Go Slow and Break Things

This review was first published in Arena Quarterly #6.


The short decade between the global debt crisis and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency was a time of great excitement on the Left. Like the devil in Baudelaire’s The Generous Gambler, capitalism’s power had been based on its ability to convince the world that it didn’t exist; but in the months and years after the financial meltdown, its tail and trotters were distinctly visible to anyone who cared to look. Fred Jameson’s crack about it being easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism still held true for the majority of people. But at least it was beginning to occur to some of them, as the end of the world drew ever closer, that capitalism might have something to do with it. 

One prominent emphasis that emerged in this time, on the Left as well as in other milieux, was the role that automation might play, or was already playing, in capitalism’s demise. As more and more jobs were automated, the prospect of a “jobocalypse” was widely mooted, as indeed was the “crisis of realisation” that was bound to follow hard on its heels (unemployment translates into a …) The emergence of near zero marginal cost technologies invited a Marxian interpretation of these developments, as “non-rival goods” (data, sunlight) collapsed the usual pricing/profit mechanisms and pointed forward to a world of abundance and relatively “clean” technologies. The economic system to come was growing in the belly of the one we had; the potential for a post-capitalist future—a cybernetic Great Leap Forward—was in prospect, if not inevitable.

To say that these enthusiasms (some of which I shared) have cooled somewhat would be to put it mildly. Catalysed by the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the ‘techlash’ against Big Data’s abuses of consumer data is now utterly mainstream, while the idea that increasing automation might spell an end to exploitation is plainly incompatible with the degradations of the gig economy and the reality of working life at the shitty end of online commerce. Perhaps the starkest example of the latter is the Amazon ‘Fulfilment Centre’—the Potemkin village of cybernetic capitalism. Once billed as the cutting edge in automation, with an army of orange Kiva robots at the supervisors’ beck and call (in the depots of the past, flesh-and-blood humans would pick things out with their hands, like schmucks; today they arrive at your arm with a whisper), these warehouses are now seen for what they are: Taylorist hellholes in which it’s the humans that are ‘automated’, and in which surveillance, precarity and appalling conditions are marbled into the employment model.

So pernicious are many of the new technologies, and the uses to which those technologies are put, that a number of commentators have begun to question, not just the technophilia of the FALCs (‘fully automated luxury communists’), but the broader idea at large on the Left that it is less the technologies themselves that are important than the productive relations in which they are set. Indeed, one can even begin to discern a small outbreak of technophobia in some unlikely corners of the contemporary Left. Richard Seymour’s recent The Twittering Machine, for example, is dedicated “to the Luddites” and concludes with a fantasy of strolling in the park with “nice pen” and laying down “on a lily pad”. Even Paul Mason, whose 2015 book PostCapitalism was so central to the FALC analysis, now seems more keen to stress the dangers of new technology than its utopian possibilities. While PostCapitalism … His Clear Bright Future (2019) sets a new “radical humanism” against the potential for “algorithmic control” and its ambient intellectual stupidities.

It is the example of the Luddites that Gavin Mueller picks up in his new book Breaking Things at Work, a challenging, if ultimately flawed, attempt to push back against the technophilia (explicit and implicit) on the modern Left. Of course, the Luddites have always occupied an ambivalent place in radical affections. On the one hand, the followers of the mythic King Ludd are celebrated as an early manifestation of anti-capitalist militancy, while on the other, they tend to be characterised as an essentially naïve example of such—as a group that confused, or even collapsed, the forces and relations of production in a way that made technological “progress”, and not the boss, the enemy. But Mueller will have none of this. Following Hobsbawm, he argues that this characterisation is not only unhistorical (“In those pre-socialist times the working class was a crowd, not an army”, wrote Hobsbawm; “Enlightened, orderly, bureaucratic strikes were impossible”), but also misunderstands the ways in which work is itself a social activity to which the relations of production are “immanent”. It follows that attacks on new technologies are a crucial component of class composition, as well as a foreshadowing of the world to be won. For Mueller, in short, technology is never neutral; it is pregnant with bourgeois ideology in a way that the accelerationist emphasis on ownership of the means of production obscures.

