusian hack, James Howard Kunstler.

At any rate, in his work, Thompson details the various struggles of rural English populations engaged in cottage industries against landlordism and the full fledged development of the capitalist mode of production, viz., industrial capitalism. The account rendered is both highly sympathetic to their struggles while being aware of their anti-industrial limitations. Indeed, Thompson’s account is a documented elaboration of what Marx and Engels famously understood about the making of the European working class; they deeply sympathized and admired the Luddite movement, including Lord Byron, without succumbing to simplistic moralization and reactionary wish fulfillment akin to the Völkisch movement. Marx and Engels were interested in how the capitalist mode of production fundamentally transformed social relations, but more importantly they were interested in what could be learned from such struggles for future movements against capitalism. Unlike Wendell Berry, however, Marx didn’t see modernity and industrial capitalism as some kind of net loss warranting some sort of Ciceronian lamentation about the times and its mores. They understood that modernity, Enlightenment values, and even capitalism was dynamic enough to get rid of older, more oppressive and limiting modes of production and social relations. Patriarchy, sexism, feudal and pre-modern power structures, religious irrationalism, among other things, are remnants of the ancien regime, some of which continues to persist in our age. One wonders, as an aside, if those who affirm Wendell Berry’s work so religiously would also stick to all the blatantly patriarchal sexual politics found in such works as Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. In contrast, capitalism, as is understood by most M&E, brought about the potential to eradicate such oppressive determinations of human sociality through the working classes of the modern world, among other things.

Marx also famously pointed out in his Capital and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts that capitalist social relations transformed the “metabolism of man to nature.” He did not look upon this with mere Promethean optimism or with some sort of gleeful reification of “technological determinism”; he was fully aware of the contradictions of this transformation. Funny thing about this notion of “technological determinism”: more often than not it’s the defenders of capitalism, neo-liberals, neo-conservatives, etc., who are the most deterministic bunch of ideologues concerning our so-called default position today. Marx, by contrast, was someone who understood that human freedom is fully capable of transforming outmoded modes of production, ones that appear to be fully naturalized even when they’re not. If you want a rich account of such topics, I’d suggest John Bellamy Foster’s excellent works, Marx and Ecology or Ecology Against Capitalism. These are mature, capable understandings of what strategies need to be deployed against capitalism to restore, for instance, a more sustainable “metabolism of man and nature.”

At any rate, what Thompson points out is that the various anti-capitalist movements that formed in England were far from being passively incorporated into the social and technological displacements of capitalist social relations. From the Luddites to the Chartists, England was on the brink of a social revolution which had to be put down by force, gradually subsuming the mass of rural populations into cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and London–in other words, it was a full fledged accumulation of capital by the dispossession of rural laborers, transforming them into industrial workers and exploiting them economically therein through the wage structure, among other things.

Unfortunately, those movements were squashed over time. Marx and Engels were interested in learning from their struggles instead of merely looking back and reifying the movement’s anti-industrial tendencies. And in contrast to the early utopian socialists, what they immediately understood is that moralizing is useless without having a strategic understanding how capitalism could be transformed from within. In other words, you can’t get to some fetishized ideal without starting in the here and now–working with what you’re given. You start from the present, looking back in order to look ahead. Luddism was a historically viable strategy at one point in order to combat the onslaught of industrialism. Beyond just industrialism, however, what was occurring in England (and later in America and elsewhere in Europe) was a full maturing of the capitalist social relations–pace the conclusion of the English Civil War–based entirely on what Marx once called the “commodity form.”

Given that the capitalist logic historically expanded on the commodity form simpliciter, the contradictions of such a form were fully preserved with it. One of the primary contradictions of the commodity form are between its use and exchange values, rendered more complete in the form of money–set primarily to a metal such as gold, an unstable commodity with both use and exchange values. This form expanded itself and its contradictions into the thoroughgoing imposition of a market logic based on the following: exchange values; price metrics; merchant, financial and industrial capital accumulation and investments; state and governmental support; technological production; and the realization of profit through the concealed extraction of surplus value from worker productivity. Moreover, capitalism matured with the imposition of the commodity form globally, from the chattel slave trade, colonialism and early primitive accumulation to the subsuming of peasant classes in Europe and elsewhere.

However, technology was never some one sort of mystical tool employed by the capitalist. It was always a practical weapon against the working class for the realization of profit. By the same token, technology was also capable of being controlled by working class struggles in order to stop, slow down, or even destroy the manner in which they were being exploited. More importantly, technological production without the extraction of surplus value is of no use to the capitalist. Marx famously pointed out that the exploitation of the worker is based in the selling of the commodity of labor power to the capitalists. And the worker is primarily responsible for creating value, which is realized as profit. The capitalists who calculate the average socially necessary labor time for any job are also able to exploit workers without paying their full wage. By selling the products that their workers produced, they then can make sure that the output of capital is always greater than the input. Almost all realization of profit on the market can be traced back to the workers in capitalism producing that very wealth. Moreover, this slow historical transformation of capitalism from its early agrarian origins to its full industrial maturity not only transformed the metabolism of man and nature, but it also transformed relations between people into relations between objects. That is fully contained in a capitalist logic because it is so thoroughly universal in scope.

The market, as such, is inescapably global today. And whether we like it or not, that is our objective condition. More importantly, capitalism has fundamentally eroded any possibility of a mere local struggle for a better world because capitalism is by default global, historically and at present. Anything to the contrary is doomed to irrelevance. And since we’re addressing technology in such an arbitrary manner here, it’s important to understand that technology in such a world is always a double-edged sword. Luddite struggles were once historically viable, but our world today is not the same–capitalism itself has changed numerous times in the last hundred years or more. Instead what is left today is a mere intellectualized and subjective form of Luddism that isn’t terribly different from ineffectual moralizing, completely disconnected from broader struggles that are necessary to create a more reasonable, sane, and democratic world (locally and globally). We’re also not going to overcome capitalism by merely drawing arbitrary limits on technology meted out through the curmudgeonly prejudices of a academic sitting on his high horse, doling out incoherent account of a “proper anthropology”: viz., eschewing movies and cell phones and the internet, but romancing a rust bucket car and a farm horse instead. That’s going to get absolutely jack squat done for the rest of us interested in formulating and engaging in more viable anti-capitalist projects.

