The Luddites Were Onto Something

England’s Luddites are often dismissed as kooky technophobes. In reality, theirs was a gutsy pre-Marxist workers’ movement that prioritized people and nature over private property.

1812 illustration of Luddites smashing a loom. (Chris Sunde / Wikimedia Commons)

The folktale of Robert Hode, widely known as Robin Hood, emerges from late thirteenth-century England in Sherwood Forest, which once covered western Nottinghamshire. There, the son of a forester assembled a merry band of highwaymen who robbed from the rich and gave to themselves, and maybe the poor now and then.

During this preindustrial period, England’s heartland forests were enclosed, harvested, and turned into grazing pastures for sheep on the isle’s way to becoming “a petrostate for wool.” Six centuries later, this same enclosed region is where bands of Luddites emerged to dispute the first instances of automation. The mill owners were becoming very rich; everyone else was scraping to survive. In response, the Luddites named a new mythological outlaw:

Chant no more your old rhymes about bold Robin Hood,

His feats I but little admire,

I will sing the Atchievements of General Ludd

Now the Hero of Nottinghamshire

In his 1984 essay titled “Is It OK to Be a Luddite?,” the novelist Thomas Pynchon traces the mythopoetic turn of a real-life guy into a leviathan fable. After being whipped for idleness, a villager named Ned Lud broke into a house in Leicestershire in 1779 and “in a fit of insane rage,” he destroyed two machines used for kitting hosiery. “Word got around,” Pynchon explains. “Soon, whenever a stocking-frame was found sabotaged . . . folks would respond with the catch phrase ‘Lud must have been here.’”

This was not new. Deliberately sabotaging a plow or breaking the cattle yoke has always meant taking the day off. King Ludd (or sometimes Captain Ludd) came to embody workers’ unspoken frustration with their bourgeois employers. Ludd then became “all mystery, resonance, and dark fun,” Pynchon writes, “a more-than-human presence, out in the night, roaming the hosiery districts of England, possessed by a single comic shtick — every time he spots a stocking-frame he goes crazy and proceeds to trash it.”

The traditional story benefits the mill owner by implying that Ned Lud smashed those stocking-frames because he was a beast, King Kong rebelling against progress and civilization. But as Pynchon notes, stocking-frames had been around for two hundred years, since 1589, and Ned’s laziness — his “fit of insane rage” — is a thirdhand account. “Ned Lud’s anger was not directed at the machines,” Pynchon argues, “Not exactly. I like to think of it more as the controlled, martial-arts type anger of the dedicated Badass.”

Casualties at Cartwright Mill

Kirkpatrick Sale describes the Battle of Cartwright Mill in Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution. In 1812, a workers’ militia marched on a local mill where, inside, there were fifty “shearing frames” that could be “run effortlessly by the waterpower of the stream alongside,” Sale explains. “Each one of which could do the work of four or five croppers.”

Heretofore the weaving, combing, and dressing of wool was an artisan skill of the cotton trade, which the mill now centralized and automated. The profits of the whole region’s output now went right into the pocket of one mill owner.

So blacksmiths and other tradesmen joined their brothers in the textile industry and formed a Luddite posse at Cartwright. There they executed a direct action that had been pretty successful in neighboring counties: break in, smash up the frames, and leave a note saying that the destruction came on orders from King Ludd. Then disappear and, no matter what, don’t betray the names of your fellow Merry Men.

Cartwright Mill also marked the first instance of violence against the Luddites. The mill owner spent weeks preparing for the attack and lay in wait with several armed mercenaries and an alarm system — a bell to alert the nearby cavalry. Four Luddites were shot in the botched attack, and the posse was forced to leave two behind as they fled the scene, making sure to warn the wounded not to betray their brothers. According to Sale, those two Luddites died of their wounds but did not give up the names of their coconspirators. This was the first of many violent retaliations against the Luddites. The clashes go down in history as points of violent dispute over the means of production — six years before Marx was born.

