ANNALS OF ANARCHISM
Terror Reigns in Manhattan
by Michael D. Weiss
Editors’ note: The following article singles out a real crisis that is emerging in anarchism, not only in the U.S. but in Europe as well: the steady degeneration of a left-libertarian radical theory and practice into a bohemian, personalistic, and in many ways decadent lifestyle. In our view, the designation lifestyle anarchism could often be substituted for postmodernism throughout the article.
On the streets of New York, spring 1992.
Not far from the complacent New Age-ism of the touristy West Village cafés and uptown sushi bars, terror culture is afoot. Arising from the dark fragments of postmodernism, terror culture is the defining philosophy or, to use the de rigueur term, “voice” of a new movement. With growing force and articulation, this terrible voice, the clarion of the fin-de-millennium, echoes from Columbia’s Philosophy Hall, to the cafés of SoHo and the squats of midtown. This new movement has been called the paradigm of the twenty-first century, but its philosophy signals nothing less than the death of the city.
Although the scent of postmodern decay is strongest below Fourteenth Street, the signs of it are everywhere. From amidst the phone sex ads and the club listings in underground newspapers, a careful observer glimpses the postmodern terrorists. Ghoulish books called Hunting Humans and The Atrocity Exhibition fill their shelves; Faces of Death and hard-core pornography sit next to their VCRs; tattoos and piercing adorn their bodies. Dressed in defaced jeans or in the almost passé all-black uniform of their movement, they frequent the nightclubs, galleries, and bookstores of the city.
What is truly frightening about terror culture is that it is gaining ground, making its way into the mainstream. One of the leading American movies of recent years, Silence of the Lambs, is decidedly terroristic: The serial killer Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) is transformed into a Sherlock Holmes-type hero. On TV Twin Peaks and a slew of real-life crime and talk shows popularize “real” violence and fringe lifestyles. After the Jeffrey Dahmer case, a California card distributor released serial killer trading cards. Rock album covers make the Beatles’ original mutilated baby cover of the White Album pale in comparison.
College fashion is ugly. Women with dyed black hair and nose rings wear men’s Doc Martens or cowboy boots, defaced jeans, and T-shirts sporting bizarre, horrific, or obscene logos. According to Lola, a pink-haired, nose-ringed student at Parsons, “Postmodernism is the rage in art schools. Everybody dresses in black. It’s fashion.” In fact, every person I talked to, whether a self-proclaimed devotee of terror culture or not, conceded that terror culture has affected the contemporary cultural scene.
Terror historian Arthur Kroker describes the new postmodernism as “playing at your local theater, TV studio, office tower, doctor’s office, or sex outlet. It is the implosion of contemporary culture into a whole series of panic scenes at the fin-de-millennium.”
This new movement has arisen from the fragmentation of relativism. Yet though borrowing much from the relativists, terror culture has at its core radical subversion, nihilism, and complete rejection of all contemporary concepts of value. Terror culture goes beyond the relativist observation that all concepts of value or quality are contingent and socially constructed, ultimately to espouse a theory of anti-value.
To understand terror culture one must look to its genesis in academic postmodernism. Postmodernism, as its name suggests, is first and foremost a reaction to modernity. “Modernity” represents a belief in progress and in the value of art, science, and religion. The modern era, according to historian Arnold Toynbee, is “an unbroken vista of progress toward Earthly Paradise” full of idealism and technological optimism. The modernist world is orderly and logical, and humans can ultimately conquer it through Reason.
Postmodernism, like relativism, however, rejects modernity’s premise that human beings will achieve a progressive realization of truth through human endeavor. As Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, expresses it, “Post-modernism came into existence when the notion of progress began to subside.” The postmoderns reject teleological belief systems; they reject the notions of progress, truth, and beauty because these notions make sense only inside our culture’s current dominant paradigm, or way of looking at things.
Paradigm theory, a central tenet of postmodernism, postulates that there are countless different paradigms and that our current culture’s arrangement proceeds only from the one now dominant. Truth, progress, aesthetic quality, even value are arbitrary as to one paradigm and impossible to fulfill in all paradigms at the same time. They are thus meaningless concepts that should be discarded.
The postmodernist attempts to demonstrate that the contingency and socially constructed ideals of Western culture are both liberating and emasculating. As Gitlin writes, “Post-modernism neither embraces nor criticizes but beholds the world blankly, with a knowingness that dissolves feeling and commitment into irony.” To the postmodernist, everything—every value, every idea—is contingent. Postmodernism rejects the earnestness of modernism as simple-mindedness and adopts all that modernism rejects. By embracing kitsch, “poor” quality, and obscenity, postmoderns reject value per se, or at least value as defined by the dominant paradigm.
This sort of kitsch pomo caught on in the art and architectural world in the late 1970s. Employing these ideas, a painting movement emerged in New York that rejected all distinctions between bad art and good art by employing tasteless images, inept drawing, poor craftsmanship, and unschooled color. The movement’s 1978 show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art had the Monty-Pythonesque title “Bad Painting.”
