Workers’ Movements Or Tantrums Against Technology?


BY GAVIN MUELLER

Brian Merchant’s “Blood in the Machine” compares the labor struggles of the Industrial Revolution to today’s abusive gig economy.

Revolutions inevitably birth counterrevolutions. The Industrial Revolution was no exception. In the early 19th century, textile workers in the north of England, set on a course toward obsolescence by new machines, struck back. Under the banner of a mythical apprentice named “Ned Ludd,” they staged nightly factory raids, using massive hammers to smash machines and forcing the British government to place the entire region under military occupation. Ever since, the Luddite movement has spawned mythologies of its own, drawing in writers attracted to its doomed Romantic broadsides against modernity, and its status as a militant workers’ movement erupting at the dawn of industrial capitalism.

Brian Merchant is something of an oddity in this pantheon of writers, which includes the eminent historians Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson and the firebrand activist Kirkpatrick Sale. Merchant is the tech columnist at The Los Angeles Times and the author of a history of the iPhone; and though the bulk of his new book, “Blood in the Machine,” is derived from an immense trove of archival materials and secondary historical sources, he brings a journalist’s touch to the Luddites’ travails, drawing connections between the conflicts and indignities of their epoch and our own.

The book is structured around the stories of the individuals, famous and otherwise, whose lives were violently unsettled by technological change in this auspicious time: the Prince Regent (the future King George IV), whose decadent revelries provided a foil to the weavers’ escalating privation; Lord Byron, the infamous Lothario whose populist defenses of the working class helped bring about his celebrity; Robert Blincoe, the orphan whose brutal experiences in a cotton factory from the age of 7 likely inspired Charles Dickens’s character Oliver Twist. Most central is the story of George Mellor, a brawny and charismatic cropper who leads Luddite cadres into increasingly daring actions, which culminate in the vengeful assassination of a notoriously cruel millowner and the subsequent unraveling of the movement.

Merchant capably situates the Luddite story within its historical context, but, like his forebears, he uses the past as a lens onto the present. Thompson’s Luddites entered debates on political consciousness in the 1960s; Sale deployed them to lend urgency to environmental politics in the de-radicalized 1990s. Today’s Luddish writers (myself included) invoke the Luddites to tarnish the shiny facades of Silicon Valley apps as they remake our world — particularly as they reconfigure decent jobs into hyper-surveilled and algorithmically managed gigs. Merchant memorably describes the typical such platform (Amazon, Uber, Instacart) as a “psychic factory” that “cyborgizes its workers for maximum productivity.”

To make the book’s political stakes even plainer, Merchant renders the early 19th century in current-day language. Factory owners are “entrepreneurs,” “the one percent,” even “tech titans” who are “disrupting” the textile industry — moving fast and breaking things, to borrow Facebook’s old slogan. Factory technologies spread “virally” and represent a form of “automation” (a term, as Merchant notes, that was not coined until the 1940s). The Luddites themselves are likened to decentralized movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. In the book’s final section, Merchant shifts back into a journalistic register, interviewing labor lawyers, analysts and workers struggling against the worst abuses of the gig economy. Chris Smalls, the magnetic warehouse employee who led the first successful unionization drive at Amazon last year, emerges as our era’s nearest analogue to Mellor.

Luddite histories are not just political, but almost always corrective. Today the term “Luddite” is divorced from the context of labor struggle, and instead signifies an irrational technophobia or a stubborn adherence to older ways. You might be a Luddite if you prefer to pay in cash, or if you think smartphones have ushered in the downfall of society. As Merchant argues, this is a holdover from how the elites of the day depicted the weavers’ struggles, as tantrums against technology. In fact, machine breaking was not a raison d’être for the Luddites, but a last resort when appeals to law, custom and morality fell on the deaf ears of authorities. If smashing a stocking frame became the signature Luddite action, it was because it got the goods, so to speak: Many millowners submitted to Luddite demands on pay and working conditions rather than risk their machines — or their lives.

Merchant is keen to reframe the Luddites as proto-unionist reformers rather than violent revolutionaries. Mellor’s story ends with a letter from his prison cell, where he awaits his execution, requesting that his name be added to a petition calling for restrictions on machines. In Merchant’s account, gig economy workers and their advocates focus on regulation and fair treatment, never sabotage. It is not an unfair conclusion to draw: No American worker movements approach the militancy of the Luddites during their raids, and President Biden’s ear bends more readily than that of the Prince Regent. But if we truly want to break from the future that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have planned for us, with our blood in their machines, it could take more than legislation to do so. It might require a few hammers.

Gavin Mueller is an assistant professor of new media and digital culture at the University of Amsterdam, and the author of “Breaking Things at Work.”

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