An image of the cover of ‘Rebels Against the Future’
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‘Rebels Against the Future’ (1995)

In the late 1990s, on the back of the rising and soon-to-burst dot-com bubble, the media often featured Kirkpatrick Sale. His 1995 book, ‘Rebels Against the Future’, presents a detailed history of the Luddite movement, and what that historic movement represents to our ‘modern’ society today.

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An image of the cover of the first edition of ‘Rebels Against the Future’
‘Rebels Against the Future’:

First Edition, Harper Collins, 1995. ISBN 9780-2016-2678-0.

UK Edition, Quartet Books, 1996. ISBN 9780-7043-8007-3.

This is the first in a techo-critical trilogy, covering three books which I see as closely related in what they have to say, but offering radically different perspectives on that central issue: ‘Technological Society’.

In the late 1990s, on the back of the rising and soon-to-burst dot-com bubble, the media often featured Kirkpatrick Sale as a nay-saying voice amidst the techno-hype – sometimes with visuals of him or others smashing computers. His 1995 book, ‘Rebels Against the Future’, presents a detailed history of the Luddite movement in England in the early Nineteenth Century; and what that historic movement represents to our ‘modern’ society today.

As he summarises:

“The great consequence of Luddism, and the one that traditional historians have tried all along to ignore, was that it raised ‘the machinery question’ in stark and unavoidable terms… Who would determine what would be the technology of production for Britain?; by what criteria would they decide?; and how would the consequences of this be judged?”

when unsure if it represents 'progress' apply the precautionary principle an break the machine

The Luddite movement spread in the Midlands and North over two centuries ago, between 1811 and 1813. As the first water- then steam- powered factories were fitted with more advanced machinery, it threatened the livelihood of a relatively powerful group of artisans – weavers. They formed the core of The Luddites, named after their fictional leader ‘General Ludd’, who smashed the new machines, set fire to the buildings containing them, and attacked wagons on the road carrying components for these new machines.

Today, those questions about the nature of technology have not changed. Though we live in very different technological and material circumstances, these are the questions which still define our relationship to employment, production, and the respect or remuneration workers receive for developing their specialised skills – skills that, then as now, are being made redundant by ever-more powerful forms of automation.

As the book states:

“This time around the technology is even more complex and extensive, and its impact even more pervasive and dislocating, touching greater populations with greater speed and at greater scales.”

Luddism is not a rejection of technology, as it is so often characterised in the media and political criticism. The Luddites were not opposed to ‘technology’ per se, but to “Machinery hurtful to Commonality”; that is, technologies which degrade the working conditions of people and their general well-being:

“Luddism at its core was a heterogeneous howl of protest and defiance, but once that cry was heard in the land the only response of officialdom and merchantry was indifference… an assessment of just what Luddism achieved, and what it represented even when it failed to achieve, suggests why it struck an historic chord, and why that chord resonated through the social edifice of Britain, then and afterward, as few others before or since.”

And just like that the crisis was over!

The book mainly details the historic Luddite movement. If I have one criticism, it unfortunately does not give the same level of detail for ‘Neo-Luddism’ – the ideas which have grown-up in recent decades, critical of modern technology, and that in extreme circumstance have taken direct action to prevent the development or general destruction of the environment.

The final two chapters do list some contemporary ‘Luddites’, and briefly outlines the direction of their thought. Given the book is twenty-five years old, though – before the related techno-booms of the Internet, mobile phones, and social media – there is far more which can be said about this today, and how it applies to the destruction, and increasingly the manipulation of people’s everyday lives. This criticism exists in many forms, though few dare to use the deliberate label of, ‘Luddite’.

A picture of Kirkpatrick Sale
Kirkpatrick Sale
journalist, author

The book quotes at length Nineteenth Century politicians. Though stated in archaic language, their beliefs are essentially no different to those started by the political and economic elite today – and therefore we should not be surprised that the latest waves of technological innovation proceed with a similar official ignorance of their impacts.

In this sense, the book’s general thesis is still relevant:

“Imagine what happens to a culture when it becomes based on the idea of transcending limits; and enshrines that as the purpose of its near global civilisation. Predictably it will live in the grip of the technological imperative.”

As the book explains, this is the ideology that underpins industrialisation, and which in-turn dominates the state – and especially the political elite of the modern state. Though reflecting the modern shift in Luddism, from merely economic to broader ecological concerns, the book frames modern-day Luddism within much wider terms:

The cover of my own copy of ‘Rebels Against the Future’
The cover of my own copy of ‘Rebels Against the Future’ (1996 UK edition)

“It is characteristic of industrialism, of course, to make swift and thorough use of nature’s stored-up treasures and its living organisms, called ‘resources’, without regard to the stability or sustainability of the world that provides them – a process ratified by such industrial ideologies as humanism, which gives us the right, materialism, which gives us the reason, and rationalism, which gives us the method.”

Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is its honesty, both in viewing past and modern-day events. As it says:

“It is no surprise that the Luddites were unable to accomplish [change] in the face of an immensely self-satisfied laissez-faire plutocracy, whose access to means of forcing debates and framing issues was considerably greater than theirs.”

What the book presents as ‘the future’ of Luddism is as a critical force: Providing direct opposition where necessary; and more importantly, preparing for the inevitable ecological collapse of the technological-enabled economy; and keeping alive an ecologically-centric, less-complex view of human organisation for future generations to fall-back upon. As the book concludes:

“It is the task of neo-Luddites, armed with the past, to prepare, to preserve, and to provide that body of lore, that inspiration, for such future generations as may be.”