Rage against the machine

Two hundred years ago this month, a Leeds woollen mill was destroyed by fire. The blaze was the work of the Luddites - textile workers whose jobs were being ruined by the introduction of new machinery. There were riots and attacks on mills and their owners in Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire - an area dubbed the Luddite Triangle.

The rebellion lasted two years, from 1811 to 1813. At one stage more British troops were deployed against the Luddites than in the Napoleonic wars.

A northern-based group called Luddites200 has been formed to mark the bicentenary of these events. One of its aims is to give the Luddites their rightful place in history and recognise them as heroic radicals who demanded that new technology be used to benefit workers and employers alike, rather than merely replace jobs and increase profits.

The group will draw parallels with events today and produce a report on how employers use technological developments to sack workers and make fatter profits, just as they did two centuries ago. They won't need to look far for current examples. Have your local supermarkets installed automated checkouts yet? One of mine has. It's a job-destroying system. Customers pass their shopping through the price-checking apparatus. What genius - not only are checkout staff dismissed but the customers have to take on their work.

Newspapers and journalism are another bad case. At my workplace, Yorkshire Post Newspapers in Leeds, the editorial workforce has been almost halved in recent years, using new technology. Apprentice-trained sub-editors have been sacked and reporters with half a day's training told to do their jobs. It's a continuation of a process that has wiped out layers of skills in newspapers, reducing the workforce in Leeds from 1,350 to less than 500.

Not OK computer

As happened with the Luddites in the 19th century, there has been resistance to such so-called progress. In newspapers, some of this was akin to the Luddites' last resort of machine-wrecking. In one printers' strike in Leeds in the early 1990s - as computers became common - workers strategically loosened nuts and bolts so that the machines could not be switched on safely. However, like the Luddites, the printers were eventually defeated.

Today anyone questioning new technology is condemned as "Luddite", but a statement by Luddites200 says: "The idea that they were opposed to all technology is a history written by the victors. In fact, the Luddites opposed only technology 'hurtful to Commonality', ie, to the common good."
Luddites200 will cover wider issues than simple job destruction. These will include the effects of automation on climate change and moral questions surrounding genetic engineering.

“Being a Luddite today means being a sceptic about the dogma of technology as progress, not about denying the real benefits of some technologies," the group says.

“It means insisting that the crucial decisions about which technologies are developed are made democratically, not just imposed by corporations and technocratic elites. And it means standing up for our own ideas of what progress really is."

More details: luddites200.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?