The following piece was originally published in Issue 2 of Dark Mountain back in 2011. This edited version appears in the new Dark Mountain anthology, Walking On Lava (Chelsea Green 2017). I am publishing it here in part because somebody I greatly admire has asked if there is an online version to share, but also because reading it again has reminded me of a dream I once had; a dream which we are beginning to make flesh down at Bentley Urban Farm. I hope you enjoy it…
The Shuttle Exchanged For The Sword
Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood
His feats I but little admire
I will sing the Achievements of General Ludd
Now the hero of Nottinghamshire
– Anon, from the files of the Home Office
If you should someday visit York Castle, you will encounter the romanticised celebration of the life of one John Palmer, a violent thief and murderer whose early exploits include the pistol-whipping and torture of a 70-year-old man, and the aiding and abetting of the rape of two women. Palmer is better known today for his later exploits, and by his real name: Richard Turpin.
The Dick Turpin of popular imagination was formed by Richard Bayes’ semi-fictional biography, The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin, the noted Highwayman. This account of Turpin’s exploits was hurriedly published in 1739, shortly after Turpin was hanged for horse-theft. Biographies of condemned villains were popular in the 17th and 18th centuries and a known murderer and horse-thief was considered the worst criminal imaginable.
Bayes’ described Turpin as a highwayman, but this was not his reputation in his own lifetime (when he was better known as ‘Turpin the Butcher’). This encouraged later authors to further embellish Turpin’s exploits. In his 1834 novel, Rockwood, William Harrison Ainsworth gives Turpin his legendary horse, Black Bess; in fact, a borrowing from a famous story of the highwayman John Nevison, who was said to have ridden the 200 miles from Kent to York non-stop, in order to establish an alibi for a crime he had committed. In Ainsworth’s novel, Turpin has Black Bess gallop overnight from London to York, where his beloved mare promptly dies of exhaustion. The story of Turpin and Bess was so well received that it became popular fodder for the Penny Dreadfuls of the 19th century, and thus a powerful (but inaccurate and exaggerated) legend was born.
On 16th January 1813, some three quarters of a century after Turpin was hanged, another 14 lives would end on the gallows at York Castle. The crimes for which these young men died would be recorded variously as ‘riot, breaking and entering and attempting to demolish William Cartwright’s water mill (for finishing cloth by machinery)’. Unlike Turpin, their actions were motivated by more than greed – indeed, it was the greed of other men that sent them to their deaths. But no gravestone, plaque or waxwork exhibit marks the passing of their lives. Instead, their legacy is a shallow, overused and inappropriate insult thrown around by champions of the myth of inevitable, beneficent industrial progress.
Today, the word Luddite has become one of those tame insults which are used to suggest the superiority of the user without being deemed overly offensive to the intended recipient. In his ‘Tips for Transhumanist Activists’ (transhumanists study and promote opportunities for enhancing the human organism, and thereby the human condition, through the use of technology), Michael Anissimov says:
Don’t use harsh, insulting, unkind words to describe people who disagree with your views. … Using words like ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’, and ‘daft’ smack of elitism, and reflect negatively on the speaker, only making it clear to everyone that their brain is firmly stuck within the pathology of name-calling and tribalistic thinking. If we must use some sort of adjective to describe the people we think are our ‘opponents’, then ‘Luddite’ should do.
The implication is that the Luddites were not only opposed to new technology, but were ‘stupid’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘daft’ to hold such a position. This attitude is not unusual: even academics are prone to treating the historical Luddites as little more than a naïve and reactionary backlash against the inevitability of change. As Eric Hobsbawm observed 60 years ago:
[A]n excellent work … can still describe Luddism simply as a ‘pointless, frenzied, industrial Jacquerie’, and an eminent authority, who has contributed more than most to our knowledge of it, passes over the endemic rioting of the eighteenth century with the suggestion that it was the overflow of excitement and high spirits. … In much of the discussion of machine-breaking one can still detect the assumption of nineteenth-century middle-class economic apologists, that the workers must be taught not to run their heads against economic truth, however unpalatable; of Fabians and Liberals, that strong-arm methods in labour action are less effective than peaceful negotiation; of both, that the early labour movement did not know what it was doing, but merely reacted, blindly and gropingly, to the pressure of misery, as animals in the laboratory react to electric currents. The conscious views of most students may be summed up as follows: the triumph of mechanization was inevitable.
