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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I didn’t see that coming from the accelerationist quarter nor do I see it from the green technologies quarter. There I see an effort to keep us in the world we’re living in, and I don’t think that’s a very good world. I’m interested in thinking about a new one. I see degrowth advancing that. It’s saying, ‘what would it mean if we could have a radical reduction in working hours but that would mean not keeping production going at current levels?’ It would mean to reduce it significantly. It might mean very different geopolitical relationships between global north and global south. Those are the kinds of conversation that I see happening in degrowth quarters that I think are entirely amenable to anti-capitalist politics. Where we are rethinking not just work, not just consumption, but we’re thinking about how to reshape society. Towards the end of Breaking Things at Work, Mueller broadens his perspective to look at the construction of technologies as a political process. He uses the example of free software, which empowers uses and challenges proprietary software which is designed in service of capital. The construction of liberatory technology might be considered part of a Gandhian constructive programme.

As a caveat this is something I am still learning about. I get a sense that it is a debate that is heating up, that I’m excited to learn a lot from. My understanding of degrowth, why I am attracted to it, and why it fits the theme of the book, is it’s particularly opposed to technological solutionism for the climate crisis.When workers break things at work, they are resisting a non-neutral artefact, in other words a technology designed and used for control and exploitation. In this sense, all challenges to technology are political: they are about power, and technologies are like congealed systems of power. I think anyone who cares about the environment, about labour politics, sees the establishment powers are not very responsive to these things. I’m American, so a lot of my political points of reference come from the States where you hear a lot of dithering around the edges, but it doesn’t really take the gravity of the situation seriously. So, Malm thinks the environmental movement needs to establish a kind of militance to really push the issue. I tend to agree. In this conversation, we dispel a number of myths about who the Luddites were, what they believed, and what their goals were. We also explore a somewhat nontraditional perspective on Marxism and industrialization, what the Luddites taught us about how technology functions under capitalism, and how to resist the exploitation and alienation that often accompanies it. If you are someone who is critical of technology, sceptical of technology, you want to reduce certain forms of technology in your life, that’s great. I think it’s really important to understand two things, the pressures that are put upon us to adopt certain technologies and also the values that are informing the development of technologies. This gives you a better understanding of where these things are coming from, why they look the way they do, and also the most effective ways to oppose or subvert or adapt them. There are many parallels between the stances outlined by Glendinning and those outlined by Mueller. Though it seems that the key space of conflict between the two is around the question of dismantling. Glendinning and the Neo-Luddites were not subtle in their calls for dismantling certain technologies, whereas Mueller is considerably more nuanced in this respect. Here attempts to define Luddism find themselves butting against the degree to which Luddism is destined to always be associated (for better or worse) with the actual breaking of machines. The naming of entire classes of technology that need to be dismantled may appear like indiscriminate smashing, while calls for careful reevaluation of technologies may appear more like thoughtful disassembly. Yet the underlying question for Luddism remains: are certain technologies irredeemable? Are there technologies that we can remake in a different image, or will those technologies only reshape us in their own image? And if the answer is that these technologies cannot be reshaped, than are there some technologies that we need to break before they can finish breaking us, even if we often find ourselves enjoying some of the benefits of those technologies?

My political and intellectual influences are these ‘from below’ histories and thinking about struggle from that perspective, as well as being very alive to when there are tensions within the workers’ movement between rank-and-file struggles and the leadership, whether trade union, political party, or intellectual. It’s important to know this history because we have to learn from it.

Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job by Gavin Mueller (Verso, 2021)

