New Internationalist

Ned Ludd Live

Issue 286

Ned Ludd LIVE!
Kirkpatrick Sale takes us to the set of one of America’s
most popular late-night TV talk shows.

Good evening everyone and welcome to Nightline. My name is Ted Cobble and tonight we have a very special guest made possible through the miracle of modern science. I’m sure you have all heard by now about that man found frozen in Antarctica a few months ago and how, in one of the most remarkable achievements of cryogenics, scientists have actually restored that long-frozen body to life.

I can now tell you that ABC News has learned that the man was actually shipped out to Australia from England as a criminal nearly 200 years ago on a ship that apparently lost its way in the Tasman Sea. It was swept into the Wilkes Land glacier of Antarctica and there he was frozen alive.

We have also learned that this man was no ordinary criminal in England – his name was Edward Ludd. He often went by the nickname ‘Ned’ and it was he who led that short-lived but potent movement of the nineteenth century known as Luddism – you know, those people who went around smashing machines and burning factories to protest against progress and technology and the Industrial Revolution.

I can also tell you tonight that ABC News has flown Edward Ludd to New York. And for the past two weeks he has been our guest while we have shown him in various ways the wonders of our modern life. With him tonight we are going to explore a controversial topic a lot of you are concerned about – technology, its impact on our lives and its meaning for our society.

But first, Ned, maybe you could give us a few words of background. What was it like when you led that first revolt?

Ned Ludd Well I will try, Mr Cobbett, since you ask. You see, that was back in 1811-12, when things were very bad in England for us workers in the textile trades. Harvests were bad, wages were down. And worst of all the masters began introducing certain new machinery by which one man could do the work of six. We could not get work. We saw our children starving and our workmates wasting away and it was a pain more than we could endure. We asked the masters for help, but they refused. We asked the Parliament, but they too refused. We asked the King, who was mad you know, and his silly son the Prince Regent, probably just as mad, and they too refused. What could we do?

So some of the lads, after a pint or two, decided to take matters into their own hands, form a little army and smash the hated machinery.

TC An army, Ned? Whatever were you fighting against? Progress?

NL No sir, we were fighting the masters, the weaving magnates, don’t you see? They were the ones that put in the new machinery, the ones doing us out of our rightful jobs.

So we would march out at night, faces covered or blackened, brandishing guns and hammers and torches. And we broke those machines wherever we could find them. Sometimes we set fire to the whole damned place and then went off home to bed as tidy as you please before the constables could come.

We wanted the masters to see how desperate we were and to do away with that machinery and give us back our jobs. We smashed at least 1,300 machines in Nottinghamshire, 500 in Yorkshire, another 500 in Lancashire – it was quite a time, Mr Cobbett, let me tell you. And we attacked 20 or more factories and half a dozen of them we pretty well destroyed.

TC And now tell our viewers what finally happened to you Luddites. I think I am fairly safe in saying that you didn’t win.

NL Right enough, sir. No, we didn’t win. The masters went to the Government, the Government went to the army and the army moved in near 15,000 troops. And soon enough they broke the back of the movement. They murdered 50 of us in cold blood, strung up two dozen on the gallows, shipped off another three dozen to Australia – including me as you know – and jailed God knows how many.

But you know we didn’t lose either, Mr Cobbett. The –

TC That’s ‘Cobble’, Ned.

NL The Luddite idea has lasted since that time. It has flourished wherever technology has destroyed jobs, ruined lives and torn up communities. Whenever and wherever machinery is unrestrained and technology is in the saddle riding people, the Luddites will always be there raising the same banner we lifted 200 years ago.

TC Well, thank you, Ned, very nicely put. Ah, by the way, it’s ‘Cobble’, my name’s ‘Cobble’, as in cobblestone. Tell us –

NL Oh, I’m terribly sorry, sir. You know we had a fellow back... back when I was first alive, a William Cobbett. A real champion of the working man he was, a man whose paper I read almost every week of my life, a journalist type, and I just thought you must have the same name. ‘Cobble,’ is it?

TC Yes, Cobble please. Now tell us, Ned, with that very interesting background, what you have to say about our techno-logy today?

NL Well, right off, Mr Cobble, I have to say that I haven’t seen all that much of your technology first-hand.

TC Yes, I understand. But you’ve spent these last two weeks in our library learning a lot about it, haven’t you, Ned? The computers, the microchips, the Internet, all the wonderful things we’ve got now – the credit cards and satellites and cell-phones and faxes and CAT-scans and ATMs.

NL I beg your pardon, the whats?

TC Sorry, the automatic teller machines, those things at the bank.

NL Oh, where you just put in a card and money pours out. Yes, I remember that. One solution to poverty, I should think.

TC Anyway, we did give you a lot of information about all our wonderful inventions and I’m curious to know your reaction, Ned.

NL I don’t wish to seem rude, Mr Cobbett, you being...

TC Cobble.

NL Mr Cobble. You being a nice young fellow and all but I have to say I rather find a dark side to all these thingamajigs you find so wonderful. As the poet fellow Wordsworth said, back in my time – he said about all those factories and all: ‘I grieve when on the darker side of this great change I look.’ And I am obliged to tell you, sir, that I feel rather the same way about all the, as you say, technology – what we called ‘machinery’. From what I know, from all you’ve showed me, I’m afraid I too have to grieve.

