21st Century Luddites?
After the 2016 Presidential election, participants in and supporters of the US coal mining industry were asked why they voted against the industry being phased out, despite the widespread agreement it is a “dirty” source of energy contributing mightily to atmospheric pollution and climate change, and despite the promise that participants could easily be retrained for far more healthy employment in the future. One particular answer from a participant spoke volumes to me — something to the effect that not only had his family been coal miners for generations, he categorically rejected the notion of being retrained in anything other than what he had been doing! It was sort of a “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” answer.
I thought of the Luddites. Luddites were primarily textile factory workers in England during the Napoleonic Wars years who created a movement of destruction and violence from 1811-1816, which was crushed by heavy-handed government reprisal supported by the factory owners. The Luddites were most famous for breaking into factories and destroying the new looms and other machines that were doing the Luddite labor at less cost, more efficiently, and more productively. It probably is a misconception they destroyed the machines out of fear of the machines themselves replacing them, as some research suggests they actually feared that time spent learning new skills (retraining) germane to the new machines would be wasted. This suggests that perhaps a lot of destruction, maiming, and death could have been avoided had the factory owners at the time offered to retrain the dissident workers at full pay. Nonetheless, the term “Luddites” came to mean those in opposition to industrialization, automation, and, today, computerization. What has not changed from the early 19th century to today is that factory mechanization clearly allows faster and cheaper labor and allows operation to be done by fewer laborers, who can even be less-skilled — meaning working for lower wages than the workers-before-machines who were replaced by the machines. This is not to overlook the present-day need for highly skilled and high-wage workers to maintain and repair the machines; the point is that the number of skilled and well-paid workers needed today is less than in the days when far fewer products were manufactured by workers.
The Luddites seemed placed in a historical spectrum of labor whose roots go back to the medieval guilds, which gave way in the emergence of modern Europe (16th and 17th centuries) to organizations such as village and town support groups for traveling journeymen, which pointed toward labor unions following the era of the Luddites. As you watch at length programs such as How It’s Made on the Science Channel, fostering the notion that machines “make everything” nowadays, the social and political influence of modern labor unions seems less germane to industrial economies in the last couple or three decades or so, simply because the unions did their job protecting workers so well in the past. I suspect this spectrum is laced throughout with a workers’ stubborn refusal to change with the times, as per the Luddites.
I have witnessed in the past 30 years or so a “change of economic times” affecting farms and farm workers in the agricultural region south of Cisco, Texas — the town in which I grew up. So much of southern Eastland County used to be “peanut country.” My paternal grandfather was a peanut farmer, and my father grew peanuts on the family farms near the end of and during his retirement. The paternal side of my family traditionally had two “cash crops,” peanuts and beef cattle raised on pasture land not devoted to planting peanuts. Before my father died, the peanut economy south of Cisco was irrevocably transformed into today’s disappearance. First came the mechanization of peanut farming and of cattle feed farming (hay), so rapid that with tractors and all the accompanying attachments and implements, my father could do more by himself than what 3 or 4 of us could do only 15 or so years before. Then came the expansion of irrigated peanut farming elsewhere in Texas, making the small acreage peanut farms of Eastland County pressed to compete with volume of production and the ability of larger farms to sell at lower prices; the small scale peanut farmer of Texas was being phased out. Despite attempts to irrigate peanuts also in the county, the main peanut mill in Gorman, Texas, dwindled into non-existence; peanut farmers could not economically survive even one bad season. Farms did survive by turning the peanut fields into hay fields, mostly nowadays growing coastal bermuda grass; peanut-growing implements became scrap iron or decorative antiques. Southern Eastland County is today a hay/pasture/cattle agricultural economy.
What if the peanut growers of Eastland County had taken the attitude of the Luddites, the attitude of modern coal miners, and refused to change, citing family traditions of peanut farming as I have just done? They would have gone to their graves owning fallow, unused ground, assuming they had not been forced to sell in order to pay the land’s taxes. They would have lost everything, for they were never unionized like the coal miners; they had no economic “safety net.” Instead they changed (begrudgingly, I admit) by seeing their land as something different — producing hay underwriting the cattle industry pervasive all over the county, not just in the southern part. They are still farming today, needing fewer workers than ever before, thanks to machines, and producing hay (some irrigating, some dry-land), pasture land, and cattle. Their fathers and grandfathers would not recognize the family land today!
I am not saying that modern US coal miners will turn violent if they are not allowed to continue coal mining in the tradition of their forefathers, but I am saying the peanut farmers of Eastland County, Texas, should give these miners and their supporters pause. The miners run the risk of being 21st century Luddites (without the violence) and dooming their traditional economy to an ignoble end, causing further, unnecessary environmental pollution along the way. Circumstances forced the peanut farmers to change, just like circumstances are forcing coal mining to change; I think that the miners, just like the farmers, have no choice but to change. So focused are the miners and their supporters on tradition, nostalgia, and reverence for the values of their ancestors, they only look to the past, not to the future; they are, in a word, anachronistic. They are so anachronistic, they even vote against their own best interests, and thereby vote against the best interests of their children and grandchildren! They as a group remind one of the irrational, tradition-bound “secret societies” many medieval guilds became. Using the peanut farmer analogy, it would be like the farmers giving their heirs no choice but to continue growing peanuts, despite the regional support structure for growing “goobers” having long since dwindled away! “Good luck, son and daughter, because I know you are going to have a harder time than I had!” Again, downright medieval, if you ask me.
Nor am I saying worker organizations like unions are a cause of the “insanity” of “Luddite-ism.” If the coal miner unions get behind the backward-looking position of the miners-who-refuse-to-change, then the very concept of unions is being abused. Protection of jobs does not entail battling progress; unions should always be in step with what is best for the future of workers, not with irrational loyalty to family tradition. Unions are the reason for child labor laws, safe and humane working conditions, and the exercise of workers’ basic rights; they are not perpetrators of the ancient, archaic idea of guilds based upon family tradition.
Also, to not change with the changing economic times is myopic and selfish. When farmers in Eastland County gave up raising peanuts, they did not see that as betraying their family traditions; they did not cease to revere, love, and take pride in their peanut-farming heritage! Farmers knew their ancestors would have done the same thing in their place, given the same circumstances; the way one makes a living is not sacred — it is an individual choice. Do the coal miners actually think their ancestors would be proud of their continuing doing the same unhealthy things as their grandfathers did? I have a hard time believing that. Instead, I think it comes down to the fact it is easier not to change than to change one’s employment. In a word, they are, ironically, lazy. Those who do one of the most physical, dangerous jobs still around may well be too lazy to change to an easier, safer job. It takes effort on the part of the worker to be retrained, an effort the Luddites were not willing to exert. So it is with today’s coal miners. They need to be reminded, as they comfortably and longingly gaze into their past, that this is the 21st century of accelerated change, and that coal mining does not “revolve” around them, just as peanut farming did not “revolve” around denizens of southern Eastland County. Coal mining must look to the future, and will evolve according to environmental circumstances and changing means of obtaining clean energy, not according to the traditions of coal miners.