An image of Gavin Mueller's book Breaking Things at Work next to a drawing of Ned Ludd in front of a burning factory

Our culture editor Harry Holmes interviews Gavin Mueller, author of the newly released Breaking Things at Work from Verso Books. Gavin 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.

So first, for those who won’t have read it yet, can you tell us a bit about the book?

The book is essentially thinking about technology from the perspective of labour struggle. The left was in this accelerationist moment for a few years where there was an idea that technologies, particularly those tied to automation in the workplace, were leading to a ‘post-work’ or ‘post-capitalist’ future based on their own course of development. I was troubled by this discourse, which set me off on the research that led to this book.

From my perspective, and what I argue in the book, is that actually quite a lot of these technologies are not leading to a ‘post-work’ future. They are certainly not leading to a ‘post-capitalist’ future. Instead, they are actually weapons that make it difficult for workers to struggle, to establish autonomy at work, and to move the economy in a more egalitarian direction.

I wrote this book to show there is a different way of thinking about technology, one that I argue is more closely aligned to the political self-activity of workers. It also suggests that for those who care about more egalitarian futures we must start politicising technology and having a critical approach to it, rather than assuming it’s developing in a progressive way on its own.

In actually existing struggles both in our contemporary moment and in history, a critical perspective on technology has been there all along. This is why I start the story with the Luddites, who are famous, in quite a pejorative way, for opposing technology. I think there is quite a lot we can understand once we learn their history a little better and relate it to our present condition.

How much is this Luddite approach a strategic one about being able to be in solidarity with workers currently at the sharp end of technology’s impact, for example in an Amazon warehouse, or do you see it as part of a wider approach to technology in general? Is it an opposition to technology per se or a more qualified position based on current workplace struggles?

My political and intellectual influences are these ‘from below’ histories and thinking about struggle from that perspective, as well as being very alive to when there are tensions within the workers’ movement between rank-and-file struggles and the leadership, whether trade union, political party, or intellectual. It’s important to know this history because we have to learn from it.

So I think that’s where I always start, but politics is a sophisticated thing, I don’t think that all politics is oriented on the shop floor. We have to mediate to different levels, but I want to keep that kernel of struggle in our perspective.

We are seeing a lot of encouraging and exciting things. I don’t consider myself that old, but things that have never happened in my life before are happening – like lots of people identifying as socialist. We see these impressive electoral challenges, but they don’t quite ever get over the finish line. One reason for this is the base is still quite depoliticised and fragmented.

My idea of how you solve that problem is really to recognise the ways in which people are already engaged in struggle, particularly people in these incredibly exploited positions. There’s always resistance. But that resistance doesn’t always get amplified, it doesn’t always get connected or articulated with other forms of resistance. To me, that’s something that has been missing from these left-wing political challenges.

Maybe launching out a lot of policy proposals can be very exciting and interesting, but it doesn’t seem to quite do what we’ve hoped it would do. One reason for this is it still has this top-down perspective of ‘we are going to help you out.’ A lot of people don’t relate to that, they don’t believe in it, or they don’t hear those messages because I don’t think we’ve done the work of really building a base that will then get attached to policies and start actually informing policies. So that’s one reason I really orient the politics of the book in these struggles, because it is important to do at this moment.

My belief is we need to meet people where they are, which for most people is in the everyday struggles they have at work and in their wider life. Technology is a huge part of that, and often something many people already have already a critical approach to. They don’t like the way it is, they want things to be changed. They don’t want to hear a science fiction story about the robots allowing them to stay at home all day. I don’t think that will resonate. So that is a big motivation for the book. It’s an intellectual perspective I have, but I do think there is political value in it as well.

I’m interested in the category of High-tech Luddites you identify towards the end of the book, could you tell us a bit more about that?

With the historical Luddites, that term is often used to describe an irrational technophobe who has a knee-jerk opposition to ‘progress’. But if you look at the history of the Luddites, that wasn’t quite the case. They weren’t just opposed to technology or ‘progress’, they recognised certain kinds of technology were a particular kind of threat to their working lives and to their communities. They mobilised politically to head that off, as part of a larger social and political challenge.

So that means you can have Luddites who are not necessarily ‘technophobes’ but who are technologically critical, even though, and especially because, they are quite technologically adept. One thing I’ve encountered through my research, is that a lot of digital cultures are critical of technology and have resisted it. I began to view a lot of these cultures as Luddite in spirit – people like hackers and digital pirates. I’m not the first person to recognise this, of course.

