Luddites and York: Then & Now

Mindfulness is a useful part of any attempt at historical remembrance. If we don’t think about precisely why we want to call some aspect of the past back into our public life in the present then we run the risk of lip-synching our histories, just miming along and going through the motions of memory. Other groups commemorating the Luddite uprisings have been thinking the same and asking: what can past events say to the present? Maybe in order to work – in order to give something back to the present – public memory should be considered, deliberate, and watchful: one eye on the past, one on the present, scanning the horizons of both landscapes. If we do this carefully enough, we might perhaps find moments when each can help the other; as we increasingly accept, the two are never segregated and isolated: a better understanding of one helps us to interpret the other (and that works both ways). Yet despite this need to constantly overlap and interlace, the past and the present never integrate with ease, nor should they be made to: they’re uneasy bedfellows at best, all sharp uncomfortable elbows and knees, misaligned limbs, no symmetry. Inevitably, the landscape of labour relations in Yorkshire and Lancashire during the early years of the 1800s looks markedly different to anything we might encounter today; the political and economic systems that sustained those working conditions and the social repercussions that they had on people are wildly different from the contemporary: we do the past as significant disservice when we say it looks ‘just like the present’ and try to force its intricacies to map neatly over our own. Nevertheless, thanks to history’s existence as a vast warehouse of narratives that can be used to think with, it would be remiss of us, in York today, not to hold up the image of the Luddites and ask ourselves why we should remember them, .what they can tell us about both the past and the present, and how we might even use them to change our futures. Remembrance offers us the opportunity to converse with the dead, and even if we really know we’re only talking to ourselves, we might learn something new nonetheless.

It is, as the historian John Archer has pointed out, very difficult to disentangle the range of different motivations for protest in the north of England during the decades either side of 1800. In a period of instability and ferment when uprisings against those wielding power were recurrent, some people were agitating for better political representation, some because economic tailspin had created alarming instabilities in the price of food, some wanted the reinstatement of their rights to use common land, and others declared that their protests were linked to the conditions of labour in the factories where they worked. Naturally these motivations intermingled: after all, low wages, high prices, unjust working and living conditions can all easily collide to affect a single family, and all lives are filled with a complex set of overlapping motivations, desires, and needs. The bottom line is this: the men executed in York in 1813 weren’t driven to protest and violence just because they didn’t like some shiny new geegaws they were being compelled to use on the factory floor; they weren’t fruitlessly protesting against the ever-expanding frontiers of knowledge and technology; they were fighting because they wanted to work, needed to work, and because the benefits of restructured working practices, which might be shared by all, instead only went to those in charge and had detrimental impact on all the others. They were fighting because they existed within a system that was rigged against them, and fighting was all they could do. This was a time of steadily rising unemployment, of insecure working conditions and decreasing wages for those who did have jobs, of spiralling food prices and an ever-rising cost-of-living. It saw a government that deregularised working practices within industry at the same time as imposing economic policies of laissez-faire to the detriment of the conditions of the common worker yet simultaneously condemned the poor for moral fecklessness. As systems of communal care, shared resources, and long-established collectivity were threatened by the elites, there was increasing despair and widespread disengagement from aspiration amongst the common man. In response to these conditions, there sprang up decentralised, cellular modes of regional opposition which created networks of resistance to the powerful that were light-on-their-feet and quickly mobilised, which led to sporadic outbreaks of violence when popular discontent erupted at structures of power that refused to be held otherwise accountable to the will of the people. And it ended with a punitive legal system dispensing harsh outsize penalties for the destruction of property. Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.

Work, as we understand it, has changed rapidly and unrecognisably over the last thirty years. Across this city, across the country, across even the globe, fewer and fewer of people have the kind of structured employment that was commonplace only two decades ago and more and more are slipping towards precarious, uncertain, unstable, makeshift worklives, constructed out of temporary and unpredictable short-term employment. The economist Guy Standing has popularised the term ‘the precariat’ to describe this “multitude of insecure people, living bits-and-pieces lives, in and out of short-term jobs, without a narrative of occupational development”, existing in a realm of jobs that are part time, with unpredictable hours, low wages, and few benefits. Many of these ideas were sold to the workforce as innovative realignments of labour and wage that would be beneficial to them: chose working times to suit yourself! choose how, when, and where you work! take control and be freer in your job! This is symptomatic of the snake-oil charlatanry of neoliberal fairground barkers, continually propagating the notion of a ‘flexible workforce’ as something that is mutually beneficial, economically benign, ideologically sound. For most people working these jobs, there are no ‘choices’ involved: they are doing the same work for less money, with no attendant structural support or benefits, locked in a perpetually unstable and precarious cycle of temporary and erratic labour forever desperately perched one quick step from economic catastrophe. The new ‘technology’ of a flexible workforce is of benefit only to employers. This precarious, sub-contracted, temporary labour now surrounds every aspect of our daily lives: short-term piecemeal fragmentary jobs with poor working conditions and fewer benefits have infiltrated numerous occupations, from policing to nursing to teaching, to lecturing, to cleaning and beyond. Our government encourages it, claiming that what holds us back from true economic prosperity and liberation is that our workforce is insufficiently ‘flexible’: ‘flexibility’ in this instance really means disposable, anxious, malleable, and fraught (as described in Ivor Southwood’s brilliant and chilling book on the subject). One thing that the Olympics did brilliantly well was to foreground some of these issues, to highlight just how completely this notion of a ‘flexible’, short-term, temporary, precarious labour force has saturated our nation’s structures of work and it put these issues (albeit very briefly) on the front pages so we could understand the speciousness of their economic rationale, the catastrophe of their planning and execution, and the nonsense of their supposed efficiency.

Nineteenth century Luddism ought not to neatly map onto the present as a chuckling catchall labelling strategy to describe people who don’t like reading novels on a Kindle, can’t work out how to record Ready Steady Cook off the iPlayer, or who keep ceaselessly reminding us they don’t have a telly or a mobile phone. It should instead spark in our minds as movement generated by a wide range of unjust working conditions and embedded labour relations that were symbolised by the adoption of technology from which only one group were able to derive benefit. If anything, we need to look to the Luddites today not as simple emblems of a blinkered refusal to successfully grapple with technology but as people who were driven to protest by conditions of desperation that were systemic and required equally desperate actions to oppose them. Labour is changing no less rapidly in our own lifetimes. What lessons can we learn?


One thought on “Luddites and York: Then & Now

  1. Pingback: Luddites and York: Saturday 19th January 2013 | York's Alternative History

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