The Luddites Were Right

Gavin Mueller’s “Why You Should be Breaking Things at Work” makes a persuasive case for the Luddites. So why have so many people—including your favorite Communist philosophers—insisted that they were wrong?


In 2013, delivery drivers at three hospitals came up with an unexpected way to prevent robots from taking their jobs. They beat the robots with baseball bats and stabbed them in their “faces.” Some robots got off easy; they were merely abducted and shut away in basements.

Two hundred years earlier, British weavers had used similar tactics during the Industrial Revolution when textile mill owners started replacing them with new machines. They destroyed looms, shearing frames, and gig mills. 

These weavers were the original Luddites, and both of these events are examples of Luddism.

This may sound like an insult. The word “luddite” is generally used as a synonym for technophobe, with a vague pop-cultural understanding that the original Luddites were short-sighted peasants who just wanted to put a stop to progress itself. When it comes to contemporary workers who face elimination by automation, we tend to understand their motives more as survival than technophobia—after all, the hospital delivery drivers’ vacant positions were not being filled by humans but by robots, who would never ask for time off or higher pay. The drivers were violently responding, then, to the fact that these robots embodied an existential threat. 

Plenty of people are concerned about automation: we can see this in the growing popularity of a universal basic income (UBI) to offset mass unemployment driven by technological advances. A Pew Research poll found that only “a narrow majority of U.S. adults (54 percent) say they would oppose the federal government providing a guaranteed income,” while “young people favor UBI by about two-to-one.” So, despite superficial similarities, many people would probably agree that the drivers who smashed those job-stealing robots weren’t like those “crazy Luddites” who just hated machines.

Except the Luddites didn’t hate machines either—they were gifted artisans resisting a capitalist takeover of the production process that would irreparably harm their communities, weaken their collective bargaining power, and reduce skilled workers to replaceable drones as mechanized as the machines themselves. Their struggle has been tragically warped into a caricature when it is more relevant than ever. And in the age of surveillance capitalism, the threat of new technology extends far beyond the workplace. The police frighten citizens with robot dogs straight out of Black Mirror, and use drones to spy on unsuspecting beachgoers, while firms like Cambridge Analytica secretly harvest online data in order to predict and influence the behavior of millions of voters. Silicon Valley has armed surveillance capitalism with tools to threaten autonomy not only over our jobs, but our data and our very identities.

When it comes to the Luddites, a number of books and articles have attempted to set the record straight, but Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Were Right About Why You Hate Your Job is one of the best. Mueller, a lecturer in Media Studies at the University of Amsterdam and co-editor of Viewpoint Magazine, refutes the lies that have for too long distorted this pivotal moment in labor history. Furthermore, he dispels harmful illusions, like the one where tech is “inherently neutral” or automation always benefits workers in the long run. Finally, he makes a compelling argument about why Luddism—complete with smashing—must be part of any successful resistance to the tech industry’s latest assaults on workers’ autonomy.

The Real Luddites

In the 1810s, the British textile industry—a large and significant portion of the British economy—was undergoing a revolution. New machines drastically reduced the amount of labor time required to finish products. However, their presence also drastically reduced workers’ wages. Thousands suffered from hunger and, to make matters worse, Combination Laws passed by Parliament “severely limited collective action by textile workers,” giving even more power to mill owners.

When the state ignored the workers’ pleas for help against the devastation these machines were causing, the workers took action “under the aegis of a mythical leader called ‘Ned Ludd.’” They smashed hundreds of frameworks, held public protests, caused riots, stole from mills, and organized letter writing campaigns, all while gaining the support of local communities. Lord Byron even wrote a poem glorifying the movement called “Song for the Luddites” that proclaims, “So we, boys, we/Will die fighting, or live free,/ and down with all kings but King Ludd!”

Mueller emphasizes that “their revolt was not against machines in themselves, but against the industrial society that threatened their established ways of life, and of which machines were the chief weapon.” Textile workers have always used tools—such as looms and spinning wheels—to make their jobs easier. “To say they were fighting machines,” Mueller writes, “makes about as much sense as saying a boxer fights against fists.” 

So why has history been so unkind to the Luddites? It makes sense that capitalists would be eager to mock and diminish their efforts, especially given how (relatively) successful they were for a while and how much their message resonated around the world. Unfortunately, many Marxists have been just as culpable in tarnishing the Luddites’ legacy, including Marx himself.

