Justice, death or revenge: Brian Merchant’s Blood in the Machine

If you’ve ever been called a Luddite, it was probably meant as an insult. The Luddite name has been so powerfully besmirched that it is now commonly used as a pejorative to denote technophobia or an irrational aversion to progress. At the heart of Brian Merchant’s Blood in the Machine: The Origins of the Rebellion Against Big Tech is a denouncement of this mischaracterisation. And in dismantling the myth, Merchant revitalises the legend.

Blood in the Machine is a rigorous exhumation of the Luddites: textile workers and allies in early nineteenth-century England who rebelled against the bosses seeking to use technology for exploitation and personal gain. The Luddites were not anti-technology — they were often skilled technologists themselves — but against the way it was being deployed to skew power relations and alter modes of working. Destroying ‘machinery hurtful to commonality’ was their tactic, not the goal.

Merchant puts to rest the caricature of the Luddites as a small group of ruffians — careless, reactionary fools with hammers. Through Blood in the Machine, readers learn that the rebellion did not arise out of nowhere: it was a direct response to emerging conditions that threatened their livelihoods, such as the horrors of the factory system, the adoption of laissez faire free market ideology, and state-sanctioned violence, surveillance and control designed to crush dissent. After years of attempting to play by the rules through peaceful protest, petition and negotiation, the Luddites escalated to sabotage the machinery that was the harbinger of mounting exploitation. Their fight was not just against the introduction of ‘obnoxious machines’ but also the future the workers anticipated if left to be determined by the fledgling entrepreneurial class.

It would have been easy to treat the Luddites as a totem — a symbol readily applied to today’s techno-capitalism. But Merchant goes far beyond that, providing a densely researched yet eminently readable collation of historical and archival material. This is a crucial dimension of the book, because this history has been purposely overshadowed. It serves elites well to miscast Luddism as techno-phobic, and in doing so position anyone who critiques the merit of technological progress as backwards or ignorant. The history of organised and rational working-class solidarity against the technological manifestations of power, profit and labour exploitation is not the story that capital wants to be told.

The Luddites were not ‘careless’ — they were militantly organised, deliberate in their targets, and used a range of tactics to build trust and solidarity, and practised what today we would recognise as community care and mutual aid. Even the use of Ned Ludd — the General, the King — as a folk hero, pseudonym and galvanising force was strategic. Merchant notes that

it proved an ingenious, decentralised way to organise: distributing power, maintaining secrecy, building a legend, all through this nineteenth century meme.

Any fan of fantasy novels knows you’re in for a good time when you open the cover to a detailed map. A similar feeling arises in the first pages of Blood in the Machine upon encountering a list of ‘Persons of Interest’. The scene is set for what’s to come: a gripping tale of class struggle and solidarity, violence, celebrity scandal and intrigue as rich as any Shakespearean play or epic revolutionary saga. Readers follow a set of characters as Merchant weaves their stories through a historical recount of the largest domestic military occupation in Britain’s history amongst the onset of industrial capitalism.

Where the parable becomes practical is in the many parallels between the Luddites’ fight and where we find ourselves now, over two hundred years later. Some of the similarities are uncanny and unnerving. The justified fears of the cloth workers are plainly reflected in anxieties about automation’s impact on jobs today. A notable thread throughout Blood in the Machine is The Machinery Question. That is, whether automation should be embraced or resisted, and whether — under the right circumstances — it could lead to emancipatory outcomes. Then as now, ‘the dream of automated luxury and a leisure society was being dreamt,’ writes Merchant.

While technological optimism often comes from the right and centre, it is also present in segments of the left that flirt with accelerationist positions in anticipation of a future state of fully automated luxury communism. In Breaking Things At Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job, Gavin Meuller notes that this is a prevalent view in the Marxist tradition. ‘For many Marxists, technology is at its worst neutral: it is not the technology itself, but who controls it, labour or capital.’ As such, some believe that technology, when wielded appropriately, can be a boon to socialism, and, even when developed under capitalism ‘can create the conditions of radical transformation right under the bosses’ noses.’ The ongoing tension between a desired future state of technology and its immediate reality ground the debate between two key figures in Blood in the Machine’s Luddite history. On one hand, John Booth suggested the machinery ‘might be man’s chief blessing instead of his curse if society was differently constituted,’ while George Mellor argued ‘If! If! If! … What’s the use of such sermons as this to starving men?’ Merchant quotes historian of technology David Noble, who emphasises that the craftsmen and artisans had a clear picture of technology as a force taking shape ‘in the present tense’ — they were clear-eyed about the immediate material consequences of how the budding entrepreneurial class were using technology for their own gain, to the detriment to the workers’ livelihoods.

Merchant repeatedly draws upon two modern examples as points of reference to the twenty-first century: the rise of the ‘gig economy’ as exemplified by companies like Uber, and Amazon warehouses — both of which underpay workers, institute terrible working conditions, flout regulation, and undermine unionisation efforts. The potential of the fully automated factory, introduced in 1835 by Andrew Ure, still endures today: Amazon has predicted fully automated warehouses by 2030 and last year unveiled its first fully autonomous warehouse robot. On the roads, Uber has long said that drivers are not ‘core’ to its business, and now seems to be coming good on that claim by experimenting with integrating autonomous vehicles into their model.

