Day 921: The Luddites Rage Against The Machines

originally published July 9, 2014

You don’t often hear the term ‘Luddite’ in conversation anymore. The word has come to represent one who is resistant to new technologies or despises them altogether. There simply aren’t as many of those people around anymore. While I was spending my youth hunched in front of a luminously green screen, fighting off orcs in Ultima IV or inputting some three-page BASIC program from a magazine, it made sense for my parents’ generation to scoff at such frivolity. Now we’re all getting soaked on the technological flume ride.

Being a Luddite today takes a lot of work. One would have to give up most modern means of communication, sacrifice access to history’s greatest research tool (this website, of course) and deny oneself the most extensive collection of free pornography ever known to humankind. Also, one may need to look up what the hell a Luddite actually is.

Fortunately, due to my commitment to making this site the nexus of all human knowledge (at least on 1000 various topics… well, 999 if you don’t count my final column, in which I’ll be ranting at length about all the people I know who piss me off), I’m here to help. The story of the Luddites combines my two favorite morsels of history: angry, violent people and a grotesque over-reaction by the government.

The Luddites showed up in England in the early 19th century, right around the time Napoleon was collecting the chunks of Europe that his army hadn’t yet destroyed. But their origin story (which may or may not be a piece of fiction) dates back to 1779 when a weaver from Anstey (near Leicester) named Ned Ludd unleashed his rage on a pair of stocking frames, used for industrial knitting. The story goes that he was either being whipped for idleness – a common motivational technique prior to the advent of posters involving group parachuting formations – or else he was being taunted by local youths.

With the former explanation, Ned looks like a working-class hero, rising up against his sadistic and exploitive employers to crush their livelihood in an act of extremist protest. With the latter explanation, Ned comes off looking like a wuss-ass who took out his post-bullying frustration on a couple of large machines. I’m thinking the throngs of people who would years later make Ned Ludd an icon would prefer to believe the whipping story.

As soon as the Industrial Revolution settled its fat ass into the English economy and all but bumped local artisans right off the fiscal couch, an air of displeasure began to creep into the workforce. These were people who had once toiled for hours every day to produce clothing, draperies, blankets and so on – people who prided themselves on their final products and set their own measures of success. But the age of the artisan was fading to black, and that black was oozing promptly and dependably from the sooty towers of the factories that were making the same products for a fraction of the cost.

And so these one-time craftsmen found themselves often working at the very factories that had derailed their chosen career paths. It was an unstoppable force – this was a veritable tsunami of collective progress that had overtaken the entire global economy. These disgruntled factory drones were not driven to action by a sociopathic bent toward violence or an actual desire to hurt other humans. They were desperate people, watching the future they’d dreamed of get drowned in a sea of machinery and mayhem. Beginning around 1811, the Luddites would meet and plan acts of sabotage against the factories and mills that were popping up like smoke-spewing zits all across England.

General Ludd, or King Ludd, became the emblem of the oppressed. The stories of his heroic defeat of two knitting machines in 1779 became legend – the guy was even rumored to reside in Sherwood Forest alongside Robin Hood. Of course the oldest actual documentation of Ned Ludd’s exploits are from 1811 in John Blackner’s History of Nottingham. But the workers had their symbol, and it was Ned Ludd’s name they signed to any letters or proclamations by the working class. Ned was blamed whenever a machine was smashed in protest.

The violence spread: from Nottinghamshire to Yorkshire, from Lancashire to Middleton. The British Army stepped in, but mill owners and factory owners were terrified – they were grossly outnumbered by angry workers, and these acts of sabotage were endangering their profits, their lives, and the natural course of the Industrial Revolution. At one point there were more soldiers fighting the Luddites than were fighting Napoleon’s forces on the Iberian peninsula. One side had to give.

Property damage wasn’t stemming the tide of capitalism; it was only a matter of time before the Luddites upped the ante. In 1812 a trio of Luddites led by George Mellor assassinated a mill owner in West Yorkshire. The mill owner, a guy named William Horsfall, had boasted that he would “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood”. George Mellor responded by shooting Horsfall in the dick. I’m not exaggerating – that’s actually what happened. The government had had enough. It was time to show off their might.

Over sixty men were rounded up and placed on trial at York in January of 1813. Some of the men were true Luddites (George Mellor was one), while others had absolutely zero connection to the movement. That didn’t matter – this was a show trial. There was little effort concentrated on the actual innocence or guilt of each individual defendant. The government was looking for a splashy advertisement against machine sabotage (or worse). Everyone charged was found guilty of something, and they were either executed or shipped off to Australia.

The British government quickly stamped its ink on the Frame Breaking Act, which made industrial sabotage into a capital crime. Lord Byron, who was disgusted at the cruddy treatment of the defendants in the York trial, went on record as being against this Act, marking him as one of the only highly-placed defenders of the Luddites. The movement was effectively quashed, with only a handful of man-on-machine violence over the ensuing few years. Progress won out, just as it always does.

It should be noted that many economists believe in the ‘Luddite Fallacy’, which claims that if people lose their jobs because of technology, that would mean the industry-wide cost of production would also drop. That means lower prices, greater demand, and therefore more people required to run the machines to meet the demand. So it all balances out, at least on paper.

I for one welcome our computer overlords, and only feel driven to violence against my machinery when it breaks down or necessitates more work on my part. I’ll never give up my spell-check, my cut-n-paste, or my ability to distract myself from actual work via an avalanche of mind-numbing Reddit posts. I will never be a modern-age Luddite. There’s just no fun in it.

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