The truth about the Luddites was very different. Far from being a naïve, disorganised mob, they were highly-skilled independent craftsmen whose way of life had been under attack for decades.
The story of the men hanged at York had begun a little over a year earlier, in the village of Bulwell, four miles north of the city of Nottingham. In the north of England, the night of 4th November is traditionally known as ‘Mischief Night’ because children were allowed to play tricks on the rest of the community – much like the American tradition of Trick or Treat – and it was on that night in 1811 that a band of men with blackened faces marched through the streets of Bulwell to the workshop of a master weaver named Hollingsworth, whom they said ‘had rendered himself obnoxious to the workmen.’ Armed with a variety of hammers, axes, pitchforks and pistols, the men forced entry into Hollingsworth’s premises and smashed up a half-dozen wide-lace-frames – new machines which were said to do the work of many men in a fraction of the time.
Not content with their actions, the men returned on the following Sunday night to finish the job, but this time Hollingsworth had a team of gunmen lying in wait. A young weaver by the name of John Wesley (or Westley) from the nearby village of Arnold was shot as he tried to gain entry to the premises. With his dying breath, he exclaimed, ‘Proceed, my brave fellows, I die with a willing heart!’ This so enraged the mob that they pushed forward, regardless of the gunfire. Hollingsworth’s gunmen fled and the workshop was burnt to the ground.
On the same night, other frames were destroyed in nearby Kimberley, with similar attacks taking place throughout the surrounding areas on the following Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday nights. On the Thursday, the body of John Wesley was carried through the streets of Arnold by a procession of a thousand men. They were met by six armed magistrates, a company of mounted Dragoon guards, a local militia, and a posse of volunteer constables. One of the magistrates read the Riot Act, whereby people were supposed to disperse under threat of immediate arrest. The procession ignored him, and after a scuffle many of them were taken into custody. But if the authorities thought that this might put an end to the matter, they couldn’t have been more wrong; Nottinghamshire erupted.
Despite the presence of thousands of troops, over 800 looms were broken in Nottinghamshire during the final months of 1811. And each act of resistance, so it was claimed, had been conceived and conducted under the order of one man. As Kirkpatrick Sale tells the story, in Rebels Against the Future:
It was now that anonymous letters explaining the causes of the machine breaking and threatening more of it started appearing throughout the district, mailed to or slipped under the doors of hated hosiers, sent to local newspapers, or posted in the night on public boards – ‘many hundreds’ of them … reported one manufacturer. All announced that a new concerted movement was afoot; all were signed by, or invoked the name of Edward (Ned) Ludd, ‘King,’ ‘Captain in Chief,’ or ‘General.’ … Luddism had begun.
There has been much speculation as to the origins of the name, but the most popular theory also seems to be the most likely. Edward Ludd (or Ludlum) is said to have been a boy from the village of Anstey, just outside Leicester. In 1779 he was employed as a weaver’s apprentice, but was beaten for ‘idleness’ by his master. Not much caring for being whipped like a dog, young Ned took a hammer to two of his master’s knitting frames and ‘beat them into a heap’. From then on, whenever anyone damaged a loom, whether by accident or with malicious intent, it was common to say, ‘Ned Ludd did it’. We cannot know the truth behind this story, but we do know that 1779 marked the beginning of the end of the traditional weaving trade. In the closing years of the 18th century, the weaver’s way of life came under threat, not only from the introduction of new technology, but also from the newly emerging capitalist approach to production. Sale depicts this vividly:
Lancashire, say 1780:
The workshop of the weaver was a rural cottage, from which when he was tired of sedentary labour he could sally forth into his little garden, and with the spade or the hoe tend its culinary productions. The cotton wool which was to form his weft was picked clean for him by the fingers of his younger children, and was carded and spun by the older girls assisted by his wife, and the yarn was woven by himself assisted by his sons. When he could not procure within his family a supply of yarn adequate to the demands of his loom, he had recourse to the spinsters of his neighbourhood. One good weaver could keep three active women at work upon the wheel, spinning weft [although] he was often obliged to treat the females with presents in order to quicken their diligence at the wheel.