Neither can we transform our metabolism with nature without simultaneously transforming our social relations. What we need is a political movement that is both broad and local, capable of engaging the struggles of what is effectively a mass population of working classes globally, thanks or no thanks to capitalism. Even the peasant movements today are linked to workers in the industrialized world; there’s almost no escaping that. Not even the Amish are free from exchange value and the commodity form. Capital accumulation, inputs and outputs, occurs in every city, on Wall Street and on Main Street and our struggles are both here and there, whether we like it or not. The difference between the two is slim precisely because of the nature of capitalism’s various forms, whether financial or industrial. Indeed, one lesson from 2008 was that almost no place on the earth was able to “decouple” from the crisis of capitalism that started in America. All thanks to capitalism, for good or ill. This is our starting place. Merely drawing “moral limits” ain’t gonna do much. It might give one moral satisfaction, or even please fellow Front Porchers and other salaried academics, but the real world is far more complex for such petty, reactionary thinking. There’s more to add, and more robust minds have addressed such issues than I. I’d suggest two for now: John Bellamy Foster and David Harvey, two deft thinkers on such matters.

avatar Bill Kauffman October 28, 2009 at 7:14 am

Right on, JP. Our FPR comrade Kirk Sale wrote the book on Ned Ludd & the Boys: Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and their War on the Industrial Revolution (1995).

avatar Bob Cheeks October 28, 2009 at 7:26 am

“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.””
Not me dude!
I’m a Luddite with you, as I sit here typing on my COMPUTER!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Me, a hypocrite?
You’re killin’ me with the names of these kids. Please do a blog on this…or did you?
Also, whas up with the potty mouth? You’re an English teacher/professor for cryin’ out loud…I’m tellin’ the nuns!
Enjoyed this one,of course I enjoy them all!

avatar Caleb Stegall October 28, 2009 at 8:40 am

Patriarchy, sexism, feudal and pre-modern power structures, religious irrationalism, among other things, are remnants of the ancien regime, some of which continues to persist in our age. One wonders, as an aside, if those who affirm Wendell Berry’s work so religiously would also stick to all the blatantly patriarchal sexual politics found in such works as Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community. In contrast, capitalism, as is understood by most M&E, brought about the potential to eradicate such oppressive determinations of human sociality through the working classes of the modern world, among other things.

Paging RAF!

Yay for industrial capitalism! Smashing all of those oppressive structures of the ancien regime!!

Herald the new therapuetic, managerial, technocratic gynocracy!!

I opened the latest issue of my Kansas Bar Journal (the professional publication of the Bar in Kansas) to find the latest essay (by a woman, natch) teaching us benighted plains lawyers the proper professional etiquette for addressing the gayly married.

Horray for smashing yokes of oppression! Who cares about everything being swept away? … LOSERS!!! Dust-bin of history for you!

avatar Russell Arben Fox October 28, 2009 at 9:18 am

As a self-described quasi-Luddite, I need to respond to this, and to Robin Goodfellow, who I think is right about a few very important things and wrong about much else. I would want to respond even if Caleb hadn’t have called me out. But I haven’t had time now. Hopefully later, perhaps.

avatar Weasly Pilgrim October 28, 2009 at 9:47 am

I find amusing the amount of digital ink spilled by the enlightened to tell us luddites we are engaged in meaningless protest toward a meaningless end. If our lot is so darn meaningless, why do they invest so much time and effort telling us so?

Brother Peters, you have gored a sacred ox. Well done!

avatar Ryan Davidson October 28, 2009 at 9:55 am

Jason, I know when I’m not being taken seriously. I mean, why not just tell me to f*ck off next time? It’d save you time and effort and wouldn’t change the content of your message very much.

Okay, I get it. You’re enamored with Byron, Thoreau, Barry, and their ilk. But why not throw in Rousseau and have done with it? He doesn’t seem any less wrong-headed than your cast does, nor do his ideas seem that different. I mean, technology is the source of all evil, right? I am not so enamored, because one can agree with everything you say about the nature of the Good Life, and even electronics’ effect on it, and still think you’re being irrational about technology and irresponsibly selective (and downright partisan) about history.

There’s no reason other than hindsight, which is a lousy way to do history, to think that the Luddites were making a principled stand on anything other than their own imminent unemployment. Byron’s speech, which you yourself cite, hardly supports your argument when taken as a whole; it’s largely devoted to the disruptive effects of the Napoleonic Wars and the state of the British military, not the bucolic utopianism you would have us believe. Choosing “the precedence of community needs over technological innovation and monetary profit”? Give me a break. Many of these people were only marginally literate, for crying out loud, and you expect us to believe that they intended anything remotely similar to your story? Even if their protests had the effects you want, but there’s no reason to believe that this was their intent. The vocabulary for this conversation didn’t even exist. You and Barry are reading your own anachronistic, idealized, aestheticized vision of what you want into a likely historical candidate. I’ve no use for such.

And let’s get one thing straight: I don’t care a whit about the “hypocrisy” of complaining about industrial modernity over the Internet. Not interesting to me in the slightest, and if that’s what you think I’ve been going on about, you aren’t paying attention. What I care about is the hypocrisy of insisting on a particular model of the Good Life which it is reasonable to believe categorically excludes the vast bulk of humanity from enjoying it because it relegates them into exactly the kind of technological hell you don’t want for yourself. This isn’t a principled, Romantic drawing of a line and refusing to cross it, it’s getting to the Good Life first and pulling up the ladder after you. Now that’s hypocrisy.

It also ignores Scripture, assuming for the moment that you care about such things. (Even if you don’t, there are others here that do, so this paragraph will at least benefit them.) If you think that reviving the agrarian lifestyle is some kind of escape from the vanity of industrial society, you’re dead wrong, because there really is nothing new under the sun. Not in any way that matters, anyhow. You keep saying that here is something new, something that’s never been done before, something monstrously and innovatively evil, and in the most crass sense of the word, you may even be right. But I say that when it comes to spiritual realities, this has been already in the ages before us. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. If the Preacher couldn’t find meaning in his time, three millennia before the machine loom had even been conceived, then even realizing your most Barryish wet dreams won’t get meaning for you either. The end of the matter for him was no different than it is for us, and he wasn’t any better positioned to live that out than we are.

Well, maybe he was. He probably didn’t have to deal with people insisting that we return to old patterns of life rendered completely impossible by the current state of affairs instead of trying to find ways of rediscovering the good things about those old patterns in new patterns. That is kind of a drag, I have to say.

So when I see your insistence that somehow, all that is wrong with the world is the result of the factory, and all would be better if we’d “simply” return to a medieval technological state, all I can do is point and laugh. Not only have you misdiagnosed the problem, which isn’t inherently technological (one would think that one who hates the concept as much as you seem to might have gotten that by now) but you’ve misdiagnosed the solution, which isn’t technological either. Even worse, your particular solution would make life a lot worse for the majority of humanity by your own standards.

I write all of this not expecting any response from you–I didn’t get one last time–and fully expecting to be vilified by the resident commentariat for not resounding like the rest of the FPR echo chamber–just like I was last time. I’m okay with that. Iron sharpens iron, etc. But you should know that I did not and do not intend to be insulting, even though it’s rather clear that you–and others here–did and do. That isn’t good for anyone, and does your cause no service.

avatar Albert October 28, 2009 at 11:15 am

Is that a video card?! If so, very, very nice touch.

avatar Mike Bogdan October 28, 2009 at 11:32 am

I was wondering the same thing. It sure looks like a video card. :)

avatar George Haiduke October 28, 2009 at 1:12 pm

These retro-fantasies, and attempts to redefine Luddism are easily cured. Peters, and any other self identified Luddites can easily walk away from their climate controlled rooms and computers, not ride in their smoke belching go-here go-there machines, and get behind a plow pulled by a mule. They may then start to realize why the working class welcomed technology that saved their bodies from the wear and tear that made life so miserable, and short. Try a twenty pound sledge hammer on for a while Peters. Try a star drill or a slugging wrench along with that back breaking sledge. I welcomed “technology” like powered hammer drills, hydraulic wrenches, cranes, fork lifts, conveyors, etc.

Those “technologies” and many others have enabled workers to be around to see and enjoy our grandchildren, earn a good and honest living while making life better for many.

Now in the interest of brevity, I will just say that Robin Goodfellow is right on, and Peters, you seem to be another Social Darwinist who just took a liking to Edward Abbey and the Monkey Wrench Gang and is making a career out of it. A very comfortable career, however hypocritical.

