Revolutions: Luddites

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When the industrial revolution peaked in England, workers smashed the machines. There were earlier, more isolated instances of industrial sabotage, but from 1811 to 1817 English workers organized and smashed with such ferocity that at one point more British soldiers were facing off against their own working class than Napoleon’s French army, with whom they were at war. Members of the movement called themselves “Luddites,” supposedly after Ned Ludd, a youth who destroyed two knitting machines in 1779.

The government rounded up many workers for show trials to set an example to other Luddites. Some were sent to penal colonies and many were executed publically. The legislature also made “machine breaking” a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act. With the war over, the economy improving and Luddite sympathizers either in prison or intimidated the movement receded, but it never fully disappeared.

In 1996 the Second Luddite Congress met in Ohio and created a new manifesto for modern times. They claim to be “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.”

Though the term luddite is widely used today to describe anyone who is slow to adapt to new technologies, modern Luddites are diverse in their sympathies. Many argue that neo-Luddism does not mean anti-technology, but opposition to new technologies that have destructive social or environmental impacts. The eco-group Earth First! often takes a page from the original Luddites by sabotaging the machines they see as a threat. While their predecessors smashed to save their own jobs, Earth First! claims that through their sabotage they are protecting the environment.

To see how the conversation plays out in modern day, read this interview with a neo-Luddite and a biotech writer.















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