Gavin Mueller wants us to hit the brakes. Tech companies have amassed enormous financial and ideological power and are driving society towards a future of surveillance and algorithmic management. We are enthralled by a vision of technological progress that has blinded us to the reality that new technology in the workplace is often implemented to control workers, rather than to make our lives easier. In his new book, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job, Mueller revives the misunderstood legacy of the Luddites in the service of a new decelerationist politics, one which calls bullshit on the promises of automation. Inspired by the history of workers’ struggles against scientific management and factory discipline, the book offers a vision of how we could develop a militant opposition to new technological interventions in the workplace that threaten workers’ autonomy.
The book is part of a growing movement on the Left that is critical of the idea that the ideas and practices of Silicon Valley could simply be adopted for progressive ends. Read alongside Aaron Benanav’s Automation and the Future of Work and Jason E. Smith’s Smart Machines and Service Work, we can see the tide turning on a techno-optimist tendency which sees the glimmers of a communist future in the “sharing” economy and Amazon’s capacity for central planning. Mueller “wants to make Marxists into Luddites” and has this segment of the pro-tech Left squarely in his sights.
Before we invent the future, Mueller calls on us to rethink the past. Marxists, he claims, “have not been critical of technology, even when that technology is deployed in the workplace in ways that seem detrimental for workers.” Technology is too often seen by the Left as a neutral force that could be reclaimed and used for emancipatory purposes. For Mueller, many Marxists – from Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg to Lenin and the Bolsheviks – fall prey to an economic determinism and fatalism that views the development of capitalist production and organisation as leading inevitably to a socialist society. This view of technology carries on into the twentieth-century’s organised labour movements, and from there to contemporary post-work theorists. In light of these failings, the book turns to previous workers’ struggles and “heretical strains of Marxism” for a profound reconceptualistion of the role of technology in a post-capitalist future.
What a Ludd Wants
Surprisingly little of this neo-Luddite project rests on a reinterpretation of the historiography of Luddism. Certainly, we should shake the view of them as the fools of history and little more than “a mere speed bump on the road to our inevitable present”, but for those interested in the history of workers’ struggles, there is no new evidence presented for a radical reassessment of how we should understand the movement. One of their central insights for our technophilic age was “that technology was political and that it could and, in many cases, should be opposed.” Luddites opposed technology not because they hated machines or were naïve technophobes but because they defended their way of life, their craft and their autonomy – which was all based on small-scale manufacturing.
To be a neo-Luddite today is to cultivate a sensitivity to the ways in which new technology is wielded as a weapon against workers. It emphasises solidarity with other workers in militant opposition to new forms of exploitation and technological control. But perhaps more importantly, neo-Luddism is about worker autonomy and the reorganisation of work. A critical perspective on technology enables us to see work as a site of struggle and the basis of a fundamental antagonism between capital and labour. The positive content of neo-Luddism is concerned with how workers could struggle for greater freedom in their working lives by instituting new forms of workers’ control at the point of production.
For this reason, the real debate the book sets up is not about the Luddites, but about the lessons we should draw from Autonomist Marxism and how it orients us in relation to socialist struggle today. The author’s polemic target is contemporary ‘post work’ and ‘accelerationist’ theorists – a loose collection of writers from Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani to Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams. What unites these authors is the influence of Autonomist Marxism and in particular a certain understanding of the potentially positive role of technology in a post-capitalist future. They share the view that there is a a nascent communism emerging from within the shell of capitalist production – with information and communications technology playing a key role in this process.
The central wager of the book is that a different path is possible through Autonomist Marxism – one that moves via Raniero Panzieri rather than Antonio Negri. Debates from the Italian tradition do not feature prominently in the text, but Panzieri’s analysis of the role of machines in the transformations that occurred in Italian factories in the 1960s looms in the background. Panzieri did not believe that techno-scientific development could be understood as an unproblematic and progressive movement. He provides a more sober account of “the capitalist use of machinery” as producing a technical rationality that disciplines workers in the pursuit of greater productivity and profits. For Panzieri, trade unions tended to focus on struggles over wages, while acquiescing to the introduction of new technology in factories.
This reinterpretation of the significance of Autonomist Marxism also points to a different reading of Marx’s own writings. Why should we labour over Marx’s famous “Fragment on Machines” in his Grundrisse notebooks when we have a much more fully developed and insightful account in “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” in Capital? Here Marx states that “[i]t would be possible to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt.” All of this amounts to a more tech-sceptical perspective that, for the most part, sees technology as part of the problem rather than the solution.
Marxism and the Transformation of Work
In addition to the ‘post-work’ theorists, the book also sets itself up against a traditionof nineteenth and twentieth-century Marxists who, it is claimed , rejected ideas of workers’ autonomy and instead considered questions of the organisation of production to be scientific rather than political in nature. My own research on the German workers’ movement suggests that a neo-Luddite finds more allies here than expected. Characterisations of crude economic and technological determinism are as unfitting for many of the major theorists of the Second International as they are for Marx himself.
Karl Kautsky, the so-called “Pope of Marxism” was a strong advocate for introducing industrial democracy within production and employing “a type of management which would accord a wide measure of self-government to the workers.” Kautsky was aware that without workplace democracy “a communist economy” could become “a basis for despotism.” He was explicit that nationalisation on its own was insufficient and that replacing private capitalists with state officials did not address workers’ concerns over freedom at work. He called for the democratic intervention of workers into economic institutions and “the democratic organisation of economic life.” For certain industries it would be possible “to make their management independent of the state bureaucracy, to invest them with the self-governing attributes of an industrial democracy.”