If, for instance, you are a hacker – and I don’t mean a computer criminal, I mean someone who codes, creates software, and navigates systems, someone who has this exploratory perspective on digital technologies – you understand how the systems that have arisen in the past 15 years and longer are politically problematic. Especially if you’re someone who values having a lot of autonomy, having privacy, having the ability to explore and share your findings with other people. You see that new technologies are quite a threat to these more autonomous hacker cultures. So, what I see as these high-tech Luddites, are people who are opposing technology often by developing alternative technologies.

One thing that I write about in the book is free and open-source software, which I see as a kind of Luddite technology – there was an effort to control the production of software using copyright. The way that copyright works, as soon as something is written down it’s protected by intellectual property laws. This was a threat to how hackers, people who were experimenting with programming, would operate. It was common to share your code, to look under the hood, to see how software worked and sometimes to borrow bits of code. It was part of the learning process, of developing, customising, and adapting new technologies. As soon as these things are locked down and it becomes illegal to look at the code or illegal to share code, all that culture is going to be destroyed – in a similar way to how the culture of the weavers was also destroyed by new technologies.

So, what happens is a very creative and interesting endeavour to create alternative intellectual property licences that preserve these values of openness, of sharing code, and of customising software. Free and open software licences say ‘ok, anything I make will be open and available for other people to look at, to use, to copy but the one rule you have to follow if you use my code is abiding by these rules as well.’

This creates a massive ecosystem of free and open software, including a lot of programs that were equal or better to commercial programs that existed – like the operating system Linux and the browser Firefox. These are technologies that not only resist intellectual property, but they also frequently embed other kinds of values, such as opposition to surveillance. This helps both preserve the autonomy of people who are really good with computers but also shows a different sort of path of technological development.

I’m not saying we should all burn our computers, but that we should look at them critically and say ‘you know, maybe the technological world, the digital world, that we’re in right now, it’s not the only way things have to be, it’s not a particularly good thing for a lot of people, and there are other options.’

There are paths we haven’t taken, paths we haven’t fully explored that could lead us to a future where we have a bit more control over things and we don’t feel like these massive tech companies are watching and controlling everything we do.

I wanted to ask you about another book recently published by Verso which seems very similar. Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline makes the case for rejecting a focus on non-violence and looking to sabotage fossil fuel technologies. Now you talk about sabotage and opposing many technologies, but predominantly in the tradition of looking at workers, Malm really is talking about environmental movements. Given many extractive debates often see ‘movements’ clashing with industry workers, what are your thoughts about the recognition of sabotage as import for both sides?

I haven’t had a chance to read the book, but I did watch a talk that he gave on it and I have read some of his other work. What I got out of the talk I viewed from him, is that things are quite dire, and we need to develop a real militance if we’re going to really make changes.

I think anyone who cares about the environment, about labour politics, sees the establishment powers are not very responsive to these things. I’m American, so a lot of my political points of reference come from the States where you hear a lot of dithering around the edges, but it doesn’t really take the gravity of the situation seriously. So, Malm thinks the environmental movement needs to establish a kind of militance to really push the issue. I tend to agree.

I don’t think that sabotage is a kind of end in and of itself. You won’t actually solve these problems simply by blowing up pipelines, nor will you solve the problems of the workplace simply by jamming up a machine. But this kind of intransigence, if it can be sustained, could provoke larger structural changes.

The other thing that it does is establish the agency of the people driving those politics – we are going to do this, we have the ability to do this, and we can carry it out, we’re not going to ask permission, we’re not going to wait for some sort of compromise.

I think that any time you engage with militant politics, there’s no guarantees for how it will play out. Often there is this whole discourse that emerges, like when things were popping off in the States around Occupy, this whole debate about if you break a window, does that turn people off? Or, does that get people excited? To my mind it’s quite contextual. There are certainly moments where engaging in property destruction, depending on the composition of the movement and what you are attempting to do, might turn people off. But I do think there are plenty of situations where it doesn’t.

If you look at the summer in the States, the movement against police brutality, militancy was really effective. People were ready for it. There’s a rush to sweep it under the rug by the powers that be, but I think it did really push the issue of abolishing the police. The point is that it was militancy that advanced that and this militancy was popular. That’s where I’m coming from. I think this is something we need to recognise is always a part of labour struggles.

It’s a longstanding tradition, if workers went out on strike, one way they would prevent scabs coming in and doing their job is they’d sabotage the machines so no one could come in and replace them. I think we need to acknowledge that these more antagonistic forms of politics are valuable. We always need to think about them strategically of course, but also they’re often something people engage in spontaneously and in an individualised way. This is where you have an opportunity to say ‘hey, you’re pissed off! You’ve jammed the copier or whatever you’ve done. I see what you are doing there. I get it. Let’s talk about whether we can generalise this, can expand this so it’s not just a lashing out but actually builds to a kind of larger and more collective form of politics.’