As expressed by Julie Wachtel, a postmodern artist whose works consist of tracings of cartoon figures from cheap greeting cards directly onto canvas, postmodernism rejects the very “idea of quality.”
The message in the title of New York Times art reporter Andy Grundberg’s “Death Comes to Post-Modernism” clearly hasn’t reached downtown. The 1980s social climber may have tired of chintz architecture and schlock ballet, but in intellectual and popular cultures postmodernism has lost none of its potency. Contemporary postmodernists fall roughly into two camps: New Age multiculturalism devotees (the children of 1960s relativism) and terror culture devotees. This second group, the postmodern terrorists, are indigenous to the postmodern scene, which, according to Kroker, “evokes, and then secretes, the fin-de-millennium mood of contemporary culture,” a world of “panic sex, panic art, panic ideology, panic bodies, panic noise, and panic theory.”
It is a movement whose intellectual heart is radical subversion and whose chief ideological progenitor is Jean Baudrillard. Born in Paris in 1929, Baudrillard has spent the last twenty years of his life crisscrossing America, writing of its “inspired banality.” The starting point of Baudrillard’s postmodernism is pain. Relying heavily on the language of cybernetics and information science, he describes a dizzying “hyperreal” world where paradigm shifts and changing images obscure all meaning.
For Baudrillard, the communications age has replaced the scene with the obscene. The obscene
is no longer then the traditional obscenity of what is hidden, repressed, forbidden, or obscure; on the contrary, it is the obscenity of the visible, of the all-too-visible, of the more visible-than-visible. It is the obscenity of what no longer has any secret.
Yet though everything is apparent, nothing has meaning. The massive infusion of terrifying gibberish can only be described as pornographic: It is a “whole pornography of information and communication, that is to say, of circuits and networks, a pornography of all functions and objects in their readability, their fluidity and availability.”
In this hyperreal environment notions of value are not only meaningless, they act as simulations that keep us away from reality. As Baudrillard says, “We are in an epoch of simulation: simulated culture, simulated intellectual life, and . . . simulated conservatism. And the simulations have almost already lost their ability to refer back to the ‘real thing.’”
Baudrillard’s goal, therefore, is to rediscover and recapture reality by bringing us something that cannot be transformed into hyperreal gibberish. Much as T. S. Eliot sought “the still point in the turning world,” so Baudrillard pursues “that critical point, that blind spot in time” where “we suddenly left reality behind.” At that point lies the “possibility of a pure event, an event that can no longer be manipulated, interpreted, or deciphered by any historical subjectivity.”
To find this spot, Baudrillard proposes a complete assault on the present paradigm: “It is true that logic only leads to disenchantment. We can’t avoid going a long way with negativity, nihilism, and all. But then don’t you think a more exciting world opens up? Not a more reassuring world, but certainly more thrilling, a world where the name of the game remains secret. A world ruled by reversibility and indetermination.”
Baudrillard concedes that
Post-modernist discourse is a violent, restless, and hallucinogenic reflection, . . . a wiping clean of the “entire horizon” as the dominant mood of twentieth-century experience.
He even illustrates this point with a story.
Take, for example, the story of a woman to whom a man sends an ardent love letter. She asks him what part of her seduced him the most. What else can he answer? Her eyes, of course. And he receives in the mail, wrapped in brown paper, the woman’s eye. The man is shattered, destroyed. The woman has abolished the symbolic order. She loses an eye, he loses face.
For Baudrillard, we are undermining all rationality and ultimately the entire paradigm by attacking the paradigm of thought embodied in the idea of metaphor.
Hence the intellectual underpinnings of terror culture contain the seeds of utter nihilism and destruction. As Jean-François Lyotard expresses the essence of terror philosophy:
Beneath the general call for an easing and abatement of pressure, we hear the murmurs of the desire to recommence terror, of the phantasm of grasping reality. The reply is: war on everything, let’s be witnesses to the unpresentable, let’s activate those differences, let’s save the honor of the name.
But terror culture’s war on the dominant paradigms is not restricted to sterile intellectual environs; it is carried on in the streets, nightclubs, bookstores, theaters, and art galleries of the world’s metropolises.
A recent exhibition at The New Gallery, 583 Broadway, illustrates the dichotomy of evolving postmodern culture. The exhibit is largely patronized by men wearing expensive overcoats and sporting trendy haircuts rather than by the denizens of the SoHo cafés who spawned the movement. On one wall of the gallery, a ten-by-twenty-foot photograph of a prison entrance serves as a screen for a slide show that spells out “opening new doors” in several different languages. Another wall features a thirty-foot-long computer image of dirty Brazilian miners. The floor boasts assorted photos of Vietnamese boat people—all very dirty, all very shocking.
