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Luddites Have Been Getting a Bad Rap for 200 years. But, Turns Out, They Were Right

“The lesson you get from the end of the Luddites is: Do the people that are profiting off automation today want to participate in distributing their profits more widely around the population, or are they going to fight just as hard as they did back then?”

Illustration of the leader of the Luddites from a British periodical,Working Class movement Library Catalogue

Things did not end well for the Luddites. The group of weavers and textile artisans in early 1800s were crushed by the British government after resisting the destruction of their livelihoods by industrialization. History, in one of its callous twists, recast their story from a workers’ revolt for fair treatment to a short-sighted war against technology and progress.

The truth is that the Luddites were the skilled, middle-class workers of their time. After centuries on more-or-less good terms with merchants who sold their goods, their lives were upended by machines replacing them with low-skilled, low-wage laborers in dismal factories. To ease the transition, the Luddites sought to negotiate conditions similar to those underlying capitalist democracies today: taxes to fund workers’ pensions, a minimum wage, and adherence to minimum labor standards.

Those bargaining attempts were rebuffed by most factory owners. The Luddites then began months of “machine breaking” in 1811-1812, smashing the weaving frames, in a last ditch effort to bring their new bosses to the table. At the behest of factory owners, the British Parliament declared machine breaking a capital offense and sent 14,000 troops to the English countryside to put down the uprising. Dozens of Luddites were executed or exiled to Australia. The crushed rebellion cleared the way for horrific working conditions of the Industrial Revolution yet to come.

Clive Thompson, an author and journalist at the New York Times Magazine and Wired, revisited Luddite’s history in an article for The Smithsonian to see what it could teach us. As machine learning and robotics consume manufacturing and white-collar jobs alike, the 200-year-old rebellion’s implications for automation are more relevant than ever, says Thompson:

“The lesson you get from the end of the Luddites is: Do the people that are profiting off automation today want to participate in distributing their profits more widely around the population, or are they going to fight just as hard as they did back then?”

That economic and political question is hanging over western democracies coping with a wave of populism seemingly tracking a widening gap between stagnant wages and ballooning wealth at the top. While automation eventually tends to create new jobs even after it destroys old ones, that’s little consolation for millions of workers whose skills and experience are obsolete.

Thompson sat down with Quartz earlier this year to talk about his research. The interview was condensed and edited for clarity.

Why did you decide to write about this now?

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I’ve been thinking for a year about the Luddites and why they have this dismissed reputation. The word Luddite has come to mean someone who doesn’t like technology. Really it was a political fight over who was going to use the spoils of profits from machinery.

As I started seeing books about automation and the coming waves of jobs that were going to vanish, I started thinking this could have real resonance in helping us understand what’s going on, maybe there’s something to be learned about how the Luddites reacted in the past.

How does the Luddites’ struggle translate to that of workers’ today?

With the Luddites, you had a class of workers who had for long time had an agreement with the people who bought their work, the merchants buying all of the weaving and cropping (wool textiles).

They had an understanding with merchants stretching over decades to centuries that there should be a sense of fair profit. The merchants were buying their stuff, reselling it, and providing some capital, sometimes to buy machines. But the profit should be fairly shared all the way around.

What happens is you get Adam Smith publishing his seminal work on free market capitalism [Wealth of Nations] in late 18th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, the merchants are starting to go, “Wait a minute. There is no such thing as a fair profit. There’s just whatever I can get from the marketplace. There is no moral imperative for us to give up a larger chunk of our profits to these people.”

Adam Smith is arguing if we all behave with high degree of self interest, that will actually improve the economy in the long run. This was the first beginnings of the real embrace of free-market capitalism.

The Luddites were not opposed to the idea of using machines to make things more efficiently or be more productive. They just thought if you’re going to make more money because you’re more productive, you need to kick some of that money back down to the workers. The merchants were really not of that opinion….

[The Luddites] tried to bargain with the factory owners [arguing for minimum prices, a textile tax to support workers pensions, or phased introduction of new machines], but that didn’t go over at all. When the Luddites got to their wits end, they basically started going in and smashing and breaking machines, saying, this is all we got left. We’re going to destroy the means by which you produce this dislocation in our lives.

The Luddite uprising began in the fall of 1811. Pretty soon, they were breaking a couple hundred machines per month. After five to six months the government realized this was not slowing down. This was a real thing and the government fought back ferociously.

Of course, very wealthy factory owners had a lot of sway with the [British] Parliament, who sent in 14,000 soldiers to flood the northern counties where the Luddites were doing this smashing. They passed a new law specifically targeting frame-breaking giving it the death sentence. They worked really, really hard to infiltrate rings with spies.