Sticking with the theme of environmental politics, later in the book you stress a close relationship between Luddism and degrowth. What do you understand that relationship between degrowth and Luddism to be?

As a caveat this is something I am still learning about. I get a sense that it is a debate that is heating up, that I’m excited to learn a lot from. My understanding of degrowth, why I am attracted to it, and why it fits the theme of the book, is it’s particularly opposed to technological solutionism for the climate crisis.

You hear a lot of talk about how carbon emissions are bad along with claims we’ll have a new technology of carbon capture or renewables, which one, will fix the problem, and two, will allow us to maintain our current lifestyles more or less unchanged. We can still consume a lot of electricity as long as its coming from windmills, or we can still pollute as long as we have some other technology that captures it. There’s been some very interesting developments in renewable technology, but I think we are quite far from any realistic technological solution to the climate crisis.

What degrowth recognises, is we’re already in a moment not just of climate crisis but also of economic crisis. If you read Aaron Benanav’s work on the current state of political economy and other people who are influenced by Brenner and the like, we are looking already at a capitalism of slowing growth, of stagnation. For degrowth, this presents an opportunity for rethinking.

Capitalism can’t survive without growth or if it lacks growth, it will pull out all the stops to restart it, and we are going to be the ones who suffer from that. What degrowth says is what if we abandon growth? This would mean abandoning capitalism, it would mean a different mode of production, which is attractive to me as an anti-capitalist. What if we produced and consumed less? Not universally, but if we focused on high consumption populations. That might be necessary. I’m never a fan of being supremely determinist in politics, but it might be a necessary component of any real attempt to stem carbon emissions.

But it could also be a way to reimagine society. What really started me on this project, was this idea that new technologies were going to create a ‘post-work’, ‘post-capitalist’ utopia. This utopia was presented as pretty much the same as the world I am living in, but maybe I wouldn’t have to go to work. To me, if you’re really breaking out of capitalism, it’s not just tinkering around the edges, it’s really a very different form of social relations. People relate to one another differently. People relate to what society produces in a different way.

I didn’t see that coming from the accelerationist quarter nor do I see it from the green technologies quarter. There I see an effort to keep us in the world we’re living in, and I don’t think that’s a very good world. I’m interested in thinking about a new one. I see degrowth advancing that. It’s saying, ‘what would it mean if we could have a radical reduction in working hours but that would mean not keeping production going at current levels?’ It would mean to reduce it significantly. It might mean very different geopolitical relationships between global north and global south. Those are the kinds of conversation that I see happening in degrowth quarters that I think are entirely amenable to anti-capitalist politics. Where we are rethinking not just work, not just consumption, but we’re thinking about how to reshape society.

I will say, one thing that degrowth does share with accelerationist currents is proposing that we need to work less. That’s a basic and very simple kind of position to advance – what if we just worked less? Now capital doesn’t want us to work less, quite the opposite, capitalists want us to work us much as possible. But if we worked less and had more time, we could have a richer existence even if we didn’t have all the material goods around us.

I get that people say it sounds like austerity, but I also think when you talk to ordinary people many of them are interested in simplifying their lives, of not having to buy crap all the time, to have more time to spend with one another doing things that don’t necessarily revolve around shopping. That’s a fairly popular position, especially amongst people who are looking to make big changes in their world.

Degrowth is part of a larger heterodox economic thinking around an economy being a set of values, and we can have a different set of values focused on care for one another in non-commodified ways, in ways that you can’t really measure using current metrics, even though it is vital to human life and very satisfying for many people as a different way to live. I’m not a primitivist, I’m not trying to ‘return to monke’, as the saying goes, but I do think there is some value in slowing things down.

Many in the environmental movement, when they engage with technologies, do so in relation to global questions of imperialism and colonialism. Say how agricultural technologies in the Green Revolution are really about the global core extracting from the periphery. And most recently, in the hoarding of the vaccine and the focus on defending its IP within the Global North. I wondered what your thoughts are on the relationship between the mobilisation of technology and these problems of imperialism and colonialism?

The broader contour of the argument is that certain politics and certain social relations are embedded in particular kinds of technologies. If you agree with that, when these technologies become the only way to do things, that can be a form of colonial domination.

The Green Revolution is a great example of that, using certain parameters of development and not paying attention to how local agricultural systems function, which in many cases were actually functioning very well. There were other ways to increase yields than these massive centralised hierarchical high-tech methods that have a lot of other costs.

