January 19, 2013


Rage Against the Machine : 200 years ago, the Luddites tried to stop technological progress. They didn't succeed. (Morgan Meis

Can technological progress be stopped? That is the question the Luddites asked 200 years ago in England. They did more than just ask the question -- they tried to stop technological progress, physically. The Luddites were not particularly sophisticated in their methodology. Their main idea was to smash things. Their favorite things to smash were stocking frames. Stocking frames are machines used to knit. The first stocking frames were invented in the late 16th century. But stocking frames really came into their own at the beginning of the 19th century, with automation. That's when the industrial revolution was swinging into high gear. The new machines being built in northern England in the early 19th century were transforming the textile industry from one that required highly skilled labor into an industry that required almost no skill at all. A person could be trained to operate a stocking frame in a few hours. Knitting -- once a well-paid occupation -- was fast becoming a low-wage affair.

According to legend, a young kid named Ned Ludd had smashed up a couple of stocking frames some time in the late 18th century. The Luddites of the early 19th century took up Ludd's name and cause. They began smashing up factories and, occasionally, killing people. They also wrote letters to politicians and factory owners threatening they would kill them or otherwise make serious trouble. A typical Luddite letter, this one to Henry of Leicester, reads as follows:

It having been presented to me that you are one of those damned miscreants who deligh [sic] in distressing and bringing to poverty those poore unhappy and much injured men called Stocking makers; now be it known unto you that I have this day issued orders for your being shot through the body with a Leden Ball...
(From Writings of the Luddites, edited by Kevin Binfield)

By 1813, the Luddite rebellion had become serious enough to bring out the army. With this development, the Luddite rebellion could not last very long. Luddite leaders were rounded up and well-publicized trials conducted. Some called them show trials. The army and the authorities restored order. By 1816, there was no longer a Luddite movement to speak of.

But the legend lived on. Something about the Luddites had captured the popular imagination. The attention wasn't always positive. Calling someone a Luddite became synonymous with calling him or her a reactionary. The ineffectiveness of the Luddite rebellion probably helped in this assessment. How was smashing up stocking frames going to defeat the greater social and historical forces that had led to automated stocking frames in the first place? The Luddites, so the thinking goes, were out of their league. The development of 19th century industrial capitalism was not going to grind to a halt because of few guys in Leicester had wrecked a couple of machines. Luddism, then, is a movement of futility. The Luddites were buffoons who mistook machines for enemies and tried to halt historical processes that were unstoppable.

It was all good clean fun when technology and trade were just making the labor of blue collar workers obsolete, but now that it's hitting the white collar crowd it's suddenly a crisis. 

But the fact is that our advances in efficiency and productivity make our economy produce more wealth even as we are required to put in less labor.  We just face a question of how to distribute that wealth reasonably fairly in the absence of the redistributory mechanism we're replacing: the job.  

Posted by at January 19, 2013 5:05 AM

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