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In defence of the Luddites

200 years after Lord Byron’s tub-thumping speech about the Luddites, let us distinguish those radicals from today’s eco-miserabilists.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Exactly two centuries ago this week, a little-known 24-year-old arose to make his maiden speech in the House of Lords. ‘It was a Don Juan kind of speech’, recalled the Lord in question nearly 10 years later. And its subject? ‘Some manufacturing affair.’

Such comic flippancy was par for the course for Lord George Gordon Byron. But this ‘manufacturing affair’ was not really a manufacturing affair at all, and it was certainly not something Byron would have been unable to recall in detail (not for nothing did he write two poems about it). For Byron’s first declamatory act in the Lords was to oppose the Frame Work Bill, a piece of legislation designed to turn the destruction of manufacturing frames into a capital offence.

The prompt for this most draconian of parliamentary acts was the Luddites, a collection of tightly organised groups of masked men who, over the course of several tumultuous months between February 1811 and June 1812, destroyed stocking frames in the East Midlands, shearing frames in Yorkshire, and power looms in parts of Lancashire. Such was the strength of the unrest that the British government deployed 12,000 troops to try to quell it. This, notes the historian Eric Hobsbawm, was more troops than the Duke of Wellington took to fight Napoleon for control of the Iberian peninsula in 1808.

So when Byron stood up on 27 February 1812 to address his fellow Lords, it was to defend the Luddites. But, from the perspective of the present, Byron does more than that. He redresses the contemporary image of the Luddite as someone implacably opposed to technological developments on principle. Admittedly, there are plenty of such people around today, especially among the green-hued, where any solution to the mooted problem of climate change that involves energy production from non-fossil fuel is labelled, pejoratively, a ‘techno fix’. Hence, in the words of Good Green Gone Bad Mark Lynas, many environmentalists are suffused with ‘Luddite prejudice’.

But the actual, historical Luddites, as Byron makes clear, were different. They were not riven with anti-technological ‘prejudice’. Indeed, they did not destroy frames as a matter of principle, but as a matter of tactics. Nothing less than their livelihoods were at stake. As Byron argues, ‘the machines were an advantage [to the proprietors], inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workers, who were left in consequence to starve’. So while present-day Luddites associate technology with excessive human hubris, their historical antecedents only condemned technological innovation for its anti-human consequences. They didn’t want to consume less; they simply wanted the means to consume.

From this point, Byron’s oratory takes flight, swooping low with irony, before swinging upwards with compassion. ‘The rejected workmen’, he said, ‘in their blindness and ignorance, instead of rejoicing at these improvements in arts so beneficial to mankind, conceived themselves to be sacrificed to improvements in Mechanism [my italics]. In the foolishness of their hearts, they imagined that the maintenance and wellbeing of the industrious poor were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement, in the implements of the trade, which threw workmen out of employment, and rendered the labourer unworthy of his hire.’

The Luddites were not to be dismissed as a dangerous ‘Mob’, he went on, telling the almost entirely aristocratic parliament: ‘It is the Mob that labour in your fields and serve in your houses, that man your navy and recruit your army, that have enabled you to defy all the world, and can also defy you when Neglect and Calamity have driven them to despair. You may well call the people a Mob; but do not forget that a Mob often speaks the sentiments of the people.’

Byron’s plea, not to mention his warning, fell upon deaf ears. The bill was passed and frame-breaking became an offence punishable by execution.

But Byron was not finished. On 2 March 1812, his punning poem, ‘An Ode to the Framers of the Bill’, was published anonymously in The Morning Chronicle, a Whig-friendly newspaper. Far more abrasive than his Lords performance, it was by turns sardonic and sarcastic. One part in particular captures his sentiments well: ‘Men are more easily made than machinery / Stockings fetch better prices than lives / Gibbets on Sherwood will heighten the scenery, / Showing how Commerce, how Liberty thrives!’

Yet as valuble as Byron’s intervention is as a rejoinder to those who seek to place contemporary ‘stop building nuclear-power stations’-style Luddism in the context of some long-lost radical tradition, there is still something that jars. In fact, while Byron does help us separate the incipient class consciousness of the actual Luddites from the middle-class consciousness of their latter-day anti-humanist namesakes, he also, unwittingly, helps to perpetuate the myth of the Luddites as somehow opposed to technology. In his ‘Ode’, for instance, humanity is played off against ‘machinery’; in his speech, workmen are sacrificed to the near symbolic noun, ‘Mechanism’.

Little wonder that on the occasion of the Luddite bicentennial last year, the idea that the Luddites were somehow trying to free themselves from the tyranny of technological progress persisted. Indeed, the producer of a BBC Radio 3 reassessment of the Luddite legacy went so far as to conclude a complementary Guardian piece on the subject with a technophobic rant: ‘[T]he early twentieth-century dream of technology liberating us from labour has turned into a nightmare of technology depriving people not just of their livelihoods but of their entire raison d’être. Not to mention the fact that the smartphone has made our leisure time into labour.’

