Sabotage and Strike!: Review of Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right about Why You Hate Your Job by Gavin Mueller
Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right about Why You Hate Your Job. By Gavin Mueller. Verso, February 2021
With an issue as central and controversial within left political thought as work, it can often feel like nothing truly new is being said. Indeed, the labor question could be thought of as the ur-question of left-wing politics. In such a predicament, one option is not to attempt anything new per se, but rather to look to the past for inspiration. This is the central achievement of Gavin Mueller in Breaking Things at Work, who finds inspiration in the actions of the Luddites and those he identifies as their political descendants.
This book is far from a bland or abstract treatise. Mueller presents his arguments with rich historical research of a trail of labor movements concerned with resistance to technology and acts of sabotage. Mueller reveals a history of sometimes spontaneous, mostly autonomous movements reacting to increasing mechanization and automation of workplaces—from factories and docks to the first computers and beyond. Despite trade unions and political thinkers’ support for (or at least ambivalence towards) new technologies, this history is one of technology’s devastating transformation or outright destruction of workplaces, workers, and communities.
Breaking Things at Work is for anyone who has breathed a sigh of relief when their computer froze, resulting in their inability to work for the afternoon. Reading its pages will leave you feeling vindicated in your sneaking suspicion that more technology doesn’t actually help.
Mueller notes in his introduction that one of his “goals in writing this book is to turn Marxists into Luddites”; undoubtedly, one of the key strengths of this work is its compelling argument for a Marxist critique of technology. Making such a case is no mean feat, as Mueller aptly explains: “it is difficult not to detect a distinct ambivalence in Marx’s writing on technology”. Mueller argues that technology is embedded in capital, and that the ethics of technology cannot be thought outside what said technology does and by whom it was made, namely capitalists. Just like with the phenomenon of work, it is a mistake to see technology as politically neutral. Technology brings enormous power, which is often why we like it, but we also need to be wary of who is benefiting from such power, because it is rarely workers.
In this argument, importantly and fairly unusually for contemporary work critique, Mueller writes against an accelerationist trend, against thinkers who place their dreams of socialism in the dream of automated work. Whilst Fully Automated Luxury Communism might sound like a great ride, Breaking Things at Work reveals a history of workers movements and writings that question whether full automation could be possible and, more critically, whether it would actually be good.
This history is well researched, though US-centric, uncovering a myriad of largely unsung heroes. Mueller often places radical thinkers within the context of the workers’ movements that surrounded them, such as the Johnson-Forest Tendency’s Raya Dunayevskaya and the 1949-50 miners’ strikes in the US. What comes across is a vibrant history of thoughtful, determined communities. Breaking Things at Work shows that work-based activism has never been the labor of a few union reps; rather, many groundbreaking actions began with rank-and-file acts of sabotage fueled by contempt for their working conditions. While richly sourced, the book is never dense. The writing is cogent and engaging, full of thought-provoking concepts and inspirational histories, making it a crucial resource for contemporary workers.
Mueller’s approach is perhaps more reminiscent of anarchist writings than what one might think of as the Marxist tradition. The acknowledgements of the book pay homage to a “motley assemblage of [Marxist] intellectual production” including “homegrown theoreticians, hobbyist auto-didacts, zine-writing worker-militants, roving antinomian bohemians, and, yes, its share of university professors”. Breaking Things at Work proudly places itself in the vein of autonomous Marxism, a tradition stemming from the 1960s Italian workerism (operaismo), which emphasizes the ability of the working class to create change independent of the state, trade unions, or political parties. For Mueller, these groups are not a splintering-off or addendum to Marxism proper: rather, the autonomists imperative is Marxism par excellence. The Marx that inspires Mueller is the “cartographer of proletarian struggle”. Struggle here is key; Breaking Things at Work focuses on the constant striving to better our present conditions.
Speaking of present conditions, arguably the only drawback of Mueller’s text is that it stops where it does: before the pandemic. Both work and technology have undergone seismic shifts since then, the magnitude of which we have not seen for generations. Whilst Mueller could not have addressed these changes here, I believe he gives us some tools to answer them. Breaking Things at Work presents the decelerationist politics of Luddism as something very pertinent to our contemporary world.
Mueller’s Luddism centers autonomy and antagonism. It is a politics borne out of workers’ discontent with the realities of automation: not primitivist or separatist, but fully concerned with present workers’ conditions and struggle. This book asks us to think critically about the huge changes to our current work practices. Now more than ever we need to talk to our colleagues, think about how technology is being utilized by our employers, and fight back.
Madi Simcock-Brown (she/her) has an MA in Literature & Philosophy and a history of Anarcho-Syndicalist trade union activism. She is interested in anti-work politics, science fiction, anti-fascism. Find her on Twitter @madirosemary.
This review was commissioned by editor Jake Casella Brookins in May 2021 from a hard pitch; the author and editor had no previous relationship. ARB did not arrange a review copy.