The Luddites. In Huddersfield they broke things, assassinated capitalists , kept stum and disappeared back into the night. And about them there is now silence. In Heckmondike (or whatever it is called now) they had a meeting in a pub, decided to attack a factory, put the word out around the county, assembled at a distant meeting point, marched by night up hill and down dale to the factory, where the reinforcements hadn’t appeared, and attacked. The mill is stuffed with soldiers. There was a battle. So there is somewhere and something to commemorate – there is a Trail now, and a plaque just outside the soft play on the edge of an industrial estate to heroic failure (again).
It was a quest to find it, swinging around perilously in my infernal machine through the stampede of traffic in search of Liversedge and Rowson’s Mill, in search of a place which seems to have many names and none.
The plaque says they lost. Wounds were incurred. Then, a hat was dropped in the river , which gave a clue to the bizzies , and arrests, deaths and executions followed.
Then there was the book launch.I realized as I was following the trail that I was always ahead, anticipating. The mise en scene in my head. The torches, the stubble , the frock coats, the Emmerdale accents. I suspect this is from Shirley by Charlotte Bronte, who was local and had her own take on the characters. but definitely romantic – in a doomed, moor -ish way.
I m taking pictures in a post-industrial estate in the rain. I noticed a sign on a gap site LUDDITE INDUSTRIAL ESTATE which I wanted to photograph for a pitch for a future sit com. I get distracted by the River Spen, which would be the only protagonist remaining from the Luddite story ( the mill having long disappeared under a string of development opportunities).
I am trying to find an appropriate portrait shot, when I am hailed by a friendly local. She wants to bemoan the loss of wildlife and greenspace behind the hoardings and bulldozers of the LIE (Ok thats not actually their acronym.).
Its on a flood plain and there are loads of empty units in Hathersedge anyway. (this I can vouch for having driven around most of them on the trail to the Luddite statue)
This is a heroic representation of an angry desperate man wielding what I imagine is a frame over his head, in a pose not unlike Liberty vaulting the barricades, but watched by a despondent looking urchin. This is the twist for the Spen Valley Civic Society – get the kiddies on your side. The interpretative panel contains lots of stuff about the hardships of Victorian life which would make it feel OK for your dad to go out and trash the local workshop.
The SVCS have an angle . Their park is basically a roadside triangle between a main road along the hogsback and a well used rat run down an abandoned high street. Like everywhere else I went in Spen Valley there is a constant stream of traffic and sense of amorphousness as all the ribbons link up. The SVCS are protesting against the submergence of their place by re-signing LIVERSEDGE -rebranded,as Luddite heritage site -right opposite the old town hall, which has been converted into anonymous flats.
I go to take a picture of the inn where the Luddites met. For a secret organisation they seem to have got out a lot.
One of the things I was finally able to do once released from learning the Latin names of beetles at Uni was to read The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson, which looked like it would be the best book ever. I have kept my copy and it still does the job. It contains the Luddites, and much other English history besides, but it contains it in such a way that it feels like a weapon of sorts in an argument I expected to have. On the cover is a etching of a man in Victorian working clothes smoking a clay pipe and wearing an enigmatic expression. The illustration is to show his costume, but also just about shows an early steam train, as a sign of contemporaneousness.
Thompson is making a case for how Marxists should do history, that it is relevant that they should do history, how Marxists can be Marxists , and how history might have been. This is contained in a (relatively) famous sentence in the preface..
I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obselete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.. they lived through these times of acute social disturbance and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience.. (p13)
The Luddites for Thompson, were conducting a protean industrial dispute by various means through trial and error. This dispute about working conditions roamed into ownership of the means of production, terrorism against democratic means, class consciousness against local loyalties and was conducted through a culture which only occasionally leaves traces in literate form (although these are perhaps more powerful as a result).
I was at yor hoose last neet, and meyd mysel very comfortable. Ye hey nee family, and yor just won man on the colliery, I see ye hev a greet lot of rooms, and big cellars, and plenty wine and beer in them, which I got ma share on. Noo I naw some at the colliery that has three or fower lads and lesses, and live in won room not half as gude as yor cellar. I ont pretend to naw very much, but I naw there shudn’t be that much difference. The only place we can gan to o the week ends is the yel hoose and hev a pint. I dinna pretend to be a profit, but I naw this, and lots o me marrows na te, that wer not tret as we owt to be, and a great filosopher says, to get noledge is ta ken wer ignerent. But weve just begun to find that oot, and ye maisters and owners may luk oot, for yor not gan to get se much o yor own way, wer gan to hev some of wors now (p785, quoting a note left after a strike riot in the Durham coalfields in 1831)
Sometimes they were Luddites sometimes they weren’t. At their best they were shadows – I think of the Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49 (which I revisited for a book group which also mysteriously disappeared at the time of my presentation, leaving me alone in a city centre bar wondering, like Oedipa Mass, if I had imagined the whole thing) . These phantoms could be limited and controlled when turned into concrete forms. Like an uprising, a narrative or a statue.
