The Luddites And The Politics Of 21st Century Technology

8 Jan

by Ned Ludd

lyodNovember 2011 to January 2013 is the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprisings: a great opportunity to celebrate their struggle and to redress the wrongs done to them and their name. But why would a group of Earth First! activists, concerned primarily with protecting wilderness, be interested in a 200-year-old uprising based on a labor dispute involving textile workers in England? The conventional answer is that Luddism is an anti-technology, primitivist philosophy and that it has a tendency towards direct action, but the truth about its significance is both different and deeper.

smash_the_machineThe Luddites were not primitivists, and the opposition between capitalist, technocratic progressivism and a supposedly primitivist Luddism is a sterile argument, framed in terms which suit the techno-progressivists. The portrayal of the Luddites as people opposed to all technology and progress is a history written by the victors. It is ironic that while the ideology of progress through technology has hardened into a rigid dogma, which must condemn the slightest criticism as “anti-science,” in fact, the Luddites opposed only technology “hurtful to Commonality” (i.e. to the common good). They were involved in a struggle for workers’ rights that focused on particular machines that were destroying their trades and livelihoods, and they destroyed those machines whilst leaving others alone. The crucial significance of Luddism is that, almost uniquely amongst radical movements, it addresses both the technological and social aspects of domination, and it is vital that we hold both of these together.

It has been interesting to observe, in the course of our celebrations of the Luddite anniversary, the way in which both anti-capitalists and environmentalists make an immediate emotional and political connection with their struggle, but ignore the aspect that does not fit their political identities. Anti-capitalists tend to forget the technological aspect, whilst greens tend to ignore class domination. The importance of Luddism is that it goes to the root of both the key social and environmental issues. 

Science and Capitalism

In order to understand the Luddites, it is vital to appreciate that modern Western societies are not merely examples of capitalism but of technocratic capitalism.  The coming together of science and capitalism happened at the early stages of the development of capitalism, specifically in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Most radical critiques of capitalism assume that the root of the problem is the power relations at the heart of the capitalist economic system, which corrupt the “purity” and “objectivity” of science, but it can be argued that the economic and social domination in many ways actually takes its lead, its methods, concepts and structures from its technical partner, and that this is what defines modernity.

As was stated explicitly by many of the founders of modern science in the 17th century, the role of science is to penetrate the secrets of nature with the aim of controlling it for human benefit. Writers such as Francis Bacon describe nature as an unruly female that must be subdued and ordered through a masculine science. Scientists tend to feel that they have the right to manipulate nature in whatever way they wish, and have little regard for limits on barriers stemming from the integrity of nature, such as the species barrier.

In the 20th century the Frankfurt School sociologists, and later eco-feminists such as Carolyn Merchant, have argued that it is the attitude of domination towards nature inherent in both science and capitalism which has led to the environmental crisis we face today.

In our technocratic capitalism, the ruling concept has become the efficiently and smoothly functioning magical machine. Since the Scientific Revolution, science and technology have existed primarily to serve the state, the military and private capital. As the great apologist for industrialism, Andrew Ure, wrote in 1835, “This invention confirms the great doctrine already propounded, that when capital enlists science in her service, the refractory hand of labor will always be taught docility.”  It is this structural alliance that decisively distinguishes the modern Western technocratic civilization from all previous civilizations. The synergy of science and capitalism only came to its full expression in the Industrial Revolution, which the Luddites were fighting. As Marx and Engels noted, the characteristic that separates the bourgeoisie from all previous ruling classes is that it derives its power from the constant revolutionizing of the means of production (i.e. through science and technology).  Unfortunately, Marxists have tended to believe and advocate the myth of progress through technology even more aggressively than liberal economists, and have tended to abandon their own methodology of examining the material interests operating in society when it comes to technology.

