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The Right to Shape the Future
Luddites and the fight for dignity and security
Through one of the best aspects of social media, randomly connecting with cool strangers, I recently got to “meet” tech journalist and author Brian Merchant. About ten days later his upcoming book Blood in the Machine arrived in my mailbox. It’s about the Luddites, and what I’ve read so far sets up the political and economic context for the famed, or notorious, anti-automation rebellion. It’s not particularly surprising that this uprising, motivated by capitalists replacing workers with machines, the impoverishment of large swaths of the English population, and the consolidation of wealth and power among a few industrialists has been reduced to the story of deluded working class people smashing technology. I try to veer away from the conspiratorial, but there’s a clear and obvious motive to distort this thoughtful, and in many ways prescient rebellion of workers resisting being replaced by automation to backwards men opposing progress and breaking machines.
In reading the opening section of the book I’m not particularly surprised to learn that these workers were in fact informed by an accurate appraisal of where the economy was headed. They looked around and understood that not only were they being replaced by machines that would make a few men rich while leaving most of them without jobs, but that this trend would accelerate way from their ability to impact it if they failed to act. I haven’t gotten to the heat of the battle, yet, but some examples have already been peppered in – stories of workers, threatened with lower wages and replacement by automation, banding together and choosing to smash up the boss’s equipment rather than go quietly into poverty. And some of the stories so far involve considerable success, like factory owners walking back wage reductions, or holding off on bringing in new machines. Now, we know what has happened since that time. We know that the trend has been towards automation, outsourcing, and growing inequality. But that’s not my focus today. Today I want to talk about what is in our purview. What I mean by that is what do we see as being within our control? More specifically, what do we believe should be within the collective control of the people?
The Luddites faced imminent poverty. Farming and the lifestyle of crafts workers were being radically and rapidly left behind by industrialization. And yet what I’m struck by is that these people, over 200 years ago, didn’t just consider the impact of these changes on their own lives. They saw the broad, long-term effects automation would have on the economic system, and maybe most significantly they saw this future of the economy as being somewhat within their sphere of control. Whereas many people now see the economy, in its complexity and scope, being out of our control, they saw things very differently. On the more immediate scale, they saw the decisions of the bosses as something they had a right to influence. Part of this viewpoint was the dire and stark nature of the times: either push back against automation or go hungry. But it was also more than that, it was a different view of what we, working class people, can legitimately have a say in or control. And I might be lionizing these workers in the Luddite movement, but I also think we should be clear about our current outlook in the United States, and perhaps elsewhere. A lot of people today have a very narrow view of what we can exercise influence over with legitimacy, a narrow view of what is and should be within our control.
The Supreme Court recently ruled that a concrete company could sue Seattle Teamsters after striking workers walked out and left concrete running in trucks. Ultimately this ruling could weaken the legal right to strike, as companies mightnow be able to sue unions, and therefore workers, over things like food going bad or potentially even revenue lost during a strike. And obviously, or at least obvious to me, the ruling itself is already bad enough. But what added insult to injury was seeing supposed ‘pragmatic centrists’ inject themselves into the conversation around this case by saying the bosses were being reasonable because the workers shouldn’t have left cement in the trucks knowing it could damage the equipment. They made comments comparing this offense to industrial sabotage, specifically. I find those comments immensely frustrating because of the lack of working class solidarity, a failure to understand the true precedent being set here, and misplaced priorities. But it was also frustrating to see because this response felt like a failure to really grapple with this major question of what is legitimate action, and what is in our purview.
According to Brian Merchant, the predecessors to the Luddites tried every available option, often over a period of years, before they smashed up some machines. They talked to the factory owners, talked to the town commissioners, and even petitioned Parliament. In a similar vein, workers in the United State have been trying every available method for years and decades. So if some workers, tired of being stepped on and tired of wages and hours getting cut and of the law already not being on their side strike in such a manner that some equipment could be damaged as they walk out, and the corporate bosses choose not to make a decent offer, I feel a whole lot of sympathy for the union members and not much for the owners. But even more than that, and this is the crux of it, I believe that workers are entitled to control their destinies. I believe that one of the clearest articulations of what freedom is and ought to be is a substantial measure of control over our lives. As I’ve written before that doesn’t just mean what I say goes, it means that we, together, should be able to shape our society and our world. And that ability is what has been so dramatically denied to us. Workers in 18th and 19th century England saw what limited control they had over their lives being taken away by men who favored profit and machines over human beings. Today we live in a world largely shaped by those forces and those decisions. So we must decide whether we think its in our purview, whether we have legitimacy to say that yes our destiny is within our sphere of influence, yes we should exercise the power to control our lives.
