General Ludd to General Intellect

The Luddite Tribunal held at Oakland’s Tamarack Cafe on November 9, 2023. (l to r) Brian Merchant, Safe Street Rebel, Wendy Liu, Paris Marx, and Veena Dubal.

I’ve been called “Luddite” from time to time, though I have always refused the category of “technology” as having any particularly useful reference point. Criticizing technology, or more to the point, a particular way of organizing work, of organizing activities that exploit nature in more or less dramatic ways, leads quickly to isolation and to questions about one’s sanity. It is quite unusual to suggest that the “techno-sphere” we assemble together should be subject to democratic decision-making. The ideological system that relegates such concerns to the margins, and insists that the only people capable and worthy of addressing what technologies we should adopt, how work should be organized, what our relationship to nature ought to be, are those with the capital—and the commitment to profit as the motivating principle—was invented at a specific historic moment. The power of capitalists was dramatically seized at the expense of the earliest organized working-class critics of automation: derisively and falsely “remembered” as the Luddites.

This matters now because over the past few decades anyone who objected to the rise of Amazon, Google, Facebook, Apple, or any of a number of other massive companies, are generally dismissed as “luddites” standing in the way of inevitable progress. There has been two centuries of refining this line of argument, starting at its point of origin among the textile workers in England at the beginning of the 1800s, the ones who broke into the new factories to wreck various machines they saw as destroying their ability to live from the work they did. Their movement of organized property destruction, alongside efforts to establish rights for workers to shape the introduction of new machinery and new ways of organizing work, was brutally suppressed by extensive state violence, including the wide use of capital punishment for anyone associated with this movement.

Brian Merchant (left), Veena Dubal after she smashed an iPhone, and Paris Marx clapping behind.

Brian Merchant has recently published an excellent history of the Luddites, the protagonists of the original revolt against technology, which Merchant makes clear was not so much a revolt against technology as a refusal to lay down and die before the unrestrained power of the owners of capital. His book, called Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech (links to this and the other eight books I mention are listed at the end), presents a very well-written, compelling, detailed account of the social conflict that erupted in England at the beginning of the 19th century, pitting the earliest “start-up founders” against a wide range of workers, starting with the textile workers who saw their skills being mechanized, and their work being degraded as they were forced into the new-fangled factories that the most rapacious entrepreneurs of the period insisted would be the new way to work.

Artisans, hatmakers, shoemakers, bricklayers, small shop owners, and farmers joined the cause. So did coal miners and railroad workers, whose industries were on the rise due in part to the technology and automation—because the Luddite movement was not about technology; it was about workers’ rights. Luddism started as a tactical strike against the technologies of control, but had exploded into a greater expression of the rage against a system where the privileged few with access to the right levers could lift themselves up at the expense of the many. (p. 143)

The real Luddite movement was, of course, multifaceted, complex, and driven by a range of grievances and demands. The Luddites as most of us know them, moronic machine smashers, are in fact inventions. They’re the myth invented by their critics, not the well-organized, strategic, and morally empowered force that contested the rise of the factory and the entrepreneurial manager in the 1810s. (p. 305) … Entrepreneurs, factory operators, and executives have been chasing that fantasy ever since. In the twenty-first century, Amazon touts plans for fully automated warehouses, high-tech companies aspire to “dark” factories—factories emptied of humans and automated to such an extent that they can be run without the lights on—and robotics and enterprise software firms pitch a battery of automation services and products to clients afraid of being left behind. Now, as then, we’re made to believe that we are in an uncomfortable but necessary transitional period, right before technology will inevitably solve all our woes. (p. 320) … Ever since the Luddites, wage-earning workers have been, in one form or another, at the whims of an overseer who deploys technology to control the division of labor. That, above all, is what entrepreneurs and the state won, when the Luddites lost. (p. 321)

I appreciated Merchant’s willingness to break into his historic narrative at numerous points along the way to underscore the contemporary manifestations of the same kinds of struggles. Rather than leaving us with the impression that the Luddites were some kind of primitive, pre-modern people who were merely lashing out at life changing under their feet, we instead come to understand that the conflict they fought is a conflict we’re still fighting. The harsh brutality of workplace conditions in an Amazon warehouse is just a contemporary example of the vicious and violent regime created in the factories that were the founding institutions of the early Industrial Revolution.

