| Karl Marxs grave at Highgate cemetery in London England | MR Online Karl Marx’s grave at Highgate cemetery in London, England. Photo credit: Andy Merrifield.

Marx on technology

Originally published: Andy Merrifield Blog on September 29, 2019 (more by Andy Merrifield Blog)

The longest chapter in Capital is the fifteenth, on “Machinery and Large-Scale Industry.” At almost 150-pages, it’s really a book in itself, a staggeringly dense and expansive discussion that could easily standalone—not only as a brilliant exegesis of capitalist machinery, but also as a sweeping social history of technology. At its broadest reach, the chapter is a vivid demonstration of historical materialism in action, of Marx’s method put through its dialectical paces. As ever with Marx, his footnotes aren’t to be passed over glibly: they’re worth studying, pondering over for the nuggets of insight they contain.

His intent is expressed early on, in footnote 4, where Marx suggests that what’s crucial here is to write a “critical history of technology.” “Darwin directed attention to the history of natural technology,” says Marx, “i.e. to the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life.” Doesn’t, then, “the history of the productive organs of man in society, of organs that are the material basis of every particular organisation of society, deserve equal attention?” Footnote 4 is especially rich, buried away for all but the most meticulous reader to fully absorb: “Technology reveals the active relation of man to nature,” Marx tells us, “the direct process of the production of his life, and thereby it also lays bare the process of the production of the social relations of his life, and of the mental conceptions that flow from those relations.”

Marx goes on, digging still deeper:

Even a history of religion that is written in abstraction from this material basis is uncritical. It is, in reality, much easier to discover by analysis the earthly kernel of the misty creations of religion than to do the opposite, i.e. to develop from the actual, given relations of life the forms in which these have been apotheosised. The latter method is the only materialist, and therefore the only scientific one. The weaknesses of the abstract materialism of natural science, a materialism which excludes the historical process, are immediately evident from the abstract and ideological conceptions expressed by its spokesmen whenever they venture beyond the bounds of their own specialty.

More fog, in other words. More uncritical discussions in our midst. Once again, Marx’s desire is to cut through this ideological fog, to get at the “earthly kernel,” to displace “misty creations,” and develop a grounded and critical analysis of technology. Humans make machines, he says, develop technology from bright ideas. Always have done, always will do. Bright ideas, however, don’t just spring from up above, from the heavens, but emerge out of prevailing material circumstances. Yet as soon as those bright ideas are realised materially, get embodied in new technology, in new machinery, they react back, help shape us in dramatically ambivalent ways. We make the technology; technology remakes us. Technology changes prevailing ideas, too, which then open further possibilities for the development of other new ideas, and other new technological advancements.

Note here that Marx may be fascinated by technology but he’s no technological determinist. Actually, little in Marx’s universe is ever determined. Technology conditions the parameters of our lives at a given moment in time; it doesn’t determine our lot, control our fate. Technology may be benign in itself, and commercial proponents of technology always happily insist upon it; but because, in human society, there’s no such thing as “in itself,” technology can never be benign. Its development over time has been something of a “revealing” social process: from the development of the steam-engine to the ubiquity of the World Wide Web, technology has revealed a certain stage of human advancement, a certain way in which we relate to one another, exploit one another, know one another.

Marx is well-versed in the history of technology and seems to have read everything on the topic. There are references galore in chapter 15, hundreds of sources cited, reports consulted. Given the chapter’s length, as well as its detail, he plainly thinks technology is paramount in our lives, particularly since the invention of spinning machine and steam-engine. Technology mediates our “metabolism” with nature, Marx says, mediates our productive transformative of nature. Since the beginning of time, we’ve interacted with nature, made tools to shape nature, confronted the material forces of nature, and appropriated these forces as a force of our own nature. By acting upon external nature and changing it, we’ve invented a human nature, Marx says. This is why he places so much stress on the act of productive human labour. Humans make modes of production, so they’re not beyond our reach to control or change. This might seem obvious; but Marx’s point here is that there’s nothing God-given or “natural” about capitalism. We have the capacity to fix technology, to transform the mode of production. Through the exertion of our working organs, our own bodies, our arms and legs, our heads and hands, our physical and mental powers, we’ve consciously created the people we are today, as well as the world we live in. This creation is always ongoing, never a done deal.

Technology is a vital force of production: from primitive tools to more complex instruments of specialised handicraft, from beaters and combers, tanners and cobblers, shearers and spinners, manufacture and combined mechanisation, to fully-automated factories and micro-chip technology—these have defined the development of different epochs of human history. Each epoch somehow strives to go beyond its own technological limits: “When a system had attained a certain degree of development,” Marx says, “it had to overthrow this ready-made foundation, which had meanwhile undergone further development to its old form, and create for itself a new basis appropriate to its own mode of production.

Just as the individual machine retains a dwarf-like character as long as it is worked by the power of man alone, and just as no system of machinery could be properly developed before the steam-engine took the place of earlier motive powers…so too large-scale industry was crippled in its whole development as long as its characteristic instrument of production, the machine, owed its existence to personal strength and personal skill, and depended on the muscular development, the keenness of sight and the manual dexterity with which the specialised workers, in manufacture, and the handicraftsmen outside manufacture, wielded their dwarf-like implements.

Thus large-scale industry replaced isolated machines, developed an organised system of machines. Often, when Marx talks about the mechanised factory system, his prose sounds Gothic, like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (published the year of his birth, 1818), with its ghost in machine. Inanimate objects take on a terrifying vitality of their own. As dead labour, they come alive to wreak havoc on animate bodies, on puny living labour: “in place of the isolated machine, a mechanical monster whose body fills whole factories, and whose demonic power, at first hidden by the slow and measured motions of its gigantic members, finally bursts forth in the fast and feverish whirl of its countess working organs.”

