- Luddism and its Discontents
If the Industrial Revolution brought unprecedented social dislocations and environmental devastation, the effects of what Kirkpatrick Sale now calls the second Industrial Revolution are the more subtle for being more pervasive. Rebels Against the Future joins a growing body of scholarship critical of the “high-tech” revolution in Western society generally and America specifically. This scholarship serves witness beyond the pale of academia to an emerging American subculture, with an attendant set of assumptions, that is variously dismissed by liberals as reactionary or praised as “radical and leading edge,” as one of Sale’s reviewers wrote. A contributing editor to The Nation, Sale writes his books on a typewriter, repudiating computers as does Wendell Berry. He is the author of several studies of Western imperialism, along with several more recent books about the environmental movement. 1 While distrust of technology continues to burgeon among Greens in the West, the present book explores an origin of that distrust in early nineteenth-century England and extracts a series of “lessons” to guide today’s tribe of aspiring neo-Luddites.
The uprising began in England in 1811 with the advent of steam looms that supplanted skilled laborers in the textile industry, particularly in the lace and stocking trades. One consequence was that children as young as four and five, along with women, “came to make up roughly four fifths of the textile labor force by 1833, a population both easier to exploit and cheaper to hire than adult men” (33). Mortality rates were high, and life expectancy rates were low. Employment levels rose and fell to match the changing fashion trends. Exceedingly harsh legal penalties attended these [End Page 866] conditions in Britain, including death for the theft of a five-shilling pair of boots (82). Milder grievances were punishable by “transportation,” to the Australian colonies in this period, to the American colonies earlier, as fictionally befalls the heroine of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), who is rusticated to America after stealing a bundle of lace. High literacy levels were raising laborers’ awareness of the causes and effects of the American and French revolutions; Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man “sold an astonishing 200,000 copies in Britain in 1793” (120). As skilled craftspeople became compelled to retool and transformed into mere attendants on machines—“a grueling process of deskilling, depersonalizing, demoralizing, and degrading . . . whose primary economic achievement was not even productivity but labor discipline” (200)—their indignation and resistance arose. This resistance took the form of systematic campaigns in the English Midlands to halt the mechanization of the textile industry.
The rebellion was confined to the counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire, and Nottinghamshire. Roving bands at night broke into factories and smashed the frames of steam-driven looms. They carried knives and pistols and threatened those who guarded the machines. They set fires and stole food and guns. Some of these rebel bands were reported to be at least 2,000 strong. They addressed pseudonymous letters of warning to manufacturers through the editors of newspapers who printed them; they posted bills and manifestoes in public places. All this was occurring in the same general area in which the Robin Hood legend had flourished for six hundred years. But the origins of the name “Ludd” are lost hopelessly in the fogs of legendry and old time. Among the several learned conjectures, one that seems plausible comes from Puritan poet and historian John Milton who connected King Lud of Britain’s first-century b.c. “in legend with the Celtic god Lludd,” who “‘was hardy, and bold in Warr, in Peace a jolly Feaster’” (78). Variant denominations throughout the Luddite uprising included “General Ludd,” “King Ludd,” and “Ned Ludd.” Anonymous verses remain to celebrate this short but fierce feud—which quickly took its place in Midlands mythology and continues today in the American environmental movement—but a fragment of one of the most telling of those verses reads:
Chant no more...