Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The Luddites Re-Examined

Technological Advances

An article, by Morgan Meis, in The Smart Set, a Drexel University publication, (re)examines the history and meaning of the Luddites, individuals who were ostensibly against technology. But, were they really? Or was there something larger at stake? Meis writes:
But the legend lived on. Something about the Luddites had captured the popular imagination. The attention wasn’t always positive. Calling someone a Luddite became synonymous with calling him or her a reactionary. The ineffectiveness of the Luddite rebellion probably helped in this assessment. How was smashing up stocking frames going to defeat the greater social and historical forces that had led to automated stocking frames in the first place? The Luddites, so the thinking goes, were out of their league. The development of 19th century industrial capitalism was not going to grind to a halt because of few guys in Leicester had wrecked a couple of machines. Luddism, then, is a movement of futility. The Luddites were buffoons who mistook machines for enemies and tried to halt historical processes that were unstoppable.
Or maybe not. Plenty of left-leaning historians and social scientists have, in the last generation or so, tried to rehabilitate the reputation of the Luddites. The influential and recently deceased historian, Eric Hobsbawm, wrote a famous article in 1952 called, "The Machine Breakers." In the article Hobsbawm explained that, while it may have been futile in one sense, the Luddite rebellion was an important episode in the early history of organized labor and attempts to improve the lot of the working class. Hobsbawm coined the phrase "collective bargaining by riot," as a concise and memorable summing up of how he thinks we ought to think about the Luddites. Hobsbawm pointed out that machine wrecking actually did lead, in many instances, to wage increases and other concessions from employers and the government. In none of these cases, Hobsbawm argues, "was there any question of hostility to machines as such. Wrecking was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution."
Such is another point of view that has merit. Some workers then understood that machines were a threat to job security and good wages, and the symbolic action of Ned Ludd in the late 18th century might have been futile, but nevertheless symbolic. It was foolish then and it is foolish today to think that modern society will stop progressing in some form; much of today's advances in science and medicine are highly beneficial to humanity. And, yet, it is good, necessary and wise to question whether all technological advancements and innovation are necessarily beneficial to humanity.

You can read the rest of the article at [Smart Set]


  1. The original Luddites may well have been practical people who wanted to improve the condition of workers. Today's Luddites, who oppose modern miracles like inoculation, are making a big mistake.


Comment Policy:

All comments will be moderated; and bear in mind that anonymous, hostile, vulgar and off-topic comments will not be published. Thoughtful, reasonable and clear comments, bearing your real name, will be. All comments must be in English.