It doesn’t take Marx long before he casts his critical gaze upon capitalism’s mechanical monsters. Here demonic technology becomes yet another pretext for producing surplus-value. Insofar as machinery dispenses with muscular power, shouldn’t it lighten the load, actually make worker easier? Sensible people would have thought so, and plenty of political economists began arguing as much, often with noble, if naïve, intention. Marx was the first, and most vociferous, to twist the logic around, to point out the “economic paradox”: “that the most powerful instrument for reducing labour-time suffers a dialectical inversion and becomes the most unfailing means for turning the whole lifetime of the worker into labour-time at capital’s disposal for its own valorisation.”

With new labour-saving technology, the “civil war” over the working day begins to get waged on another front. Henceforth, exploitation isn’t just blatantly absolute: now it’s necessarily relative as well. Indeed, any potential gain made by labour to restrict the working day—through the Ten Hours’ Bill, collective bargaining, unionising drives, strike actions, etc.—are destined to be offset by ratcheting up the intensity and productivity of work, making the job faster and more efficient within a set time-frame. This extra productivity Marx calls “relative surplus-value.” “By an increase in the productivity of labour,” he says, “we mean an alteration in the labour process of such a kind as to shorten the labour-time socially necessary for the production of a commodity, and to endow a given quantity of labour with the power of producing a greater quantity of use-value.”

The sheer numbers of workers brought together, now cooperating in a factory, creates a new, intrinsically collective, power. On the one hand, it highlights the tremendous potential of modern men and women to make life fruitful. Yet, on the other hand, this radiant dream sadly becomes merely “another driving motive and determining purpose of capitalist production.” The “free-gift” of collective labour undergoes ever-greater sophistication when cooperative work is divided up into discrete tasks within a division of labour. All liberating connections rip apart and metamorphose into alienating separations. What capital gains in kind, a worker loses in substance, since repetition and uniform activity “disturbs the intensity and flow of a man’s vital forces, which find recreation and delight in change of activity itself.”

Cooperation and the division of labour reach a higher level of efficiency with the advent of mechanical invention. The ante is upped once machines and technological knowledge burst onto the scene. Now, instruments of man only betoken man the instrument. In effect, machines lessen the burden. In reality, they become an “alien power,” more frantically setting in motion labour-power, transforming people into mere appendages of mechanical devices, crippling true subjectivity, ushering in the “real subsumption” of life under the domain of capital. Even the lightening of any labour turns into “an instrument of torture, since the machine does not free the worker from work, but rather deprives the work itself of all content.” Work, we might say, gets lean and stupid, at least for the bulk of workers; and an increased expenditure of labour and heightened intensity of labour-power achieves “a closer filling-up of the pores of the working day.”

These contradictions, needless to say, don’t arise from the machinery itself, “but out of their capitalist application. Therefore, since machinery in itself shortens the hours of labour, but when employed by capital it lengthens them; since in itself it lightens labour, but when employed by capital it heightens its intensity; since in itself it is a victory of man over the forces of nature but in the hands of capital it makes man the slave of these forces; since in itself it increases the wealth of the producers, but in the hands of capital it makes them paupers.” Remember, the United States, the most technologically advanced nation, leads the world in hours worked. The work week continues to grow longer and longer because of time-saving ingenuity. The workday pores have filled up accordingly, spurring hefty productivity hikes. This is hardly surprising, given that cellular phones, e-mail, laptops, and various hand-held electronic devices permit lots of people to work while they’re traveling to work, to work at home, on vacation, at their leisure, to their heart’s content.

Instruments of labour, in the form of giant machines, quickly become competitors to workers. Such is Marx’s stance. For one thing, it becomes the most powerful weapon for suppressing strikes, “those periodic revolts of the working-class against the autocracy of capital.” The steam-engine was the first antagonist of “human power,” Marx says, an antagonist “that enabled the capitalists to tread underfoot the growing demands of workers,” especially those rallying to limit the working day. “It would be possible,” Marx quips, “to write a whole history of the inventions made since 1830 for the sole purpose of providing capital with weapons against working-class revolt.”

The other thing about technology is that with it a worker’s productive days are numbered; superfluity beckons. This is Marx’s first mention of an idea he’d later deepen, in chapter 25, under the rubric “the general law of capitalist accumulation”: the progressive production of a relative surplus population. Like paper money thrown out of currency by legal enactment, with the advent of new machine technology, Marx says, human beings themselves become unsaleable, no longer directly necessary for the self-valorisation of capital, losing both their use-value and exchange-value capacity. Now labour-power is dispensable and disposable, expelled from one branch of industry, attracted to another, pushed and shoved and cajoled into others, swamping lower-rung labour-markets, depressing the overall price of labour.

Marx seems to guess what lies in store for these workers; his language even has a contemporary ring about it: “every branch of industry attracts each year a new stream of men, who furnish a contingent from which to fill up vacancies, and to draw a supply for expansion.” To the “great consolation” of these “pauperised workers,” their sufferings, he says, mocking bourgeois apologists, “are only temporary, ‘a temporary inconvenience’.” These days, most of us have heard assorted economists and politicians brag about Information Technology single-handedly raising productivity, cutting costs for business, and allowing economies to grow, lowering unemployment and creating work for people. Marx would turn this rationale on its head, puncturing such techno-fetishism.

He would see increased accumulation residing in increased exploitation, in the diminution of living labour, in the progressive production of irregular, insecure, low-paid work. He’d likewise dispel a few myths about his own class analysis en route. “The extraordinary increase in the productivity of large-scale industry,” he says, “accompanied as it is by both a more intensive and a more extensive exploitation of labor-power in all spheres of production, permits a larger and larger part of the working-class to be employed unproductively.” By “unproductive,” he means “servant classes,” “domestic slaves,” “lackeys,” which constantly expand in numbers. We can perhaps update these occupational groupings, interpret them today as home-care workers and cleaners, as check-out clerks and restaurant workers, as janitors and security guards, as hamburger-flippers and delivery men and women.

