Environmentalists: don’t label them Luddites

Using the L-word to describe today’s middle-class eco-miserabilists is an insult to the nineteenth-century radicals who fought for their rights and dignity.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Science & Tech

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A bit of contrived controversy has never hurt a book promotion. And so it proved recently, as Sir David King, former chief scientific adviser to the government, and co-author with Gabrielle Walker of the global warming tract, The Hot Topic: How to Tackle Global Warming and Still Keep the Lights On, took it upon himself to scandalise his target audience: ‘There is a suspicion, and I have that suspicion myself, that a large number of people who label themselves “green” are actually keen to take us back to the eighteenth or even the seventeenth century’, he said. ‘[Their argument is] “let’s get away from all the technological gizmos and developments of the twentieth century.”’ (1) In other words, as the Guardian paraphrased it and others were content to report it, too many greens are, in theory and sometimes practice, ‘Luddites’ (2).

As pejoratives go, it’s a little less severe than ‘Nazi’, but it has the same decontextualised, polemical punch. Luddite, as King implies, denotes someone with a nostalgia for the simple(ton’s) life, someone whose aversion to technological advance has an almost pathological quality. While some are always keen to embrace such characterisation, not everyone was pleased with the comparison: ‘Many greens are rather keen to get to the technologies of the twenty-first century, which would make them the polar opposite of Luddites’, retorted Jeremy Leggett, chairman of solarcentury, the UK’s largest solar electrics company (3).

However, while selective technophilia might prevail in some quarters, depending on what’s being sold, many of a green persuasion, from anarcho-primitivists to deep ecologists, normally do evince a far more suspicious attitude towards technology. This is not to suggest such scepticism is confined to the fringes; it is equally tangible in mainstream, state-sponsored environmentalism. For example, Jonathon Porritt, chairman of the UK government’s Sustainable Development Commission, rejected King’s advocacy of nuclear power precisely because of its technological emphasis: ‘Pulling a technological megafix, like nuclear power, out of the hat is easier from a political point of view, but it misses the essence of climate change which is transforming people’s lives.’ (4) For Porritt, then, technology gets in the way of the moral project – telling us how to live.

But leaving the curious cynicism of Porritt’s message aside – climate change appears as a pretext for implementing certain moral imperatives – it’s not difficult to see from where the accusations of Luddism arise. To an extent they’re almost welcomed by greens. A distrust of technology, indeed a view of technological development as the cultivation of catastrophe, draws the Luddites, machine-breakers par excellence, into focus as the historical footsoldiers of the environmentalist crusade. ‘Their pain, their ire, is ours too’, emote various greens.

But it’s a distorting lens. Interpreting the Luddites in terms of contemporary anxieties and fears around technological development, and reducing their historical record to a bit of technology smashing wish-fulfilment, effaces the historical reality of the Luddites. A quick look at this reality can prove illuminating: instead of anchoring environmentalism in a radical tradition, it opens up a critical perspective on today’s self-righteous, managerial vanguard. Indeed, the tightly organised groups of masked men who smashed stocking frames in the Midlands, shearing frames in West Riding, Yorkshire, and power looms in parts of Lancashire over the course of several tumultuous months between February 1811 and June 1812 bear so little resemblance to the contemporary environmentalist that to liken them to him is to flatter the contemporary green with convictions and aspirations he scarcely comprehends. Luddite croppers and weavers deserve a little better than to be namechecked alongside today’s middle-class miserabilists.

Historical context is everything here. Britain at the beginning of the nineteenth century was in the throes of revolution, not just industrial but political. As much as production was being transformed by a raft of small innovations, from the Spinning Jenny to the Mule, allied to an energetic and practical-minded bourgeoisie, so the political culture was changing too, not least in light of the American and French revolutions. Add to this the economic strain exerted by the Napoleonic wars (1803-1815) and a succession of bad harvests and it’s not difficult to see why Eric Hobsbawm was prepared to make the following claim: ‘Luddite and Radical, trade-unionist and utopian-socialist, Democratic and Chartist. At no other period in modern British history have the common people been so persistently, profoundly, and often desperately, dissatisfied.’ (5)

