Innovation and Inequality: How Does Technical Progress Affect Workers?

Innovation and Inequality: How Does Technical Progress Affect Workers?

Innovation and Inequality: How Does Technical Progress Affect Workers?

Innovation and Inequality: How Does Technical Progress Affect Workers?

Excerpt

The effect of technical progress on the welfare of workers has long been a matter of controversy. Historically, one can document famous episodes of violent protests against productivity improvements that workers felt threatened their jobs. In Das Kapital, Marx (1867) documents an episode of revolt against the introduction of machinery, which actually led to innovation being stalled:

In the 17th century nearly all Europe experienced revolts of the work
people against the ribbon-loom, a machine for weaving ribbons and
trimmings, called in Germany Bandmühle, Schnurmühle, and Miihlen
stuhl. These machines were invented in Germany. Abbé Lancellotti, in
a work that appeared in Venice in 1636, but which was written in 1579,
says as follows: “Anthony Muller of Danzig saw about 50 years ago
in that town, a very ingenious machine, which weaves 4 to 6 pieces at
once. But the Mayor being apprehensive that this invention might throw
a large number of workmen on the streets, caused the inventor to be
secretly strangled or drowned.”

In Leyden, this machine was not used till 1629; there the riots of the
ribbon-weavers at length compelled the Town Council to prohibit it.

In 1768, a group of spinners broke into the home of James Hargreaves, the inventor of the “Spinning Jenny,” a machine which was capable of doing the work of eight workers, and destroyed his machines.

In the early nineteenth century, textile workers—the Luddites—organized against the introduction of advanced machinery that made their skills redundant. This movement is described as follows on the Web page of Dr. Steve Anderson from Utah University:

For at least three hundred years the weavers from in and around the
central English town of Nottingham, though commoners, enjoyed the
status and rewards accorded to fine craftsmen. The weavers of Notting
hamshire produced lace and stockings that dominated the English mar
kets and were prominent items in export trade. These products were
hand made, often in the weaver's home…. In the first years of the 19th
century stocking frames and the early automation of the power loom
threatened this long-standing way of life…. The weavers complained
bitterly that the machines made mass produced products of shame
fully inferior quality. Naturally, the weavers saw the new technology

See www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/chl5.htm#S5.

See www.usu.edu/sanderso/multinet/lud1.html.

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