When Marx wrote Capital, the largest working-class faction wasn’t in fact blue-collar factory workers, but an “unproductive” servant class. In England and Wales in the 1860s, he notes, those employed in textile factories, mines and metal industries, taken together, were “less than the number of domestic modern slaves.” “What an elevating consequence of the capitalist exploitation of machinery!” he exclaims. The logic is counter-intuitive yet crucial to grasp: technological expansion of the productive forces actively creates an unproductive service-sector class. As the mode of production advances, what looks like the disappearance of the “traditional” working-class is, in actuality, a reconstitution of this traditional working-class, a working-class that is really swelling its ranks. The growth of a service class reflects a deepening of capital-labour relations, not its supersession. That we are nowadays said to be living in a high-tech, “postindustrial” society is definitive proof of Marx’s class theory—not a reason to abandon it. Capitalism was always post-industrial, even back in the 1860s. From the get-go, tertiarisation was immanent in its process of proletarianisation.1

“Machinery and Large-Scale Industry” is Capital’s most dialectical chapter. Contradiction and conflict infuse the narrative almost everywhere, give it its vitality, its moving force, pushing and pulling the reader along in all manner of different directions. Marx’s own ambivalence reflects technology’s ambivalence, and while what he’s writing about is obviously rooted in his own times, it’s surely not hard to relate this ambivalence to the technology that infuses our times.

Marx acknowledges that “modern industry” is both thrilling and scary, revolutionary and progressive:

Modern industry never views or treats the existing form of a production process as the definitive one. Its technical basis is therefore revolutionary, whereas all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually transforming not only the technical basis of production, but also the functions of the worker and the social combinations of the labour process. At the same time, it thereby revolutionises the division of labour, and incessantly throws masses of capital and of workers from one branch of production to another.

And yet, that self-same modern industry is brutal, too, inflicting immense suffering on the working-class who operate it:

[doing away] with all repose, all fixity and all security as far as the worker’s life-situation is concerned; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands the means of subsistence, and, by suppressing his specialised function, to make him superfluous. We have seen, too, how this contradiction bursts forth without restraint in the ceaseless human sacrifices required from the working-class, in the reckless squandering of labour-powers, and in the devastating effects of social anarchy. This is the negative side.

Marx brings together the soft and hard realities of modern life. On the one hand, the subjective human element, of what happens to the pliable worker, as living labour, when they encounter technology; on the other hand, an objective side, of what machinery itself represents under capitalism, how it functions as a physical repository of value, as dead labour, as constant capital. On the human front, Marx makes it clear that all capitalist technology will likely enervate the body and mind of workers. “Factory work exhausts the nervous system to the utmost,” he says. “At the same time, it does away with the many-sided play of muscles, and confiscates every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity.” “The technical subordination of the worker to the uniform motion of the instruments of labour,” Marx adds, “gives rise to a barrack-like discipline.”

Now, it’s true that the factory system Marx describes here, with its “barrack-like discipline,” might be a blast from western nations’ past, a relic of their former “Fordist” mass-producing glory days, between the 1930s and 1960s; but over in China, with its burgeoning mega-Fordist factory system, Marx’s analysis sounds as fresh as ever. (Even the Chinese government speaks a triumphalist rhetoric that echoes Marx’s nineteenth-century English boosterists’.) Maybe more significantly, though, is that those specific traits of the factory system have, these days, entered into the generic traits of society writ large. Thus factories might be disappearing, have disappeared through deindustrialisation; yet their logic has seeped into everyday life. Whether inside or outside the factory, every form of labour has now been reduced to a kind of industrial labour, to dispensable labour-power, with its work drills and efficiency targets, its speed-ups and intensity drives, all designed to fill in those leaky workday pores.

Even high-tech work, as we’ve seen, resembles a sweatshop, only its digital, with its flashier barrack-like discipline. In fact, if anything, new technology enables surveillance and discipline to be even more draconian and despotic. And the idea that work “exhausts the nervous system to the utmost,” and “does away with the many-sided play of muscles, confiscating every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity,” strikes as pretty actual for lots of twenty-first-century employees. Frequently, too, work becomes a torture and dread zone because it is so utterly deprived of any content, is so senseless and meaningless for those who carry it out, enervating body and spirit. It lasts too long as well, and nobody would miss it if it were ever abolished.

Every year in Europe, Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) at work increases 20 percent. In keyboard-tapping offices and checkout-scanning supermarkets, RSI rises as much as 50 percent each year. In 2017, 4.5 million Canadians and 1.4 million Brits were affected by work-related RSI. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reckons nearly two-thirds of all occupational illnesses reported in 2017 were caused by RSI (most notably to the wrist, elbow and shoulder), affecting 8 million American workers every year. While women represent 45 percent of the overall U.S. workforce, they experience two-thirds of RSI. (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, a painful compression of the nerve as it passes across the front of the wrist, accounts for half of all RSI cases.) This is what happens, Marx might have said, when humans are forced “to identify themselves with the unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.”

Marx pinpoints the fallacy of technology, even on its own terms. At first glance, new technology and machinery seem to raise productivity. By deploying new technology capitalists can gain an edge over competitors. Yet those effects are usually short-lived, lasting only until a competitor reciprocates. But there’s mystification here, too, because machinery, says Marx, while entering into the whole of the labour process, “enters only piece by piece into the process of valorisation. It never adds more value than it loses, on average, by depreciation.” Like every other component of “constant capital,” machinery creates no new value. Constant capital, Marx explains, is the part of capital turned into means of production, into the raw material and instruments of labour, into the machinery and auxiliary inputs that “don’t undergo any quantitative alteration of value in the process of production.”