But it wasn’t simply poverty and hunger innervating vast numbers of the British populace. Radical traditions were growing in vitality, invigorated not only by the circulation of illegal copies of The Rights of Man, shadowy secret societies and rumoured paramilitaries, but also by the revolutionary vestiges of the English civil wars, of ancient rights that ought to supersede those of property. For those from whom the franchise had been withheld, liberty had an unprecedented purchase on the political imagination. The ministerial fear of Jacobins under the bed, underpinning the increasingly draconian legislation against political association, be it Radical or trade unionist, was also hardening its revolutionary corollary, albeit underground. Indeed, as EP Thompson notes, between the execution of the Irish nationalist Colonel Despard in 1803 and the emergence of the Luddite ‘army of redressers’ in 1811, political activity was veiled as much in secrecy as in myth.

The Luddites were a key part of this wave of unrest. Depending on who you listen to, they were named after either the ancient King Ludd, or a semi-mythical Leicestershire lad, Ned Lud, who went mad and smashed up two stocking frames in the 1770s. There’s little disputing the chronology, however, with the Luddites first emerging in the framework knitting industry in Nottingham, then among shearers in West Riding, and weavers in Lancashire. But their grievances were not, as their name’s contemporary usage implies, against machinery or technology. They protested, rather, against the degradation of their trade, and ultimately, the disappearance of their livelihood.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Nottingham rebellion. There, the emergence of ‘cut-ups’ – that is, the practice of weaving large pieces of material on a wide loom, and then simply cutting them to the required shape – offended the craftsman’s pride and risked leaving his trade in disrepute; hence the valedictory imprecation at the bottom of their handbills: ‘God protect the Trade’ (6). Moreover, this process encouraged ‘colting’, the hiring of unskilled labourers and the abandonment of apprenticeships. Predictably, both ‘cut-ups’ and ‘colting’ served the interests of the merchant hosiers who owned the stocking frames on which the Nottingham stockingers worked. And it was these frames – that is, not all frames, but frames employed for the purpose of producing ‘cut-ups’ – that the Luddites attacked. Their song, General Ludd’s Triumph captures well the specificity of the demands: ‘Till full fashioned work at the old fashioned price / is established by Custom and Law… And colting and cutting and squaring no more / Shall deprive honest workmen of bread.’ (7)

A similar set of objections – the devaluing of their skilled status, wage cuts, and ultimately unemployment – are to be found in the Yorkshire and Lancashire outbreaks of 1812. What becomes clear is that the Luddites were reacting to the emergent system of production and the accompanying change in social relations. Polarised divisions were emerging. It was in this context that certain pieces of machinery acquired their dreadful aspect – as the embodiments of naked business interest. The unscrupulous mill owner or ruthless hosier, combined with the laissez faire economics of the politicians, comprised the enemy, not technology. Such were the battle lines that by June 1812, the Luddite rebellions against business men refusing to comply with their demands occupied 12,000 British troops (8).

The Luddite grievances were far removed from the moral revulsion towards the machine typical of today’s snobbish green disdain for technology and ‘stuff’. They arose from an altogether more self-interested place – namely, preservation. But in doing so, men and women found solidarity, a recognition of what they shared and what was worth fighting for. This isn’t unduly to venerate the Luddites, but to recognise the validity of their aspirations and values in the context of a desperate historical conjuncture, or as EP Thompson describes it, ‘a transitional moment’: ‘On the one hand, it looked back to old customs and paternalist legislation which could never be revived; on the other hand, it tried to revive ancient rights in order to establish new precedents (including) the control of the “sweating” of women or juveniles; arbitration; the engagement by the masters to find work for skilled men made redundant by machinery; the prohibition of shoddy work; the right to open trade union combination.’ (9)

These are anticipatory demands as much as they are a yearning for a way of life fast receding. Simultaneously the last guildsmen and future Chartists, Luddism represents a collective set of needs striving for contemporaneous articulation, an articulation that ‘trembled on the edge’ of ulterior revolutionary objectives (10). Lord Byron, Nottingham-born, and a defender of their cause in the House of Lords, captures something of their incipient radicalism in his Song for the Luddites (1816):

‘As the Liberty lads o’er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd.’

