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September 01, 2011

Call me a Luddite

To address the social crisis behind this summer’s riots our research culture needs to change.

Those looking for historical parallels to this summer’s riots might encounter the bicentenary of another set of disturbances. Beginning in Nottingham in 1811, they sparked six years of civil disorder across the industrial regions of England. Their target: feral capitalists and their application of emerging technical knowledge to manufacturing.

As with this August’s unrest, the 19th century rioters were largely made up of members of an economic underclass whose social networking went undetected by the authorities. Spreading across the Midlands and North in a matter of weeks, the protest movement became known the Luddite uprising, named after their mythical leaders Ned, and often Eliza, Ludd.

There is more than just an anniversary that links the machine breakers of 1811 to the high-street window breakers of 2011. In the past few weeks events across the UK summer festival circuit have used the bicentenary as a starting point to explore new ideas for the post-collapse, and now post-riots, era. Often based in civil society groups, rather than in the academic mainstream, these neo-Luddites are particularly active in developing a critique of the naïve adherents of scientism and their proposed techno-fixes for the planet’s social and ecological problems.

Our university campuses appear to operate in increasingly narrow disciplinary silos, that have been worsened by twenty years of the RAE. The academic apartheid that divides scientists from those who embrace the humanities appears to have taken a step back towards the picture painted by the influential post-war opinion-former C.P.Snow, in his 1959 essay Intellectuals as Natural Luddites.

A journalist beloved of many of the most powerful scientists of his day, Snow’s sentiments echoed what they agreed to be a dangerous ignorance about scientific facts among non-scientists. He made the L word a term of abuse that keepers of the scientistic faith soon threw at anyone who dared to question the wisdom of the direction of a particular area of research, raise thorny issues relating to human rights, or look to lessons from history. For Snow as in the current political mainstream, the Luddite label denotes a backward-looking romantic extremist with whom it is impossible to undertake reasoned debate. According to sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson Luddites would rather live “in thatched huts and die young”. Yet, studies of the original uprisings by E.P.Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and many others allow a new generation to explore the meaning of the radical ideas that inspired direct action in the nineteenth century in today’s infinitely more technologically complex world.

Sharing many of the same character traits as today’s dot.com billionaires, a new class of engineer-cum-entrepreneur was key to the conditions that led to the Luddite revolt two hundred years ago. These industrialists introduced fossil-fuel driven mechanisms into industrial processes of manufacture. Their early factories produced goods that fed consumerism among the emerging English middle class. But by destroying the market for the output of traditional handloom weavers, this innovation crushed the livelihoods of tens of thousands of everyday people. To make ends meet, these artisans had to send their young children into the Dickensian working conditions that the lack of trade unions allowed to continue for many years afterwards. Today a similar scenario is causing a steep rise in death rates inside industrialising societies such as China and India that, like Regency England, lack effective democratic scrutiny of worker health and safety.

The Luddite riots were, like those of this summer, preceded by pleas to Downing Street by respected leaders of the affected communities, asking the government to reverse policies that were destroying the social fabric of the Midlands and Northern England. In a series of leaflets, posters and declarations they petitioned for those factory machines that were proving “hurtful to the common good” to be restricted by law. Neither government nor factory owners took action in the face of the economic destitution the new factories caused to communities, or the terrible injuries to which child workers fell victim.

By the summer of 1811, some Luddite cells had begun to take direct action - breaking those machines that posed an immediate threat to their communities. With such direct action becoming widespread across five English counties by 1812, the Luddite rebellion was largely crushed later in that same year by the government’s deployment of sixty  thousand troops – a larger force than that which had defeated Napoleon in the Peninsular War the following year. Scores of Luddites were hanged or transported to Australia, with the last pocket of activity extinguished in 1817. Yet, as Stuart Hall has said of the Paris Commune of 1848, the May 1968 protests and other struggles for justice that failed to achieve their stated goal, “Life since then has been profoundly transformed [by them]. Our theories have been transformed by revolutions that did not succeed”.

Though Luddites destroyed weaving looms, they stole nothing and gained wide support. Lord Byron saw the aftermath of machine breaking in Nottingham. It had been undertaken by weavers whose case he popularised in his 1816 poem "Song for the Luddites". They were part of the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and for heroes in novels by the Brontë sisters.

The individualistic and acquisitive disorder we saw in August has been partly explained by Marxists such as David Harvey in terms of twenty-first century capitalism now being led by a corporate and political elite that is widely seen to be acting in a criminal manner. Ill-informed approaches to complex social problems by the successive governments has also contributed to the current crisis. When we reflect on our own role as researchers in present times, many of us are now shocked at realising our collective inability to effectively and legitimately present persuasive advice to those making decisions.