Adopting new technology is a costly and risky business for any capitalist, invariably an upheaval that involves the destruction of old constant and fixed capital, the ripping out of archaic machinery, the transformation of former warehousing, casting everything past aside, into the dustbin of history, throwing in one’s lot with new devices, with new instruments of labour. It’s one reason why capitalists get twitchy when expensive machinery lies idle, isn’t functioning to maximum capacity. They want it operational day and night, without interruption, thrashing out productivity, maybe not realising that diminishing returns are already setting in.2

Marx suggests deterioration of machinery takes three forms. One arises from use, or rather from over-use, a piece of machinery that wears out just as coins wear out through being in active circulation. Another sort of deterioration is the flip side, that caused by lack of use, “as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard.” In addition to wear and tear or rusting up, Marx says machinery can undergo a third type of depreciation, more common under capitalism. And it’s nothing physical, not initially; more a conscious boardroom decision. Marx uses an odd term to describe it: “moral depreciation.” Here, he says, a means of production “loses exchange-value, either because machines of the same sort are being produced more cheaply than it was, or because better machines are entering into competition with it.”

Almost every aspect of deindustrialisation since the 1970s stems from moral depreciation. The rusted up machinery, the broken windows of the redundant town plant, the rats gnawing away inside the warehouses, the weeds pushing through the concrete forecourts, the forlorn sense of abandonment we’ve seen everywhere in the old manufacturing heartlands of Europe and America—rarely has any of it had anything to do with under- or over-use. It’s been a very capitalist morality play, the explicit devaluation of the means of production because those means of production weren’t valorising enough. Moral depreciation frequently means revaluation through relocation, since the value embodied in old constant and fixed capital can’t be rebooted without being destroyed. All that is solid melts into air.3

Innovation becomes compulsive for any competitive capitalist, the perpetual yearning to out-do a rival, to break a rival, to monopolise a market. Science is complicit in gaining this edge, in the technological expediency of production. Marx, accordingly, casts a justly skeptical eye over the institution of science, recognising its ability to promote life while knowing it is also a darker, Faustian force, yet-another element incorporated into the competitive process. In the Grundrisse, the raw notebooks eventually distilled into Capital, Marx notes how “the accumulation of knowledge and of skill, of the general productive forces of the social brain is thus absorbed into capital.” In Capital, footnote 23 of chapter 15, he says that, “generally speaking, science costs the capitalist nothing, a fact that by no means prevents him from exploiting it. ‘Alien’ science is incorporated by capital just as ‘alien’ labour is.” Production blossoms through the technological application of science, driving productivity onwards, yet ushering in moral depreciation around some not too distant corner.

Many of Marx’s visions of science in cahoots with industry have been wildly surpassed. Once upon a time, industry had its own “in-house” Research & Development (R&D) arm; now, it has universities, its off-site R&D arm. University science is little more than a hand-maiden for big corporate business. Indeed, universities are themselves big corporate businesses and university research an external department of industry. Biotech, software and pharmaceutical enterprises now cluster in and around major university campuses almost everywhere, blurring the boundary between scientific endeavour and capitalist commerce. The two are synonymous and the symbiosis is rarely questioned. It’s just as Marx thought:

Invention becomes a branch of business, and the application of science to immediate production aims at determining the inventions at the same time as it solicits them.

Yet the business of science goes much further and much deeper than the university. It percolates through the whole fabric of our society, bringing a new kind of business ethic into our lives, especially into our cities, which now seem to be neo-capitalist factories for valorisation. Technology might have once powered the assembly line, and in scattered global cases still does; but more widespread is its engineering of the “science of cities,” with its own “unvarying regularity of the complex automaton.” In the old factory, the capitalist formulated an autocratic power over workers; now, in cities, technology becomes the new overseer, helping keep cities as profitable as possible, filling in the financial pores not only of time but also of space, of exploitable urban space.

This new science of cities sees “smart” techno-cities as bright and fresh, as vast isotropic planes and seamless webs of connectivity, where objects and entities circulate in a smooth, frictionless space, and where information flows and business flourishes. Such paradigms of urban life have been most energetically endorsed by big mainframe techie companies, like Cisco Systems and IBM, as well as by engineering and consultancy giants such as AECOM and McKinsey. Their unanimous mission is to embed wireless broadband and computerised sensors into urban infrastructure everywhere.

Every piece of street furniture, from lampposts and traffic lights, to bike racks and domestic appliances and home heating systems will comprise the “Internet of Things,” a global business niche said to be worth around 1.7 trillion dollars. Every credit card transactions, GPS usage, city street plan, subway and bus schedule, traffic flow pattern, graph of land and property prices, census tract, electricity consumption, etc., etc.—all this and much more can be fed into a model out of which algorithmic averages emerge, calculating our future “optimal” city, how best it should be organised and governed. Though by whom rarely gets a mention. Meanwhile, the enormous information database that ensues will be monetised by private capital in what may well be the most innovative development yet to extract relative surplus-value from the totality of daily life.

All this might be a new testing ground for Marx’s ideas around technology and science, the context in which we should perhaps update him, reread him, think through some of his ideas. Nevertheless, there’s one basic theme that remains timeless: Technology, in its capitalist guise, always has been, always will be, an innovative method to discipline working people. It quite fundamentally revolutionises the agency through which the capital relation is formally mediated, Marx says. Its deployment creates fear and division amongst workers, boosts production through bloating needless consumption. Conflict and dissent don’t figure within its algorithms, either, nor do democratic debates about its implementation. Technology pleads innocence, time-served at masking the social power lying behind its control and manipulation.

