Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12

Ned Ludd & Queen Mab: Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811-12

by Peter Linebaugh

NOOK Book(eBook)

View All Available Formats & Editions

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


Peter Linebaugh, in an extraordinary historical and literary tour de force, enlists the anonymous and scorned 19th century loom-breakers of the English midlands into the front ranks of an international, polyglot, many-colored crew of commoners resisting dispossession in the dawn of capitalist modernity.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604867084
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 03/01/2012
Series: PM Pamphlet
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 48
File size: 362 KB

About the Author

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London Hanged (London: Penguin, 1991), The Magna Carta Manifesto (University of California Press, 2008), and with Marcus Rediker, The Many Headed Hydra (Beacon Press, 2000). He has written introductions to a book of Thomas Paine's writing (Verso, 2009) and to a new edition of E.P. Thompson's, William  Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (PM Press, 2011). He works at the University of Toledo in Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

Ned Ludd & Queen Mab

Machine-Breaking, Romanticism, and the Several Commons of 1811â"12

By Peter Linebaugh

PM Press

Copyright © 2012 Peter Linebaugh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-708-4


The economic term constant capital denotes both natural resources and machines, or Nature and Technology, as means for the exploitation of variable capital, the term for the working class when it is waged or unwaged, or labor-power either employed or unemployed.

The system of capitalism begins to collapse when labor power expresses itself as the power of the people and attacks the machines of its degradation and resumes responsibility for the earth. We may do this in the name of democracy or popular sovereignty, or we may do this in the name of human dignity and survival. Both are now required. The 2011 natural disasters of earthquake, tsunami, tornado, and fire are inseparable from the artificial catastrophes of global warming and the nuclear meltdown.

The popular mobilization in Cairo, the Tahrir Square commons, raised hopes of the oppressed struggling for rights they never had. In Madison, Wisconsin, the workers took over the state capitol struggling for rights they were about to lose. The Fukushima disaster gave the whole world a jolt. The Occupation of Wall Street takes the system at its most abstract (banks) and exclusive (private property) and grounds it concretely and in common thus prefiguring the future in the present.

Everyone knows now that technology has brought us to an impasse, and everyone knows now that everything has to be looked at globally, though these commonplaces were not so generally known two hundred years ago when the world and the heavens were in uproar and the people in the name of "Ned Ludd" took up the hammer of redress to smash machines. The origin of the industrial system contains the seed of its demise, once we apply to it our hammers and our imagination which also appeared, fairy-like, two hundred years ago.

In 1811 it appeared to many that cosmic forces were at play. A great comet was visible for most of the year, 260 days, seen first in March, most visible in October, and faded by January 1812. Its tail was 25 degrees long. It was interpreted as an omen all over the world.

July 5, 1811, is Independence Day in Venezuela. Independence was led by Francisco de Miranda and Simón Bolívar. An earthquake shattered much in March 1812. Bolívar said, "If nature opposes us, we shall fight against her and force her to obey." The leaders of the bourgeois revolution were prepared to conquer nature.

December 16, 1811, a terrific earthquake shook the grounds of the central Mississippi River valley, and there were others in January and February. The earthquake brought justice to a murder committed by Thomas Jefferson's nephews who in Kentucky axed a slave, chopped up his body, and sought to burn the parts, until the earthquake caused the chimney to collapse smothering the fire leaving the body parts visible to others. Among the Creek, indigenous people of the American south, the Red Stick prophets had begun to urge young braves to follow Tecumseh and prepare themselves for the war path. Tecumseh and his brother Tenskatawa welcomed the association with the earthquake.

Meanwhile in England Anna Laetitia Barbauld published a volume, a poem, called Eighteen Hundred and Eleven. Generally known for introducing big letters and wide margins to help children read, she saw history with two eyes, chronology and geography, which provided her with prophetic power. The war, famine, rapine, disease of the year brought catastrophe and the eruption of subterranean forces. "Ruin, as with an earthquake shock, is here," she warned.

Frank Peel in 1878 provided the first primary, printed source of authentic memories of the Luddites. On the first page he compared the comet to "a flaming sword." Only a few years before the Luddites William Blake wrote a hymn against the mechanized factory, "these dark Satanic Mills," in which he vowed,

I will not Cease from mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England's green and pleasant Land.

Had the sleeping sword awakened? Were the followers of Ned Ludd, like the comet in the sky, wielding cosmic justice and do they still? If so, it was not as Blake imagined because Jerusalem, a city of strife and division, is no longer the egalitarian utopia of the Protestant millennium. An ecological rather than the protestant nationalist note must now conclude this stirring and beautiful hymn.

