Jamie spoke to Gavin about his forthcoming book, Breaking Things at Work, which will be available from Verso Books in March 2021.

JJamie is an editor of Notes from Below.

GGavin Mueller is a lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine.

JFirst off, can you tell us a bit about the book?

GThere has been a debate for the past several years, both on the wider political left and specifically among the Marxist left, about the kind of role of technology in a post-capitalist future. A lot of people have argued that new digital technologies and technologies of automation that we keep reading about, open up new potentials for a society that is post-work or post-capitalist to varying degrees. We also see a lot of talk about how the infrastructures attached to massive corporations are ripe for the taking, that they can bequeath an egalitarian future if we can only wrest them out of the hands of billionaires. These kinds of arguments are made at the level of political strategy, as well as on a theoretical level with reference to various passages from Marx and other Marxist theorists.

I am skeptical of this view. In part, it came from my own orientation to Marxist theory, where I was influenced by technologically critical writers such as Ranzo Panzieri and the Frankfurt School. But it also emerged from my own experiences at work with technology. It rarely seemed like new technology was some unalloyed benefit. In fact, every time there was a technological change, it was a terrible experience. Everyone had to spend time learning how to use it, it didn’t work the way we wanted it to, and it upended methods we had figured out together in order to do certain jobs. My coworkers and I had to completely transform our day to work around the technology.

So I thought the post-capitalist techno-utopia story was completely the wrong way around. Rather than assuming that emerging technologies open up new horizons for a kind of post-capitalist utopia, instead of being the kind of infrastructure that progressive people want to adopt as our own, that we need to understand technology as produced for capitalist goals, and so we actually have to think critically about technology and politicize it. And to go one step further, this questioning is already something that people are doing in their workplaces. People are already at work, in the home, and in everyday life, enacting all sorts of practical criticisms against technology. Whether it’s ridiculing the latest iPhone online, posting photos of destroyed smart scooters on Instagram, or hacking and sabotaging the equipment that’s causing them trouble at work, we can see critical and even antagonistic perspectives on technology coming from everyday people. My perspective on left politics is that you have to pay attention to what people are already doing, instead of just telling them that what they should be doing. Oftentimes, people have already settled some questions for themselves, and it’s the intellectuals who have a bit of catching up to do.

These are the larger contours of my project: to recover a worker politics that is technologically critical, both practically and theoretically. I started with the Luddites because they’re so often held up as history’s fools who misguidedly opposed technological progress. Even Marx has a few caustic remarks for them. By starting with them and really investigating what was going on in their time, I hoped to reconstruct this trajectory of a more politicized and critical perspective to technology, both in the work but also in other areas of life.

JI have my own frustrations with some of the automation discourse as it has this kind of imaginary horizon, either we’re really close to, or somewhat close, a point where everything’s going to change. For that perspective, what people are actually doing right now doesn’t really matter. For example, why organize at Uber if driverless cars are around the corner. I find this deeply frustrating, because there are millions of people who are working these jobs and struggling against that technology right here and now. So, I think it’s really great to hear that. In terms of that politics, I wanted to ask you how the book is connected to Viewpoint Magazine and a project around working class experience?

GIt’s somewhat submerged, but it’s absolutely present. In the preface, I say that I view it as a very “Viewpoint” book, and I don’t think it would be the same kind of project without my involvement there. One thing that we really emphasize at Viewpoint is what we mean when we talk about class. There’s a popular perspective that class is your income, maybe it’s your occupational status, and a few other variables. This is something that we’re critical of, that class exists as some kind of static empirical object out there. Rather, it’s something that has to emerge in processes of struggle. The interest in class, if you have a Marxist perspective, is not looking for a particular kind of demographic that will have the political solution for you. Instead, you want to look for the struggles themselves: the actual things that people are doing to organize themselves with and against technology, to compose and organise themselves in struggle.