Marx is surprisingly quiet in Chapter 15 about the role of class struggle. Towards the end, in Part 9, over several pages, he projects the immanent possibilities for a technologically-driven society, one that functions around people’s needs, varies work and even shortens the working day. But he hardly says anything about how we might reach that utopian point. Though he does give us a few hints of what he thinks isn’t required: “the whole-scale destruction of machinery which occurred in the English manufacturing districts during the first fifteen years of the nineteenth-century, largely the result of the employment of the power-loom.” Here, of course, Marx is referring to the Luddite movement, to the legendary machine-breakers rallying around their folkloric hero Ned Ludd. “It took both time and experience,” Marx says, “before workers learnt to distinguish between machinery and its employment by capital, and therefore to transfer their attacks from the material instruments of production to the form of society which utilises those instruments.”

Marx distances himself from a rage against the machine. Since the Luddites, we’ve seen this rage unfold in both fiction and fact, from Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, where the mad anarchist Verloc wanted to blow up London’s Greenwich Meridian, to the Unabomber’s two-decade bombing spree, targeting everything and anyone in America involved in technological development. (Along the way, we could probably throw into the lot Al-Qaeda and, for that matter, The Book of Revelations.) But Marx’s approach is more grown up than a simple plague-on-your-house denunciation, than wholesale rejection of new technology; it’s less tantrumy, more nuanced and complex in its dialectic of ambiguity.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems with it, even if they’re sometimes problems not of Marx’s own choosing. For one thing, our current society, with its Twitter streams and tabloid soundbites—viscerally reducing social complexity to a few snappy buzzwords, to simplistic black or white scenarios, us versus them categories—makes it hard for a nuanced discussion, like Marx’s, to get a satisfactory hearing. The other problem, however, is of Marx’s making: it’s not clear, for instance, what any nuanced action against an abstract and virtual technological system might these days entail?

Marx’s point against the Luddites is well meant; but there’s a sense, too, in which he underestimated the Luddites’ anti-capitalist stance, giving short-shrift to their ties to nascent trade unionism and to the growing workers’ underground. Arguably, the Luddites offered a way into attacking not just the material instruments of production but also the form of society that utilised them. To that degree, their agitation and activism remains instructive, maybe even inspiring, in our own abrasively technocratic and technological age.

Much controversy, to say nothing of mystery, surrounds the Luddite movement—even down to whether Ned Ludd actually existed as a person. Some studies suggest the movement was a lot more sophisticated than it was cracked on to be. One of the best reinterpretations, pitched from a Marxist perspective, is E.P.Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class (1963), which sought to “rescue the Luddite cropper from the enormous condescension of posterity.” Luddite attacks, says Thompson, had particular industrial objectives: “the destruction of power-looms (Lancashire), shearing-frames (Yorkshire), and resistance to the breakdown of custom in the Midlands framework-knitting industry.” To explain these actions, he says, we need to look beyond immediate economic and industrial grievances.

When we do, Thompson reckons that the Luddites emerge as a tight-knit secret organisation, as a shadowy political movement that covered its tracks, that left no minutes to its clandestine meetings, no written evidence of its activities, nothing to incriminate itself. Many activists and law-breakers did end up on the scaffold. But, contrary to being a band of roughneck thugs, Thompson suggests otherwise. Its members were well-informed about the laws of industry and trade unions, and, as a highly-disciplined group of men and fellow-traveller women, their policy was nothing short of the “diffusion of agitation.” Luddites were smart and skilled, privileged textile workers glaringly aware that they were undergoing a deterioration in status. “They were,” Thompson says, “in direct conflict with the machinery which both they and their employers knew perfectly well would displace them.”

And yet, at the same time, the character of Luddism wasn’t blind protest. Nor was it operating narrowly, with immediate selfish, reactionary interests in mind. Indeed, Thompson argues that “Luddism was a quasi-insurrectionary movement which continually trembled on the edge of ulterior revolutionary objectives. This is not to say that it was a wholly conscious revolutionary movement; on the other hand, it had a tendency towards becoming such a movement, and it is this tendency which is most often understated.” They were the first collective group to launch agitations that led to the Ten Hours’ movement; and they called for an alternative political economy and morality to laissez-faire, to the irresponsible and unlicensed competition of the Industrial Revolution. What they instigated, all told, was an open-eyed class warfare.

Perhaps the Luddite sensibility can be applied to our own micro-chip age? Can we take a sledgehammer to the mainframe the same way the Luddites took it to the knitting-frame? Probably not. Likely Marx’s more nuanced approach might come into its own, yet mixed with a healthy dose of Luddite scepticism and open-eyed class warfare, which pits itself against the pixel panopticon and business technocracy before us. Perhaps the Luddite equivalent nowadays is the call for disgruntled citizens to go off-grid? Or maybe we should mobilise the Luddite’s insurrectionary character to a start a class war with their weapons?

In his unsettling dystopian novel, The Circle (2013), Dave Eggers reimagines what life would look like if an omnipotent tech company (The Circle”) took over the world’s governments and controlled every aspect of public and private life. Visualise a dream conglomerate of Google, Microsoft, FaceBook and Amazon, headquartered in a dazzling California campus, where employees live and breathe the company and have no life beyond work. That’s the picture. “Outside the walls of the Circle,” someone says,

all was noise and struggle, failure and filth. But here, all had been perfected.

It’s a reality which throws Marx’s commodity fetishism back in people’s faces, because now nothing is hidden anymore: all is transparent, trackable, observable, quantifiable. Embedded in every nook and cranny of life are millions of commercial “SeeChange” cameras, which can pan in and out on every big or little act on planet earth, letting us glimpse precise details in the densest cities, on the tallest mountaintops, in melting glaciers and arid deserts. Nothing is private anymore. Not even going to the toilet. “All that happens will be known.” The only thing that remains invisible is ideology, the market belief system implicit in the transparency.

