Interview--Kirkpatrick Sale

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of Rebels Against the Future, a remarkable and extremely readable history of Luddism. If you're looking for an intelligent and sympathetic account of the Luddites, with insightful parallels between their troubled time and our own, look no further.
Kirkpatrick Sale has considered himself an anarchocommunalist since 1965. Once an ardent admirer of Murray Bookchin, his current viewpoints are, in my opinion, deeper and more profoundly radical, while Bookchin's perspective gradually retreats towards his own vision of "The Left That Was."

Q: Where do you feel we are most likely to find a resurgence of Luddism in the modern world?
A: I suppose we should expect to find Luddism occurring most ardently in those places which, like England in the early 19th century, are feeling the first disrupting impacts of an Industrial Revolution. Hence the Luddistic actions in India, Malaysia, Philippines, and other parts of Asia, and the Zapatistas in Chiapas. As I point out in my book, the industrial culture of the Western nations has by now pretty much deadened true Luddistic protest, though the intellectual and writing-speaking element of Luddism is very much alive as an undercurrent in all industrial nations, and usually more so than we are allowed to be made aware of.

Q: There seems to be a Luddite sensibility in the background of many actions undertaken in the modern world, even when the actions taken can appear less than heroic. One example is the creation of computer viruses. How would you define the parameters of Luddism in the modern world? Are there actions which you would distinguish from Luddism as being irresponsible and unproductive?
A: There must there be a distinction, mustn't there, between an action like a computer virus that is meant as a prank, a hackeristic ego trip, and one with some more political purpose, directed at a larger system or corporation or the culture it thrives in. I wouldn't call them irresponsible necessarily, and they may have desirable responses in those who hear about them, but if they aren't necessarily directed against the ideology of industrialism they are less than Luddistic.

Q: Luddism in England peaked for less than two years, from 1811-1812. With the benefit of hindsight, what might the Luddites have done to effect a longer and deeper impact on the spectre of industrialization?
A: The Luddites could not have won, given the economic and political forces against them building for centuries, which is why I called my book about them Rebels Against the Future. And if their protest had in some unaccountable way been more sophisticated and orchestrated, I think they would have had less public support and disintegrated sooner.

Q: What interest did the revolutionary and radical currents of the 19th century show in the Luddites?
A: The "radical" currents of the 19th century, dominated as they were by people entirely taken in by the industrial idea of progress (with some anarchist exceptions, of course), scorned the Luddites and, like Marx, regarded them as somehow reactionary. They were not counted as models, as they should have been, by people even as savvy as William Morris, and were mostly dismissed, by those who knew only the establishment propaganda, as simple-minded peasants trying to turn back an unstoppable clock.

Q: Into the present, what interest do our current round of avowed social dissidents show in a radical reevaluation of technology and its purported benefits?
A: Of course technology has not occupied a place of any interest in "progressive/dissident" circles until very recently, perhaps the last five or ten years, and then only with a fringe of us neo-Luddites interested in globalism, biotechnology, computerization, and the like. It is a vocal and coherent minority, but only a minority on the left political scale, perhaps numbering at best only bare millions worldwide.

Q: Many market-libertarians either ignore or whitewash the horrors of the Industrial Revolution. That's rather amusing, as the circumstances surrounding industrialization in England, where many thousands of people were driven off the land their families had lived on for centuries, would hardly seem to fulfill anyone's ideals of freedom. From across the political spectrum, what types of apologias or evasions have you encountered for the horrors of industrialism? 
A: I know of no serious technology critics among market-libertarians. Even those who advocate Jeffersonian small-farmer ownership. The general feeling of even those who are aware of the ugliness of the state in securing industrialism, and the suffering of people (and freedom) therefrom, is that the you-can't-make-an-omelet benefits outweigh the horrors.

Q: Besides the Luddites, what other examples does history offer us of widespread revolt and sabotage against technology?
A: Don't know. Ask Zerzan.

Q: Your thoughts on the coming year 2000 computer coding debacle. Do you see this potential disaster as helping to foment a new wellspring of opposition to technology?
A: As near as I can tell, people regard Y2K as an act of God, not of technology, and they understand it no better than the Egyptians understood a plague of locusts. If it is as bad as I think it will be, people will react as they always do in anger, going after more and better rather than rejecting the whole thing: if I hate my wife, I want a better, younger woman, not celibacy.

