Luddites and York: Execution and Commemoration

As our post from earlier this week describes, we’re moving forward with preparations for our commemoration of the Luddites in York. We’re planning a three-part day: talks in the afternoon; a memorial event at the execution site; and an evening wake of radical song. It’s the middle one that’s been on my mind this week: how to suitably remember the lives and deaths of seventeen men (some of whom were convicted of murder) who campaigned and died for better worlds that arguably never arrived. Turning this over in my mind, I’ve been drawn to two otherwise unrelated questions, one fielded by a famous politician and one by a mate of mine. The first: the late Lucio Magri begins his epic history of twentieth century Italian Communism with an anecdote. At a meeting in 1989, he relates, just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, somebody asks Pietro Ingrao, a senior Communist figurehead, how in the aftermath of all that was happening in Eastern Europe could communism still be a viable and useful notion as a means of defining the struggles that still lay ahead. Ingrao gnomically answers him with a reference to a poem written by Bertolt Brecht about a medieval tailor who, determined to show to sceptics ranged against him that people could fly, built himself a contraption, took himself to a tower-top, and crashed and died on the ground below: although the tailor’s life is lost, and his individual effort for the skies failed, history’s vicissitudes vindicated his beliefs (and perhaps even ultimately redeemed his lost life). The second question: last month, in exasperated mirth and only half-serious, I asked my friend Jay why the Left was always so very sad; laughing, he said “maybe it’s because we always bloody lose”.

On the 19th of January, alongside the learning, the discussion, the song, and the comradeship, we’re going to be communally charged with commemorating, through our actions and words, seventeen lost lives: men who were strangers to York, but who were brought here for the sole purpose of being put to death by a state enraged with their activities and rhetoric. There’s usually a pretty standard blueprint for this sort of thing, a process which operates independently of the memory’s content: people gather around in a symbolically significant patch of ground, solemn words are spoken that are designed to burden us with memory’s heft, we fall quiet and think our thoughts about time and loss and death and life, and then we strike that camp and it’s on to the next thing. And let’s not knock that form: it serves us well, and for modern lives lived in a style that frequently alienates us from reflecting on those deeper resonations of life and loss by filling every waking moment with bleeps and dings and screens and chatter, such a stop-and-think moment is a precious commodity indeed. We’ve got to make sure that we get this bit right, that we seem neither too maudlin nor too glib, and it’s a difficult balance. Part of the problem, perhaps, lies in the foreignness of those we’re remembering: they seem sharply different from us, drive by different fires, and we struggle to pull them and their campaigns back into the present and make their fervour comprehensible enough to commemorate.

We’re thoroughly estranged now from death-match struggles for freedom or rights, so the whole notion of going to one’s execution for what seems dangerously like utopianist idealism can be a little hard to process. Indeed, historical distance risks rendering that level of fervent sincerity somewhat suspicious and hard to celebrate. But these were desperate times which required commitment and action, and although there’s an inevitable unease with the memory of a murder, most of those who were condemned to death were executed for little more than the consequences an unswerving commitment to building a more just and equitable society and so despite our distance from it, it’s worthy of defiant celebration indeed. Writing about utopianism-as-faith for those who follow its song, the anarchist David Graeber delineates the responsibilities of those who strive for a better world. It’s easy to misconstrue the people fighting those crusades: their idealism looks dangerously swivel-eyed and spittle-flecked. In fact he says, all that it boils down to is that if people believe that another world is possible, and that the way things are being run now is not inevitable, then they have a moral imperative not to reproduce the mess they find and so must fight to free themselves from it, building a better future for all. And the people who follow that through, even to the bitterest end imaginable, those people command respect, in whatever era they inhabit. For us, we’re still climbing that tower, our plans for flying machines clutched in our hands, ready to jump from the top one more time, and, moreover, it falls upon us in the now to remember all those who climbed the stairs before us and did exactly the same; we’re just torn about how to articulate that remembrance.

To put it another (more crude) way: are we to mourn or celebrate? Is our moment one of grieving sorrow that reflects the tragic loss of life at the hands of a twisted and malign judiciary, or one that triumphantly bestows those deaths with an overarching significance ringed with glory and recruits them into a successful narrative of working-class struggles-done-good? Our pessimism/optimism debate is actually but a puzzle-piece in a much larger extant historiographical jigsaw, as there are ongoing debates about whether we view the Luddite uprisings more generally as either small-scale-industrial or large-scale-political.  If we view them as the former, then we’re right to be sad: the executions stand as the premature ending of a narrative truncated, as the immediate objectives and aspirations of the movement went unfulfilled. If we view the campaign as political, however, we can read across the events in Yorkshire with justified hope and pride: the lost lives and their fights become co-opted into a longer narrative arc about political struggle, one small yet valuable step forward on an extended journey of proto-trade unionism and working-class identity politics. Inevitably, perhaps, a third way works to combine the two. Then we get the appropriate melancholia of the Left, understandably drawn to the magnetism of the tragic and unfulfilled, and yet we retain the sense of significance and efficacy we need if we read them as atomised instants of broader struggles. Yet, to go back to Brecht’s tailor once again, history has already caught up with his vaulting ambition and rendered a resolution to his narrative: as time unfolds, it finds us free to fly in our contraptions and thus casts him as a prescient hero. For our Luddites though, the roles they play in history’s narrative are still precarious, and, as the final updated chapter in Alan Brooke and Lesley Kipling’s narrative of their struggle points out, each generation over the past two centuries has interpreted them as they saw fit. There’s no over-arching redemption because the fights they fought, politically and socially, are as yet un-won. In fact, in the shattered post-crash economic landscape laid waste by robber-barons and their neoliberal hegemony, our very notions of progress and advancement are being brutally tested. Many gains that were fought hard for and we thought were won for keeps are now under threat, either directly from Coalition legislation, or indirectly through late capitalism’s contagious miasma of apathy. There is something unsettling about the way in which our contemporary conditions of labour are beginning to reshape and mimic those of the nineteenth century, and it is that incipient replication that reminds us why now, more than ever, we need to be remembering these men, sad or happy, in whatever way will do their memories the most justice and allow us to move closer to furthering the hopes and dreams for which they died. They may have been defeated, but that defeat will never be without purpose.

