The People Will Always Be Heard – Luddite Lessons For Today

People affected by change need a way to express their concerns. Even if those concerns are not significantly addressed, they at least need to know they’ve been heard. The results of being ignored can be unpredictable when change beyond their control, led by complex forces outside their comprehension, alters all they once thought was certain. A people scorned by change will bring about even more change.

In 2016, we saw the connection between change and people’s response to being ignored when British voters chose to leave Europe and, in electing Donald Trump, Americans chose to leave the world. Those bringing change about and benefitting from it had become the enemy. The silenced and disparaged, who had been negatively affected by change, reacted in the most positive way they could. We are all now reaping the effects of the great unheard’s determination to be heard. It is not the first time.

English workers in the 18th century felt as mistreated and ignored as did the 21st century American and British working class. They didn’t have the ballot to express their rage against change and so, like people always do, they found another means.

In the Nottinghamshire village of Arnold, a group of framework knitters took pride in their work. The artisans complained to their overseers that their skills were being debased by the company’s use of substandard material and by “colts”, young workers who had not completed the seven-year apprenticeship. Further, the big, loom machines were producing more product but it was of an inferior quality. The machines also meant that because their skills were less important, their wages had been cut. Things had been made worse when the war with France led to the issuing of the Prince Regent’s Orders in Council. It effected jobs and production by cutting textile exports with France and its allies. There had been layoffs and slow downs. Each time the workers raised complaints, they were told to get back to work. On March 11, 1811, the unheard and frustrated workers destroyed their machines.

Workmen take out their anger on the machines

(Image: Look and Learn Picture Library)

This was not the first time that English workers had protested in this way. In fact, in 1727, the British parliament had passed legislation that rendered wrecking the tools of work a capital felony offense. But the old law had been ignored. News of the Nottinghamshire violence spread. It presented other disgruntled workers with a hero. Ned Ludd was applauded as the apprentice who began it all by having snapped his needles in defiance of his strict boss. Those who followed his lead were called Luddites. Ludd was a myth. There was no such man. But it didn’t matter. The Luddite movement was born.

Over the next two months, textile loom-frame machines were smashed in a number of surrounding villages. There were no arrests. How do you arrest a whole village? But there were also no negotiations between mill owners and workers. Violence erupted again in November and the winter saw sporadic attacks on mills and machines in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire. The military was dispatched to a number of towns to help police. Mill owners hired armed guards. The Luddite movement nonetheless spread, first to the cotton-weaving industry in and around Manchester.

In April, a number of protesters turned their violence directly against mill owners and many were beaten up. Grand homes were burned. Elected officials were threatened. Rawfolds Mill owner William Horsfall was murdered. Some Luddite agitators were arrested but the workers stuck together and refused to give up friends who had been responsible for specific acts of sabotage or violence.

In an 1812 speech to the House of Lords regarding the proposed Frame Breaking Act, Lord Byron demonstrated his understanding of the situation. He knew that responsible leaders don’t react to the symptoms of problems but rather, address a problem’s root cause. Bryon said, “had the grievances of these men and their masters (for they also have had their grievances) been fairly weighed and justly examined, I do think that means might have been devised to restore these workmen to their avocations, and tranquility to the country…These men never destroyed their looms till they were become useless, worse than useless; till they were become actual impediments to their exertions in obtaining their daily bread.”

Byron went on to speak of the danger inherent in dismissing the protesters as a mob to be arrested and tamed. The mob, he said, was the people. The people served in the military and mills and made the country work. It is the people, he told the Lords, to whom they were responsible. It is the people being dismissed as a mob who are responsible for Britain’s growing power and wealth. Byron understood that in commodifying people and valuing them less than the machines they ran, the people were in danger of becoming not partners in the country’s progress but its victims, and thus, its enemies. It is a shame that, over the last decade, the United States and Britain did not have more Lord Byrons.

The government and mill owners eventually responded. Wages were raised a little and work conditions were slightly improved. Food was subsidized and prices dropped. Napoleon’s defeat reopened European markets. The machines remained and continued to change how people lived and worked but the workers most directly affected by change had, at least, been heard. By 1816, the Luddite movement had subsided.

The Luddites were never a unified group advocating a package of political reforms or even, as the word has been passed down through the generations, just about resistance to new technology. The movement represented people’s reaction to change. It reflected a new class consciousness among a group that the invention of steam power and the industrial revolution had helped to create. They were the class that the invention of the assembly line would help to build and the invention of robots would help to destroy.

The Luddites offer lessons regarding the importance of seeing the role that technology plays in spurring change but also in looking past immediate economic benefits to acknowledge and manage change’s costs. I’m betting that even Donald Trump knows that technology and not immigrants or Mexicans or Muslims is responsible for today’s job losses and economic dislocation. I’m hoping that responsible leaders will act responsibly to manage current changes for the benefit of the many and not just the few. I hope those leaders understand that one way or another, people affected by change will always be heard. Always.

