Gavin Mueller’s “Why You Should be Breaking Things at Work” makes a persuasive case for the Luddites. So why have so many people—including your favorite Communist philosophers—insisted that they were wrong?
In 2013, delivery drivers at three hospitals came up with an unexpected way to prevent robots from taking their jobs. They beat the robots with baseball bats and stabbed them in their “faces.” Some robots got off easy; they were merely abducted and shut away in basements.
Two hundred years earlier, British weavers had used similar tactics during the Industrial Revolution when textile mill owners started replacing them with new machines. They destroyed looms, shearing frames, and gig mills.
These weavers were the original Luddites, and both of these events are examples of Luddism.
What does it really mean?
This may sound like an insult. The word “luddite” is generally used as a synonym for technophobe, with a vague pop-cultural understanding that the original Luddites were short-sighted peasants who just wanted to put a stop to progress itself. When it comes to contemporary workers who face elimination by automation, we tend to understand their motives more as survival than technophobia—after all, the hospital delivery drivers’ vacant positions were not being filled by humans but by robots, who would never ask for time off or higher pay. The drivers were violently responding, then, to the fact that these robots embodied an existential threat.
What should be done about automation?
Plenty of people are concerned about automation: we can see this in the growing popularity of a universal basic income (UBI) to offset mass unemployment driven by technological advances. A Pew Research poll found that only “a narrow majority of U.S. adults (54 percent) say they would oppose the federal government providing a guaranteed income,” while “young people favor UBI by about two-to-one.” So, despite superficial similarities, many people would probably agree that the drivers who smashed those job-stealing robots weren’t like those “crazy Luddites” who just hated machines.
For more perspectives from The Mint on the future of work, check out Angela Dennis’ article on the meaning of the word.