Luddites and York: Saturday 19th January 2013

We’re happy to announce that, as trailed in our previous posts, York’s Alternative History will be hosting an event to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the execution of seventeen Luddites at York Castle. This will take place on Saturday 19th of January 2013.

There will be several speakers giving talks during the afternoon at a venue in the city centre; this will be followed by a commemorative event at the site of the executions, near to Skeldergate Bridge. There will also be an evening ‘wake’ for those executed, featuring drink, music, and radical song. Further details will go up on our website as we confirm them; in the meantime, if you’d like to learn more, then drop us an email:

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?

Luddites and York: Why Remember?

As Martin’s post from earlier in the summer has indicated, York’s Alternative History are currently thinking about ways in which we might organise some kind of event to formally mark the two hundredth anniversary of the execution of a group of Luddites at York Castle. We’ve been bouncing ideas back and forth around our monthly meetings for a while now, but as the date in question is now a mere five months away, it’s probably time to begin formalising some of these thoughts and start trying to put schemes into action. As ever, though, history is a process and a conversation more than it is an arrival or a conclusion, and we want to facilitate discussion about what people would like to see take place in January next year, how they might want to participate, what they feel about the act of remembering the people who were executed in 1813, and what (if any) resonances there might be between past and present. To this end, I’m going to try to blog here semi-regularly on how our attempts at organising a Luddite remembrance are going: partly as a means of fuelling interest and opening up potential conversations and engagements about the topic, but also I think partially as a means of demystifying the act of remembrance itself (if that makes sense). Not only am I a faltering novice when it comes to the intricacies of eighteenth century labour history, but I’m also alarmingly inexpert at the business of organising events. I suppose I worry sometimes that the formal, death-suited, business of Memory (with a capital ‘M’) is too stand-offish, arms-lengthy, and patrician and that can risk alienating popular involvement sometimes. I think of YAH as something that tries to be in the business of putting history to work in the present, using it to potentially reshape our shared now for the better, and by showing those things as ongoing activities rather than as faits accomplis it might encourage people to join in whatsoever way they see fit. I just rather hope that if we can open up the process of doing ‘memory’, then the end result of a commemorative event might feel less formalised and more inclusive. That’s the justification of my ramblings, at any rate.

There are a whole swathe of smart, informative, brilliantly organised, and politically-engaged festivities and commemorations going on throughout 2012 to remember the Luddites. Many of these events are closely tied to the places where uprisings occurred, as would be expected. York is a little different. Its place in the Luddite story is the back-drop for the narrative’s dénouement: the place of the trial, execution, and dismemberment of men accused of Luddite activity across west Yorkshire. Broadly speaking there were three areas in which Luddite activity broke out in 1812: Nottinghamshire, South Lancashire, and West Yorkshire. The events in this latter area were almost all confined to the region around Huddersfield and Halifax. Because York was the administrative and judicial centre of the county, once arrests were made, the accused were brought to the city to stand trial. On the 6th of January 1813 three men, George Mellor, William Thorpe, and Thomas Smith, were tried for the murder of mill owner William Horsfell, who had been shot of the 28th of April the previous year, at Crosland Moor near Huddersfield.  Pleading innocence, they were convicted that evening on the testimony of an informant, hanged behind the prison two days later, and their corpses were taken to York Hospital for dissection. On the 9th of January a second trial took place of a group of men accused of an attempted attack on a mill owned by William Cartwright at Rawfolds, near Cleckheaton. Some were acquitted, most were found guilty, and in total fourteen men were executed on the 16th of January, standing condemned for taking part in Luddite activities. There seems little to celebrate in York, and much to mourn.

Why, then, should we remember at all? I guess this is one of the questions I want to turn over during the coming months in this space, as we think about what the purpose of remembrance might be and the means by which those purposes might be achieved. Some of the slippery difficulties we have with social memory are systemic – that is to say there are bigger problem than just the Luddites themselves, part of a much wider problematised relationship we have with memory-against-the-grain – but some issues surely in this instance are to do with the subject in hand. As many people better versed in the subject have been strenuously pointing out over the course of this year’s memorial activities, the present’s social memory of Luddism is somewhat off-beam: crazed guys smashing stuff up for shits-and-giggles, forlornly attempting to impossibly reverse the tides of progress. In fact, we need to re-remember them: to understand that they were not individuals who arrived at their actions as a result of a thoughtless and wanton compulsion to wreak havoc, but rather they were people who committed deeds derived from structures of value, making decisions based upon rational choices in a context of extreme desperation. These contexts, the political and economic circumstances in which they found themselves, are something that I’ll write about further another time, but suffice to say there are some alarming and uncanny echoes of that desperation today, more than enough to indicate that even if this year were not the apposite bicentenary of their activities, theirs would still be a powerful narrative that the present could be looking to for insight into the contemporary world (and no, I don’t just mean all like ‘computers’ and stuff). History works by analogy; it’s not so much that things ever come around twice, or even rhyme. It’s more that the narratives-of-then are reminiscent somehow of the stories-of-now, they end up telling us something about ourselves that we hadn’t even noticed, and in some cases might just act as catalysts for a will to change. And will to change is, ultimately, the most important thing.