Lancashire, say 1814:
There are hundreds of factories in Manchester which are five or six storeys high. At the side of each factory there is a great chimney which belches forth black smoke and indicates the presence of powerful steam engines. The smoke from the chimneys forms a great cloud which can be seen for miles around the town. The houses have become black on account of the smoke … To save wages mule jennies have actually been built so that no less than 600 spindles can be operated by one adult and two children. Two mules, each with 300 spindles, face each other. The carriages of these machines are moved in one direction by steam and in the other direction by hand. This is done by an adult worker who stands between two mules. Broken threads are repaired by children (piecers) who stand either side of the mules … In the large spinning mills machines of different kinds stand in rows like regiments in an army.
As Sale writes, this was an alteration ‘to dwarf even the considerable upheavals’ of the previous centuries, including the enclosure of land which brought the loss of commons and enforced urbanisation. In the first issue of Dark Mountain, Simon Fairlie demonstrated that a significant part of the population either made a good living directly from the commons or depended on them to meet their needs when times were hard. If you had free and open access to food, grazing pasture and wood for shelter and fuel, then you did not have to be at the constant beck and call of farmers, proprietors and landowners. Indeed, many labourers and artisans worked only as long as was needed to ensure that the immediate needs of their families were met; the idea of working to the clock for extra income would have seemed somewhat ludicrous. Time was not yet seen as a commodity – and in the complaints of would-be employers, there is plenty of evidence of the way that this degree of autonomy and self-sufficiency limited the possibilities for exploiting workers.
It wasn’t just family ties that were closer thanks to pre-capitalist production methods, community life benefited as well. Of the weaving communities, E. P. Thompson writes:
In one sense these communities were certainly ‘backward’ – they clung with equal tenacity to their dialect traditions and regional customs and to gross medical ignorance and superstitions. But the closer we look at their way of life, the more inadequate simple notions of economic progress and ‘backwardness’ appear. Moreover there was certainly a leaven amongst the northern weavers of self-educated and articulate men of considerable attainments. Every weaving district had its weaver-poets, biologists, mathematicians, musicians, geologists, botanists … [T]here are accounts of weavers in isolated villages who taught themselves geometry by chalking on their flagstones, and who were eager to discuss the differential calculus. In some kinds of plain work with strong yarn a book could actually be propped on the loom and read at work.
Robbed of their traditional land-rights, the newly dominant mercantile classes were seeking to take full advantage of the increased reliance of the artisans and peasantry on the wage-labour system. To see the Luddite moment clearly, we need to remember that the mythologies which shape the attitudes and actions of a culture – including, in our case, the belief in wage-labour, the work ethic, proprietary ownership, profit and progress – had to be invented, developed, endorsed and enforced. The patterns of life we now consider normal could only come to dominate at the expense of traditional beliefs. And so the industrial revolution brought with it new attitudes towards work which would prove as devastating to communal life as enclosure itself.
By January 1812, the area north of Nottingham was awash with troops sent from around the country. Armed deployments on this scale were unprecedented and the local population lived in fear. The Nottingham Annual Register of 1812 records this: ‘It is impossible to convey a proper idea of the state of the public mind in this town during … the constant parading of the military in the night, and their movements in various directions both night and day, giving us the appearance of a state of warfare.’ As so often, when forced to choose between trade and people, the government treated the Luddites as a direct enemy of the state (what Margaret Thatcher would have described as ‘the enemy within’). On 14th February, the Tory government introduced a bill to make loom-breaking punishable by death. When the bill was read in the House of Lords, it was received with one of the most eloquent and impassioned speeches in British parliamentary history; understandable, given that the man delivering it was Lord Byron.
