Definitions

Luddite

Luddite

[luhd-ahyt]
The Luddites were a social movement of British textile artisans in the early nineteenth century who protested—often by destroying mechanized looms—against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution, which they felt threatened their livelihood.

This English historical movement has to be seen in its context of the harsh economic climate due to the Napoleonic Wars, and the degrading working conditions in the new textile factories; but since then, the term Luddite has been used derisively to describe anyone opposed to technological progress and technological change.

The Luddite movement, which began in 1811, took its name from the fictive Ned Ludd. For a short time the movement was so strong that it clashed in battles with the British Army. Measures taken by the government included a mass trial at York in 1812 that resulted in many executions and penal transportation.

The principal objection of the Luddites was the introduction of new wide-framed automated looms that could be operated by cheap, relatively unskilled labour, resulting in the loss of jobs for many skilled textile workers.

History

The original Luddites claimed to be led by one "King Ludd" (also known as "General Ludd" or "Captain Ludd") whose signature appears on a "workers' manifesto" of the time. King Ludd was based on the earlier Ned Ludd, who some believed to have destroyed two large stocking frames in the village of Anstey, Leicestershire in 1779. Naturally, in a situation where machine breaking could lead to heavy penalties or even execution, the use of an imaginary name was an understandable tactical necessity.

Research by historian Kevin Binfield is particularly useful in placing the Luddite movement in historical context—as organised action by stockingers had occurred at various times since 1675, and the present action had to be seen in the context of the hardships suffered by the working class during the Napoleonic Wars.

The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England in 1811 and 1812. Many wool and cotton mills were destroyed until the British government harshly suppressed the movement. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practising drills and manoeuvres and often enjoyed local support. The main areas of the disturbances were Nottinghamshire in November 1811, followed by the West Riding of Yorkshire in early 1812 and Lancashire from March 1813. Battles between Luddites and the military occurred at Burton's Mill in Middleton, and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. It was rumoured at the time that agents provocateurs employed by the magistrates were involved in provoking the attacks. Magistrates and food merchants were also objects of death threats and attacks by the anonymous King Ludd and his supporters. Some industrialists even had secret chambers constructed in their buildings, which may have been used as a hiding place.

"Machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) was subsequently made a capital crime by the Frame Breaking Act (Lord Byron, one of the few prominent defenders of the Luddites, famously spoke out against this legislation), and 17 men were executed after an 1813 trial in York. Many others were transported as prisoners to Australia. At one time, there were more British troops fighting the Luddites than Napoleon I on the Iberian Peninsula. Three Luddites ambushed and murdered a mill-owner (William Horsfall from Ottiwells Mill in Marsden) at Crosland Moor, Huddersfield; the Luddites responsible were hanged in York, and shortly thereafter 'Luddism' waned.

However, the movement can also be seen as part of a rising tide of English working-class discontent in the early 19th century (see also, for example, the Pentrich Rising of 1817, which was a general uprising, but led by an unemployed Nottingham stockinger, and probable ex-Luddite, Jeremiah Brandreth). An agricultural variant of Luddism, centering on the breaking of threshing machines, was crucial to the widespread Swing Riots of 1830 in southern and eastern England.

In recent years, the terms Luddism and Luddite or Neo-Luddism and Neo-Luddite have become synonymous with anyone who opposes the advance of technology due to the cultural and socioeconomic changes that are associated with it.

Criticism of Luddism

The term "Luddite fallacy" has become a concept in neoclassical economics reflecting the belief that labour-saving technologies (i.e., technologies that increase output-per-worker) increase unemployment by reducing demand for labour. The "fallacy" lies in assuming that employers will seek to keep production constant by employing a smaller, more productive workforce instead of allowing production to grow while keeping workforce size constant.

E. P. Thompson's view of Luddism

In his work on English history, The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson presented an alternative view of Luddite history. He argues that Luddites were not opposed to new technology in itself, but rather to the abolition of set prices and therefore also to the introduction of the free market.

Thompson argues that it was the newly-introduced economic system that the Luddites were protesting. For example, the Luddite song, "General Ludd's Triumph":

The guilty may fear, but no vengeance he aims
At the honest man's life or Estate
His wrath is entirely confined to wide frames
And to those that old prices abate
"Wide frames" were the cropping frames, and the old prices were those prices agreed by custom and practice. Thompson cites the many historical accounts of Luddite raids on workshops where some frames were smashed whilst others (whose owners were obeying the old economic practice and not trying to cut prices) were left untouched. This would clearly distinguish the Luddites from someone who was today called a luddite; whereas today a luddite would reject new technology because it is new, the Luddites were acting from a sense of self-preservation rather than merely fear of change.

The Luddites in fiction

External links

References

See also

Bibliography

  • Binfield, Kevin. Writings of the Luddites, (2004), Johns Hopkins University Press, ISBN 0-8018-7612-5
  • Fox, Nicols. Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite History in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives, (2003), Island Press] ISBN 1-55963-860-5
  • Jones, Steven E. Against Technology: From Luddites to Neo-Luddism, (2006) Routledge, ISBN 9780415978682
  • Sale, Kirkpatrick. Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution, (1996) ISBN 0-201-40718-3

External links

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