Would Luddites find the gig economy familiar?

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Written By Sedoso Feb

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Matthieu Spohn

The term Luddite is usually used as an insult. It suggests someone who is backward-looking, averse to progress, afraid of new technology, and frankly, not that bright. But Brian Merchant claims that that is not who the Luddites were at all. They were organized, articulate in their demands, very much understood how factory owners were using machinery to supplant them, and highly targeted in their destruction of that machinery.

Their pitiable reputation is the result of a deliberate smear campaign by elites in their own time who (successfully, as it turned out) tried to discredit their coherent and justified movement. In his book Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech, Merchant memorializes the Luddites not as the hapless dolts with their heads in the sand that they’ve become synonymous with, but rather as the first labor organizers. Longing for the halcyon days of yore when we were more in touch with nature isn’t Luddism, Merchant writes; that’s pastoralism—totally different thing.

OG Luddites

Weavers used to work at home, using hand-powered looms (i.e., machines). The whole family pitched in to make cloth; they worked on their own schedules and spent their leisure time and meals together. Master weavers apprenticed for seven years to learn their trade. It worked this way in the north of England for hundreds of years.

In 1786 Edmund Cartwright invented the power-loom. Now, instead of a master weaver being required to make cloth, an unschooled child could work a loom. Anyone who could afford these “automated” looms (they did still need some human supervision) could cram a bunch of them into a factory and bring in orphans from the poorhouse to oversee them all day long. The orphans could churn out a lot more cloth much faster than before, and owners didn’t have to pay the 7-year-olds what they had been paying the master weavers. By the beginning of the 19th century, that is exactly what the factory owners did.

The weavers, centered in Nottinghamshire—Robin Hood country—obviously did not appreciate factory owners using these automated looms to obviate their jobs, their training—their entire way of life, really. They tried to negotiate with the factory owners for fair wages and to get protective legislation enacted to limit the impacts of the automated looms and protect their rights and products. But Parliament was having none of it; instead, Parliament—somewhat freaked out by the French Revolution—passed the Combination Acts in 1801, which made unionizing illegal. So, the workers took what they saw as their only remaining avenue of recourse; they started smashing the automated looms.

The aristocrats in the House of Lords told them they didn’t understand, that this automation would make things better for everyone. But it wasn’t improving things for anyone the Luddites knew or saw. They watched factory owners get richer and richer, their own families get thinner and thinner, and markets get flooded with inferior cloth made by child slaves working in unsafe conditions. So they continued breaking the machines, even after the House of Lords made it a capital crime in 1812.

Merchant tells his story through the experience of selected individuals. One is Robert Blincoe, an orphan whose memoir of mistreatment in his 10 years of factory work is thought to have inspired Dickens’ Oliver Twist. Another is Lord Byron, who, like other Romantic poets, sympathized with the Luddites and who spoke (beautifully but futilely) in the House of Lords on their behalf. George Mellor, another figure Merchant spends time with, is one of the primary candidates for a real-life General Ludd.

Edward Ludd himself doesn’t qualify, as he was mythical. Supposedly an apprentice in the cloth trade who smashed his master’s device with a hammer in 1799, he became the movement’s figurehead, with the disparate raiders breaking machines all over northern England, leaving notes signed with his name. George Mellor, by contrast, was one of the best writers and organizers the Luddites had. He’d spent the requisite seven years to learn his cloth finishing job and in 1811 was ready to get to work. The West Riding of York, where he lived, had been home to wool weavers for centuries. But now greedy factory owners were using machines and children to do the work he had spent his adolescence mastering. After over a year of pleading with the owners and the government, and then resorting to machine breaking, there was no change and no hope in sight.

Finally, Mellor led a raid in which a friend was killed, and he snapped. He murdered a factory owner and was hanged, along with 14 of his fellows (only four were involved in the murder; the rest were killed for other Luddite activities).

Even as their bodies were still practically swinging on the gallows, the aristocracy and press were already undermining and reshaping the Luddite story, depicting them as deluded and small-minded men who smashed machines they couldn’t understand—not the strategic, grassroots labor activists they were. That misrepresentation is largely how they are still remembered.

Neo-Luddites

Merchant is the technology columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His last book is called The One Device: The Secret History of the iPhone. So, he does not leave the Luddites in the early 19th century but highlights the relevance of their struggles to the present day.

In Merchant’s view, today’s factories are tech companies, exemplified by Amazon and Uber. Luddites complained that surveilled, time-regimented factory work was degrading; Amazon warehouse workers and drivers have to pee in bottles because bathroom breaks have been deemed inefficient. Luddites complained not because automated looms were taking their jobs but because factory owners used automated looms to enable unskilled children to do work that they had once been proud of. The efficiencies were used to enrich the factory owners while impoverishing everyone else.

Taxi drivers who saved for years to buy medallions and knew the roads of their cities inside and out suffered the same fate, Merchant argues. It wasn’t the innovation of calling a car with your phone that the taxi drivers contested. It was the way that innovation was so disruptively employed: with disregard for any regulations and whether anyone could earn a livelihood. Like the Luddites, these workers only objected to being rendered obsolete; like the Luddites, they’ve been roundly mocked for standing in the way of inevitable progress that is making life better for “everyone.” And just as in the 1810s, governments who could regulate how the new tech was deployed largely sided with the owners and not the workers.

Luddites also protested how the factory disrupted the structure of their homebound cottage industry. Ironically, the rest of the gig work that has become so prevalent of late seems to re-grant this type of freedom to workers. But Merchant thinks that this perceived freedom is illusory. He writes that, rather than freeing workers from the factory, gig work instead sends the factory home with them. They are never free of an overseer—i.e., algorithm—now, even at home. And since they are segregated in their individual cars or home offices, they don’t develop any solidarity or opportunity to band together.

Many tech and ascendant AI companies have made our lives easier and more convenient. But Merchant insists that, just like factories did in the 1810s, they rely on masses of immiserated, debased, woefully underpaid, and largely hidden-from-view workers—including prisoners. And those who run them put robber barons to shame.

Merchant didn’t even have to bring in tech companies to bring his story up to date; he could have just stuck with textiles. Over 200 years after the Luddite uprisings, garment factory workers in fast fashion are still burning to death because of unsafe working conditions. And while it is true that more people can afford more articles of clothing now—thneeds, essentially—than they could when everything was handmade, much of it ends up overflowing landfills without ever even being worn once.

Luddites didn’t hate machines or progress. They hated that greedy bosses chose to use machines to debase their work lives, prioritizing the bosses’ own profit over the workers’ quality of life. And wanting to smash your laptop when it doesn’t do your bidding also isn’t Luddism, Merchant notes. That’s just rage.

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