Friday, March 9, 2018

Who? or What? Is A Luddite

Nowadays a Luddite means someone who is not good with technology, only uses old technology, or dislikes technology. It is a term which has been revamped numerous times and taken on a life of its own, you can hear it used as an insult or as a label used proudly. But if we look at the history of the word it has an important place in the history of the Industrial Revolution.

Ned Ludd was the leader of the Luddites but he is in the same place in history as Robin Hood, was he really a person or a fictional character? Ned Ludd was a young apprentice who was rumoured to have wrecked a textile apparatus in the late 18th century. The Luddite movement could be seen as an early form of branding as they created a whole backstory. They signed letters with "Ned Lud's Office, Sherwood Forest", declaring it was the poor against the rich. Protesters often marched wearing women's clothing claiming to be "General Ludd's wives". In Yorkshire they attacked frames with massive sledgehammers they called "Great Enoch", after a local blacksmith who had made both the sledgehammers and the frames. If this was occurring today they would be social media darlings and constantly getting news coverage.

 The Luddite Triangle represents where the main occurrences of activism happened, the Counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. These Counties were greatly affected by the Industrial Revolution and the middle classes vastly changed. The Luddites in the Midland Counties were comprised mostly of workers in the framework - knitting and lace trades. The Yorkshire Luddites were croppers from the woolen industry, who were supported by other skilled workers such as the saddle-makers.

 After centuries skilled, middle-class workers lives were being upended by the machines replacing them with low-skilled, low-wage labourers in dismal factories. Thus early incarnations of "Fast Fashion". The workforce was changing and most artisans were unprepared. They had been accustomed to working limited hours, spending time with family, and making decent wages for their skills. Now with the introduction of automated looms and knitting machines being run by unskilled labour their livelihoods were being threatened. Also due to Trade being barred to Napoleonic France and any nations friendly to them the British Textile Industry was suffering a economic decline, this along with the rise of food prices caused anger among textile artisans. 

Most Luddites were not actually opposed to machinery aka Technology. They felt the use of machinery was a way to get around standard labour practices and only benefited the factory owners financially. Negotiations to acquire minimum wage, minimum labour standards and the possibilities of workers pensions were rebuffed by factory owners and the government met any protests/strikes with military action. Protesters who were arrested were often imprisoned, exiled to penal colonies or even executed. At one point there were more British soldiers fighting the war against Luddites then fighting Napoleon. 

Many types of handbills were posted  offering rewards for the capture of participants of the movement. The resistance movement escalated and in 1812 the death penalty was introduced by The Frame Breaking Act. The most intense activity occurred between 1811 - 1813, activity started to decrease with the rescinding of the Orders in Council(1812), some wage and usage concessions, and some reduction in food prices. Though attacks were still documented until the end of 1816.

This movement brought the rights of workers to the attention of England. People were forced to look more closely at the positive and negative effects of having an industrial society. It also brought about the idea that technology is never neutral and some can even be harmful. Karl Marx in 1867 noted that it would be some time before workers were able to distinguish between the machines and the form of society which utilizes these "instruments" and their ideas. The era of the Industrial Revolution and the Luddite Movement are still pertinent to today's society and can help us understand our diverse reactions to technology today.  

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