Q: Do you feel that there would have been more widespread support for the Unabomber if, as was normally the case with the Luddites, his targets had been machines and not individuals?
A: Yes. But of course he might never have been heard of. Still, as the original Luddites found, people in general tend to feel that killing people is going too far and they tend to forget the message and dwell on the method.

Q: Your thoughts on the views expounded in the Unabomber's Industrial Society and its Future.
A: The Unabomber manifesto was mostly drivel, along with some very simplistic technological analysis, some interesting psychological ideas, and some quite extraneous anti-leftist ranting. It reads like someone who hasn't read widely in the areas of politics and technology, who thinks he's come on these ideas for the first time, and there are a lot of things not well thought out. I wrote an analysis of it in the Nation when it first came out, before we knew who wrote it, and I gave it fairly low marks, although I did say that it contained some very important nuggets that society ought to pay very close attention to--and I'd stick by that today.

Q: I have noticed a definite softening of sentiments towards Ted Kaczynski in the past year. Do you foresee his stature as a valid critic of industrialism to increase over time?
A: I have noticed no softening--forgetting, perhaps. I can't regard him as a very important critic of technology--his manifesto was read because of his notoriety, not its trenchancy, and over time I think it will drift into oblivion. It simply doesn't add up to more than a 1 or 2 on a scale of technology criticism where Zerzan is a 10.

Q: What emerging technologies should we be especially concerned about?
A: The computer, particularly the PC will bring unmitigated disaster, simply because it enables the powers of this society to do faster and more efficiently the kinds of things it likes to do, with resulting social disintegration, economic polarization, and environmental devastation.

Q: It is reasonable to assume that the hotly debated issues of the day will pale in relevance in the next twenty to thirty years with expected advances in nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, etc.. Do you think there is a growing realization over what we are facing? 
A: I'd like to see the hotly debated issues be those of nanotechnology, etc. right now. If not, and if they are not somehow contained or rejected, I don't think anyone will be around in 30 years to debate anything.

Q: Prior to its introduction, it would have been difficult to imagine a more seemingly emancipating technology than the automobile. No other invention in history offers the same capacity for movement and travel on an individual scale. Yet few products today are so maligned for their environmental destructiveness, their cost in human lives, their noise, their reconfiguration of the landscape, etc.. What does this tell us about emerging technologies touted as having the capacity to enrich our lives?
A: Only someone ignorant of industrialism and the Enlightenment mind-set would have thought the automobile "emancipating." It was intended to increase consumerism, individualism, anomie, community disintegration, and the power of markets, and it did. Similarly with most current technologies. Once we understand that technologies are not either accidental or neutral we will understand that they inevitably express the values and beliefs of the powers in society that introduce and adopt them; a progressive nation-state capitalism will produce one kind of technology, a decentralized tribal anarchocommunalism an entirely different kind.

Q: What are some of your upcoming projects?
A: I am planning to do a book on Robert Fulton and the impact of steam technology on the settling and development of America. The steamboat, lest we forget, is the harbinger of the industrial revolution for America, and is its central symbol, as the steam factory was for Britain, and I think it will be salutary for an American audience to understand why it has the technologies it has and what they have done in shaping the country the way it is. In brief, the steamboat opened the way for settlement of the heartland, the destruction of nature, the elimination of the native population, the development of a cotton/slave economy, and the Civil War.

Q: What are the most valuable lessons do you feel we can glean from the Luddites?
A: Lessons from the Luddites forms the final chapter of my book, Rebels Against the Future, and you can, as they say, look it up. It was printed as an article in the Nation in February 1995. I hesitate to digest it for you, because I think it is important to be read in full by anyone who cares anything about technical armageddon.

Q: What tendencies give you the most hope for our future?
A: As you will see in that chapter, I do not feed on the mind-numbing carrion of hope. I do not have any confidence that the human species will survive for more than another 25 years, and if some remnants do, the best I can do is pray that they will have learned the lessons of industrial technology and not commit the same crimes again.