One sceptical character, Mercer, isn’t up for it. He knows it’s a capitalist scam and wants out. But this is a big problem. Somehow, he is worse being offline than on, worse unplugging himself and fleeing than standing his ground and engaging. It’s like sheltering under a tree during a lightening strike. He writes his ex-girlfriend Mae, the book’s central protagonist, one last note. She’s been bitten and smitten by the Circle and wants nothing else. She once loved Mercer but now hates his guts because he’s a loser, a symbol of the mess outside, the past she wants to expunge. “By the time you read this, I’ll be off the grid,” Mercer tells his ex,

and I expect that others will join me. In fact, I know others will join me. We’ll be living underground, and in the desert, in the woods. We’ll be like refugees, or hermits, some unfortunate but necessary combination of the two. Because this is what we are. I expect this is some second great schism, where two humanities will live, apart but parallel. There will be those who live under the surveillance dome you’re helping to create, and those who live, or try to live, apart from it. I’m scared to death for us all.

He’s right to be scared: fleeing in his pickup truck, SeeChange cameras track him and drones hunt him down. In fierce determination to get out, to escape beyond their gaze, Mercer ploughs his vehicle through a barrier and careens into a gorge— dead, very dead indeed. Everything is on film, recorded, remarked upon: “Mae, you were trying to help a very disturbed, antisocial young man,” a work colleague reminds her afterwards.

You and the other participants were reaching out, trying to bring him into embrace of humanity, and he rejected that.

Actually, there’s another sceptic in The Circle. In many ways, this character is more politically satisfying than Mercer, more dialectical, perhaps even more Marxian. He’s an insider who’s also an outsider. Wearing “an enormous hoodie,” he looks like an occupier or black bloc revolter, but he’s none other than the Circle’s boy-wonder visionary, Tyler Gospodinov, the company’s first “Wise-Man,” whom everybody knows as Ty. Mae knows him as Kalden, Ty’s alter ego, his shadow self, a kind of Edward Snowden whistleblower who warns her of the closing of the Circle, of the totalitarian nightmare he’d helped create.

He’s not running away from anything—he’s hacking it, trying to disassemble it from the inside. But he needs help; he reaches out to Mae, seeing her as ambivalent, as still a potential subverter, as a twisted dialectician. Yet as things move, she’s too far gone, too straight. The other Wise-Men, says Kalden, have “professionalised our idealism, monetarised our utopia.” They “saw the connection between our work and politics,” he says, “and between politics and control. Public-private leads to private-private, and soon you have the Circle running most or even all government services, with incredible private-sector efficiency and an insatiable appetite.” It sounds frighteningly familiar.

Kalden knows more than Mercer. He’s not so much a great refuser as a double agent, maybe more Engels-like, calling out to others who aren’t unplugged and offline but are tuned in, masters and mistresses of both worlds and who know the limitations of each. They know what’s what, know how to strategise, how to disrupt. They know how resistance these days is more ontological than epistemological, something that cuts right inside you, into your beliefs and democratic hopes. It needs to be wholesale, a total way of being. “There used to be an option of opting out,” Kalden says at the end of The Circle.

But now that’s over…The Circle needs to be dismantled.

Maybe we can think of computer hackers in this neo-Luddite vein, as collective Kaldens, groups like Anonymous, digital dissenters and direct action hacktivists who haunt the ghost in the machine. Anonymous is well-organised, with an international reach, and has already unnerved the global financial and political powers that be. In November 2010, Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks started to release thousands of diplomatic cables about U.S.’s economic and military plans, its weapons systems and initiatives against terrorism. The U.S. government retaliated, kicking WikiLeaks off the server; PayPal, MasterCard and Visa also pulled the plug on WikiLeaks. In response, in “Operation Avenge Assange,” Anonymous hacked Paypal’s website, bringing it down, and disrupted MasterCard’s and Visa’s. PayPal reputedly lost $5.5 million from the hijack.


Anonymous’s dark humour plays with Marxian ambiguity at the same time as it embraces the schtick of Dostoevsky and Kafka; the movement gets off on what it calls lulz, a deviant style that revels in demonic laughter and infiltration of big organisations and big bureaucracies, targeting individuals within them, spreading humiliating information on corporate bigwigs and politicians who deserve to be humiliated, uploading videos on YouTube, generally creating mayhem with its cyberattacks and infiltrating trickster campaigns. Anonymous seems representative of a newly-forming, looser coterie of smart and concerned younger people. They span the entire globe, dialogue in many different languages, yet find their collective lingua franca in the growing array of informational technology acronyms like SMS, PDA, GPS, GPL, XML, etc., etc. And they’re drawing upon a dazzling expertise to create a subculture of politically-minded hackers and virtual radicals whose activism and communication sometimes comes home to roost in bites as well as bytes.

Technology’s prowess, Marx says, rests on its ability “to increase the productive power of the individual by means of cooperation,” by creating a new productive power, “which is intrinsically a collective one.” The problem with this form of cooperation is that it’s phoney: its control is exercised exclusively by the bourgeoisie. It’s a collective power, in other words, that’s used to exploit social labour not mobilise it cooperatively for the common good. But Marx’s dialectic cuts both ways: this cooperative power, hastened as it is by globalisation and informational technology, opens up new potentialities for revolt and resistance—Marx knows it and so do groups like Anonymous. The “unavoidable antagonism,” Marx says, is that “as the number of cooperative workers increases so too does their resistance to the domination of capital.”

Marx imagines how a technologically-advanced society could realise human needs and desires. If only technology could be wrested away from private gain and put to cooperative public use. If only cooperation could lead to technology becoming a “common property” right rather than an Intellectual Property Right (IPR). This vision of cooperation is one of the most hopeful things that dramatises Capital, and it’s there in Chapter 15, lying undeveloped, in raw, tentative state. Given all the miseries and horrors technology inflicts on working-class people, it’s a miracle that Marx can pull us back from the brink. But he gives us an ideal of humanity that is rich and expansive, generous in its affirmation of us as fundamentally cooperative beings—not ruthlessly competitive animals involved in some dog-eat-dog war of all against all.

