Ned Ludd got a bad press.

Ever wondered where the word “luddite” comes from? There are some who don’t mind being one!

Friend Vincent O’Donnell explains  . . .

I will never be guilty of insisting that ‘new’ is a synonym for ‘better’.  When it comes to new technologies I am really choosey.

The word processor I am writing this article on is OK, and the CD singing in the background is fine too.  On the other hand, I’m not keen on labour saving devices like automatic tellers, (labour saving in the sense that they save banks from employing people), and I’ve never known the oral joys of the electric toothbrush.

Even so, I’m surprised that my friends have suggested that I change my name; even more surprising that names like ‘Cassandra’, ‘Diogenes’ or ‘Ludd’ have been suggested.

‘Ludd’.  Now there is a name heavy with consonants and history.  The dictionary says that “luddite” is a term applied to any group of British workers, but especially weavers, who rioted and destroyed textile machines in the early years of the 19th century, in fear of the new technologies.  Today, “luddite” means any person who blindly and unreasonably rejects progress, but the more I learnt about the Luddite movement, the clearer it became that Ned Ludd (if he ever existed), got a bad press, one which has endured for almost two centuries.

If Ludd existed, he was Ned Ludlam, an apprentice stocking-maker of Leicestershire, who took out his tantrums on his master’s weaving machines.  Not the stuff of legends.  Never the less, the name Ned Ludd was demonised by the British government and deified by the rioters. 

The half-century after the American War of Independence was a time of immense social, political and industrial change in Europe and North America.  The French Revolution had destroyed the monarchy in France, and threatened the power of governments and the elite throughout Europe.  Food shortages were frequent and food rioters often turned to machine-breaking.  After 1812, they were termed Luddites.  The motives of the true Luddite movement seemed industrial rather than political but in the halls of power, it suited the industrialists and politicians to characterise the Luddites as dangerous revolutionaries.

In 1795, the majority of weaving machines, or frames as they were called, were owned either by the weavers themselves or village-based businesses.  Twenty years later the situation had reversed and though many frames were still operated in village workshops, either the frames or the workshops were owned by city hosiers or by financial speculators.  For the City investor, owning a loom or two was part of a diversified portfolio.  Increasingly too, the village workshops were being replaced by city factories owned by absentee landlords and equipped with machines featuring the latest technology, too costly for weavers or village businesses to acquire.

Clothing fashions were changing too.  The growing middle class wanted the stockings and lace that adorned the costumes of the wealthy.  Needless to say they couldn’t pay as much, so new manufacturing techniques were devised to lower the prices.  One innovation was wide frames to produce a broad cloth from which stocking could be cut and sown.  Cut-ups, they were called, and though two manufacturing processes were required to make the ‘cut ups’, each process demanded less skill than weaving a stocking in one piece.  So the weavers lost out.  Though the unemployed weavers were powerless in industrial and in political terms, nothing of historic consequence might have happened without one further factor.

The conclusive trigger was the American Non-Intercourse Act.  Contrary to first impressions, the bill simply prohibited trade between the now independent former North American colonies and Britain.  By this one foreign act, the British textile industries were devastated. 

In 1810, Britain exported 48 million pounds worth of textiles: In 1811, the trade fell by one-third to 32 million pounds.  Unemployment soared; wages fell further.  Civil disorders on an unprecedented scale broke out across Britain, centred on the industrial districts of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby.  Bitter, frustrated, hungry and powerless, the weavers attacked machinery old or new, selectively or at random, as their only means of coercing their employers into granting concessions on wages and conditions.  At least one thousand frames had been destroyed by 1812.  As historian E.J. Hobsbawn put it:  It was “collective bargaining by riot”.

It is clear too, that well organised and disciplined teams of ‘machine breakers-for-hire’ emerged during the period.  For example, the attack on hosiers Heathcole & Bader in 1816, resulting in eight thousand pounds damages, was very suspicious.  The attack may have been arranged by a rival company in order to create a little competitive advantage, under cover of social disorder.  

It was the discipline of these machine-breaking squads that gave credence to the existence of an all powerful master mind.  The government and the press called him General Ned Ludd.  He was a renegade aristocrat and he led the rioting workers, workers who were, of course, incapable of leading themselves.

Habeus Corpus was suspended and an army, which grew to seventeen thousand, was mobilised.  By 1817, the movement had been put down by force of arms.

Ned Ludd was never apprehended and the Luddites won few improvements in wages and conditions.  Indeed, had the Luddites been successful, the development of the trade union movement would have been set back and violence and sabotage may have become a common industrial practice instead of the negotiations and political action that characterise most industrial relations today.

In The Gutenberg Galaxy Marshall McLuhan defined a Luddite analysis as “one which refuses to extract technology from social relations, one which regards technology as inherently social and therefore a result of values and choices”.  

Strangely, many people still regard technology as having no social consequences.  It is a belief unsupported by the history of technological change from stone axe to the silicon chip. And in the age of social media, separating a society and the media it deploys is impossible.

The Luddites were not rejecting new technologies as such, but were rejecting unconsidered technological change, change driven only by financial, fiscal or political considerations.  

This is the same scepticism that we should deploy trying to make social media a social benefit.

©  Vincent O’Donnell.  

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