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The Lubbites

Against the Monster Machine

In the 1800's a group of artisans and craftspeople rose up in revolt against the industrial monster that they saw was destroying their lives and families. Kirkpatrick retells their story urging us to confront the overwhelming dominance of technology which controls our lives.

By Kirkpatric Sale

In April 1812, General Ned Ludd looked across the face of England and saw, with sorrowing heart, the desperate, dire condition to which the onrushing Industrial Revolution had reduced those weavers and combers, those finishers and dyers, whose leader and whose mythical creation - he was.

These were men who had known modest prosperity when the textile trades were cottage industries, in communities where custom and convention were the secure and comforting warp and woof of the social fabric and had been for centuries, who now were reduced to working for pennies when there was any work to be had.

Forced to send their wives and little children off to factories for the pittances that went to buy food when there was any to be had, they were condemned to a life of soot and filth and rain as black as ink, with sewage for drinking water, and shacks and hovels for shelter starvation and disease so prevalent that a labourer's life expectancy in the industrial cities was not much more than 20 years, and, in all, as one cry from the stocking knitters put it, 'a state of misery wretchedness itself can not depict'. They were men who were victims of giant new factories, many run by never-ceasing steam engines, that allowed a single man or woman (who could endure endless hours, gruelling work and harsh supervision in intolerable conditions) to do the work that two or three hundred men had done just decades before; but moreover, victims of a giant new factory system, in which for the first time the machine became dominant over the human, and the old ideas of what were proper and rewardable modes of work were overturned, the old customs and tenets of honest wages, good goods, and just prices were discarded in place of relations built upon power, wealth, success, and a morality guided by no aim higher or more finely spun than profit.

And so it was, nearly two centuries ago, that General Ludd could also look across the vast mid-section of England and see, with gladdening heart, the sporadic uprising of his men against this advancing menace of industrialism, men so driven by their misery and despair that they had taken to smashing hated machines with sledgehammers, attacking factories with torches and guns, stoning the homes of manufacturers, commandeering stalls in the market to hand out foodstuffs, and, for the first time, in an attack on a factory in Yorkshire, laying down their lives, four brave souls of them, in service to the cause of Luddism. One of their letters, delivered that week to a manufacturer in Stockport, not far from Manchester, conveyed the spirit then firing their hearts:

"We think it our bounden duty to give you this notice that is, if you do not cause those machines to be removed within the bounds of 7 days, your factory and all that it contains will and surely be set on fire. It is not our desire to do you the least injury, but we are fully determined to destroy both machines and steam engines let who will be the owners. We neitherregard those that keeps them, nor the British army, for we will conquer both or die in the conflict."

On the bright cold morning of April 15 some warriors in the Luddite army gathered on a field outside of Stockport and declared themselves a Luddite Congress, convened to decide on future tactics and targets. Little is known of what transpired there; all of the Luddites' actions were criminal (even meeting in a field), and most of them punishable by death, so they were little inclined to leave much of a paper trail. But it seems that they decided to press on with the attacks against the largest and most hated factories and branch out with night raids of small bands, calling themselves 'Ludd's men', marching across the countryside to take food, money, supplies, and weapons from the rich. Five days later a huge mob of several thousand assaulted a factory at Middleston, after which at least 10 and more probably 30 attackers lay dead, and the factory unscathed; nine days later a band of men and women set fire to a factory at Westhoughton, not far away, and reduced it to ashes within hours, a damage estimated to be £6,000; two weeks later a small unit of four men set upon a manufacturer in Hudders Field, some 30 miles away, and shot him to death, the first and only casualty on the other side.

Carrot and stick

The response to all this unrest by the British government was swift and vengeful. It sent
2,000 additional soldiers into the affected regions so that by May the army of General Ludd was surrounded by no fewer than 14,000 men, 4,000 of them on horseback, plus, in every town and city, neighbourhood militias and deputised constables on the prowl after dark.