TC Well now grieving seems rather strange, doesn’t it Ned? Just look at what we’ve got now. The medicines to heal people and let them live longer, the devices that permit people to communicate anywhere in the world, the chemicals available to make crops healthy and resistant – why I could go on all night. I wouldn’t think that would make you grieve.

NL Ah yes, Mr Cobbett, but that’s not quite the point. I suppose some of those things must be pretty magnificent, but is anybody reckoning the cost of it all? I don’t mean the money, though I know it must be an enormous amount. No, sir, I mean the cost in much broader terms. Let’s say 200,000 tons of poisonous wastes created every year by the manufacture of those computer chip things; the 25 million on-the-job injuries every year to those who use them; the five million jobs made more routinized and mindless by what you call ‘data processing’; the fears and insecurities created by widespread change so shattering that your Newsweek magazine says – I have it here – ‘it’s outstripping our capacity to cope’; the damage to your natural world from the unimaginably powerful and efficient machines of exploitation your computers now run. Well sir, I could go on, like you, all night. But permit me to concentrate not on those costs but on one single effect of your ‘computer revolution’ dear to my Luddite heart: jobs.

TC All right Ned, not too long, though. What about jobs?

NL I’m just judging from the facts and figures you’ve given me, Mr Cobbett. But since 1979 when your computer revolution really began, 47 million jobs have been lost in your American factories and offices. Your own government says so. That is, put quite simply, a tragedy in a workforce of 120 million. Oh, I know what you’re about to say, Mr Cobbett. Maybe they weren’t all lost to technology, maybe it was things such as jobs moving to other countries. I can only say in reply that your New York Times seems to think it was mostly technology and you can certainly prove that in manufacturing where we know those robot thingamajigs replaced almost half the jobs in the factories.

But this should not even be a matter of contention, sir. We knew it back then: ‘labor-saving machinery’, they called it and the masters were damned proud of it. Well yes, it saved labor. Or rather took it away from men and gave it to steam engines and the like. Well that is what the computer does, what it is supposed to do, why they invented it and why the masters are using it. It saves them money because they don’t have to pay humans and put up with all the expenses humans cause. That’s why you’ve had this ‘computer revolution’ – because the masters make money from it.

I know you’re busting to get in here, Mr Cobbett, but just hear me out, sir. I said 47 million jobs lost. Think of it, sir – 47 million people. Think of what happened to their lives. Think of the misery, the heartbreak. Think of the mental toll, the physical anguish, the spiritual pain. Oh, yes, it’s true that some of them, 15 million I think it was, eventually got new jobs. But generally the new ones weren’t as good as the old, didn’t pay as much, had no ‘benefits’, no security. They were what people sometimes call ‘disposable jobs’. I am talking about people’s lives, Mr Cobbett, lives. Why does no-one pay attention to that?

TC Well now, Ned. It isn’t that we don’t pay attention. We have plenty of government programs for just that sort of thing. And of course we in the media are paying attention all the time. We had a Nightline segment on unemployment just last year.

NL Well that’s a good thing, sir, because according to all I read it will only get worse. Your Carnegie Institute, I will remind you, has predicted that six million more factory and 38 million office jobs will be eliminated by technology in the next decade or so. That’s 44 million more jobs, sir, 44 million lives.

TC I’m afraid you’re painting a very dark picture here, Ned. And I can’t believe it jibes with what most of our viewers experience in their lives. There’s a great deal of prosperity in this country. The long recession is over, the economy is by all accounts on the upswing and the unemployment figures are at one of the lowest points ever. I can’t say that I see much support for your picture of economic misery.

NL I beg you, sir, I am not making this up. I am quoting your own statistics. I do not deny there is great richness in this society. All that I am saying is that there is a dark side. An ignored side. And it’s this: five per cent of your people own 90 per cent of your wealth, the top 20 per cent earn nearly half of all income. And the disparity between rich and poor, shameful to begin with, has only got worse since the ‘computer revolution’ began. And gets worse each passing year. The dark side of your employment is this: eight million people are officially unemployed, 36 million are said to be discouraged from looking for work, 46 million are in dead-end jobs without hope. Add in 37 million people below what you call the ‘poverty line’ and that is, by my figuring, sir, 126 million people. And you only have 250 million or somesuch in your whole United States. It pains me to say it, Mr Cobbett. But for a nation as wealthy as yours to have produced misery, poverty, hopelessness, heartache and affliction on this scale seems to me to be a crime against humanity, compared to which there is only one crime more heinous.

And that, sir, is the crime that most people in your country are able somehow to sleepwalk through their lives numbed by shallow entertainments and ridiculous sporting events and other plentiful opiates, oblivious to it all.

TC Well I must say your views are very frank, Ned. And we all appreciate hearing them. I’m afraid, though, that’s all the time we have. I do want to thank you, Mr Edward Ludd, for your unusual views and I know our viewers will want to have you back again in the future. This is Ted Cobbett – no, dammit, Cobble – saying good-night to you all. Tune in tomorrow.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of Rebels Against the Future and a regular contributor to the NI.   

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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