Byron’s speech was loaded with sarcastic references as to the ‘benefits’ of progress. He questioned the inferior quality of the items produced through automation when compared to similar items produced by the hands of artisans. He argued that the men in question had never had a fair hearing from the government (three petitions from some 80,000 weavers had been delivered to parliament in the build-up to the events of 1811), and that the area could have easily been restored to ‘tranquillity … had proper meeting been held in the earlier stages of the riots.’ Instead, ‘your Dragoons and executioners must be let loose against your fellow citizens … Can you commit a whole country to their own prisons? Will you erect a gibbet in every field and hang up men like scarecrows? … Are these remedies for a starving and desperate populace?’
Capital and the state, those two inseparable aspects of what William Cobbett called ‘The Thing’, are driven by profit and power, and impervious to arguments based on knowledgeable reason or impassioned intuition. And so, somewhat predictably, the bill was passed into law.
Those arrested in November and December were exempt from the death penalty, but were instead transported to Australia. One of the men singled out as a ‘ringleader’, 22 year old William Carnell, was described as having ‘the merit of protecting the occupier of the House, an old man of 70 from any personal violence’ – in contrast to Turpin’s pistol-whipping exploits.
The strong military presence and the threat of judicial murder appeared to have an immediate effect on the local population, with only 30 frames being broken in February compared to over 300 in January. From this point, frame-breaking in Nottinghamshire became less frequent, although 1812 saw regular food riots in the area, themselves a byproduct of the hardship created by the introduction of mechanical looms. But this was by no means the end of General Ludd’s war.
On 12th January 1812, a finishing machine was destroyed in Leeds, and on 15th January, the city’s magistrates raided a meeting of men with ‘blackened faces’. Then, on the morning of Sunday 19th January, the finishing mill of Oates, Woods and Smithson, just north of Leeds, was found to be ablaze. Yorkshire, it seemed, was in the thrall of King Ludd. On 9th February, he extended his reign, when the Manchester warehouse of the textile manufacturing firm Haigh, Marshal & Co. was set on fire, destroying the machine-manufactured cloth stored inside.
When we consider the hell that the industrial revolution had unleashed, it is small wonder that the thoughts and actions of the Luddites found fertile ground in the smoke-blackened streets of these northern cities. Having borne the brunt of industrialisation for three decades, they knew better than most what factories and machines could do to the welfare of the local population. In living memory, the greater part of a well-fed peasantry and relatively prosperous artisans had been reduced to a powerless, starving proletariat – and all in the name of progress.
As the Luddite influence moved north, it became clear that far from being reactionary, the Luddites were an insurrectionary movement. In Yorkshire and Lancashire they became more highly disciplined and more overtly political than before. Here, for the first time, there is evidence of oath-taking; oaths were considered so serious that an echo of the practice can still be found in the modern judicial process, where witnesses swear on the Bible. Under British law, the act of oath-taking was punishable by transportation, no matter which cause was being pledged or who was involved. In Luddite circles, taking an oath was known as ‘twisting-in’, a reference to the twisting of separate threads to form a single, stronger yarn. This sworn bond was strengthened by military-style, night-time drills, with reports of ‘midnight drills’, ‘the mysterious tramp of feet’ and ‘mysterious shots in the moors’ reaching the House of Lords committee which carried out an investigation into Luddism later that year. As the focus shifted to larger factories, the scale of the Luddite activities led to a ratcheting of the levels of violence.
On the night of 12th April 1812, an armed band of over a hundred Yorkshiremen made their way to Rawfolds Mill, a factory owned by the hated William Cartwright. Inside the mill stood 50 steam-powered finishing machines which had put at least 200 croppers out of work. Also inside was Cartwright himself, along with four armed workers and five soldiers from the Cumberland militia. The factory was built like a fortress, with an ingenious system of pulleys and flagstones that allowed marksmen to take aim from the second floor whilst remaining concealed and protected from gunfire themselves.
As they arrived at the factory, several men came forward and used hatchets and blacksmith’s Enoch hammers to break down the outer gates, which fell ‘with a fearful crash, like the felling of great trees.’ Spurred on by this, the men rushed forward and began to smash the factory windows. Then the gunfire started. Despite one Cumberland militiaman refusing to fire ‘because I might hit one of my brothers’ – for which Cartwright would have him publicly flogged outside the mill on 21st April – volley after volley was fired into the assembled crowd. Undeterred, the men took their hammers to the inner doors; but tight metal studs deeply embedded in the timbers made progress painfully slow. All the while, an alarm bell rang out from the rooftop. A cavalry brigade was stationed at nearby Huddersfield and the men must have known that time was against them, but still they hammered at those doors.
