Who were the real Luddites and why does it matter?

Posted by on Nov 19, 2014

Legendary Ned Ludd

Legendary Ned Ludd

Luddite never loses its power to cudgel those who don’t or won’t keep up with the warp speed of technological change. The relentless marketing of new must-have techno gizmos makes many people defensive and anxious and many sentences today begin: “I’m no Luddite, but…”

The use of the term in this way, however, is a grievous misappropriation of a name, which was originally adopted, tongue in cheek, by a very serious movement of artisans, craftsman and other workers who were losing their livelihoods and whose community and family lives were being swept away by coal, factory, and starvation wages. So, it’s time to re-post my piece about the Luddites, written on the 200th anniversary of their rebellion:

A recent article in the Washington Post referred to Michele Bachmann as a “neo-Luddite” for her dismissal of the scientific evidence of climate change.* While her opinions are of no interest to me, the misuse of a historical term, especially by an esteemed newspaper, is.

A more accurate allusion in this case could have been to the Flat Earth Society, whose members believe that science is wrong when it assumes the earth is a sphere. So, it’s quite possible that Bachmann is a member of the Flat Earth Society, an organization that refutes knowledge possessed by humans since at least the 4th century BC.

But a reference to General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers should never ever appear in the same sentence with people who claim ignorance of our beautiful blue planet.

The real Luddites, who made their first protest in response to wage reductions in 1811, were not against science or progress. Nor were they, as Merriam-Webster has it, necessarily, against “labor-saving machinery,” although that machinery was indeed the target of their sticks and axes. The Luddites—who took their name from the fictional General Ludd—were not backward people, clinging to their rush lights after wax candles came into use. They were highly skilled textile workers, the bedrock of a deeply-rooted culture that was being radically transformed by the development of coal-powered production and transportation.

It was hard times. Britain was at war with France, taxes were burdensome, and the high cost of wheat was causing widespread hunger (and food riots). And now, machines, which delivered cheap labor to the factory owners (the majority of them operated by women and children), were putting traditional artisans out of work.

Rather than anti-progress, it seems to me, the Luddites were reacting to the loss of their livelihood. And if what Merriam-Webster means by “labor-saving machinery” is that the new machines replaced crafts people working for a living wage, then that indeed is what the Luddites were protesting. One historian of this period has observed that

…psychologists tell us that the loss of one’s job or career is, after bereavement, the most shattering blow to the individual’s equanimity. The march of progress, then as now, carries with it the promise of enhanced prosperity. But it also leaves in its wake many casualties. Not all lie down quietly to die.**

If we look back from the vantage of today and say the Luddites were fighting progress, then we would have to say the same about Occupy Wall Street. We would have to say it’s anti-progress to protest the loss of jobs, the erosion of wages, and the demise of a middle-class America. And perhaps it is. Perhaps from a future vantage people will look back at our time and say the protestors were fighting for an outmoded, if cherished, way of life.

We have the word Luddite today because English textile workers did not lie down quietly to die. In their fury, they raised arms against the machines that were replacing them. Under cover of night they donned facemasks and stormed the new factories, destroying hundreds of mechanical looms and other machines. Factory owners defended their property with the help of private security and government forces. As the soot spewing factories spread across northern England so did the uprising. At one point, more British troops were aiming their muskets at British citizens than at the armies of Napoleon.

Parliament reacted to the uprising by making it a capital crime to break machines, despite the fervent opposition of one of its most eloquent members, the poet Lord Byron.

So, the Frame Breaking Act passed, the hangings began.

The world of the cottage workshop and the artisan class and the self sufficient community was soon replaced by the factory in the congested city, where unskilled, ill-paid workers labored long hours in appalling conditions. Health declined and mortality rose precipitously. It would take more than a century in Britain and America before health and safety standards, decent working hours and wages became law. But that’s another story.

Today Luddite is applied loosely to anyone who is opposed to progress or new technology. Soon, I’m sure, anyone typing on a laptop keyboard, as I am now, will be the newest neo-Luddite. We moderns tend to look back at earlier, primitive technology—even if it was just last month—and congratulate ourselves on our progress. Surely, things are better now?

But perhaps in these two hundred years we’ve come full circle. The Luddites were resisting changes made possible by coal and then oil. Today our scientists warn that the burning of the fossil fuels that launched the industrial revolution (and the Luddite rebellion) threatens life on earth. Perhaps our blind embrace of any and all new technology whatever its costs and consequences, is actually regressive, actually a new-nineteenth-century industrialist mentality. What if in its way, techno-mania is a form of climate denial?

After all, the Luddites were not opposed to all technology. When we read their own words, they were opposed to “‘machinery hurtful to Commonality’ and to their future.”***  They knew the difference. They could see plainly the consequences of the industrialization of life. Do we?

* “The scientific finding that settles the climate-change debate,” Eugene Robinson, Washington Post, Oct. 24, 2011.

**from Before the Luddites: Custom, Community and Machinery in the English Woollen Industry, 1776-1809 by Adrian Randall, Cambridge University Press, 1991

***See Rebels Against the Future, by Kirkpatrick Sale, Perseus Publishing, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996.


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