Now please excuse me, I am busy building ricshaw ambulances and pony powered fire trucks for a local University.

avatar Marianne October 28, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Or perhaps we should all count ourselves Luddites simply because it is the opposite of Ray Kurzweil.

The real-life inventors and promoters of the new technologies have an end goal in mind, and it is nothing less than the eviction of humanness from humanity. Are we not allowed to freak out a bit over this very freaky stuff?

avatar Marianne October 28, 2009 at 4:41 pm

Also, may I second the idea of devoting an entire essay to the trend of naming children names that are inane to the point of obscenity. Someone ought to speak up for these unfortunate and helpless dears. I particularly have in mind some of the children I taught as a “technology assistant” (I know, of all things!) a few years back: It seems that the parents of Heaven, Chynna (an adopted Chinese girl), Canada and Montana (sisters), Draven (a boy) and Raven (a girl) had not outgrown the glittering charm of Disney channel sitcoms.

avatar pb October 28, 2009 at 6:51 pm

They may then start to realize why the working class welcomed technology that saved their bodies from the wear and tear that made life so miserable, and short.

Only to get their bodies sick from the lack of exercise and too many cheap sugars.

avatar pb October 28, 2009 at 6:53 pm

And industrialization and the closing of the commons probably took a greater toll on the quality of life of laborers than the pre-industrial system.

avatar rex October 28, 2009 at 7:06 pm

Calling yourself Luddite reminds me of a trip to Sedona, Az. It seems that over half the white population over 50 believe that they were an Indian in previous life. If I get an eye patch can I be a pirate?

To me the most interesting thing about Luddites is that they were men of action. At great risk to life and personal freedom, they took direct action to decapitalize industry to improve their lot. That is a far different thing than turning off your TV, riding your bicycle to work, or moaning – errr – blogging about the corporatist-state harshing your groove.

In fifth grade, Mr. Moe wrote on the word “patriot” on the board. Then he erased the P and the A, and so we began our study of the American Revolution. Jason, I enjoyed your essay, and I do agree that that end of the Industrial Age is upon us, and I believe that history will show that cars were abominable. However, I have to ask, what did you do today?

avatar rex October 28, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Whoops, Mr. Moe erased the 1st T too.

avatar Jason Peters October 29, 2009 at 7:50 am

When the author himself has a lapse in judgment and “enters” the boiler room of the comments “box,” his stoking is likely to produce a lot of heat but very little light. Readers bent on ignoring the main points of an argument are not likely to straighten.

But (to answer “rex”) ere I go in to campus today to show a group of students how to install a 5o-year metal roof on a storage shed I taught them how to build (behind a garden I taught them how to cultivate with the kind of hand tools that the ricshaw [sic]-building “George Haiduke” affects to deprecate), I will say …

To Robin Goodfellow: in the future I shall endeavor to write the essays you want me to write rather than the ones I want to write. My apologies for not consulting you on the permitted topics. Also, I agree with much of what you say, except when you disagree with me. My general rule is this: if you are right, I will agree with you.

To Ryan Davidson: much clamor and mischief follow from assuming that you personally are the audience for whom someone writes. A more circumspect man would not do this. But you are correct to say that I haven’t been paying attention to what you’ve been saying. I haven’t been paying any attention to it at all. And although it is futile to try to communicate with someone who is all mouth and no ears, I will nevertheless try to make this much perfectly clear: I would never tell you to do something to yourself that is both physically impossible and morally reprehensible. But may I suggest that you learn to spell Wendell Berry’s last name correctly? You are beginning to give the impression of arguing with someone you haven’t read. Berry himself had to confront this problem once: “One of the letter writers described me as ‘a fool’ and ‘doubly a fool,’ but fortunately misspelled my name, leaving me a speck of hope that I am not the ‘Wendell Barry’ he was talking about.”

To both of you: It favors my argument to point out how damaging the modes of abstract communication are—how, as I like to say, they “conduce to abuse.” If it pleases Goodfellow, I will make this the topic of another post and write it with only Davidson in mind.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 29, 2009 at 9:19 am

Never mess with a dude that teaches English or buys ink by the barrel.

avatar Ryan Davidson October 29, 2009 at 10:41 am

If latching on to mispellings is to be the crux of the argument here, than methinks I have better things to do. I apologize for considering this worthy of a considered response.

avatar George Haiduke October 29, 2009 at 3:52 pm

“But (to answer “rex”) ere I go in to campus today to show a group of students how to install a 5o-year metal roof on a storage shed”

Installing a 50-year old metal roof on a new shed deserves some sort of award or recognition. Perhaps a Berry award, accompanied by honorary induction into the Berry family. May I suggest the name Dingle Berry for the ambitious Luddite saboteur of Scholastica Rex.

The rickshaw ambulance is but one small step in your headstrong/back weak or vice-versa rush to the stone age. Peters may enjoy reading the Mack Reynolds short story titled “Second Advent” during that low back event (or fall from the 50 year old shed roof), and ambulance ride to the hospital after a day of spading those urban green acres. It’s a short read, and Reynolds quickly and accurately gets to the heart of the important “technology” issues in a fashion that seems to escape Scholastica Rex.

Congrats on the Award Dingle.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 29, 2009 at 6:49 pm

If petulance were a source of energy, we could retire the internal combustion engine immediately. By petulance, I do not include the general curmudgeonry of Peters who never descends to such levels but to the host of other smart allecks who seem to enter into a state of high dudgeon about somebody pointing out the rather daft addiction to gadgetry we lethargic humans tend to favor…thence immediately suggesting that if we do not like television, why don’t we burn our books.

A note of advice, the technological juggernaut is not in need of your cheer leading ..it does right fine by itself. Being essentially mechanistically anti-social, it doesn’t care whether you support it or not.
Your time would be better served debating …well……anything else. How about morbidity rates in Swine Flu?

But, Peters, might I assert, in due humility and respect…… that in addition to being a Luddite, you are an A**hole too. This is why I like you. You remain, like the lovely Ms. Dalton, the last redoubt of simple everyday life on this web site, different from the nervous and jerky careening about wisps of unintelligabilia
authored by dimwits like myself. KMA anyhow.

avatar rex October 29, 2009 at 7:33 pm

Jason, thanks for responding. I really do enjoy hearing what people are doing in addition to what they are thinking. Would Luddite-lite be condescending?

I grow a garden tilled by a shovel, and ride my bicycle to work more days than not. I built most of my house with my own hands. We likely disagree on a few items, I believe like you, that technology debases more than it enriches our lives. Even though I only drive it a thousand miles a year, I love my truck too. (A white ’94 Bronco just like the one OJ “escaped” in. I don’t think it was his, but there was this big steak knife inside the rear bumper when I bought it…) Circumstances will force the hands of people of conscience in the near future. I guess I am always looking for signs that the near future is now.


avatar Bob Cheeks October 29, 2009 at 8:49 pm

I dunno, I kinda like the “Dingle Berry Award.”
Is that given annually or ….oh, nevermind.

avatar rex October 29, 2009 at 9:25 pm

For the past 25 years I have helped my father in-law to clip his sheep in the spring. He is another hobbyist-Luddite, but he has an uncanny ability to make a living without an employer. This a trait which I wholly respect. What I have learned from that experience is that dingle-berries are always surrounded by their own. (If you have ever shaved a lamb’s ass you know what I mean.)

avatar Neil Carlson October 29, 2009 at 9:25 pm

JP, I’m not baiting you, only trying to learn something about modern ethics. I contemplate organizing research on the nexus of politics, religion, science and technology, with the goal of advising clergy, politicians, scientists and engineers how better to understand each others’ motivations and concerns.

