Who was the monster?

Review: Blood in the Machine. The origins of the rebellion against Big-Tech, by Brian Merchant, Little, Brown and Company, New York, 2023.

Brian Merchant demolishes the middle-class myth that the Luddites were stupid workers who didn’t understand the new technology. The historical truth is the Luddites didn’t hate the new machines as such, but rather the way the technology was utilized by a wealthy elite to degrade skills, displace jobs, and uproot communities. The Luddites fought against exploitation: “what was at issue was not the machine, so much as as the profit motive.” i The story of the west Yorkshire Luddite revolt in 1812 is part of our heritage and can help us to understand how the owners of modern technology shape our present and threaten our future.

Brian notes that the caricature of the Luddites as technophobes, born in the minds of entrepreneurs and elites, has endured for centuries (page 295). Even as late as 1962, the socialist historian Eric Hobsbawn described the Luddites as simple-minded labourers who blamed their troubles on the new machines ii. Karl Marx also viewed machine-breaking in a negative light: breaking machines merely provoked repression iii. Yet the reactionary government needed little excuse for repression and what should the Luddites have done: roll over and starve? Marx went on to imply the Luddites did not distinguish between the machinery and its utilization by capitalists. In fact, the Luddites, from the outset, were against the power behind the machines.

In the middle-class myth, the Luddites are not only dumb, but also drunken layabouts, dissolute, uneducated brutes who commit brutal acts when excited by drink. Charlotte Bronte, who inherited her father’s Tory politics, portrays her fictitious Luddite leader, Moses Barraclough, in her novel Shirley in terms of the middle-class myth. Barraclough is a drunken hypocrite who incites outrages for no good purpose. In stark contrast, the real leader of the Huddersfield Luddites, George Mellor, was a hard-working, highly-skilled, well-respected cropper, or cloth dresser.

Charlotte Bronte’s fictional mill owner tells the Luddites to take their worries to parliament and not pester him with their grievances. But, as Brian Merchant writes: “the Luddites didn’t randomly pick up hammers in a rage one day and decide to smash any technology they saw”(page 164). The Luddites didn’t ignore Parliament. They had petitioned parliament for many years, pleading for the government to intervene to ameliorate their desperate condition. However, the dogmatists of laissez-faire dismissed their petitions as an outragous conspiracy against factory owners. The road of constitutional reform was blocked.

The West Riding of Yorkshire was in the firing line in the battle against the imposition of industrial capitalism. George Mellor had little doubt that he would have to resort to machine-smashing to defend his job and community. The gig mill and shearing frame would make his skills, in raising the nap or surface of the cloth and cutting the cloth with huge hand shears, obsolete. It would also uproot the centuries old “cottage industry” of producing woven cloth. Mellor knew that “that no one in power, not the magistrate not the businessman were looking out for the poor (page46).

The Luddites were integral to the making of the working class, as E P Thompson explained in 1963, when he rescued the Luddites from the condescension of posterity. The Ludds were influenced by revolutionary republican ideas. They were essentially a local community network without a national centralised leadership. The national leader was a symbol: General Ludd. The Huddersfield General Ludd was probably Mellor. George organised a band of Luddites with military discipline. The Luddites assembled in military formation, numbered not named: an army of redressers. They gathered at night with masks, blackened faces, axes, pistols, swords and hammers. The new machines were smashed in small and medium sized workshops. No person was injured or killed.

In response, the Huddersfield elite formed the committee to supress outrages, which became more like a committee to inspire outrages. Horsfall, the owner of Ottwell mill, boasted he would ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood. He turned his mill into a fortress ready to shoot down the machine breakers. William Cartwright, the owner of Rawfolds Mill, also made preparations to kill Luddites. At around midnight on 11 April 1812 George Mellor and his armed croppers attempted to break down Rawfolds Mill door. But, Cartwright was waiting for them. Cartwright, his armed workmen and soldiers subjected the machine breakers to a deadly volley of indiscriminate gunfire from the behind the safety of flagstones placed in front of the higher floor mill windows. The bloody outcome was at least two Luddites dead and many injured. This outrage was legitimised by the authorities as justifiable homicide.

