Two centuries after the original Luddites, like it or not, you and I are in the exact same fight.
“The robots are coming! The robots are coming! … Eek! They’re already here!”
Today’s proliferation of industrial robots is an advanced generation of powerful, autonomous machines driven by artificial intelligence. The profiteers and techies propelling us into the deep unknown of a robot economy concede that the fast-evolving machines will be radically disruptive, not just in the workplace, but throughout society. Yet, they insist that AI will end up a godsend, even for the millions “adjusted” out of their jobs. Trust us, they say, genuflecting to Efficiency and Productivity, their twin gods of economic progress. Intelligent robots will reduce labor costs (efficiency) and increase output (productivity), thus generating the one product the Powers That Be constantly demand from our economy: more wealth. Just wait, they say, this is gonna be BIG!
Those who question the establishment’s mantra that labor-reducing technologies are inherently good and will magically enrich everyone are derided with high tech’s ultimate insult — LUDDITE!
What’s the origin of this corporate-hurled pejorative? In 1811, skilled weavers and other textile makers in Northern England launched a short-lived rebellion. These artisans had been the middle class of their day. Working from their own cottages, they made a decent living producing quality stockings and cloth that merchants sold throughout the Commonwealth.
But as the 19th century dawned, a new industrial factory system mushroomed across the land, pushed by capitalists intent on remaking the cultural/economic structure of work by herding unskilled, poverty-wage laborers into factories’ coal-fired looms that mass-produced textiles; supplanting quality goods with shoddy, machine-cut quantity production; taking monopoly control of large markets to shut out the middle-class artisans; reaping the savings from “machine labor” as additional profits for themselves; and brandishing their exploitative system as the new, natural order of capital supremacy over labor, based on an ideological fabrication of “free-market efficiency.”
In March 1811, the displaced artisan workers erupted in a fury of vigilante justice at such avarice and arrogance, launching night raids to destroy the textile barons’ factories. Their movement took the moniker “Luddites” from a fictitious textile apprentice who’d been beaten by his master. In the story, young Ned Ludd retaliates by destroying the man’s loom and fleeing into nearby Sherwood Forest. In Ned’s spirit, the well-organized Luddites sledgehammered every factory loom they could find, splintering about 800 in just a few months.
The common people united in support of the rebels, but, of course, the British royals and Parliament rushed to protect the wealthy factory owners. London quickly declared “machine-breaking” a capital crime, sent 14,000 troops to flush out Luddites, and publicly hung 24 rebels. Within 15 months, the government had crushed the rebellion and enthroned industrialization and free-market ideology to rule the economic future.
For generations, cottage textile workers and the merchants who marketed their products held “fair profit” as an ethical compact. The concept was as simple as it sounds — when products were sold to consumers, merchants and makers alike took a negotiated, fair share of the profits. However, with the rise of free-market capitalist theory industrial merchants imposed a new ethic of selfish greed on all commerce. Thus, what’s “fair” became whatever the industrialists could steal from the workers’ rightful share and pilfer from the consumer’s coin purse.
The rebels smashed the factory machines because they were the most obvious and smashable symbol of the owners’ greed and to express their disgust with an immoral and inhumane industrial system imposed by soulless, moneyed elites.
The Luddite rebellion was never about the machines, nor were the workers a bunch of know-nothing hicks flailing at progress. This fight was a poignant class struggle over social morality — specifically, how to share the profits of a new, disruptive technology.
Two centuries later, like it or not, you and I are in the exact same fight. We are Luddites! And, we must realize that, just like those textile artisans, we are not battling bots, but the grabbiness of a few moneyed corporations and investors intent on claiming all of the profits of AI — everyone else and every one of America’s democratic, all-in-this-together values be damned.