You see this kind of struggle in the case of the Luddites. Struggles over technology can be a means for people to forge practices of social solidarity and militancy, ingredients necessary for effective class struggle. With the Luddites, it’s not just people randomly smashing machines. Through smashing machines, they organize themselves, they develop codes and languages, they engage in other kinds of social practices, such as letter-writing campaigns. They actually believe they had the law on their side for a while, and that actually the factory owners who were violating the law by using new machines, so they organise to petition the government. Those practices made their movement very strong and they were able to marshal a kind of discipline that went beyond the workers themselves and into their communities, to the point where authorities who were really keen on tracking them down really struggled to do so. It took them years to really put a cap on the movement because people wouldn’t talk, entire communities were so organized and disciplined.

Part of what I’m working through in this book is if we prioritize class struggle, these practices are the kind of things we need to focus on, rather than searching for a pre-existing empirical group classified as “the working class.” Many socialists believe that there is already a sociological demographic that, with the right messaging, will do what we say, vote for the candidates or policies we want, is the appropriate vehicle for “the left.” I suggest that we have to start with something a little more granular, with antagonistic practices. We have to see where struggles are starting to spark, and then blow on those sparks create a larger flame. And we have to sift through past struggles for lessons we can use today.

JThere has been a renewed interest in that kind of strain of Marxism, that starts from looking at workers experience. It seems like there is a kind of broader layer of people who are starting from that point of saying, “let’s look at what’s actually happening”, as you say, or let’s look at a moment in the past where we can draw out these things. My question here is what does this mean for helping us to make sense of the current moment? What are the practical implications of this?

G First is that technology is very much something that structures the working class. Part of the politics of technology at work is that it’s frequently a tool of management to break up existing forms of worker organization. If you’re a manager, you find out that one problem you’re having is workers have a lot of downtime, because they have to go from station to station to do their jobs. So they’re slacking, they’re talking, they’re having a smoke or whatever. So, what do you do? Well you get an assembly line in there. They’re not going to walk around, they’re not going to move, they’re going to stay in one space, they’re going to do the same repetitive job again and again. That’s an older example, but you can think about the way that this is happening in gig economy. Everything that takes place in the app which is controlled and monitored, where management is algorithmic and individualised. It’s a way to keep workers isolated. In other words, you see many dynamics of Taylorism from 100 years ago at work today. You also see resistance to this: people are constantly creating spaces, where different gig workers come together and chat and, and hash out their challenges.

So technology is something that structures the organization of the workforce, in a kind of very direct and deliberate way. I think this is one thing that a lot of accelerationist and post-work people miss. It’s not that workers politicize the technology, it’s that management introduces technology that is already political as a tool to break up existing forms of worker organization and autonomy that threaten capitalist control.

The second is that people vocally dislike many forms of technology that they have at work, and engage in certain kinds of activity against it. I really do see that as the grounds of class composition. If you think about jobs you’ve had, where were the times where you felt the most solidarity with your coworkers? It’s when you were all doing something you weren’t supposed to do. You’re abusing the copy machine, or you’re using the grill in the back of the kitchen to make your own food. Misappropriating, breaking, or subverting technology are things you do with other people and becomes the grounds for finding out who your friends are and for forging alliances. If you really are interested in how workers are composed, you need to investigate technology’s role. And not just the technology itself, but also the resistance to the technology, which becomes a way that people compose themselves in struggle.

JI have some employers that I’ve worked for who, without their knowledge, have printed many, many leaflets for strikes and all manner of things! I want to ask you a bit more about that misuse of technology and sabotage. Unlike the strike, the go slow, or calling in sick, sabotage is something that the labour movement hasn’t taken up. Calling for sabotage institutionally is a challenging thing for organizations that are worried about being sued or whatever. Sometimes we get this tension with technology at work that part of the labor movement just thinks you can’t challenge new technology.

In the UK, we’ve had some good examples of workers standing up to up to new technologies through a union. For example, with a group of cleaners organizing in IWGB in a university. Their employer wanted to introduce a thumb scanner for checking in and out. In response, the workers said we’re never going to use that, and just refuse to use it. They met with the employer and forced them to come and take it away. It’s a really nice victory. They just flat out said, we’re not going to do this, because they recognized what it represented. The labor movement more widely is often much more reluctant to engage in those things. What are your thoughts are on that kind of tension around sabotage?