With the carrot of extraordinary rewards (£50,000 and more) and the stick of jail, torture, and harassment, it was not long before the Luddite canvas began to unravel aided considerably, it seems, by a growing feeling among the citizens of Luddite country that the General's men had gone too far. As long as violence was limited to attacks on machines and untended factories, the people of the industrial counties, most of them suffering too in these terrible times, gave support to the Luddite armies and would say nothing to betray their friends and neighbours, no matter what rewards were dangled, what pressures were impacted. When violence was extended to fellow humans, however, manufacturers who no matter how wrongheaded about what they were doing to the workers were still lifelong members of the community, men entitled to the full passage of their lives, that seems to have gone beyond the bounds, and one senses that the silent support of the general folk began to fray. And we do know that in October, six months after the assassination of the Yorkshire manufacturer, the mother of one Luddite broke after being kidnapped by a local magistrate, which led to additional testimony from neighbours and fellow workers, and finally to the arrest and eventual trial of the four assassins. They were found guilty; it broke the back of the Luddite rising; with their deaths, in January 1813, dangling from a stout beam in the Yorkshire prison, and with now three dozen shot dead, 24 hanged, 37 transported, at least 40 jailed, the armies of General Ludd were effectively extinguished. It was a terrible cost, but it was not without its effect. Luddism lost, and the Industrial Revolution won, but it did make its impact, causing at least £1.5 million of damage, slowing the pace of machine adoption in much of middle England, raising what was called then 'the machinery question' i.e., what is the role of technology in society and putting it on the national agenda, and serving ever after as the symbol of those who reject and resist technologies that threatenlives and livelihoods and demand that society pay heed and awaken to the tragedy being wrought within it.

Enter the computer

I have called one of the subtitles of my book on the Luddites 'Lessons For the Computer Age' because I believe that we have much to learn from those brave, bewildered, battered armies that created the fictional all-purpose General Ludd as their hero two centuries ago. We are fighting a much more difficult battle now, here in the Second Industrial Revolution driven by the omnipotent microchip, and we know so much more than they about the awesome power, the awesome destructiveness, of industrialism now that we have seen how it has played itself out in these last two centuries all over the world. But we would do well to examine those early Luddites, our great-great-grandparents, as it were and listen to what their experience has to tell. For example, there comes a time when resistance to machinery is right and just, the only moral act in defiance of an immoral world. Violent resistance, however, quite apart from whatever evil may be inherent in it, will bring down upon you the wrath of governments that have made themselves powerful with the weapons of violence and of corporations that have made themselves powerful with the weapons of social control. Violent resistance escalating to the taking of human lives is, again apart from its inherent evil, misguided and counterproductive and carries with it the absolutely debilitating contradiction that it is imitating the very world it is acting against. For other examples: the reform of this industrial system through the very politics it has set up for its protection and perpetuation is futile, and the Tweedledum- Tweedledee party election game is as much a charade today as it was for the Luddites, whose parliament responded to their pleas by making the smashing of machines a capital offence. But of course the idea of a revolution to supplant the industrial system, in addition to involving unacceptable violence, is clearly futile against nation-states for whom self-protection is a raison d'etre and which have a monopoly on the high tech weaponry of warfare besides.
Violent resistance escalating to the taking of human lives ... carries with it the absolutley debilitating contradiction that it is imitating the very world it is acting against.

(We must confront) the industrial megamachine, the onslaught of high technology that is now so spoiling the lives and workplaces and communities and ecosystems of modern society everywhere.
Rage is not enough

For one last example: successful resistance to such an immense socioeconomic phenomenon as industrialism cannot be driven by rage and outrage, however righteous those may be, nor spontaneous outbursts and uncoordinated reactions. It needs rather these three characteristics:

* To be grounded in a broad philosophical understanding, certain agreed upon insights and comprehensions such as have been delineated by the broad anti-technology movement, the Luddite tradition, that has existed for these last two centuries even as the pro-technology powers have predominated by such luminaries as Emerson and Thoreau, Muir and Weber, Aldo Leopold and Lewis Mumford, Jacques Ellul and Paul Goodman, Rachel Carson and Wendell Berry, and the whole chorus of contemporary neo-Luddites whose voices have been so sharp and so penetrating in these past few years.

