Robots and Luddites

For various reasons, I’ve been thinking about Luddites. My husband called me a Luddite for mildly complaining that our TV set-up has become so complicated that I no longer know how to play a DVD. Seriously, though, the ‘robots are eating our jobs’ argument has been gaining traction – in the interesting Brynjolfsson and McAfee book

, in Paul Krugman’s Robots column, and assessed in this recent Economist survey article (with handy links).

Oddly this is simultaneous with the interest in Robert Gordon’s argument that the days of significant technology-driven productivity gains are over, in his paper Is US Economic Growth Over? The awesome analytical power of economics tells us these arguments can’t both be true at the same time, even if it doesn’t tell us which one is correct.

Luddites have an unfair reputation, as if they should have realised that the tide of technological change was unstoppable so why bother protesting? Eric Hobsbawm once argued (in The Machine Breakers) that there wasn’t a big difference between the Luddites of 1811-13 and the “collective bargaining by riot” that had been going on for donkey’s years. Besides, expressing opposition to one’s job becoming technologically redundant is highly (individually) rational. In my part of the world, East Lancashire, the big riots were in the 1820s – our ‘local’ riot was written up in the lovely book

by William Turner. The ‘
‘ riots in the South occurred in the 1830s.

Machine-prompted industrial unrest is the result of the combination of the normal innovation-driven dynamics of capitalism with the failure of the system to find a way of sharing productivity gains outside their originating sector. So inequality, not innovation, is why the robots matter now.



13 thoughts on “Robots and Luddites

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    • Thanks for the link and for introducing me to the Macroeconomic Resilience blog. I agree with him that process and exploratory product innovation are different beasts. However, Robert Gordon is aggregating, in my reading. I think his argument is that aggregate labour and total factor productivity have slowed, compared to periods in the past. If that were true, it’s hard to understand why concern about job losses due to technology would have increased. Still, you’re right to flag up the two types of innovation – some similarities to the distinctions drawn in the business economics literature eg Will Baumol, Paul Geroski.

  2. Not only were the Luddities of 1811-13 part of a long tradition of labour “bargaining by riot”, they weren’t even the first group to engage in machine breaking.There were numerous cases in the 18th century and, in my book, I discuss the London weavers’ attacks on the new ‘engine looms’ in 1675 (p. 214). (search inside for ‘engine’)

    However, the Luddities (from the name of their possibly-mythical leader, Ned Ludd) had a catchy name, and that’s the term that’s stuck.

    • Thank you for flagging up your book, Brodie. It looks very interesting. My favourite group has long been the agricultural rioters involved in the 1830s ‘Captain Swing’ riots: I saw the play Captain Swing by Peter Whelan (who also wrote The Accrington Pals) performed by the RSC in Stratford upon Avon in 1978 with Alan Rickman and Zoe Wanamaker. Some info here:

      • Yes, the Swing riots struck a chord with me too. In fact, I think Hobsbawm and Rude’s book was amongst the first academic history books that I read … it’s a classic.

    • The Luddite movement around 1812 was not only about machine breaking but also involved wider economic, political and social unrest and was on a scale not seen before or since. That is why it is important, not simply because its adherance to a mythical leader led to the coining of the term.

      • I couldn’t agree more about the range of issues involved in the 1812 riots. However, the other ‘machine breaking’ riots (including 1675 and the 1830s) were not just about technology either. The Luddites weren’t unique, except perhaps for their name.

        • Yes, but the fact that a name was taken as an umberella for the participants in the movement is in itself significant. They had a sense of shared identity not apparent in previous scattered incidents of machine breaking. The name Captain Swing played the same role in the agricutlral labourers rising and Rebecca in the Welsh anti-Toll Gate protests. The mythic name reflects a shared idenitity. This is what makes the Luddites a specific movement in working class history.

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  5. As it makes the other movements which adopted a common identity specific phenomena, each to be understood in their own time and context..
    (Corr) * agricultural.

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