Book review: why the Luddites are a warning from history

Two centuries after the First Industrial Revolution condemned workers to lives of brutal exploitation in sweatshop factories, history is on the verge of repeating itself, with tech companies like Uber and Amazon degrading the value of our work and living standards.

This is the central thesis of Brian Merchant’s 600-page book Blood In The Machine: the origins of the rebellion against big tech. He draws stark parallels between our era and English workers in the early 1800s, who struggled against unscrupulous factory owners seeking to replace them and slash production costs.

“Imagine dedicating years of your life to learn a difficult job that was supposed to guarantee you a good living [...] only to realize that the deal was suddenly void,” Merchant posits. In a pointed reference to the non-violent but destructive campaign of resistance which the Luddites waged against the machines – or rather their owners – he adds: “Your faith in systems working as intended would be as broken as a hammer-smashed frame.”

But then he goes on: “Maybe you don’t even need to imagine this, because you live in the twenty-first century and have seen a corporation, platform, or a manager use technology to rewrite the social contract that once defined your job.”

Granted, the review is not the book, but that excerpt pretty much sums up where Merchant is coming from. A man on a mission, he brings a mixture of erudition, compassion, and insightfulness to bear, as he unflinchingly uses early industrial history to highlight the red flags being thrown up by big tech’s ruthless consolidation of power today.

If Zuckerberg can break things, why can’t we?

Much of the book tracks the struggle of men such as Luddite ringleader George Mellor and reform campaigner Gravener Henson against ruthless automation capitalists like William Cartwright and William Horsfall. Mellor is eventually hanged for murdering the latter, but he is far from the bad guy in Merchant’s historical tour de force.

Cartwright and Horsfall repeatedly collude with a self-seeking and undemocratic British state (not even the middle classes, let alone ordinary workers or women and minorities, could vote in the early nineteenth century), disregarding laws and eventually deploying murderous force to by turns ignore and suppress the working men and their families, whose livelihoods were threatened by the advent of factory automation.

As such, one lawful petition by the beleaguered cloth workers after another went unheeded by Parliament. Eventually, out of sheer frustration and desperation, the Luddite movement was born. That said, it was no wildcat campaign of uncoordinated destruction: taking hammers only to the factory machines that threatened to condemn them to poverty and send children as young as seven into horrific working conditions akin to slavery, the rebellious workers for the most part eschewed violence against the person, until Cartwright and Horsfall, augmented by government soldiers and hired thugs, forced them into outright conflict.

"Technological disruption is not an accidental or inevitable phenomenon [...] but an intentional one."

Brian Merchant, author of Blood In The Machine, suggests that entrepreneurs like Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick knowingly ruined livelihoods to turn a profit

Merchant comes down firmly on the side of the Georgian-era workers, and doesn’t pull his punches in the modern one either: Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg and Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick are recast as latter-day Horsfalls and Cartwrights, willing to “move fast and break things” or stir up conflict because “violence guarantees success.” It wasn’t the Luddites who were the truly destructive force, he argues, but the early entrepreneurs they resisted.

“Technological disruption is not an accidental or inevitable phenomenon [...] but an intentional one,” he writes in the chapter entitled Two Centuries Of Disruption. “Two hundred years ago, like today, aspiring entrepreneurs and nascent tech titans saw an opportunity to deploy technology to do work, more cheaply, more efficiently, and at greater scale than it had been previously done by skilled workers. They saw an opportunity for disruption, and disruption was the point. They knew that their machines would upend communities and traditions, but also make them money.”

This led early industrialists like Cartwright and Horsfall to ignore regulations designed to safeguard communities and protect workers, imposing “their technologies and standards, top-down, on communities with their own longstanding relationships to technology.”

The Luddite campaign, in Merchant’s eyes, was therefore “a logical response” to “a remarkably undemocratic way to decide what kinds of technology a society might want to live with,” and “the product of years of accumulated grievances: years spent watching entrepreneurs disrupt their livelihoods through methods that were in many cases illegal, pressing their government to uphold laws [...] and seeing their political leaders do nothing.”

The ‘big five’ – a global ruling class?

History, Merchant contends, is repeating itself. In the chapter Fear Factories, he writes “we still chafe at entering into new systems of subordinated work two hundred years later, whether those systems are factories, offices, or on-demand work algorithms.” The original cloth factories were just the beginning of the steady erosion of workers’ dignity and living standards – not because of the technology itself, he stresses repeatedly throughout his book, but because of the way its owners were allowed by government to apply it.

“A similarly seismic shift, not unlike the rise of the factory in Luddite times, is unfolding again – and this time it involves a different kind of gig mill,” he continues. “Today, we’re witnessing a shift from secure, salaried jobs based on the factory-influenced office model, to contract and gig work, often orchestrated by algorithms, AI services, and on-demand app companies.”