GWell, for one I’m American. So, it’s sometimes hard to get enthusiastic about the official labor movement. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for major institutions to kind of endorse these kinds of tactics. The Industrial Workers of the World in the early 20th century, a highly militant, large and unruly worker movement primarily in the US, produced a few pamphlets on sabotage. But the IWW disavowed them. Even they didn’t want to go that far. However, even in the midst of officially called for strike actions, you do see a kind of sabotage element emerging in a lot of contexts. A common way to achieve a go-slow, or to stop scab work, is to “discover” that the machine’s not working, it’s broken down, and no one knows what happened. It remains an underground practice.

The official labor movement wasn’t really interested in sabotage, but it was also not interested in politicizing technology, of putting questions of control over the labour process on the table. At the height of organized labor’s power during the postwar period, the established trade unions said, “Your pay is going up, so let’s not cause a lot problems, you’ll retire eventually, just put a lid on it.” In the midst of new automation technologies being introduced into factories, injury rates and other forms of health problems escalated. Workers felt alienated and burnt out. The unions were not very effective at addressing that, and workers took matters into their own hands. It is a problem in trade unions more generally that they only rarely look at the politics of technology.

There are other ways that workers enact forms of practical technological criticism beside sabotage, including developing alternative technologies at work. Some of those have been quite successful too. And I love this example that you’ve shared with me, because I think there’s a truism that opposing “progress” never works. It’s not true. People have fought against technologies, and there’s another truism that opposing “progress” never works. It’s not true. People have fought against technologies, and another truism that opposing “progress” never works. It’s not true. People have fought against technologies, and they’ve won. You have a beautiful example, right there. It’s small, it’s simple, but it was victorious.

It’s very important that we show that existing technologies were not inevitable. Even all these dystopian fictions that are so popular now have the underlying assumption that we’re on the trolley path that runs over a lot of people, and there’s nothing we can do. We need to highlight moments where people not only struggle, but actually win. This is crucial to pushing back against some of these narratives that I don’t think are helpful in creating the kind of politics that we want to see.

JSo cyberpunk is very much in my mind at the moment with the latest scandals of overwork coming out. With cyberpunk there’s an overriding sense that we will end up with fingerprint scanners at work, because that’s just technological development. What I particularly liked about reading the book is those moments where people do find an alternative, find a way to resist, find different ways to do things with technology. Could you talk a little bit about the moments you where people are starting to do this

GSomething I write about is the movement for free and open source software. It’s kind of weird to think of programmers and hackers as Luddites, but they totally are. Luddites didn’t oppose all technology. They wanted a technology that they controlled, that operated according to their values, and that allowed them to have the kind of communities that they’d already become accustomed to. Like the Luddites, free software hackers were the skilled people of their trade, and in some ways they were more successful, because they actually created an entire ecosystem of software that was free and open source – meaning that anyone can look at the code and freely adapt it – that exists today. They created not only the software itself, but created entire autonomous cultures where people taught one another programming skills, but also political values.

Without the successes of free and open source software, you might have had a situation where, rather than everyone learning a few universal programming languages that apply to lots of different kinds of software, it might have all been propriety. Not just software, but coding languages too. So Microsoft would have their language, Apple their own language. So once you work for Microsoft, and learn their language, you’re stuck there. They can continue to train more people, automate more of their processes, and grind workers down. You won’t be able to go off and experiment on your own, you won’t be able to create your own little hacks and projects and things like that.

That’s not the situation we have right now. Learning a language doesn’t lock you into one corporation, and so the workers as a class have more power. This preserved the livelihoods of a particular kind of profession, gave the people in that profession considerable autonomy over how people were trained, and what the working style was like. It also created a lot of quite interesting, useful, and beneficial technologies. Finally, it spread certain kinds of values more widely through digital culture, like the idea that you and I should be able to freely share information and files online. However, the struggle is not over as the old enemy Microsoft purchased GitHub, which is the biggest open-source repository.