John Booth, a saddler’s apprentice and clergyman’s son, was first to be shot, his leg shattered by a musket ball. A blacksmith named Jonathan Dean was then wounded in the hand as he wielded his hammer. Knowing the game was up, the Luddites began to retreat, but as they withdrew Samuel Hartley, a 24 year old cropper, was hit in the chest. The men had little choice but to leave the wounded Booth and Hartley where they lay, if they were to have a hope of avoiding capture themselves.
Both men were still alive when Cartwright emerged from the mill, but he refused them aid until they gave up the names of their comrades. They refused. Booth died at six in the morning; Hartley survived until the next day. Others must have received mortal wounds that night, for a local minister, Reverend Patrick Brontë (father to the great novelist sisters) records that two days after the event he came across a group of known Luddites burying two corpses in the corner of his churchyard.
Following the failed attack on Cartwright’s mill, and with the despised West Riding magistrate Joseph Radcliffe (famed for ordering poor and orphaned children as young as seven to work in the local factories) ‘scouring the district for Luds’, the Huddersfield Luddites began to target smaller, less well-defended premises. But the large manufacturers were still regarded as the real enemy, so a new tactic came into being.
On 18th April, an attempt was made on the life of William Cartwright. Shots were fired, but he was unhurt. Ten days later William Horsfall, owner of Ottiwells Mills, who famously declared that he ‘would ride up to his saddle girths in Luddite Blood’, was ambushed by four men as he rode home. Horsfall was shot in the thigh and died later that night of his wounds. It is widely accepted that this murder marked a turning point for the Luddite rebellion; support for their cause, previously widespread, began to dwindle in light of this murder. George Mellor (a 24-year-old cropper who would also be cited as one of the ringleaders in the attack on Cartwright’s mill), William Thorpe and Thomas Smith would hang for the murder of William Horsfall on Friday 8th January, 1813.
The first Luddite executions, however, took place in June 1812, over the Pennines in Manchester. Indeed, Lancashire and Cheshire saw the greatest loss of life during the whole rising. At the end of April, a series of food riots erupted in Manchester and the surrounding towns of Bolton, Rochdale, Oldham and Ashton. Similar riots, and some loom-breaking, took place in the north Derbyshire village of Tintwistle and the Cheshire village of Gee Cross – where one man, later deported for his actions, wore a paper hat bearing the words ‘General Ludd’.
The unrest came to a head on 20th April in the town of Middleton, 10 miles north of Manchester. A crowd gathered in Wood Street, at the steam-powered calico printing factory owned by Daniel Burton & Sons. The crowd threw stones at the factory windows, and in response a volley of shots was fired from somewhere within the factory. Somebody in the crowd said that they were only firing blanks, and the stoning continued. But the rounds were live, and four men, Daniel Knott, Joseph Jackson, George Albinson and John Siddall, were shot dead.
The next day the enraged crowd returned, bent on avenging the blood of their fellows, to find a troop of Cumberland militia posted outside the factory. Instead of attacking it directly, they responded by ransacking the cottages of men who worked at the factory, and burnt Emmanuel Burton’s stately mansion to the ground. They intended to do the same to Daniel Burton’s property, but cavalry troops turned up and started firing into the crowd. At least four men died that day, but there were also several reports of bodies being found in the woods in the following weeks.
On 24th May, 58 defendants were brought to trial in Lancaster in association with the food riots, loom-breaking and attacks on property that had taken place throughout April. The trial resulted in eight hangings, 17 transportations and 13 imprisonments. On the same day a ‘Special Commission’ was held in Chester to deal with more of the rioters and Luddites. Here 15 men were condemned to death, eight transported and five imprisoned. On 12th June, eight of the Luddites convicted in Lancaster were hanged in Manchester. None were repentant. Three days later, two Luddites convicted in Chester marched to their place of execution, ‘followed by an immense crowd of people’.
