Modern “Luddites” have emerged with a vengeance in recent weeks.
These are people and organisations that have been given the name because it is said they have opposed the advance of technology.
A very good local example was the public labelling as such last week of the National Union of Metalworkers of SA (Numsa) by the Greenpeace environmental group.
Numsa stood accused for having obtained a court interdict to stop the introduction of renewable energy sources by independent power producers.
But just as the intention of the original Luddites was misconstrued, so too were the motives of Numsa, which is one of the few South African trade unions bound by resolutions of its congress to support the introduction of renewable energy.
Greenpeace and the media outlets that carried, without question, this condemnation of the union should at least have known what Numsa’s position on renewables is.
The opposition of the union is clearly not to technology, but to the way it is being introduced and used.
Similar ignorance applies to references to the original Luddites who emerged in northern England in 1811. The movement began with a protest march by textile workers — they operated the then most advanced technology — for “more work [jobs] and more pay”.
Factory owners called on the government to send troops to force the workers back to their machines. The workers responded by breaking into the factories and smashing the knitting and weaving machines on which they worked.
These were skilled and literate men and they knew of a similar smashing example five years earlier when a young weaver, Ned Ludd who, when told by the boss to redo some work, picked up a hammer and smashed his loom. The protestors started calling themselves Ludd’s men or even the “soldiers of General Ludd”.
This may have seemed a wry joke among the workers, but the government took it seriously: they launched a massive investigation to arrest “King Ludd” or “General Ludd” who was thought to be part of a potentially national conspiracy. And so the story of the Luddites was born.
Today, anyone opposing improvements in technology tends to be referred to as a Luddite. However, just as the Luddites of two centuries ago were protesting about jobs, wages and conditions of work, so too are the modern protesters: they are Luddites in the correct sense of the term.
What this means is that they accept, even welcome, advances in technology; many already use the most modern automated devices. But they do so only if such technology is used to the greater good.
Numsa, with its core membership in the highly automated vehicle manufacturing industry, is an excellent example. Like most of the labour movement, the union sees electricity as a public utility that should be operated as such.
Labour’s position is that a constitutional mandate exists for government to ensure affordable electricity for all South Africans.
However, current plans are to introduce private and public/private partnerships into the mix. This is widely seen as a back-door way into privatisation of an industry that should remain a publicly owned utility.
Government and private producers claim that competition between different generating companies will cause prices to drop. But experience has shown that when utilities are privately owned and operated, prices tend eventually to rise. This is understandable – the companies exist to maximise shareholder profits.
The Numsa position is clear: introduce the best possible technology, but only on the basis of maximising benefits to the community as a whole. And this raises the question of ownership and control.
If this is Luddism then I say: Viva, Luddites!
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