I will not Cease from mental Fight
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand
Till we occupy the Commons
To green and chill our baked Lands.

On the bicentennial of the Luddite direct actions on behalf of commonality, the chthonic powers beneath the earth and the cosmic spectacle above it accompanied the revolt against the machine. The Romantic poets responded to this relationship in two ways. First, they broadened our view from the local to the revolutionary macrocosm. Second, they helped make it possible to see machine-breaking as a means of defending the commons.


The Luddites were machine-breakers of the north of England who differed from tool-breakers of the past or of other countries by giving themselves a mythological name, Ned Ludd, or Captain Ludd. The Luddites were active in three areas of the English textile industry: i) the West Riding of Yorkshire where the croppers (those who shear, or crop, the nap of the cloth) were threatened by the gig-mill or shearing machine, ii) Nottinghamshire and adjacent parts of the midlands where the stockingers (those who weave stockings) were being made redundant by the framework-knitting machine, and iii) Lancashire where the cotton weavers were losing employment because of the application of the steam-engine to the hand-loom. This area has been called "the Luddite triangle." The main Luddite resistance took place in 1811 and 1812.

Both the general tactic of machine-breaking and its specific most famous case of Luddism, may indeed be "collective bargaining by riot," to use the phrase of E.J. Hobsbawm, but there was more to them than that. "I am seeking rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity," wrote E.P. Thompson in The Making of the English Working Class (1963). The first three figures (stockinger, cropper, weaver) are the three crafts corresponding to the three regions of Luddism and to three machines that were undermining them. To Thompson three of these five examples were machine-breakers, suggesting an identification between them and the class of all working people. The prefigurative power of a chronologically specific tactic found expression as myth, and since myth may transcend the time and place of its birth, Ned Ludd continues to wield his hammer centuries later.

Such mythological figures, like the porter in Macbeth, open the gates to history from below. English history is replete with them — Robin Hood, Piers Ploughman, Lady Skimmington, Captain Swing for example — and so is Irish history especially in this period (1811–12) when Captain Knockabout or Captain Rock joined Ned Ludd as anonymous, avenging avatars who meted out justice that was otherwise denied.

The world was being enclosed, life was being closed off, people shut in. In 1795 before he was silenced by government the English Jacobin, John Thelwall, referred to "the inclosing system" which he defined as "that system of enclosure by which the rich monopolize to themselves the estates, rights, and possessions of the poor."

Certainly the system of enclosure applied to land where enclosure became commodification. In 1790 there were 25 Parliamentary Enclosure Acts, and in 1811 there were 133. England began to become a country of fences, stone walls, ditches, and hedges. To Barbauld, writing in Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, "stricter bounds the cultured fields divide." The result on one side was high rents and Jane Austen and on the other dispossession, hunger, and John Clare, the Northamptonshire agricultural laborer and poet of the commons, who wrote, "vile enclosure came and made/A parish slave of me."

The household became part of the system of enclosure. The genders were separated by the doctrine of the two spheres, the private sphere for women and the public sphere for men. "The confines of the home were the boundaries of her kingdom," writes Linda Colley. The wife ceased to have a legal persona or existence. The cult of prolific maternity was to supply cannon-fodder for empire. The "population explosion" was partly an achievement of this confinement or lying-in.

The division of labor in the arts and crafts enabled them to become part of the system of enclosure as the factory replaced the workshop. The resulting dehumanization was anticipated in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations: "In the progress of the division of labor, the employment ... of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations ... generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become."

The infrastructures of transportation belong to the enclosing system. Rivers were canalized and high dock walls enclosed the traffic of ports from Liverpool to London. The result was criminalization. In punishment it was an age of vast prison construction behind immense walls of granite. Lord Byron in defending the Luddites asked the legislators, "Can you commit a whole country to their own prisons?"

War itself assisted the system of enclosure. The soldiers were separated from the civilian population by the replacement of billeting by barracks. More than two hundred barracks were constructed between 1799 and the end of the war in 1815. It was said in India that if the Moghuls built mosques and tombs the British built jails and barracks. Even "Albion's fatal tree" or the three-mile procession of the condemned from the city of London to the Tyburn gallows was subject to enclosure at Newgate prison.

In cultural expressions, too, we find several forms of closure, such as the dictionaries and grammars of language, the censorship of press and speech, and the silencing of Thelwall, who spent the rest of his life relieving stammerers by teaching "elocution." Thomas Spence attempted to combat it by spelling reform but to no avail. The result contributed to that social and cultural apartheid between the upper class and the common people. Indeed the word common became a slur.

