Breaking Things At Work

Gavin Mueller

Luddism has been unfairly painted as technophobic; in reality it identified that technology is a political tool used to control and exploit labour, that can and should be resisted. The accelerationist left and pro-automation union leaders have been more concerned with how technology could help the worker of the future, than how it is making people's lives worse now. The reality of automation in the workplace has always been one of fractioning, alienation and control, resisted repeatedly by workers through labour organising, machine-breaking and ingenious sabotage.

Chapter Summaries

0. Introduction

The prevailing attitude on the centre and right, as well as the accelerationist left, is that progress (or liberation) is synonymous with and achieved through technological development. The Luddite argument is that technology is anti-progress, in that capitalist-produced technology can only further the goals of capital. “[T]o be a good Marxist is to also be a Luddite”, and a Luddite trend exists throughout labour movements to the present day.

1. The Nights of King Ludd

Rather than technophobia, Luddism is the recognition that technology is political, and that it should be opposed when used by capital to exploit and fragment labour. Historical Luddism can therefore be considered a proto-organised labour movement revolting against their growing exploitation under proto-capitalism. Accelerationist leftism is antithetical to Marxism as a theory of struggle, since at its worst it posits that post-work socialism can be achieved without class conflict through technological innovation and automation.

2. Tinkerers, Taylors, Soldiers, Wobs

The Second International wanted capitalism to fully develop and advocated capitalist technological growth, seeing socialism as a necessary consequence of advanced capitalism's inherent contradictions. Taylorism — monitoring and enforcing workers' individual actions under the guise of improving efficiency — was for this reason championed by some on the left, including the governments of Lenin and Stalin. Meanwhile Taylorism was actually controlling and exploiting labour: the IWW advocated existing sabotage practices among workers as part of a broader class struggle.

3. Against Automation

Automation in the last century has polarised labour, increasing the risk and pace for the lowest-paid workers while generating more and more wealth for bosses. Those at the greatest risk of both unemployment and overwork are invariably those with the least power, such as black Americans during the Civil Rights era, and women working as telephone operator. But from ports to mines to factories, unions have consistently bought into automation's false promises of higher wages and shorter hours, leaving it up to workers to engage in wildcat strikes and sabotage the new machines.

4. High-Tech Luddism

Computers have been used throughout their history to reorganise labour through automation and abstraction and surveil and control by collecting vast amounts of data. The response of some workers and hackers has been characteristically Luddish:

The proliferation of technology like self-checkouts and the ubiquity of data collection has blurred the lines of work and leisure, generating value for capitalists from every interaction.

5. Conclusion

Decelerationism is not a return to some “state of nature” or a “slow lifestyle”: it is the

manifestation of an antagonism towards the progress of the elites at the expense of the rest of us [… i]t is a wrench in the gears.

Luddism as a political movement therefore:

It is concerned with articulating how things are, how work is made worst through technology, and what workers are doing and can do to resist and change the world for the better.