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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The Syrians, Irish, and Our Tree Fort

Canadians and Americans are at war with themselves. A battle in that war involves President Trump’s attempt to close the border to those from seven troubled countries. Another is revealed through one of Canada’s Conservative Party leadership candidates who once touted a hotline for Canadians to rat on their neighbours and now wants mindreading to shape immigration policy. As soldiers in the war for our soul, we must consider who we are. We must decide whether we wish to swap our values for a false sense of security and lives of fear or, rather, share our bounty with those whose homelands are in crisis. As always, the past contextualizes the present. So, let’s draw lessons from our response to a catastrophe that struck another people in peril.

In the early 1800s, rich English families owned 95% of Irish farms. The absentee landlords had middle-men subdivide them into smaller and smaller plots while charging higher rents. About half of rural Irish families suffered crushing poverty. Potatoes were the staple crop with most folks and farm animals living on little else. At the same time, English factories were stealing work from pre-industrial Irish towns. About 2.4 million of about 8 million Irish were unemployed.

A bad situation turned to crisis when, in 1845, potato plants turned black. Potatoes shrivelled and became inedible. British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel ordered a commission to investigate but found neither cause nor cure. To address the ironic crisis of farmers without food, Peel ended Corn Law tariffs to lower food prices. It had little effect. Poor Law revisions split Ireland into 130 parts, called unions, and each was assigned a workhouse. Desperate urban poor traded prison-like conditions for housing and food while famine ravaged the countryside.

Starving tenant farmers were evicted from their homes for non-payment of rents. Soldiers marched the families away as landlords had houses knocked down to avoid taxes and keep the desolate from returning. Between 1849 and 1854, 250,000 people were swept from the land. Sixteen middlemen were shot by farmers resisting the mass evictions. London sent more soldiers.

The English gentry and business elite felt Peel was spending too much money and time on Ireland and voted his party from office. The new prime minister, Lord John Russell, cancelled food shipments to Ireland and ended Irish relief. The man in charge of the crisis, Assistant Secretary of the British Treasury Sir Charles Trevelyan, said the Irish needed to self-fund future relief programs and allow the market place to right everything. Linked to the British government’s belief in laissez-fair economics was its faith in providentialism. Trevelyan made the idea clear when he explained the Irish crisis as, “a direct stroke of an all-wise and all-merciful Providence, one which laid bare the deep and inveterate root of social evil.”

While the English blamed victims and debated ideology, hunger’s effects caused dysentery, fevers, and dropsy. Typhus, called Black Fever by those it was killing, turned a sufferers’ skin thin, brittle, and black. The Russell government created soup kitchens but, because they had to be paid for by dwindling Irish taxes, they were too few and most too far from rural areas. An increasingly common sight was entire families who had set out to find food and work – blackened skeletons in rags – laying side-by-side in ditches where they had died.

Landlords began hauling delinquent tenants to the docks. The first waves left for Canada. The hellish journeys lasted 40 – 90 days with cramped passengers suffering pots for communal toilets, thin and often rancid gruel, and all the while robbed of sleep by screaming hungry, babies and the incessant coughing of the sick and dying. Approximately 5,000 families carried loved one’s bodies from the fetid below-decks to ships’ rails where, after a few words of scripture, they were tossed into the roiling Atlantic. The vessels were dubbed Coffin Ships.

The emigration peak came in 1847 when 100,000 starving Irish migrants arrived in Quebec City. At one point in June, 40 Coffin Ships bobbed in a two-mile line waiting to be processed. Makeshift hospitals on Grosse Île helped emaciated people trying to survive their fifteen-day quarantine. But mass graves betrayed the growing tragedy. When Coffin Ships kept coming, some were waved through to Montreal and some further on to Kingston. Churches and charities did what they could to help the sick and settle the rest. Within weeks of arriving in Canada,     11, 543 died.

Desperate Irish families were also arriving in America. Unlike in Canada, where the majority were Protestant, most of those arriving in the United States were Catholic. This fact caused consternation among the predominantly Protestant public and public officials and spurred harsh immigration restrictions. Captains had to somehow guarantee that no passengers would ever become wards of the state. Passenger fares rocketed to three times that of ships heading to Canada and regulations restricted the number of people that could be aboard each ship. But the ships kept coming and the numbers swamped the rules. New York became home to more Irish people than Dublin.

As Irish immigrants moved into more American cities, anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice and discrimination grew. This was nothing new. George Washington had spoken out against anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments as far back as 1776. But in the 1840s, anti-Catholic street riots in New York and Philadelphia had raged for days. A sign appeared on store windows and factory gates: “No Irish Need Apply.”

Anti-Irish xenophobia played a significant role in creating a new political party called the Know-Nothings. Later renamed the American Party, it demanded a closing of borders to all immigrants, a 21-year waiting period for citizenship, and that foreign-born Americans be permanently banned from voting and holding public office. In 1855, the American party won 43 seats in the House of Representatives. American Party member and Massachusetts Governor Henry J. Gardiner attacked Irish and other immigrants as, “aliens born, aliens unnaturalized, and aliens entirely ignorant of our institutions.”