When it comes to newer things, there are some really interesting techniques that people have found for hacking apps or using misusing them in various ways. Take click farm industries for example, it’s a very clever way to kind of subvert a particular surveillance capitalist business model. Someone’s job is just going to involve having 50 phones in front of them and then hit the same Taylor Swift song again and again. It’s a bit absurd, but it’s also creative, striking back against the way these things are supposed to be done. For a while, you had a lot of drivers in the Chinese gig economy that were actually really good at subverting their apps so that they could have a little bit of downtime. There were a lot of kind of mods and add-ons that you could use in the apps so that you could, for instance, get alternative routes and things like that. This meant you could make more money or have more control over the pace of work. These kinds of things are constantly happening.

I want Marxists to become Luddites, but I want tech workers to become Luddites as well. I think many of them already are, and recognizing that and recognizing their power, and their connection to larger struggles, is going to be vital to the future.

JI think, what’s really helpful about this is it breaks down how new technology is brought into the workplace. We think that it could only have been that way, because we see the end result of it. Whereas those struggles over who are making the technology reminds us that somebody made a choice, somebody was told to do something one way and not to do it the other way. Where you see those kinds of struggles like tech won’t build it, or some of the organizing with Tech Workers Coalition, fitting into the argument?

GI think it fits in really nicely. These are people who are credited (or blamed) with the success of Brexit and Donald Trump. From all accounts I’ve read, there are extremely contentious internal meetings at these companies about how they are going to deal with the fact that a significant amount of politics of all flavors is happening on the systems they design. Staying neutral is not really possible, or even desirable. So tech workers have a huge role to play in the development of movements. If you look at a successful movement, it takes a lot of different ingredients and people who are well positioned within certain kinds of firms, who have a lot of information about how processes run, how the companies are organized. That is essential knowledge and sometimes more privileged workers are better placed to intervene.

We have a situation where it will be harder and harder for people to just move to another firm, to say I hate working at Facebook, but Google’s nicer, I’ll work for them. This has always been a kind of a release valve for labor struggles, people’s ability to just quit and go somewhere else. With the continuing consolidation of the industry, and the illegal collusion in hiring practices, this may become more difficult. We’re also seeing a general slowdown in the economy. I think once opportunities start going away, and if we see reforms that cut into the kind of profits of some of these companies and there’s some belt tightening, some of our questions about the politics of tech workers will be answered. I remain optimistic that we’ll see a lot of surprising kind of militancy emerging in those kind of workplaces, at the largest and wealthiest companies, the ones running the informational and logistical infrastructure of entire nations – indeed, I’ve already been happily surprised. Things that happen in these places really do resonate.

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.

I think when it comes to more practical matters, when you’re thinking about ecological limits to the future, we are going to have to seriously evaluate how growth and accumulation can happen on the current scale. There’s a lot of talk about whether we’ll develop the technologies that will solve our problems by capturing carbon or blocking the sun’s rays. I don’t think there’s any really good evidence to be optimistic about that. So I think we want to consider what Walter Benjamin suggested, throwing the emergency brake. The environmental movement has been saying this for a long time and I think we need to take it seriously. Maybe we should be nostalgic for the emissions levels of the 1960s.

Benjamin was critiquing the German Social Democratic Party of his day, the Second International that was led by theorists like Karl Kautsky, who is a major inspiration to Marxists today, including in the Democratic Socialists of America. The Second International really thought that socialism was inevitable, that they were riding the tide of History. This affected their political strategy, how they interpreted Marx, and their perception of capitalist technology and development. And even though the SPD was, by some measures, a peak in working class politics, it ended up leading to complete disaster: fascism. Benjamin is saying, instead of assuming history is on our side, let’s throw the brake, sever the simplistic link between capitalist development and the construction of socialism, stop the process, because otherwise we’re going to be taken for a ride. My own experiences in social movements feel like throwing the brake: the rhythms of everyday life stop, and everyone has to suddenly ask a lot of questions about the things they took for granted. That kind of activity and those conversations are essential, and I’m eager to engage in them with others. I think the hunger is there for other people as well.


Gavin Mueller

Gavin is a lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam and a member of the editorial collective of Viewpoint Magazine.