The last room of the exhibit contains an installation composed of plastic wallpaper with large molded children’s toys in pastel colors, flanked by two lambs of the same material that say “bless you” on the back. Opposite the bright wall sits a wooden table that supports a two-foot-high sculpture of a fat smiling naked man surrounded by at least twenty earth-toned ceramic pitchers. The man’s arms are open wide in a joyous embrace, and a word-balloon rising from the top of his head says “Baby, I love you!” The mouths of the pitchers are reminiscent of puckered lips. This is pure kitsch, the happy ending in a sad and dizzy world, as meaningful as a music box in a pile of nuclear waste. This is the essence of postmodernism: the willful juxtaposition of terror and Toyland.
Observers of this terror show have mixed reactions, although they agree that it is provocative. An onlooker named Iddo, a recent graduate from Hammond’s Visual and Environmental Studies program, says he is familiar with this type of postmodernism. According to Iddo, “Lots of new cinema programs buy into this stuff.” He cites as an example the movie Jacob’s Ladder. “It lacks narrative; it’s grotesque; it’s medieval; it’s totally postmodern.” Looking at some of the more extreme works in the New Gallery, however, Iddo expresses some skepticism about the movement’s contribution. “Personally,” he says, “I don’t buy it. They believe in artistic and cultural relativism, that there’s no good or bad art, no way to judge the material. This stuff is highly intellectual, at least in cinema. But in the end, I think it’s just boring.” Another onlooker, a middle-aged woman dressed in black, disagrees. “You don’t understand it if you think it’s boring,” she tells him. “This is the only stuff left that’s interesting. Andrew Wyeth—that’s boring.”
The war on the dominant paradigm has certainly begun on the streets of New York. On Broadway, near Broome Street, vendors sell disembodied mannequin parts for five dollars apiece (three for $12). On St. Mark’s at Second Avenue, sidewalk artists hawk neo-obscene or grotesque pictures: an American flag, above which sits a half-clothed stripper in a Grim Reaper’s cowl, mountains of skulls against a postnuclear backdrop, headless businessmen, rotting corpses in bondage. At Art 54, at 54 Grand Street, black and white lithographs of mangled children (triple sized) and fallen angels sell for $3,500. The curator tells me the pieces sell very well. “I get a lot of interest in them. I like them. The subject matter may be a little much, but I think that’s the point. People want to be a little bit shocked.”
St. Mark’s Books, at Ninth Street and Third Avenue, advances the war on culture. The store is full of urban primitives (the vanguard of the terror culture movement), all in black, perusing magazine racks of obscure photocopied magazines on anarchism, obscenity, terror, and of course every conceivable brand of rock and roll. On the front rack are some of the best sellers: The Atrocity Exhibition, The Torture Garden, Hannibal Lecter, My Father, Assassination Rhapsody, and Freaks. Others include the complete De Sade collection, Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch, Macho Sluts, and perching nervously, Iron John. Readers sit surrounding a rack full of Exploring Teenage Culture, published out of Brooklyn. This magazine, edited by “Frank,” espouses mass murder (not serial killing, which Frank calls “weak”) and has sections on murder techniques and murder records (seventeen at McDonald’s in Fresno). A longer-haired customer wearing a tweed trench coat tells me he enjoys Frank’s writing. “I got into this stuff through photography. The interesting thing is that it keeps going and going. It’s a lifestyle; it’s something you have to do. I’m trying to do crime stuff now. Free-lance. Like Weegee, only more real.”
Another front in terror culture’s “war on everything” involves (increasingly popular) body mutilations— disfiguring, scarring, and piercing. In its upstairs quarters at 144 Fifth Avenue, the Gauntlet is the premier piercing center in New York. In its first three months, it has already performed more than eight hundred piercings (roughly fourteen a day). Its offices are inoffensive and even stylish. Minimalist couches and counters sit atop polished hardwood floors. The first tip that this is not just another trendy midtown hair boutique comes from the contents of the counter. It is filled with metal rings obviously not designed for ears. Also lying under the glass are needles, surgical forceps, jawbones, neo-Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting genital mutilations, and what looks like chain mail.
On the other side of the room is a table containing copies of P.F.I.Q. (Piercing Fans International Quarterly), a sort of combination hard-core porn/how-to guide for amateur piercers. Also on the table is Androgyny and a copy of a tattoo magazine, Body Art. The piercing rooms at the Gauntlet are extremely clean, better looking than the average doctor’s office. It has been inspected twice by the Health Department, passing easily both times. The piercing is done without anesthesia. Some piercings hurt no more than installing an earring. Others, Dan says, are “out of body experiences.”
