The Luddites were right

The term “Luddite” has come to mean someone who is opposed to technology, because the conventional wisdom about the movement of the same name is that it was started by artisanal weavers who hated the new automated looms that were stealing their jobs. But this isn’t really an accurate description of what happened. According to historians who specialize in the period, the Luddites were artisanal weavers who resisted the arrival of factory-style manufacturing. But it wasn’t the technology that bothered most of them per se — it was that the factories using the new looms paid workers less and treated them poorly. In other words, it was more of a labour issue than a technological one.

“Luddism,” the sociologist Donald MacKenzie writes, “was neither mindless, nor completely irrational, nor completely unsuccessful.” The Luddites took their name from Ned Ludd, allegedly a stocking maker in the 1700s who destroyed two machines by throwing his clogs into them. But there’s no evidence that a person by that name actually existed, which raises the possibility that the story was created by an earlier group of activists opposed to the mechanization of labour.

“[T]he Luddites did indeed understand the advantages which mechanization would bring,” Raymond Boudon, a sociologist at Paris-Sorbonne University, wrote in his Analysis of Ideology. But “their machine-wrecking was an attempt to show the owners of the new textile mills that they were a force to be reckoned with, that they had a ‘nuisance value’. By acting in this way, their main objective was to gain concessions from the employers.”

The Luddites weren’t technophobes, then, as Brian Merchant at Vice points out. They were labor strategists. “Since machine-breaking brought the factory to a halt, it was not only a functional substitute for striking, it was also much more effective,” Boudon writes. In The Machine Breakers, an essay about the Luddites’ true motives, historian EJ Hobshawm called it “collective bargaining by riot.” Ultimately, the Luddite acts of sabotage were successful in drawing attention to the plight of the skilled tradesman, and also to working conditions in factories.

But it’s worth remembering, Merchant says, that the Luddite movement did ultimately have an impact. “Not only did it jolt industrializing society into recognizing that measures had to be taken to address worker concerns and stir up mass popular support, it seeded an enduring body of critical study on the topic.” Mackenzie writes that “the working-class critique of machinery, of which machine breaking was the most dramatic expression, left a major mark on British thought.”

Malcolm L. Thomis argued in his 1970 history The Luddites that machine-breaking was one of a very few tactics that workers could use to increase pressure on employers, to undermine lower-paid competing workers, and to create solidarity among workers. “These attacks on machines did not imply any necessary hostility to machinery as such; machinery was just a conveniently exposed target against which an attack could be made.”

The British government tried to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial at York in January 1813. The government charged over 60 men with various crimes in connection with Luddite activities. While some of those charged were actual Luddites, many had no connection to the movement. Although the proceedings were legitimate jury trials, many were abandoned due to lack of evidence. The trials were certainly intended to act as show trials to deter other Luddites from continuing their activities. The harsh sentences of those found guilty, which included execution and exile to a penal colony, quickly ended the movement.

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