Precise by May Santiago
Gavin Mueller’s new book, Breaking Things at Work: The Luddites Are Right About Why You Hate Your Job, was released in February 2021. An alumnus of George Mason University’s Cultural Studies PhD program, Mueller was invited to Cultural Studies’ recruitment event to discuss his book and its themes at large. He says that the research for the book started when accelerationism – the enthusiastic theorizing around technology’s rapid evolution in socio-economic contexts – was in vogue, so much so that even leftists were releasing books on the revolutionary possibilities of technology and how machines would free workers from their oppressive material conditions. Mueller says that as a Marxist, this logic never fully made sense to him; thus he began to conduct research on trends of automation in labor developments and struggles. This is where the work of the Luddites influenced him.
The Luddites were a group of English textile workers in the 19th century who staged rebellions against the automation of their weaving process. They were rejecting production for production's sake and critical over the efficiency of the process as damaging to their way of life. Their militant reaction to the automation of their work is often viewed as anti-progress. However, Mueller argues that their intention was to have control over their labor process and to not work simply for capitalism's sake.
Mueller uses this line of logic to outline a contemporary Luddism where it is essential to define what counts as an appropriate use of technology as a site of struggle, instead of a full rejection of all technological means wrongly ascribed to Luddites. He says militant resistance to technology is still alive, perhaps in the work of hackers or dark web users. The emphasis remains on seeing technology as the flashpoint of struggle. As a result, understanding the detriments of accelerationism can slow down automation and make workers more reflective of their own purpose to be sustainably productive in lieu of being merely economically productive.
Gavin Mueller holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies from George Mason University. He teaches in the New Media and Digital Culture program at the University of Amsterdam. He is the author of Breaking Things at Work, an innovative rethinking of labor and machines, leaping from textile mills to algorithms, from existentially threatened knife cutters of rural Germany to surveillance evading truckers driving across the continental United States. Mueller argues that the future stability and empowerment of working class movements will depend on subverting these technologies and preventing their spread wherever possible. The task is high, but the seeds of this resistance are already present in the Neo-Luddite efforts of hackers, pirates, and dark web users who are challenging surveillance and control, often through older systems of communication technology. The book is out now on paperback.