Monday 30 May 2011

'Luddites Without Condescension' - a report from the Birkbeck Conference

The Luddite conference at Birkbeck which took place on May 6th was the most important date so far for those interested in the bicentenary. With a somewhat stellar academic cast, it promised much, but the delivery was arguably somewhat patchy and it was possible to firmly divide it into three very distinct sections: historical, political and cerebral (or perhaps theoretical would be more apt).

There was no sign of Eric Hobsbawm, despite his late billing, and as people started to arrive in increasing numbers, the conference organiser, Iain Boal, announced that Hobsbawm could not attend due to a forthcoming stay in hospital the following week. Short of a medium channelling E.P. Thompson it would be hard to think of a more fitting start to proceedings than having the man who wrote 'The Machine Breakers' almost 60 years ago, so this was disappointing.

However, we did get a link to E.P. Thompson via historian Peter Linebaugh, an ex-student of his and co-author of a book. Linebaugh proceeded to 'pull a thread' through the history of roughly the Luddite period, but with an international dimension that was eye-opening with the connections. Noting that Frank Peel has talked of the 'flaming sword' of the Great Comet of 1811 heralding upheavals, and dubbing General Ludd an 'avenging avatar', Linebaugh declared that Luddism is 'incomplete' and proceeded to relate parallel 'avatars' in Ireland ('Captain Right' and 'Captain Knockabout' - the latter was lost in translation and should have been 'Captain Rock'), one place that experienced similar unrest. Linebaugh admitted early on that he did not have a script, only notes, and his presentation had a stream-of-consciousness feel to it, but it was a very rich concoction which also took in the Demerara slave revolt and the German coast uprising. Linebaugh's chief concern was to illustrate how the commons or 'commoning' was under attack across much of the world, mainly via the system of enclosure, whether of land of other aspects of life. I found this fascinating: it's too easy to confine history to a particular time and place, and Linebaugh's Marxist analysis is one which is open to examining what the international economic imperatives were underpinning the attack on the commons.

Following a break for lunch and prior to Session 2, we had an impromptu performance of Lord Byron's infamous maiden speech to the House of Lords in February 1812 (see video below). It was a fairly straight reading, albeit one executed fairly well. A bit of dramatic flair would not have gone amiss.

After lunch, Dave King stepped in for Beth Lawrence on behalf of the Luddites200 Organising Forum. King spoke about science and it's relationship to capitalism, with a particular emphasis on genetic and reproductive technology, saying the Luddites had resisted the capital intensification of production, with the issue now being the capital intensification of labour itself. Where the Luddites and others had resisted the enclosure of the commons, the issue now was the extension of that tendency into the bio-sciences, with the patenting of genes and cell-lines. King went on to speak about how the Organising Forum hoped to hold a technology politics conference, how there were ideas for arts and theatrical projects & public events involving education and 'wackiness'.

Iain Boal looked at latter-day Neo-Luddism and spoke in general terms about the politics of Earth First! & anti-GMO campaigners, with a particular emphasis on the American variants of those organisations, noting the divergent manner in which the organisations had developed, and also the different responses of governments in the US & elsewhere to them. Alongside Dave King's talk, there was here an attempt to address how technology is utilised by capitalism and whether or not it can ever be considered neutral in and of itself.

T.J. Clark's talk was a scripted, articulate and dense affair which was chiefly concerned with the Left - as the title suggested 'a Left with no future' - but questioning why the Left has to be 'looking forward' rather than present-centred. Virtually the only reference Clark had in his talk to the Luddites was the use of the same image of the card ticket to a Luddite meeting that we use as the banner for this blog. Clark also made clear that he viewed the current times as a watershed moment, similar to that after Waterloo in the 19th Century, a 'moment between paradigms.' Noting the Left's use of comedy, in particular the 'ironic mimicry of the language and assumptions of the ruling class', Clark harked back to Ned Ludd as a 'wonderful, appalling mask' which rhymes with Blood, Mud, Flood, Thud (of the trap door), M'lud (putting on the black hood), leading to Lump, Judder, Lurch, Shudder, Lead (or Led), Dead, Dread - Ludicrous and Lunatic, with Red Blood as a 'phonetic threat' in the background.

The last talk of the day was billed as a response to Clark by Esther Leslie, although Leslie got off to a bad start by admitting she hadn't prepared for it. By this time, I had tweeted that 'Ned Ludd has left the building' as I was completely out of the academic lucozade that seemed to be fuelling the others to discuss the issues arising from Leslie's brief talk. In fact, I'm still lacking in it now and can't really grab anything from her talk to write here, but you can listen to the mp3 below if you're eager to know.

All in all, this conference was a patchy affair, both in terms of content and relevance to the Luddites and the issues their rebellion raise 200 years later. For myself, it was worth attending for hearing Peter Linebaugh's talk, and the debut of the Luddites200 Organising Forum, as well as getting my hands on the latest issue of the The Land, of which a review will follow.


  1. Errm, excuse me, I did not say I hadn't prepared for it. I spent my whole life 'preparing' for it. What I said was that I had been asked to respond to TJ Clark, and I had not seen the paper beforehand, but was responding in the instant, so to speak. Sometimes respondents get to see the paper they are repsonding to in advance so that they can make a well-crafted delicate rebuttal etc, you know. Mine was scribbled down as we sat there. So sorry it was unilluminating for you! Esther

  2. An article I wrote, “Memories of the Future,” on a time when there actually was still a future. Engages with a number of recent writings on the subject by Franco “Bifo” Berardi, Slavoj Žižek, T.J. Clark, Owen Hatherley, Chris Cutrone, Max Ajl, Asad Haider, Salar Mohandesi, Ben Lear, and Malcolm Harris, which have been published by AK Press, Zero Books, Jacobin, New Left Review, and others. In case you might be interested.

  3. Hi Ross - I take issue with your description John Zerzan's views as a 'latter-day form of Luddism': my understanding (& preferred usage) of the word 'Luddism' applies to textile-workers and machine-breakers between 1811-1817. You may mean 'Neo-Luddism', but that is a label that is applied across a wide-gamut of views that don't necessarily have much in common at all with *true* Luddism, apart from in the imagination of Neo-Luddites themselves. Case in point is the 'anti-technology' position of Zerzan - which was not the stance of the Luddites - I'm sick of reminding people of it. To suggest views like these can be labelled 'Luddite, 'Luddism' is an insult to the folk from 200 years ago.

    Zerzan wrote about the *actual* Luddites once in 1976 ('Who Killed Ned Ludd?'), and it's not a particularly good article IMO.