Saturday, June 2, 2012

Rage against the machines: 200th anniversary of the Luddite Rebellion

by Bradley Hughes

“It is Agreedon to Shoot All masters that Puls Down wages or invents things to hurt the Poor.” Two hundred years ago this direction from General Ludd was posted in Macclesfield and the Luddite rebellion against “machinery hurtful to the commonality” was in full swing. This early anti-capitalist movement, challenging the priorities of a system that subordinates people to profit, is still relevant today.

[ ... ]

By the spring of 1813 the Luddite movement was mostly stalled. A combination of brute force, police spies, legal punishments, and determination from the factory owners and Parliament that no obstacles could be put in the way of profit, wore down the movement.


See also:

Is It O.K. To Be A Luddite? By Thomas Pynchon

... No doubt what people admired and mythologized him for was the vigor and single-mindedness of his assault. But the words "fit of insane rage" are third-hand and at least 68 years after the event. And Ned Lud's anger was not directed at the machines, not exactly. I like to think of it more as the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.

There is a long folk history of this figure, the Badass. He is usually male, and while sometimes earning the quizzical tolerance of women, is almost universally admired by men for two basic virtues: he Is Bad, and he is Big. Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily, more like able to work mischief on a large scale. What is important here is the amplifying of scale, the multiplication of effect.

The knitting machines which provoked the first Luddite disturbances had been putting people out of work for well over two centuries. Everybody saw this happening -- it became part of daily life. They also saw the machines coming more and more to be the property of men who did not work, only owned and hired. It took no German philosopher, then or later, to point out what this did, had been doing, to wages and jobs. Public feeling about the machines could never have been simple unreasoning horror, but likely something more complex: the love/hate that grows up between humans and machinery -- especially when it's been around for a while -- not to mention serious resentment toward at least two multiplications of effect that were seen as unfair and threatening. One was the concentration of capital that each machine represented, and the other was the ability of each machine to put a certain number of humans out of work -- to be "worth" that many human souls. What gave King Ludd his special Bad charisma, took him from local hero to nationwide public enemy, was that he went up against these amplified, multiplied, more than human opponents and prevailed.

[ ... ]

It was open-eyed class war. The movement had its Parliamentary allies, among them Lord Byron, whose maiden speech in the House of Lords in 1812 compassionately argued against a bill proposing, among other repressive measures, to make frame-breaking punishable by death. "Are you not near the Luddites?" he wrote from Venice to Thomas Moore. "By the Lord! if there's a row, but I'll be among ye! How go on the weavers -- the breakers of frames -- the Lutherans of politics -- the reformers?" He includes an "amiable chanson," which proves to be a Luddite hymn so inflammatory that it wasn't published until after the poet's death. The letter is dated December 1816: Byron had spent the summer previous in Switzerland, cooped up for a while in the Villa Diodati with the Shelleys, watching the rain come down, while they all told each other ghost stories. By that December, as it happened, Mary Shelley was working on Chapter Four of her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. ...

Late Spring or Summer 1812: Song entitled "Hunting a Loaf", Derbyshire

GOOD people I pray give ear unto what I say,
And pray do not call it sedition,
For these great men of late they have crack’d my pate,
I’m wounded in a woeful condition.

Fal lal de ral, &c.

For Derby it's true, and Nottingham too,

Poor men to the jail they've been taking,
They say that Ned Ludd as I understood,
A thousand wide frames has been breaking.

Fal lal, &c.

Now is it not bad there’s no work to be had,

The poor to be starv’d in their station;
And if they do steal they’re strait sent to the jail,
And they're hang’d by the laws of the nation.

Fal lal, &c.

Since this time last year I’ve been very queer,

And I’ve had a sad national cross;
I’ve been up and down, from town unto town,
With a shilling to buy a big loaf.

Fal lal, &c.

The first that I met was Sir Francis Burdett,

He told me he’d been in the Tower;
I told him my mind a big loaf was to find,
He said you must ask them in power.

Fal lal, &c.

Then I thought it was time to speak to the prime

Master Perceval would take my part,
But a Liverpool man soon ended the plan,
With a pistol he shot through his heart.

Fal lal, &c.

Then I thought he’d a chance on a rope for to dance,

Some people would think very pretty;
But he lost all his fun thro’ the country he'd run,
And he found it in fair London city.

Fal lal, &c.

Now ending my journey I’ll sit down with my friends,

And I’ll drink a good health to the poor;
With a glass of good ale I have told you my tale,
And I’ll look for a big loaf no more.

Fal lal, &tc.

Westhoughton Local History Group organised a series of events to mark the bi-centenary of the burning of the Westhoughton Mill by the Luddites on 24 April 1812. The highlight was a re-enactment of the burning of the Mill on the former Mill site. This video is a short extract.

Video: 'Remembering the Luddite Martyrs' in Liversedge, 14th April 1812
On Saturday 14th April 2012, a sculpture in memory of the Luddites was unveiled in Liversedge, not far from Rawfolds Mill, which was attacked by Luddites on 12th April 1812, and just down the road from the Shears Inn, where local Luddites allegedly hold some of their meetings. After the official unveiling ceremony had taken place, members of Huddersfield Luddites 200 and the Luddites 200 Organising Forum held a brief ceremony to commemorate the Luddite dead and executed from the area, as well as those from other manufacturing districts across the North and Midlands of England.

The person heckling the ceremony is the Chair of the Spen Valley Civic Society who, during the official unveiling ceremony held earlier, described the assassination of the mill-owner William Horsfall as a 'senseless murder' and had warm words for General Thomas Maitland who held large parts of the West Riding of Yorkshire and the North of England under military occupation in 1812.

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