Irish migrants faced similar problems in Canada. The resentment and reaction were seen in Toronto. Between June and October 1847, 38,000 Irish economic refugees overwhelmed the city that had a population at the time of only 30,000. Many Irish families moved quickly through Toronto to join established Irish communities in places like Peterborough County, but that didn’t stem anger regarding the city’s changing demographic. George Brown was the influential owner and editor of the Globe and future Father of Confederation. He spoke for many when he observed, “Irish beggars are to be met everywhere, and they are ignorant and vicious as they are poor…They are lazy, improvident and unthankful; they fill our poorhouses and our prisons.”

Barred from integration, Toronto’s Irish congregated in Cabbagetown and in nearby Corktown, named after the county from which many had come. Many businesses refused to hire Irish people with the powerful anti-Catholic Orange Lodge bolstering anti-Irish feelings. To defend themselves, the Irish created the Hibernian Benevolent Society. Toronto witnessed 29 riots involving Orange Lodge members and Irish migrants. Orange Day parades and St. Patrick’s Day celebrations always sparked violence.

syrians-irish-and-our-tree-fort

Irish Potato Famine Monument in Toronto (Photo: Toronto Star)

The potato famine reduced Ireland’s population from 8.4 million in 1844 to just 6.6 million six years later. About one million died of starvation and related diseases. Between 1845 and 1860, 360,000 Irish migrants settled in Canada and 1.7 million in the United States. It took a couple of generations, but the prejudice and discrimination directed at them slowly faded as they became contributing members of society and, in America, soldiers in the Civil War. The xenophobic hatred they endured remained but its cruellest wrath was refocused on newer newcomers.

So here we are again. Some want to help and others are eager to direct fear and hatred at the latest group of ‘others’ to arrive in search of better lives. Syrians and others from countries torn by war, political corruption, and economic catastrophes are the new Irish. Muslims are the new Catholics. They are gazing up at us in our fort, constructed years ago, without permission, in an Aboriginal tree. Mr. Trump and some seeking Canada’s Conservative Party leadership are urging us to push down the ladder. It’s up to us.

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Lies to Divide

Adolf Hitler did not begin by building gas chambers. He began by telling lies to divide. We are now engulfed by too many more.

Brexit campaign buses, billboards, and commercials said that Britain sent £350 million a week to Brussels and it would be available for health care if she left the European Union. Mexicans are mostly rapists and drug dealers who steal jobs and so, once a wall is built and illegals deported, the jobs will return.

The day after winning the referendum, Leave campaign leader Nigel Farage confessed that the 350 million was a lie and the NHS should expect no bonus. We should not expect a similar admission from Mr. Trump for the multiple falsehoods tangled in his Mexican lie. Narcissists never explain, apologize, or admit error. The Trump and Farage lies are not the problem. The problem is that they are accepted by a big enough minority as to become powerful political forces.

Lies That Divide

(Photo: http://www.mirror.co.uk)

We have always been lied to. Tobacco companies said they didn’t know cigarettes were murderous and addictive but they knew for years. Oil companies said climate change was a hoax, years after their own scientists told CEOs the truth. These and similar corporate lies divide us from our money and health. Political lies divide us from each other.

Richard Nixon won office in 1968 based largely on his southern strategy. He said he wanted a return to law and order. Southern whites heard that he would take care of hippies, feminists, and Blacks. Nixon declared a war on drugs. Those responsible for its implementation later admitted that the war was just dog whistle racism understood to mean jailing African Americans.

More recently, Canada’s former Prime Minister Stephen Harper pledged to ban Muslim women from wearing face-covering niqabs during citizenship ceremonies. The problem was that there was no problem. All Muslim women had always needed to show their faces several times through the long, multi-step process. The only time the niqab could be worn was during the swearing-in ceremony that was completely ceremonial after all the paperwork was done. But the Nixonian dog whistle was heard and understood by anti-Muslim nativists, xenophobes, and anti-immigrant racists.

The lies told during Trump’s nomination fight and the Brexit campaign were easily googled and revealed. But like with Nixon and Harper, those to whom the lies were directed didn’t care. Some were just racists and bigots ready to hear their shameful beliefs legitimized. Many others who believed or dismissed the lies were not racist or dumb. They were desperate. They had been dealt awful hands. The forces stacked against them are too big and faceless to fully comprehend. But the physical embodiments of change were in their towns and on their TVs. They are the others. The others are from different countries, ethnicities, races, religions, or classes. The end of Britain’s industrial era is as tough to understand and accept as the end of post-war prosperity where America was number one with no competition. But it’s sure easy to see the guy with the odd accent running the convenience store or fume at the assembly in Brussels dictating the curvature of bananas ( another Leave lie by the way.)

My faith in Canadians was restored when nearly 70% voted against the divisiveness being sold by Mr. Harper. My faith remains with British and European leaders who will navigate into a new era with compassion rather than bitterness and reprisal. My faith rests with the American people who are even now leaving Trump and the Vichy Republicans to hand Hillary Clinton a landslide.

I believe the truth matters. If those perpetrating demonstrable lies are allowed to lead, then I will need to admit that I’m wrong. The British vote certainly says I am. But my faith abides.

Please leave a comment in the space below to identify a clear lie that you see currently being told by a public figure or institution. Let’s see how large the list becomes with the hope that by laying them in the sun they shrivel. Let us inoculate ourselves with the truth. 

I am looking forward to your list. If you enjoyed this column and would like others to add to the list, please forward it using Facebook or other means. You might also consider checking my other columns at http://www.johnboyko.com