It wasn’t just a lack of Covid safety, or even worker safety, per se. It was the combination of punishing conditions, lack of benefits, constant surveillance, and stagnant pay. It was breaking your back to keep up with the robots while the man who owned the operation broke records for making so many billions of dollars. The man who is, if he is not already, on his way to becoming the biggest factory boss in history—Jeff Bezos. (p. 379) … This relentless, technologically dictated pace of work is ultimately driven, just as it was in the Luddite days, by an entrepreneur exercising a more audacious will to profit than anyone else, and an openness to implementing systems that others might deem too inhumane, in order to realize those profits. (p. 380)

In another pandemic book, Alessandro Delfanti dives deeply into the modern labor process in Amazon warehouses (The Warehouse: Workers and Robots at Amazon). As an Italian he has roots in the bottom-up analyses of workers research organizing pioneered by radical Italian workers decades ago. He talks to workers not just in the U.S. but also Amazon workers in Piacenza, Italy, an area where “fulfillment centers” for many modern corporations are situated to serve the Italian and European markets. He comes to intimately understand the dehumanizing banality of the structure of work there:

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Temporal and Geographic Edges

Sunset at Bodega Head, December 13, 2023.

That sounds a bit ambitious, maybe even pretentious. It’s about to be 2024. As I get older, the passing of years accelerates and I sometimes wish there were a way to slow it down a bit. I had a wonderful year celebrating Shaping San Francisco’s 25th anniversary with two dozen community partners and friends, finishing and publishing my second novel When Shells Crumble, and spent another wonderful and fulfilling year with Adriana, had a lot of time with my granddaughters… All this goodness in my life is obviously in sharp contrast to the horrors of Israel’s genocidal war against the Palestinians in Gaza, the ongoing meatgrinder in eastern Ukraine, the lesser known and underreported mayhem and slaughter in the eastern Congo, in Sudan, in Somalia, in Yemen, it just goes on and on. People living in the U.S. are sheltered from these horrors, even as our tax dollars finance most of them. The Biden administration has proven to be an old-school hawkish, war-mongering Democrat, juicing the military-industrial complex at every opportunity.

Fuck them! And we’re supposed to rally around the octogenarian out of fear of Trump? I can’t believe Trump can win any national election. But I can’t believe Biden can either. What a weird world! My novel dispensed with this by fast-forwarding the beginning to a year from now, when the Supreme Court hands the next election to the Republicans… but neither Biden nor Trump are in the mix. And trouble begins anyway. You’ll have to read the book!

My weekly food shopping, first the Farmers’ Market and then Rainbow Grocery Cooperative. Not unusual to have 50-75 lbs of food loaded on the bike for the final push up Folsom Street.

 

Monday afternoons at the Utah Commons playing petanque. Made some good friends here and really enjoy my weekly “play time!”

I’ve been away from my forlorn corner of the internet here for a few months. My blog is increasingly hard to find (facebook’s new algorithms suppressing news and opinions that appear outside of their walled garden is the long-expected closure of that as a useful place to amplify my work). Blogs in general have been pretty thoroughly eclipsed, unless you’re posting daily and getting paid by some larger entity to fill up the space. I appreciate the hardy 100-200 folks who still meander by once in a while to see if there’s anything new or worth checking out. I do have a lot of books to talk about in the next months, but we’ll see. My motivation to write is a bit low. I’m forcing myself to sit and write this post, just to get a last one in under the line of 2023. Yeah, yeah, arbitrary silliness, I know.

Birthday getaway selfies!

Anyway, Adriana and I went north for a short vacay to belatedly celebrate her late November birthday. We went to Bodega Bay and had a spectacular time on Bodega Head for sunset on the first day, then spent most of the second day walking back and forth on the Kortum Trail on the coastal plain, from Shell Beach to Goat Rock, with stops at the Mammoth rock outcropping (where Mammoths apparently smoothed the surface by rubbing against them across centuries) and to observe the subsiding cliffs where they are slowly collapsing into the ocean.

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The Root of All Evil

Seen on the street in San Francisco!

Almost as consistently as the Christian insistence on an unspoiled Eden from which humans have “fallen” is the notion that evil is an independent force with a will of its own. Given that common belief, it follows that there is a centuries-long project to determine where the “root” of this evil lies. The results of evil behavior, intentions, and institutions are plain to see throughout history: barbaric slavery imposed by some people on others is perhaps the most obvious. But the obliteration of countless species and lands—unique habitats wrought by creative interaction among multiple living beings over generations, is at least as shocking as the reduction of individual humans to slavery. Seeking to explain the recurrent horrors that beset the history of humanity, it’s understandable that we try to reach the ultimate cause, the best explanation, the switch that we could perhaps reverse to stop the madness.

