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What the Luddites Were Right About

Sometime in 1779, in the midst of that era of trans-Atlantic revolutions that marked the Age of Reason, an apocryphal weaver named Ned Ludd supposedly took a hammer to two stocking frames in a textile factory near Leicester, smashing to bits that simple machinery which threatened his livelihood with the promise of expedient and profitable mechanization. Ludd wasn’t real, yet the popularity of the character demonstrated something about the inequities that defined the lives of English workers, and the threat that technology posed to them. 

Though Ludd wasn’t an actual person, the movement that took its name from him very much was. Some three decades after his imagined act of iconoclastic fury, the Luddites threatened the interests of capital in both English town and country, destroying the machines of the Industrial Revolution which were designed to replace them. During the Luddite Crisis of 1811-1816, a popular song was heard in the countryside: “Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood, /His feat I but little admire. /I will sing the achievements of General Ludd, /Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire.”

That the term “Luddite” is so completely preserved as a designation of opprobrium speaks to the ultimate victory of their opponents. For contemporary readers, a Luddite is a technophobe who spurns innovation, an archaic throwback who can’t admit to industrial progress, an eccentric who avoids the thrill of the digital in favor of the comforts of the analog. Such connotations do a disservice to a radical movement with a coherent economic perspective, and that more importantly critiqued the ways in which nascent capitalism threatened the question of human meaning. Such connotations for the term are convenient for a power structure that takes the principles of the Industrial Revolution to their nihilistic conclusions.

By contrast, Marxist historian E.P. Thompson in his classic 1963 The Making of the English Working Class wrote that he in part wished to “rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan… from the enormous condescension of posterity.” If such a task was desirable when Thompson published his study, than it’s existentially critical in our current era. Today, the Luddite critique of technology in service of capital is necessary to tackle the political crisis of meaning that has been engendered by neo-liberalism. 

We currently face a crisis of meaning brought on by technology that would make poor Ned Ludd’s threatening stocking frames seem rustically charming by comparison. We’ve all become intimately aware of how at the individual level a type of epistemological anarchism has taken hold as social media has called basic facts into question for massive swaths of the population, and on the global level it’s become clear how industrialization threatens us with complete ecological collapse in the form of climate change. What’s not remarked on enough is the threat posed to workers by mechanization, the exact same threat that the weavers of the Luddite Rebellion fought against.

Andrew Yang, a tech entrepreneur and a dark horse presidential candidate for the 2020 Democratic primary, has made the centerpiece of his campaign a condemnation of the threat that modern technology poses to the American worker. Kevin Roose in an article for the New York Times explains that Yang’s long-shot candidacy is being waged more to highlight an issue that has been almost entirely overlooked, writing that the candidate believes “automation and advanced artificial intelligence will soon make millions of jobs obsolete – yours, mine, those of our accountants and radiologists and grocery store cashiers.” Yang says that “All you need is self-driving cars to destabilize society…. [W]e’re going to have a million truck drivers out of work who are 94 percent male, with an average level of education of high school or one year of college.” He opines that just that one development “will be enough to create riots in the street. And we’re about to do the same thing to retail workers, call center workers, fast-food workers, insurance companies, accounting firms.” 

Yang’s longshot candidacy arguably exists more to promote his theories than it does as a legitimate campaign for the White House, and yet the theories he’s promoting deserve attention. The former tech executive’s potential solution includes a universal basic income, a so-called “Freedom Dividend,” which would ensure all Americans a regular source of money from the government. An unconventional solution to many no doubt, and yet Yang is convincing that such measures should be considered as technology increasingly makes entire categories of workers superfluous.

While the Freedom Dividend is a start in thinking about a crisis which is only a decade away, it doesn’t address an even deeper issue. Universal basic income may meet collective material needs that an increasingly efficient but anti-worker capitalism won’t, yet the crisis of meaning will only be exacerbated in a nation where we’re all taught that self-worth is defined through work; work that for many of us will no longer be needed. When meaning dissipates, the ideologies that will be victorious will be those that offer some new value to our lives, and unless the left offers a cognoscente solution to what’s an existential crisis, they will be crushed by dark impulses that offer ersatz meaning at the ballot box and increasingly in the street.

Partisans on the right would rather convince workers that the threat is a caravan of destitute women and children slowly walking toward America’s southern border to seek asylum as refugees, but immigrants haven’t been taking jobs – robots have. That the wealthy donors to the current administration have a vested interest in demonizing immigrants and minorities to obscure the manner in which they are exploiting the working class of all races is easy enough to understand. Much of our current politics of fear and hate is bolstered by an increasing absence of meaning. I speak not of church; this is not a bromide about the decline of traditional religion, for meaning can just as easily be found outside of a pew as in it (and increasingly the former is the case).

