In 1811, there were more British troops on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border in the north of England than there were in Europe fighting Napoleon’s armies. The reason was the Luddites, whose 200th anniversary coincides with our 50th. Is there anything we can learn from them?
As you probably know, the Luddites were ignorant machine wreckers, opposed to progress in general and modern technology in particular. At least that’s what’s implicit in the modern term Luddite, often applied to anybody who doesn’t share the user’s enthusiasm for some gadget or innovation.
In fact, like almost everybody, the Luddites weren’t opposed to change and technological progress they found useful. You’ve no doubt noticed that even the most ardent defender of “life was better in the old days” probably uses electricity, modern medicines and motorised transport, to name but a few advances.
Charlotte Bronte, of all people, gives the best description of the Luddites’ motivation in her novel Shirley. She describes how at the same time as the war closed export markets for Yorkshire’s woollen mills, “…certain inventions in machinery were introduced into the staple manufactures of the north, which, greatly reducing the number of hands necessary to be employed, threw thousands out of work, and left them without legitimate means of sustaining life.”
She then goes on to give a short lesson that every political and business leader should learn by heart. “Misery generates hate. These sufferers hated the machines which they believed took their bread from them; they hated the buildings which contained those machines; they hated the manufacturers who owned those buildings.”
Not having Facebook to organise and express their discontent, they took other forms of action, notably the well-established sanction of machine wrecking. In fact the earliest “Luddite” actions, in March 1811, received little attention in the media since outbreaks of industrial violence were common as manufacturing industry developed and modern capitalism emerged.
It’s no coincidence that Luddism was born among textile workers. Theirs was one of the first industries to see traditional production methods and working practices threatened by the mechanisation and deskilling of crafts described by Bronte.
The origins of the name Luddism are unclear, but it may come from Ned Ludd, an apprentice knitter who smashed his frame after being sentenced to a whipping for disobeying his master’s orders to work faster. In any case, the names the Luddites gave their groups – General Justice, No King, Tom Paine – clearly reflect a feeling that they were fighting injustice, not machinery.
They were also fighting within a system where the rules had still to be written and tensions were running high. (In 1812, news of the Prime Minister Perceval’s assassination – for a personal motive – was greeted by scenes of jubilation.) There was no pretence, on either side, that they shared a common interest. The landed aristocracy feared a French-style revolution, while the Luddites wrote approvingly of “the brave citizens of Paris who…brought a tyrant to the ground”.
The 1799 Combination Acts outlawed unions, with penalties including transportation to Australia with hard labour and death by hanging. This forced the Luddites to become more secretive and better organised. And more radical. In addition to purely economic demands, the explanations they left at factories they attacked became more insurrectionary, as did their other tracts aimed at a wider public. In the end though, they were no match for the sheer numbers opposing them and the movement was smashed. Added to that, they were fighting against economic forces that were far more powerful than a few groups of workers.
To return to my question at the start of this article, I think we can learn a number of things from the Luddite revolt.
The breakdown of established social orders and the rise of new ones is usually accompanied by unrest and violence. First because the old order defends itself with violence, as we see in the Arab world right now. Second, because other means of expression such as democratic elections or trade unions don’t exist. The most reactionary, outdated system still provides some benefits for those at the bottom – even serfs had the right to protection from their feudal masters. In periods of transition, these benefits disappear, but haven’t been replaced by new ones yet, so feelings of anger or despair can push people to violence. On a totally different scale, workers in declining industries would still prefer an “outdated” job to no job at all. A feeling of injustice is the most potent fuel for violence.
Finally, I don’t think our world is so wonderful that we should speak with contempt of people like the Luddites who fought to make theirs better.
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