The radical sentiments which increasingly clung to the Luddites are at some distance from the pro-government toadying of today’s greens. This derives from a key difference in the make-up of the movements. In short, the Luddites were a popular movement. Their cause was one which resonated with many working men, hence the diversity of workers hauled to the scaffold in June 1812. As the radical pamphleteer and journalist William Cobbet remarked of the rampant conspiracy theories doing the Westminster rounds: ‘And this is the circumstance that will most puzzle the ministry. They can find no agitators. It is a movement of the people’s own.’ (11)

The greens by contrast are not ‘a movement of the people’s own’, a problem which has been reified as human nature. ‘(W)e are inherently selfish’, concludes one prominent environmentalist commentator, ‘(b)ut the question is whether or not this nature is subject to the conditions that prevailed during our evolutionary history. I believe that they have changed: we can no longer be scrutinised and held to account by a small community. We need governments to fill the regulatory role vacated when our tiny clans dissolved.’ (12) Far from defying the state’s canons and muskets, the greens rally to its side: greater intervention in people’s lives is what’s needed, because we simply cannot be trusted to behave in the correct responsible manner. This expresses contempt for the mass of the population, for our motives and interests. Human needs and aspirations, self-interest and self-respect underpinned and developed through the Luddite protest; for the hairshirts of the environmentalist cavalcade, our needs and interests are the problem. Top-down regulation is the answer.

Between Luddism and those greens unwittingly ennobled by the association today, there is no elective affinity – there is a chasm. The Luddites were deeply concerned with unemployment; today some environmentalists openly call for a recession which will have the effect of people losing their jobs and becoming poorer. The Luddites expressed an embryonic revolutionary longing, for a decent life and for liberty; today a leading green writes: ‘Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, [environmentalism] is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. Strangest of all, it is a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.’ (13) The Luddites campaigned for their own interests, and in the process recognised the interests and values they shared with others; the green loathes himself, and everyone else.

Where the Luddites rightly saw aspects of industrialisation as a threat to their way of life, the environmentalist treats it as a threat to the planet. Where the Luddite grasped the use of specific machines as the instruments of their degradation, the environmentalist tacitly celebrates technology as the instrument of man’s downfall. For those sporting green-tinged spectacles, there is only a morality tale. Be it Promethean or Faustian, the narrative reduces technology to no more than a symbol of man’s grand folly. It is an historical disgrace to compare today’s greens with yesterday’s Luddites.

Tim Black is staff writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

John Fitzpatrick reassessed the Levellers’ Putney debates. Dolan Cummings wrote in defence of Robespierre. Elsewhere James Heartfield proclaimed: let technology set you free. Josie Appleton asked whether technology could make us more human. On the issue of technology in the third world, Nicandro Porcelli said development was the answer, not the problem. Or read more at spiked issue Science and Technology.

(1) The war on hot air, Guardian, 12 January 2008

(2) Science chief: greens hurting climate fight, Guardian, 12 January 2008

(3) King of controversy, Guardian, 14 January 2008

(4) Green advisers dismiss nuclear plans as ‘megafix’ solution, Guardian, 16 January 2008

(5) p.51 Industry and Empire, Eric Hobsbawm, Penguin, 1968

(6) A declaration by the Framework knitters

(7) General Ludd’s Triumph

(8) p.656 The Making of the English Working Class, E.P Thompson, Penguin, 1978

(9) p.603 The Making of the English Working Class, E.P Thompson, Penguin, 1978

(10) p.604 The Making of the English Working Class, E.P Thompson, Penguin, 1978

(11) p.656 The Making of the English Working Class, E.P Thompson, Penguin, 1978

(12) Governments aren’t perfect, but it’s the libertarians who bleed us dry, Guardian, 23 October 2007

(13) p.214 Heat, George Monbiot, Penguin 2007

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Topics Science & Tech


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