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Luddite

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(Redirected from E. P. Thompson on Luddites)

This article is on the historical luddites. For the modern movement of opposition to technology, see neo-luddism.

The Luddites or Ludds were a social movement of English workers in the early 1800s who protested – often by destroying textile machines – against the changes produced by the Industrial Revolution that they felt threatened their jobs. The movement which begun in 1811 was named after a probably mythical leader, Ned Ludd. For a short time the movement was so strong that it clashed in battles with the British Army. Harsh repressive measures by the government included a mass trial at York in 1813 that resulted in many death penalties and exiles.

Since then, term Luddite has been used to describe anyone opposed to techological progress and technological change. For the modern movement of opposition to technology, see neo-luddism

Contents

History

The original Luddites claimed to be led by one Ned Ludd, also known as Ned Lud, "King Ludd" or "General Ludd", who is believed to have destroyed two large stocking-frames that produced inexpensive stockings undercutting those produced by skilled knitters, and whose signature appears on a "workers' manifesto" of the time. The character seems to be based on Ned Ludd, whose motives were probably quite different (frustration and not anti-technology).

The movement began in Nottingham in 1811 and spread rapidly throughout England in 1811 and [1812]], with many wool and cotton mills being destroyed, until the British government harshly suppressed them. The Luddites met at night on the moors surrounding the industrial towns, practising drilling and maneuvres 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 1812. Battles between Luddites and the military occurred at Burtons' Mill in Middleton, and at Westhoughton Mill, both in Lancashire. It was rumoured at the time that agent provocateurs employed by the magistrates were involved in stirring up the attacks. Magistrates and food merchants were also objects of death threats and attacks by the anonymous General Ludd and his supporters.

"Machine breaking" (industrial sabotage) was made a capital crime, and seventeen men were executed after 1813 trial in York. Many others were transported as prisoners to Australia. At one time, there were more British troops fighting the Luddites than against Napoleon Bonaparte on the Iberian Peninsula.

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 changes that are associated with it.

E. P. Thompson's view of Luddism in The Making of the English Working Class

In his classic book on English history, The Making of the English Working Class, E. P. Thompson presented a view on Luddite history.

The Luddites are often characterised, and indeed their name has become synonymous with, people opposed to all change--in particular technological change such as that which was sweeping through the weaving shops in the industrial heartland of England. They are often characterised as violent, thuggish, and disorganised.

E. P. Thompson advances many arguments against this view of the Luddites. He aims to show that the Luddites were not, contrary to their usual portrayal, opposed to new technology; rather, they were opposed to the abolition of price defined by custom and practice and therefore also to the introduction of what we would today call the free market.

Thompson argues that the usage of free market rhetoric has become so pervasive and commonplace nowadays that it is easy to forget that the notions of the free market were invented relatively recently, in fact at about the time of Luddites. Before this time an artisan would perform work for a given price. The notion of working out how much the materials cost them, how much work they did, and how much profit they made would have been alien to them, and indeed to most people of that time, Thompson holds.

Thompson supplies a number of examples that show it was a new economic system that was being introduced that the Luddites were protesting against. 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 weaving 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.

Secondly, Thompson counters the view that the Luddites were thuggish. There were remarkably few Luddite arrests and executions, and yet they operated highly effectively against the forces of the state. Thompson's explanation for this is that they were working with the consent of the local communities (or indeed were part of those communities).

Thirdly, Thompson argues that the Luddites were not disorganised. He notes that some of the largest Luddite activities involved a hundred men.

In short, Thompson feels that in caricaturing the Luddites as thugs who just wanted to smash up new technology we are simply continuing the propaganda of the time. The reality, in Thompson's view, is that the Luddites were normal people who were protesting against changes of which they disapproved.

Criticism of Luddism

An alternative view is that the Luddites were a paramilitary group, (ie 'terrorists'), trying to enforce a production monopoly for their own financial gain through sabotage.

Also, neoclassical economic historians would respond to a defense of Luddism by arguing that opposition to the free market and opposition to 'progress' are roughly equivalent, believing that the progress that created what we generally refer to as 'modernity' (and especially the high standards of living prevalent in developed nations) was due to the use of technology for private gain, and that this pursuit of private gain, through the medium of specialization, comparative advantage, and mutually beneficial exchange, accumulatively enhances the general welfare.

Cyborg Luddites

Recently, a number of researchers, activists, and inventors have begun to see technology as a runaway monster that can be tamed with a piece of itself. The Cyborg Luddites invent new, more personal technologies, such as body-borne computer systems, to limit the encroachment of the technologies around them. See for example, Hierarchical Sousveillance (Inverse Surveillance) in which personal recording technologies are used to shoot back (http://wearcam.org/shootingback/sears.mpg) (short mpg example, 28 MB) at the top-down one-sided hierarchy of surveillance.

See also

External links and references

fi:Luddiitit fr:Luddisme he:לודיטים it:Luddismo pt:Ludismo ru:Луддит

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