Oh, Ye of Useless Class, Beware!

How Yuval Harari’s “Useless Classes” of the future should learn a lesson from a secretive group of 1800s vandals.

Oh, Ye of Useless Class, Beware!
“100_3953 Young Luddite” by Rojer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Let us speak of Luddites. If you’ve heard the term, it is likely as a pejorative. That is: if you’ve heard the term applied to someone, it’s probably been with the implication that they are either bad with technology, or else a little weird.

That is how Yuval Noah Harari uses it in his bestselling 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, in which he presents his personal interpretation of various facts as fact, without doing a very good job of discriminating between which is which.

In the book, Harari takes time to discuss the implications of technological development and its potential effects on society.

This idea he frames early on by asking: So are we on a verge of a terrifying upheaval, or are such forecasts yet another example of ill-founded Luddite hysteria?” (Harari, 2018, Work Para. 2).

Ach, those silly Luddites, what were they thinking?

No, seriously, what were the Luddites actually trying to do?

Between 1811 and 1816, a secretive group that called themselves “the Luddites” stormed the textile mills of England, smashing the new weaving machines, and causing such a storm of popular upheaval that the British elite started worrying about a people’s revolution.

Today, writers like Harari ascribe the Luddite motivation to one of fear, of mindless resistance to all that is “new.” But the Luddites and their popular movement were anything but careless in their choice of target, and they were not at all opposed to technology, far from it.

A little ironically, Harari himself makes an almost Luddite claim when he writes “After all, what we ultimately ought to protect is humans — not jobs” (Harari, 2018, Work Para. 18). In fact, let us consider the Luddites’ position in their own words.

This is from a letter from an anonymous Luddite group on the 8th of November, 1811. The letter was sent demanding justice for fraudulent activities committed by Charles Lacy, who, the writers say, has “been guilty of divers fraudulent, and oppressiv, Acts — whereby he has reduced to poverty and Misery Seven Hundred of our beloved Brethren” (Binfield, 2004, p. 72).

Already, we have a hint of what the Luddites were driving at, but their point comes to a head with the passage, “It appeareth to us that the said Charles Lacy was actuated by the most diabolical motives, namely to… gain riches by the misery of his Fellow Creatures” (Binfield, 2004, p. 72).

The noted science fiction writer and scholar of politics and technology, Cory Doctorow, highlights this point in his 2022 essay Science Fiction is a Luddite Literature.

Science Fiction Is a Luddite Literature
It’s not what technology does that matters, but who it does it for and who it does it to

“In truth,” writes Doctorow, “Luddism and science fiction concern themselves with the same questions: not merely what the technology does, but who it does it for and who it does it to (Doctorow, 2022, Para. 6).

Harari asks this question a little differently. “By 2050,” he writes, “a ‘useless’ class might emerge not merely because of an absolute lack of jobs or lack of relevant education, but also because of insufficient mental stamina” (Harari, 2018, New Jobs? Para. 14). This is a pretty poor presentation of our poor little species.

Let’s take a gander at the term he tosses into the mix: A useless class.

Can you imagine such a thing? Do you think that Cory Doctorow’s question about technology suddenly seems even more relevant? I do. Because, as Harari goes to great lengths in positing in 21 Lessons, there is literally no job or career path that can not be rendered “useless” by increasing gains in automated technology and the refinement of so-called “AI.”

The problem with our new technologies is not that they exist, not even that they can replace aspects of human labor: the problem is very much a continuation of what the Luddites were facing in the early part of the 19th century.

Our problem is that whole classes of people currently “gain riches by the misery of his Fellow Creatures.” Fundamentally, the question is who technology is working for and who it subjects to change on those bosses' behalf.

The argument from the Liberal perspective is one of a certain style of progressivism: that is, “anything that spurs innovation and growth is a good thing.”

But if we accept this as the premise, then the highest form of life on the planet isn’t human beings, it’s a tie between viruses and mold. And, frankly, that simile does a disservice to both: the former because the best viruses are the ones that propagate without destroying their environment, the former because the natural decomposing process is vital for the furtherance of healthy flourishing.

But endless innovation toward growth can only ever be one thing: cannibalistic.

As we seek ever greater growth, ever better forms of consumption, we arrive at a state where we must consume our own environments, and eventually ourselves, in the fervor of our progression.

This, personally, isn’t the version of progressivism that I agree with.

Harari is asking some essential questions here: he focuses on ideas of basic needs and questions ideas like “universal” basic income. He brings up these ideas as serious possibilities for our species.

And yet, Harari’s vision of our species is, itself, preprogrammed as an inevitability. This lack of self-reflectivity is embodied in the following passage.

Even if “some universal support scheme provides poor people in 2050 with much better healthcare and education than today,” writes Harari, “they might still be extremely angry about global inequality and the lack of social mobility” (Harari, 2018, What is Basic? Para. 4).

And this, he concludes, is because, “Homo sapiens is just not built for satisfaction” (Harari, 2018, What is Basic? Para. 5).

This is a somewhat lackluster vision of our species as a whole.

It is scientifically disingenuous to suggest that this is a species-wide absolute, or that all historical and anthropological evidence supports such conclusions.

If we take a broad view of human history, we see long passages filled with the delightful silence of people getting on with the simple act of living, loving, and being perfectly content with the trials and tribulations of an ordinary life. The grand epochs, the “high points” of civilization, the empires, violent wars, and the rise of vicious States… these appear to be the exception rather than the rule.

Harari later writes that if “we manage to combine a universal economic safety net with strong communities and meaningful pursuits, losing our jobs to the algorithms might actually turn out to be a blessing” (Harari, 2018, What is Basic? Para. 9).

Here I agree with him, at least in a sense. There is much that technology can do to promote a better worldwide standard of living, and, far more importantly, a different worldwide standard of relationships and beliefs.

I likewise agree with him when he writes that “[L]osing control over our lives, however, is a much scarier scenario” (Para, 9). Though, I would strongly question the implied assumption that any of us have much control over our lives now — and, especially, that Liberalism actually leads to greater control for individuals over their lives.

And this is the final point. For Harari, the loss of the Liberal ideal is the worst-case scenario and will give rise only to “digital dictatorships” of unerring complexity and the capacity for violence. That may well be true, but I fail to see any cogent argument for why sticking to Liberalism provides the antidote.

If we are going to get through the next epoch and find ourselves in a better place, a state where we have fulfillment, freedom, and an environment that isn’t crumbling around us, we absolutely need community.

Harari is absolutely correct that “strong communities and meaningful pursuits” are vital aspects of a positive future for Sapiens. But getting there is going to require some hard questions from all of us about what we assume to be “normal” and “good.”

Leading the way should be figures like Harari, who have a massive audience at their disposal. But, if such figures continue to trumpet Liberalism like a gospel, we really might be doomed to those digital dystopias, where the only citizens that are united are actually corporate AI.

Hi there! I’m Odin Halvorson, a librarian, independent scholar, film fanatic, fiction author, and tech enthusiast. If you like my work and want to support me, please consider subscribing!


Binfield, K. (Ed.). (2004). Writings of the Luddites. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Doctorow, C. (2022, January 3). Cory Doctorow: Science Fiction is a Luddite Literature. Locus Online. https://locusmag.com/2022/01/cory-doctorow-science-fiction-is-a-luddite-literature/

Harari, Y. N. (2018). 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Random House.

Subscribe for my regular newsletter. No spam, just the big updates.