Issue 12 / Commons

December 20, 2020
A shattered CRT monitor

Image by Celine Nguyen.

Decelerate Now

Gavin Mueller

A potent strain of Luddism runs through two centuries of workers’ movements. It’s time to reclaim it.

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

The original Luddites—a movement of early nineteenth-century English weavers, who infamously smashed the new machines that transformed a skilled and well remunerated livelihood into low-grade piecework performed by children—did not oppose technology in its entirety. Indeed, as skilled craftspeople, they were adept users of it. Rather, they fought against what they referred to as “Machinery hurtful to Commonality,” which sought to break up the autonomy and social power that underpinned entire vibrant communities, so that a new class of factory owners might benefit. 

With every gig mill and stocking frame wrecked in the night, they identified not only their enemies, but their allies, forging new practices of solidarity. By targeting technology, they politicized it, revealing new inventions as what Karl Marx would later describe as capital’s “weapons against working class revolt.” And in this revelation, another: an alternative vision of how work and technology might be organized, according to what the Marxist craftsman William Morris later referred to as “worthy work,” which “carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of the pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill.”

Many subsequent workers’ movements have had a Luddish bent: they understood new machines as weapons wielded against them in their struggles for a better life, and treated them as such. But intellectuals on both sides of the class struggle have often characterized the Luddish perspective as shortsightedness, or downright irrationality. In spite of their political commitments to the working class, Marxist theoreticians have often seen the capitalist development of technology as a means for creating both abundance and leisure, which will be realized once the masses finally take the reins of government and industry. 

In order to create a successful radical politics, however, Marxists must become Luddites. That is, the radical Left can and should put forth a decelerationist politics: a politics of slowing down change, undermining technological “progress,” and limiting capital’s rapacity, while developing organization and cultivating militancy. Letting Walmart or Amazon swallow the globe not only entrenches exploitative models of production and distribution; it channels resources to reactionary billionaires, who use their wealth to further undermine the relative position of workers by funding conservative causes like tax cuts, school privatization, and opposition to gay marriage. 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: post-apocalyptic bunkers, militarized yachts, private islands, and even escapes to outer space.

Decelerationist politics is not the same as the “slow lifestyle” politics popular among segments of the better-off. The argument for deceleration is not based on satisfying nature, human or otherwise, but in recognizing the challenges facing strategies for working class organization. The constant churn of recomposition and reorganization, which media scholar Nick Dyer-Witheford calls “the digital vortex” of contemporary capitalism, scarcely gives workers time to get back on their feet, let alone fight. Decelerationism is not a withdrawal to a slower pace of life, but the manifestation of an antagonism toward the progress of elites at the expense of the rest of us. It is Walter Benjamin’s emergency brake. It is a wrench in the gears. The argument for decelerationism is not based on lifestyle, or even ethics. It is based on politics. 

One of the biggest challenges facing the weak and fragmented Left is how to compose itself as a class—how to organize diverse sectors of people to mobilize for fundamental social change. This is due to changes in the technical composition of capital that create new challenges for worker politics: the erosion of stable jobs; the use of digital technology to proliferate work tasks; the introduction of the precarious, on-demand economy; the reinvention of scientific management practices; the massive financial and ideological power of tech companies. Through Luddism, we can challenge some of these forces, and, as workers in the nineteenth century did, begin to discover our common goals—and our common enemies.

In this way, Luddism is not simply opposition to technological innovation, but a set of concrete politics with a positive content. Luddism, inspired as it is by workers’ struggles at the point of production, emphasizes autonomy: the freedom of conduct, the ability to set standards, and the improvement of working conditions. For the Luddites specifically, new machines were an immediate threat, and so Luddism contains a critical perspective on technology that pays particular attention to technology’s relationship to the labor process. 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 generalize; it is not an individual moral stance, but a series of practices that can proliferate and build through collective action. Finally, Luddism is antagonistic. It sets itself against existing capitalist social relations, which can only end through struggle, not through factors like state reforms, the increasing superfluity of goods, or a better planned economy.

Ruptural Unities

Currently people are practically unanimous—they want to decelerate. A Pew Research Center poll found that 85 percent of Americans favored the restriction of automation to only the most dangerous forms of work. Majorities oppose algorithmic automation of judgement in parole cases, job applications, and financial assessment, even when they acknowledge that such technologies might be effective.