In revenge, the Luddites ambushed and assassinated Horsfall. Yet the Luddites retained popular support. There was a conspiracy of silence in the community. The Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe and a lawyer from Stockport who often went beyond his legal authority in Yorkshire, resorted to operating outside the law to break down the Luddite network. Suspected Luddites were simply kidnapped and thrown into makeshift jails outside the legal system. There were no civilised rules. The suspects were subject to various degrees of inhuman and degrading treatment. This probably included insanitary conditions, lack of food and sleep, beatings and threats of hanging and deportation.

Alan Brooke, Huddersfield historian, anarchist and an expert on West Riding Luddism, speculates that the mistreatment of Luddite suspects would have pressured some to tell the interrogators what they wanted to heariv. So dubious information obtained by dubious methods became the basis of the show trial of Luddites in York in January 1813. Many Luddite suspects were not questioned or arrested. The Government wanted to make an example of Mellor and his closest collaborators, to kill off the unrest and subdue the workers. Special arrangements for the trial circumvented the normal legal system. A hanging judge was carefully selected along with a hand-picked jury of entrepreneurs and other members of the social elite.

Brian Merchant describes the state’s case against Mellor as detailed, despite gaps and contradictions. But, Alan Brooke emphasises the contradictions. Joseph Mellor gave evidence that George left a gun at his property. Yet this contradicted his original statement and he was also a Luddite suspect himself. Alan’s focus is on the unfairness of the court procedure. The prosecution put words into the mouths of the prosecution witnesses. The judge believed that the defence witnesses had unreliable clocks whereas the prosecution witnesses had reliable clocks. The defence counsel ingratiated himself with the legal system by simply forgetting to cross-examine the prosecution witnesses. And the defendants could not directly address the jury.

George Mellor was hanged for the killing of Horsfall. He might have been innocent of the killing of Horsfall, but he was guilty of some of the many activities deemed to be criminal by the ruling elite. It was a crime to voice radical republican views. It was also a crime to protest against injustice. To combine with other workers to negotiate the introduction of machinery was a crime. Any swearing of an oath to collectively organise was a crime. Machine breaking was a hanging offence. Workers did not have the right to vote for an alternative to these horrors. Seventeen Luddites were hanged for various crimes and others were transported, leaving their families destitute. Who was the monster: the Luddites or the State?

Karl Marx saw the automated factory as a monster: the instruments of production controlled the workers, not the workers controlling the instruments of production. But, Brian Merchant references Mary Shelley’s Dr Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein, like the early capitalist industrialists unleashes his technological monster without any thought for the consequences for humanity. The monster is a stand-in for the Luddites. The monster pleads with his master to make him happy so he can be virtuous. The master ignores and neglects him with tragic results. Brian Merchant concludes by warning us that the Tech-Titans of today are a power that can not only destroy our way of life, but our very humanity.

  1. E.P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin, 1991,page 884.[]
  2. Eric Hobsbawn, The age of Revolution 1789-1848, Abacus 1985, page 55[]
  3. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol 1. Penguin, 1979, pages 554-555.[]
  4. Alan Brooke and Lesley Kipling, Liberty or Death, Radicals, Republicans and Luddittes 1793-1823, Huddersfield Local History Society 2013, ISBN 9780950913476.

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One thought on “Who was the monster?

  1. Thompson was able to rescue the Luddites from the condescension of posterity because of his view of the formation of class as a process rather than a static structure or an abstract relation to the means of production. So class consciousness grows out of a common experience of the struggle against exploitation. This is a lived experience through culture and values, rather than purely economic productive relations. It is also about paying close attention to workers opposition to capitalist relations of production even if the the conflict is a dead end or obscure.

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