Rebels Against the Future

By Kirkpatrick Sale
pub. 1995

What a history lesson! To anyone who has heard or used the term “Luddite”, I’d encourage you to read this book. You may not use the word the same way ever again. This book provided an in-depth look at the Luddite movement of the early 19th century, where a small-scale uprising against the industrial revolution took root in the English countryside. As Sale argues and demonstrates, our contemporary views of Luddism and Luddites in general is primarily a negative one – where being termed a Luddite insinuates an anti-technological or anti-progress view. Comparing this view to the historical accounts in the book show how perversely the term has swayed from those who defined and enacted it to our present day understanding of the word. The book argues that Luddism was a social and political form of protest against the rapid breakdown of traditional social bonds and lifestyles in 19th century England as well as a general protest against abysmal working conditions of the new and emerging industrial age that led to debilitating poverty. “Machine-breaking”, as it was termed in the early 19th century, was rarely the specific focus of protest, but was often used as the method of protest.

I really enjoyed the historical accounts of this book. It’s clear after reading a book like this that many of our current social norms with respect to capitalism and notions of efficiency had direct lineage from the time and place in which this book is set.

The second half of the book focuses on the “second industrial revolution”. Namely, the Computer Age and the age of mass consumerism. Sale does not hold back in his scathing critique of the problems of modern society. At times his views are extreme, but he has a number of valid points. Many of the quotes below are from the second half of the book.

Favorite Pictures

The Luddite Triangle Map

The Luddite Triangle Map

Favorite Quotations:

Under the old system custom protected the workers’ rights, the workers’ dignity. It was an impartial arbiter in disputes, the guardian of community morality… what was at risk [from Industrialization] was not just some workers’ jobs. Machinery and the factory threatened the very fabric of existing social organization.1Quoting Adrian Randall, 105

Only a people serving an apprenticeship to nature can be trusted with machines. Only such people will so contrive and control those machines that their products are an enhancement of biological needs, and not a denial of them2Quoting Herbert Read, 212

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community, wrong when it tends otherwise.3213

An industrial society, it becomes obvious, has its own inevitable logic, simply because its needs and values are determined by its technology. In such a society the artifacts are not something added on, like a coat of paint or a caboose; they are basic, central, the revelation of its mind and heart.4213

A high-tech society values solitary life and experience over communal, the mediated experience over the direct, and the mechanical expressions of a shared culture (networks, programs, electronic games) over the personal (taverns, schools, parks).5213

The extraordinary suburbanization of America in the last half century has been one principal way by which the places and values of the past have been destroyed or enfeebled. People have been sucked from neighborhoods and villages by government building and road policies, tax incentives, bank practices, consumer propaganda, and other devices of a modernizing society, and relocated in sterile enclaves where the cohesive arrangements of the past, much less the ancient connections to the natural world, are not only missing but impossible to create. Such places are not accidental, inevitable phenomena, mind: they are the quite explicit expression of a mass-production, consumer-directed, relentlessly mobile technological society, producing the anomie and atomization that make good workers and citizens, the dependence and emptiness that make good consumers. But so little do they provide the fertile soil for roots and stability of family or community that, statistically speaking, fully a fifth of the population over the last twenty years has changed homes every single year.6214

About computers, over which much dispute rages, it suffices to say that they have two fundamental, fatal flaws – quite apart from the fact that a great deal of pollution and sweatshop labor is involved in their manufacture, some real risks to health and bodily functions are connected to their operation, considerable deskilling and job displacement result from their corporate use, and increasing surveillance and invasion of privacy attend their proliferation. First, in the hands of the large centralizing corporations and bureaucracies that devised and perfected them in the first place, and in service to the goals of production, profitability, and power, computers are steering the world toward social inequity and disintegration and toward environmental instability and collapse, and doing so with more speed and efficiency with every passing year – regardless of how many people on the Internet believe they are saving the planet. Second, computers interpose and mediate between the human and the natural world more completely than any other technology – they are uniquely capable of reproducing another nature through biotechnology and many “virtual” ones – and are the instruments that primarily energize the technosphere that not merely distances this civilization from nature but sets it at war with nature for its daily sustenance. Next to that it is quite significant whether some individuals find that the values of a technological society – speed, ease, mass information, mass access, and the like – are served and enhanced by such machines.7257

Tools come with a prior history built in, expressing the values of a particular culture. A conquering, violent culture – of which Western civilization is a prime example, with the United States at its extreme – is bound to produce conquering, violent tools.8262

A new tool… should be cheaper, smaller, and better than the one it replaces, use less energy (and that energy renewable), be repairable, come from a small, local shop, and “should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.”9Quoting Wendell Berry, 263

It is in the nature of the industrial ethos to value growth and production, speed and novelty, power and manipulation, all of which are bound to cause continuing, rapid, and disruptive changes at all levels of society, and with some regularity, whatever benefits they may bring to a few. And because its criteria are essentially economic rather than, say, social or civic, those changes come about without much regard for any but purely materialist consequences and primarily for the aggrandizement of those few.10264

An economy without any kind of ecological grounding will be as disregardful of the human members as of the nonhuman, and its social as well as economic forms – factories, tenements, cities, hierarchies – will reflect that.11266

Questions to ask a new technology: “Who are the winners, who the losers? Will this invention concentrate or disperse power, encourage or discourage self-worth? Can society at large afford it? Can the biosphere?12274

Further Reading:

    • The Grass Roots of Art, by Herbert Read


References   [ + ]

1. Quoting Adrian Randall, 105
2. Quoting Herbert Read, 212
3, 4, 5. 213
6. 214
7. 257
8. 262
9. Quoting Wendell Berry, 263
10. 264
11. 266
12. 274

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