Drones, Jobs and Ludd in DC

Our feet easily connected the dots even when our thoughts struggled to keep up with the militarist dot, the capitalist dot, and the technocratic dot.

My comrades and I got off the DC Metro at North Farragut (David Farragut was the “Damn the torpedoes” guy who helped conquer Pacific Islands).  We headed over to McPherson Square to visit with the kindly ‘Occupy Wall Street’ folks (Birdsong McPherson led the Army of Tennessee under Sherman and I think the only American general to ever die in battle in the Civil War).

We marched down 15th Street to the ‘Stop the Machine: Create a New World’ folks encamped on Pennsylvania Avenue right by the Pershing memorial (‘Black Jack’ Pershing was responsible for the atrocities in the Philippines during the Spanish American War and then led the US Army into the butchery of World War I).  Later in the day we shouted in front of the White House (“Whose house? The People’s House!”), on its north side by Lafayette Square where Andrew Jackson, the Indian killer of the $20 bill, poses ridiculously on a horse.

The nation’s capital glorifies its militarists, its conquerors.  We were lucky though, because that morning two dozen beautiful women had formed a drumming circle at McPherson Square and were beating out complex and gripping rhythms with all their heart, they were the Batala World drummers.  Nothing could have settled us better, lifting our spirits, strengthening our determination, and lightening our way.  From head to foot our bones carried their deep vibrations through the day.

Going down 15th Street we went by the granite Treasury building with statues of Albert Gallatin and Alexander Hamilton front and back (“Banks got bailed out, We got sold out!”).  Hamilton of course was the first USA Treasury Secretary, and Gallatin the one who lasted longest, 1801-1812.  They organized the bankers for the confiscation of the Ohio Valley, the debts of veterans, the payment for the Louisiana Purchase enabling the cotton kingdom, and the finances of the War of 1812 (“How to fix the deficit?  End the wars, tax the rich!”).

If you are an historian you can’t help this kind of thinking.  So, don’t look around (I say to myself), look down.   That turns out to be even worse.  The sidewalk now on 15th Street is punctuated with bronze medallions, similar to Hollywood’s walk of the stars celebrating various worthies from our history, each one sponsored by a different corporation!  (“Whose streets?  Our streets!  Join us, join us!”).

The privatization of public space came up again later in the day on the Mall in front of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.  Both camps, the Occupy Wall Street people and the Stop the Machine people, led by Veterans for Peace and Code Pink, took us on a wonderful march across the broad expanse of the Mall to the steps of the museum where I eagerly awaited the discussion before entering to inspect the Drone exhibit, for now we were going to try to connect the dots between Wall Street and the Pentagon.  At last we were going to untangle the Gordian knots identified in Ike’s speech of forty years ago warning against the military-industrial complex.

But it was not to happen. We were surrounded on one side by a silly self-publicist and provocateur who attempted to ‘storm the gates’ and succeeding only in getting a lot of us pepper sprayed, and then on the other side by a noisy electric guitarist who, when his juice was temporarily cut off so that our assembly could hear itself think (“mike check, mike check”), suddenly amped up another source of noise and proclaimed he was “licensed” and that his noise, was “private property.”

Between this privatization of the Mall and the pepperization by the Authorities, the opportunity to explore the military-banking relationship at this temple of technology was lost in a morass of bewildered tourists, angry but peaceful gray-haired veterans, astonished and vigorous young people, and other peace-loving protestors, all coughing, disabled, upset, and temporarily blinded.  The discussions between generations, the exchanges between Occupiers and Peaceniks, would have to take place elsewhere.   Perhaps in our next march which would take us to Chinatown, stopping at the Verizon Corporation glass building, and then to the White House, stopping again at a bank (“Occupy Wall Street, Occupy K Street, Occupy everything and never give it back!”).

Yet, I couldn’t help regret not having the opportunity to discuss with precisely these people – the brave veterans, the women of Code Pink, the indebted students, the young African Americans – the meaning and workings of the Drone and its relation to banks and war. As an “unmanned aircraft” it is well-named, because at the moment (at least until others have it) it is a cowardly weapon of – it has to be said – a people drugged into craven and shameful pusillanimity.

