Editor’s note: Luddism is often dismissed as “backwardness,” but it is actually a more advanced, considered, and wise position on technology. To be a Luddite is to stand with workers and the natural world against the death march of technology. This essay is a general introduction to the Luddites.
However, we disagree with the author when he argues that modern technology is neutral and that “it’s how such technology is used” that determines its moral character. This view is fundamentally anthropocentric; it’s only possible when you discount the natural world and believe humans are more important than other species. For a more deeply developed critique of technological escalation (we do not refer to this phenomenon as “progress”), we recommend exploring the work of Lewis Mumford, Vine Deloria Jr., Derrick Jensen, Vandana Shiva, Chellis Glendinning, Ivan Illich, Jack D. Forbes, Langdon Winner, and other critics of technology and civilization.
Here at Deep Green Resistance, we use the tools of industrial civilization (such as computers and the internet) to oppose it. Some accuse us of hypocrisy. But did Crazy Horse and Tecumseh not use firearms to fight European colonization? As Arundhati Roy has said, “Fighting people will choose their own weapons.” We see a place in our movement for both principled rejection of technology and the establishment of counter-cultural spaces and organizations, and for the principled use of the products of empire to dismantle empire. These efforts may seem contradictory, but they are not — they are complementary, and in Deep Green Resistance, many of us practice both at the same time.
By Jathan Sadowski / Originally published in The Conversation
I’m a Luddite. This is not a hesitant confession, but a proud proclamation. I’m also a social scientist who studies how new technologies affect politics, economics and society. For me, Luddism is not a naive feeling, but a considered position.
And once you know what Luddism actually stands for, I’m willing to bet you will be one too — or at least much more sympathetic to the Luddite cause than you think.
Today the term is mostly lobbed as an insult. Take this example from a recent report by global consulting firm Accenture on why the health-care industry should enthusiastically embrace artificial intelligence:
Excessive caution can be detrimental, creating a luddite culture of following the herd instead of forging forward.
To be a Luddite is seen as synonymous with being primitive — backwards in your outlook, ignorant of innovation’s wonders, and fearful of modern society. This all-or-nothing approach to debates about technology and society is based on severe misconceptions of the real history and politics of the original Luddites: English textile workers in the early 19th century who, under the cover of night, destroyed weaving machines in protest to changes in their working conditions.
Our circumstances today are more similar to theirs than it might seem, as new technologies are being used to transform our own working and social conditions — think increases in employee surveillance during lockdowns, or exploitation by gig labour platforms. It’s time we reconsider the lessons of Luddism.
A brief — and accurate — history of Luddism
Even among other social scientists who study these kinds of critical questions about technology, the label of “Luddite” is still largely an ironic one. It’s the kind of self-effacing thing you say when fumbling with screen-sharing on Zoom during a presentation: “Sorry, I’m such a Luddite!”
It wasn’t until I learned the true origins of Luddism that I began sincerely to regard myself as one of them.
The Luddites were a secret organisation of workers who smashed machines in the textile factories of England in the early 1800s, a period of increasing industrialisation, economic hardship due to expensive conflicts with France and the United States, and widespread unrest among the working class. They took their name from the apocryphal tale of Ned Ludd, a weaver’s apprentice who supposedly smashed two knitting machines in a fit of rage.
The contemporary usage of Luddite has the machine-smashing part correct — but that’s about all it gets right.
First, the Luddites were not indiscriminate. They were intentional and purposeful about which machines they smashed. They targeted those owned by manufacturers who were known to pay low wages, disregard workers’ safety, and/or speed up the pace of work. Even within a single factory — which would contain machines owned by different capitalists — some machines were destroyed and others pardoned depending on the business practices of their owners.
Second, the Luddites were not ignorant. Smashing machines was not a kneejerk reaction to new technology, but a tactical response by workers based on their understanding of how owners were using those machines to make labour conditions more exploitative. As historian David Noble puts it, they understood “technology in the present tense”, by analysing its immediate, material impacts and acting accordingly.