Dan Kopka, the skin-headed, multipierced, highly tattooed manager and master pierce at the Gauntlet (“the only fully qualified pierce in town”), gives an assessment of the piercing movement. “Most of the piercings we do are the three N’s: noses, nipples, and navels. But we’ll do almost anything—genitals, eyebrows, whatever.” Dan says that his clientele is not all alternative. “We get all different types of people from all walks of life, from Wall Street to the East Village.” While I am there, a client comes in looking for a back to her nose ring. “I’m not personally really into the weird stuff,” she tells me, pointing at the genital piercing hieroglyphs, “although one of the guys I’m going out with has one like that. I think it’s a powerful statement.” Piercing is the metaphor of the postmodern terrorist.
Terror culture even has its own publication. Semiotext(e) is the definitive guide to terror culture. Semiotext(e) is published by Autonomedia, a cooperative run by Columbia University’s Jim Fleming and Sylvere Lotringer. It is headquartered in the French Department at Columbia University (512 Philosophy Hall), although it has recently expanded to additional offices in Brooklyn. In 1978 Lotringer, coeditor and French professor, decided to change the focus of the magazine, to make it more “relevant.” Thus Semiotext(e) in its current incarnation is, according to Adam Parfrey, editor of Apocalypse Culture, “kinda anarchistic, heretic, post-punk, post-situationist, cutting-edge subversive-type stuff.”
I meet Jim Fleming in the old factory building in Brooklyn that houses Semiotext(e) and, incidentally, serves as Fleming’s home. Fleming came aboard in 1979, shortly after the decision to refocus the magazine. His mission: to “do something on what we talk about, change the way people think about things, absolutely everything.” Theme issues during the next ten years included Polysexuality, featuring a half-dressed leather-biker cover, behind which lay a collection of essays on, among other things, animal sex, child sex, morbid sex, violent sex, and critical sex. The Schizo issue celebrated schizophrenia and included lyrics from the punk rock song “Teenage Lobotomy,” the Boston Declaration of Psychiatric Oppression, and academic articles that included “Fuck the Talkies,” “Politics,” and “Savage.” Its writers include a who’s who of the avant-garde: John Cage, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Kathy Acker, Phillip Glass, and William Burroughs. Recent issues of Semiotext(e) have sold more than thirty thousand copies.
Fleming does not look at all terrifying. We chat congenially in his kitchen while he cooks a large spaghetti dinner. His young son lies sprawled in the living room watching Peter Pan on the Fox network. All in all, a wholesome scene. Jim is a ABD from Iowa in linguistics, where he studied deconstruction under Derrida disciple Gayatri Spivak. He now teaches in the communications department at Hunter College. He looks the part of the comfortable intellectual, with his full beard and curly, unkempt hair. Sue Ann Harkey, the graphic artist, is the most alternative-looking person present. Her pierced nose and four or five earrings give a hint of the movement’s fascination with piercing.
As we talk, Jim pulls out a joint and lights it. He passes it around, reflecting thoughtfully that Semiotext(e) “had been moderately successful,” despite money problems and surveillance by the FBI. “One of our goals,” he says, looking at the Schizo issue, “is not to battle in the libraries. We try to be less intellectual. We want to expose people to alternative ways of living.” Discussing the issue on Italy, he says, “what we wanted was an alliance of Marxists, drug users, and the mentally ill. I respect that.” According to Fleming, “Money and media—that’s what New York is all about. People hoard knowledge. That’s how they get ahead. We [New Yorkers] are information junkies, the most in this country, maybe the world.” Semiotext(e) seems doggedly bent on feeding this information obsession, on distributing “dangerous,” hard-to-get information to as wide an audience as possible, hoping to make waves in the mainstream of popular culture.
As far as avant-garde art goes, preeminent in the creation of terror culture is performance artist Karen Finley. Finley’s performance art has been distinguished by Artforum magazine as “obscenity in its purest form.” In her act Finley smears food into her genitals and has even defecated onstage. She graphically describes violent and bizarre sex acts with priests, children, relatives, and the handicapped. Following Finley’s lead, former porno performer Annie Sprinkle now does her thing in artistic settings. Her 1988 performance at the Kitchen Center for Performing Arts’ “Carnival of Sleaze” festival included elements from a previous performance at a Screw magazine party. The Kitchen has also featured the concededly “extremely violent pornographic art films” of Richard Kern, best known for his Death Trip films. These performances graphically illustrate the terror culture agenda. The artists violently attack the idea of value, championing anti-value. They do not claim that what they do is not pornographic or obscene. Nor do they claim it is beautiful. It is terror, trying to tear down the dominant paradigm at all costs, attacking all fronts at once.
And the terror project is working. One can see its effectiveness clearly while sitting in the Life Café at Tenth Street and Avenue B at two o’clock on a Friday night. The Life is a favorite NYU hangout. (NYU, especially its Cinema Studies program, attracts many aspiring terrorists.) Still, the black leather, bald heads, and nose rings of the crowd cannot dissipate the feeling of suburban youth transplanted to the city, of amateurs “playing” terrorist. The decor is quintessential pomo: Life magazine covers, a Victorian-style embossed ceiling, cowboy hats, exterior pipes, and black and white photos. The music is loud, fast, and grinding. One pink-haired woman calls it “mainstream alternative,” training wheels for terror. Another says she thinks it is a derivative form of adolescent rebellion, though she too is dressed in the all-black costume so common to the movement.
