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Rage against the machines

Bradley Hughes

May 15, 2012

“It is Agreedon to Shoot All masters that Puls Down wages or invents things to hurt the Poor.” Two hundred years ago this direction from General Ludd was posted in Macclesfield and the Luddite rebellion against “machinery hurtful to the commonality” was in full swing. This early anti-capitalist movement, challenging the priorities of a system that subordinates people to profit, is still relevant today.

In 1811 in a triangular shaped region of central England, many workers made their living in the textile industry. Croppers, shearers, weavers, combers, spinners and others were highly skilled workers who produced cloth, lace and clothing. The demand for their goods was greatly reduced by an economic slow-down made worse by the British embargo of goods from the countries of Napoleon’s Europe and countries like America that traded with them. The government’s need for food for its soldiers, combined with a poor harvest raised the price of food at the same time wages were falling.

Around this time, the new factory system was introducing machines that could do the work of many people while tended by only one or two. Unlike the skilled work that was mostly done at home, the new factory work involved long hours, terrible noise, great pollution and frequent injuries from tending the machines. As a consequence the pay for clothing made by hand plummeted and most were put out of work.

These textile workers could see what the introduction of new machines would mean for them and their family: unemployment and extreme poverty at worst, or at best long hours (up to 14 hours a day) for their children and wives and dire poverty. In no possible case would their lives improve as a result of mechanization, but the factory owners lives would sure improve.

They began to take action to try to defend themselves.

The movement emerges

On November 4, 1811 in the village of Bulwell a band of workers who made lace stockings, gathered after dark and marched to the home of a master weaver named Hollingsworth. He was the owner of a number of stocking frames that were used to make inferior lace stockings. Using the new machinery less skilled workers could produce more stockings than a skilled worker. The resulting products were often so poorly made that they would fall apart with the first wearing. These drove down the price of all.

The workers forced their way into Hollingsworth’s house and destroyed six of these frames. The Luddite movement was born.

Over the next two months hundreds of frames would be broken. The Luddite rebellion continued through 1812 and into early 1813. By January of 1813, over 1000 machines were destroyed, several warehouses and factories burned down, several factory owners shot, and one Prime Minister assassinated.

By the beginning of December letters to factory owners, Parliament, and local military commanders began to appear, signed by Edward, or Ned, Ludd. The mythical Ludd was sometimes a king, sometimes a General, and occasionally demoted to Captain. It is still not known exactly how the name originated. Before the uprising there was a common saying amongst weavers when a machine was damaged that, “Ned Ludd was here,” referring to a story about a recalcitrant apprentice who destroyed his knitting frame rather than submit to his master.

The rebellion involved more than just attacks on machinery, there were also over 20 food riots where people took over markets and gave the food away or sold it for what they determined was a fair price, leaving the proceeds with the seller. The ring leaders of the food riots were usually women, sometimes identifying as Lady Ludd, and occasionally even the local militia would assist in distributing the food.

Repression and resistance

The owners were terrified, and demanded that the state protect them. In February 1812, Parliament introduced a bill to make frame breaking punishable by death. Lord Byron, the poet, gave his first speech in the House of Lords in opposition to the bill. As his poem on the subject ends:

“Some folks for certain have thought it was shocking,

When Famine appeals and when Poverty groans,

That Life should be valued at less than a stocking,

And breaking of frames lead to breaking of bones.

If it should prove so, I trust, by this token,

(And who will refuse to partake in the hope?)

That the frames of the fools may be first to be broken,

Who, when asked for a remedy, send down a rope.”

The government of the day did not stint in efforts to catch the Luddites. Spy networks were recruited and large rewards were offered. Many workers took the rewards, and in exchange gave testimony that was useless for the prosecution, and then donated the reward money to the defense of the accused. The government fielded around 14,400 soldiers to the areas of the rebellion, the equivalent of four times the number of troops per population that NATO had in Afghanistan in 2009.

By early 1813, 51 accused Luddites were transported to Australia, 18 were imprisoned, 24 were hanged and two dozen or so were killed while attacking factories.

As the violence deployed against the Luddites increased so did their efforts to defend themselves. As 1812 progressed the Luddites turned to robbing rich houses of their arms and any lead objects that could be melted down to make musket balls. This turn to arms raids, and the increasing violence threatened in letters from General Ludd, put the ruling class in fear of a revolution. Since they were at war with revolutionary France, this was no small problem.

The textile workers did not abandon reformist methods either. Several petitions of several thousand signatures, asking Parliament for various reforms, were collected and submitted, but to no avail.

By the spring of 1813 the Luddite movement was mostly stalled. A combination of brute force, police spies, legal punishments, and determination from the factory owners and Parliament that no obstacles could be put in the way of profit, wore down the movement.

People over profit

The pejorative meaning of the word Luddite as someone who is unhappy with or afraid of new technologies only dates back to the 1950s or 60s. Even the real Luddites are dismissed by extolling the benefits we have acquired due to improved technology since their time.

Both the caricature, and the more nuanced criticism, are completely beside the point. The workers and their families of early 19th century England, did not receive any of these benefits. In exchange for control over their work, a living wage, and reasonable work hours, they received unemployment or hellish employment for low wages in the din and pollution of the new factories. All the immediate benefits went to the factory owners in the form of profit.

Similarly today, the Internet and the computers, tablets and phones that we have may allow us to create and communicate in ways that we never could before. However, first and foremost they create profit for our bosses or for other corporations, as this technology is used to sell us even more stuff and spy on us and sell our personal information. Most importantly, the workers who assemble our computers in factories far away pay for this technology with their low wages and health as they are exposed to noxious chemicals.

The battle of the Luddites was not primarily against machines. They were fighting over the priorities of society. The most important activity to the owners and law-makers of their era and ours is making profit. Those machines were not introduced to make better clothing, or to reduce the work involved, or even to satisfy the curiosity of the inventor to see if something could be improved. They were introduced to increase profits. The costs to workers or the environment never entered into it. The same is true of every innovation since then, from motor cars to smart phones.

Imagine what our world might look like if the only question that was asked about any innovation was, “Will this make people’s lives better?” Imagine the return of Ned Ludd.

There are several online resources about the Luddite Rebellion including and There is also the book Rebels Against the Future, by Kirkpatrick Sale.

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