A Fatal Bargain

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to modern productive forces as “weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground”—weapons which could, in theory, be “turned against the bourgeoisie itself.” Machines might have been the weapons of class war, Marx seems to suggest, but it isn’t just capitalists who can wield them. However, even if we take Marx’s “modern productive forces” to solely mean technology, Mueller argues we shouldn’t interpret Marx as straightforwardly technophilic given that his ideas later evolved and became more subtle in Capital

 Marx’s early writings on technology have cast a long shadow nonetheless, most notably the idea suggested in the Communist Manifesto that technology is a weapon that just needs to be used by the proletariat (i.e. guns don’t kill people, people kill people). Worse, some of Marx’s other early writing, such as The German Ideology, led to the development of two-stage theory, or stagism. This strain of Marxism holds that societies must evolve from one stage to another, with the last transition being from capitalism to communism. It follows that if the erosion of workers’ autonomy via new technology is part of capitalism’s road to self-destruction, well, workers must simply accept it, while holding out for a better future.

Mueller warns that this can lead to dangerous, even masochistic ways of thinking. To give just one galling example, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a contemporary of Marx, “insist[ed] that while the immediate effects of capitalist technology would be disastrous, in the end it would lead to greater productivity in abundance: ‘The guarantee of our liberty lies in the progress of our torture.’” 

The “stagist” theory helps explain why Lenin actually argued in favor of Taylorism. Taylorism, or scientific management, aimed to break the production process down into discrete parts, dividing labor and siloing off expertise for  the express purpose of undermining workers’ bargaining power. Even Adam Smith worried that forcing workers to perform the same mindless, monotonous tasks endlessly would make them “as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.” This was, of course, precisely the point of Taylorism.

But, if one accepts that Taylorism was part of capitalism’s natural development, and communism could not be achieved except by allowing the stage of capitalism to run its course, then there’s no problem. “The Taylor system,” Lenin explained, “…is preparing the time when the proletariat will take over all social production…” In other words, Taylorism is a weapon that just needs to be wielded by the people.

Mueller demonstrates how this fatal bargain made by prominent leftists—accepting the degradations of Taylorism in the hopes of one day putting it in service of the people—is all the more tragic considering that workers themselves understood that “the progress of [their] torture” would never lead to liberty. Workers in the Soviet Union fought back, sabotaging and breaking machines, but leaders didn’t listen. This scenario would play out again and again. In the 1949-1950, miners in the U.S. went on strike to protest automation, yet labor leaders and leftist intellectuals like C.L.R. James aligned themselves with management. In 1964, leaders from the Students for a Democratic Society, along with other groups, criticized the devastating impact of automation on Black Americans but still argued, “the only way to turn technological change to the benefit of the individual and the service of the general welfare is to accept the process and to utilize it rationally and humanely.” You guessed it: automation is a weapon that just needs to be wielded by the people.

Using countless historical examples, Mueller demonstrates the ways in which technological developments are continually used against workers, not in their favor. He concludes: 

“…technology often plays a detrimental role in working life, and in struggles for a better one. Technological development leads to vast accumulations of wealth, and with that, power, for the people who exploit workers. In turn, technology reduces the autonomy of workers—their ability to organize themselves to fight against their exploiters.”

The oppressive power of technology is clearer in our own day than ever before. Consider the algorithms used by Amazon to surveil, discipline, and punish employees. Mueller cites a case where a worker failed to keep up with the inhuman, brutal pace set by the algorithms. After exceeding three automated warnings, she was fired. But managers were quick to explain that, “we didn’t fire you, the machine fired you because you are lower than the rate.”

Technology, simply put, is not and cannot be neutral when it comes to any relation of power. In 2019, the Hong Kong government used facial recognition cameras to capture the identities of protestors, which would allow them to potentially track or target any of them at any time. Joy Buolamwini, founder of the Algorithmic Justice League and member of the European Union’s Global Tech Panel, has proved that racial biases have been literally encoded into facial recognition software. Before her work was published, the available technology could not identify Black men and women with anywhere near the accuracy it possessed for white people. This led to Nieer Parks of Paterson, NJ being arrested in 2019 based solely on a faulty facial recognition match. And even after Buolamwini published her research, not all companies have taken the same measures to address this potentially life-or-death discrepancy.

