Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job

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Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job

Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job

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Thank you to Gray Matter for the intermission music and to Carolyn Raider for the cover art. Upstream theme music was composed by Robert Raymond. All of this helps to explain why the figures who populate the Luddite counter-genealogy that Mueller interweaves throughout Breaking Things at Work were not as uniformly hostile to technology as the label would lead you to expect. William Morris, the champion of the Arts and Crafts movement in Victorian Britain, “favored the use of machinery to reduce working hours” even as he insisted that work itself should be made more pleasurable, creative, and useful. The great German Marxist cultural critic Walter Benjamin, while excoriating the linear view of “progress” that many contemporary leftists shared with their capitalist enemies, celebrated the ability of new technologies like the motion picture to level aesthetic hierarchies and democratize access to art. Alignment with the degrowth corpus continues in his critiques of productivist radicals (such as the Fully Automated Luxury Communists), writing that, But Taylorism was not just designed to expand output. It was also a means to crush the power of workers on the shop floor by diminishing the importance of craft knowledge, allowing disruptive workers to be replaced at will with easily trained substitutes. In fact, Taylorism did help managers suppress working-class resistance in the early days of Soviet industrialization, eventually eliminating any vestige of economic democracy remaining from the revolutionary era.

There are paths we haven’t taken, paths we haven’t fully explored that could lead us to a future where we have a bit more control over things and we don’t feel like these massive tech companies are watching and controlling everything we do. I wanted to ask you about another book recently published by Verso which seems very similar. Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes the case for rejecting a focus on non-violence and looking to sabotage fossil fuel technologies. Now you talk about sabotage and opposing many technologies, but predominantly in the tradition of looking at workers, Malm really is talking about environmental movements. Given many extractive debates often see ‘movements’ clashing with industry workers, what are your thoughts about the recognition of sabotage as import for both sides? In one of the most infamous of the surviving Luddite letters, “the General of the Army of Redressers,” Ned Ludd writes: “We will never lay down our Arms. The House of Commons passes an Act to put down all Machinery hurtful to Commonality, and repeal that to hang Frame Breakers. But We. We petition no more that won’t do fighting must.” These were militant words from a militant movement, but the idea that there is such a thing as “Machinery hurtful to Commonality” and that such machinery needs to be opposed remains clear two hundred years later.The book is essentially thinking about technology from the perspective of labour struggle. The left was in this accelerationist moment for a few years where there was an idea that technologies, particularly those tied to automation in the workplace, were leading to a ‘post-work’ or ‘post-capitalist’ future based on their own course of development. I was troubled by this discourse, which set me off on the research that led to this book. But it could also be a way to reimagine society. What really started me on this project, was this idea that new technologies were going to create a ‘post-work’, ‘post-capitalist’ utopia. This utopia was presented as pretty much the same as the world I am living in, but maybe I wouldn’t have to go to work. To me, if you’re really breaking out of capitalism, it’s not just tinkering around the edges, it’s really a very different form of social relations. People relate to one another differently. People relate to what society produces in a different way.