The ‘Luddite triangle’ was now flooded with troops; some 6,900 in Lancashire and Cheshire as well as 4,000 in Yorkshire. The magistrates had dozens of spies working in the areas known to be sympathetic to the cause, and the government had sent a clear message that Luddism was now punishable by death. In the face of all this, the Yorkshire Luddites began to raid any properties which were known to store arms, for the Luddites were amassing weaponry. Was the insurrection about to turn into full scale revolution?
We shall never know. The government had seen the benefits of its tactics in Lancashire and was determined to repeat this success in Yorkshire. By December 1812, on the evidence of paid spies and some very questionable witnesses, 64 men had been arrested and held for trial at York Castle. Of these 64, only seven would be acquitted. Fourteen men were transported and 26 were imprisoned. The aforementioned Mellor, Thorpe and Smith were executed on 8th January 1813 and 14 more men – with an average age of 25 – were sentenced to die at York castle on 16th January.
Of their execution it has been written:
The criminal records of Yorkshire do not, perhaps, afford an instance of so many victims having been offered, in one day, to the injured laws of the country. The scene was inexpressibly awful, and the large body of soldiers, both horse and foot, who guarded the approach to the castle, and were planted in front of the fatal tree, gave the scene a peculiar degree of horror.
That was the end of the Luddite rising. There was still some recorded Luddite activity in the months and years following the York trial, but with a marked change in motives. Prior to 1813, the Luddites had fought to save an autonomous, communal way of life based on self-sufficiency and skilled craftsmanship. Later loom-breaking incidents were almost exclusively centred around disputes regarding levels of pay.
This marks the beginning of a shift in forms of resistance. Put simply, pre-modern resistance was a fight against enclosure: a battle to save independent, self-sufficient ways of life from destruction and to prevent the industrial machine from enslaving the people. Modern industrial unrest was a battle waged after this war had been lost. Now, the focus was on justice for the proletarian victims of the Industrial Revolution: better wages, better living conditions, the right for factory workers to form unions, the right to be looked after by a beneficent state.
Despite the wars and revolutions that cost millions of human lives, every dominant ideology of the 20th century had at its heart the powerful Western industrial mythologies of progress, the work ethic, profit and growth. In Europe, the only revolution to offer any hope of something different was that of Spain in 1936. The Spanish peasantry of the time still lived the kind of autonomous, self-sufficient lives that the northern English weavers had enjoyed until the end of the 17th century. They were, to put it bluntly, far less domesticated than their counterparts in the urbanised, industrialised proletariat. So, when anarchist-inspired ideas of a free society – free that is from hierarchy, economic inequality and exploitation – were introduced to their communities, they were largely welcomed because they were already being practised.
Today, in the West, the ideas that the Luddites fought for look prehistoric. Our societies have been remade in the image of capital so that it is hard to talk about concepts like self-sufficiency, independence and the land without being immediately dismissed by progressives on right and left as Romantics – not to mention, ‘Luddites’. Elsewhere, these ideas still have some purchase. Arguably, the only viable alternatives to the dominant progressive ideology are peasant-based movements like Brazil’s Movimento sem Terra (MST), Mexico’s EZLN (Zapatistas), South Africa’s Landless People’s Movement or India’s Bhumi Uchhed Pratirodh Committee. They question the standard mythology of an increasingly global civilisation and offer something different to the usual progressive rhetoric. The land-based movements of the 21st century may have little hope of becoming a worldwide revolution – at least within the time-scale dictated by catastrophic climate change or peak oil – but these communities may yet prove the most resilient in the face of an unfolding collapse.
In countries like Britain and the United States, it may be too late to emulate the Luddites, but we can take some lessons from the rebellion of the weavers and apply them to our times.
This should start with accepting that the Luddites were right. Cobbett’s Thing, the state-industrial nexus, is now the dominant force in the world and its mythology shapes the times we live in. Today, the mill owners are global brands. According to the stories they tell us, this should mean that we all benefit from the bounty their markets give us. But a global perspective makes it clear that this is far from the case, and even within the industrialised world, we can ask how free and satisfied we are within our enclosure. And all of this is before we come to the ecocide unleashed on the non-human world by the industrial machine.
