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EDITORIAL - Luddites or martyrs?

Published:Tuesday | January 7, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Two centuries ago in England, bands of rampaging workers set upon factories, smashing new and emerging industrial equipment such as stocking frames, spinning frames, and power looms.

From this distance, we can muster some sympathy for the Luddites, as they came to be called. Emerging from the Napoleonic Wars, England faced economic hard times, and textile and other workers feared being displaced by new technologies.

However, the acceleration of the Industrial Revolution, characterised by the innovations of the time, helped to propel, and cement Britain's advance to being the period's greatest economic power.

But two hundred years of economic history has proved that while new technology may cull existing jobs, it tends to be a net creator of employment, even if workers have to adapt to new environments and adopt new skills.

Such facts, however, do not deter the neo-Luddites, who, unlike those to whom they trace their ideology and owe their inspiration, do not go about physically thrashing factories. In fact, they often eschew violence and declare their support for technology.

As part of a growing global industry, they have new techniques.

Wield law and language

Instead of hammers and sledges, they wield law and language, and their targets may not be plants, but the environment. They have de-veloped a distinctive vocabulary with an often corralling narrative. They talk frequently, for instance, of sustainable development, which usually translates to 'keep things pastoral'.

A distinction between the original Luddites and elements of today's version is that where those of two centuries ago may have had reason to actually fear the loss of jobs, the modern variety are more likely to create barriers to job creation. In the process, they tend to cast themselves as martyrs, working to the benefit of the broader society.

We raise this matter in the context of some of the ongoing debates in Jamaica regarding industrial development, including the proposal by the Beijing firm, China Harbour Engineering Company, for a US$1.5 billion logistics hub on the Goat Islands, just off Jamaica's south coast.

Single largest investment

If it happens, it will be the single largest investment in Jamaica's history. In a country with official unemployment of over 14 per cent, it would create 15,000 jobs, most of those going to skilled Jamaicans.

This project is also to be seen in the context of a country with a national debt that is 150 per cent of gross domestic product; where foreign direct investment is scarce; domestic capital is war; and economic growth has, on average, limped along at around one per cent for the past 40 years.

Yet, Jamaica's neo-Luddites have adopted a posture of opposition rather than creative engagement. So the Government may be ridiculed for supposedly bending over to facilitate the Chinese without robust arguments to support their assertions or explaining why a project to advance the economy ought not to be proceeded with.

Or, they claim that 'imported' Chinese will have the prized jobs - if not most of the jobs - created with China's capital.

Or, the argument may be seductively cast as an opportunity for Jamaica to single-mindedly pursue its own idea, separate from a Chinese-financed venture, for a logistics hub. They, however, remain silent on the source of that capital.

The opinions on this page, except for the above, do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gleaner. To respond to a Gleaner editorial, email us: editor@gleanerjm.com or fax: 922-6223. Responses should be no longer than 400 words. Not all responses will be published.