No one, we were told all week, so expressed the wonderful spirit of machines than Steven Jobs, the Apple computer man, who had died only three days earlier.  Before coming to Washington I read about his qualities which were sid to have been 1) far-sighted vision, 2) good taste, 3) persistence despite set-backs, which resulted in 4) populist products.  He personified the technological age, according to the corporate media.  He’s a hero of entrepreneurship, beamed the princes of capital, with $6.5 billion to prove it.

I thought of no one else so much in comparison than Ned Ludd himself.  Ned Ludd – yes, I mean the mythic figure whose bicentennial we are celebrating this and next year –  who opposed the steam-engine and a machine to make socks, doing so by Direct Action.  With a hammer.  Eric Hobsbawm in his study of machine-breaking observed long ago that nothing wields solidarity more firmly than such direct action.  Ludd was the anonymous name for a collective force.  Those qualities of Steven Jobs are human qualities not unique to him.

We did not have hammers at the Air and Space Museum.  Nor did we intend to destroy the Drone exhibit.  Yet the men and boys who attacked the technology of two hundred years ago did so in the midst of famine, enclosure, and war.  These are not yet the conditions in the U.S.A. but they are the conditions in Afghanistan, the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, where, as Libby Hunter vividly expressed, the sharp-edged metal pierces the skin with death and mutilation. The technology two hundred years ago was meant to destroy communities and their commons to make way for the slave South and the textile factories of England.

The era of Ned Ludd also were possessed of the supposedly unique qualities of Jobs, 1) far-sighted vision (think of William Blake), 2) good taste (Byron, Shelley), 3) persistence despite set-backs (the trade union movement), which resulted in 4) populist product (the cooperative movement for example).  The Luddites were motivated by a high degree, not of individualism, but duty to the people (“Black, brown, Asian, White!  Same struggle, same fight!”).

No, Steven Jobs’ 6.5. billion dollars comes not from vision, taste, persistence, or entrepreneurship but from the global human labor – the international proletariat – adolescent girls squinting in Asian factories, rape and ethnic warfare battling in Congo for rare metals, to make machines whose production requires consuming huge amounts of water dessicating farms. Capitalism takes many forms – industrial, commercial, financial – and always at its base is labor paid or unpaid.  The workers of the world (“D.C., Cairo, Wisconsin:  We will fight and we will win!”). Whatever appearance capital may have, at its base is labor, and the machine, or technics, helps to consume it.

Lieutenant Henry Shrapnel invented the hideous weaponry that bears his name.  He invented the anti-personnel hollow bomb with a blasting charge in the center and surrounded by nasty metal bits and pieces which when detonated above the ground spray out pellets and sharp razor-like bits in 360 degrees at unbelievable velocity.  It was adopted by the army in 1803.  At the same time William Congreve took over the technology of rocket-making from the British imperial adversaries in India and brought it to England where it was used by 1807.

It is the combination of Shrapnel’s and Congreve’s technological innovations which Americans celebrate at sporting events when we sing about the rocket’s red glare and their bursting in air.  Shrapnel and Congreve provided then the imagination required for the drone. Apart from scale and the guidance system I don’t see how the Drone is such a remarkable innovation. A Predator Drone is called a “grid smasher” because that’s the area on a map, perhaps a square kilometer, that is covered by its destruction, by pouring down, in the soldiers vivid phrase, “steel rain.”

Ned Ludd could not destroy the works of Shrapnel and Congreve.  New capital statutes against them were passed, the police were re-organized, more troops patrolled the Luddites than were sent by England against Napoleon in Spain.

If the chorus of self-congratulation for the qualities of Steven Jobs and the technological wizardry of unmanned Drones seems to be a case of history repeating itself, it is doing so without Ned Ludd.  It is he who shall connect those dots – banks (Wall Street), the wars (Pentagon), and the machines.  This is one of the promises of the present conjuncture.

Peter Linebaugh teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at: plineba@yahoo.com

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com