Luddites and Luddism
LUDDITES AND LUDDISM
Luddite and Luddism are terms of both derision and praise. Depending on context, they have been used to indicate either mindless opposition to or critical assessment of technology and science.
The first Luddites were English textile workers who in 1811 and 1812, during the Industrial Revolution, resisted and rebelled against the use of wide-frame knitting machines, shearing machines, and other machines of mass production. The term is based on a mythical Ned Ludd who supposedly led the workers in their resistance. The Luddites, however, were not one unified political group. They reflected their regions and local trade organizations, hence the more appropriate use of the terms Manchester, Yorkshire, and Midland Luddites.
Much of the knitting of stockings and other apparel was done in cottages and small shops by knitters (stockingers) who sometimes owned their own frames but usually rented them from the hosiers (the knitting-frame was invented by William Lee in 1589 and introduced in the Midlands in the mid-1600s). The knitting-frame, operated by an individual at home, could make 600 stitches per minute as opposed to about 100 stitches by hand-knitters. Frame-knitting in cottages sustained a way of life for more than a century.
The rebellion began in March 1811 in the Midland shire of Nottingham (home of the legendary Robin Hood) and then spread north to Manchester and Yorkshire. At the height of the rebellion, knitters, croppers, and other textile workers smashed textile machinery almost on a daily basis. The Midland Luddites were particularly well organized and led a sustained campaign of focused machine breaking without resorting to the more general violence evident in their northern counterparts. The open rebellion ended in 1812 with arrests and subsequent hangings.
The original Luddite rebellion grew out of intolerable economic and political conditions that threatened the livelihoods of the textile workers and eventually destroyed their cottage industry and their way of life. Economic factors included a depressed market resulting in part from Napoleon's economic blockade of British trade and Britain's counter-blockade of European ports. Wages decreased substantially at a time when a number of poor harvests in 1809 nearly doubled the price of bread.
Political conditions also fueled the rebellion. Fearful the French Revolution would spread to the working class, the Parliament passed the Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 to outlaw trade unions and muzzle workers, making it a criminal offense for workers to join together to petition employers for fair wages and better working conditions. Furthermore the government's policy of non-intervention in industrial relations abandoned the working class to the captains of capitalist industry. In addition the Midland Luddites believed the acts of Parliament contravened the charter from King Charles II that founded the Framework Knitters' Company. In rebelling, the Midland frame-knitters upheld the principles of their charter to regulate their trade.
Historically Luddism may thus be described as an assertion of the right of organized trade to protect its way of life from the unfair introduction of technology, from technology that reduces the quality of the product, and from political measures that would change the trade without the consent of the trade workers.
Although the Romantic poet George Gordon Lord Byron (1788–1824) defended Luddites against their critics, by the mid-1800s the term had largely disappeared from use. Then in 1959 the novelist C. P. Snow in his famous lecture defending "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution" revived it to stigmatize literary intellectuals such as T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats as natural Luddites. Following Snow, the term became a common way to disparage critics of the cultural influence of modern science as simply uninformed antitechnologists.
In the late-twentieth century, however, critics attempted to turn the tables on those who would dismiss them as technophobes by adopting the term neo-Luddite and neo-Luddism as a badge of honor for those who refuse to uncritically accept virtually everything that techno-economic momentum throws up. As Langdon Winner (1986) argued, technology critics are no more antitechnology than art and literature critics are anti-art and anti-literature. The most influential defense of this critical stance was perhaps Chellis Glendinning's "Notes Toward a Neo-Luddite Manifesto" (1990), which argued that technology and technological systems may be beneficial to global capitalism but are not necessarily beneficial to human beings, the environment, and the common good. Although neo-Luddism is not a well-defined creed, it commonly includes critiques of consumer culture, television, and high-energy use automobiles while promoting enhanced participation in technological design, social and economic equity, and respect for nature. Some representatives draw inspiration from religious traditions, especially Quakers, Mennonites, Amish, and Shakers. Others argue an inherent will to power in modern technology that threatens human dignity rather than enhancing it.
FRANK H. W. EDLER
Binfield, Kevin, ed. (2004). Writings of the Luddites. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Fox, Nichols. (2002). Against the Machine: The Hidden Luddite Tradition in Literature, Art, and Individual Lives. Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater Books.
Glendinning, Chellis. (1990). "Notes Toward a New-Luddite Manifesto." Utne Reader 38(March/April): 50–53.
Sale, Kirkpatrick. (1995). Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution: Lessons for the Computer Age. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Winner, Langdon. (1986). The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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