Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Almost Unparalleled Distress

A well-meaning but dismissive comment about Luddites over at Eschaton the other day reminded me what a shame it is that so few people on the Left understand who the Luddites were and what they did. The term is almost universally pejorative, a situation I think has to do more with the winners writing the history books than with any unforgivable flaw in Luddite thinking. Of course there can be differing views of the effectiveness and even the morality of the Luddites, but to dismiss them as irrational technophobes is to take the wrong side in a battle that continues today.

Though it refers to a specific revolutionary group active circa 1812, "Luddites" has become a blanket term for various groups of radicalized peasants who, during and for decades after the Napoleonic Wars, had been gradually divested of their land, thrown out of their employment, and turned into paupers. Luddites, properly so called, were concerned mainly with the textile trade. The "Swing" rebellion, which flared up as the Luddite rebellion disintegrated, was concerned with agriculture. Both groups broke machines in protest of labor conditions, though neither originated the practice.

Machine-breaking was accompanied by a demand for higher wages and full employment, and had nothing to do with technophobia. It was sporadic, too, especially during the Swing rebellion; arson, though itself rare, was far more common in those years. The machines chosen for destruction were those deemed "hurtful to commonality"; other machines were left alone.

The radicals' objection to spinning-jennies and threshing machines was neither superstitious, nor ignorant, nor even confined to the laboring classes. In November of 1830, at the height of the Swing rebellion, a group of magistrates wrote an open letter to the "Owners and Occupiers of Lands," asking them "to discontinue the use of Threshing Machines, and to increase the Wages of Labour to Ten Shillings a week for able bodied men."

Earlier, the poets Shelley and Byron had applauded the Luddites; on his first day in the House of Lords, Byron spoke out against anti-Luddite legislation, which had caused children as young as 12 to be hanged for machine-breaking. He said,

While these outrages must be admitted to exist to an alarming extent, it cannot be denied that they have arisen from circumstances of almost unparalleled distress: the perseverance of these miserable men in their proceedings tends to prove that nothing but absolute want could have driven a large, and once honest and industrious, body of the people into the commission of excesses so hazardous to themselves, their families and the community.
In his 1816 poem "Song for the Luddites," Byron was far more blunt: "Down with all Kings but King Ludd!"

In 1819, William Cobbett's discussion of the Luddite revolt also condemned the "almost unparalleled distress" of English peasant laborers, in words which have a certain resonance today:
Society ought not to exist, if not for the benefit of the whole. It is and must be against the law of nature, if it exists for the benefit of the few and for the misery of the many. I say, then, distinctly, that a society, in which the common labourer...cannot secure a sufficiency of food and raiment, is a society which ought not to exist; a society contrary to the law of nature; a society whose compact is dissolved.
There's an excellent (but expensive!) new book compiling primary Luddite texts; you can find it here.


Anonymous said...

Cobbett's remarks are pretty dead on today. Interesting article Philalethes.

The well meaning but dismissive commenter

Phila said...

Thanks, EkCenTriK! Glad you liked it. And Cobbett...yeah, we really do just go 'round and 'round...