Gavin Mueller, Breaking Things at Work: the Luddites Were Right About Why You Hate Your Job, Verso, 2021.
Breaking Things at Work analyses episodes of working-class struggle throughout history in the service of a radical left approach to technology and automation. Many on the left see technology as at worst neutral – the technology itself isn’t the problem, it’s who controls it. Others say that technology “is a boon to socialism” as it creates the conditions of radical transformation – the “fully automated luxury communism” thesis.
Mueller disagrees – arguing that “technology often plays a detrimental role in working life, and in struggles for a better one” (p.4). His approach views technological change in the context of class struggle and capitalist social relations. We need to ask for what purpose are bosses introducing a particular technology, how does it affect workers’ work lives as well as broader society, and what struggles does it provoke.
The US mining unions’ response to vast post-war automation is set out in the chapter “Against Automation”. Mining workers struck for months in 1949 and 1950 to respond to the introduction of equipment called “the continuous miner” or “the man killer”. Raya Dunayevskaya of the Johnson-Forest Tendency (and formerly Trotsky’s secretary) argued that your attitude to automation depended on your “relationship to the machine”. Capitalists, management and union officials alike sang its praises, while workers’ bodies suffered its effects. She quoted an autoworker: “All Automation has meant to us is unemployment and overwork. Both at the same time” (p.69). Meanwhile Fortune magazine called John L Lewis, head of the United Mine Workers, “the best salesman the machinery industry ever had” (pp.66–7). Dunayevskaya “mercilessly criticized the ‘labor bureaucracy’ as ‘brainwashed’, as they took management’s side against their own workers while their power base was cut out” (p.69) – the mining workforce was cut in half.
One (all too short) section notes that Black Panther leaders Eldridge Cleaver and Huey Newton took up the question of automation and technological change and its negative impact on Blacks in America (p.82). Black workers in Detroit in the 1960s referred to the increased productivity that had come with new machinery speeding up their work as “niggermation” as they suffered incredibly high rates of injury and death – a casualty rate higher than the Vietnam War (p.83).
In the 1980s, the introduction of computers sparked debate and resistance. One pseudonymous writer argued for sabotage, noting in an IT workers’ magazine that “rather than freeing clerks from the gaze of their supervisors, the management statistics programs that many new systems provide will allow the careful scrutiny of each worker’s output regardless of where the work is done” (p.104).
Automation is a subject full of wild predictions, often a fact- and history- free wonderland. Some, like Kai-Fu Lee, formerly of Google China, predict the total replacement of knowledge work. Others don’t go this far, but buy into the mythologising of technology’s “magic”, divorced from the human labour, at all levels, that powers it. Yet automation and artificial intelligence (AI) is not about replacing the working class, but better exploiting it. Technology reshapes work and controls workers, augmenting exploitation (and often not even increasing productivity, as Marxist economist Michael Roberts notes). As a Data and Society report states, “automated and AI technologies tend to mask the human labor that allows them to be fully integrated into a social context while profoundly changing the conditions and quality of labor that is at stake” (p.115).
Jeff Bezos calls Amazon Mechanical Turk workers “artificial artificial intelligence”. It is telling: the original Mechanical Turk, or Automaton chess player, was an eighteenth century hoax where a puppet designed to look like a machine supposedly played chess. A human chess master was hidden inside. The reality behind the hype is that “ghost work” – hidden from consumers and paid at a pittance in piece rates – is what powers AI. One company, Samasource, specifically targets slum dwellers for the mindless work of feeding information to machine learning algorithms. Its former CEO disgustingly justified the low wages by not wanting to “distort local labour markets” in Kenyan slums (p.118). Technology is made to seem like an autonomous agent operating apart from human intervention. This fetishisation of technology serves multiple purposes. It wows consumers and venture capitalists. It helps give corporations some distance from the negative impacts they cause. And it can make workers more fearful for their livelihoods.
Class struggle in a context of changing work arrangements and more technology at work is not new. Textile workers in England in the early 1800s had their lives transformed by new machines which massively increased productivity: “wages plummeted and hunger began to set in” (p.9). Under the name of a mythical “King Ludd” – hence, Luddites – they fought back: “At the height of their activity in Nottingham, from November 1811 to February 1812, disciplined bands of masked Luddites attacked and destroyed frames almost every night. Mill owners were terrified. Wages rose” (p.10). Spies, crackdowns, repression and executions crushed a movement that Eric Hobsbawm described as “collective bargaining by riot”. Today, the term Luddite is not connected with collective struggle, but rather, misleadingly, with technophobia. History, as Mueller observes, “has not been kind to the Luddites” (p.11).
The introduction of the “Taylor system” in a Massachusetts factory in 1911 sparked a walk-off. Today, workers in a hospital smash up robots meant to replace them with baseball bats, while Amazon workers fight back in workplaces where Dickensian conditions are enforced with cutting-edge technology and surveillance.
That workers take centre stage is key to the book’s strengths. Support for workers’ struggles is part of this. So is the centrality of the working class to capitalist production, and the effect of new technologies on workers’ conditions, livelihoods and health.
Mueller situates his politics within the Marxist tradition:
Marxism is a theory of struggle. … Technology is an important site of these struggles: not only is militant opposition to technology a historical fact, but it can suggest a more liberatory politics of work and technology – one that is more easily supported by Marx’s work than are contemporary post-work utopias. (p.29)
In an interesting section in chapter 1, the author sympathetically surveys some of Marx’s own writings on technology, finding a certain ambivalence but not a technological determinist. While Mueller identifies with workerism, a current foreign to this journal, (and is overly sympathetic to hacking), the politics of Breaking Things at Work are refreshingly good.
The book’s arguments have implications both for the approach to technology in the here and now, and in the future. “[T]he radical left can and should put forth a decelerationist politics: a politics of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organization and cultivating militancy” (pp. 127–8), Mueller argues. The term decelerationism may seem jarring. And to talk about “Luddism” as a political current is over-egging it. But it is right to say that struggles “against” technology are progressive. Looking further forward, socialists often argue that under socialism workers would simply take over the global supply chains and use all of capitalism’s technology. This is too simplistic. Technology is designed for labour exploitation and capital accumulation (and war) under capitalism, and can’t always be disentangled from the social relations it was produced under. As Mueller points out, we need to pay attention to the way work is organised and the working conditions. We should reject production for production’s sake and efficiency as a goal in itself. Chapter 2 sets out the debates within the Bolshevik Party on these questions, but this is not fleshed out.
In a short book of 130 pages, Gavin Mueller draws together the work of many writers, and offers vignettes of numerous vastly different struggles. The historical approach employed is useful, as indeed it is whenever something is portrayed as new and shiny. The book is not without its limitations. It can be meandering, and often covers topics in insufficient depth. But it’s insightful and thought-provoking – definitely worth a read for those interested in questions of technology and automation.
Bastani, Aaron 2019, Fully Automated Luxury Communism, Verso.
Hillier, Ben 2022, “What would be different about a socialist economy?”, Red Flag, 24 July. https://redflag.org.au/article/what-would-be-different-about-socialist-economy
Jones, Phil 2021, Work Without the Worker: Labour in the Age of Platform Capitalism, Verso.
Moore, Phoebe V and Jamie Woodcock (eds) 2021, Augmented Exploitation: Artificial Intelligence, Automation and Work, Pluto Press.
Roberts, Michael 2022, “The Future of Work 3 – Automation”, 4 July. https://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2022/07/04/the-future-of-work-3-automation/