Blood in the Machine by Brian Merchant is an excellent book that everyone should read. Readers of my reviews know that I tend to be picky in my evaluations, highlighting the good and the bad. And this book is not perfect (I will get to its minor flaws), but it is as close to required reading as a book can be, I believe.
Merchant tells the story of the rebellion of the Luddites — the real story, not the propaganda version that you are likely familiar with. The Luddites were not anti-technology. They used new technology in their own work and sought, for example, to introduce technology that would better judge what they produced, generating fairer prices (no prizes for guessing that the moneyed class rejected that technology out of hand.) They were anti-starving to death. They wanted to the laws and the regulations of the era respected by the capital owners, and they wanted to negotiate the introduction of technology into the workplace so that it benefitted everyone and did not, for example, leave entire families without food or shelter.
The book highlights the simple fact that the capital class broke the laws of the day and were allowed to do so by the political class. Were, for example, laws against forming cooperative organizations were harshly enforced upon the Luddites, capital owners were allowed to do so as they saw fit. The owners of the new machines were allowed to violate the laws around labor standards and new technology with impunity.
Merchant tells the story of how the Luddites and their allies were thwarted at every turn by the power of capital and gradually grew more strident in their reactions. They were given little choice — no help was coming. The liberals of the day constantly sought regress for the harms the new machine owners were doing and to enforce the existing rules and laws and were constantly turned away. Luddite resistance was met with harsher and harsher reactions, until merely being associated with the Luddites was in and of itself punishable by death.
Given the situation, it is no surprise that the Luddites rebelled. In Merchant’s words:
To argue that a weaver is delusional for recognizing that a machine destroys his job is “inimical” to his interests seems the eclipsing delusion. If a person must work to survive, and their job becomes automated, you would have to be either deluded or willfully disingenuous to be surprised when they fight to keep it. As the historian Frank Peel quipped, these workers “did not understand it was their duty to lay down and die” because they were no longer useful to the industry and the state.
Merchant takes the historical consensus about the Luddites and turns it into a gripping tale of outgunned, out manned, desperate people trying to save their families against longer odds than a just God would allow. He also does not shy away from how the attitude that immiserated the Luddites also lead directly to the explosion of slavery in the so-called New World. The attitude that capital and property should rule, that just because a person controls a technology that society has no right to regulate its use, is a poison that Merchant makes clear did massive damage across the entire world.
The parallels to our own day are of course clear, and this is perhaps the one area of weakness for the book. Merchant has an excellent section on people attempting to resist the technological law-breakers and poverty merchants of today, but there are times later in the book when he repeats the connections perhaps more than is necessary weaking their impact a touch, I believe.
But that is the most minor of criticisms. Merchant elevates the historical consensus about the Luddites with an almost novelistic, but rigorous, retelling of not only their story, but how their story illustrated problems with the “technology above all” mindset both in their day and in ours. It is an exceptional, important book.
The Luddites were heroes. Their resistance reminds us that technology in and of itself has no value. That growth in and of itself has no value. That an economy should serve the people of a society, not the other way around. They were, if not the start, then a significant driver of the process that eventually made it possible for the benefits of new technology to be broadly shared and for things like a comfortable middle class to exist. Because the Luddites did not entirely lose. Under their pressure, the laws eventually did change. Not as much as they needed, but the start of the creation of the better world we live in began not with the invention of the machines that filled the factories and employed children to run them, but with the Luddites standing up and saying “Enough.”
That world, as Merchant shows, is under threat by many of the same forces that the Luddites faced. Capital, driven by the wealth generated by control of new technology and the ability to flout existing laws and conventions, is eating away at the ability of people to live solid, comfortable lives. More and more people find their livelihoods threatened by technology, and more and more people find their livelihoods made worse by the imposition of controlling and invasive technology. The “gig economy” is coming for almost every aspect of working life, driven by capital that cares not for laws or people. We are even seeing an increase in child labor — because it is cheaper to pay children and the associated fines than hire an adult. The solution is to wrest back democratic control of the economy and assure that the benefits of technology are shared, not hoarded, not used as weapons to immiserate the majority of people.
Being a Luddite was never about rejecting technology. It was always about ensuring technology was used for the benefit of the entire society. We, once again, have allowed ourselves to be persuaded by the lie that eventually technology benefits everyone so we should just accept the pain now for a better tomorrow. But technology only benefits everyone if the owners of technology are forced to live with democratic control of the economy. If they aren’t, well, then this happens:
According to the story relayed in Ben o’ Bill’s, her husband had been out of work so long he had been unable to find a way to feed them. And she had just given birth to a baby girl. The mother was severely malnourished and could not produce enough breast milk to feed the child. The young family tried giving the baby cow’s milk, but it was in vain. The infant starved to death. And there, according to Luddite legend, was the starved newborn, wrapped up in a blanket, still held at the mother’s breast, while she keened in sorrow.
As George was trying to comfort her, Horsfall was making his way back home to his factory on horseback. He would later say he did not know what came over him, but George took the dead baby in his hands and stepped into the middle of the road. Horsfall shouted at him to get out of the road.
George stood firm. “Look at this work, William Horsfall; look at this work, and be glad,” he yelled, raising the tiny corpse to where Horsefall could not avoid seeing it. The horse reared back, and George saw a “start” in Horsfall’s eyes.
As the stallion reared, Horsfall raised his horse whip, and lashed it across George’s face. “Out of my way,” Horsfall said as he did so, and drove the horse on, shouting as he left: “I marked you, George Mellor. I marked you, and know you for what you are.”
The story is likely apocryphal, but the records show a massive increase in poverty and starvation in the areas affected by the growth of factories. And if you think it does Horsfall too much harm: the evidence strongly suggests that Horsfall let two men bleed to death rather than get them medical help. If we want to avoid that past as our future, then we need to regain control of economy to ensure that the benefits are shared, that the power of capital is not used to immiserate the rest of society. We must become Luddites.