Much as Marx admired Darwin, he never accepted human life as a competitive struggle where only the fittest survive. The admiration was genuine enough; we’ve seen it already, expressed in footnote 4 to Chapter 15, cuing the whole discussion on technology. In footnote 6 to Chapter 14, on “The Division of Labour,” Marx had also called Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species “an epoch-making work.” Remember, too, these were precisely the two chapters (14 & 15) that Marx wanted to dedicate to Darwin. (Darwin, flattered, politely declined.) But there’s equally a sense that Marx’s dedicatory intentions might have also been laced with a certain irony and provocation. Maybe Darwin recognised it, suspected it.

Privately, Marx told Engels (letter dated June 18, 1862) that it’s “remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence’. It is Hobbes bellum omnium contra omnes.” Engels shared Marx’s scepticism about Darwin: “The whole Darwinian theory of the struggle for existence,” he’d said (in a letter to Lavrov, November 12, 1875), “is simply the transference from society to animate nature of Hobbes’ theory of the war of every man against every man and the bourgeois theory of competition, along with the Malthusian theory of population.”

Darwin’s biggest stumbling block, for Marx, was Malthus, the English parson-cum-political economist, the prophet of a quack theory of over-population. (Tolstoy had cut to the chase, calling Malthus a “malicious mediocrity.”) Why, then, had Darwin so uncritically accepted Malthus’s bourgeois claptrap? Perhaps because Darwin was bourgeois? Perhaps because he had married into a bourgeois industrialist’s family? Emma, Darwin’s wife (and first cousin), was the daughter of Josiah Wedgwood, the prominent Staffordshire pottery mogul. And father-in-law Josiah was credited with industrialising pottery manufacture, intensifying divisions of labour and trimming labour costs at his factories—all of which helped his empire expand throughout the world. Competition, divisions of labour, survival of the fittest, etc., were evidently “virtues” in the family’s blood. (So, too, apparently, was child labour: in footnote 82 of “The Working Day,” Marx notes how, in 1863, twenty-six firms owning extensive potteries in Staffordshire, including Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, presented a petition saying that competition with other capitalists didn’t allow them to voluntarily limit the hours worked by children.)

Darwin’s theory of natural selection took from Malthus the belief that population growth would outrun food supply. The result is an overt battle for dwindling resources. The world here is seen as crowded out by species jostling each other for survival. It’s so packed that only by shoving out another inhabitant can a new species live. Darwin used the metaphor of the “wedge” to highlight how any new species literally had to wedge themselves into another, creating their own little chink by forcing the other out. Success came from bullying out a rival, making space for oneself at their expense. (It’s hard to get a better description of bourgeois political economy in action, as well as the reactionary little-Englander mentality. Immigrants are the new wedges trying to chink away homegrown scarce resources.)

Marx, conversely, saw things differently, had another kind of humanity in mind. “When the worker cooperates in a planned way with others,” he says, “he strips off the fetters of his individuality and develops the capabilities of his species.” Implicit in this understanding is that cooperation enables our species to flourish. It is only through individuals cooperating with one another that they can develop a fuller sense of individuality, as well as a “higher form” of coexistence. In fact, even in Marx’s time there were other visions of evolutionary theory that emerged outside bourgeois England. If social Darwinism seemed internalised in nineteenth-century British social and economic life, this wasn’t the case in Russia, where Darwin’s evolutionary theory was most categorically questioned.

Russia was a vast, sparsely populated land, a giant territory, most of it harsh, barren and cold. Life in its wasteland might have been nasty, brutish and short but it wasn’t because of any principle of over-population, or straining of potential supplies of food and space. Too many people with too little resources? This would have seemed an utterly bizarre conception for any Russian. In other words, Darwin’s Malthusian underpinnings weren’t quite as universally applicable as the great scientist might have thought. Wasn’t Darwin merely projecting onto the natural world a particular ideology about competitive open markets in his own crowded social world? Wasn’t Darwin just following Malthus as an article of bourgeois faith?

Such was the belief of Peter Kropotkin (1842-1921), the Russian anarchist prince, geographer and geologist and author of numerous heterodox texts, including Mutual Aid (1902). The work, written in English in Bromley, Kent (Darwin’s own county), bore a revealing subtitle: “A Factor of Evolution.” Kropotkin says at the beginning of his enquiry how two aspects of animal life impressed him most during his long travels around Eastern Siberia and Northern Manchuria. One was the extreme severity of the environment and the desperate struggle for existence most species had to wage there. The second was “even when animal life teemed in abundance,” Kropotkin says, “I failed to find the bitter struggle for the means of existence.” During heavy snow storms, across miles and miles of iced-up tundra, amid howling winds and Artic temperatures—“in all the scenes of animal life which passed before my eyes, I saw mutual aid and mutual support carried on to the extent which made me suspect in it a feature of the greatest importance for the maintenance of life, the preservation of each species, and its further evolution.” If animals and insects fought one another in this brutal environment, they’d have wiped each other out long ago.

Maybe if Darwin had travelled to chilly, empty Siberia, rather than to a fecund tropics, with its super-abundant plant and animal life, another image of nature might have emerged. If, Kropotkin wonders, “we ask, ‘who are the fittest: those who are continually at war with each other, or whose who support one another?’ we at once see that those animals which acquire habits of mutual aid are undoubtedly the fittest. They have more chances to survive, and they attain, in their respective classes, the highest development of intelligence and bodily organisation.” Kropotkin yearned to import these natural laws into the laws of government and community life. Self-sustaining, cooperative societies could become the conditioning laws of human culture, he thought, life-forms based on solidarity and peace rather than competition and slaughter. “The unsociable species,” he concluded, throwing the gauntlet down on us today, “are doomed to decay.”4

We’ve no record of Marx and Kropotkin ever meeting. Most likely they never did. Most probably they’d have treated each other with suspicion even if they had. And yet, notwithstanding their doctrinal disagreements, Marx’s evolutionary theory of “the productive organs of man in society,” ends up being a lot closer to Kropotkin’s than to Darwin’s. Indeed, “mutual aid” marks the dénouement of Chapter 15, the means through which capitalist production “can be dissolved and then reconstructed on a new basis.” Bleak Siberia appears the more meaningful metaphor for the English labour system than does a tropical paradise overflowing with warm life. In the former domain, survival necessitates creatures working together in cooperation, collectively bargaining, forging some associative mutuality of the oppressed to ward off extinction.