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In Atlanta, the police want to build a massive training center that’s been dubbed Cop City. This facility would include a mock neighborhood where they would both practice repression, i.e. practice responses to uprisings like that which followed George Floyd’s murder in the summer of 2020, and where other police from around the country would come to practice similar tactics and receive training in these strategies. And the public has come out against Cop City in every way imaginable, protests, marches, petitions, and speaking before city council in hearings where 98% of the people testifying opposed the project, before the millions of dollars was approved anyway. The people of Atlanta have engaged what exists of the democratic process to the fullest possible extent, and they have still been ignored. Now some folks down there are angling for a referendum in November, while others are encamped in the forest that the police and city and state governments hope to cut down to build the complex. I mention this because some of the people in the forest have allegedly torched construction equipment. They haven’t hurt anyone, although the police shot and killed a forest defender named Tortuguita in cold blood at the beginning of this year, but they have destroyed machines.
Much like the Luddites, or the union workers out in Seattle mentioned above, plenty of people have decried the tactics of the forest defenders. But what I hope I can hammer home is that the most significant question is not “should they have destroyed equipment,” or even, “what is legitimate to do when the government doesn’t respond to democratic processes.” It is: do we have the right to control our destinies? Should our lives and our future be in our collective control? Or, are we okay ceding that power and control to a limited number of people, and the mechanisms and avenues they deem legitimate. If not, then we can begin to arrive at what we deem legitimate. We can arrive at our answers to the question about our right to collectively control our destinies, and know that we are entitled to our own legitimacy. Answering these questions definitively also grants us confidence in our avenues of collective action, in part because we can more clearly see when these avenues are the only way forward, and in part because we can collectively choose to grant them legitimacy.
I am reminded, as I often am, of the beautiful words of Ursula K. LeGuin, “We live in capitalism, its power seems inescapable — but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” In particular I am drawn to that last part. Human powers, including immensely powerful systems like capitalism that have been designed and are maintained by people and our choices, can be changed. On the question of legitimacy, we see how change has historically been limited by those who say a given system is fundamental or inevitable. What I mean by fundamental is, for example, the various rules that people with orthodox religious convictions have argued are inherent to this planet or its people, because that is how God created the world and that is how God decided we should act. And arguments related to inevitability are often used to prop up capitalism, for example the claims that humans are and will always be greedy or selfish, and the claim that we must simply accept this reality. Setting aside the individual weaknesses of these lines of thinking, LeGuin’s quote prompts us to remember that these systems are all ultimately human creations, and can be changed. Notably people were told that feudalism was fundamental and inevitable, as she more eloquently stated, and yet it was changed by human beings.
Now we live under capitalism – the most hegemonic world system – yet more and more people are beginning to see through the flimsy arguments used to uphold it. This crucial step of seeing past the capitalist mythology used to maintain its power must be followed by exercising our agency and experiencing how it is within our power to build something better. Individualism often stops us from seeing just how much lies within our collective power. If we evaluate something so massive and sprawling as the global economic system relative to what we alone can do to change it, we will of course always feel small and powerless. But if we assess what we can do together, we begin to see not just that it ought to change but that we have the power to change it.
Later this summer 340,000 Teamsters will very likely shut down UPS. It’s not inevitable, but contract negotiations have broken down, and there’s a July 31st deadline to get an agreement ratified, or the union workers could launch the biggest strike in modern U.S. history to kick off August. This would be a massive example to workers across the country of what powerful collective action can look like, much like the writers of Hollywood gave us and continue to give us with their strike, and like the Stop Cop City movement in Atlanta is providing all of us when it comes to fighting for a real say in the future of our cities and lives. Unions, at their best, aren’t just fighting for better pay and benefits, they’re fighting for worker power and worker control of our workplaces as a central part of the struggle for a better world. They’re people collectively organizing and demanding a bigger say in our own lives. Workers uniting in these struggles both show us that we can and should be the people to shape the course of our destinies, and that we can only do it together.
There are a handful of very rich and very powerful people invested in us believing that our purview, the domain we legitimately have a say in, is a tiny corner of the world. And they want to shrink that little corner further. The ruling class wants us to have control over only a little slice of leisure time, at best. It’s up to us to break that paradigm and say that our domain is work, politics, our bodies, our lives, our autonomy, and it is our duty to organize and act collectively to make that vision a reality. It is through collective imagination that we break the shackles that lead us to accept only having control over a little slice of life, and it is through collective action that we expand and expand and expand our spheres of autonomy. As we exercise these muscles within ourselves and with our neighbors and fellow workers we can push towards a real freedom that can only come from the masses of people rising up collectively. So let’s get to it, together.
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