But here’s the curious thing about the actual, historical, frame-breaking Luddites. In Nottinghamshire’s textiles industry, the heartland of the Luddite rebellion, there wasn’t actually any new technology extant to displace workers. So as Hobsbawm asserts in a 1952 essay on the ‘machine breakers’: ‘The great East Midland movements of 1811-12 were not… directed against new machinery at all.’ (1) Indeed, what prompted Nottingham’s frame-knitters to embark on a targeted machine-breaking spree was the attempt by certain hosiers and independent property owners to cut costs. This involved two related practices. The first was to replace the art of frame-knitting with the far simpler practice of cutting up bits of cloth in the desired shape and sewing them together. And secondly, because there was so little skill involved, it meant frame-owners could employ virtually anybody to do this, and at low rates, too.

Not that every textiles employer did this, which is why only the frames of those owners that did practice ‘cutups’ and ‘colting’ were targeted. In the words of the radical paper, the Nottingham Review (6 December 1811): ‘There is no new machinery in Nottingham, or its neighbourhood, against which the workmen direct their vengeance. The machines, or frames… are not broken for being upon any new construction… but in consequence of goods being wrought upon them which are of little worth, are deceptive to the eye, are disreputable to the trade, and therefore pregnant with the seeds of its destruction.’ (2)

Nottingham Luddism brings the political and economic essence of historical Luddism in general to the fore. Against the background of a contracting textiles market, exacerbated by the French trade embargo, the continuing war with France and a succession of bad harvests, the economising of certain small industrialists prompted a desperate, political response on the part of affected workmen. And so, banned from forming collective action groups by the Combination Acts, they opted for the secret, opaque society of the mythical Ned Ludd. They were not attacking machinery per se; they were attacking those whose self-interested actions had cast them into penury.

What Byron did, however, was to indulge in a form of poetic license. From the relative comfort of Newstead Abbey in Nottinghamshire, he transfigured the Luddite revolt into something else. That is, he made it a near-symbolic revolt against the triumph of ‘Mechanism’. In this word, which resonates so strikingly in his Lords speech, one can hear the echo of the Romantic tradition itself.

From Edward Young’s Conjectures on Original Composition (1759) to Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads (1800), the ‘mechanical’, the ‘artificial’, the ‘wrought’, was consistently deprecated in relation to what Romanticism enshrined as valuable: that is, the ‘spontaneous’, the ‘creative’, the ‘natural’. In these dichotomies, which play themselves out across British and European Romanticism, there has always been a social criticism to be discerned. Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley and, of course, Byron, not only lived through the political tumult of the French Revolution and the Peterloo Massacre, they also experienced the far less abrupt changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. And it was to the culture of industrialism, and the ‘calculating’, ‘Mechanical’ cast of mind with which it was associated, that Romanticism developed as a defensive, almost critical response.

To all that was instrumental about ‘Mechanism’, rendering superfluous, in this case, the lives of the stocking-makers of Nottingham, the Romantics answered with the non-instrumental sphere of art, of poetry. Byron’s best friend Percy Bysshe Shelley captured this opposition well in his Defence of Poetry (1821): ‘Poetry, and the Principle of Self, of which Money is the visible incarnation, are the God and Mammon of the World.’ Likewise, in the third canto of ‘Childe Harold’, the first two cantos of which were to secure Byron his fame when they were published a few months after his Lords’ speech, a similarly idealised portrait of the superior nature of aesthetic experience emerges: ‘Tis to create, and in creating live / A being more intense, that we endow / with form our fancy, gaining as we give / The life we image, even as I do now…’

And here’s the twist. Contemporary champions of Luddism take Byron all too literally. Byron’s transformation of the historical Luddite rebellion into a struggle against the symbol of ‘Mechanism’ and the idea of ‘machinery’ was always largely figurative. Likewise, the Romantic rejoinder, with nature and art reified as superior realms of being, was also largely symbolic. It was the recourse sought by those in want of a means to oppose the emerging instrumentalism of capitalistic social relations – relations which, as the Luddites discovered, were no longer mediated by either monarchic paternalism or the guild system. Yet today, it seems as if Byron’s symbolic treatment of the Luddites, much like Romanticism in general, has been taken all too literally. This is why, in their opposition to ‘Mechanism’, the Luddites have either been grasped as precursors to full-blown environmentalism or as anti-capitalist-style objectors to economic development. To present the Luddites as either is to do them a grave disservice.

Tim Black is editor of the spiked review of books.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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