This article on the Luddites and the anti-GM movement was first published in GenEthics News in 1998
They told the target they were coming. A gang of saboteurs toting agricultural implements to destroy the technology that they considered so offensive. Large industrial interests were reshaping their world without consultation, in a way that went straight to their everyday lives. Without democratic recourse, this direct action was the only tool left to arrest the industrial juggernaut. The Luddites were on the march.
Labels and meanings tumble carelessly out of history into the present. In the current debate over gene technology the rise of direct action and the wave of resistance to biotech food has sent journalists and industry spokespeople into fits of namecalling. In their emotion they have unwittingly dragged historical characters into the present dispute sometimes with remarkabaly accurate parallels In France Novartis GE corn seed is destroyed and the label saboteur is applied conjuring the spectre of the Sabots, french workers who destroyed machinery with their clogs almost 200 years ago. The new `diggers' who are replanting GE sugar beet fields in Norfolk with permaculture gardens could be seen in the tradition of the true Levellers who established a community of agrarian resistance on St George's Hill in 1649. But most consistent, if we are to scan our recent newspapers is the reappearence of the Luddites wool croppers of the 19th century who now it seems have become genetic cereal croppers. Where they once broke carding machines, their spiritual descendants are breaking genetically engineered stalks and their new opponents are wasting no time in exposing their ancestry.
According to popular myth, the original Luddites were gangs of flat earthers trying to rewind the clock of progress to a never-existent golden age. They used brute force to smash technologies they were too stupid or scared to understand, in their futile stand against inevitable progress. Consequently in the lexicon of todays scientific establishment Luddism is considered a term of abuse: "We must not be ruled by luddite revolutionaries who employ guerrilla tactics," declares Tony Guthrie of Advanta Holdings in the Financial Times. His is one of the more outspoken companies crying foul of direct activists who have recently destroyed over 20 genetic field trials. Mr Arthur Dicken, ex ICI manager, in a letter to the Times feels that genetic engineering is now "receiving the same treatment meted out by protestors who feared the edge of the world, who opposed as unnatural the development of mechanical locomotion". These are " anti progress groups" he informs us, or as PR boy Dan Verakis of Monsanto likes to call them "scientific hooligans". The technical spin manuals, it seems regard the luddite label as a great brickbat for stigmatising the antis.
But what if in fact if an intended stigma could in the long ru,strengthen the very people it afflicts? In one of the first UK direct actions against GE food, back in 1996, a group of green students protested in Sainsburys in Cambridge against the introduction of Zeneca's tomato puree. Right in the biotech heartland they named themselves `New Luddites', wearing the usual term of abuse as a proud badge. Two years later amongst the new `croppers' of genetix direct action, the term luddite is similarly being rediscovered and reclaimed. "At first I regarded the term Luddite as another annoying label like ecowarrior, which hid the real issues", explains Zoe Elford of the Genetic Engineering Network, one of five women who recently pulled up Monsanto rapeseed from a field in Oxfordshire. "However the more I looked into who the real luddites were, the more I appreciated a tradition and a history which I found very inspiring . That's so unlike the biotech companies. Just by genetic engineering they are trying to break with history, and even evolution, yet suddenly we realise we are part of a much older struggle."
The real Luddites that are quietly being reclaimed were never so one dimensional as the myth paints them. Gangs of workers yes but mostly artisan croppers and weavers who lived in a geographical triangle stretching from Nottingham to Lancaster to York. In a period of half a decade at the start of the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of people rose up in armed revolt as they experienced an economic and social upheaval imposed upon them that we now call the Industrial Revolution.. Factory machines that could each do the work of 15 people were being accumulated in large mills that took woolworkers away from the small scale production that went on in small workshops in private houses. As communities disintegrated and skilled work lost its value, more people were forced into a factory system that made slaves of them and subjected them to insufferable health risks. In many of the early Luddite letters we find that the people moved to act were not fearful futile vandals, but very perceptive beings with a sophisticated understanding of how technology and political and economic power were interrelating. Before coming to smash machinery, the Luddites posted letters in market places, airing grievances and denouncing both the corruption of government by industrialists and the imposition of machinery `hurtful to the commonality'. Just as the visible component of the new biotech revolution may be the GE organism, so the symbol of the industrial revolution was the machine. Breaking `frames' had a symbolic as well as a literal relevance to the grievances of Northern England. It was a blow to the framers of power, who hurried these huge economic changes to occur.