Luddism was a working-class movement opposed to the political consequences of industrial capitalism. The Luddites wanted technology to be deployed in ways that made work more humane and gave workers more autonomy. The bosses, on the other hand, wanted to drive down costs and increase productivity.
Third, the Luddites were not against innovation. Many of the technologies they destroyed weren’t even new inventions. As historian Adrian Randall points out, one machine they targeted, the gig mill, had been used for more than a century in textile manufacturing. Similarly, the power loom had been used for decades before the Luddite uprisings.
It wasn’t the invention of these machines that provoked the Luddites to action. They only banded together once factory owners began using these machines to displace and disempower workers.
The factory owners won in the end: they succeeded in convincing the state to make “frame breaking” a treasonous crime punishable by hanging. The army was sent in to break up and hunt down the Luddites.
The Luddite rebellion lasted from 1811 to 1816, and today (as Randall puts it), it has become “a cautionary moral tale”. The story is told to discourage workers from resisting the march of capitalist progress, lest they too end up like the Luddites.
Today, new technologies are being used to alter our lives, societies and working conditions no less profoundly than mechanical looms were used to transform those of the original Luddites. The excesses of big tech companies – Amazon’s inhumane exploitation of workers in warehouses driven by automation and machine vision, Uber’s gig-economy lobbying and disregard for labour law, Facebook’s unchecked extraction of unprecedented amounts of user data – are driving a public backlash that may contain the seeds of a neo-Luddite movement.
As Gavin Mueller writes in his new book on Luddism, our goal in taking up the Luddite banner should be “to study and learn from the history of past struggles, to recover the voices from past movements so that they might inform current ones”.
What would Luddism look like today? It won’t necessarily (or only) be a movement that takes up hammers against smart fridges, data servers and e-commerce warehouses. Instead, it would treat technology as a political and economic phenomenon that deserves to be critically scrutinised and democratically governed, rather than a grab bag of neat apps and gadgets.
In a recent article in Nature, my colleagues and I argued that data must be reclaimed from corporate gatekeepers and managed as a collective good by public institutions. This kind of argument is deeply informed by the Luddite ethos, calling for the hammer of antitrust to break up the tech oligopoly that currently controls how data is created, accessed, and used.
A neo-Luddite movement would understand no technology is sacred in itself, but is only worthwhile insofar as it benefits society. It would confront the harms done by digital capitalism and seek to address them by giving people more power over the technological systems that structure their lives.
This is what it means to be a Luddite today. Two centuries ago, Luddism was a rallying call used by the working class to build solidarity in the battle for their livelihoods and autonomy.
And so too should neo-Luddism be a banner that brings workers together in today’s fight for those same rights. Join me in reclaiming the name of Ludd!
It appears that I was born a Luddite. As early as the age of six, I was being questioned as to why I preferred small, simple things (bicycles, small cars, and one-room homes, for instance, over motorcycles, Cadillacs, and big houses). And my answer was that they’re easier and cheaper to build and maintain, less obtrusive, require less extraction, and have a smaller footprint.
I was particularly against diesel exhaust, “flame-offs” in the oil industry, loud vehicles, homes so big that that they obviously displace animals and open landscape, and the generally nature-destroying aspects of cities, factories, freeways, etc.
The two things that irked me the most were animals being killed on the road, and the filth generated by the oil industry. My father was an oil industry executive in West Texas, and it was impossible not to notice the stark difference between the grounds around oil facilities, and the natural landscapes outside them.
My opposition to civilization grew when I began to realize that its excesses were directly tied to such apparent values as “development,” “growth,” “profit,” and “progress,” and my understanding that these terms were euphemisms for “destruction,” “anthrocentrism,” “greed,” and “ecocide,” respectively.
It didn’t begin to emerge as an overall way of thinking, however, until my introduction to thinkers like Rachel Carson. And I wasn’t able to tie it all together until about ten years ago, when I heard Derrick Jensen on Pacifica Radio, making the apparently outrageous (if not openly nihilistic) statement that, “We have to destroy civilization.”
