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Luddism for the age of robotics

By Simon Pirani - The Ecologist, May 7, 2021

Climate breakdown is driven by industrial production, production by machines controlled by people. But can those very people demand a new, low carbon production?

Are the technologies developed by giant capitalist corporations – Walmart’s logistics or Elon Musk’s driverless cars – the foundation on which a post-capitalist society can be built? No way, argues Gavin Mueller in his latest book, Breaking Things At Work: the Luddites were right about why you hate your job (Verso, 2021).

He challenges “Marxist theoreticians” who see “the capitalist development of technology as the means for creating both abundance and leisure”, to be “realised once the masses finally [take] the reins of government and industry”.

Against these technocratic illusions, Mueller proposes “a decelerationist politics: of slowing down change, undermining technological progress, and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organisation and cultivating militancy”.


Allowing Walmart or Amazon to “swallow the globe” would entrench “exploitative models of production and distribution”, and channel resources to reactionary billionaires.

He writes: "Letting technology take its course will lead not to egalitarian outcomes, but authoritarian ones, as the ultra-wealthy expend their resources on shielding themselves from any accountability to the rest of us: postapocalyptic bunkers, militarised yachts, private islands and even escapes to outer space." 

Given the persistence in trade union hierarchies and even among leftist writers of technocratic dogma - fantasies about electric cars or geoengineering, for example, Mueller’s book is very welcome.

He grounds his “decelerationism” not only in texts, but in workers’ struggles to confront, confound or control technologies in the workplace – starting with the Luddites in early 19th century England, who smashed machines that were used by employers to cut pay and tighten labour discipline.

Mueller aspires to a 21st century version of Luddism, which declared itself hostile not to machines as such but to “machinery hurtful to commonality”. One of his goals is to “turn Marxists into Luddites”; another, to “turn people critical of technology into Marxists”.


He explains: "I am not simply lobbing advice at movements by telling them to go out and break machines. What I try to do is show that workers themselves have repeatedly become Luddites in struggle."

Examples are given stretching from the Luddites, to workers who resisted Taylorist discipline in the early 20th century, to battles against the control implicit in automation during the post-war boom, to modern-day resistance to corporate enclosure of the internet and workplace robots.

Mueller interrogates what Karl Marx himself wrote about technology and the labour process. Many Marxists have too narrowly understood Marx’s concept of “productive forces”, and the tension between these and the social relations of capitalism, he argues.

Marx saw human labour, “including its skills, abilities, techniques and most importantly its conscious application”, as a force of production.

"What is fettered [i.e. constrained by capitalist social relations] is not technological development itself, but a relationship between worker and machine in which the worker has conscious agency."


Mueller also insists that Marx should be understood “not as a designer of a future society, nor even as a theoretician of the necessary grounds for socialism, but as a cartographer of proletarian struggle”.

In the 21st century, Marxists should: "[E]xamine the ways historical struggles posited an alternative relationship to work and liberation, where control over the labour process leads to greater control over other social processes, and where the ends of work are human enrichment rather than abstract productivity."

These struggles “point towards the only vehicle for a liberation from capitalism” – a “militant struggling class that attacks capital in all its manifold dominations, including the technological”.

Mueller shows how, throughout the history of the workers’ movement, socialists found themselves divided between those who saw “technological progress” as the necessary basis for a transition to post-capitalist society, and those who saw technology as an arena of struggle.

He comments on the English socialist William Morris’s dispute with the techno-utopian Edward Bellamy; the polemic between Walker Smith, a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World in the pre-first-world-war USA and technocratic trends in the union.

He also discusses the German communist philosopher Walter Benjamin’s dissent from the prevailing social-democratic orthodoxy that technological progress would pave the way to socialism.


Mueller’s chapter on struggles against automation during the post-war boom focuses on the USA. He cites discussions in a small group of worker militants, including the Trinidadian writer C.L.R James, that had split from the Trotskyist movement and gathered around the newspaper News and Letters.

Some, but not all, of the group perceived in workers’ struggles over technology, such as a series of bitter mineworkers’ strikes in 1949-50 against the introduction of continuous mining machines underground, aspirations to challenge the nature of work.

Mineworkers were not asking for higher wages, but questioning “what kind of labour should man do?” and “why should there be such a gulf between thinking and doing”, Raya Dunayaevskaya wrote.

Charles Denby, a Detroit car worker, asked: "Why do people assume that automation is the way people will want to work in a new society? Why do they assume that all that matters is that the workers will be in control?

"Will 'being in control' of the machine lighten the work, or make it less boring? Won’t work be something completely different? If work will be something different – tied up with life itself – it can not be the same as Automation that uses men as part of its operations."


Some members of the News and Letters group worked on the docks, where labour practices were being turned upside down by containerisation. Sabotage and go-slows, as well as strikes, were used to resist new forms of labour discipline.

These experiences in the USA would benefit from comparison with the labour struggles in Italy in the 1960s, and the autonomist Marxists who participated in them, which are only mentioned in passing by Mueller.

As far as I understand, the autonomists’ ideas about class composition – that is, the way that the working class and its struggles were shaped by, and in their turn shaped, the labour process – were very much part of the challenge to technocratic “Marxism” in which Mueller is interested.

The historian of Italian autonomism, Steve Wright, describes how the editors of Classe Operaia, one of the first significant autonomist newspapers in the 1960s, unlike many Marxists, saw the “making” of the working class as resulting from “an ongoing interplay between the articulations of labour-power produced by capitalist development, and labour’s struggles to overcome them”.

