LET’S DO LUDDISM
★ ★ ★ ★
Image by Alexander Tsang
By Cory Massaro
I started 2022 in the Quito airport, where I watched the clock tick to midnight just before boarding a plane back to Ohio. I’ve spent January here, dodging the plague and distance-visiting friends.
Despite bare branches, the trees grow so thick together as to obscure the flat horizon. Squirrels skirt the snow, bound across plowed roads, and leap from trunk to leafless trunk. Yet for every patch of pristine, healthy woods, hundreds of hectares of land sit depleted and abused. The air shimmers chemically above coiffed golf courses and monoculture soy plantations.
I find myself mourning not just the land but also its lost promise of self-determination. In this place, there are no common areas. If there were a political rally, there’d be nowhere to march. There is no place where a dispossessed person might secure food by their own wit and will. Vast lawns worthlessly yawn before the homes of the landed. Police lie in speedtrap ambush on every corner; their presence ensures no one plants radishes in vacant lots. Few of us here could subsist without technological intercession; we depend upon fragile, coercive economic networks for our food, water, and power.
And we ourselves are occupied subjects: without money, we would be denied even this deeply pampered, yet sinisterly gatekept, subsistence. For the most part, the people here are workers, and under capitalism, the worker has no alternative but to exchange their labor for wages. “In the feudal system you don’t have this. In agricultural work, the family produced and cultivated on the plots of land that were allocated to them. […] Nobody in that kind of society depends on money for their survival,” (according to Silvia Federici). Without romanticizing feudalism, it’s fair to say that capitalist notions of “progress” broke something. In this kind of society (i.e. where I’m sitting right now), everybody “depends on money for their survival”—to be poor is criminal—and there are very few ways to squirm out of that fact.
* * *
I find myself thinking of a trip I took to Otavalo just before flying out of Ecuador, and of parallels between Otavalo’s history and that of the Luddites.
The Luddites (for whom this column is named) were 19th-century English textile workers who found their livelihood threatened by automation. Steam-powered machines and consumer preference for cheap, mass-produced goods presaged a world where the skilled textile workers’ piecework could no longer provide a viable wage. They might have to become factory workers, which sounded (quite understandably) unappetizing. The Luddites organized and attempted to bargain for better conditions. When that didn’t work, they staged a series of rebellions, initially focused on the destruction of factory equipment but culminating in armed insurrection.
An ocean away and a few generations later, similar labor evolutions terraformed land and culture in the Otavalo region of Ecuador. In 1856, an oligarch named Pedro Perez Pareja established a textile factory on property which had previously been carved out for a Spanish hacienda. Before that, the indigenous Otavalo community had dwelt there. The Otavalo had traditionally produced cotton clothing for trade with neighboring communities and were now compelled to operate machines in Pareja’s factory, “forced to labor in conditions similar to slavery.” This persisted until the twentieth century, when the factory was outfitted with automated equipment. Rumor holds that the factory became a place of anathema: because the machines were seen to operate of their own accord, people said that spirits or devils were working there.
By this time, many of the workers had formed a proto-union in order to bargain for better pay and working conditions, much like the Luddites. Yet it is here that the parallels with the English situation end. The indigenous workers in Otavalo were not exclusively dependent on factory labor to meet their material needs the way the English textile workers had been. People in the region still freely (albeit with difficulty) supported themselves with traditional crafts and agriculture. Thus, when workers left the factories or were pushed out by automation, they had no need to fight for their jobs: they simply found other means to sustain themselves. They did not “depend upon money for their survival.”
* * *
In Industrial Revolution-era England, such a shift “back to the land” was impossible. Whereas indigent persons had formerly been able to farm scraps of “waste” land (ungovernable twists of terrain, usually abutting on coastlines or other troublesomely curvaceous bits of Earth’s body), the Inclosure Acts had formally subdivided the land so as to capitalize on every inch. Here in Ohio, too, it would be difficult. I think a police cruiser would be on top of me pretty fast if I tried to grow cabbages behind a condominium.
A few years back, my sister lived in a run-down housing complex, managed by an unctuous property manager/owner/slumlord. One of the families there tended a rude garden, unruly but prolific, hidden on a grass strip between the car park and the woods. The fence’s supports dug their nails into slats made of branches and mismatched lumber. Last I checked, the garden had been dismantled. I imagine the landlord’s bruised bourgeois entitlement; I feel the family’s resentment, how even this little sliver of self-determination was denied them. I hope they revive their garden.
There’s no neat connection here between technology and economic immiseration, in contrast to the case of the Luddites, but there are strands worth exploring. One could think about automation, wealth distribution, and productivity, and then ask why the working class has to work so much. One could recognize how modern machine learning explores questions of direct relevance to policing—like facial recognition and behavioral forecasting—and then ponder the outsized role of the police in protecting property. And perhaps, another month, we will. For now, I’m looking out at the woods, hopeful for a future where it’s not illegal to relate to the Earth.
* * *
THE LUDDITE BESTIARY
It is a big fern
a business pays to plant inside your house.
You place it at your bedside.
And instead of spores, it spreads leaflets;
and instead of fanning leaves
it grows a shaggy mane of flapping tongues
each of which drools as it shouts advertisements.
Cory Massaro is a native of Ohio, U.S.A., now at home in Quito, Ecuador. He spends his time learning languages, writing, playing music, coding, and propagandizing. He actively opposes materialism, consumption-as-cultural mandate, and all forms of hegemony. He is in favor of small, robust communities and gently destroying hierarchies wherever he goes. His fiction and poetry draw on the grievances he has stored in his heart since working in technology; his dearest hope is to predict accurately how egalitarian, worker-centered societies will revive the oral tradition to weather the climate wars.