In celebration of the Luddites
November 1811 marked the beginning of working class discontent in England, giving rise to the Luddite movement. The growing use of mechanised equipment in the textile industry in Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lancashire reduced skilled artisans to nothing more than factory hands whilst undermining wages. In addition to the growing free-market/ industrial regime, the tearing up of the 18th century social contract by the manufactures fuelled a rebellion of machine breaking and violence. So much so the government at the time flooded the affected regions with spies and troops.
The term Luddite has now become a defamatory term, synonymous with those who oppose technological progress. However, it is worth remembering that the Luddites were simply protesting against the unintended consequences of this new technology – their loss of autonomy, power and devaluation of their skills. The machines were symbolic of this change.
Next week BBC Radio 3 will air a programme with my colleague and nef (the new economics foundation) fellow, Andrew Simms Were the Luddites Right? (Tuesday 22 November at 10pm). The producer of which has written an excellent comment piece in the Guardian today – which touches on many of the themes in my soon-to-be-published chapter I co-authored with Andrew.
As Glaser (producer of Were the Luddites Right?) argues in her Guardian comment piece:
We seem to have forgotten that technology is a tool we can deploy to achieve democratically agreed ideals. Revisiting the motives of those loom-breakers reminds us that technology is not just about machines. It’s about human choices and priorities and what progress really means.
For more information about the 200th anniversary of the Luddite movement check out Luddites200 , an ad hoc group of admirers of the Luddites, radical historians and activists on issues connected to technology.