Thursday, March 18, 2004

class war

Wee Hear in Formed that you got Shear in mee sheens [i.e., Shearing Machines] and if you Dont Pull them Down in a Forght Nights Time Wee will pull them Down for you Wee will you Damd infernold Dog. And Bee four Almighty God we will pull down all the Mills that heave Heany Shearing me Shens in We will cut out all your Damd Hearts as Do Keep them and We will meock the rest Heat them or else We will Searve them the Seam.
1802 letter to a Gloucestershire clothier, quoted in Thomson, Making of the English Working Class [1966 ed.])

Max Sawicky has been writing rather brilliantly about Ned Ludd & co.:

You can see the pattern. Inspired by Ned Ludd, workers smashed machines and were said to be anti-technology. People complain about outsourcing and they are "isolationist" and want to shut down all trade. You point out the extent of unemployment related to structural change in the economy, and you are an antediluvian opponent of structural change.

The bottom line: criticism of unregulated capitalism is not an obstacle to Progress. It is progress.

I dug out my Thompson, if you'll pardon the phrase:
[T]he conventional picture of the Luddism of these years as a blind opposition to machinery as such becomes less and less tenable. What was at issue was the "freedom" of the capitalist to destroy the customs of the trade, whether by new machinery, by the factory-system, or by unrestricted competition, beating-down wages, undercutting his rivals, and undermining the standards of craftsmanship. We are so accustomed to the idea that it was both inevitable and "progressive" that trade should have been freed in the early 19th century from "restrictive practices," that it requires an effort of imagination to understand that the "free" factory-owner or large hosier or cotton manufacturer, who built his fortune by these means, was regarded not only with jealousy but as a man engaging in immoral and illegal practices.... They saw laissez-faire not as freedom, but as "foul Imposition." They could see no "natural law" by which one man, or a few men, could engage in practices which brought manifest injury to their fellows....

[D]espite all the homilies addressed to the Luddites (then and subsequently) as to the beneficial consequences of new machinery or of "free" enterprise, -- arguments which, in any case, the Luddites were intelligent enough to to weigh in their minds for themselves -- the machine-breakers, and not the tract writers, made the most realistic assessment of the short-term effects....

Even if we make allowances for the cheapening of the product, it is impossible to designate as "progressive," in any meaningful sense, processes which brought about the degradation, for twenty or thirty years ahead, of the workers employed in the industry.

What Thompson makes clear -- aside from the impeccable logic of the Luddites, which should be obvious anyway -- is the particular confluence of circumstance that generated the movement. It is not only the industrial logic but also the systematic dismantling of any form of political redress that necessitated the resort to violence. War, persistant famine, spiritual and revolutionary ["jacobinist"] movements all swirled together too, but the striking thing is the degree to which the workers attempted reform within the political system, and the harshness with which they were rebuffed.

Interesting idea in light of the current alliance -- identity, even -- of government and capital.


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