The other thing to keep in mind is that a lot of technology used in workplace situations, to control workers, is often quite closely linked to technologies of military domination. We shouldn’t understand colonialism as this abstract relationship but as often quite directly felt. We’re in a moment where we are seeing this felt in Jerusalem, where these technologies, many of the same technologies used to surveil workers, to collect data to sift through it to optimise digital environments, are often amenable to being used in militarised contexts.

I’m following a few people working on autonomous weapons systems, which are quite terrifying. This is something that has historically driven quite a bit of technological development as well as military strategy. The basic fact is that most people don’t want to kill other people, and it’s very hard to get them to do it. Those who want to get people to kill other people use technology to make that easier, to make people more abstracted from killing, so it is easier for them to do.

For instance, a lot of strategy in Vietnam was based around trying to learn lessons from WW2, where you had a lot of people who would not commit to shooting other people. What do you do about that? Use technologies like bomb doors that open automatically. You deal with that in the same way you deal with unruly workers, just have technology that won’t challenge it, that will autonomously do it.

It’s clear to me in a military context when you have autonomous weapons that are targeting and killing people without much human feedback or oversight there are problems that might emerge from that erasure of human judgement. I think it is good that we have soldiers who are reluctant to do these things. Obviating that is a way to bolster the politics of the people who plan wars, not the people who suffer from them.

I point to this a few moments of this in the book, where there is an alignment between automation at work with certain military and state prerogatives. This is something missing from stories of automation in the workplace: rather than capitalists improving efficiency, sometimes it’s actually state and military led prerogatives that are producing technologies If those people understand the technology as political, as a source of power, we need to understand it as political too rather than the outcome of a neutral economic decision.

Many of the readers of this might have a technology sceptical view, but not a left-wing one. You talk about wanting to turn Marxists into Luddites, but also Luddites into Marxists. So, for readers in that latter camp, what would you want their key takeaway to be?

If you are someone who is critical of technology, sceptical of technology, you want to reduce certain forms of technology in your life, that’s great. I think it’s really important to understand two things, the pressures that are put upon us to adopt certain technologies and also the values that are informing the development of technologies. This gives you a better understanding of where these things are coming from, why they look the way they do, and also the most effective ways to oppose or subvert or adapt them.

I argue that a lot of technology is based around control, control of workers in the workplace, acceleration of capital accumulation, commodification of everyday life. I think a lot of people understand these things implicitly, particularly for people of a romantic disposition – something seems off or inauthentic or wrong. Sometimes I teach courses that have to do with art, and I say to students when you have that initial impression of a work stick with it, that aesthetic impression is real and valid, but we then have to backtrack and understand analytically where that impression comes from.

For me, the most convincing explanation for why certain kinds of technology look the way they do, why we find so many of them pitched against the world we want to live in or lives we want to lead, and how they contribute to continued ecological devastation, is the Marxist analysis of capitalism. You can still preserve a kind of romanticism, and many in the Marxist tradition have a healthy amount of it.

The other value I get from a Marxist analysis is it really helps me tie a lot of things together. You can tie politics to the economy, tie other kinds of anthropological and sociological concerns, and it all makes a certain kind of sense. It also has a rich political tradition we can learn from. Obviously, we don’t live in full communism, but there has been a lot of interesting and worthwhile successes we should learn from. That’s my pitch to readers that are coming to this from an ecological perspective.

One disaster is that Marxism has been understood as productivist philosophy. Where Marxist informed revolutions were most successful, the governments then carried out state-led developmentalist projects. You could look at China today as engaged in one, where instead of the private sector developing things, you have a state-led development project, but it ends up focused on heavy industry, devastating the environment, emphasising working a lot, producing a lot, developing along the same lines as capitalist economies. You have this unfortunate history often justified by looking at Marx’s work and other work in the Marxist tradition, while people from the environmental movement are often critical of such developments.

Part of what I do in the book is to say that there is another side to Marx’s work which I don’t think supports this approach as state-led development in order to produce as much as a capitalist economy. I try to spell out the moments where people diverge: the moments where people dissented from that influential productivist Marxism. These people had a lot of really interesting criticisms, including the argument that if we want to be true to Marx, we have to consider other approaches than playing catch-up to a capitalist economy.

One reason it’s really hard to get people from a socialist background to connect with those from an environmentalist background is that historically socialist governments have not been very good with the environment. In fact, they have often been worse. Part of the book is reviving, or at least connecting to, an alternative Marxist tradition that I think has a lot more to say about technology, that’s much more critical of technology, and much more critical of this productivist industrialise-everything approach.