Sometime in 1779 – in the midst of that era of trans-Atlantic revolutions that marked the Age of Reason – an apocryphal weaver named Ned Ludd supposedly took a hammer to two stocking frames in a textile factory near Leicester – smashing to bits that simple machinery which threatened his livelihood with the promise of expedient and profitable mechanization.
Ludd wasn’t real – yet the popularity of the character demonstrated something about the inequities that defined the lives of English workers and the threat that technology posed to them.
Though Ludd wasn’t an actual person the movement that took its name from him very much was.
Some three decades after his imagined act of iconoclastic fury the Luddites threatened the interests of capital in both English town and country – destroying the machines of the Industrial Revolution which were designed to replace them.
During the Luddite Crisis of 1811-1816 a popular song was heard in the countryside: ‘Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood, /His feat I but little admire. /I will sing the achievements of General Ludd, /Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire’.
That the term ‘Luddite’ is so completely preserved as a designation of opprobrium speaks to the ultimate victory of their opponents.
For contemporary readers a Luddite is a technophobe who spurns innovation – an archaic throwback who can’t admit to industrial progress – an eccentric who avoids the thrill of the digital in favor of the comforts of the analog.
Such connotations do a disservice to a radical movement with a coherent economic perspective and that more importantly critiqued the ways in which nascent capitalism threatened the question of human meaning.
Such connotations for the term are convenient for a power structure that takes the principles of the Industrial Revolution to their nihilistic conclusions.