Marx closes Chapter 15 with a call for a new “collective working group,” which, he says, will be “composed of individuals of both sexes,” who, in unison, turn production “into a source of humane development.” He even envisions the founding of socialist schools for the vocational teaching of technology, “where the children of workers receive a certain amount of instruction in technology and in the practical handling of the various implements of labour.” It’s a fascinating glimpse of Marx’s educational system, influenced by Rousseau’s Emile and the German progressive educational theorist, J.B. Basedow. Primary schools would have children develop their intelligence by coming into closer contact with reality through practical activities. “Technological education,” says Marx, “both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the schools of workers.”

Yet to get that far, “the possibility of varying labour must become a general law of social production, and the existing relations must be adapted to permit its realisation in practice.” “That monstrosity,” argues Marx, “the disposable working population held in reserve, in misery, for the changing requirement of capitalist exploitation, must be replaced by the individual who is absolutely available for different kinds of labour; the partially developed individual, who is merely the bearer of one specialised social function, must be replaced by the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity they take in turn.”

The latent possibility for varying labour, for making it fulfilling and authentic, is real enough for sensible people to see. Marx asks us to see. Technology can take the stresses out of work, he says, can shorten the workday, can create abundance for anyone, liberate people from drudgery, provide more free time for intellectual and artistic nourishment. It can transform the “partially developed individual,” the bearer of one detail or deskilled social function, into a “totally developed individual.” This, then, is Marx’s romantic dream: a society that breaks free of the vicious competitive circle of undefined productivity, of productivity for productivity’s sake, of accumulation for the sake of capital accumulation.5

Marx wrote Capital as a manifesto on how capitalism generalises both over-employment and unemployment, being at once hypertrophic and atrophic; he warned of the progressive production of a “relative surplus population” who float in and out of jobs and whose destiny is entirely contingent on the whims of the business cycle. Yet, at the same time, as a dialectical counterflow, Marx also penned passages with daring leaps of the utopian imagination. Even in this dire system, he says, immanent possibilities reside, immanent possibilities for a planet that’s been transformed into a vast arena of fixed capital. More than a hundred and fifty years on, Marx’s reality is here, now.

He sees a world that “suspends living labour,” that revolves around “dead labour,” that organises production around automation and high technology, as a society equipped with all the vital powers to reduce “necessary labour time”: all the instruments are available, all the wherewithal is here for creating socially disposable time, for reducing labour time to a bare minimum, for freeing up everybody’s time to engage in a more passionate and fulfilling life in and beyond work. It’s a logic that requires us to embrace contradictions, to flow in Marx’s counterflow. When the world is dominated by machines, when we’ve become appendages to machines, to new technology, to new digitised informational technology, then and seemingly only then, he thinks, are we on the verge of something new and possible. We’ve been on that verge for a while. Are we ready to cross the threshold?


  1. It’s interesting to consider this with respect to the current American working-class, which is much less likely to be any kind of factory worker. To be sure, the real face of the U.S. working-class isn’t blue-collar at all, but the lowly-paid woman care-worker who’s probably looking after an ex-factory worker. Half of the ten fastest growing jobs in America are now low-paid variants of nursing (see “Reviving the American Working Class?” New York Times Editorial, August 29, 2019). The other thing, of course, is that new manufacturing activity doesn’t usually mean more jobs. On the contrary, it invariably means more capital-intensive technology, more robots and Computer-Aided Manufacturing, likely done far away from the shores of America. Dongguan, for example, a Chinese city near Hong Kong, the manufacturing capital of the world, recently launched its first fully-automated factory, the shape of things to come.
  2. Though some do. In many business-friendly nations, like the United States, corporations finagle compensation for depreciation through generous tax write-offs.
  3. In a series of remarkable black and white photographs from the West Midlands, John Myers documented the last days of some of Britain’s industrial landscape during the early-1980s. The book’s title says it all: The End of Industry. After the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, Black Country companies, Myers says, “folded and factories were demolished at an unbelievably rapid rate in the couple of years after these pictures.” The region’s industrial heritage was “clobbered overnight.” Unlike the north-east’s shipyards and the north-west’s textile mills, these industries were smaller-scale affairs, chain-making operations, foundries and brickwork firms. Their fixed capital couldn’t be rehabbed into upscale warehouse apartments and so most were simply razed, brutally blasted into air, amorally depreciated.
  4.  When Kropotkin lived in England, the bourgeois scientific establishment was wary of his evolutionary theories and political anarchism. He once spoke, on invitation, at the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and Cambridge University even offered Kropotkin a Chair in Geology, provided he quit his political activities. But Kropotkin turned the university down because he was never going to quit his anarchist beliefs. In reality, Kropotkin bore no resemblance to a stereotypical black-masked anarchist, bearing bombs. He was a gentle pacifist, and with his great grandfatherly beard looked more like an aged monk than any terrorist. He was how we could imagine Dostoevsky’s Alyosha Karamazov appearing as an old man.
  5. Marx’s romantic dream has been explored recently, as a utopian manifesto, by Aaron Bastani, in something he calls “fully automated luxury communism.” Capitalism’s post-work telos dialectically heralds the beginning of real history, not its end. (See Aaron Bastani, Fully Automated Luxury Communism: A Manifesto, Verso, London, 2019.)
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