In spite of pop accelerationist efforts to re-enchant us with technological progress, we do not live in techno-optimistic times. Luddism is not only popular; it also might just work. Carl Benedikt Frey, the economist who sparked panic with his claim that 47 percent of jobs would evaporate by 2034, has recently acknowledged the Luddite wave. “There is nothing to ensure that technology will always be allowed to progress uninterrupted,” Frey writes in The Technology Trap. “It is perfectly possible for automation to become a political target.” He notes a variety of Luddite policies from the Left: Jeremy Corbyn’s proposed robot tax in the United Kingdom; Moon Jae-in’s reduction of tax incentives for robotics in South Korea; and even France’s “biblio-diversity” law, which forbids free shipping on discounted books, to better preserve bookstores from competition with Amazon. History is full of such reforms against the worst tendencies of technological development, and they will be an important component of the coming deceleration.

A number of significant Luddish developments have been unfolding in recent years.  One of the most promising is the surge in militant organizing within Silicon Valley against harmful technologies and for the rights of blue-collar tech workers. Beyond the tech industry, Luddite politics could link up with a number of emerging critical intellectual and political struggles, especially movements to address the environmental crisis. Green Luddism could be an alternative to the dead ends of technological solutionism and back-to-nature primitivism: a search for slower, less intensive, less estranged, more social methods of meeting our needs. Luddism might also link with the politics of degrowth, a movement that originated in the Global South and shares with Luddism an acknowledgment that liberation is not tied up with the endless accumulation of capital, and, further, that well-being cannot be reduced to economic statistics. Other contemporary points of resonance with decelerationism include the Maintainers, a research network that seeks to shift the focus of technological discourse away from “innovation,” toward the vital practices of care and repair of existing technological infrastructures. Likewise, the “right to repair” movement, a Luddish technological initiative that advocates the conservation-minded maintenance of all sorts of digital technologies, from laptops to computerized farm equipment.

To be sure, these contemporary projects are vibrant, diverse, and, in some sense, incommensurate with one another. The same is true of many historical Luddish movements. Luddism manifests itself differently according to context. It is not a political program that various organizations and initiatives have signed on to in advance, but something more inchoate, a kind of diffuse sensibility that nevertheless constitutes a significant antagonism to the way that capitalism operates. And it can precipitate into concrete coalitions in unexpected ways.

Effective radical politics doesn’t follow an airtight plan, constructed ahead of time with a specific revolutionary subject in mind. Even victorious revolutions are haphazard things, where disparate antagonisms build up, merge, and fragment. Louis Althusser, studying Lenin’s analysis of the success of the Bolshevik Revolution, argued that it was not a case where the proletariat simply became sufficiently large and organized to overthrow the state. Rather, the revolution was a “ruptural unity”: “an accumulation of ‘circumstances’ and ‘currents’” many of which would “necessarily be paradoxically foreign to the revolution in origin and sense, or even its ‘direct opponents’.” 

As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall put it in his own reading of Althusser,

The aim of a theoretically-informed political practice must surely be to bring about or construct the articulation between social or economic forces and those forms of politics and ideology which might lead them in practice to intervene in history in a progressive way.

My hope is that recognizing Luddism at work—in the office, on the shop floor, at school, and in the street—aids the ambitions of contemporary radicals by giving anti-technology sentiment historical depth, theoretical sophistication, and political relevance. We may discover each other through our myriad antagonistic practices, connecting to other struggles against the concentrated power of capital and the state. 

To do so requires no preconstructed plan, no litmus tests of what is necessary in order to be properly political, authentically radical, or legitimately Left. As Marx put it in a letter to the Dutch socialist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis in 1881, “The doctrinaire and necessarily fantastic anticipations of the program of action for a revolution of the future only divert us from the struggle of the present.” Rather, the first step of organizing disparate grievances into a collective politics requires recognizing and recovering our own radical self-activity, along with that of others. Even, and perhaps especially, when it involves breaking things at work.

Gavin Mueller is a lecturer in New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam.

This piece appears in Logic's issue 12, "Commons". To order the issue, head on over to our store. To receive future issues, subscribe.