Many commentators have identified the prevailing culture of selfish individualism as a factor in the summer riots. It is a social trend that has arisen from government policies that were explicitly based on the selfish gene, a model of animal evolution advocated by talented popularisers such as Richard Dawkins. Opinion-formers have accepted this scientifically flawed and amoral concept, along with even more extreme theories that assert the existence of genes in humans for violence and criminality.

Our politicians can now deploy a pseudo-scientific vocabulary to justify a revival of age-old notions that a proportion of those who commit crime are innately bad. Against almost all the evidence, they propose to divert resources from tackling worklessness towards putting an increasing proportion of the UK population in prison. Their politically expedient reasoning has been partly caused by our own failure as researchers to transcend academia’s narrow and often positivist approach to different areas of knowledge in order to see the big picture.

A neo-Luddite approach forces us to take an holistic view, particularly on issues with a scientific or technological component. Ten years ago the multi-billion pound Human Genome Project promised to cure our leading diseases, yet an increasing number of its past cheerleaders now admit they were naïve and over optimistic. Last month’s report by Sir Patrick Bateson‘s distinguished committee warned that some scientists regularly exaggerate the certainty of benefit that will arise from their particular area of research. Some of the most damaging effects of the Climategate email affair might have been avoided if key scientific organisations had not felt themselves to be above any need for open dialogue with their fellow citizens. Neo-Luddites also remind us that our current banking crisis was partly caused by the use of scientific algorithms allowing super-fast trading, designed by entrepreneurs who, like the factory owners of 1811, were left un-accountable by their close affiliation to the ruling class.

The government continues to ignore advice cautioning against rushing into techno-fixes: that market mechanisms and geo-engineering will not solve climate change, that synthetic biology is unlikely to feed the world and that nuclear power will be far from safe for future generations. Future historians may be horrified that our universities so rarely support scholars who expose the failures of hi-tech magic bullet solutions to problems that common sense tells us are highly complex.

The crises in which we find ourselves in 2011 and the role of technology in addressing them are so profound that we need a new paradigm of practically engaged thinking that works for both local and global issues. The current Research Excellence Framework and the winner-takes-all competitive system for funding research both stifle the long-term inter-disciplinary collaboration needed for this task.

The beliefs behind the Luddite uprising was full of flaws and contradictions. Yet, I am part of a growing number of researchers who support neo-Luddite proposals to re-think the prevailing model of the knowledge economy and facilitate new ways of allowing communities a role in shaping it. In recent months I sense there is growing enthusiasm to take on this challenge among groups of researchers, such as some of those associated with the cross-research council Connected Communities Programme.

Next March, a Canadian-based group ETC  are organising a symposium at Planet Under Pressure - a global forum taking place in London that will help set the agenda for next June’s Rio+20 Earth Summit. The session will focus on the urgent need for greater accountability to citizens in the development of green technologies and will include the perspective of Nobel Laureate economist Elinor Ostrom, one of the organisers of the London event.

Setting the agenda for life beyond the REF, combining an understanding of this summer’s riots with a deeper reflection on the uprising two hundred years is one of many opportunities to support a more holistic and critical style of reasoning to the centre of scholarly and political discourse. It could still rescue our policy-makers from bad science and our own efforts at social engagement from being lost in the oblivion of bean-counting the REF calls “impact”.


Tom Wakeford will be speaking at the Small is… festival this Saturday, 3 September in Warwickshire. He is the co-organiser of a session at the 2012 at the Planet Under Pressure forum.


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I like this, it should get lots of people thinking.

The only thing I'd pick up on is:
"some scientists regularly exaggerate the certainty of benefit that will arise from their particular area of research."

You mentioned the RAE and the huge competition for funding. Regarding this quote I would add that scientists are often *forced* to exaggerate the benefits of their proposed research in grant applications and communications (to both colleagues and laypeople) because of a widely-held shortsighted view with regards to research.

The government expects results; we had this debate around the Science is Vital campaign. With science, we can rarely predict which discoveries will be most valuable in future. Uncovering pieces of the puzzle does not allow us to see the big picture, until it's finished (or very nearly complete)!

'Bluesky' research is looked down upon and scarce money awarded elsewhere, big names in science (who have gotten to their position often largely through serendipity themselves, yet seem to have forgotten this) encourage funding bodies to fund 'excellence' alone.

The system feels broken so perhaps all the surprise is unwarranted.

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