So, let’s have some brass tacks, please. (And please do me the kindness of not telling me I’ve asked the wrong question. Revise if you must, but do tell us what you think of the list below.) Which, if any, of the following technological developments, are dangerous enough to humanity and community that we should engage in civil disobedience, or even violent paramilitary resistance (true Luddism?) to expunge them from our futures?

ITER, the multibillion-dollar prototype fusion reactor being constructed by an international consortium in the south of France. Technophiles tout ITER and its siblings as a potential source of unlimited, cheap, clean energy. But unlimited, cheap energy is just stronger liquor for the planet-abusing energyholic society you’re trying to talk into rehab. Not to mention that ITER might spawn heretofore unknown forms of pollution (though surely not the world-devouring black hole the serious worry-warts expect). If ITER succeeds, there’s the further possibility of robotic strip-mining of the Moon for an isotope of helium to fuel such reactors. We will have spawned an ecological disaster of unprecedented scale and defaced an aesthetic heritage that has inspired poets and lovers for eons. Suppose we humans found the way make all physical labor purely voluntary, as going to the gym is for most office workers–would that be a discovery worthy of determined sabotage?

Total organ replacement and the pursuit of immortality. Scientists think they may be closing in on strategies that will allow all kinds of organ replacements, possibly including replacing failed organs without transplants and helping soldiers to regrow limbs lost in warfare. What is the foreign policy of a state whose soldiers can regrow limbs? Is it scary enough to stop now?

Brain implants for Internet access. For soldiers who can’t regrow limbs, cybernetic prosthetics are another alternative. Their reasonable desires for a better life are driving research that might let all of us have the ultimate “extended mind” (and thus be stoopider than ever). Is built-in access to computer networks the final nail in humanity’s coffin? Should we stop it? How?

If none of these three future technologies deserves determined sabotage and resistance, is there any technology deserving of such resistance? If none, what ethical principles should guide communities resisting the “treble hook” of technology in a collective, rather than individual, manner? How do we get to where the Amish are? Is there a path that avoids the massive dislocation, suffering and violence your critics clearly fear? Or is such dislocation, suffering and violence inevitable if we are to improve the lot of our survivors?

I hope this question represents the kind of constructive engagement you would prefer. If not, please tell us what kind of questions would–surely you can channel your ideal interlocutor’s mind long enough to show us what a worthy (and persuadable) opponent for you might write?

avatar Joshua Burnett October 29, 2009 at 10:18 pm

At the risk of getting burned, I’ll thrust my hand into the smelter and reach for this piece of gold:

He probably didn’t have to deal with people insisting that we return to old patterns of life rendered completely impossible by the current state of affairs instead of trying to find ways of rediscovering the good things about those old patterns in new patterns.

A very good point, Ryan, though crusted in slag. It reminds me of something in Eliot:

“What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”

Factories and cell phones, industrial agriculture and the interwebs are part of the tradition, the culture, the world, that has been handed to us moderns. It changed the landscape of history. We cannot go back to a point before it. We must create something new that transforms the old…all of it…and is itself also transformed by its participation in what came before.

I understand the ambivalence toward receiving as tradition much of anything that followed the French Revolution, but by dint of birth in this time and place, like it or not, we are inheritors. Modernity is part of what it means to live in our places. We can transform our inheritance only after owning up to it.

avatar Jason Peters October 29, 2009 at 10:27 pm

George Haiduke: a “50-year metal roof” is different from a “50-year old metal roof,” as most men hardened by honest labor can tell. They needn’t learn to read carefully to do this.

rex: you get the Dingle Berry award for your shearing–and for being up-close and personal with the dangling berries. But tell me: when you do the work yourself, does the wool pay for the clipping, or is the price too deflated thanks to synthetics? I’ve often wondered. I’ve heard Wendell Berry, who keeps a couple of flocks, say that wool can’t really compete right now.

Neil Carlson: good questions. More anon when I’m at leisure.

avatar rex October 30, 2009 at 10:03 am

Jason, you used to be able to find someone who would shear in exchange for the fleece. Now it is the fleece plus cash. For several years we did the shearing ourselves, but the sheep looked too horrendous afterward to continue the practice. The tufts of wool and bloody spots from numerous nicks and cuts made the poor sheep look like punk rockers after a bar fight. One year we even did the shearing with hand powered clippers. It was a week before I could generate enough of a grip to open a door with only one hand. Talk about Luddites – sheesh.

The real problem with shearing yourself is what to do with the fleece? Buyers do not want to deal with just a few fleeces, and the few spinners in the area do not want deal with the lanolin and tics in a green fleece. Far from the story book images of Bo Peep and her fluffy white flock, sheep are pretty disgusting after an Oregon winter. I could probably find a solution, but it is his hobby not mine.

My father in-law sells a few lambs at auction, and I think he gets a break on his property taxes, but that is extent of the positive economics of a small flock of sheep. He raises them for the joy of running around in the middle of night in the rain and cold when the lambs come. It is kind of like groundhog’s day, you know winter’s back is broken when the lambs show up. Because lambs are always born after midnight during the worst storm of the winter.

avatar George Haiduke October 30, 2009 at 10:09 am

Smashingly correct Peters. The difference between a 50 year old roof and a 50 year roof is quite different. But not quite as different, misleading, and confusing as your application of “Luddite” to describe gardeners, green thumbers, shed builders, and perhaps cave diggers.

Other misguided and mislabeled Luddites, like Ted Kaczynski must surely feel insulted at your bold invasion into their elite ranks. Even Edward Abbey, or his very real smoldering corpse must be swirling through the goosenecks of the San Juan river gorge and through the streets of Mexican Hat Utah in a fit of rage because of your philosophical and literary larceny. Ned Ludd is probably rousing the metaphysical realms with a request that your gardens be afflicted with potato bugs, or at least the filling of your shed with Sorority beer cans and vomit. Even the Amish should pop some buttons or peg and loops over being thrown in the haystack with the Unabomber.

Perhaps some of that botanical energy and calloused thumbs can sprout a new word to describe your award winning activities, and accurately distinguish kitchen gardeners and shed builders from machine busting Luddites or murdering bomb builders.

If your goal is to impress suburban damaged students by brandishing a pack of pepper seeds, and self awarded “Luddite” status, with no other destructive activities besides collecting Scholacticus Rex paychecks, then I suggest you raft down the Fraser River, and into the Colorado with a stop in Moab. While in Moab, stop by the bookstore for a purchase of some Ed Abbey books and a visit with people that actually monkeywrenched with Ed. Perhaps then you will feel the difference, and determine if really deserve to claim the title “Luddite.” There are plenty of opportunities throughout this world that require the services of genuine Luddites, should you summon the courage to go beyond pinching suckers from the stems of tomato plants.

avatar James Kabala October 30, 2009 at 10:18 am

I’ll repeat (with a couple edits) the same question I repeated I posted in the previous thread (which was dying at the time, so the post was never answered):

If mankind really did collectively decide to give up cell phones, TV, etc., a lot of people would be put out of work, but if they complained, the eager anti-technologists would doubtless say that some had to sacrifice their jobs for the common good.