At Cheap Jack’s I meet Christy, a member of A-Central, an anarchist collective that distributes nonauthoritarian literature, including the Semiotext(e) and Autonomedia series. Christy tells me that I won’t learn much about the terrorist enterprise in the open air of the Village. She suggests the rock group Missing Foundations as “real underground. They’re into direct action. They’re motivated by postmodern theory and aren’t into drugs.” Christy recently lived in the squats with the direct action crowd. “The postmodern art scene is totally different from the people who live in squats and are watched by the FBI.”
The squatters represent the latest wave of homeless youth who see themselves as a rebellion against false culture, a celebration of life on the edge. Recession drives young punks from cheap apartments paid for by parents to squats. They demand respect. They call themselves urban primitives, a new name for the homeless.
Arthur Kroker captures the feel of terror philosophy, of the war on the dominant paradigm being waged in the streets, theaters, cafés, bookstores, and galleries. According to Kroker, the contemporary cultural scene represents
the ecstatic implosion of postmodern culture into excess, waste, and disaccumulation. . . . The Postmodern Scene is, therefore, a catastrophe theory for a hyper-modern culture and society which is imploding into . . . its dark and negative sign . . . , burnout, discharge, and waste as are compelled to reveal their lingering traces on the after-images of (our) bodies, politics, sexuality, and economy.
Given its increasing popularity, even trendiness, what’s wrong with terror culture? Perhaps the essence of what’s wrong is its denial that something could be wrong with anything. In waging war on all value and values—truth, beauty, progress—the postmodern terrorists champion a theory of anti-value, in the process making all dialogue not only incoherent but meaningless. Moreover, the central belief of the terrorists, that by attacking what we think of as good with what we think of as bad we will find something real, must be the ultimate nonsequitur. Even assuming that paradigm theory is true, it does not in any way follow that by attacking the present way of seeing things, something “better” or more “real” will follow. Terror culture attempts to heal its patient (society) by destroying it. It knows what it dislikes but, unable to do any better, is content to destroy what is, subsisting on its dreamlike hopes for a utopian future that will arise in its place.
Terror culture is taking hold. It desensitizes us. It creates moral, spiritual, and at its logical conclusion, physical death. It does not take psychological expertise to realize that immersing oneself in pictures of mutilated children, in hard-core pornography, and in self-mutilation is not conducive to a healthy mental state. The “ironic detachment” created by terror culture is thus more akin to Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” than to Baudrillard’s “desire for the real.”
In the end the battle over terror culture will be waged, not in the ivory tower of Baudrillard and Lyotard, but on the streets with Lola and Christy and Iddo. The real always does enter into the equation, and what seems to be an ultimately unhealthy way of living will, if it is truly so, be unlivable. Theory can push reality back only for so long. The healthy conditions for human existence have a nasty way of biting any utopians on the behind. If that is so, maybe terror culture is doomed from the start, as other utopian movements before it. On the other hand, there has never really been a (dys)utopian movement of this type before. Maybe for them the rules have changed. Maybe they don’t care. As for the rest of us, caught up in the beginning of this maelstrom, maybe we should.¤
Michael D. Weiss is a freelance libertarian writer.
This article was originally published in Social Anarchism, no. 21 (1995-1996). For more information: Atlantic Center for Research and Education, 2743 Maryland Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21218 U.S.A.
On a similar theme, please see the recent pamphlet Social Anarchism or Lifestyle Anarchism by Murray Bookchin (A.K. Press, P.O. Box 40682, San Francisco CA 94140-0682).
Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age
by Kirkpatrick Sale
(Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995)
reviewed by Janet Biehl
For centuries throughout Europe, yarn-making and cloth-weaving had been domestic enterprises. In the Midlands and the northern counties of England, skilled craftsmen— weavers, knitters, stockingers, croppers—had long woven and finished cotton and wool, first for local use and later for the textile trade under the “putting-out” system. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, these craftsmen found their livelihoods jeopardized by the new economic and technological order of the Industrial Revolution. Large steam-powered factories were being constructed featuring spinning machines, scrubbing engines, and power looms. In 1809 a new wide-frame lace-making machine was patented that could produce more lace with less labor, thrusting the area’s lace-making artisans out of work. Between 1806 and 1817, the number of textile mills in Yorkshire alone increased fourteenfold.