It took some time. The Luddite uprising lasted for about a year, but the government did eventually break the back of it by putting several dozen Luddites to death; very public trials, very rapidly done. Special gallows would hang several of them at once. They shipped another couple dozen off to Australia. They even hung a 16-year-old boy who had done nothing more than been a lookout. That really put an end to it.

What are the parallels to the Luddites’ situation and that of workers’ today?

One of the things that’s similar is the rapid pace of change. Artificial intelligence has taken this very, very significant leap forward in the last 15 years and it’s probably going take even more significant leaps in the next 10 years.

What’s interesting about the Luddites, is that there was a very similar sudden jump. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the period before the Luddites, it was a fairly stable period for the textile industry in the United Kingdom. What workers were paid was published in broadsheets and newspapers. If you set out to make a living as a weaver, you knew very much what you were going to make. You had a fair amount of control to work from home. You controlled your own schedule. Some led fairly leisurely lives; working only four days a week was enough to make a pretty good living.

And then in 10 or 20 years, all of that was rapidly inverted. There was an economic recession caused by a war with France. Britain suddenly had all sorts of trade barriers. You had a fashion change. Men stopped wearing leggings and started wearing these new-fangled things called trousers, so suddenly there was less demand.Machine breaking in textile mills in the 1800s. (source unknown, 1812)

History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain by Sir Edward Baines, History of the cotton manufacture in Great Britain by Sir Edward Baines,

The merchants needed to cut costs, so they decided to take advantage of technologies that had come along. One was more efficient weaving frames. One person could be four to six times more productive. Secondly, they started making factories using stream power to power the looms instead of humans.

Now, the humans’ job is to tend their machines. You need fewer humans and it’s quite dangerous work. The factories are terrible, dreadful places. All sorts of accidents happen because the factories had no safety standards.

You had this sudden shift from workers being paid reasonably well and having a lot of autonomy over what they did to getting paid pretty terribly and needing far less people producing crappier goods.

It sounds like we’re fighting over the same question: who deserves the proceeds from the means of production?

Absolutely. This was of course the great intellectual debate between [Karl] Marx and Smith and those that followed them.

That’s what we see thrown into sharp relief by technologies that can do thinking work [today]. If you go to Silicon Valley, they can very quickly make a technology that can either throw a lot of people out of work or create a whole new category of production, create a lot of wealth and concentrate it in the hands of a few people that run the company, instead of thousands of people.

What’s the biggest difference in terms of the effect of automation on today’s working class?

I think there is one big difference: a lot of the jobs that are going to be outsourced are actually not working class at all. They are healthily middle-to-upper class, and often white collar. Automation has really moved up the income ladder. It’s not just taking away jobs with your hands. It’s taking away jobs from your mind. The difference with the Luddites is that automation is moving up the job chain.

How do you think today’s workers will fare given the [economic and political] system in the US?

One big dissimilarity is there really is less collective action and solidarity among workers. During the Luddite period, you had workers who knew each other in tight-knit little towns where it was easier to organize and get frame-breaking to happen. It’s a lot harder with a larger country with disparate people all over the place. There has been a very, very active campaign by Republicans over the last 50 years, a successful campaign, to beat back unions. The one force that would have done something Luddite-like just doesn’t have that much power anymore.

There are no factories to monkey wrench anymore. What are you going to do: burn down Facebook or Uber? Their products are software. Any similar software activity would take the form of not smashing a machine but smashing a piece of software. Hacking. It would look more like what Anonymous does.

On the other hand, you have the Internet, modes of communication for disparate people to talk about and spread their ideas in ways that can be powerful. Look at Occupy Wall Street. Many critics said they didn’t have any solid plan. Fair enough, except they had the Internet and the ability to spread their message wide. They did an amazing job with it. They put this discussion of the 1% on the map. That conversation was not happening in the mainstream before they came along. They did that.

That is almost like a Luddite-type of activity. It’s a mass-gathering that tries to draw focus to something. It’s the same thing with Black Lives Matter and the Tea Party in their own way.

Donald Trump’s speech [on Inauguration Day] was filled with promises how he’s going to bring jobs back, but he’s never given even the slightest details about he’s going to do that. … My suspicion is that his supporters are going to be deeply disappointed. So the real conversation for anyone seriously trying to grapple with this is how to share the profits. What industries are growing? What type of manufacturing jobs might be growing?

If you want create jobs you certainly can, but that’s a political conversation the incoming government hasn’t grappled with. Are there ways forward and answers to what’s happening? Yeah, sure, absolutely. But I don’t think anything the Trump administration has proposed is up to that challenge.