Witnessing the changes brought about by automation in the Italian car industry, the autonomists asked: “Was the proletarian subject really destroyed by the reorganisation of production which periodically followed industrial conflict, or was it like some single-celled creature, which could be infinitely divided whilst still retaining its genetic code intact?”


Wright refers to the Italian autonomists’ understanding of the labour process in his discussion of their eventual political defeat: one weakness was their “too-narrow focus upon what Marx termed the immediate process of production as the essential source of working-class experience and struggle”.

The struggle to transform the labour process in a single workplace, or series of workplaces, is one thing. The struggle to transform the labour process in society as a whole, another. How do we envisage the relationship of one to the other?

The French socialist philosopher Andre Gorz, having witnessed the wave of working-class struggle in both Italy and France in the late 1960s – and in opposition to the dogmatic, Stalinist-inflected ideology that then dominated the “official” labour movement in Europe – made a compelling attempt to answer such questions in his book Farewell to the Working Class, first published in 1980.

The basic premise of “workers’ power”, as understood in the 1960s, was that “the social process of production was as transparent and intelligible as the labour process that existed in each workshop and factory” and “the site of production was also the site of power”. 

But Gorz argued that this was no longer true, because of automation, the increasing complexity of productive processes and their internationalisation – what would later become known as “globalisation”: "Instead of a hierarchy and an order in production defined by workers, Taylorism made it possible to impose a hierarchy and order defined by factory management."


This use of technology to control workers meant that “taking power” over production, a popular idea in the labour movement then, had become “meaningless […] at least in the case of the factory as it is”.

He adds: Workers’ councils […] have become anachronistic […] The only imaginable form of workers’ power now is the power to control and veto: the power to refuse certain conditions and types of work, to define acceptable norms and enforce respect for these norms upon the managerial hierarchy."

Gorz described this type of power as “negative and subordinate”; it placed limits on management but did not present it with autonomous forms of workers’ power.

That was why, in his view, attempts in Italy to assert working-class power had usually resulted in the reintegration of workers’ councils into conformist trade union structures.

From these sombre reflections on the movement, Gorz moved on to challenge the idea of the “proletariat” which, he argued, no longer existed in the form that orthodox Marxists imagined.


This working class had been replaced, Gorz argued, by a “non-class of post-industrial proletarians”, which embraced women engaged in domestic labour, the lowest-paid and super-exploited workers such as Blacks in the USA, and unskilled and temporary workers doing what David Graeber, decades later, called “bullshit jobs”.

Some technocratic Marxists suggest – perhaps because they have focused more on the title of Farewell to the Working Class than its content – that Gorz had simply abandoned hope in the working class as the motive force of historical change. This is a serious mis-reading.

For Gorz, prospects for the transition out of capitalism rested on the “non-class” of post-proletarians finding ways to constitute itself as a historical subject.

"The negativity which, according to Marx, was to be embodied in the working class has by no means disappeared. It has been displaced and has acquired a more radical form in a new social area.

"As it has shifted, it has acquired a new form and content which directly negate the ideology, the material base, the social relations and the juridical organisation (or state form) of capitalism. It has the added advantage over Marx’s working class of being immediately conscious of itself; its existence is at once indissolubly subjective and objective, collective and individual."


Gorz envisaged that this “non-class” would expand the space for autonomy, at the expense of heteronomy, and move towards a society in which work, as an alienated, increasingly meaningless and controlled activity, was overcome.

I won’t try to give an account of Gorz’s libertarian utopianism, or my view of it, here. There’s not much online in English that I can see, but this gives a sense of his view of the labour process. My point is that, forty years ago, he was thinking hard about the issues Mueller raises.

Perhaps a retrospective study of Gorz’s writing could help us to think through some of the dilemmas we are confronted with, in a world where capital has mobilised technologies unheard of in the 1980s, and where it has so wielded them – especially the fossil-fuelled ones – as to accelerate and exacerbate global warming and other ecological crises.

Mueller has a strong chapter on 21st century technologies, in which he traces computerisation and the development under corporate control of the internet and now artificial intelligence (AI) – and discusses the manifold forms of resistance, whether by free and alternative software communities, hackers or warehouse workers.


In his conclusions, Mueller points to the idea of autonomy – previously articulated by Gorz – as central to the transformation of the labour process.

"Luddism, inspired as it is by workers’ struggles at the point of production, emphasises autonomy: the freedom of conduct, ability to set standards, and the continuity and improvement of working conditions. […]

"Luddism contains a critical perspective on technology that pays particular attention to technology’s relationship to the labour process and working conditions. In other words, it views technology not as neutral but as a site of struggle. Luddism rejects production for production’s sake: it is critical of “efficiency” as an end goal, as there are other values at stake in work."

Luddism can generalise; it is not an individual moral stance, Mueller concludes. It is antagonist: it sets itself against existing capitalist social relations.

Hopefully, Breaking Things at Work will open up discussion about struggles to reconstitute the labour process, and the part they will play in challenging capital.

This Author

Simon Pirani is an energy researcher and historian. His most recent book is Burning Up: A Global History of Fossil Fuel Consumption (Pluto 2018). He blogs at People and Nature where this article first appeared with references and tweets as @SimonPirani1.

Read reviews of Postcapitalism by Paul Mason, Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, and Fully Automated Luxury Communism by Aaron Bastani

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