JSo my final question, is taking the logic of some of what you’ve argued, what are the kind of the implications of this? Where do we go from here? GThere’s a tendency to discount ways of re-evaluating the past as nostalgic or a kind of hopeless romanticism that’s irrelevant for creating progressive politics. That can happen, but there’s a kernel of something else: a legitimate grievance. I teach university students, and they’re all young people, and no one listens to newly released music. Everyone’s opting for some period of the past that’s irrelevant for creating progressive politics. That can happen, but there’s a kernel of something else: a legitimate grievance. I teach university students, and they’re all young people, and no one listens to newly released music. Everyone’s opting for some period of the past that seems appealing to them. I think there’s good reason for that. Music used to be experienced in a more convivial manner, and it literally used to sound better than it does now when everyone listens to YouTube streams on laptop speakers. I love reading the comments on videos from the ‘90s. “I’m 16 and I love watching this rave, because no one has a smartphone.” Smartphones are ubiquitous, but that is because they are compulsory, not because they are beloved. And young people find out that they hate a lot about that. That kind of general dissatisfaction with the current state of things is useful. It’s a step towards imagining alternatives, many of which were conceptualized in the past. In November 2021, more than 4.5 million people voluntarily left their jobs in the US, the highest number since records began. Popularly known as the ‘ Great Resignation’, the ongoing rejection of work-as-we-knew-it may not be a social movement in the normal sense of the term, but it is certainly a sign of rolling social upheaval. The increasing bargaining power of labour in the Covid economy, and an increasing unwillingness to risk life, liberty and happiness for precarity and a minimum wage, coincides with the rise of a newly vibrant anti-work movement. ‘Unemployment for all, not just the rich’, goes the slogan of the 1.6 million-strong Reddit community, r/Antiwork, which posts people’s stories of exploitation in – and subsequent liberation from – the workplace. China’s ‘lying flat’ movement is another instance of this, criticising the Chinese tech industry’s ‘996’ work pattern of 9am to 9pm, six days a week, and – with tongue-in-cheek – advocating for ‘lying flat’ as its philosophical movement. Marx’s view of technology was highly ambivalent, however, and it evolved significantly over time. In the first volume of Capital, for instance, he remarked that “it 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.” Innovation under capitalism did not just aim to improve efficiency but to enhance employers’ control over unruly workers. Alignment with the degrowth corpus continues in his critiques of productivist radicals (such as the Fully Automated Luxury Communists), writing that,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. Forget the space age utopias of Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos. The propagandistic technophilia of capitalism is a lure. As Gavin Mueller’s sober, breakthrough book shows, these cyber-dreams are a cover story. We should not revel in the productive powers of the machine, but wonder at how it is so consistently used as a weapon in class struggle from above. Our quaint notions of technological progress are no match for a machine that programmes the relentless imperatives of capital at our expense. As we face a new, pandemic-induced cybernetic offensive in the workplace, Mueller digs deep into the history of workers’ struggles, recovering its traditions, making a persuasive case for Marxist neo-Luddism. Nothing could be more valuable or timely.” The fantasy that socialists could transfer the productive apparatus of capitalism into the hands of the working class lurked behind the strategic failures of the left throughout the 20th century

An exhilarating challenge to the way we think about work, technology, progress, and what we want from the future Burkeman contrasts such collective idleness to the stifling overwork of contemporary surveillance capitalism, but also to early Soviet attempts to re-engineer the workweek and keep factories running every day of the year, without pause (called the nepreryvka). Under Stalin, workers were divided up into staggered four-day workweeks and would follow different calendars, with just one day off as a ‘weekend’. As one commentator notes, ‘With the weekend gone, labour became the framework around which people built their lives’. Rather than smoothly conforming people to the machine, however, resistance developed as people realised they could no longer relax collectively, with even spouses ending up on utterly mismatched shifts. Given that it falls broadly into the genre of (anti-)self-help, this focus on the self might sound individualistic, apolitical, or selfish. Yet, this very acceptance and cultivation of limits is a thread which also runs through much of the most insightful work on degrowth. Burkeman is aware, of course, that our ability to negotiate with time is certainly structured by our social conditions – the self is social, as much as our sense of self can contribute to larger patterns. To create a healthier and less capitalist or productivist relationship with time, he highlights the key importance of collective rhythms of slowness. Drawing from the work of Terry Hartig, for instance, Burkeman notes that ‘what people need isn’t greater individual control over their schedules, but rather what he calls ‘the social regulation of time’’ (191). Studies, for instance, have shown how the more people are on holiday simultaneously, the happier a nation is likely to be. A collective holiday provides not just individual rest and time for families and friends to break bread together, they provide a collective pause, a social sigh of relief from the treadmill of the Machine economy. Far from demanding individualistic adaptation, this would indicate the need for a renewed focus not just on shortening the working week, but including other transitional demands like extended public holidays, festivals and the right to a statutory sabbatical. a review of Gavin Mueller, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Were Right about Why You Hate Your Job (Verso, 2021)

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Complementary themes are raised in a book which, unlike Burkeman’s, does explicitly and sympathetically mention degrowth, albeit in passing. Breaking Things at Work is a punchy, decelerationist Marxist book which brings to the fore the ongoing value of a Luddite analysis of technology. It advances ‘a politics of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organization and cultivating militancy’ (127-128). While Luddism has long been misunderstood as a general animosity to all technology (whatever that would actually mean), Mueller rightly emphasises that Luddism – true to its original sense – actually implies a collective politics which questions the capitalist application of technology. In response to the implementation of technology that disempowers them, Mueller argues that workers engage in Luddite strategies of resistance, namely sabotage. While sabotage often conjures up images of smashing machinery, Mueller draws our attention to acts of sabotage that are less apparent but widespread. In the office, employees use their knowledge of company computer systems to blame delays on computer errors. Or in the factory, where one worker ‘accidentally’ broke her machine when they wanted a half day off. One of the artifacts that Mueller draws our attention to is a column written by ‘ Gidget Digit’ on sabotage in a magazine called Processed World, that satirised the mundanity of capitalist office work. While many workers who engage in acts of sabotage do so unknowingly, these acts of resistance create solidarity among them. As Digit points out, sabotage is not an anti-technology sentiment, but about the conflict of management versus workers and the solidarity found in resistance ‘within and through technology’.

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