Why would English weavers instead have a permanent entitlement to their jobs? I don’t think I like the idea that one has a positive right to throw a tantrum and destroy someone else’s property when life doesn’t go your way.

avatar Albert October 30, 2009 at 12:24 pm

The sacred ox, it bleeds, it bleeds.

avatar D.W. Sabin October 30, 2009 at 2:09 pm

Please do provide the location of the Official Ed Abbey Licensing Office so we can make the proper ablutions toward it. Ed would be so pleased that someone had founded an organization of stern enforcers on his behalf. Last time I checked though, if we rafted down the Fraser, we’d be buying a latte in Vancouver and not a book in Moab near that town of Mexican Hat which has the disadvantage of possessing a far more picturesque name than it is, itself….the town of course, not the slickrock near it. By the way, the only people left in Moab are a bunch of German tourists, the sainted Bishopric , a claque of spliffed-out mountain bikers…..one doubts Ed would have anything to do with the town if he were alive today, laughing at the idea of an official Ed Abbey Thought Police.

But, on a sadder note, try and read sick little Ted’s Unibomber Manifesto dispassionately without having at least a tinge of sympathy for some of his observations…in many ways not unlike some of Solzhenitsyn’s tart comments at Harvard a while ago. In other words, sickness is begetting sickness.

Carlson, your list of horrors are a fine addition to the discussion. I have always enjoyed the playful farce of calling Nuclear energy “clean” when the spent fuel needs to be bundled up and secreted away in deep holes beneath uninhabited Nevada for a millennia or two.

avatar Chris October 30, 2009 at 3:04 pm

Ryan -

If you’re still reading this thread, I think the reason that Peters seemed to dismiss you is that it doesn’t really seem like you’ve taken his point seriously. Instead, you’ve cast him as a ridiculously easy to defeat straw man, and then you’ve proceeded to knock that straw man down.

What I read as the deep point you’re failing to deal with (Jason, please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) is that new developments/technology are not neutral in terms of impact on society and their users, and that instead of presuming that every innovation/labor saving device is a net positive, we should look at ever innovation and ask “at what cost” and choose not to adopt those things who cost outweighs the benefits. And Berry’s position (read his article on not owning a computer) is a really just a basic conservative disposition – if something new appears to have a neutral impact, then we should pass it up. Only things with a positive impact should be adopted. To take seriously some very real costs to community, to quality of work, to communication, and to true leisure is not to be an anti-technology, mindless idiot. Nor is it screaming obscenities at you. It is only to refuse to assume the now basic assumption that if it is shiny and new then it must be better than what came before it.

avatar Chris October 30, 2009 at 3:10 pm

I should have added that the same ” at what cost?” analysis can and should be applied to the entire consumerist project that has brought us many of the gizmos we now hold so dear; individual innovations may be extremely helpful, but if the whole project comes at the cost of community and friendship, is it worth it?

avatar George Haiduke October 30, 2009 at 6:44 pm

D.W. Sabin seems a bit down wind and lost. Sabin’s placement of the Fraser river in Vancouver is about as far off as the cockeyed, and hackneyed assertion of an “Official Ed Abbey Licensing Office.” The Fraser river that flows into the Colorado river originates near the Berthoud pass, and the Robbers Roost, just uphill and south of Winterpark Colorado. The wandering Luddite might want to consider the advantages of a wonderful technological tool known as the map.

I have to agree somewhat with Sabine’s sad portrayal of Moab. Ed left because of what it was becoming. Some of Ed’s Companeros can still be found in the area. John Depuy is one. I was there last November and the environmental damage is huge. Garbage landfill, Uranium processing waste piles, four wheel drive off road vehicles thrashing the fragile desert crust. On a hike through Negro Bill Canyon one morning, there were screaming kids, shitting dogs, and people rappelling from the natural stone arches that the area is so well known for. Oil and gas drilling rigs are punching holes all over this geological wonderland, and growing in numbers faster than Peter’s pumpkins. Now go Luddite that! Then claim the name.

Had Sabine ever visited Mexican Hat Utah, a stunning panorama of desert beauty would have been noticed, and remembered. It’s a beauty that lost couch jockeys will never see as they hurry off to find air conditioning and soft pillows. I suggest Sabin spend the night at the Goosenecks when there’s a full moon, or better yet, tubing down the San Juan. No flashlight necessary. Should be great for the anti-tech no c rats.

As for making “proper ablutions,” and getting in touch with the “official Ed Abbey Thought Police,” consider listening to Ed being interviewed by his friend Jack Loeffler. The C.D is available, but that may present a bit of a problem and contradiction between Sabine’s apparently firm “Luddite” convictions and those horrible contraptions needed to play the C.D. Maybe Sabine (and Peters) could just read the book, ‘Conversations with Ed,” by Jack Loeffler. But why not just read one of Ed’s great works and police your own head?

Wouldn’t it be easier and more fun to just create a new word for what Peters thinks he is or what he is doing? Like gardener, or gardening. Why Luddite? An aspiring English department head should be able to come up with something good. How about Earth Firster? Ooops! That would be the same kind of linguistic banana peel that Peters has slipped on with “Luddite.” I think the answer might be crawling around in this compost heap known as the internet. Just keep digging and turning boys and girls. The internet is a very fertile place. A very real technological wonderland, endorsed by Stuart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog.

avatar Jason Peters October 30, 2009 at 10:15 pm

Chris: thanks for paying attention to something nearer the crux than spelling. But you’re making too much sense, so do beware. There’s an automaton out there calling itself “Haiduke” ready to spring on anything that can make a subject and a verb agree.

Joshua Burnett: introducing “Tradition and the Individual Talent” here is a very clever move indeed, even though we’re pretty far afield of art. But I do think you’re on to something—so long as you will allow that the dictum “make it new” cuts too near the planned obsolescence of manufacture. Eliot couldn’t have made this connection, so we’ll forgive him. (I brought Eliot to bear here.) I’ll refrain from suggesting that “Haiduke” read the essay you cite, because if history is any indicator he will misread it. But it fairly well puts a sock in the gaping maw that apparently can’t be muffled by a sleeping bag.

Sabin (or, depending on the sentence, “Sabine”): call off the dogs. “Haiduke” actually thinks the creator of “Hayduke” is on his side. I haven’t met this kind of confusion since someone over in remedial reading suggested Mack Reynolds be part of the curriculum. We need pens other than our own. We need thinkers beyond our own capabilities. Joel Osteen? Oprah? Are you out there?

(P.S. I accept your compliment. As anyone who’s ever had the screamin’ meemies can tell you, an A**hole serves a useful purpose.)

“rex”: thanks very much. That will answer nicely. Am I wrong to assume that there is an “added value” to all that labor with your father-in-law? I see a lot of that in the work I do with my own father-in-law as well as with my students—work that “Haiduke,” who has never looked me in the eye but who knows so much about me, has such little patience for.

James Kabala: I waited a bit to let “Haiduke” take a stab at this and make one last attempt at coherence, but he seems more interested in that rarefied form of irrelevance that you often get out of people who can’t tell an anatomical orifice from a geological cavity. And I, at any rate, think your question is a good one. But to answer it—trust me when I say I’m not baiting you—we must take a good hard look at prior displacements. For example, we must take a look at how the advent of machinery and official farm policy in this country put many farmers out of work, liberating them from the “drudgery” of feeding themselves and permitting them to seek more meaningful (un)employment in increasingly crowded cities. If you’re worried that dissenting from technology will put people out of work, remember that assenting to it did the same thing. Assenting was easy in an age of cheap energy, but scarcity of all kinds is going to present us with a few problems, one of which is implied in your remarks.