* It needs as well a dedication to try to spread that broad Luddite philosophy as forcefully and fully, if of necessity slowly, throughout this land in the effort to change the fundamental belief-system of this technologised society, to wean it away from the false gods it has dedicated itself to I mean the gods of materialism, rationalism, and humanism that tell us that amassment of personal riches is the highest goal of life, and the attendant deities of exploitation, dominance, profit, progress, and growth.

* And it needs to try to replace those dangerous false gods with guides that have proven to be reliable, trustworthy, and inspirational for human societies since the very earliest times, and which are the forces, configurations, systems, and organisms of the natural world, the whole grand, sacred, precious, and numinous biosphere upon which all life depends; for then we will know how to select and assess, to create and build, the technologies of our life, technologies consistent with the flowering and abundance of the natural world in all its harmony, diversity, and beauty. That kind of resistance, it seems to me, would express the very best of the human capacity, and it just might win over hearts and minds in sufficient numbers and with sufficient speed to avert the otherwise certain calamities to which the industrial world is impelling us. Of course it would demand of us, of each one of us, that we begin to think of ourselves as lifesavers on a life-saving mission upon whose eventual success depends the future of not merely the human species but probably all of life on the surface of this unique, irreplaceable, glorious blue-green planet.

It would mean that we achieve the equivalent of restoring Ned Ludd to life again, not as a general now with flailing, separate armies at his command, but as our brother, our comrade, our colleague in the enterprise of peaceful resistance, symbol now, as then, of a people's willingness to stand up against the forces of ruination, but symbol now of our understanding that we reach out to people as brothers, as sisters, in fraternity, in community, in solidarity.

It would mean (our resistance) that we start here and now to be orators and activists against the energetic genius of destruction around us: to name the enemy, which is technology, and its gods, and tell the baffled public out there, quite aware that the new technologies are overwhelming them in Newsweek's words, 'outstripping our capacity to cope, transforming our mores, reordering our priorities, and shifting our concept of reality' tell those baffled, battered citizens that the problem is not one political party or another, one President or another, not the lack of family values or the rise of the welfare state or the erosion of community or decline in religious beliefs, not any one of the -isms that beset our nation today, not even the stranglehold of corporate power and the ascendancy of corporate greed, but rather the technology in service to false gods that has made all the rest of it possible, that is in fact behind all those other ills and evils. Technology high, computer-driven, corporate-wielded, government-sponsored, nature-destructive technology.

Moloch, Satan, Belial, Gog and Magog, Loki, Arch-fiend: technology. Name the enemy. Understand it. Resist it. Along with the gift of life, we are given the gift of choice. Not over everything, but over much. And we may choose how we wish to act, knowing as we do the enemy, knowing as we do the peril. I cannot tell you what our acts will be, but I can say that it is incumbent upon us all to dedicate ourselves to this task, to the service of a resuscitated brotherhood who would be looking upon us today with a proud and hopeful heart. We know we must act, we must resist, we must persuade, we must for our sakes, for the sake of humankind, for the sake of the living earth we must prevail.

  Kirkpatrick Sales' speech (slightly edited) to the Second Luddite Congress, held in the US in 1996 (the first was in England in 1812).The Luddite Congress can be contacted at East Mountain Rd South, Coldspring, NY 10516, USA.

Kirkpatrick Sale is the author of a book on the Luddite revolt entitled Rebels Against the Future, as well as a number of other books which include:- The Human Scale, Dwellers in the Land, Power Shift and The Conquest of Paradise.

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