The story of capitalist technocracy is one of continually advancing scientific understanding of nature as a basis for its control (and the control of human beings) through technology.  In the 20th century, as naturalism developed into scientific ecology, a political movement arose that claimed a more sophisticated understanding of nature and warned against the consequences of an industrialism based upon older concepts.  This was of course a positive step, but no one should be surprised that such a movement, the mainstream of which lacks roots in common people’s struggle against capitalism, could be easily co-opted into the capitalist technocratic machine. Because it defines the problem as technical, rather than being due to the overall system of domination, it tends to tout its own techno-fixes (i.e. biofuels) for the problems caused by industrial capitalism.
For the Luddites, what they were fighting was, as Kirkpatrick Sale puts it in his book Rebels Against the Future, not machines but The Machine of the new free-market industrial capitalism, in all its aspects. They were experiencing how that megamachine was not merely destroying their jobs and livelihoods but also the entire way of life of their communities and the values that they were based upon. Although it is hard to find explicit evidence for a consciousness of the environmental destruction caused by industrial capitalism (which is more evident in the writings of their supporters, the romantic poets, such as Byron and Shelley), it’s obvious that their revolt against the new regime draws upon those older values, including an understanding of nature as alive, as more than a mere mechanism or set of resources to be exploited. 


The key phrase in the writings of Luddites which articulates these values is their vow to put down “machinery hurtful to Commonality.” The word is rich in meanings. Firstly, it can simply mean the common people (who were in the process of being transformed into the industrial working class), as opposed to what were charmingly referred to at the time as “the quality” (i.e. the gentry and the new bourgeoisie). That meaning also carries with it a sense of the ordinary good-enoughness of the common people, in contrast to the capitalist ethic of constant improvement and upgrading. A second meaning of the word refers to the existence of real community and solidarity and the notion of a common good which was more important than individual gain, and which was being assaulted by the new individualistic, competitive free-market society that went with the Industrial Revolution. This meaning is similar to Ivan Illich’s concept of tools for conviviality.

A third meaning refers specifically to the system of access to common land for the grazing of animals, foraging for food and firewood that was being destroyed at the time by Parliamentary enclosures (in 1812 parliament passed 133 enclosure bills). It was precisely the notion of Commonality and common good that prevented the degradation of the ecosystems of common land. Luddite textile workers were often still part of such a system or were within living memory of it, and they were resisting the degradation of their own lives involved in becoming  proletarian wage slaves, dependent purely upon employment for subsistence.


The set of values embodied in the Luddite notion of Commonality are social values, the values of the communitarian rural society that existed before the onset of industrial capitalism. These values also express an opposition to the spirit of the techno-capitalist system of domination of both people and nature, which tends to be embodied in machines.  The true legacy of the Luddites for green movements is a reminder that we can only protect the wild by fighting for a society that is not based upon class oppression and exploitation.  Put simply, we will not save the planet without the help of the common people, and that means destroying the socio-economic system that degrades and exploits them.  The crucial contribution of Luddism is to point out that the route to a new society and the new human relationship to nature must deal with the technological arm of capitalist technocracy.

Earth First! Journal readers will not need an explanation of how 200 years of industrial capitalism has resulted in climate change, resource exhaustion and biodiversity collapse. But at the very moment of its impending demise as a result of these problems, we’re also seeing an extraordinary burst of technological advances, which open up new hopes of survival for that system and an intensification of the technological domination of life. The ETC Group has dubbed these technologies BANG (Bits, Atoms, Neurons, Genes). These technologies are converging and cross-fertilizing in a variety of ways that open extreme new possibilities for the manipulation of nature and the human body. Corporations and governments are hoping that two technologies, synthetic biology and geo-engineering, will solve the climate crisis and allow the continuation of business as usual.

 Synthetic Biology

This is an extreme form of genetic engineering which has gone beyond changing one or two genes in an organism. It aims to design the entire genomes (the complete DNA content) of organisms, by synthesising them in the laboratory and optimizing them for human purposes. Ultimately, it aspires to the creation of life from scratch, from bottles of laboratory chemicals. The first step has already been achieved. In 2010 Craig Venter and a team of scientists synthesised the entire genome of a microorganism, and inserted it into cells of that species that had their own DNA removed. The cells grew and divided and were dubbed Synthia, which was described by Venter as the first “artificial cell.” It’s vital (literally) to realize that this was typical biotech hype. Only the DNA was synthetic, and DNA is not life—it needed the cells that had their own DNA removed to create a living organism. If life can be pinned down anywhere it is in complex systems of proteins. Other synthetic biologists are working on creating basic proto-cells from the minimal possible set of chemical ingredients.

