What a 19th-century rebellion against automation can teach us about the coming war in the job market

Our friend and frequent Boing Boing contributor Clive Thompson has a piece in the January/February issue of Smithsonian magazine entitled "Rage Against the Machines." He explores the 19th century Luddite Revolution, the first rebellion against automation, comparing it to the upcoming robot workforce revolution.

I didn't know that pre-industrial textile workers were well-paid and had lots of free time. No wonder they fought so hard against textile automation!

At the turn of 1800, the textile industry in the United Kingdom was an economic juggernaut that employed the vast majority of workers in the North. Working from home, weavers produced stockings using frames, while cotton-spinners created yarn. “Croppers” would take large sheets of woven wool fabric and trim the rough surface off, making it smooth to the touch.

These workers had great control over when and how they worked—and plenty of leisure. “The year was chequered with holidays, wakes, and fairs; it was not one dull round of labor,” as the stocking-maker William Gardiner noted gaily at the time. Indeed, some “seldom worked more than three days a week.” Not only was the weekend a holiday, but they took Monday off too, celebrating it as a drunken “St. Monday.”

Croppers in particular were a force to be reckoned with. They were well-off—their pay was three times that of stocking-makers—and their work required them to pass heavy cropping tools across the wool, making them muscular, brawny men who were fiercely independent. In the textile world, the croppers were, as one observer noted at the time, “notoriously the least manageable of any persons employed.”

But in the first decade of the 1800s, the textile economy went into a tailspin. A decade of war with Napoleon had halted trade and driven up the cost of food and everyday goods. Fashions changed, too: Men began wearing “trowsers,” so the demand for stockings plummeted. The merchant class—the overlords who paid hosiers and croppers and weavers for the work—began looking for ways to shrink their costs.

That meant reducing wages—and bringing in more technology to improve efficiency. A new form of shearer and “gig mill” let one person crop wool much more quickly. An innovative, “wide” stocking frame allowed weavers to produce stockings six times faster than before: Instead of weaving the entire stocking around, they’d produce a big sheet of hosiery and cut it up into several stockings. “Cut-ups” were shoddy and fell apart quickly, and could be made by untrained workers who hadn’t done apprenticeships, but the merchants didn’t care. They also began to build huge factories where coal-burning engines would propel dozens of automated cotton-weaving machines.

“They were obsessed with keeping their factories going, so they were introducing machines wherever they might help,” says Jenny Uglow, a historian and author of In These Times: Living in Britain Through Napoleon’s Wars, 1793-1815.

The workers were livid. Factory work was miserable, with brutal 14-hour days that left workers—as one doctor noted—“stunted, enfeebled, and depraved.” Stocking-weavers were particularly incensed at the move toward cut-ups. It produced stockings of such low quality that they were “pregnant with the seeds of its own destruction,” as one hosier put it: Pretty soon people wouldn’t buy any stockings if they were this shoddy. Poverty rose as wages plummeted.

The workers tried bargaining. They weren’t opposed to machinery, they said, if the profits from increased productivity were shared. The croppers suggested taxing cloth to make a fund for those unemployed by machines. Others argued that industrialists should introduce machinery more gradually, to allow workers more time to adapt to new trades.

The plight of the unemployed workers even attracted the attention of Charlotte Brontë, who wrote them into her novel Shirley. “The throes of a sort of moral earthquake,” she noted, “were felt heaving under the hills of the northern counties.”

Notable Replies

  1. But at least the lower classes could have the decency to be docile. Maybe then some real wealth will trickle down.

  2. The point is that it's a bad idea to pull the economic rug from underneath competent and proud but stubborn workers who've gotten used to a comfortable lifestyle given their pay. If corporations and the state are narrowly focused on cutting costs and creatively destructive "disruption" to the exclusion of all else they leave those workers with a hard landing.

    That's a bad thing because, as we've seen with the offshoring of American manufacturing, it provides a ready-made support base for populist demagogues who can claim to be the voice of those left behind (even if said demagogue is a soft-handed grifter who was staked to the tune of millions by his father).

    If we think the current result is bad, watch what happens over the next decade or two; that's when you'll see one of the most common jobs available in America (esp. to people with a high school diploma or less) gradually but relentlessly wiped away by self-driving vehicles. The article's description of "croppers" is applicable in many ways to today's long-haul truckers.

    Some people are thinking seriously about giving them a soft landing. That's why the once-taboo idea of a universal basic income has suddenly hit the mainstream press in the past couple of years.

  3. Three times in the last twenty years, twice on NPR and once by an employer, I was told, as a manufacturing employee, that the proper response to corporate globalisation was to put my head down and stop worrying. Those were the exact words,put my head down and stop worrying . This is the advice that was given to skilled manufacturing employees regarding his/her/their loss of income and economic well being. "Put your head down", like you tell an overactive first grader.

    It really was the smug expectation by the globalists that the manufacturing employees owed their betters the decency to be docile,

    I won't mind seeing the lot of them choke on their desired expectation.

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