Mueller wants a decelerationist Left, not an accelerationist one. Quoting Walter Benjamin’s suggestion, floated in “On the Concept of History”, that revolutions may not be “the locomotive of world history” but an attempt to “activate the emergency brake”, he seeks to rehabilitate the example of the nineteenth-century frame-breakers, and to excavate the buried tradition of which they are but one iteration—a tradition largely unsupported, in his telling, by the union movement, and despised by many on the Marxist Left as antithetical to the spirit of scientific socialism. For Mueller, the Luddites’ acts of sabotage are paradigmatic of a history of go-slows, wildcatting and general vandalism that is far more marginal than it deserves to be, especially given the central role that high technologies play in the modern workplace.

Mueller’s contention is that “actually existing automation” is not only about greater productivity but about reconfiguring labour practices in a way that makes workers easier to control. For as long as workers remained attached to ways of working that were marbled in to more communitarian modes of life, they would always baulk at the idea that their products were mere commodities for sale. But automation provides a way for capital to introduce its “values” (or its nihilism) into the labour process. By refocusing work on the efficient production of goods for profit, above all else, capital is able to transform the worker into a mere means of production, a cog in the machine. Marx himself made something like this point in an unpublished chapter of Capital called “Results of the Immediate Production Process” and its effect is to throw the various struggles over automation into a more nuancedlight. For example, when the FordMotor Company redesigned production so that materials were automatically conveyed from one process to another, it was not merely trying to increase production but to decentralise the production process in a way that allowed them to break the link with its proud and unruly workforce in Detroit. For Mueller, it follows that the struggle against such automation is more than just economic “self-interest”; it is, or can be, constitutive of an alternative socio-economic vision.

Mueller writes that he wants to turn Marxists into Luddites and Luddites into Marxists, but I think he will prove a lot more successful in the first ambition than the second one. For while he does a brilliant job of showing just how unhistorical, simplistic and idealistic the accelerationist model of “progress” is, in other respects he reproduces the shortcomings of mainstream Marxism faithfully. Noting that much of the criticism of new technology comes from “a place of romantic humanism” and from people who’ve read too much Heidegger (“who criticized technology for alienating us, through its disenchanting and instrumentalizing nature, from the mystical experience of Being”), he writes:

The problem of technology is not simply that it alienates us from Being, or from authentic experiences … [T]he more fundamental problem of technology is its role in the reproduction of hierarchies and injustices foisted upon most of us by business owners, bosses, and governments. In other words, the problem of technology is its role in capitalism.

Unless I’ve misunderstood this passage (and several other passages very similar to it), Mueller is saying that our “authentic” humanity is, as far as technologies go, less important than our participation in capitalism. But why is capitalism a problem at all if it doesn’t cut against the grain of our “nature”? Mueller writes: “What workers bitterly opposed was ‘industrial concentration’ that demolished their way of life by undermining the autonomy they possessed in small-scale home-based manufacturing, which ‘paced its activities according to its needs’ so that workers controlled the hours and intensity of their work.” Fair enough. But from what does the need for “autonomy” (or agency or conviviality) derive, if not our “authentic” humanity?

Mueller says he does not believe in a “universal essence”; but if he means by this that he doesn’t accept that humans have certain irreducible characteristics—sociality, creativity, corporeality—then he is channelling the very “Prometheanism” that he criticises in other parts of the Left: the Prometheanism that imagines human beings to be extrusions of the clanking machine of history, and thus infinitely malleable. “The argument for deceleration is not based on satisfying nature,” writes Mueller, “but in recognizing the challenges facing strategies for organizing the working class.” But organising the working class to do what? Take ownership? Get control of the surplus? This doesn’t sound a million miles away from the vulgar “workerism” of the Bolsheviks.

The point, surely, is that work is an expression of our fundamental creativity, and that technologies exist in a complex relationship to that fundamental creativity: a relationship that cannot be reduced to a forces-relations model. Frustrated with the cruder versions of that model, but still in thrall to a Marxist analysis that sees capitalism as the ghost in every machine and is reflexively hostile to any notion that human beings may have a nature that is prior to the economic “base”, Mueller ends up trying to have it both ways. To be sure, he’s made a good start on the frame, which is looking much less robust than it did before he started to wail on it. But given the utterly transformative nature of emerging and soon-to-emerge technologies, I think he needs a bigger hammer.


Gavin Mueller

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

Verso; $29.99; 176pp