As soon as we’re willing to address standards of living—mine and yours and “Haiduke’s”–we can speak meaningfully about the sort of trouble that confronts us, including loss of livelihood. But, you see, on the ashes of an agrarian world whose economic principle was return we built an industrial world on the economic principle of exhaustion, a world in which many people (I am one of them) became the abject dependents of their employers, people whose forebears (mine included) were capable, self-reliant, and able. And now (or pretty soon) we will have to learn how to unbuild that world, because the earth isn’t a Twinkie with an endless supply of crème in the middle. I think this will mean that more, not fewer, people will be working the land. I did not say everyone. I said more.

So, to answer your question, we’ve got real work to do. And I mean real work–work of the sort that “Haiduke” apparently finds demeaning. At least he demeans me for doing it—at the same time that he demeans me for teaching, though he knows nothing about my work, my past, my economy, my skills (and lack thereof), or my living arrangements.

There’s no pleasing some people. Mark me: someday he’ll make someone a good mother-in-law. But I sure as hell won’t attempt a public defense of a private life.

Neil Carlson (at long last): I’m tempted to say that Hawthorne’s stories (“Rappaccini’s Daughter,” “The Birthmark,” “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”—that sort of thing) answer your questions well enough. But I’ll be a bit more specific in saying that I don’t think we have any clue what energy is for and that we certainly don’t have a moral relation to it. We seem to think that more energy is good and that continuing to run the world we’ve built is necessary, desirable, and possible. Both propositions seem pretty messed up to me. As far as possible we ought to run the world on contemporary rather than ancient sunlight. The former is clean and free; the latter is dirty and costly. As for the body implants and transplants: I hold that the world is not and cannot be structurally different from what we think about it. If we want the body to be a machine, then a machine it will be. If we want it to be something nobler, we have it in us to call such a thing into being. On such matters I recommend a very short book by Owen Barfield: History, Guilt and Habit.

avatar Bob Cheeks October 31, 2009 at 8:42 am

Obviously “Haiduke” is some sort of PoMoCon apparatchik sent to bomb the site with inannities, verbosities, and sundry confusion all of which, I might add, are categories under my charge (including, but not limited to, fringe political beliefs, paranoid assaults on contributors and commentors, hyperbole, misspellings, incontinence, incoherence, and advanced a**holery).
Sabinski is, as the affable Arben said, Sabinski and that alone enlivened the thread and expanded our knowledge of things.
I enjoyed, as I am wont to do, Jason’s Menchenesque reply, yet I do hope “Hayiuduke” continues on with us. He is quite delightful and I do hope he might turn his attention to several of our other oontributors.
And, finally, Jason please acknowledge Ryan!

avatar rex October 31, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Jason, I don’t know that I have ever thought of it in those terms. Fences get repaired, houses are painted, strawberry short-cakes and fresh loaves of bread move back and forth. I guess the wealth of our family increases, although “added value” almost seems a pejorative in this context. For me, a day spent with those vile smelly tic-ridden creatures (I mean the sheep) is better than most days at the office. It is just a small facet of family that nourishes a larger community.

It is not Luddism. The Luddites were terrorists. Under the current regime can you imagine the full force of the Patriot Act coming down upon them? The embarrassment of water-boarding would pale. We may yet get there, but you are right to bring in the concept of standard of living. James Kabala asked, why the weavers thought they had an entitlement to their jobs. To my mind this is the wrong question: Why did the capitalists think they had a right to displace those workers without regard to the community in pursuit of the almighty buck, err, quid?

avatar Ryan Davidson November 2, 2009 at 3:46 pm

Jumping back in after a long-weekend. Here goes nothing. Glad to see that someone was able to provoke a substantive response from the author, even if it wasn’t me.

Chris, and Jason Peters, for that matter:

Maybe it wasn’t evident in my comment–though I explicitly stated as much, so I’m having trouble figuring out why this should be the case–but I’m entirely willing to stipulate most of what the author believes about the costs of industrial society. Believe me, I am all too keenly aware of them; I’m currently paying them and none too happy about it. But accusing me of missing the “deeper point” misses my “deeper points,” specifically that 1) given any world population in excess of a few hundred million, any attempt at a return to something like an agrarian society, even on a small scale, is really just a way of shifting the alleged costs of industrialism onto other people, and 2) doesn’t asserting that both the problem and the solution are technological give too much credence to technology for one so avowedly opposed to it?

Joshua Burnett does seem to get it though: completely ignoring what amounts to the past three or four centuries of the Western tradition in the name of “conserving” that same tradition isn’t conservative, it’s blinkered. You can’t pick and choose the aspects of tradition you like, you have to work with the entire tradition as it is handed to you, and in our case, that tradition includes industrialization. The horse of industrialism has already left the cultural barn, as it were, so even if we could close the door–and like it or not we can’t–it wouldn’t make any difference. Industrial society isn’t going anywhere, and even a shift towards more people working the land isn’t going to change this much. Increasing the population engaged in farm employment by 50% would bring the total to about 1% of the workforce. It’s been a century since 50% of the US population lived in a rural area, and the world population made that shift a few years ago. Moving a bit around the edges isn’t going to do much, nor do it for many.

While the concept of a 50-year roof is admittedly compelling–I know my dad would have appreciated that after having his replaced for the second time–said roof is the product of a steel mill, Thus, for the author to teach his students the benefits of sound construction methods–real benefits to be sure–someone had to work in a factory. A lot of someones, actually, if we take into account both the steps in the manufacturing process and the economies of scale required to make such activities worth the massive investment required. Until someone comes up with a vision of localism that includes these necessary consequences for others, I can’t help but consider it to be hypocritical, or at least naive.

No one has addressed these problems, nor my historical objection to the initial discussion about the Luddites. I can see how that particular facet of this discussion does not cut to the heart of what is at issue here, but it was the subject of the initial post, so dismissing it as irrelevant seems a bit like hiding the football.

Jason Peters, to address your last comment directly, I really don’t think we’re as far from each other as you and others may seem to think. I’ve been commending this to as many people as will watch it. I don’t intend to champion the virtues of industrial society. I completely agree that our current trajectory is unsustainable, and that the inevitable collision with reality will be widely unpleasant for everyone. I merely refuse to think that we can wish it away, or that industrialization is truly the heart of our problems. I’m all for moral limits on technology. But I also live in a world (as do you) which, without consulting me first and whether I like it or not, generally refuses to impose such limits, and where it does, they aren’t the limits I would impose. I think how we live with that is a far more interesting project than insisting that such limits be imposed anyways or moaning about the fact they they tend not to be.

rex, a rights-based analysis isn’t going to work here. I’m with MacIntyre on that particular score: rights, like unicorns, are fun to think about, and pretty in a way, but neither has the virtue of being, you know, real. Capitalists have just as much “right” to make full use of their labor, capital, and ingenuity as workers do, and if we focus on rights alone there doesn’t seem to be any way of prioritizing one set of rights over the other without engaging in the sort of blatant arbitrary favoritism that rights are generally intended to combat. This is because communities are not and cannot be based on rights; only an extended period of practice embedded in a network of obligations creates community. Rights and obligations are rather incompatible ways of constructing society. They may seem like different sides of the same coin, but they aren’t. Rights do not create connections between people, and obligations are not necessarily enforceable by the party to which the obligation is owed. Only if the capitalists owed some kind of obligation to the workers–an obligation which cannot be revealed by a rights-based analysis–is there anything to complain about.