Part of my ongoing fascination with history is finding the patterns that offer a glimmer of such explanations, even if I’m not convinced that we’ll ever settle on any one quality or institution or social dynamic that will explain everything else. Still, some recent readings, pieced together, seem to underscore a combination of money and property as compelling candidates to explain a lot about the wrong turns so-called civilization has made, going back a very long time. What follows is a peculiar trajectory through ten books that I’ve read in the past months… not atypical for this blog, but it does lead to a long post and perhaps some bewilderment about why I put these writings together under this title. By the end I hope it makes sense!

I read Nathaniel Philbrick’s 2006 Mayflower recently, after a friend gave it a strong recommendation. It’s an illuminating look at the first arriving English pilgrims, people who have been largely reduced to false clichés amid ridiculous tales of a Thanksgiving that never happened. The original Puritans were extreme religious zealots who embarked on the risky trip to North America in the early 1600s to establish a place where they could live according to their beliefs without repression. The original pilgrims recognized that they needed to make some kind of accommodations with the people who were already present when they arrived, though by fluke of fate they missed their targeted landing near the Dutch colony in Manhattan and ended up on the outer edges of Cape Cod. It turns out that preceding their arrival other European fishing fleets had visited coastal New England, and even an English raider who landed and forcibly captured some dozens of local people, carrying them off to slavery in the Caribbean. Locals were not entirely unfamiliar with Europeans, and some trade had already happened, and some had even learned some English. Disease had already decimated the population of the coast where the pilgrims landed, feeding the false sense of available land for settlement. But for my purposes here, the following quote gets to the issue at hand. Already, after one generation of complicated and fraught relations with the many tribes thriving in the area, the children of the first colonists were turning away from the religious focus of their parents to grab the opportunities they could see around them.

At the root of the trend toward town building was, Governor Bradford insisted, a growing hunger for land. For Bradford, land had been a way to create a community of Saints. For an increasing number of Pilgrims and especially for their children, land was a way to get rich. Bradford claimed that the formation of new towns was “not for want or necessity,” but “for the enriching of themselves,” and he predicted it would be “the ruin of New England.” Even Roger Williams, whose vision of an ideal community was very different from Bradford’s, shared his concern about land. Williams railed against the rise of “God Land” in New England and feared that it would become “as great with us English as God Gold was with the Spaniards.” (p. 185)

Back in England during the 1640s, King Charles I was overthrown and eventually beheaded by the religiously inspired New Model Army led by Oliver Cromwell. Some Puritans in New England returned to join the new society emerging in England at the heart of which was their own religiosity. But for Levellers and Diggers and other English radicals of that time, it was a chance to agitate for a new equality in the face of God, in defense of the commons and a common wealth. I have not delved deeply into the “Putney Debates” because they’re rather unreadable, but those public debates held over several weeks in Putney (now subsumed in London), were the opportunity in 1647 for the rank-and-file soldiers and their immediate officers of the New Model Army to debate the higher officers over the terms of the unfolding English revolution. They debated the role of commons, property, nobility, monarchy, republicanism, and more. A great many of the radicals of this period were millenarian believers in the End Times, and it was jarring when Christ did NOT return in the early 1650s, leading to the unraveling of the revolutionary fervor that carried the movement through the prior decade. By 1661 the monarchy was restored and many of the most radical agitators—some of whom had helped found Quakerism, too, during the ferment of the revolution—were in jail or already dead.

Cruising back to Emeryville after a CIIS Bay Cruise on October 5.

But the Quakers, originally partisans of the Army and the radical egalitarianism of the English revolution, turned to pacifism as a way to remove themselves from the political fray that accompanied the Restoration. And within the decade, Quakers were migrating in large numbers to the colonies in North America. William Penn was granted by King Charles II a sizable portion of land in the Delaware River Valley, north of the Chesapeake Bay, to establish the Quaker colony that eventually becomes Pennsylvania. Disputes with Maryland (and Lord Baltimore) lead Penn’s agents to seek out the Susquehannock leaders who traditionally controlled the lands on either side of the Susquehanna River that drains into the northernmost extension of the Chesapeake Bay. These same Susquehannocks were reaching the end of a ten-year period of constant war with the Virginia colony and the Maryland colony, described in eloquent detail by Matthew Kruer in his remarkable book Time of Anarchy: Indigenous Power and the Crisis of Colonialism in Early America (Harvard University Press: 2021). The title of his book refers to the decade 1675-1685 in which a dozen conflicts raged between different indigenous cultures as well as between English colonists and surrounding societies. Various tribes became tributary to the Virginia colony or the Catholic colony in Maryland to seek protection from their vulnerability to raid and plunder from larger nearby societies, of which the most powerful in 1675 were the Susquehannas.

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