The Luddites Loved Remote Work

Clive Thompson on 2021-10-25

They knew “working from home” meant controlling your hours, the pace of work, and your quality of life

Women working in a weaving factory, under the eye of the manager

By now, you’ve heard about the culture clash in white-collar remote work:

  1. Bosses want employees back in the office …
  2. … but a lot of employees are saying screw that: I want to stay remote.

Survey after survey documents this schism. A recent Gallup poll found 37% of employees want to stay home full-time, 54% want a hybrid arrangement (a few days in the office, a few days out), and barely 9% want to work in an office full time.

In contrast, most bosses are desperate to get their employees back into the cubicles. The great majority of managers want their workers to be at least hybrid, and almost half want ’em in the office full-time.

Why don’t the employees want to go back? It’s partly about avoiding COVID. But there’s an even bigger reason: Control. Remote work gives them more privacy away from their managers, more autonomy from corporate dictates, and — crucially — more say over how and when they work.

Running a quick errand during the day? So long as you nail your quotas (and your workflow allows it), the boss doesn’t need to know. Some pandemic workers have discovered their jobs require so few hours of real toil that they’ve taken on a second job, which they also do at home, with neither of their two remote bosses being the wiser.

Now, this idea — that working from home is a power move for the laborer — seems pretty modern, doesn’t it? It feels like a highly digital arrangement, made possible only because of Zoom, email, Slack and Dropbox. Surely workers of the past didn’t fight to stay remote.

Nope. They did. In fact, you know who were the first laborers to realize the autonomy and power that came from controlling your own workspace, in your own domicile?

The Luddites.

The Luddites: The original workers who didn’t want to stop working from home

These days, the Luddites are generally known for their antitechnological stance: Enraged by the advent of machines that automated their work, they set about smashing the devices, in a burst of activity from 1811 to 1812. They fought the Industrial Revolution, and they lost. “Luddite” became known as being against technology.

This isn’t the whole picture, though. The Luddites weren’t so much opposed to technology as opposed to the way capitalism was evolving, in those early decades of the 19th century. Machinery was only one part of that.

One of the chief things they hated was how the factory system took away their control over how and when they worked. Work was moving out of the home, and into centralized locations.

Work-from-home in 1800 meant getting up late, doing personal errands, and having looooong lunches

Things didn’t used to be that way. The Luddites came from a class of British textile workers who had for decades ran their own businesses out of their own homes, and generally enjoyed it. That included weavers — who turned cotton into fabric — and “croppers”, who smoothed down the rough edges of woven materials.

In the decades leading up to the Industrial Revolution, they often did this work in their own homes, or rooms they rented and ran themselves. There, they called the shots. They could set their own work hours, and behave as they preferred — starting later in the day if they wanted, and singing boisterously while they worked, if the fancy struck.

As one son of a weaver later recalled it …

There was no bell to ring them up at four or five o’clock … There was freedom to start and to stay away as they cared … In the evenings, while still at work, at anniversary times of the Sunday schools, the young men and women would most heartily join in the hymn singing, while the musical rhythm of the shuttles would keep time.

“They’d come and go from the workshop as they pleased,” as the historian Adrian Randall told me, when I wrote a piece on the Luddites a few years ago for Smithsonian magazine. Or as the economic historian Joel Mokyr told NPR:

“They really worked whenever they felt like it, and didn’t work when they didn’t feel like it.”

Since they managed their own hours, the weavers and croppers arranged plenty of vacations and days off. “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.” Before the factory system emerged, pay was high enough that three days per week was often enough to live on, quite comfortably. They had no managers who could compel them to work more.

In The Making of the English Working Class, the historian E. P. Thompson writes with admiration about those chillaxed rhythms. Weavers and croppers would take time out of the workdays to run personal errands, or even spend a couple of hours gardening. That son of the weaver I mentioned above? His father had enough leisure to teach his kid “reading, writing, and arithmetic.” Another young weaver described how he’d “go out and refresh myself a little” when he needed a break. Again: No boss telling you that you couldn’t.