Oh, and for the record, while there may be sock puppets here, none of them are from me.

avatar Jason Peters November 2, 2009 at 6:01 pm

Ryan: due respect–and I mean that–I think we are still pretty far apart. You say that industrial society isn’t going anywhere; I say its life-blood is dwindling and won’t be cheap for much longer. Industrialism–like globalism–could be over pretty soon. Plus the biologists I’ve talked to tell me that the bacteria are going to kick our asses.

I’m not trying to shift costs. My fear is that resource wars and massive die-offs, far from being likely, are inevitable. Let’s scale back and prepare as best we can. Let’s do better than we’ve done. Let’s start saying “no” to what’s for sale. Let’s do more for ourselves and for one another.

avatar rex November 2, 2009 at 9:35 pm

Ryan I agree with your rights ontology. Speaking – errr – writing – errr – key boarding as a reformed anarchist, rights only exist where power is ceded. Capitalists have no right to accrue capital other than those granted by the state. (Otherwise folks would just come and take it if they have the cajones.)

The state has a fundamental obligation to the common good due to citizens ceding power to the state as protection of the common good. (Ryan, avoiding seeing rights and obligations as a duality is actually quite robust – Thank you.) In the case of the industrial age, I believe the state has failed in many obligations.

Reducing (or enhancing?) this to the cowboy poet level: When otherwise good citizens take up arms against those protected by the state during a time of war, clearly something is amiss (AKA FUBAR). I am a geologist by trade, so I cannot speak to human history other than what I read as recreation, but dang it, something was terribly wrong during the Luddite’s run. These were tradesman and family men willing to pick-up PMDs (Pitchforks of Minor Destruction) to risk their lives for something greater that than themselves. I cannot relegate them to a dustbin without further study.

avatar Ryan Davidson November 3, 2009 at 9:25 am

Jason, I completely agree with your assessment of our near and intermediate-term future. But I also believe that unless the global population falls by at least 75%–which while unthinkable may not be impossible–that whatever society emerges from the other side will still be industrialized. As you say, it’s a question of resources, and like it or not, non-industrial agriculture can only support a fraction of the population that industrial agriculture can. Life is going to be harder in the future, and living standards will fall, sure. But the idea that a significant percentage of a global population in excess of a billion can engage in agriculture does strikes me as impossible. As such, I believe that we need to adjust our concept of what the Good Life looks like to take a certain degree, even a large degree of industrialization into account. Are we sending too many people to get useless college degrees? Absolutely. Does our society have an adverse reaction to actual work? Definitely. Is the answer to turn our backs on modern society and go back to the farm? No.

Besides, the death of three-quarters of the population isn’t exactly the kind of dislocation you can adequately plan for. It’s the end of the f*cking world.

But barring utter catastrophe, I think we can do better than we’ve done. I think it’s possible to have vibrant communities. But I don’t think we need to turn our backs on three centuries of history to do so, and on the contrary, that not dealing with the history is an active obstacle to any such pursuits because it fails to take into account the physical and logistical realities of our time.

rex, ironically, you’re still operating from a rights-based framework. You’re still treating people as atomistic, as essentially unconnected, as not being subject to any obligations imposed on them involuntarily. You view the state as a creation of the people, who collectively cede their rights to create Leviathan. Expressing it in terms of power clarifies things a bit–Nietzsche being the ultimate expression of modernism, after a fashion–but doesn’t change the underlying ontology.

This is a source of confusion for me around here, because while so many people bag on modernity as bad for individual liberty, the very idea of individual liberty is a decidedly modern trope.

avatar pb November 3, 2009 at 1:15 pm

As you say, it’s a question of resources, and like it or not, non-industrial agriculture can only support a fraction of the population that industrial agriculture can.

Disputable. A point made by those who defend the continued existence of industrial agriculture.

avatar rex November 5, 2009 at 7:37 pm

Ryan, the there is difference between power ceded and power taken.
Power ceded creates rights, power taken does not. Rights are contrived outside of a consensual power exchange. There is nothing atomistic about it. Individuals, families, communities, etc. can cede power, or power can wrested.

avatar Ryan Davidson November 6, 2009 at 1:30 pm

rex, you’re assuming that people have power to begin with which can only be “taken” consensually. Which is basically saying that we all have certain inalienable rights. I really can’t see much difference between the two.

Before the modern period, the idea that individuals have power of their own was unheard of. Power flowed from the sovereign to the people, not the people to the sovereign. Kings had power not because it was ceded to them by the people, but because they were ordained by God, the source of all authority. Today, the presumption is that anything not prohibited by the government is permitted. Then, the presumption was that anything not permitted by the crown remained the prerogative of the crown. The Tenth Amendment is actually a pretty radical concept, historically speaking.

avatar eutychus November 8, 2009 at 8:49 pm

Peters’ observations are all bang on. i know he is right. my head knows he is right, but his words have no power over my soul which is still deathly ill. until i can’t go into a supermarket and toss enough food in my grocery basket for the week and be able to pay for it while contributing almost nothing to mankind i am not likely to change. i’ll log onto facebook in the vain hope that someone or something out there will give my life meaning and purpose. i’ll watch the world series of poker excited by the possibility that the game might prove that someone up there is still dealing the cards… and that maybe one day i might catch a couple of aces. i am a broken-hearted addict, hopelessly enslaved to technologies designed to “set me free”. i sit down by the rivers of Babylon and weep. i am a man abandoned by his God. i eat, drink and try to be merry because… i am already dead. i wait and i wait for the stone to be rolled away…

avatar Hans Noeldner November 8, 2009 at 9:07 pm

Hi Jason:

Excellent essay! This morning, having just read the most recent cheerful installment at The Automatic Earth, my mind began running in a groove similar to yours. Here is what I wrote before I read your piece:

Willful Ignorance
Ask yourself why so many of us expect “the government” to compensate for jobs lost to increases in labor productivity (i.e. output of a good or service per unit input of labor.) Ask yourself how it is possible we CELEBRATE increases in labor productivity even as we cringe at rising unemployment. Just how stupid are we?

And what about those of us who believe the biophysical limitations of Earth all but guarantee that Mankind’s consumption of resources will soon shrink, and shrink dramatically? Who have concluded from the recent financial crisis that we have substantially exceeded our powers to vacuum ever-more credit from the future in order to stimulate ever-higher consumption in the present? Who recognize that marginal increases in material consumption throughout much of the industrialized world often have a NEGATIVE correlation with human well-being?

Is there any chance that we-the-consumers and we-the-investors will be willing to shift our fidelities from the lowest prices and highest rates of return to intentional, meaningful, fulfilling employment for one-another…and for ourselves? Doesn’t our love affair with the automobile prove that we don’t even want to employ our own legs?

What shall become of human employment in a future of limits? If the means of production are not widely held, what will be the fate of those who own little or none of it? Is a Darwinian economic religion compatible with love for one another? And even if all these other factors could be overcome, are our human natures suited for life without needful labor?

