Tuesday, April 23, 2019

"You Always Speak of Luddites But What of Captain Swing?"

That was the title of a post last September, brought to mind by this piece from Tim Taylor, The Conversable Economist:

The Captain Swing Riots; Workers and Threshing Machines in the 1830s
"Between the summer of 1830 and the summer of 1832, riots swept through the English countryside. Over no more than two years, 3,000 riots broke out – by far the largest case of popular unrest in England since 1700. During the riots, rural laborers burned down farmhouses, expelled overseers of the poor and sent threatening letters to landlords and farmers signed by the mythical character known as Captain Swing. Most of all, workers attacked and destroyed threshing machines."
 Bruno Caprettini and  Joachim Voth provide a readable overview of their research on the riots in "Rage against the machines New technology and violent unrest in industrializing England," written as a Policy Brief for the UBS International Center of Economics in Society (2018, #2). They write:
"Threshing machines were used to thresh grain, especially wheat. Until the end of the 1700s, threshing grain was done manually and it was the principal form of employment in the countryside during the winter months. Starting from the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), threshing machines spread across England, replacing workers. Horse-driven or water-powered threshers could finish in a matter of weeks a task that would have normally kept workers busy for months. Their use arguably depressed the wages of rural workers." 
Here's a figure showing locations of the Captain Swing riots: 
The authors collect evidence about where threshing machines were being adopted based on newspaper advertisements for the sale of farms--which listed threshing machines at the farm as well as other property included with the sale. They show a correlation between the presence of more threshing machines and rioting. But as always, correlation doesn't necessarily  mean causation. For example, perhaps areas where local workers were already more rebellious and uncooperative were more likely to adopt threshing machines, and the riots that followed only show why local farmers didn't want to deal with their local workers....MORE
And, if interested, the headline post:
From Librarian Shipwreck:

Who Was Captain Swing?
General Ludd, and the army of redressers that gathered behind his name, has become something of an all-purpose avatar for any attitude towards technology that is less than fawning. Whether this image of the Luddites is based upon historical evidence or simply upon hysterical paranoia is another matter, though one thing that is certain is that the specter of General Ludd still haunts technological society. Given the frequency with which Ludd’s name is evoked – be it as an epithet or as a source of inspiration (see: Neo-Luddism) – one could be forgiven for assuming that the Luddites were the first, last, or at the very least largest group to have seen machinery as a symbol of both their actual and figurative immiseration and to have acted accordingly.

Yet such a belief would be incorrect.

While General Ludd may haunt the subconscious of technology’s loudest advocates, and while the Luddites may be remembered primarily for their machine-breaking tactics, Ludd’s followers did not originate the tactic of machine-breaking, and similarly they were not the last group to make effective use of the strategy. Indeed, if one is interested in the history of machine-breaking than General Ludd is not the only myth enrobed leader worth knowing about. For there was also Captain Swing. A short historical sketch is necessary before comparisons can be made – for, though there are certainly similarities between Ludd and Swing, there are also important differences.

The followers of Captain Swing are those who participated in what came to be known as the “Swing Riots,” which raged across numerous counties in England from the later part of 1830 into the early months of 1831. By the late August of 1830 the agricultural workers of England had been squeezed to the point of destitution by a combination of economic policies, overabundance of available laborers, the enclosure of the commons (which had previously allowed many to eke out a frail living), dwindling wages, new restrictive Poor Laws, and the increased usage of threshing-machines that resulted in ever fewer laborers being hired (a particular problem in the winter). Modern industrial capitalism was rearing its head and as it surveyed the world it would claim as its birthright it ignored the workers and their traditions – the agricultural laborers may have already been impoverished but conditions were now such that survival itself had become precarious. Amidst the backdrop of political turmoil at home and with the example of revolution across the channel the situation was primed for upheaval, and once it came it easily spread.

The night of August 28, 1830 (in Lower Hardres) marks the start of the Swing Riots – it, at the very least, marks the beginning of the smashing of threshing-machines that was to become the hallmark of the movement. While attacks upon machinery were not the only feature of the Swing Riots (there were also cases of arson, the penning of threatening letters, and large confrontations) the dismantling of threshing-machines occurred (to greater or lesser extents) wherever the Swing Riots erupted. As a movement that was focused upon securing work and wages (a livelihood) for agricultural workers the threshing-machine became an easy target – a physical manifestation of oppression. Indeed – as Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé put it in their (excellent) history Captain Swing – the threshing-machines represented a final insult as these machines particularly displaced workers during the times when work was most needed (the winter), and....

We've visited Librarian Shipwreck a few times, Most recently in "Luddite Tech Support":
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From Librarian Shipwreck (Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom):
and "'Smart Condom' Tracks Thrust Speed and Velocity and Lets you Share the Data"

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As for Hobsbawm, he usually graces our pages in reference to his review of Luttwak's "Coup d'État: A Practical Handbook."
His last appearance was in "There Has Obviously Been A Coup d'Etat at FT Alphaville (TSLA)".