Enjoying a drunken three-day weekend, with “St. Monday” off too

At lunch, workers from different houses would assemble together to eat. Thompson quotes one weaver who describes the noontime ritual, when the weavers would sit …

… and have a chat with other weavers and combers on the news or gossip of the time. Some of these parties would spend an hour talking about pig-feeding, hen-raising, and bird-catching, and now and then would have very hot disputes about free grace, or whether infant baptism or adult immersion was the correct and scriptural mode of doing the thing.

They also drank. A ton! In those decades before the factory system emerged, some weavers and croppers would get so soused on the weekends that they’d take Mondays off, too. As Mokyr notes …

They had an institution, for instance, called St. Monday. Basically what happened was that, at the weekend, particularly on Sunday, they celebrated and drank themselves into a stupor, and then on Monday, they were all hung over and didn’t work. And that was known as St. Monday.

The horrors of factory work: Danger, long hours, and total lack of control

So: The Luddites understood the power and control that came from working remotely.

They also understood how much power you lost when an employer required you to be in a central location all day long.

The contrast was stark. The factories of the early Industrial Revolution were utterly wretched. Machines routinely chopped off limbs, and sometimes even killed workers. The air was clotted with cotton dust that gave workers a “lifelong cough” (as Kirkpatrick Sale documents in Rebels Against The Future), and “the noise of the looms was so deafening that workers developed a system of lipreading (called ‘mee-mawing’) to communicate.” Child labor was rampant, and workdays could last for 12 to 14 hours.

But another element of factory work that incensed the Luddites was how little autonomy they had. Their every moment was controlled. As one weaver described the difference: “A tender young man when he had his work at home could do it at his leisure” — but in the factory, you marched to a bell and showed up precisely on time, because if you were even a few minutes late you’d be locked out for the day.

One poem bemoaned the switch from at-home work to the factory — how it meant waking up earlier, and standing nonstop with your “shuttle” at the mechanical loom, with no breaks and no time for everyday tasks:

So, come all you cotton weavers, you must rise up very soon,

For you must work in factories from morning until noon,

You mustn’t walk in your garden for two or three hours a-day,

For you must stand at their command, and keep your shuttles in play.

Basically, the Luddites immediately grasped that being in a centralized workspace stripped you of privacy and dignity, while being in your own domain — what we’d now call “remote” — preserved it.

I don’t want to oversimplify this, and reduce the Luddites’ objections to merely the loss of control that came from factory work.

They faced a welter of other economic and legal problems. Their wages were declining; in the years leading up to the machine-breaking protests of 1811, merchants who bought wares from weavers and croppers had been paying less and less. It was the worst possible time to have deflating incomes, because inflation was, simultaneously, soaring. Plus, the state was arrayed against workers; union organizing had been made illegal.

The Luddites tried hard to adapt. Typically, they’re portrayed as being mulishly opposed to all mechanization, but they weren’t. They’d used plenty of machinery themselves, for decades, at home. They didn’t hate the idea of efficiency itself. What they opposed was the centralization of profit — that factory owners were scooping up all the efficiency gains of automation, and not sharing any of these juicy new gains with their workers. (If the Luddites discovered a local merchant was using automation but was also paying their workers well, they left his machines alone.) The Luddites also proposed all manner of clever policy to adapt to the oncoming waves of automation: They suggested taxes on machinery to help subsidize pensions for displaced workers, for example.

In essence, the Luddites observed how capitalism was evolving — and predicted that the big returns would now go only to capital owners, with workers increasingly getting shafted. They foresaw that a society would fall apart if it allowed capital-owners to hoover up all the profits and leave everyone else miserable. And they were right! Plenty of employees today are coming to precisely this realization, two hundred years later.

But when I think about today’s fights over remote work, I’m also struck by the parallels with the Luddites, and their desire to retain autonomy. It’s precisely the same thing many white-collar remote workers have come to love about working from home.

Again, I don’t want to draw too simple a comparison here; unlike the Luddites, few white-collar workers today are staying home because they otherwise face dangerous factory conditions. (There are plenty of working-class employees that do labor those grim conditions.)

But the Luddites understood how important it is — and how satisfying it is — to have some say over how and when you work. They knew that you could have far more control at home. They were the original remote workers.

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and Smithsonian magazines, and a regular contributor to Mother Jones. He’s the author of Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World, and Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing our Minds for the Better. He’s @pomeranian99 on Twitter and Instagram.