Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Broad Context of Luddism

Luddism belongs to a specific time and specific context. Understanding, or at the very least appreciating, that context is important if we are to properly consider the relevance of the uprisings that took place 200 years ago.

As Adrian Randall1 has pointed out, the Luddite disturbances "share economic and political context which shaped both their development and the response that greeted them." External events in France and Europe prior to and during the period are the key to understanding this.

Britain had been at war with France since 1793, following the revolution of 1789. The fear amongst the English ruling classes that something similar may occur here was reflected in their attempts to stifle both political and industrial activity. The Combination Acts of 1799 & 1800 attempted to circumscribe workers’ organisations by prohibiting trade unions and collective bargaining. But the effect of this repression was merely to drive activity largely underground. E.P. Thompson2 argued that repression helped to dissolve "the remaining ties of loyalty between working people and their masters," with illegal trade unionism being "the stock upon which Jacobinism had been grafted."

The economic context was also strongly shaped by the position with France. Napoleon’s dominance of continental Europe lead to economic warfare: a series of tit-for-tat measures resulted in the Orders in Council of 1807, whereby Britain effectively blockaded the ports of France and her allies, resulting in a severe depression of trade. This was made worse by the American Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, which closed American ports to British ships. In turn, this hit the cotton and woollen industry of the North of England particularly hard, and affected the internal market as well. Unemployment rose and allied to the absence of imports, bad harvests in 1810 & 1811 increased the price of food, in particular the basic staples that most working people relied upon, with the price of corn reaching a peak in 1812 that it never saw for over 100 years. Distress and starvation was all too common.

Albeit a brief summary, this is the wider context for the emergence of Luddism in 1811.


1. Randall (2006, p.274)
2. Thompson (1963, pp.545-546)

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