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(en) Britain, Anarchist Federation Organise! #78 - It’s class struggle, Jim, but not as we know it: Celebrating the Luddites bicentenary

Date Tue, 21 Aug 2012 15:03:46 +0300

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Luddite uprising, a movement led by skilled textile workers whose livelihood was under threat by changes being imposed via the process of industrialisation. Beginning in Nottinghamshire in 1811 and quickly spreading across England, the movement took its name from Ned Ludd, a weaver from Leicestershire who is said to have smashed a mechanical stocking frame in anger in an incident in 1779. The snippet of folklore spread and by the time organised frame-breaking was taking place in 1812, the Luddites would joke that it was Ned Ludd who was responsible for the destruction. ---- The primary impetus for the uprising was the introduction of new machinery to the textile industry, which were able to mass-produce goods in order to meet increasing demand from burgeoning urban centres.

However the quality of these prod-
ucts was seen as poor and damaging
to the reputation of the trade. This
was set against a backdrop of other
grievances such as wage cuts and
the introduction of unskilled workers
into the trade. In some regions, this
new technology was replacing work-
ers entirely.

Looking at the wider historical
context of this period, there are a
number of other important changes
which occurred during this time.
During the late 18th and early 19th
centuries, large swathes of land were
subject to Enclosure Acts, resulting in
increasing dispossession of agricul-
tural workers and erosion of the
Commons. Taking place alongside
other changes in agriculture, land
which had previously been commu-
nal was now privatised. Food riots
were also common throughout this
period. There was also a sense of
underlying political unrest in Europe
within the context of the French
Revolution, which set the stage for
the uneasy relations between the
ruling class and the newly-emerging
industrial proletariat. It is within this
context that the Combination Act of
1799 was passed, which outlawed
trade unions, and the Master and
Servant Act of 1823 which sought
to curtail workers’ organisation. The
period of industrialisation as a whole
is one which saw the increasing
consolidation of class relations and,
accordingly, of class antagonisms.

The idea of an ‘Industrial Revolu-
tion’ itself is fairly disingenuous; the
changes which developed during this
period were not an orgiastic leap
into modernity, but rather a gradual
process of industrialisation which
was met with varying degrees of ac-
ceptance and resistance. The period
of the 18th and early 19th centuries
was one of great change and up-
heaval. Changes were taking place
in all areas of society – social and
cultural as well as political and eco-
nomic. Whereas in the pre-industrial
period work was largely artisanal
and carried out from home with the
family situated as an economic unit
in itself, industrialisation involved
intense individualisation, supervi-
sion and routine. This period saw the
emergence of the factory system and
the growth of the urban proletariat.
These changes in work organisation
affected not only those in growing
urban centres but also had a huge
impact on agriculture; on levels of
supply and demand, and the meth-
ods and organisation of the industry

Most descriptions of the Luddites
and similar movements focus primar-
ily on the tactics deployed.
Property damage was a prominent
feature of pre-industrial protest,
with the history of deliberate ma-
chine-breaking stretching back into
the seventeenth century. It is also
important to bear in mind the fact
that during this period, violence as a
tactic existed within a different politi-
cal and cultural context; in contrast
to the prevailing discourse nowadays
which presents political violence as
an undesirable and alienating tactic,
in the context of the ‘moral econo-
my’ in the 18th century organised
violence was often seen as a natural
extension of tactics. Eric Hobsbawm
famously describesd organised
machine-breaking during this time as
‘collective bargaining by riot.’ That is
not to say that these forms of protest
were necessarily chaotic or disorgan-
ised, for they often adhered to what
has been dubbed the ‘protocols of

Although discussion of the Luddites
often focuses on machine-breaking
alone, there were a variety of tactics
deployed across different regions
and different situations. Some would
send letters to bosses warning them
to remove the new frames and, if
they did not comply, would return
at night and smash the machines
themselves. This violence was not
merely symbolic; officials were well
aware that those making the threats
were in a position to follow through
with them. During the peak of Lud-
dite activity in early 1812, William
Horsfall, a West Yorkshire mill owner,
was assassinated.

For many months the authorities
struggled to identify and capture
those involved in the uprising. This
was largely due to the tactics de-
ployed as well as the culture of se-
crecy involved in Luddite organising,
with new members being ‘twisted
in’, as well as underlying community
support and reluctance to turn in
the participants. Early 1812 saw the
passing of the Frame-Breaking Act,
which offered the death penalty
to those convicted of the crime.
Subsequently, suppression of the
movement was swift and harsh and a
mass trial in York in 1813 resulted in
executions and deportations to penal

Although this represented the end
of organised machine-breaking in
the name of Luddism, the traditional
continued in the Captain Swing Riots
of 1830 in which agricultural workers
in East Kent, and later the whole of
southern England, targeted thresh-
ing machines as well as engaging in
other forms of property damage.

Some have charged the Luddite
movement as being reactionary and
‘backward’. Indeed, the informal
slang usage of the term ‘Luddite’
implies an ignorance or unwarranted
rejection of technology. But the Lud-
dites did not oppose technology in
itself, but the introduction of those
specific technologies which were
undermining their livelihood and
facilitating further exploitation of
fellow workers, that which was ‘hurt-
ful to Commonality.’ The purpose of
machine-breaking was not only to at-
tack symbols of exploitation, but also
to directly damage the economic
interests of bosses.