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American Rage and the Day I Was Tear Gassed

Canadians are nice. We seem to revel in our reputation as being so nice that when bumped we say sorry or when queue-jumped we say nothing. A problem, of course, is that a slight scratch beneath of the surface reveals that we are really not that nice at all. And that’s what scares me about the American election.

Fifteen years ago, in April 2001, after reading about the 1999 troubles in Seattle and with Horton Hears a Who in our minds – I swear – my dear wife and I left our little Ontario village and headed to Quebec City. We were ready to add our little yop to voices being raised in concern over cascading corporate power and shrinking concentrations of wealth at the third Summit of the Americas conference. As a historian and with my wife’s degree in political science, we were curious about being witness to the making of history and a political point.

We joined a wondrously joyful parade. Colourful banners and flags were hoisted above thousands of people singing, strumming guitars and some even dancing on stilts. There were old people and children. Most of the signs were serious and many were good natured. We walked slowly beneath a wonderfully cloudless blue sky enjoying the positive atmosphere and folks who were taking their messages but not themselves too seriously.

The world leaders discussing the possibility of creating a Free Trade Area of the Americas, of course, didn’t see the parade. They were ensconced far away and up the hill in the National Assembly building behind the 4 km fence and cordons of police. At the parade’s end, most people milled about and there were hugs and goodbyes. But I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t go home without venturing up to see the so-called red zone, the area closest to the fence, where the streets were blocked and businesses shuttered.

I walked slowly up the hill and then slower still. At red zone’s outer perimeter it was like an eclipse had blotted the sun. The world had morphed to black and white. It was eerily quiet. The parade had been a party but this was a war. The air reeked of gasoline. The streets were littered and dirty. Everything seemed wet. Everyone seemed sweaty. People wore varieties of battle fatigues and many wore bandanas and had ski-goggles dangling on their chests. No one smiled.

Down a narrow street, I watched a group of about twenty young people sitting in a circle and singing John Lennon’s Imagine. Strung behind them from building to building was the silver, gleaming 3-meter high chain-link fence. Behind the silver fence was a row of police officers. They were in black riot gear and faceless with face guards down. They looked every bit like a row of Darth Vaders. Each officer held a club and each smacked it onto their left palms to the song’s beat – ones and threes. They could not have been more intimidating. I guess that was the point.

I swallowed the metallic taste of adrenaline. Around the corner, I found another stretch of fence blocking the road before me with another row of police officers behind it but I was alone. I did what I always do when I see a police officer; I smiled and waved. None waved back. In a minute or so a man about my age joined me and we stood chatting quietly. We were about ten feet from the fence, looking at each other and not the officers off to our right. No one else was near. We discovered that curiosity had drawn us both from Ontario to the parade and then up the hill and that we were both shocked by the incredibly tense atmosphere. We traded ideas about a restaurant for dinner. We were just two middle-aged guys in shorts and golf shirts, obviously tourists not terrorists.

We were startled when a silver canister crashed behind us spewing white-gray tear gas. We instinctively pivoted away and blindly careened smack into the fence. The line of cops charged forward and smashed it with their clubs. We spun and stumbled through the noxious cloud with eyes and lungs on fire. A masked and khaki angel pulled me to a curb, sponged my eyes from a galvanized pail, secured a red kerchief over my nose and mouth, told me to run when I could, and then was gone. I have no idea what happened to my companion. I staggered dazed and bewildered as people ran past in both directions shouting that crazy Canadian jumble of English, French, and profanity.

Woozy and blinded, I wobbled down the street and happened upon a group of young people shouting through the fence at yet another line of storm troopers. I turned and yelled every ugly epithet my years of school yards and hockey dressing rooms had taught me. But then, in mid-tirade, it was like I snapped awake. Perhaps the gas had worn off. Perhaps my righteous temper had peaked. I was suddenly embarrassed that every ounce of anger I had imprisoned since childhood had been so quickly and completely un-caged. I was shocked at my rage and at the sound of my own voice and what I heard that voice shouting.

The Day I Was Tear Gassed

I stumbled back to the sidewalk and watched two groups of Canadians – protesters and police – probably much the same age, who probably grew up in similar neighbourhoods, separated only by twists of fate and a fence that I was suddenly glad was there. My youngest brother was one of the helmeted cops assembled in Quebec City that day. He may have been among those standing in silence before me now; perhaps he was the target of my flash of crazy abuse. I needed to get out of there.

The day I was tear gassed did not rob me of my optimism for Canada, pride in being Canadian, or my respect for those who legally and reasonably protest or those who reasonably and legally keep law and order. However, I am little less sanguine about the unwritten social contract that binds us and the thin veneer of civility that protects us.

Reflecting on that day and upon how that veneer has become even thinner makes me tremble a little as I watch Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump appeal to the rage that roils beneath it. How much longer can our niceness be sustained when the globalization of power and wealth in the hands of a shrinking few – the point of the Quebec protest and core of the Sanders/Trump appeal – has shrunk even further. What happens if the fraying social contract snaps? What happens when voting for change is no longer seen as enough? What happens if the police change sides?

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