The neo-luddite movement is benefiting from the renewed interest linked to the topicality of struggles against the imposition of technologies (Biometrics, RFID, GMO or nuclear) and the questioning of information technology.
The spectre of Luddism continues to haunt our societies not only through the critique of techno-science but also in the field of social struggles and direct action. Where does he come from and what does he have to tell us?
Before the London World Fair of 1851 triumphantly celebrated the progress and virtues of capitalism, machine breakers or “Luddites” shook Britain between 1811 and 1816 by destroying thousands of textile machines under the leadership of a mysterious king or Colonel Ludd. Their tool of choice: a heavy mass nicknamed Enoch, which falls on wooden machines at the cost of bloody repression, despite the disconcerting support of the population.
The House of Lords is concerned about these machines being held responsible for unemployment. But that’s not the point. It is the alienation that evacuates any human part of the work with the disciplinary and repressive function of the factory that is being questioned. The new production system confuses the machine with a Moloch never satiated, whose implacable discipline devours community ties and relations of solidarity. Subsequently, the nascent political economy and Marxism reduced Luddism to a resistance to progress, rapidly becoming synonymous with ignorance and obscurantism.
In the mid-1950s, Jacques Ellul described a man who had become a slave to technology as “the preoccupation of the vast majority of people of our time to seek in all things the most effective method” (La technique, ou l’enjeu du siècle, Armand Colin, 1954) and traces a path taken with a fervour that is very much a subsidiary of Ivan Illich’s analysis of school and medicine. The extension of the technical sphere to all activities and automation are the subject of growing debate. However, the actions that break with the quietness of the philosophical cenacles are quite recent, scattered and isolated within the anti-industrial current. They are at best epiphenomena. The mowing of GMO transgenic plants claiming “civil disobedience” is part of this.
“We must name our enemy: it is technology” proclaimed Kirkpatrick Sale in 1996, at the second Luddite Congress. According to this independent American researcher, the processes and policies at the origin of the industrial system led to the imposition on the population, with the complicity of the State, of the destruction of previous lifestyles, the fabrication of artificial needs and massive unemployment. As a way out, Sale advocates nothing less than a retreat into a pre-industrial golden age without refraining from destroying a computer en masse at a conference at New York City Hall in 1995. This neoluddism carries the criticism of a world saturated with alienating technologies in an incessant race for profit.
Among the figures of the movement, a fate has to be reserved for “Unabomber” alias Theodore Kaczynski, the mathematician whom murderous bombs, fiery proclamations and 17 years of hunt by the FBI have made world famous and erected as a symbolic figure. He thus forced the Washington Post to publish its long pamphlet against “the techno-industrial society” whose computers have “destabilized society, made life insipid, humiliated human beings, caused widespread psychological suffering”; and led to a total control of living conditions. The Unabomber’s concerns have met with some echo in the media and some public opinion. At the beginning of the last century, in the midst of the speculative bubble of Internet stocks, the “new neo-ludic challenge” relayed by Bill Joy, former president of Sun Microsystems, took on the appearance of a provocation. However, far from calling for breaking machines, his warning called for control of the process of technical evolution (Bill Joy, “Why the future doesn’t need us”, Wired, 8.04.00).
For Kirkpatrick Sale, the most decisive feature of computerization is unquestionably “the will to control” whether it emanates from the state or from other organizations. This theme has become the privileged terrain for new struggles, including the opposition to the computerisation of the national identity card in the early 1980s, then to video surveillance, biometrics and genetic registration.
But protest goes far beyond mere counter-propaganda. For example, members of the Grenoble-based association “Pièces et main d’œuvre” (PMO) openly support “sabotage” as a means of combating biometrics. This venture took a novel turn on November 17, 2005 when members of the anti-biometrics collective targeted biometric terminals at a college in Gif-sur-Yvette located in the Chevreuse Valley technopole. The three activists arrested and accused of “degradation in meetings” were the subject of a trial which, however, received unprecedented attention because it was much less publicised than that of the “voluntary reapers”. The presence of Louis Joinet, the first president of the CNIL between 1978 and 1981, alongside other important witnesses proved invaluable to the defence. When he came to testify on behalf of the accused, he took the stand and stated: ” The action taken by these students was legitimate, especially since the biometric equipment installed in the school canteen had not received authorization from the CNIL “.
These concerns are also echoed in the mainstream press in which the philosopher Giorgio Agamben expresses his solidarity with the accused, fearing that “The day biometric control is generalised […] all criticism and dissent will have become impossible” (“No to biometrics”, Le Monde, 5 December 2005). The trial provided an opportunity to explain more fully the significance of the facts complained of in the hope of stimulating public debate. “Something about the biometric system installed in the high school canteen. Not a strong control, okay. Just one of those things that teach us to always be identified, sorted, separated.” (leaflet distributed by the ” collectif anti-biométrie ” at the lycée of Gif-sur-Yvette).
Celia Izoard, translator of Kirkpatrick Sale’s book and theorist of the French neo-Luddite movement, places the destruction of biometric terminals in a broader struggle and a general reflection on the “sacralization of technology”. Finally, mobilization also owes much to the militant Internet, which multiplies the echoes of protest.
It would be misleading to see in these few flashes the beginning of a larger movement, similar to the one that at the dawn of the industrial revolution began the destruction of machines. More certainly, its spectral presence in search of incarnation testifies to the vivacity of “a set of practices and reflexivity “, in the words of Celia Izoard, whose memory persists not through victory but through resistance.
– Vincent Bourdeau, François Jarrige, Julien Vincent, Les luddites, Era, 2006.
– Nicolas Chevassus-Au-Louis, Les briseurs de machines, Seuil, 2006.
– Collective, Les luddites en France. Resistances to industrialization and computerization , L’échappée, 2010.
– François Jarrige, Facing the mechanical monster. A history of resistance to the technique, Imho, 2009.
– Kirkpatrick Sale, The Luddite Uprising, trans. Celia Izoard, The Escape, 2008.