The added benefit of Kautsky’s theory (along with other Marxists of the era such as Otto Bauer, Rudolf Hilferding and Karl Korsch) was that in contrast to syndicalist notions of pure workers’ control, Kautsky planned for how producers’ interests could be balanced with those of the broader community. The danger Kautsky saw in transferring control over workplaces directly to workers without any intermediating institutions was the risk that labour aristocracies would form in powerful industries. The concern was that “workers would raise wages, reduce hours of labour, diminish the volume of production, and increase the prices of their products, without troubling about the community.” Karl Korsch also saw that in syndicalism, “the capitalism of the private capitalist would only be replaced by a producer-capitalism, a special ownership of certain groups of producers.” The way out of this dilemma was for a state-like institution to co-ordinate between different economic bodies and assist with balancing the interests of different parts of the community. This would allow for worker control at the level of individual firms in conjunction with a degree of centralised investment planning.
Marxists within the Second International also had plans for how work itself could be transformed. Far from adopting the same methods of the capitalist domination of workers, Rosa Luxemburg described how in a socialist society “the factories, works and the agricultural enterprises must be reorganised according to a new way of looking at things. … In a socialist society, where everyone works together for their own well being, the health of the workforce and its enthusiasm for work must be given the greatest consideration at work. Short working hours that do not exceed the normal capability, healthy workrooms, all methods of recuperation and a variety of work must be introduced in order that everyone enjoys doing their part.” Kautsky also argued that in socialist co-operative production a “democratic organization” of labourers would “choose delegates” which would “fix the conditions of labour.” For Kautsky, work itself would also have to be reformed: shortening the hours of work, making the workplace safer, more hygienic and more enjoyable to work in.
The idea that many Marxists viewed machinery and organisational forms employed in the capitalist mode of production as purely neutral devices with “no politics of their own” misses the mark. The insight that technology is political is not unique to a small group of outsider critics. The Marxist emphasis on struggle is about who controls the use of technology and who should benefit from the advances it brings. One of the less appealing aspects of this otherwise thought-provoking book is the caricatured positions it ascribes to many of the theorists with whom it disagrees. Aaron Bastani’s only half serious Fully Automated Luxury Communism stands in for whole segments of the contemporary Left, while some twentieth- century Marxist theorists are painted as uncaring authoritarians, little better in many respects than their capitalist robber baron counterparts. We shouldn’t, however, abandon hope of a future dialogue between the emerging neo-Luddite position and contemporary socialists/social democrats who have theorised more plausible ways in which technology could be liberated from capitalism.
Some Questions Concerning Technology
The neo-Luddite project raises the question of which types of technology we should oppose. On the one hand, there is a polemic against technology per se – a critical pushback against the general sense of tech-solutionism that pervades our era. There are moments in Breaking Things At Work in which an unapologetic anti-technology Luddite position emerges – such as when Mueller claims that “technology reduces the autonomy of workers” and “robs people of the feeling that they can control their own lives.” At these moments, there is an almost Heideggerian opposition to the ways in which modern technology reduces human beings to powerless cogs in a machine. The stories of machine smashing and sabotage fit within this framework. On the other hand, the historical examples involving “high-tech Luddites” tend more towards people reforming and improving technology. When we consider Google employees not working on particular projects for the military or hackers refitting devices to serve alternative purposes, we are in the realm of people being selective and discerning about how technology is put to use and mindful of whose interests it serves.
What is left curiously ambiguous is what precisely is meant by the term ‘technology’. Computers, smart phones and Amazon wristbands that track workers are all technology, but so too are books, tools and William Morris’ arsenic-laden wallpaper. Sometimes the term “capitalist technology” is used when the author is referring to the development of the means of production, while at other points, it refers to a regime of workplace discipline, particular types of equipment within factories or computers and software. The real target of most of the book is not technical devices but systems of labour management. The project seems to be driven by the intuition that many of these systems – often involving new technology – are implemented by bosses in the workplace to increase productivity and profits by sweating workers. This is undoubtedly true, but it leaves open the question of how to differentiate harmful uses of technology from beneficial ones.
In Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future, there is an explicit discussion about the dangers and limitations of any attempt to “repurpose” technology for progressive ends, which also includes a more nuanced view of the politics of technology. “Any given technology is political but flexible” the authors write, “as it always exists in excess of the purposes for which it may have been designed. Rather, the design, meaning and impact of a technology are constantly shifting, altering as users transform it and as its environment changes.” Along with the neo-Luddites, Srnicek and Williams oppose Taylorism because it was purpose built to exploit workers. “For the most part, however, technologies will be more ambiguous than that. … If a technology that centralises decision-making over infrastructures facilitates private control, it also provides a nodal point for collective decision-making. These technologies embody both potentials at the same time, and the task of repurposing is simply one of how to alter the balance between them.” Some workers have increased their autonomy due to new technology such as workers now able to work from home or perform routine tasks with greater ease. Additionally, many new technologies actually do make our lives more convenient, but are often combined with mechanisms that surveil and extract value from us. Understanding how to unravel these complications requires more than a simple opposition to new technology.
Specific quotes from Marx on technology can appear contradictory because his approach to the subject was dialectical. At the same time as certain machines in factories were put to work as an “instrument of torture” against workers, the development of communications and transportation contained a revolutionary potential to spur on the struggle of international workers . A Fully Decelerated Carbon Neutral Luddism may be preferable to a Fully Automated Luxury Communism, but there is a risk that in over-emphasising an oppositional approach to technology in general, we risk losing an appreciation of its potentially progressive dimensions.
Dr James Muldoon is a Senior Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Exeter and Head of Research at Autonomy_Digital. He is the author of Building Power to Change the World: The Political Thought of the German Council Movements and the creator of the Political Philosophy YouTube channel. Twitter: @james_muldoon_
This is Part 1 of the Verso Roundtable on Breaking Things At Work. Follow the link for the other articles in the series.