We all know someone who had thrown their mobile phone into the sea, or refused to watch TV (and that does actually include Iplayer) for a few years, and we generally admire them. More difficult examples exist – the person who stopped reading, the scratcher of cars , teenage purveyors of litter, ‘one man’s freedom fighter..etc’ . Thompson seems to be saying that this is an experimental tactic rather than a definitive statement, and if we follow him, what we should be pursuing, in a variety of ways is for a greater control of the means of production.
Id like to imagine what might happen on the Luddite Industrial Park (as I will insist on calling it). One of the scenarios of course is that it may never be finished – the removal or sabotage of pieces of construction equipment hilariously recurring over a number of episodes like a running gag. In other versions the hardworking staff become aware of strange voices and poltergeist activity which turn out to be versions of themselves dressed up in Victorian costume. Or there is a situation(ist) comedy where the staff realise the true nature of consumer society through a deep interpretative reconquest of the term luddism and decide to make things they actually want instead which turn out to be hugely successful and then recreate the problem all over again ( oh hang on that sounds a bit familiar).
To be a Luddite was a part time and secret occupation, and the more social and permanent your ambition became the greater the risk of discovery (which probably meant death). Thompson makes the point that this happened incredibly rarely- that there was some kind of solidarity or consciousness amongst the outgroups of society ( he would unashamedly call it a class) which had at least sympathy with it
In the Trystero/W.A.S.T.E network Pynchon could at least imagine a way in which this could still exist in 1960s America..
It was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote,loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private. Since they could not have withdrawn into a vacuum (could they?) there had to exist the separate silent, unsuspected world. (p94)
And now? I am drawn to the re to conclusions of Slavov Zizek to his analysis of the events of 2011 ( Arab spring, anti-capitalism, London riots – seems a lifetime ago)
what Marx concieved of as Communism remained an idealized image of capitalism, capitalism without capitalism, that is , expanded self-reproduction without profit or exploitation. This is why we should return from Marx to Hegel, to Hegel’s “tragic” vision of the social process where no hidden teleology is guiding us, where every intervention is ajump into the unknown, where the result always thwarts our expectation. All we can be certain of is that the existing system cannot reproduce itself indefinitely; whatever will come after will not be “our future”. A new war in the Middle East or an economic chaos or an extraordinary environmental catastrophe can swiftly change the basic coordinates of our predicament. We should fully accept this openness, guding ourselves on nothing more than ambiguous signs from the future ( The Year of Dreaming Dangerously, pp134-5)
I have blogged already about the post-capitalist thinking of Paul Mason and Wolfgang Streek. I was in Yorkshire for a conference of psychogeographers, whose wanderings seemed very in touch with a situationist spirit of going off message. Phil Smith‘s address to Congress suggested
Through the political spasms of the last year, clumsy expressions of deep rhythms of change, a new kind of Spectacle is emerging from its old ‘integrated’ form into a new meshwork of ‘post-truths’. ..We need to detourn the spectacle.. We need to protect the hidden part of ourselves from the brightness of the spectacle
Phil talks pretty fast and my ability to make notes is not as good as it was. Yet it seems that like our Luddite ancestors the tactics and focus of resistance is provisional and varied . That we are in search of some sort of commonality and universality which still has a strong personal meaning. And which is always quickly being pulled away again as it becomes processed to become part of the Spectacle . There will not be one way to answer this dilemna – there will be a search for the thing that Walter Benjamin suggests can flash up at a moment of danger to guide us (Theses on the Philosophy of History , 6) .
- you’d think really there would have been a punk band called The Luddites. I was actually convinced there had been and looked them up. I found a link to a vanity side project by Rick Astley .. ( Rick ‘Never Gonna Give You Up’ Astley ! ). Never have the thoughts of Guy Debord looked more prophetic.. Anyway in case you dont know (and indeed care) the title quotes The Damned’s 1979 anthem ‘Smash it up’