ENGAGING WITH LUDDISM
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ENGAGING WITH LUDDISM book
In this chapter, we want to consider the meaning and significance of Luddism. It is an issue that we took up in the 1980s, when we wrote a book on information technology with the subtitle ‘A Luddite Analysis’.1 Reacting to the reflex dismissal of the Luddites, we urged that they be approached with more understanding, and that there should be a more historically grounded awareness of the particular circumstances to which they were responding. Our intention was never to argue for reinstating classical Luddism as a political strategy. What we acknowledged and emphasised was that the Luddism was born out of a particular historical moment: it was the uncompromising response of an emerging proletariat experiencing the displacement of traditional social relations by the relations of laissez-faire capitalism. Luddism represented an attitude of resistance, of refusal by working people to be defined and dominated by capital, that was appropriate to the early nineteenth century. The point was, however, to bring the Luddite experience into play in the discussion of the new technologies of the late twentieth century-particularly because the opprobrium of being a Luddite was being directed against anyone with the least critical response to the proliferation of information technologies. What those who railed against Luddism wanted to tell us was that there was no way in which the new technologies could be opposed since there was nothing in the technology itself that could be argued about. Along with a number of other writers,2 we were critical of those who were presenting the development of information technologies as somehow having its own inevitable, progressive logic, and as in some way insulated from the rest of society and thereby developing only according to its
own internal logic. From our perspective, technology had to be seen as inherently social-and in the modern period, we argued, this social nexus has been about the articulation of the capital relation, which has assumed a succession of different historical forms. We were interested in the possibilities of resisting the logic of technological domination in the present, and curious about what forms contemporary resistance could assume. The lesson we took from the Luddites was that there were other values that might be fought for in the face of expanding capitalist mastery of the social and natural worlds. Toni Negri once referred to them in terms of the ‘development of the productive forces of the proletariat, defined in a marxist way as the capacity to enjoy, to invent and to be free’.3 Essentially it is a matter of recognising that the future could be different from the way in which the prevailing capitalist-technological imaginary posits it.