Then I learned about DGR, read volume one of Derrick’s “End Game,” and began to understand that Luddism is a rational school of thought, and not just a putdown of people who distrust anything new.
I must add that two more big factors were my accidental killing of a fawn (while deer hunting, at age 18), and my involvement in the Vietnam War.
In the first case, it made a direct connection between the technology of the gun and anthrocentrism. I never hunted again, and haven’t fired a gun in over 30 years. It was also involved in my decision to turn away from animal products, in 1995. This was furthered, a few years later, when I met and spoke with the former Montana rancher, who was sued (along with Oprah Winfrey) for attacking the practices of industrial agriculture — and making clear the point that “meat is murder.”
A few months after killing the fawn, I enlisted in the Air Force, largely because I wasn’t doing well in college, and was aware that I was at risk of being drafted, and sent to fight for a cause that was marketed as the defense of freedom, but was obviously more about the self-interests of industrial capitalism.
A few months in the Air Force, however, led to my assignment to clerical work in a munitions squadron in Okinawa, which directly supplied all the bombs, bullets, and related weaponry used by the Air Force in Southeast Asia. I learned that we were deploying weapons of terror, and that the air war was one of indiscriminate annihilation.
My primary job, for example, was to do the paperwork that made possible “Operation Arclight” — mysterious terminology for a program where three B-52s, flying at 20,000 feet altitude, would indiscriminately drop 90 tons of bombs, two or three times a day, onto mostly forested “targets” the size of eight football fields, almost anywhere on the rural landscapes of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
After learning that we had “accidentally” bombed an elementary school near Hanoi, it became apparent to me that I was a war criminal, because my making the bombs available was just as vital to the operation as the jobs of the pilots, the bombardiers, and the commanders in Saigon and Washington, who decided what would be bombed, and when. I was part of a team, whose job was to kill the people, tigers, elephants, frogs, squirrels, insects, trees, and plants of three countries, and often to poison the landscape of an expanse of land that many Americans couldn’t find on a map. Most Americans just elected the leaders, and paid the taxes to destroy places halfway around the world. ALL Americans, in other words, were war criminals.
In short, I refused bomb-loading duties on three occasions, was transferred to the Pentagon, became active in the antiwar movement, was targeted for court-martial, deserted to Canada, and (over the intervening years) became radicalized on a growing number of issues.
That’s one Luddite’s story. But you don’t have to look further than out your window to find such stories. We aren’t all deer hunters or bombers. But if we’re members of a civilized society, we’re all at war with planet Earth. Our decision is whether to go on destroying the world, or to become part of a growing movement to save it.
Mark–thanks for writing this. Your story moved me more than I can say. My husband and I are now living in a cabin in Wapiti, Wyoming, and trying our best to avoid the technology that’s killing the Earth. It’s not easy. The pressures of Civilization are ubiquitous and hard to resist. Your story is an inspiration.
Great letter, Mark Behrend. My mind is empty of constructive additions at this late hour, but i don’t think i could add anything to this, anyway. Thank you!
This essay is exactly why I’m NOT Luddite. Jathan Sadowski is correct that the Luddite movement (or whatever it was) was not opposed to machines per se; they were upset that machines and technology were taking their jobs, and had other anthropocentric concerns. As a radical environmentalist and deep ecologist, one should oppose machines and technology because creating and using them harms the natural world. Their effect on human society is quite beside the point. DGR’s introduction to Mr. Sadowski’s essay is much better than the essay itself.
Thank you for telling your moving story. This is an informative discussion. Though I think the (bio) engineers like Paul Hawkden – see his books Drawdown and Regeneration make a decent case for the positive use of technology deployment in all this – mitigation adaptation recovery .. of our severely damaged world. Hang in good people we need to encourage more people to think about these issues and knowledge fields. Including luddism. Finem respice.