The enclosure of handicraft started with the domestic system of the merchants putting out raw materials to the craftsman and the craftswoman working at home where the round of tasks in garden, field, and loom were industriously mixed. Then, manufactures or the separate workshop, brought all the workers together. The factory added machines and power. Enclosure depends on the separation of industry from agriculture, the factory from the land. The two processes were carried forward together. Enclosure destroyed both.

These enclosures took place in an era of world war and total war. In 1811–12, "an event took place," Tolstoy will say in War and Peace, "opposed to human reason and to human nature. Millions of men perpetrated against one another such innumerable crimes, frauds, treacheries, thefts, forgeries, issues of false money, burglaries, incendiarisms, and murders as in whole centuries are not recorded in the annals of all the law courts of the world, but which those who committed them did not at the time regard as being crimes." As far as Britain was concerned this was a new phase in the long counterrevolution against liberty, equality, and fraternity and an opportunity to control the commerce of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific oceans. Its war economy and its industrialization went hand in hand: the smoke of the factory and the smoke of cannon, the hapless soldier's cry and the orphan's cry, vast fortunes and the fortunes of war, war and the machine morphed politically into the military-industrial complex.

The Americans still sing before sporting events a national anthem referring to the "rockets' red glare." Rockets were fired at Fort McHenry in Baltimore during the war of 1812. Rocketry was the advanced military technology of the day, originating in India at the battle of Seringapatam in 1799 and carefully studied by Robert Emmet in the insurrection of 1802. During this total war hundreds of thousands of soldiers put boots on the ground, boots made of hides from cattle fed in the pastures of Ireland or the pampas of Argentina. Pick any thread of this tapestry, pull it, and, yes, the historian unravels the cruelties and crimes of the era, but look more carefully and there is another story which sticks to the hand. It is the story of preservation, resistance, kindness to strangers, a seat at the table. This was the commons, and so it was with the Luddites.

David Noble's "In Defense of Luddism" (1993) like E.J. Hobsbawm's essay four decades earlier stressed the solidarity resulting from exercising power "at the point of production." "The habit of solidarity, which is the foundation of effective trade unionism, takes time to learn," wrote Hobsbawm, and nothing does it better, than bringing production to a halt by machine-breaking or "to go out Ludding." By Noble's time in the late twentieth century the trade unions were cooperating in the introduction of automation. Since the permanence of capitalism can seem to rest on the inevitability of technological change, Noble called us to regain our inherently insurrectionary power with the reprise of Ned Ludd. More is at stake, however, than the "point of production." That point depends on reproduction, or the community of the producers.

When we speak of the destruction of "community" we must remember that this entailed complex kin patterns, forms of mutuality, and customs held in common. There is a material basis to community; together they constitute a commons. In both cases land and tools became commodities (they could be bought and sold) and the commodities became constant capital (a tangible means to increase of labor exploitation). In this way expropriation (X) and exploitation (X1) became not separate stages of capitalism, as (X + X1, but an intensifying dynamic operating on one another simultaneously, as X2. The expropriation from the commons and the mechanization of labor worked upon each other as in a feedback loop.


We can introduce "the commons" by pulling an Irish thread — Ireland so close to England geographically, so distant otherwise. In 1811 from Ulster William Carleton set out for Munster in search of a teacher to teach him the classics of Greece and Rome. Irish people, poor or not, venerated classical learning. "Such was the respect held for those who appeared to be anxious to acquire education, that ... I was not permitted to pay a farthing for either bed or board in the roadside houses of entertainment where I stopped." Eventually he found a teacher whose brother had just returned from the Iberian Peninsula with a Portuguese wife. They will eat potatoes.

In the Peninsula, however, the British Army ate bread. The Army bought grain from Malta where Egyptian wheat was unloaded. This was a major change in the international grain trade. Muhammad Ali routed the mame-luk leadership at a feast in Cairo in March 1811, the first step in centralizing power in Egypt. The second step was the reorientation of the grain exports away from Ottoman markets via sea trade protected by the British Navy to meet needs of the British Army. However other characteristics of "primitive accumulation" had commenced, the expropriation of charity and religiously endowed lands, centralization of taxes and tributes, and the privatization of lands, intensification of irrigation corvées, or forced labor on canals. In Upper Egypt lands were "held communally and assigned to individual cultivators annually" but in the fertile delta of lower Egypt boundaries were easily established.


Excerpted from Ned Ludd & Queen Mab by Peter Linebaugh. Copyright © 2012 Peter Linebaugh. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews