Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job by Gavin Mueller (Verso, 2021)
Goldsmiths student Milo Mirzai finds Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things is a serious warning that automation is extending managerial control, commodification and the intensification of work into every aspect of life. Mueller offers a wide history of Luddite resistance and sabotage in response, which while broad in scope, demonstrates the centrality of workers’ struggles to understanding the unfolding politics and political possibilities around automation.
Breaking Things at Work is a timely intervention into contemporary debates over technology and automation. Left wing discourses around automation have recently centred on its emancipatory potential, for example Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism or Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future, arguing that capitalist advances in technology can be used to create a post-scarcity, post-work utopia. Mueller makes the argument that this obscures the historical and contemporary effects technology has had on work, which instead of freeing workers has intensified their work. Often the critical debates around technology among the anti-capitalists is reduced to either its emancipatory potential, or something that obstructs the ‘authenticity’ of the human experience. In stark contrast, Mueller uncovers how technology and automation have historically been a site of contestation, a tool that empowers managers and which workers have consistently opposed. The argument is convincingly developed by excavating and analysing the struggles of workers against the introduction of automation into the workplace.
The story begins with the Luddites in 19th century Britain, a loose collection of militant weavers and their communities who rebelled against the introduction of machines that would undermine their way of life. Mueller is clear in his analysis that being a ‘Luddite’ is more complex than technophobia. The targeted destruction of machines was not out of a ‘fear of progress’ but was a way to strike back at mill owners precisely because these machines empowered them, and disempowered the weavers. Mueller continues his analysis towards the present, drawing on a wide range of case studies from dockworkers to office workers, miners to social media users, factory workers to hackers. The numerous historical sources and stories of resistance that Mueller draws from are rich and varied, deployed skilfully to illuminate the various ways workers have understood technology as a site of struggle.
Through these case studies, Mueller identifies an important dynamic in the implementation of automation. Automation is not introduced for the purpose of efficiency (although this is how it is typically justified) but as a means of control over the labour force. Analysing the ‘scientific management’ of Taylorism, and the US department of defence’s wartime organisation of production, Mueller argues that automation is about gaining control over knowledge of production. By reorganising the process of work into discrete, measurable, repetitive tasks, management reclaims control over the knowledge of the production process. Workers are no longer uniquely valuable for their skill and experience, becoming interchangeable and expendable machines. Automation does not replace workers with machines, freeing us from the burden of labour, it merely intensifies work and disempowers workers as it wrestles control of the production process from their hands.
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’.
Ultimately Mueller concludes that accelerationist arguments like Aaron Bastani’s Fully Automated Luxury Communism miss the crucial point, they don’t listen to what workers are experiencing and doing. The advancement of technology is worsening the conditions of labour, not improving them. And the response of workers has been firmly Luddite, targeting technologies through forms of sabotage in order to resist expansion of management’s power. Even in areas like the tech sector, with the walkout of Google employees over developing targeting AI for the pentagon, workers have demonstrated a desire to slow down technological advancement, not speed it up. These widespread forms of Luddite resistance create the potential for Luddism to be a uniting force that can bring together disparate strands of resistance. ‘[T]he first step of organising disparate grievances into a collective politics requires recognising and recovering our own radical self-activity along with that of others’ (136).
The issue some will find with Mueller’s arguments is that despite covering a wide range of historical and contemporary cases, there is a focus more on breadth than depth. In many places this issue is negligible. However, compared to other parts of the book, the analysis of social media users as labourers who produce data lacked depth. Mueller argues that social media drives the deepening of commodity exchange and work relations into every area of life and provides some novel arguments that adblockers are a form of Luddism. But there is little analysis towards why this particular form of highly automated labour has become so prevalent, and how it has succeeded in facing little to no opposition, unlike previous implementations of automation. In Mueller’s defence, this is perhaps outside the scope of this book, especially since the following chapters do a fantastic job in highlighting the invisible labour that goes into machine learning algorithms that govern digital platforms. Overall, none of these critiques detract from Mueller’s core arguments, and many of the more underdeveloped ideas show great promise for further research, particularly around hacker and open source culture as a form of Luddite resistance.
For those who look towards a world of full automation and abundance for all, this book serves as a serious warning that we are not at a fork in the road where we choose between socialist automation or capitalist automation. We are already going down the capitalist path at full speed, and we cannot expect the development of new technologies to push towards socialism, when they so clearly empower the elite and further embed capitalist hierarchies. While Mueller’s argument for deceleration may not convince all, his analysis of automation through the lens of workers’ struggles should not be ignored. By focusing on the real actions and struggles of workers, instead of prescriptive abstract theory, Mueller has provided us with a provocative and convincing framework to understand work and automation.
Milo Mirzai is a student on the Goldsmiths MA Global Political Economy. He is on twitter @MiloMirzai