I fully agree that human technology used for restoring ecosystems and habitats harmed or destroyed by humans would be a good thing. I’m even toying with the idea of cloning or something similar to restore extirpated and extinct species that were made so by humans. But after those things are restored, humans should use as little technology as absolutely possible. This is a very long term goal. It would take 150-200 years to get rid of industrial society, and probably thousands of years to get back to living as hunter-gatherers, but that should be our goal. Humans should focus on expanding our consciousness, and on wisdom and empathy, while leaving the natural/physical world alone as much as possible. The natural/physical world is great and I love it and all the life in it, but for humans it should be, “look, but don’t touch.”
Worker democracy, thoughtful use of technology (planning?). It sounds like Communism. Why not advocate for this instead? Do you perceive differences between Socialists and Luddites?
Hello Simon, thank you for the question. We have some political differences with the author, as partially outlined in the editor’s note. We have a deeper mistrust of industrial technology than most socialists, because we are a biocentric organization. We see the destruction of nature as a result of a particular social arrangement we call civilization, an organizational structure that pre-dates capitalism by thousands of years. So in short, we see global capitalism as a functional structure that must be dismantled, but a system that is layered over a deeper foundational alienation from the rest of the natural world.
We are not a socialist or communist organization, although some of our organizers self-identify as such and we are influenced by these traditions (among many others). But we see a troubling history of anthropocentrism within many socialist and communist traditions, movements, and governments. See, for the example, the ecological ruin in the USSR and China, or the extractivist bent of the “pink tide” governments in Latin America. It is simply true that socialist governments can be as ecologically ruinous as capitalist ones, or even more so. Even democratic socialist nations such as Norway are powered by dammed rivers and funded by oil exports.
However, it’s certainly true that you see more ecologically-oriented strains of socialism emerging, for example in the academic work of John Bellamy Foster and Richard York and particularly global south socialist movements among indigenous communities. This is a positive development, in our view.
You might be interested, Simon, in this presentation from DGR organizer Max Wilbert, which was part of a discussion with a Marxist-oriented organization. It explains several important theoretical differences we have with traditional Marxism. The material in this presentation was originally drafted for a presentation at the University of the Philippines: https://youtu.be/XMDFi_lCoeE?t=996
I’m just going to make a minor comment here (compared to the ones above) about the reason I don’t have a smartphone, which I gather has a Luddite flavour to it.
Here’s why I don’t have a smartphone.
1. We have always hated built-in obsolescence and constant upgrading for the sake of it. Our old sms-level mobile phone is still working, so why should be upgrade – we don’t want any of the special features offered by smartphones. We already have a good camera, a laptop, and a desktop computer that was thrown out by a workplace because of a broken power supply which my husband fixed. We have no need for such a device and therefore don’t want one.
2. The mobile phone I do have stays in the house, like a landline (we don’t have a landline). I come from a pre-mobile phone era and don’t actually want to be followed around all day by a telephone. I don’t want to be contactable all the time everywhere – only when I choose to be. This is about personal boundaries, the right to peace and quiet, living a lower-stress, higher-privacy life. Contactability does not equal connectedness – in fact, it can corrode connectedness on a deeper level (to nature, to yourself, to your loved ones etc), but in this culture we keep on compromising the deep for the sake of the superficial. My connections are better when I’m not constantly able to be interrupted by a phone. Yes, I know you can turn them off, but I don’t even want to carry one around in the normal course of my day – only when I have a special reason to.
3. Also, I don’t want to be followed around all day by my emails, social media and internet access. As time and energy are limited, every yes is a no to something else, and every no a yes to something else, preferably something you think is more important. When I want email and internet I will move towards a computer. I don’t wish to be engulfed by those things, but to choose when and under what circumstances I’m OK with that.
This is really about what people gave up when most of them signed up to the idea that they should carry that kind of electronic device around with them everywhere – and that included a whole lot of autonomy, peace of mind, time, attention span, space to reflect and just be, in-person interactions with people you love, etc. It’s been said that the smartphone is the new cigarette – but the negative consequences of smartphones have ranged far wider than health and financial cost!
No judgement on people using smartphones. Just the reason I don’t! 🙂