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.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Luddites200 Organising Forum - "Celebrating the 200 Anniversary of the Luddite Uprisings: Technology Politics Then and Now", London, 8th June 2011

Next month the Luddites200 Organising Forum are holding an open meeting in London entitled "Celebrating the 200 Anniversary of the Luddite Uprisings: Technology Politics Then and Now", the first of many to come over the next 18 months. Well let the blurb speak for itself:

In 1811-12 Artisan cloth workers in the Midlands and North of England rose up against factory owners who were imposing new machines and putting them out of work. Since the 1950s the Luddites have been painted as fools opposed to all technology and progress, but in fact the Luddites were very selective in their attacks, breaking only machines they thought were 'Hurtful to Commonality'.

What can the Luddites teach us about the ongoing use of technology to replace workers' jobs, as well as issues like GM food and nuclear power? Can we escape the myth that technology always brings progress? On the anniversary of the first action against a GM crop site in Britain, come and discuss the issues with speakers from the Luddites200 Organising Forum, Stop GM, a trade union activist, and the Stop Nuclear Network.

PLUS! Luddite entertainment

The meeting is being held on Wednesday 8th June at the Feminist Library in Lambeth and starts at 7 p.m. Residing in the Luddite heartlands, we are unable to make it, but would welcome any report back from anyone else who can attend. For more details, see our events page.

Sunday 15 May 2011

'The Luddite Lament' - BBC Radio 4, Thursday 19th May, 11.30 a.m.

This coming Thursday (19th May) on BBC Radio 4, folk singer John Tams will be exploring the story of the Luddites through their songs. The 30-minute programme will be broadcast at 11.30 a.m., and it will remain available afterwards (until 2099!) via this page.

We plan to review this programme in due course.

'What did the Luddites ever do for us? A 200th anniversary workshop' – 2nd June 2011, King’s Place, London

In 3 weeks time, the Society for Participation, Engagement, Action and Knowledge Sharing (or SPEAKS) is holding a day long meeting "to explore Luddite perspectives on the crises we face in 2011 and to plan what activities might be appropriate in the future."

Although it's not entirely clear what the aim of the meeting is, the programme tells us "there will the opportunity to read short sections of Luddite, or Luddite inspired, prose or poetry (sic)" and also talk about "what Luddism means to me." SPEAKS also says that it is involved in a project with the Food Ethics Council to "democratic control over science and technology associated with the food system (sic)."

The meeting takes place between 10.30 a.m. and 4.00 p.m. on Thursday, 2nd June at King's Place in London. The organisers are keen to facilitate access to the meeting via Skype or similar methods - see the programme for more details.

Thursday 5 May 2011

'The Luddites Without Condescension' - a Conference at Birkbeck, tomorrow

Tomorrow sees a major conference about the Luddites take place at Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities in London. The conference aims to look at the historical Luddites alongside contemporary resistance to capitalist modernisation. Announced some months ago, the speakers have now been finalised and the full programme finally drawn up. We'll publish it here, annotated as appropriate:

The conference begins at 10.00 a.m. with a 30-minute introduction by historian Eric Hobsbawm, who is the President of Birkbeck. In 1952, Hobsbawm wrote 'The Machine Wreckers', an essay about the Luddites in the first ever issue of Past & Present, arguably beginning the modern attempts to rehabilitate the Luddites and Luddism.

This is followed by Session 1, entitled "Ludd, Rebecca and History from Below" which begins with a talk entitled "The Luddites and the Atlantic commons" by historian Peter Linebaugh. Linebaugh was a student of E.P. Thompson, and co-authored a book with him, as is probably best known for his own book "The London Hanged".

After a break, the session recommences at 12.00 p.m. with a discussion moderated by Anna Davin
of History Workshop.

In between lunch and session 2, there's a reading of Lord Byron's maiden speech to the House of Lords "In Defence of the Luddites", given on 27th February 1812 at the height of the disturbances in Nottinghamshire.

Session 2 is entitled "Modernization and Contemporary Movements of Resistance" and takes place from 2.00 p.m. in two sections: Beth Lawrence from Corporate Watch will outline the Luddites200 project which we looked at a few days ago, and Iain Boal of Birkbeck reflects on machines, sabotage and direct action in a piece entitled "To put your bodies upon the gears".

After a further audience discussion and break, the conference recommences at 4.00 p.m. for Session 3, which is entitled "Rebels Facing Backwards and the Dream of Modernity". T.J. Clark delivers a retort entitled "A Left with no Future". Clark is an art historian, and in the 1960s was a member of the English section of the Situationist International and also a member of King Mob in the 1970s. Session 3 ends with a response by Esther Leslie of Birkbeck, followed by closing general discussion, to end for 6 p.m.

A very interesting agenda with some heavyweight speakers. The event is free, but registration is required. Those unable to attend will be pleased to hear that the Backdoor Broadcasting Company are streaming the conference, with mp3s available for download at a later date.

You can read our review of this conference here.