The Luddites did not see all of this coming, but they understood all too well the consequences for their families and their way of life. Their story offers us a realistic assessment of the powerful, perhaps unstoppable nature of the global industrial machine, but also an understanding of the role of technology in our lives. For despite the current use of the word, the Luddites were not motivated by a mindless rejection of new technology.
Reflex resistance to technology and its mindless embrace are two sides of the same coin, neither especially helpful. I actually have a lot of time for Anissimov’s Transhumanists, in that I share their belief that our species can be made ‘better by design’. What I don’t share is their assumption about what this means. Improving the human lot through the use of technology is not going to be achieved through a combination of surveillance cameras and warheads, nor through nuclear power stations and carbon capture, nor a Singularity in which those who can afford to pay for it become immortal semi-robots.
Instead, it’s going to mean developing and using human-scale technologies which can augment our liberty and self-sufficiency rather than enslaving us to a grid. It’s going to mean handlooms rather than wide-frames; control by the people rather than control of them. The best way to avoid being controlled by technology is to be in control of the technology you use.
This is already becoming a reality. On the many websites which encourage a little technical tinkering, you’ll find that a combination of free and open information, Open Source software, reduced material costs, high volumes of useful waste, and micro-innovations are making it possible to develop and create projects at home – from bicycle trailers to slow cookers to mini robots – that would have needed highly specialised multi-million-dollar factories just a few years ago. The amazing Afrigadget site chronicles stories of creative individuals who build a range of tools from next to nothing. (Frederick Msiska, a peasant farmer from Malawi built a mobile phone charger from his toilet and some leaves.)
In other words, we are approaching a position where it may be possible to create once again an infrastructure built upon localised, craft- orientated, community-based, ecologically-sensitive production techniques – in other words, to return to something like the pre-capitalist idea of the cottage industry which the Luddites fought so hard to defend. It’s a world in which not only is it easier to work in and from your home, but it is easier to work away from the growth-addicted world of capitalist production. With a renaissance in traditional crafts, could the artisan yet return from the brink of extinction, even as progressive civilisation itself begins to tip over the brink?
Writing of the legacy of the appropriate technology movement of the 1970s, John Michael Greer says:
The appropriate tech movement, with some exceptions, tended to avoid the kind of high-cost, high-profile eco-chic projects so common today. Much of it focused instead on simple technologies that could be put to work by ordinary people without six-figure incomes … Most of these technologies were evolved by basement-shop craftspeople and small nonprofits working on shoestring budgets, and ruthlessly field-tested by thousands of people who built their own versions in their backyards and wrote about the results in the letters column of Mother Earth News … The resulting toolkit was a remarkably well integrated, effective, and cost-effective set of approaches that individuals, families, and communities could use to sharply reduce their dependence on fossil fuels and the industrial system in general.
Such a toolkit is needed again, and is starting to appear, in response to the crisis of consumer civilisation. I see at least some spark of a hopeful future in the development, practice and sharing of what I call ADApT (Anticipatory Design and Appropriate Technology) initiatives, which help us to distance ourselves from the corporate leviathan and restore some of the freedom of action and creativity that the Luddites went to their graves to protect.
In memory of
James Haigh, Jonathan Dean, John Ogden, Thomas Brook, John Walker, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, Job Hey, James Hey, John Hill, William Hartley, Joseph Crowther and Nathan Hoyle.
Murdered in the name of Progress on 16th January, 1813.
Warren Draper, ‘The Work Aesthetic’, The Idler No.44 (2011).
Simon Fairlie, ‘The tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons’, Dark Mountain: Issue 1 (Dark Mountain Project, 2010).
John Michael Greer, Green Wizardry (New Society, 2013)
Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Machine Breakers’, Past & Present 1 (1952).
Kirkpatrick Sale, Rebels Against the Future: Lessons for the Computer Age (Quartet Books Ltd, 1996).
E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin Books, 1980).