It’s worth remembering that winners write history and are able to cast their opponents as they see fit. Yet certain facts slip out. For example the fact that by 1812 it looked so like the Luddites were winning their war on the new industrialism that the government was forced to send in more troops than fought the battle of Waterloo a few years later. There is the fact that Luddism touched on a popular nerve and enjoyed great popularity. Luddite marches to woollen mills would sometimes be upwards of a thousand people. And then there are the luddite traditions, such as technology trials, when luddites would seize machinery and subject it to public trials in the market place, before setting to it with hammer. Luddite traditions such as these debates over technology have become obscured in the myth indeed `new luddites' argue that such democratic debate over technology has fallen out of our political system altogether. In some ways the Luddites were the first serious attempt to recognise that modern technology has a politics, into which people should be admitted. With all the nouse of the precautionary principle, they believed the debate should occur before the juggernaut got rolling.
While the luddite of myth opposes all technology, (as if you could simultaneously oppose every implement you rely upon!) the telling phrase from the real luddites is their boast that they would `put down all machinery hurtful to the Commonality'. Indeed, it is this phrase that
contemporary luddites have seized on. Commentator, Tom Wakeford, a lecturer in democracy and technology at the University of East London explains, "The essence of Luddism was that technology had to satisfy the common good. Its this criteria by which the antinuclear movement, protests against cars and incinerators, and now opponents of genetic modification seem to be measuring technology, and it’s as good a standard as any. In that sense, the resurgence of luddism appears to be in a 20th century tradition. As a society. technology is too often measured only in economic terms missing the wider social and environmental `common good. I suppose that shift in values traces back to the beginning of the factory system.'
That wider 20th century tradition has been documented recently in Rebels Against the Future, a book by Kirkpatrick Sale, who can claim the credit for reigniting luddism as a label of choice in the US, and probably here too. Telling the story of the original Luddite raids, he intersperses his tale with voices from the modern luddites of academia and ecological direct
action. He draws together the theorising of great thinkers on technology, such as Jaques Ellul and Lewis Mumford, who traced the development of democratic technologies (eg the spinning wheel) which tend to liberate an individual in society, alongside a strain of technologies that require or tend to encourage authoritarian systems (of which nuclear power is perhaps the most striking example). Modern biotechnology too would fall into Mumford’s `authoritarian' tradition since large accumulations of capital and expertise are required to undertake the science and to guard knowledge in the marketplace. This assertion that technologies in themselves have politics offends the mainstream of thinking, but has been understood in the past not only by luddites but by skillful industrialists and ideologues. In his book "The whale and the reactor" Langdon Winner gives 2 examples: the first in which a 19th century chicago industrialist introduced machinery specifically to break a strike of the National Union of Mineworkers; the second where a Long Island engineer deliberately designed a road system that only automobile owning white middle classes would be able to use, deliberately excluding poorer blacks who tended to walk or take buses. These are conspiratorial examples, but as the disability rights movement have shown very well, many technologies unintentionally reflect the prejudices of the society in which they are produced.
And it’s in this that Luddism offers two very important insights, firstly that technology is developed in a context and tends to serve to reinforce the forces already at work. In a capitalist society, it’s no surprise that many of the modern biotechnologies primarily serve capital (in terms of reduced processing cost or designing streamlined production. Secondly that just as we have a choice over our politics, there is nothing inevitable about how we develop our technology. Progress is shaped not by some mythical guiding hand of history, but by the decisions of individuals, and political will. Once produced, the technologies a society produces have a way of concretizing social relations. Thus it is that a society that regards disabilities as an illness will develop eugenic technologies, that further stigmatise disabled people by seeking to eradicate them from society. The drive towards increase intensification of agriculture is another example of a capitalist elite (the agrochemical companies) using technology to make concrete a vison that suits them. Thanks to Roundup Ready Soya or Terminator technology, new redesigned nature will now dictate that large agri chemical interests will need to exist, in order to keep food production going.