Formerly independent artisans, who had once been independent and formidable enough to set their own wages, now found themselves replaced by machines, while their children were subjected to long and dismal hours of toil in the hated mills. Community animosity toward the factories was intense—it was clear to all that a whole way of life, one based on local reciprocity, was imperiled. In a culture where morality still exercised a claim over a person’s actions, those who built their fortunes by building and running factories were considered immoral. As Kirkpatrick Sale correctly puts it in Rebels Against the Future, “In the course of no more than a few generations England saw the effective end of a world based on an enclosed communitarian life, a high degree of nonmarket self-sufficiency, a simple system of local exchange and barter, a heritage of multiple crafts, and interwoven customs of mutuality lying outside the chaffer of the marketplace.”
The animosity erupted into violence for about fifteen months in 1811-1812 in the movement known to history as Luddite, named after a mythical Ned Ludd. In the textile villages of Nottinghamshire, where workingmen were accustomed to make cotton into stockings and lace, stockingers began to break looms in March 1811, in protest of the cheap new processes. Highly organized, working in small disciplined bands, the stockingers moved quickly from one village to the next under cover of darkness to carry out their task of destruction. Afterward, when local authorities tried to identify the perpetrators, the villagers maintained a impenetrable front, refusing to inform on their brothers and fathers.
Inspired by the Nottinghamshire successes, the movement spread to manufacturing districts to the north early in 1812. In Yorkshire wool-cloth finishers, known as croppers, resented the introduction of new woolen looms and of wool-finishing mills. Starting in early 1812, parties of croppers, bolder than their predecessors to the south, attacked major mills using arson and burglary. In mid-April a party attacked a major factory at Rawfolds, but in the Luddites’ first setback, stooges for the owner were waiting inside with weapons. The attack failed, and two Luddites were killed.
Thereafter the Luddite movement grew increasingly desperate, even plotting to assassinate factory masters. In Lancashire the owner a large mill that used steam-operated power looms saw his mansion burned; in April the village of Westhoughton saw the most destructive Luddite raid of all, when a cotton factory with more than 170 power looms was entirely destroyed. In Huddersfield, also in April, four croppers assassinated a prominent local manufacturer who was about to open a new factory. All told in that April alone, twelve factories were attacked, and major food riots had broken out; as many as forty workers were killed. The Home Office in London received reports that an insurrection was under way.
In Yorkshire and Lancashire, which had a history of Jacobin involvement, some parts of the Luddite movement developed revolutionary aims. Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man had sold well in the northern counties, and “Paineites” now saw in the movement against steam-operated power looms an opportunity for more radical politics. As E. P. Thompson once put it, Luddism “continually trembled on the edge of ulterior revolutionary objectives.” A Luddite leaflet of March 9, 1812, made an explicitly revolutionary appeal:
To all Croppers, Weavers &c & Public at large:
Generous Countrymen. You are requested to come forward with Arms and help the Redressers to redress their wrongs and shake off the hateful Yoke of a Silly Old Man, and his Son more silly and their Rogueish Ministers, all Nobles and Tyrants must be brought down. Come let us follow the Noble Example of the brave Citizens of Paris who in Sight of 30,000 Tyrant Redcoats brought A Tyrant to the Ground. By so doing you will be best aiming at your own Interest. Above 40,000 Heroes are ready to break out, to crush the old Government & establish a new one.
Apply to General Ludd Commander of the Army of the Redressers.
As the movement became radicalized, Luddites shifted from machine-breaking and factory-torching to conducting nighttime raids for arms and money. The government’s response to their grievances was to deploy thousands of armed forces in the northern counties. By May 1, their numbers totaled some 14,400 troops, including 1,400 cavalry, two artillery companies, and at least 800 dragoons—a larger force than London had dispatched to the Peninsula against Napoleon four years before. After the movement waned and its participants were tried, twenty-four Luddites were found guilty and hung, the same number imprisoned, and fifty-one deported to Australia.
The Luddite phenomenon is a compelling episode in the history of European labor radicalism. It was the product of a situation that was as close to revolutionary as Britain had seen since the seventeenth century, with widespread economic distress, crop failures, the cutoff of overseas trade, the interminable Continental war, a slain prime minister, and government obduracy in redressing grievances. The Luddite bands were disciplined and organized. Still, no concerted and coordinated revolutionary organization took shape; the revolutionary ideas of the March letters appear to have been held by only part of the movement. Other strains appealed to Parliament or the Prince Regent for relief.
In the narrative portions of his book, Sale brings the Luddite movement to life. Within the limitations of the subject—there is a dearth of source material about the Luddites’ motives, organization, and membership—it is well researched, and in places it reads as vividly as a novel.
All the more irritating, then, are its problems of interpretation. The period under discussion is that of the Industrial Revolution, a time of dramatic social, technological, and economic change. The invention of the steam engine in 1769 technologized the factory system, enabling the shift from mercantile capitalism to industrial capitalism. Arkwright’s first factory gave practical application to the new steam technology that was essential to the massive transformation. The imperatives of the market drove the application of steam toward the systematic exploitation of human labor for profit.
