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Luddite Movement

What is Luddite Pronunciation?

“Luddites” is pronounced a “lud-eyets.”

What is the Luddites Definition?

The term ‘Luddites,’ today is used to refer to people who dislike new technology. But its history dates back to the early 19th century when a labour movement railed against mechanised manufacturing which was destroying skilled craftsmanship.

Although ‘Luddites’ is not exactly an insult, it is sometimes used in a derogatory sense to mean someone who is an anti-technology atavist; someone who opposes technology. For example, if someone today, speaks against the usage of the internet, he/she might be called out as a “Luddite.”

A canvas representation of the Luddite protest
A canvas representation of the Luddite protest

However, that takes away the original sense of the term: a powerful, insurrectionary labour movement designed to penalize the businessmen who replaced workers with machines.

Therefore, “Luddism” means the popular movement that emerged in England in the late nineteenth century led by artisans who protested against the growing use of machines and technology for the production of goods in mills and factories.

Who were the Luddites?

The Luddites were initially the skilled English weavers and textile labourers. These were poor workers who were loyal to the King and the Government. Uprisings were very rare because punishments were harsh. Their working conditions were poor and their wages meagre.

The new machinery that was introduced to the textile mills, however, threatened to take away even that from the workers. The machines produced faster and cheaper goods. They were operated by less skilled labourers. Hence, the workers feared they would be robbed of their livelihood.

The Napoleonic wars created more economic pressure and made the completion of the textile factories even more threatening to the workers. Few desperate workers began to break into factories and destroying the textile machinery.

These workers called themselves ‘Luddites’ after the name of Ned Ludd, a young apprentice who was rumoured to have wrecked a textile apparatus in 1879. Although there is no evidence that Ned Ludd really existed, he became the mythical leader of the protesting workers.

Sketch of the Luddites at war with the army
Sketch of the Luddites at war with the army

Luddites History

Factory machinery and mills were being burned down by weavers. In the late 18th century, textile workers destroyed factory equipment. These incidents prompted laws such as the Protection of Stocking Frames, etc Act of 1788.

The Napoleonic wars made working conditions extremely difficult in the new textile factories. The Luddites primarily objected to the use of automated textile equipment, which would require cheap and less skilled labour. It would hence, take away their jobs.

On 11 March 1811, in Arnold, Nottingham, the first incident of protest happened. It spread rapidly throughout England over the next two years.

The Luddites broke and destroyed stocking frames and cropping frames. There was no national organisation of the Luddites, nor was there any political motivation behind the riots caused by them. The workers simply attacked the machines that were stealing them of their jobs.

Government repression of the Luddites

The Government often deployed the army to dominate the Luddites. At some point in time, there were more British officers fighting the Luddites, than there were fighting with Napoleon.

Lord Byron spoke in favour of the Luddites in the House of Lords on 27 February 1812. He considered the Government’s stance towards the wretched workers ruthless and inhumane.  He said, “I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of  Turkey, but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.”

In January 1813, the British Government tried to suppress the Luddite movement with a mass trial. The Government charged more than sixty men, including George Mellor, who was a leader of the movement. Mellor had murdered William Horsfall, a mill owner in West Yorkshire.

However, everyone charged by the Government was not associated with the Luddite movement. Some men had no association with the movement at all. Finally, thirty men were acquitted. Although, some critics opine that these trials were just ‘show trials’ to scare other Luddites so as to make them quit the movement.

The people found guilty were severely punished. Some of the Luddites were executed and some were charged with penal transportation. The Frame Breaking Act of 1812 was passed, which made machine breaking a national crime. As a result, the movement quickly ended.

The Industrial Revolution

The Luddites arguing with a mill owner

The movement of the Luddites can be viewed as a movement against the Industrial Revolution that swept across Europe in the 18th century. The Industrial Revolution brought with it technology that disrupted the work and lives of the weavers and other textile workers.

The machines introduced, would produce goods about a hundred times faster than what could be produced by hands. As a result, the Luddites emerged as a violent force against the mechanisation of the textile factories.

Neo Luddites

Neo Luddism or new Luddism refers to a concept opposing any form of technology. It is a leaderless movement and does not involve any affiliated group. It demands the return of all technologies to a primitive form.

It involves practices like, abandoning all forms of technologies, harming those who work with technology or work in the tech business, promoting simple living, etc. the Neo Luddites associate themselves with anti-science movements, anti-globalisation movement, even radical – environmentalism.

Luddite fallacy

The Luddite Fallacy refers to the simple observation that only technological advancement does not lead to unemployment in the economy. Technology does not destroy jobs, but only changes the form of employment.

Economists believe that sudden technological changes may result in slight unemployment. However, the job lost will be created again in other sectors or industries.

What did the Luddites achieve?

The Luddites, by working and revolting together against the introduction of machines in mills and factories, gained unity and solidarity among themselves, which allowed them to bargain with the owners.

Some critics feel that the significance of the Luddites movement was that it marked a certain change in the relationship between crowd and authority. The old model of protest through dialogue or petitions were gone. They were now replaced by the disorder model.

The Luddite revolution paved the way for ‘peasant revolts’ for the future. Hence, although they did not accomplish a lot in terms of material gain through their revolts, because the authorities were successful in suppressing them, they managed to form a legacy of not accepting exploitation passively and attacking the power – loom mill.

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