Sunday, January 23, 2011

Remembering Ned Ludd

Brigitte and I read an article in the Atlantic titled “The Rise of the New Global Elite.” It is reachable here—and thanks, Monique, for pointing it out to us. We’re now in a period when the Atlantic isn’t reaching us. The article caused in me the spontaneous rise of the ghost of Ned Ludd—and not just because Brigitte likes to call herself a “born-again Luddite” when reading about contexts such as the author of the article, Chrystia Freeland, evokes. Brigitte’s self-description is amusing in that she comes from a family one side of which operated textile and the other textile machinery factories.

In my mind, anyway, the rise of a new global elite is the almost inevitable consequence of the rise of the machine—and the rise of the machine the consequence of our exploitation of fossil fuels. These two technological phenomena, combined with what the nuns taught me was Original Sin, were bound to produce both democratic forms of governance and the worship of the Market. I comment on that subject on LaMarotte today under the heading of “It Takes Fewer People” here. But I thought I'd mark the day on Ghulf Genes by summarizing the very interesting Luddite phenomenon, originating in the early nineteenth century. As once, so in the future. My sources here are strictly Wikipedia.

What everybody knows is that the Luddites destroyed machinery to save jobs. But the details are very interesting and telling. This movement, dating to 1811 or the year after, coincides with the introduction of the first mechanized looms in the textile industry in England, thus the first time that steam was deployed to drive production machinery: the marriage of machines and fossil fuels. The mechanized looms incorporated, in their very design, by mechanical arrangements, capacities until then only possessed by skilled workers. Human skills had thus been transferred to machines—and cheaper, less skillful workers could be employed, expensive weavers furloughed. Workers attacked mills, broke weaving frames with hammers, and burned factories. Later riots erupted over unemployment, and the “break the machines” fervor also spread to agriculture when threshing machines were destroyed. Threshing machines separate cereal grains from chaff.

The Luddite movement coincided with the Napoleonic Wars in which England was engaged (1803-1814). Suppression of Luddite uprisings at one time employed more members of the British army than the war, lead to at least one spectacular trial in 1813 after England passed the Frame-Breaking Act (1812) which made industrial sabotage a capital crime. In 1813 seventeen men were executed for this crime, and many others were “transported” to Australia to serve as prisoners and future fathers of the Australian population.

History has its amusing aspects, not least the naming of movements. The Luddite movement had multiple leaders, but none was actually named Ned Ludd. How did the name come to cleave to the movement? Here is how Wikipedia tells the story (here):

Ned Lud [Lud is a variant spelling of the name] was a weaver, believed to be from Anstey, who in 1779, by some accounts, either after being whipped for idleness, or after being taunted by local youths, smashed two knitting frames in what was described as a “fit of passion.” Other accounts offer the less dramatic explanation that Lud was told by his father, who was a framework-knitter, to ‘square his needles’; Lud took a hammer and “beat them into a heap.” News of the incident spread, and after a time, whenever frames were sabotaged, people would jokingly say that “Ned Lud did it.”


  1. You know, I never questioned the story of the derivation of "sabotage" as relayed in Star Trek for this very reason: the Luddites. I just assumed French Luddites.

  2. Baldy: Your comment never showed up...?!