What separates synthetic biology from genetic engineering is a shift in underlying philosophy, from imperialist domination to totalitarianism. Until now, capitalist technocracy has attempted to force nature to conform to its will, with variable success and many disastrous consequences. With synthetic biology, it drops any idea that nature is deserving of the slightest ethical consideration that is needed as a result of relationship with an Other. In totalitarian fashion it now says: you no longer exist, we will remake you from scratch, we are the authors of nature. In the context Luddism, it is worth noting that a central element of the growing field of synthetic biology is the annual International Genetically Engineered Machine competition. One of its organizers, Drew Endy, a former engineer from MIT, speaks of creating standardized biological parts, like nuts and bolts, and does not bother to conceal his contempt for the messiness of life’s design, produced by billions of years of evolution.

This desire to turn nature into machine goes back to the 17th century philosophers of the Scientific Revolution. It also bespeaks an attitude of extraordinary brutality towards complex systems. As has been (their experience until now) with genetic engineering, the synthetic biologists will no doubt find themselves frustrated at every turn by the recalcitrance of nature’s systems, but that will not stop them, because they are driven by a logic that admits no defeat.

For the present, synthetic biology is confined to microbes and, driven by the need to show a profit, it aims to create “carbon neutral” biofuels and bugs that can digest biomass, as a supposed solution to climate change. These projects and their environmental and social consequences have been well described elsewhere. But there are no limits to synthetic biology’s desires to control nature—plants and animals are next in line. It’s also worth noting that synthetic biologists are busy cozying up to their natural allies in the growing transhumanist movement, which aims to create superhumans through genetic enhancement, and ultimately to reach a “Singularity,” at which humans merge with… machines. As Pink Floyd sang in 1974, “Welcome my son, welcome to the machine…  Where have you been? It’s all right, we know where you’ve been.”


A crucial current proposed techno-fix for global warming is geo-engineering, which comprises avariety of ideas to prevent the planet overheating. These include mirrors in space to reflect sunlight or making clouds more reflective, seeding the upper atmosphere with sulfites to simulate volcanic eruptions and changing the chemistry of the oceans to make them dissolve carbon dioxide more efficiently.

What’s important is not to discuss the (extremely scant) technical merits of such proposals, but to stand back for a moment, and realize where capitalist technocracy has brought us. As industrial capitalism has taken us to the point of destabilizing the entire climatic system of the planet, scientists are now seriously proposing to intervene in that system, about which next to nothing is understood. The over-confidence and hubris of technocrats has led them to a point where they feel able to literally play God with the basic life support systems of the entire planet, despite the colossal but incalculable risks that such an enterprise would entail, for the planet and for those other humans, in countries which will have no say in whether these technologies are used. This is the point at which they reveal themselves to be entirely out of touch with reality, and their technological rationality is revealed as simply insane.

Such solutions are being sold as “Plan B,” just in case we can’t stop climate change, but of  course they serve as a perfect excuse for doing nothing. As Richard Branson, the British tycoon who owns Virgin Airlines put it, “If we could come up with a geoengineering answer to this problem, then Copenhagen [2009 UN Climate Conference] wouldn’t be necessary. We could carry on flying our planes and driving our cars.”

It’s vital that the ecology movement does not even discuss such techno-fixes. We must simply say, “No!” and be prepared to back that up with action.


The crisis that industrial capitalism faces now is different from previous crises, it is global and the stakes are higher than in the crises of the 19th and 20th centuries. The truth is that capitalist technocracy is one system, in which the technological domination of nature and class-based economic domination support and mutually reinforce one another.

In response to this crisis we need something that doesn’t come from within either the capitalist or technological thought patterns of the existing system. What’s needed is a movement that holds the resistance to both aspects together, and shows a way beyond desperate techno-fixes.

Luddism is that movement.


Want to read more articles like this? You can purchase the Lughnasadh 2012 issue “The Luddites” appeared in at Peace Supplies or, even better, you can subscribe to the Earth First! Journal and stay updated on news and analysis from the front lines of the eco-wars.

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