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The following article is a revised version of a text first written in Fench under the title "Luddites - passés et présents" as part of a course given at Fribourg University, Switzerland.
This article is part of a special report about Strategies of opposition to technology. See also "Loving resistance fighters" and "Some thoughts about strategies for saying no".

Luddites passed and present

After Watt invented the steam engine in 1776, the technology spread like wildfire leaving what the poet William Blake called "those dark satanic mills" dotted over the country. In 1813 there were over two thousand steam-driven textile mills in action. By 1820 the number had risen to over fourteen thousand and ten years later there were a hundred thousand. We are at the beginning of the Industrial revolution and the lives and culture of millions of people are about to be profoundly modified. The advent of factories heralds the demise of the home-based craft industries. The capacity of families to be self-sufficient is to be wiped out, forcing everyone to depend on market mechanisms to satisfy their needs. It is also the beginning of the creation of needs that only the market can satisfy. The government plays an active role in hastening these changes. They privatise commons, facilitate the immigration of cheap Irish labour, force agricultural labourers off the land and into towns and forbid the grouping of workers in unions.

The Luddite movement

In November 1811, amid an unprecedented economic crisis spurred by poor harvests and the war with France, workers' unrest comes to head in the Midlands. Groups of workers blacken their faces and, under the cover of the long winter nights, break into factories near Nottingham and smash the machines. Despite attempts of the local authorities to counter the revolt with militia - there were no local police at that time - the outbreak of violence continued. A campaign of anonymous letters was aimed at mill owners; each signed by a mythical Ned Ludd, the General, the King. Thus the Luddite movement was born. It rapidly spread north to Leeds and Manchester. Attempts to take culprits to court were hampered by the staunch silence of villagers and towns people alike as they refused to betray the Luddites. Confronted with the riots that broke out in the Sheffield area, the army was called in and the level of violence escalated with the workers taking up arms as well. Then in 1813, just as suddenly as it began, the movement was over; apart from the occasional attack on an isolated factory. Much speculation has gone on about whether the Luddites were structured as an organisation or just a spontaneous movement. At times, the size and complexity of some of their operations seem to point to the existence of such an organisation, but in reality there is no proof that one existed.

Articulating their cause

In his book "Rebels against the Future", Kirkpatrick Sale analyses the Luddite movement pointing out that they had neither the words to formulate their rebellion and its aims, not the means to elaborate a strategy appropriate to their time and context. According to Sale, they had to make the best of strategies borrowed from other times and other battles that turned out to be inappropriate.

Questioning industrialisation

More generally, the hypothesis of Kirkpatrick Sale is that a parallel can be drawn between the Luddite movement of the industrial revolution and the modern-day Neo-Luddites who oppose the omnipresent information technology. Amongst his conclusions, Sale maintains that politically speaking resistance to industrialisation needs to go beyond questioning the tools, to challenging industrialisation and the viability of an industrial society. According to him, the 19th century Luddites were unable to provoke the necessary public debate. He pleads for a resistance to the current extension to industrialisation that is rooted in an analysis based on morals, that is clearly articulated and that is widely shared.

Giving in to dependence

One interesting possible parallel between the advent of the industrial revolution and the upsurge of the Information Age is the way independence is traded off against dependence so as to strengthen the market. The crofters and country folk give up their rough self-sufficiency and become dependant on the market to satisfy their needs. In a similar way, the actors driving forward the Information Age are encouraging us all, amongst other things, to give up part of the control we have over our communication and also our commerce in the largest sense of the word by making them dependant on external networks and tools. This is not MacLuhan-like technological determinism. It is not the technology that is making us dependant, but rather the action of those commercial and political forces that have a vested interest in expanding their hold on the yet-to-be-conquered rich market of knowledge by using these technologies to their own ends.

Each things in its place

Reading Sale's book, it is striking the extent to which both the author's discourse and the behaviour of the Luddites are heavily centred on technology. By a curious paradox, both those who defend technology and those who oppose it come together in granting a very large place to technology. Is it not possible to consider the world in such a way that each thing and each being is in its rightful place? When a part of the body takes on disproportionate importance with respect to the rest of the body, we call it cancer and it causes great suffering if not death.

Alan McCluskey, Saint-Blaise.

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Created: June 21st, 2001 - Last up-dated: June 21st, 2001