Hans Noeldner

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 11, 2009 at 10:10 pm

Jason definitely makes more sense than Ryan Davidson. I can’t say the original Luddites add up to a program I would get behind today, but they have a definite emotional appeal, for good reason, and if I were them then, I expect I would have responded in about the same way. We are at a point in history when we need to shatter all traditional blocs of “right” and “left” which Jason has already done. Free enterprise is fine as long as each citizen has a roughly equal stake in the community, but when a few citizen’s become huge in wealth and power, then claim that their “liberty” is being infringed by their employees forming unions or legislatures imposing minimum wage laws, it all gets turned on its head. Most of those industrialists who wanted the Luddites hanged and transported were members of the Liberal party, and Ronald Reagan would have been philosophically at home with them. So, we all know Marxism has failed to either liberate the working class or lead us all into a rosy utopia, we all know that smashing machines wholesale doesn’t improve our quality of life, and we really don’t want every new technology anyone might come up with shoved down our throats as “progress.” Jason knows technology has its uses: he’s posting this on the internet, for God’s sake.

The root problem though is, when a new technology emerges, it benefits a small portion of the community at the expense of everyone else, and it empowers a small number over everyone else. Life doesn’t slow down so each of us may philosophically consider what that means for me and us, and do I or we really want it at all? Now all we have to do is figure out, how do we establish some sort of communitarian framework that also respects individual liberty? I need to know which machines I may smash with impunity. Or, I think Jason is a bit of a rational anarchist, along the lines of Professor Bernardo De La Paz in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress. Fifth International anyone?

avatar Hans Noeldner November 12, 2009 at 2:50 pm

Let us begin by smashing leaf blowers…and then recycling the materials, of course!

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 12, 2009 at 4:50 pm

Good point Hans. Most people claim to need more exercise and to be thinking about going on a weight loss program. A simple rake will get more leaves, it will give the raker more exercise, it will make less racket, it removes the illusion that the leaves are going to “vanish,” uses less electrical energy… I’ve never even used a power mower. Anyone know who still makes the old rotary kind? Sure saves money on gym membership. We have to get in focus that the Kung tribe in the Kalahari Desert spends about 19 hours a week providing themselves with food, clothing and shelter — in the dry season. We should all have such leisure time.

avatar Hans Noeldner November 13, 2009 at 8:02 am



Now made by an Amish businessman, this mower – with some variations – has been made for about 50 years under a number of brand names – Yard Man, Scotts, Sears, Agri-Fab. It’s excellent. Enough iron to hold an edge.

This company also makes a decent push mower:


You can also get mowers like this at eBay and yard sales.

avatar Septeus7 November 16, 2009 at 5:46 am

Quote from Jason Peters : “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.”

No, that is not a Luddite. A Luddite was a dupe of Jeremy Bentham’s satanic intelligence operations that redirected peasant sentiment against imperialism into an anti-republican anarchist controlled opposition that was easily discredited and allow the principled opposition to the British system of imperialist capitalism to be ignored and vilified as machine smashers and vandals.

Anyone with any knowledge of science knows that real technology doesn’t replace labor enhances it and it does not evict laborer in a properly organized economy. It human political decisions that evicted craftsmen and the farmers. No machine has or will ever evict any worker from his job because the organization of labor is a not subject of machines but human political economy.

Rather than practicing a form of idolatry by attacking perfectly useful machines people must attack the corruption of the oligarchs that takes the most human characteristic of creativity and turns it against the common good and making it a means of selfish gain at the cost of the good.

The power lies with man not with machines and any movement that denies this as Luddites do is Idolatry and Satanism.
Luddites are fundamentally anti-human as the claim the power of a machine can replace the world of the human being the creators of that machine which is not true. Ironically, the Post-Humanist promoting cybernetics and other pseudoscience and post-human futures are derived from Luddite philosophy that assumes that machines are of higher order human beings and thus have the power to replace human labor and reason Luddites believe this false doctrine is because it was synthetically created belief that reflected Bentham’s mechanistic view of man as a machine.

The Luddite reductionist view of labor as fixed in mode derives from the man is machine ideology thus to protect human culture as reduced to the efforts of the human machine it can be threaten a superior machine. But how can this view every defeat the any culture of de-humanization when it is already such a degraded view of man? After all if a man is merely a machine then why shouldn’t he replaced by a better one ala trans-humanism?

The rest of Jason Peters essay is pure confusion complaining about digital gadgets as high technology when it isn’t. Jason Peter quotes Wendel Berry are saying technology should be limited to “but to intensify production, improve maintenance, increase care and skill, and widen the margins of leisure, pleasure, and community life.”

Unfortunately, that isn’t Luddite at all but what American system economist from Franklin on defined as “technology.”

You have confused gadgetry with technology. Technology is a machine that is an application of a universal physical principle changes man’s capacity to work needed for increase potential population density. Gadget’s are devices use technology but may or may not increase potential population density because they are concern with the speed of human action not it’s mode or character. Technology is about changing in principle what can be done.

The reason you don’t get excited about this year’s newest gadgets is because they aren’t technology at all but rather repetition of tasks already being done by slightly slower machines.

I’ll now list some examples of real technology advances would look like and that probably won’t be built or developed precisely because our society is so dominated by Luddite/Malthusian ideas about man.

Imagine if you where a teacher of European history rather simply being able to talk to students about the City of Florence in Italy and show a few photographs that you could with for the cost of today’s usual field trip of about 3-4 hours of driving times that you could show them the actual city of Florence? Wouldn’t you be excited about a technology let’s just about anyone travel a 1000 miles in the time today’s primitive cave-man like vehicles limited to 100 miles?

How about a technology about the trailer of a tuck that can power about 25,000 homes and desalinate and cleans water? You could drive these into African village get these people hooked and keep them from dying water born diseases.

How about turn-key hospitals and schools?

How about a vertical farm that allows a city block to grow its organic food in the cleanest possible environment without regard to seasons?

How about a vertical city build of multiple platforms about a kilometer high providing housing for 100k people, jobs, and integrated community with gardens and parks on every platform. It would schools, shops, and everything you would need from cradle to grave in this Sky Village. Talk about close community.

How about a manmade Great Lake in the Sahara along aside manmade tropical forests?

How about Domed Cities on the Moon?

Those are example of what real technological progress would have looked like and it’s about increasing human capacity to live. We haven’t had any real technology improvements since the 1968ers.

You’ve never seen or lived in society that was producing new cities and doing these “impossible” projects because you are a boomer or worse. Earlier generation were more human and that is kind of future they planned but the Boomer decided sex, drugs, rock-n-roll, mother earth, easy money, free trade, cheap toys, self-righteous Luddite Malthusian romanticism and doing what “felt good” was more important building the future for their children and giving them culture that believed in the creative human spirit or the imago viva dei.

avatar Ryan F. November 18, 2009 at 3:37 pm

I find it interesting that the last stand of the Luddite is professional sports. We get down right prudish when it comes to performance enhancing items for body or equipment.

avatar Siarlys Jenkins November 21, 2009 at 8:04 pm

Thanks Hans!

avatar Joshua July 26, 2010 at 10:57 am

I mean, it is a term that has grown to mean anti-technology. Regardless of its origin, like many words. Would it ease you if we simply use a lowercase L?

They may have been good people, and they still are, but a word means how it is used.

avatar Joyce Dover October 9, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Very good article thanks for sharing

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