“They were rebels of a unique kind,” Sale writes, “rebels against the future that was being assigned to them by the new political economy.” The new order said that those who controlled capital were able to do almost anything that they wished, protected by the king and government, a threat that couldn’t be countered by any individual cropper alone. “The real challenge of the Luddites was not so much the physical one against the machines and manufacturers,” Sale notes, “but a moral one, calling into question on grounds of justice and fairness the underlying principles of unrestrained profit and competition and innovation at its heart.”

In other words, a karate chop to the weaving frames was not a primitive or nihilistic lashing out. Luddite frame-bashing was creative destruction. It busted up hoarded wealth that was previously shared in common — by the 1810s, enclosure had privatized common areas and resources like grazing fields that the English peasantry had freely used for generations. Scavenging and hunting in the forests of Nottingham ended when the trees were leveled and the land carved up for shepherding. Now the mill used the stream to process the wool, which then became augmented by steam-powered machines so that low tide meant nothing to production, and the air became polluted with the Industrial Revolution’s first carbon emissions. The mechanization of nature enriched only the mill owner and his hired mercenaries.

“Public feeling about the machines could never have been simple unreasoning horror,” Pynchon writes, “but likely something more complex: the love/hate that grows up between humans and machinery — especially when it’s been around for a while — not to mention serious resentment toward at least two multiplications of effect that were seen as unfair and threatening.” One effect was the concentration of financial capital each machine represented. The other was the ability of each machine to be “worth” so many human souls.

Pynchon argues that King Ludd was more than a calling card. The character was the embodiment of an archetype, the “anarchist Badass,” like the Creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, King Kong, or cowboys. “There is a long folk history of this figure, the Badass,” Pynchon writes. “He is Bad, and he is Big. . . . Bad meaning not morally evil, necessarily, more like able to work mischief on a large scale.”

King Ludd was not lazy or technophobic. He was an expression of proletarian might in early nineteenth-century England. Consequently he was grounded in the deep religious yearnings of an earlier mythical time, the Age of Miracles. In the previous age, magic was possible, but that too was enclosed upon by a new technopolitical order in the Age of Reason. In this way, Luddites were backward-looking and a proletarian vanguard at the same time.

We keep returning to the Luddites, formulating neo-Luddisms, looking for answers and solutions to our technological anxieties in the brief span of time that they were around, from 1811 to 1813. The popular story says that Luddite violence was all about the weaving frames themselves, but in truth the machines were proxies for stolen surplus value. They were owned by men who did no work, and had every incentive to deskill and immiserate while hoarding as much wealth as possible. For Pynchon, it’s the Jungian archetype of King Ludd who returns to help us see this clearly:

When times are hard, and we feel at the mercy of forces many times more powerful, don’t we, in seeking some equalizer, turn, if only in imagination, in wish, to the Badass — the djinn, the golem, the hulk, the superhero — who will resist what otherwise would overwhelm us?


The decentralized hacker group Anonymous began in 2003, and briefly promised to be the new Luddite symbol. Anonymous members were described as “digital Robin Hoods” after the group carried out cyberattacks against state governments, corporations, and the Church of Scientology. Anonymous was tied to the Guy Fawkes mask, which was made especially popular and standardized by the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta. But instead of wool stocking-frames, it was firewalls, servers, and paywalls hoarding information that were smashed.

Anonymous was Badass, in that it was mythological in anonymity and certainly capable of widespread mischief. The hacker group supported global movements like Occupy and the Arab Spring. The Guy Fawkes mask has since lost the edge. Likely due to arrests and elite capture, today self-described Anonymous members carry out attacks against Russia on behalf of the Ukrainian government, indistinguishable from a NATO cyber division. The group has been favorably covered on MSNBC segments as an edgy, mysterious, occult force.

However corruptible, political movements unite under symbols. Pynchon ends “Is It Okay to be a Luddite?” by comparing Computer Age promises to what the Luddites sought in looking backward to the Age of Miracles. From Pynchon’s vantage point in 1984, future technology promised magic: “With the proper deployment of budget and computer time, we will cure cancer, save ourselves from nuclear extinction, grow food for everybody, detoxify the results of industrial greed gone berserk.”