That’s just facial recognition software. There are also programs like COMPAS, which judges use during sentencing to predict (through algorithms) the future behavior of defendants. The use of this secret evidence makes legitimate due process impossible. Additionally, these algorithms are based on discriminatory policies. Yet instead of exposing these biases, programs like COMPAS perversely validate them. There are far too many other examples of daily oppression by software and secret algorithms to mention here, and by the time I finished writing about them, more would undoubtedly emerge.

Luddite Pride

Breaking Things at Work lays out the unprecedented threats to our autonomy in the workplace and beyond, but it’s not just doom and gloom. Mueller also reminds us people are fighting back. Those Hong Kong protestors used lasers to blind facial recognition cameras and cut down “smart lampposts,” bringing cameras crashing to the ground. The U.K. based civil rights group Big Brother Watch organizes campaigns against the use of highly flawed surveillance equipment by the police. Buolamwini is one among many scholars, writers, artists, and filmmakers speaking about the dangers posed by Silicon Valley and capitalism. Mueller even details how farmers have started hacking tractor software to maintain their equipment rather than be forced to constantly buy new machinery from tech companies. Burgeoning tech worker unions, the decelerationist movement, tractor-hackers—all are infused by the spirit of Luddism whether they know it or not. By acknowledging the connection between activism today and Luddites of the past, we can unite seemingly disparate struggles into a single front.

And yet, even if Mueller makes a case for why Luddism is relevant to workers, and suggests that “to be a good Marxist is to also be a Luddite,” you might still think the term carries too much baggage to be of much use. It’s a tarnished brand, so why not start fresh?

The truth is that politically radioactive words can be rehabilitated. The recent surge in socialism’s popularity is a perfect example. Back in 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama constantly reassured people he was not a socialist because conventional wisdom said it was the best way to get elected. In 2016 and 2020, Bernie Sanders nearly became the Democratic nominee for president because he is a socialist. All it took was for socialists to proudly embrace the label and to communicate what the word actually means. Sanders, for instance, got a town hall organized by Fox News to cheer for government-run healthcare. At another Fox News town hall, he got the audience to applaud socialist policies like raising the minimum wage, making public higher education free, and the government taking aggressive and sweeping actions to address the climate crisis. Cornel West even got a loathsome creature like Tucker Carlson to support democratic socialism in less than fifty seconds.

That said, we should not be overly optimistic. Sanders did, after all, fail to secure the nomination. And despite the fact that Barack Obama’s neoliberal presidency culminated with Trump’s election, Biden’s presidency is already taking a predictably neoliberal turn on a range of issues, from healthcare to debt relief and more. Socialism’s image may have improved, but there is still significant work to be done. 

This is even truer of Luddism, which has only begun to be reevaluated over the past few years. If we are to prevent the term or at least the concept from being tarnished as it has in the past, we need to avoid making the same mistakes, particularly in how the Left has historically treated technology as a neutral entity. Accepting exploitative and disempowering technology on the assumption that it will either one day be controlled by workers—or more rapidly bring about the revolution—has been and always will be a doomed strategy. We must also, Mueller emphasizes, not fall into the trap of merely criticizing the tech industry “from a place of romantic humanism” that argues “technology alienates us from what makes us really human.” Instead, we need to recognize that the real threat is technology’s “role in the reproduction of hierarchies and injustices foisted upon most of us by business owners, bosses, and governments.” Put more plainly, “the problem of technology is its role in capitalism.”

Fortunately, today it is easier than ever to see just how partisan technology truly is. Palantir, co-founded by billionaire Peter Thiel (who donated over a million dollars to Trump’s 2016 campaign), has provided ICE, the CIA, FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and local law enforcement agencies like the LAPD and NYPD surveillance tools with the goal of creating “a single data environment, or ‘full data ecosystem,’ that integrates hundreds of millions of data points into a single search.” There is nothing neutral, or potentially seizable, about this kind of technology. And in addition to explicitly serving state interests, tech corporations like Google and Facebook wield the power and influence of states themselves.

A socialist analysis is crucial to resisting the reactionary tendencies of the tech industry. But Mueller makes it clear that, unless this analysis is informed by Luddism, the Left is bound to make the same mistakes all over again.

This post was originally published on Current Affairs.


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