Jamie spoke to Gavin about his forthcoming book, Breaking Things at Work, which will be available from Verso Books in March 2021. Artefacts are products of human imagination and effort, and it shouldn’t make sense to call them neutral. True, a car or a computer can be used for a variety of purposes, but it is easier to use it for some purposes than others. Maybe launching out a lot of policy proposals can be very exciting and interesting, but it doesn’t seem to quite do what we’ve hoped it would do. One reason for this is it still has this top-down perspective of ‘we are going to help you out.’ A lot of people don’t relate to that, they don’t believe in it, or they don’t hear those messages because I don’t think we’ve done the work of really building a base that will then get attached to policies and start actually informing policies. So that’s one reason I really orient the politics of the book in these struggles, because it is important to do at this moment. So technology is something that structures the organization of the workforce, in a kind of very direct and deliberate way. I think this is one thing that a lot of accelerationist and post-work people miss. It’s not that workers politicize the technology, it’s that management introduces technology that is already political as a tool to break up existing forms of worker organization and autonomy that threaten capitalist control. I get that people say it sounds like austerity, but I also think when you talk to ordinary people many of them are interested in simplifying their lives, of not having to buy crap all the time, to have more time to spend with one another doing things that don’t necessarily revolve around shopping. That’s a fairly popular position, especially amongst people who are looking to make big changes in their world.So, why is it that technological progress rarely seems to really improve our lives? Why does it feel like every new piece of software or gadget imposed onto us in our homes and workplaces more often than not adds to our stresses and leaves us with more to do? Mueller has written a wonderfully provocative book, and it is one in which he does not attempt to hide his own opinion behind two dozen carefully composed distractions. Instead, Mueller is quite clear “to be a good Marxist is to also be a Luddite” (5), and this is a point that leads directly into his goal of turning Marxists into Luddites and making Marxists out of those who are critical of technology. And in his engagement with Marx, Mueller tangles with the perceptions of Marx as technophilic, engages with a variety of Marxist thinkers who fall into a range of camps, all while trying “to be faithful to Marxism’s heretical side, its unofficial channels and para-academic spaces” (vii). And all the while Mueller endeavors to keep his book grounded as a contribution to real struggles around technology in the world today. Considering Mueller’s clear statement of his own position it is likely that some will level their critiques at the book’s Marxism, and still others might critique the book for not being sufficiently Marxist. And as is always the case with books that situate their critique within a particular radical tradition it seems inevitable that some will wonder why their favorite thinker is not included (or does not receive more attention), even as others will wonder why other branches from the tree of the radical left are missing. (Mueller does not spend much time on anarchist thinkers). Much of Breaking Things at Work is devoted to a compelling examination of the ancestors of today’s accelerationists — the techno-utopians haunting the corridors of the history of the socialist movement. Far from a 21st-century curiosity, Mueller argues, the fantasy that socialists could simply grab hold of the productive apparatus of capitalism and transfer it into the hands of the working class lurked behind the strategic failures of the left throughout the 20th century.

The other thing that it does is establish the agency of the people driving those politics – we are going to do this, we have the ability to do this, and we can carry it out, we’re not going to ask permission, we’re not going to wait for some sort of compromise.

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I’m following a few people working on autonomous weapons systems, which are quite terrifying. This is something that has historically driven quite a bit of technological development as well as military strategy. The basic fact is that most people don’t want to kill other people, and it’s very hard to get them to do it. Those who want to get people to kill other people use technology to make that easier, to make people more abstracted from killing, so it is easier for them to do. I wrote this book to show there is a different way of thinking about technology, one that I argue is more closely aligned to the political self-activity of workers. It also suggests that for those who care about more egalitarian futures we must start politicising technology and having a critical approach to it, rather than assuming it’s developing in a progressive way on its own. Breaking Things at Work is valuable in showing the scale of resistance by workers to their own subjugation, in particular their resistance to technologies that facilitate this subjugation. No doubt there is even more to learn from the history of machine-breaking. Rather than being retrograde, Luddism may be a way to help construct the future. GIt’s somewhat submerged, but it’s absolutely present. In the preface, I say that I view it as a very “Viewpoint” book, and I don’t think it would be the same kind of project without my involvement there. One thing that we really emphasize at Viewpoint is what we mean when we talk about class. There’s a popular perspective that class is your income, maybe it’s your occupational status, and a few other variables. This is something that we’re critical of, that class exists as some kind of static empirical object out there. Rather, it’s something that has to emerge in processes of struggle. The interest in class, if you have a Marxist perspective, is not looking for a particular kind of demographic that will have the political solution for you. Instead, you want to look for the struggles themselves: the actual things that people are doing to organize themselves with and against technology, to compose and organise themselves in struggle. Gummo Clare is a PhD researcher in the School of Media and Communications, University of Leeds. Listen to more episodes on:

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