“Luddite”: The very word conjures up images of knuckle-dragging curmudgeons. When the wheels of the Industrial Revolution started turning in late eighteenth-century England, the cult of “improvement” was already long entrenched (indeed it had been satirized by Jonathan Swift and his motley “projectors” nearly a century earlier). Resisting the “improvements” of industrialization at the turn into the nineteenth century were the Luddites. As weavers and artisans lost their jobs to new labor-saving machinery that required fewer and less skilled workers, the Luddites of 1811-1817 fought back by smashing new factory machines in the dark of night. The dominant ideology has ever since scoffed at the Luddites’ economic naivete and lumped the Luddites themselves in with the flat earth society.
I beg to differ. I propose that the reason the Luddites were and continue to be subject to such ridicule in the dominant ideology is that they are dangerously correct, that they lift the veil on an unhappy truth about how labor markets work under capitalism. The captains of industry have always drawn upon the “improvement” philosophy to argue that increased automation would be good for everyone, enabling workers to generate the same productivity in much shorter time, leading to a utopia in which people would work a couple of hours a day and have expanded time for personal growth in whatever physical, intellectual, and cultural arenas interested them. Luddites argued that they would lose their jobs and worsen their lot while the factory owners amassed greater and greater profits. The Luddite argument shows a better grasp of the structural incentives of capitalism. The owners’ argument rests upon the hidden premise that workers themselves will profit from their increased productivity. But capitalist incentives work the other way: the company incentive is to lay off superfluous workers while remaining workers make twice as many widgets per day at the same old wages. After all, the remaining workers are now “lucky” to have a job and it is a “buyer’s market” for the employer.
Of course it is not a zero-sum game. Luddites were right in that working class conditions in Victorian England were famously appalling. (Engels’s Condition of the Working Classes in England is perhaps the best contemporary account.) But the government would intervene with labor laws, and the economy itself would adjust to fill the vacuum with new veins of employment. No one would argue that workers today, at least in the West, are not better off than they were in the nineteenth century. But the point is that the increase in productivity due to mechanization did not proportionately increase leisure opportunities for personal fulfillment. Workers were still expected to work full time. The curve change was not in the amount of labor time input but in the amount of productivity output. More aggregate wealth was generated with no increase in aggregate leisure (except perhaps for the investing classes).
Today’s tech revolution is subject to the same utopian mythmaking by the “improvement” industry and to the same grim truths of the labor market. We are told that computerized automation will exponentially increase per capita productivity, freeing people up for personal fulfillment. But the truth is that more often it results in layoffs, fewer jobs for humans, at least in the short run, and more productivity expected per salary. And think about Facebook’s recent (February 2014) acquisition of WhatsApp, a company with 55 employees, for $19 billion dollars. Where so much of GDP is funneled through 55 employees, what does that mean for workers in the aggregate? Does this make it easier for them to find employment or empower them to increase their leisure time? Not likely.
Moreover, those who are “freed up for personal fulfillment” by virtue of being unemployed or underemployed are charged with laziness. No matter how much productivity increases per capita, working and middle class people are expected to work their 40 hours or be damned as parasites. (I lump together working and middle classes, because the investing elite class is not subject to the same labor dynamics as those who live paycheck to paycheck.) Witness the recent CBO (Congressional Budget Office) report on Obamacare (February 2014), which said that once health care in the U.S. is universal and affordable, some people may be freed up to work fewer hours or to have one parent stay at home. This inspired much gnashing of teeth within one of our two national parties. So what if technological advances enable the same GDP with fewer hours worked, or enable affordable health care for all? How dare working class and middle class people take any extra hours for personal fulfillment!
This doesn’t mean all is lost. Although I believe the Luddites and their protege technophobes still need a fair hearing for what they reveal about technological impacts on labor within a capitalist system, I don’t believe that technological innovation is intrinsically antagonistic to workers’ long-term interests. I am not ready to completely dismiss the utopian dream of the apostles of improvement. Technology can be a force for good. But it needs to be framed by a different economy of values. The capitalist world view of infinite market expansion incentivizes the full exploitation of a labor force, not with any eye on the human fulfillment of the workers (which is outside the scope of capitalism and its forces), but with an eye only on increased productivity and profit. This presupposition, this capitalist sensibility, is inconsistent with the utopian possibilities of technology. We need a new sensibility, a new subjective frame of reference for values like “work” and “technology” and “success.” And there are some signs that a new paradigm for self-actualization is emerging on the horizon line of capitalism. There is an increased consciousness that good stewardship of limited world resources is inconsistent with the world view whose metric of fulfillment is in magnitudes of consumption. The young techie entrepreneurs of today seem often motivated by an idealism that is beyond the scope of classical capitalism and its industrial giants. Or at least it is an idealism that is fluid or heterogeneous enough to accommodate post-capitalist ideals commingled with the residual values of productivity and profit.
The change in sensibility we need, in this case a change in the moral attitude about work, was captured as well as anyone by Buckminster Fuller at a time when the hippie revolution was coming to a head, its fate not yet decided (New York Magazine, 30 March 1970).
“We should do away with the absolutely specious notion that everybody has to earn a living. It is a fact today that one in ten thousand of us can make a technological breakthrough capable of supporting all the rest. The youth of today are absolutely right in recognizing this nonsense of earning a living. We keep inventing jobs because of this false idea that everybody has to be employed at some kind of drudgery because, according to Malthusian Darwinian theory he must justify his right to exist. So we have inspectors of inspectors and people making instruments for inspectors to inspect inspectors. The true business of people should be to go back to school and think about whatever it was they were thinking about before somebody came along and told them they had to earn a living.”