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Revolutions: Luddites

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When the industrial revolution was peaking in England, workers were smashing the machines. There were earlier more isolated instances of industrial sabotage, but from 1811 to 1817 English workers organized and smashed with such ferocity that at one point more British soldiers were facing off against their own working class than Napoleon’s French army, with whom they were at war. Members of the movement called themselves “Luddites,” after Ned Ludd, a youth who destroyed two stocking frames in 1779.

The government rounded up many workers for show trials to set an example for other Luddites. Some were sent to penal colonies and many were executed publically. The legislature also made “machine breaking” a capital crime with the Frame Breaking Act. With the war over, the economy improving and Luddite sympathizers either in prison or intimidated the movement receded; but it never fully disappeared.

In 1996 the “Second Luddite Congress” met in Ohio, USA and created a new manifesto for modern times. They claim to be “a leaderless movement of passive resistance to consumerism and the increasingly bizarre and frightening technologies of the Computer Age.” .

Modern Luddites are a diverse group. Many argue that neo-Luddism does not mean anti-technology, but is only in opposition to new technologies that have destructive social or environmental impacts. The eco-group Earth First! often takes a page from the original Luddites by sabotaging the machines they see as a threat. While their predecessors smashed to save their own jobs, Earth First! claims that through their sabotage they are protecting the environment.

The term Luddite is also widely used today to describe anyone who is slow to adapt to new technologies.

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