Sale, however, highlights one factor in this historical process—technology—and presents it as the decisive, even the determining factor. “All technologies have consequences,” he announces, “inevitable and built in, and imperatives, just as inevitable, essentially separate from human dictates and desires.” He cites approvingly a remark of Norbert Wiener, the founder of cybernetics, on “’technical determinants’ dictated by ‘the very nature’ of machines.” Such affirmations of the “inherent,” “determining” nature of technologies recur throughout the book. “Technology is not neutral, composed of tools that can be used for good or evil depending on the user,” we are warned. “There is,” he tells us, “’an intrinsic aspect of technologies’ that affects what happens regardless of who uses them or with what benign purposes; any technology, any artifact, has certain inherent attributes, its givens, impossible to change or correct, and these . . . inevitably determine the ways it is used and the consequences it has.” In some places technology seems to order all the rest of society: “An industrial society . . has its own inevitable logic, simply because its needs and values are determined by its technology.”
Having elevated machines to a commandeering status in social processes, Sale must show that the new steam technology was what brought about the Industrial Revolution. Steam did indeed play a major and indispensible role, but all too often, Sale must attribute to machines a social dynamism that is more properly characteristic of the market—that is, of capitalism. Thus, he lists the “imperatives” that were “inevitable and built in” to the steam engine. The steam engine required “larger and ever larger scales”—meaning larger and larger factories; the steam engine dictated gigantism, in effect, because “it can power so many separate machines at once.” But economies of scale were at least as likely to have required large factories. The steam engine also dictated “ever increasing production,” Sale tells us—as if the market imposed no growth imperative. Finally, steam engines dictated “centralization and specialization”—yet as at least one economic historian has noted, “The practice of gathering workers together would probably have spread over much of the old industrial field if there had no great changes in equipment, for the expansion of the market would have strained the putting-out and handicraft systems.”1
Oddly, the reasons that Sale gives for the supposed imperative of centralization are not technological at all, but “factors of efficiency and economy.” If “factors of efficiency and economy” are at work, then no technological determinism exists. This is but one of many instances in which Sale appears to contradict his own thesis. At another point he tells us that in the new social order of the Industrial Revolution, “those who controlled capital were able to do almost anything they wished.” If they could, then again, no technological determinism exists. And when he tells us that “improved machinery meant decreased costs, which meant increased production and profit,” he is clearly describing machines in the service of capital, not in a “determining” role.
Not all the hardship the Luddites experienced was caused by the advent of the hated new machines. In fact, capitalism had arrived in English textile manufacturing before steam technology was introduced. Artisans were already part of the putting-out system, a form of preindustrial capitalism, in which independent artisans like the stockingers, lace-workers, and knitters Nottinghamshire worked on looms (known as frames) at home. Capitalist intermediaries called hosiers leased the artisans their frames, provided them with raw yarn, specified the products needed; then returned later and paid them for their piecework, marketing the finished cloth or woven goods elsewhere. Even though the artisans worked at home and not in a factory, their lifeways were no longer self-sufficient, dependent solely on the community in which they lived for sustenance. As Sale himself points out,
Grievances particular to the frame-workers rankled: being at the mercy of the hosiers, the merchant capitalists of Nottingham, for how much work was given out, how much would be paid for it, how much rent would be charged for their frames, what kinds of articles would be produced; having no way to stop new workers entering a trade already overpopulated, because certain hosiers would always accept new hands without adequate apprenticeships who would work at cheaper rates; becoming trapped in a “truck” system of payment in goods . . . instead of cash, whenever the hosier was short of funds.
The fact is that these home-working, piece-working artisans were already part of a capitalist cash nexus; had they truly had a “high degree of nonmarket self-sufficiency,” the loss of overseas markets due to the Napoleonic wars would have had little impact on their livelihoods.
Sale’s attempt to render under technology what belongs to capitalism reflects the precept of deep ecology, unmentioned in this book, that the society that is destroying the biosphere derives most prominently from the scientific worldview and scientific revolution. Deep ecologists accordingly tend to name the present society “industrial.” Social ecologists, by contrast, maintain that the present society is not merely industrial but capitalist and argue that it is the grow-or-die imperative of the market that is leading to ever greater ecological destruction. Machines have certainly been necessary to particular social developments like the Industrial Revolution and they certainly magnify the consequences of capitalist social relations, but the purposes for which the are used are not “inherent” or “determining.” Rather, the human beings who use them determine the purposes for which they are used.
Aligned as he is with the deep ecology tendency, Sale seems to have difficulty even using the word capitalism, which appears only a handful of times in his book. This is a remarkable accomplishment in a book on social change in early nineteenth-century England. Sale’s need to interpret that change as primarily technological in nature rather than capitalistic puts him in the awkward position of having to turn machines into the generators of phenomena whose causes more properly lie in capitalist social relations. Indeed, his refusal to render unto capitalism what properly belongs to it leads him to procrustean formulations.