Rather it’s to observe that as humans are fundamentally meaning-making creatures, it’s imperative that the left have a coherent vision that speaks to value beyond economic necessity. Yang’s proposal is serious, but to truly tackle the question of how individuals draw meaning from society we’ll need to consider radical possibilities that transcend the assumption that capitalism is the normal and eternal state of things, and that traditional work is the only means of self-definition.

The political crisis of meaning constitutes the very medium in which we exist, paradoxically making it difficult to always perceive. Our alienation is so complete that we’ve been inured against realizing just how much a sense of meaninglessness permeates American lives. We see it in the fever-swamp hell-scape that is the relativist rage of social media, where empathy is increasingly eliminated in favor of a frequently nonsensical and irrational snarl. We see it in the opioid epidemic (still disturbingly overlooked by many media outlets), where rates of addiction have increased 300 percent since 1999, calling to mind Carl Jung’s observation that addiction is a material solution to a spiritual problem. And we especially see it in the horrifying growth of neo-fascism, especially as represented by the man who occupies the White House. Garret Keizer, in a recent and brilliant article in the New Republic, provides a crucial diagnosis of that which Donald Trump is merely a symptom, explaining that “American nihilism is an oozing sore, but like an oozing sore it is evidence both of a malady and of a body’s desperate attempt to heal itself.” 

Currently the right offers a “solution” of meaning to the very problems that they created; theirs is a faux-meaning that glitters like fool’s gold, and their empty moralism is pure nihilism. What the popularity of a Trump evidences is in part a thirst for meaning, except it’s a dark meaning that defines itself through the domination of others. The sick genius of “Make America Great Again” was that it bolstered those who felt they lacked meaning in a way that “America is Already Great” spectacularly and tone-deafly couldn’t.

We see right-wing ersatz meaning everywhere, from the empty pronouncements of self-help guru Jordan Peterson, whose very popularity speaks to the need to find meaning in a world that is offering little of it, but who instead serves his audience a nonsensical mishmash of rhetoric about lobster serotonin and transphobia, to the explicitly fascistic politics of “Identitarians” who trumpet white supremacy as an ethos through which the disaffected can define themselves. Something pathetic in that ideology, as it offers the empty calories of fake meaning defined entirely through the individual members valorizing themselves because they superficially look like somebody whom they think did something important long ago. A meaning based in blood lines and phenotype is no meaning at all, it’s worshiping an imagined family tree as a god. The “meaning” offered by such groups is cheap; it’s nothing more than the meaning of a snarl, punch, slap, and kick. Such formalized bigotry is idiotic, but those myths also organize people, and we must be wary of them.

I speak not as Senator Bernie Sanders, who recently evidenced far too much sympathy for those voters who because of their own personal racism couldn’t bring themselves to vote for black candidates. A politics of meaning need not necessarily exist to attract back those who are disaffected and drawn to pernicious ideologies. If a coherent left politics of meaning does ultimately attract such people, then good. But what I speak of is a need of providing for ourselves a coherent vision that speaks to the soul as well as to the body, which addresses Rose Schneiderman’s socialist anthem that sings of how we must have bread, but roses too.

In One-Dimensional Man the philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote that the “judgment that human life is worth living, or rather can and ought to be made worth living … underlies all intellectual effort.” An answer to that question has to be the focus of left politics. The optimism of the Obama campaign spoke to a sense of meaning through American civil religion, pluralism, and greatness through diversity, but his administration’s failure to address growing economic disparity was a botched opportunity at speaking to material condition necessary to let spiritual conditions thrive. It would overstate the case to claim that this alone is the origin of our current malaise (it isn’t), but future left politics must offer the “hopey, changey stuff” in conjunction with actual changes to the economic order. 

Room for hope in the election of so-many first-time candidates to the House of Representatives who are beginning to offer radical policy suggestions from voices that are too often marginalized. Representatives elected in the midterm elections like Ayanna Presley from Massachusetts, Sharice Davids from Kansas, Debra Haaland from New Mexico, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from New York are all signs that the Democratic Party – which like it or not remains the only effective means of enacting a progressive agenda nationally – can draw strength from its left flank. All four women, and others elected for the first-time, offer not only just the possibility of checking Trumpism, but of enacting their own positive politics of meaning.

But what must be fully considered in the long run is that we face a future where if we continue on our current path environmental Armageddon isn’t just possible but likely, where neoliberal economic policy threatens to render all of us unnecessary, and where unfettered technology isn’t used as a liberatory tool but rather as a system of surveillance and propaganda. As all that is solid melts into air; what is required is a new language of meaning. On a wall in Paris during the student protests of 1968 some radical spray-painted “Be realistic, demand the impossible.” A half century later that advice still holds. Now we have work to do.