The Computer Age birthed mythopoetic figures. Neo from The Matrix is a machine-smashing Badass, for example. But forty years later, digital utopia seems delayed or permanently postponed. Artificial intelligence promises magic, but the mood has shifted.

As Gavin Mueller notes in Breaking Things at Work, pure technological optimism is a hallmark of our billionaire class, and they’re a bunch of liars. As Marx argued, a society’s ruling ideas are those of its ruling class, and it’s becoming very difficult to imagine that Bezos, Musk, Gates, and Thiel will rid the world of disease, achieve intergalactic civilization, and/or crack the code of immortality. Mueller cites this as an opportunity for the Left. “While I want to make Marxists into Luddites,” he writes, “I also have another goal: I want to turn people critical of technology into Marxists.”

For Mueller, the Luddite ethos “inspired as it is by workers’ struggles at the point of production, emphasizes autonomy: the freedom of conduct, ability to set standards, and the continuity and improvement of working conditions.” Sabotage by the hand of King Ludd is about freedom.

Getting Big and Bad

In the last chapter of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, titled “Fighting Despair,” Andreas Malm notes our imagination as a pivotal faculty in the climate crisis, as it

unfolds through a series of interlocked absurdities ingrained in it: not only is it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, or the deliberate, large-scale intervention in the climate system . . . it is also easier, at least for some, to imagine learning to die than learning to fight, to reconcile oneself to the end of everything one holds dear than to consider some militant resistance.

Should we see a historical omen in the fact that the first Luddite activity began with unseasonably warm fall weather after a “freakish summer?” Sale argues that this led to a poor harvest and further economic pressure in Nottingham. We know that the scale of human misery caused by the Industrial Revolution was bad, but as we end the Age of the Computer and begin the Climate Age, we’ve already pumped gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere — all thanks to the filthy descendants of the machines that churned Cartwright Mill.

Malm notes that at the time of 1995’s COP1 climate conference, few scientists foresaw that the land and oceans would soon become overfilled with carbon dioxide and methane. Earth’s northern zone of permafrost is a subterranean storehouse of carbon frozen for hundreds of thousands of years. When the planet heats up, “the solid begins to thaw, microbes set to work on the organic matter and decompose it, releasing carbon dioxide” and methane. This leads to positive feedback loops that most of us don’t want to think about.

What needs to be done to prevent this is technologically very possible. It could be accomplished if we radically reorient all human economic and social production. “It would demand centralized control of key economic sectors,” says climate fatalist Roy Scranton, author of We’re Doomed. Now What?. We’d need “massive state investment in carbon capture and sequestration, and global coordination on a scale never seen before,” which Scranton finds little reason to hope for.

Malm is critical of Scranton’s fatalism, arguing that it rationalizes inaction. “Overshoot of targets for climate mitigation calls for more, not less, resistance,” he writes. It is not too late, with most of the determining factors in global emissions not yet built. But even if it was, “What was the point of Nat Turner or the Warsaw ghetto uprising?” Malm asks. “Fatalism of the present holds defeated struggles of the past in contempt, and so does strategic pacifism: if someone raised a weapon and lost, it was because she raised that weapon.”

Carving “King Ludd wuz here” into the door panels of SUVs sounds a bit useless. But we could do with a bit of a revival of the Luddite spirit. It may be inevitable. For Carl Jung, archetypes composed of primordial images in the collective unconscious are constantly cycling through birth and death. This makes them, essentially, irrepressible. The Badass will return.

Malm says that we have to embrace the return. “Here is what this moment of millions should do to start,” Malm writes. “Announce and enforce the prohibition. Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep on investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed.”

A habitable planet demands a prohibition on new emitters, the destruction of current carbon furnaces, and a new industrial revolution in geoengineering and ecological repair. Given Goku-levels of strength, what kind of character, and what sort of attitude, could be adopted for this scale of social transformation? You know what kind.