The quote is illustrative. Brutal though its advent in the nineteenth century may have been, the factory system did, eventually and indirectly, give rise to better working conditions, as trade unions inspired by the Luddite movement formed and militated for better treatment and wages. Socialist programs of reform and the workers’ rights they introduced arguably would not exist without the forced collectivization of workers that the urban factory system gave rise to under industrial capitalism. Sadly, those gains are now being lost and the wheel is once again turning in favor of the rich, or to call them by another name, the exploiters.

"These technologies are again providing certain entrepreneurs and executives excuses to trample regulations and worker protections."

Merchant makes the case against the tech titans, who he says are applying innovation in a way that is harmful to society, even when it breaks previously agreed rules

The big five tech corporations – Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Meta, and Apple – being worth trillions of dollars between them, undeniably sit at or at least close to the heart of this nexus of mass worker exploitation. Or put another way, technology, when allowed to be applied by the wealthy exclusively for their own benefit, inevitably stands to benefit them at the expense of the middle and working classes.

“These technologies are again providing certain entrepreneurs and executives excuses to trample regulations and worker protections, to shift assumptions about what work is or should be, and to decrease pay and degrade working conditions,” writes Merchant. “As such, twenty-first century workers bristle [...] Amazon delivery drivers and warehouse workers are tired of the intense surveillance and productivity quotas. Remote workers must log onto increasingly intrusive tracking software. Ride-hail app workers bemoan the falling wages, unpredictable algorithms, and automated HR systems.”

Setting the Uber and Lyft apps that have put cab drivers out of work in cities across the world firmly in his sights, Merchant adds: “For those who have seen their livelihoods and work migrated onto a gig platform, the lost pay and indignity can be devastating.”

“The algorithm-based gig work model is the next stage in the evolution of the factory, a mode of control over workers that extends beyond mass production and is superior in every way,” he concludes. “This explains why Amazon, the second-largest employer in the United States, has adopted such a model, with its Uber-like Flex program for delivery drivers and fully automated hiring and HR systems. Gig app platforms and algorithmic management seek to reduce or eliminate the need for middle managers or HR departments, at least for the working-class ‘independent contractors’ who constitute the bulk of a company’s labor force.”

"The algorithm-based gig work model is the next stage in the evolution of the factory, a mode of control over workers that extends beyond mass production."

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, says Merchant. Only, not quite: today's big tech firms potentially have far more power to exploit, he argues

Workers of the world – time to unite again?

There is some light at the end of the tunnel, though it is faint. Just as the Luddites – whose movement peaked between 1811 and 1813, by which time they had mostly been crushed by the British state – managed to delay the mass uptake of automation by a generation or so, modern gig workers have enjoyed some success in combining against the big tech exploiters.

Two of the book’s closing chapters, Gig Workers Rising and The New Luddites, detail the struggle of taxi drivers in California against Uber and Lyft, which successfully opposed the passage of the Prop 22 clause “which would keep [gig app cab drivers] from being classified as employees, prevent them from obtaining benefits, and bar them from organizing.”

As in nineteenth-century England, so in twenty-first-century America. Though dismayed at being prevented from forming unions to protect their rights, wellbeing, and livelihoods, the cabbies refused to cave.

"It may take years, as the new working communities develop stronger ties, bonds strong enough to trust one another to engage in collective action."

Despite punitive restrictions against them such as Prop 22 in California, workers are gradually mobilizing on platforms like Reddit and Signal

Earlier in the book, Merchant ironically notes that the Luddites used their would-be oppressor’s very tools against them – foundry owner Enoch Taylor made parts for the automated looms that threatened the cloth workers, but he also manufactured the hammers they used to smash them. Once again, history is found repeating itself, as the latter-day Luddites have turned to tech platforms to organize and, the author hopes, eventually forge a new working class movement capable of effectively opposing high-tech rentier capitalism.

“It may take years, as the new working communities develop stronger ties, bonds strong enough to trust one another to engage in collective action,” he writes. “In the twenty-first century, this happens on Zoom calls, Reddit boards, Signal chats, and group texts, not secret chambers in ale-soaked pubs.”

Merchant concludes: “If Uber keeps pushing them down, if the government ignores them, if every party to the growing plight fails to issue them redress – then it would be only reasonable to expect that the app-based workers will only continue to rise in number [...] Even a Luddite-style uprising is not out of the question.”

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prefix 5 months ago
Economists call this process creative destruction, and it's a normal part of a growing economy. The printing press replaced entire armies of scribes and the combine tractor replaced cotton-picking slaves. Does that mean that we should go back to having no printed media or manual labor for working fields? Absolutely not.

While it's unfortunate that people's livelihoods are harmed by innovation, people are so much more than their jobs. They're creative human beings made in the image of God, capable of great things. Ironically, limiting the human person to what they do from 9-5 diminishes them into cogs in the machine. Those affected by creative destruction are still capable of serving others and being productive members of society in other ways.
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