The Despair in the Luddites’ Rage Against the Machine (The Smart Set)

retirementTwo hundred years ago the Luddites, named after a destructive English lad called “King” Ned Ludd, tried to stop technological progress by smashing machines that were making human laborers unnecessary. The Luddites also occasionally killed people, which led to their being squashed by the British army and tried in court.

“But the legend lived on,” Morgan Meis writes for The Smart Set. And the Luddites’ reputation as reactionary weirdos whose efforts to halt technology were futile has been amended by some more contemporary scholars.

The historian Eric Hobsbawm, for instance, wrote in 1952 that the Luddite rebellion was an important episode in the early history of organized labor and attempts to improve the lot of the working class.

But resurrecting their image in this way leaves something out, Meis argues. “The dark, futile, craziness of the Luddites can’t be explained away by putting them in historical context. … The Luddites were on a mad romp against history, against progress, against time itself. … They were attacking the machines, but they were also trying to smash themselves out of the world they lived in. They were trying to halt the sun and the moon. They were trying to freeze the time of the clocks.”


  1. Albert Demoya says:

    The Luddites were trying to keep humanity from being overwhelmed by machinery. The Luddite spirit still lives on in those who think the mad rush to ever newer technologies will lead us to chaos. This includes bio-engineered food crops, messing around with the human genome, ceding control of our lives to computers, etc. It’s a losing battle, I’m sure. Sometimes I look forward to this brave new world, and others I’m glad I will not live to see all these unwelcome changes. Mostly I’m in between, watching and even joining in as things move on with a mixture of awe and fear mixed with excitement.

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