Thus, according to Sale, “the task for the factory owner was to make sure that workers would be disciplined to serve the needs of the machines”—as if the factory owner were not motivated by profit. His “principal strategies were threefold. First, long and inflexible hours, behind locked doors, twelve and fourteen hours a day . . . next, a regimen of shop-floor penalties. . . ; and finally . . . outright physical force.” Certainly the factory system imposed an authoritarian regimen on workers, but Sale makes it seem as if its purpose were discipline for its own sake, or for the machine’s sake, rather than to squeeze ever more productivity out of workers for ever greater profit.2
When the word technological is too clearly inappropriate, Sale shifts to industrial, a conveniently ambiguous word that connotes both economic and technological factors. For example, he writes of “production—restless, relentless production—which must necessarily lie at the heart of industrial logic and from which must inevitably follow consumption—expansive, incessant consumption” (my emphasis). Tthe sentence would have meaning if industrial logic means “capitalist necessity” or “the market imperative.” But Sale explicitly defines industrialism as “the ethos encapsulating the values and technologies of Western civilization.” This subjectivization of “industrialism” as an “ethos” precludes a capitalistic component in Sale’s industrialism. Thus, he is attributing capitalist production and consumption to machines. Similarly, he defines laissez-faire as a matter of technology rather than capitalism, by masking it with the word industrialism: “According to the ideology of industrialism, called the doctrine of laissez-faire, the state was to leave the economy to its own devices.” Yet that laissez-faire is a form of capitalist social relations and not merely a doctrine, Sale himself admits only three pages later: “the laissez-faire system . . . was an economy, whatever else might be said about it, designed to unleash certain human appetites.”
In his account of the post-World War II era, Sale makes the same substitution of technology for capitalism. Certainly the postwar years saw great technological changes: nuclear weapons and nuclear power, television, computers, fiber optics, communications satellites, biotechnology. But Sale identifies technology as the cause of seemingly all postwar changes. “Since about midcentury, and especially in the last two decades, a powerful and sweeping alternation of the industrial world has taken place as a result of technological changes.” The new technologies are just as deterministic as the steam engine had been in its day: “the kind of technology shaping the second Industrial Revolution has its own special and inescapable logic.” The computer epitomizes this process, as “the ‘master technology’ that stands behind so many other inventions and processes of our lives.” Its “built-in” consequences automation—as if the capitalist imperative to reduce labor costs were not at work in the process of automation.
Suburbanization, the decline of the family farm, the pervasiveness of advertising, the manufacture of needs, the seduction of the consumer through television—all are caused by postwar technology. Cities have sprawled into megalopolises, wars have been fought, military budgets have swelled—all as part of the “miraculous manufactory of needs of the high-tech society.”
Since 1973 and the end of the postwar boom, many problems have arisen for American workers. “The problem is technology,” Sale advises. “Technology and its relentless drive toward automation, coupled with its ability to move and control employment anywhere in the world, [can] finally be seen as the culprit, eliminating, as it was always intended to do, the annoying cost of production known as labor.” To be sure, automation has played a necessary role; but to pull out one factor and make it all determining is simply absurd. “It is technology, and the fierce global competition it engenders [!], that forces the abandonment of product lines made unprofitable and the closing of plants made . . . it is also this sort of competition that has caused the flight of so many factories and businesses from the industrial metropoles to outposts in East Asia and Latin America in particular.” And all this time we thought it was global capitalism!
Finally Sale has the effrontery to blame on technology the widening gap between rich and poor today. “The conclusion, the awful truth that must lie at the heart of industrialism, is that inequalities, within nations and between, must exist and persist, in fact must grow.” One could scarcely imagine how social inequality ever existed before the computer. And even though his book lionizes “rebels against the future,” Sale apparently believes their quest hopeless, excluding the possibility of social equality as long as technology is around.
This philosophy is deeply reactionary, since it is precisely labor-saving technology that—directed for the right purposes—has the potential to eliminate toil and make possible a free and equal society. It is capitalism, on the other hand, that must be eliminated. By failing to separate the two, in fact by masking capitalist social relations with technological development, Sale diminishes the possibility of removing the root causes of competition, accumulation, a market society, and ecological devastation—social phenomena that long antedate Watt’s steam engine and computers. He thereby obscures rather than reveals not only the social relations that have brought humanity to its present crises, but how technology can be placed in the service of a post-scarcity, ecological, and rational society based on freedom from mindless toil.¤
1 Herbert Heaton, Economic History of Europe (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1936), p. 575.
2 After contrasting in the starkest possible terms the Dickensian misery of working people during the Industrial Revolution with the flagrant wealth of the few, one might expect Sale to abandon at last the absurd deep-ecology notion that humanity as such is responsible for the ecological crisis. Instead, we are told immediately after this section: “The Industrial Revolution was the first spectacular triumph of the human species over . . . the natural world.”