The discourse surrounding the Lud-
dite movement, and the anniversary
celebrations in particular, appears
to rehash the same tired ‘green’ vs.
‘red’ dichotomy when it comes to
anarchist approaches to technology,
which often misses out on the nu-
ance of both approaches. Technology
is not ‘neutral’; indeed, in a hierar-
chical capitalist society it is hard to
imagine anything that is not imbued
with power relations on some level.
Even the most intimate aspects of
ourselves, from our sexuality to our
mental health, is socially shaped in
both execution and conceptualisa-
tion. That is not to say that these
things are not real or important, but
that the clutches of unequal power
relations are incredibly pervasive.

Technology is not a monolithic entity,
but a serious of processes and re-
lationships. In The Ecology of Free-
dom, the anarchist Murray Bookchin
outlines his framework of ‘social
ecology’. Central to this approach is
the idea that human domination of
nature is a result of the hierarchical
domination of humans by other hu-
mans. His use of the term ‘hierarchy’
refers not only to its material, struc-
tural manifestations such as political
systems, but also to the cultural and
psychological aspects of hierarchy
which are embedded in both our cul-
ture and ourselves. In other words,
he essentially views environmental
issues as social issues. Following on
from this, he claims that in order
to change the way we approach
technology we must first change the
way in which society is organised - ‘a
liberatory technology presupposes
liberatory institutions.’

In looking at the impact of the Lud-
dites, we should take into account
not only the immediate effects of the
movement but also the impression
it has left on our history. Although
clearly the goal of resisting mecha-
nisation of the industries in question
was ultimately unsuccessful, the
level of organisation and systematic
destruction of machinery demon-
strated the decisive resistance of
working people to degradation and

But what lessons can be learnt from
the Luddites and what relevance
does their struggle have for us
today? Many have focused the Lud-
dite anniversary celebrations on a
critique of specific technologies such
as genetically-modified food and nu-
clear power. Arguably, though, one
of the main things that can be taken
from this movement is a recognition
of the interrelatedness of technol-
ogy and capitalism, along with the
impact this can have on working
people. It seems clear, then, that the
lessons we should take from the Lud-
dite struggle should not merely man-
ifest as a critique of technology in
and of itself, but produce an analysis
which looks at these technologies as
deeply embedded in class relations.
However, simply taking these new
machines as a proxy for the systems
which created them risks overlooking
the very real ways in which people’s
lives are impacted; while the smash-
ing of mechanised stocking frames
was on one level heavily symbolic,
these new technologies were also
part of a substantive and material
attack on workers.

Indeed, we can certainly point to
many modern examples in which
workers are further exploited
through the introduction of new
technologies in the name of ‘ef-
ficiency’. Under capitalism, when
these changes are able to be made
at the expense of workers, they are.
Somewhat ironically, parallels could
perhaps be drawn between issues
surrounding the struggle of the Lud-
dites in the nineteenth century and
the period of so-called ‘deindustri-
alisation’ in Britain and the United
States in the 1980s – the decline of
traditional industries, processes of
deskilling, the use of new technolo-
gies to replace workers and so on.

Economist Guy Standing recently
coined the term ‘precariat’ to refer
to the growing number of precarious
workers reliant on low-paid, part-
time, short-term work. Often out-
side the remit of mainstream trade
unions, this has important implica-
tions in terms of our strategies in
workplace struggles. In the modern
era this is intimately linked with the
process of globalisation and imple-
mentation of neoliberal economic
policies, which has a marked effect
on women in particular.

The artisan crafters who spearhead-
ed the Luddite movement are some-
times accused of being ‘elitist’ for
wanting to preserve the conditions
and reputation of their skilled craft.
Clearly, the ‘elitism’ of workers trying
to combat increasing exploitation
and de-skilling is no such thing at all.
Undoubtedly however, the Luddite
movement entirely comprised skilled
male workers, and it seems clear
that modern forms of struggle must
include all types of workers – skilled
and unskilled, male and female (and
other), employed and unemployed.

What implications, then, does this
have for our class and our relation-
ship with industry and technology?
Clearly, the forms which these things
take is intimately related to wider
social, political and economic forces.
It would however be a mistake to
focus on this bigger picture at the
expense of the very real effects of
these structures and relationships.
Recognising the socially-embedded
nature of technology does not neces-
sarily entail overlooking the harm-
ful effects that all forms of industry
currently have - from pollution and
global climate change, to the exploi-
tation of other animals, to the long-
term and immediate effects on our
societies, capitalism and industrial
society as we know it is clearly not fit
for purpose.

How do we move forward with this?
Ultimately by acting collectively
rather than individually - the solution
is in neither consumer boycotts nor
isolated acts of direct action alone,
but in developing ways in which we
can act together as a class to over-
throw capitalism and develop truly
sustainable alternatives. ‘Sustain-
able’, in this sense, means not only
being minimally environmentally
destructive, but also being part of
a fundamental reorganisation of
work which sees an end to alienated
labour and a refocusing of human
activity towards pro-social and pro-
environmental ends, underpinned
by values of mutual aid and direct
democracy. An anarchist perspective
should include as part of its analysis
a rejection of the oft-cited ‘progress’
discourse; true progress is measured
neither in technological advance-
ment nor in GDP, but in the steps
we take towards a world in which
resources are equally distributed and
old hierarchies have been abolished.
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