A new Industrial Revolution
In this way the stand of anti genetix campaigners truly shares an urgency with the original Luddites both are facing industrial revolutions which change the very basis of life itself, hastening what Bill McKibben has sadly described as the `end of nature'. Looking back from the late 20th century, we can see the Industrial Revolution was a catastrophe in terms of
the havoc it continues to wreak on the environment and social relations. While William Blake, a luddite sympathiser, may have bemoaned the dark satanic mills that blotted the English landscape, he could not have foreseen the effects in terms of climate change, of suddenly shifting to a system of production that depended on burning coal and oil. Only now, as our weather has changed irrevocably, drought and freak storms become more common, and the numbers of resource wars causing environmental refugees grow, we see how a set of technologies introduced to achieve a rather limited economic aim had wider implications. According to Jeremy Rifkin, of the Foundation on Economic Trends, the coming century will see an equally radical reordering of society, as government and biotech companies exploit not only the tool of recombinant DNA, making nature more amenable to industrial needs, but also using genetic engineering to edit unwanted traits out of society, those that are too costly to sustain. We've had the fossil fuel age and are now suffering its problems. Here comes the gene age.
"This is not inevitable," reminds Sue Mayer of pressure group Genewatch, who considers herself a Luddite of sorts, " What I take to mean by Luddite is that we can question the direction of progress being planned for us and try to reassert democratic control over where our technology is heading. The Luddites used direct action, but what they more widely remind us is that people can choose which technologies suit the society we want, along equitable, democratic and sustainable lines. Genetic Engineering is a radical departure, and it is right that its is being questioned. There are real alternatives to genetically engineered crops, in the form of organic methods, but at no point has there been a public debate, and clearly there isn't public acceptance. The nearest we have at present to democratic ways of assessing this technology are things like citizens juries, and those too are finding that this is a technology that is not for the common good."
Citizens juriess, vague echoes of the luddite technology trials, raise another intellectual tenet significant for new luddites that expertise is not entirely in the domain of science. Tom Wakeford, who has himself organised a citizens jury on food, points out that, "The original Luddites had a very real knowledge of the consequences of industrialisation, that was based not on scholarly economic expertise, but their local knowledge of the communities that would be affected. Likewise the thousands of people who have taken to the streets in India over patents on life, or farmers who have expressed an aversion to GE crops, often rely on a different set of knowledge that is never taken into consideration in the halls of MAFF or the
WTO." The refusal of an arrogant technocratic elite to consider anything but scientific objections as well founded, remains a tradition in the GMO approval process as well in as the various attempts at public understanding of biotechnology run by MAFF and the DTI.
Perhaps the most exciting luddite claim though, is the notion that not only can we say no to technologies that are harmful to the common good, it is actually possible to uninvent a technology. Research at Edinburgh University by sociologist Don McKenzie, has shown that much of the ability to build nuclear weapons or genetic engineer depends on `tacit knowledge', practical experience handed on in the lab that is essential to get technology right.
"Its the knowledge that farmers have and MAFF officials don't, however many textboooks they read" explains Tom Wakeford. The theory is that if you, as a society chose to stop producing a technology for a few generations that tacit knowledge would be lost and would take generations to reclaim. Imagine uninventing nuclear weapons?"
Imagine uninventing Genetic Engineering, imagine questioning whether it’s the most sensible direction for progress and then setting off in equally exciting different directions. Imagine bringing technological advance under democratic control, away from the capital elites and in line with the broader `common good'.. There's nothing shrinking or backwards looking about such visions – they are just more responsible. Luddism is on the move again.