These examples should give us pause on abstract utopian promises of technology: what evidence do we have that the technologies employed by capital will lead to increased leisure, autonomy or dignity of workers? ‘It’s the same story, time and time again,’ Merchant notes:

automation and workplace technology often don’t result in less work, but more diffuse, precarious, and lower-paying or less-protected work.

An important possibility articulated in Blood in the Machine is the role of the arts and popular culture in movement making. Merchant highlights the Luddite inspiration in the works of artists including Lord Byron, Charlotte Bronte, and Charles Dickens, and how their creative works helped popularise their political struggle. Perhaps most notably, Mary Shelley was influenced by the Luddite uprising, which can be seen in Frankenstein as a political allegory for oppressed populations whose unheeded calls for justice turn to vengeful violence. Frankenstein is often cited as the first work of science fiction, and is, as Merchant puts it, ‘a parable of the hubris of those who would carelessly bend technology to their personal purposes.’

Critical reflections on the state of technology and politics continue in literature today. Cory Doctorow has called science fiction ‘Luddite literature’, while scholars of Octavia Butler posit that all social organising is science fiction: ‘any time we try to envision a different world—without poverty, prisons, capitalism, war—we are engaging in science fiction.’ Ursula K Le Guin has claimed that ‘resistance and change often begin in art’ and has emphasised the importance of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now. Large Language Models like GPT-4 that currently threaten writers and artists could never do this kind of imagination work — their very function is designed to regurgitate the data it’s been trained on. In this sense, not only does AI threaten the livelihoods of creative workers, it also threatens to ‘further narrow the possibilities on offer to us.’

There is perhaps no better example of modern Luddism and the power of the arts in political movement building than the current battle between generative AI and creative workers. After months of striking, the Writers Guild of America struck a tentative deal containing groundbreaking limitations on the way that Hollywood executives can implement AI. Meanwhile, authors are furious that their work has been used to train AI models without permission. These are powerful signals that the shape of our technological future is not a given. We can assess the impacts of technology and decide to say no.

Even though we know how the story of the Luddites ends—we are, after all, living with the consequences—it’s devastating to read of the triumph of the industrialists and entrepreneurs, who built their fortune off the back of abuse, exploitation and greed. But what would the world be like if the Luddites had won? Here, too, is where science fiction can play a role in our political imaginary.

In the early 1800s, people understood the Luddites’ actions for what they were: resistance to oppression. Unlike us, they hadn’t been subjected to two centuries’ worth of capitalist ideology and weren’t yet subject to the cult of technological progress. Mark Fisher’s concept of capitalist realismthe sense that capitalism is the only viable political and economic system—makes the task of resistance and imagining something different all the more challenging. But the arts can play a key role in our collective understanding and galvanise action.

The timing of Blood in the Machine couldn’t be better. Luddism, whether people call it that or not, is rising in popularity today as people become increasingly critical of the political economy of technology. Merchant’s work sits within growing scholarship and advocacy of contemporary Luddites. Chief among them are the likes of Edward Ongweso Jr, Jathan Sadowski and Jereme Brown of This Machine Kills, Paris Marx of Tech Wont Save Us, artist and writer Molly Crabapple, and tech and labour scholar Veena Dubal. Ultimately, what Merchant’s history of the Luddites leaves us with is potent groundwork for politics of refusal. As he puts it, they

forged a model, and a language, for resistance against the excesses of industrial capitalism and technological exploitation.

Where do we go from here? Again, we can turn to history as a lesson for the future, such as in Lizzie O’Shea’s Future Histories, which charts historical revolutionary possibilities for our digital age. Or we might consider examples like 1970s Chile’s Project Cybersyn, which attempted to use technology for the betterment of society rather than profit, as compellingly documented in Evgeny Morozov’s The Santiago Boys.

We can, as Merchant implores, resist the notion that there are no possible alternatives to our current trajectory, and question the idea that technology can only be introduced to society through reckless disruption, rather than ‘integrated into our lives democratically and with care.’ Here, we might learn from the history of privatisation of the internet in Ben Tarnoff’s Internet for the People to consider what publicly owned and governed technologies might look like, or move to abolish venture capitalism which fundamentally undermines the potential for democratic innovation.

In the final lines of Lord Byron’s Song for the Luddites, Bryon foresaw the potential of the Luddite legacy:

Yet this is the dew
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd!

Indeed, the Luddites planted seeds, and now the trees are growing. Through Blood in The Machine, Merchant has created a essential work to help us find our way through this forest. So next time you meet someone who expresses discontent with the state of techno-capitalism, you may press a copy of this book into their hands and whisper: join us.



Samantha Floreani

Samantha Floreani is a digital rights activist and writer based in Naarm.

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