view_column Fight the Power (Loom)

by Stefene Russell

Published in Issue No. 62 ~ July, 2002

A Luddite’s wardrobe includes three changes of clothing: two Soviet-green, very serviceable pairs of overalls and a rain barrel. Luddites fill their own cavities using a small mirror, an X-acto knife and a tube of Epoxy glue. And in their poorly manicured hands, they brandish oversized monkey-wrenches which they throw into any intersection of cog and gear. That is, unless they are too busy dispatching those round black bombs — the same ones that Boris Badenov hucked towards Rocky and Bullwinkle — at microchip factories.

Ask most people what a “Luddite” is, and they’ll probably give you some variation on the above definition. Most people think of them as machine-hating Commie pinkos with a militant crankiness towards progress in general. But a true neo-Luddite most likely reserves his real spleen not for computers, but for the wash `n’ wear garment, and all that it stands for.

You see, the original Luddites were a group of 19th century garment-weavers and lace-makers in Nottinghamshire, England. Their fabrics were considered to be the best in Europe. Their weaving methods had been handed down from generation to generation for centuries, and the weavers were treated with great respect; they were artists, not laborers, and prided themselves on the beauty and integrity of their fabrics. Not to mention that they were independent contractors who worked out of their houses — if they turned out a lousy, inferior piece of fabric, their customers could easily take their business elsewhere.

The weavers of Nottingham wove their magnificent fabrics in peace through the first years of the 19th century, insulated against the Industrial Revolution by a Royal edict that forbade textile production within ten leagues of the town. But not even the Crown could save them from a deadly combination of a Tory politics and the invention of the power loom.

As garment factories sprang up across England and efficiently churned out skein after skein of cheap fabric, the Nottinghamshire weavers were forced to respond; they were being undersold. Since they could not afford to keep up with the new technology, they unwillingly shuffled into the factories. Not only did they suffer economically, but they were stripped of their formerly esteemed status as artisans to become underpaid, overworked factory grunts. The most humiliating part of all? They were now responsible for the production of badly-made, horribly inferior fabrics. Something had to break, eventually; and break it did.

The story goes that one day a certain Ned Ludd, a guy who was not exactly renowned for his sparkling intelligence, accidentally broke two of the frame looms in the factory. And at that moment, one the Nottingham weavers saw a transcendent light shining through that split frame.

Pretty soon, things were breaking all over the factory.

“Who broke that? Ah–it must’ve been that one feeble-minded lad, Ned Ludd.”

“Gosh, I don’t know. Hm. Well, that Ned Ludd guy is pretty clumsy. He’s always breaking stuff. It must have been Ned.”

“Ned Ludd did it.”

No one knows who was reading Thomas Paine or paying attention to all the rabble-rousing over in France, but soon enough the Notthingham weavers decided they’d had enough, and that scapegoating Ned on a day to day basis wasn’t cutting it. In 1812, these disgruntled lace-makers formed a secret army and revolted against the factory owners. When the government troops showed up to take control of the situation, the weavers thumbed their noses at the soldiers and scattered off into the woods. Then they sewed themselves brilliant military uniforms and showed up at the factories with a list of demands from their new leader, none other than General Ned Ludd.

“We’re here under orders from General Ludd,” they reported to the factory bosses. “He regrets to inform you that extreme action will be taken unless you respond to his demands immediately. The workers must be granted better pay, fewer hours, and the right to produce a better product. And if these demands are not met, you will be sadly sorry.”

The factory owners, at least from the outset, were a little spooked. They complied.

“Sure, sure,” they said, sweating and wringing their hands. “Tell General Ludd whatever he wants, whatever he wants.” The ones who snorted and ignored the General’s demands soon did find that they were sadly sorry; their machines were efficiently hammered to bits.

Of course, everyone knew that the factory owners wouldn’t put up with this for long. They had a bankroll, and they used it to hire their own private army of thugs. This army of weavers faced down a huge sea of them at Burton’s Power Loom Mill in April of 1812, armed only with sticks and rocks. When they were driven away from the factory, they burned down the factory boss’ house instead. The Tory government, as married as it was to Adam Smith’s philosophies, backed up the garment mills and initiated a program of imprisonment and hanging that effectively eliminated the Luddites as a political force.

Since then, Luddites haven’t really managed to redeem their reputations. The term is almost a cuss word America, where progress is held up as a shining ideal, and the most common place to see a Luddite these days is in the cartoons (you know, those clowns and crazies who love to blow things up).

But if you look at the primary complaint of the first Luddites, it’s clear they never wanted to blow things up. They weren’t anarchists; they were artists. If they’d had a choice, they would have preferred to be sitting in their cottages, spinning lace. Their beef was not with machines, but with the loss of tradition, the destruction of an art that had been carefully preserved for three centuries. Even worse, it was all in the name of laissez-faire. To be a Luddite, in my mind, is to be a champion of doing things the hard way, for all the right reasons, and (in the words of William Blake), to be a person who has dedicated their life to kicking evil in the butt.

And in some minds, one of the most pernicious and destructive aspects of progress has been the wash and wear state of mind. Now, I’m not talking to reverting back to the days when everyone kept washboards and powdered starch on hand; I have no great excitement about doing laundry the old-fashioned way. But I will say that any painting that’s grabbed at my solar plexus, any novel that’s left me beautifully devastated, any piece of music that has my eyes stinging full of tears — these things cannot be vomited out of a power loom.

What a Luddite — or a neo-Luddite — ultimately objects to is not machinery, but things mechanical and stripped of emotion. This is why Mister Quintron, the organ virtuoso of New Orleans’ 9th Ward, can leave an audience spellbound with a drum machine that operates on photon cells, but Britney Spears can use her very organic lungs to belt out some gummy ballad, and the Luddite will gravitate towards Quintron every time. This is why Tesla’s flying electric fireballs are angelic and Dean Koontz’ plots are demonic even as they churn inside his head, awaiting transfer to a word processor.

Sven Birkerts, editor of the neo-Luddite’s bible, “The Gutenberg Elegies” had a very simple, but poetic way of describing why he continues to wage a probably futile battle against the onward march of the mechanical.

“From deep in the heart,” he wrote sadly, “I hear the voice that says: refuse it.”

The Ned Ludd Appreciation Society

Luddite Net

The Ballad of Ned Ludd, a Techno-Folk Opera

Mr. Quintron, the Amazing Spellcaster

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Stefene Russell is a writer and editor who lives in the Midwest. She also plays in a samba/world percussion band, and still uses a manual typewriter from time to time, including as a percussion instrument.