In a recent post in Locus Online, Science Fiction is a Luddite Literature, Cory Doctorow writes about how science fiction and Luddism concern themselves with the same question: “not merely what technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to.” In other words: “the social relations that governed its use.”
Doctorow dispels the myth that luddites fought against technology and argues that they instead opposed the exploitation of workers when automation made production of textiles faster and cheaper. It’s not hard to guess who reaped the benefits: Not the workers who manned the machines for longer and longer hours, but the wealthy industrialists who owned them.
Some would say those days are behind us. But are they? Most of our clothing comes from developing countries whose workers earn less than it costs to live. Similarly, the motor manufacturing industry in Australia has vastly shrunk for the same reasons. As a result, manufacturers and retailers enjoy higher profits and consumers buy products at a lower price.
But what about the workers? The ones whose rights have either been eroded or are nonexistent, whose efforts lead to longer hours and less pay?
Back in the 60’s my dad was a production supervisor in a big brand bread factory. He worked terrible hours starting at 2am and earned a miserly salary. Someone had told him he wasn’t allowed to join a union, but I suspect he probably could have.
We lived in a working class western Sydney suburb in a cheaply-built fibro house with a tiny mortgage, but my parents could barely make ends meet. At 40 years old, my dad was diagnosed with emphysema. Yes, he was a smoker, but he was also exposed to flour-laden air every working night, a common cause of bakers asthma. He also lost the tips of two fingers when they got caught up in the workings of one of the machines.
My grandfather fared even worse. A merchant seaman, he lost the use of his hands in a boiler accident in the 1930s. As a result, my mum grew up in poverty and was pulled out of school and sent to work as a machinist in a clothing factory at the age of fourteen. She told us some terrible stories about that!
These days, despite a few positive steps in the right direction, workers are still subjected to wage theft, unsafe conditions, wage freezes and regressive tax systems that keep many people on or below the poverty line. Meanwhile mega corporations strive for record-breaking profits.
A notable example in books is: HG Wells’s prophetic The Sleeper Awakes (1910) where a 19th C activist is transported to the year 2100 to find the workforce is still facing oppression. Another is The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (2009) where the world is controlled by big corporations.
Steampunk also contributes to the critique, but through a backward looking lens. One of my favourites is The Iron Dragon’s Daughter (1994) by Michael Swanwick, which begins in a factory where slaves manufacture flying dragon automatons. Another is Worldshaker (2009) by Richard Harland, where workers toil in the lower decks of a city-sized roving machine, the industrial equivalent of a Howl’s Moving Castle on wheels.
The exploitation of factory workers may well have began with the Industrial Revolution, but its roots went back further than that in the medieval feudal system, and earlier still. Hundreds of years later, the injustices and inequalities continue unabated.