200th anniversary of Luddites!

I am just under the wire, this month of March, to note this momentous anniversary. “. . .  on March 11, 1811, in Nottingham, a textile manufacturing center, British troops broke up a crowd of protesters demanding more work and better wages.” To quote a recent article from Smithsonian.com.

And to continue: “That night, angry workers smashed textile machinery in a nearby village. Similar attacks occurred nightly at first, then sporadically, and then in waves, eventually spreading across a 70-mile swath of northern England from Loughborough in the south to Wakefield in the north. Fearing a national movement, the government soon positioned thousands of soldiers to defend factories. Parliament passed a measure to make machine-breaking a capital offense.”

According to  Kevin Binfield the Luddites where not anti-technology but pro-labor rights.

“As the Industrial Revolution began, workers naturally worried about being displaced by increasingly efficient machines. But the Luddites themselves “were totally fine with machines,” says Kevin Binfield, editor of the 2004 collection Writings of the Luddites. They confined their attacks to manufacturers who used machines in what they called “a fraudulent and deceitful manner” to get around standard labor practices. “They just wanted machines that made high-quality goods,” says Binfield, “and they wanted these machines to be run by workers who had gone through an apprenticeship and got paid decent wages. Those were their only concerns.”

Richard Coniff, the author of the Smithsonian article, tries to make the case that the reason the Luddites have had so large a role in history, is not due to their (obviously radical) actions but to their clever “media” manipulations. He states, “Ned Ludd, also known as Captain, General or even King Ludd, first turned up as part of a Nottingham protest in November 1811, and was soon on the move from one industrial center to the next.

“This elusive leader clearly inspired the protesters. And his apparent command of unseen armies, drilling by night, also spooked the forces of law and order. Government agents made finding him a consuming goal. In one case, a militiaman reported spotting the dreaded general with ‘a pike in his hand, like a serjeant’s halbert,’ and a face that was a ghostly unnatural white.

“In fact, no such person existed. Ludd was a fiction concocted from an incident that supposedly had taken place 22 years earlier in the city of Leicester. According to the story, a young apprentice named Ludd or Ludham was working at a stocking frame when a superior admonished him for knitting too loosely. Ordered to ‘square his needles,’ the enraged apprentice instead grabbed a hammer and flattened the entire mechanism. The story eventually made its way to Nottingham, where protesters turned Ned Ludd into their symbolic leader.

“The Luddites, as they soon became known, were dead serious about their protests. [I should say, as dozens were killed during the five years of protest.-b] But they were also making fun, dispatching officious-sounding letters that began, ‘Whereas by the Charter’…and ended ‘Ned Lud’s Office, Sherwood Forest.’ Invoking the sly banditry of Nottinghamshire’s own Robin Hood suited their sense of social justice. The taunting, world-turned-upside-down character of their protests also led them to march in women’s clothes as ‘General Ludd’s wives.’

“They did not invent a machine to destroy technology, but they knew how to use one. In Yorkshire, they attacked frames with massive sledgehammers they called ‘Great Enoch,’ after a local blacksmith who had manufactured both the hammers and many of the machines they intended to destroy. ‘Enoch made them,’ they declared, ‘Enoch shall break them.’

“This knack for expressing anger with style and even swagger gave their cause a personality. Luddism stuck in the collective memory because it seemed larger than life. And their timing was right, coming at the start of what the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle later called ‘a mechanical age.’

“People of the time recognized all the astonishing new benefits the Industrial Revolution conferred, but they also worried, as Carlyle put it in 1829, that technology was causing a ‘mighty change’ in their ‘modes of thought and feeling. Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.’ Over time, worry about that kind of change led people to transform the original Luddites into the heroic defenders of a pre-technological way of life.”

While the “fun” that the Luddites had, being precociously “media savvy,” may have romanticized their perceived villainy for the ages, we cannot discount as their main intent to control technology. A goal that could not be tolerated then and cannot be tolerated now. To control the means of production, no matter how innocently or felicitously, strikes at the heart of the relations of power imposed by Capital.

For more on the Luddites visit here.


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