Did they really move to America?

by Manchester Area Psychogeographic

The reaction to "strategy led" corporate capitalism in the USA has recently given rise to what is being described in the press as Luddite revivalism. American "downsizing’ and "rationalisation" have pissed off many employees (male, middle aged, in particular) just as they have in Europe. But what are we to make of the leading New Luddite, Kirkpatrick Sale, and his claim to belong to the "same intellectual camp" as the Unabomber, limiting himself however to theatrical attacks on computers with sledgehammers, which mimic the English worker-radicals of the early nineteenth century? Should those of us who are lucky enough to work in Britain think about doing the same thing to computer equipment in our offices?

Luddite activities began in 1811 in Arnold, near Nottingham, when hosiery workers sabotaged stocking making machines. Luddite attacks then spread to the steam loom factories in Stockport and Manchester, coinciding with food riots. In Macclesfield, the Luddites stormed the local jail to set a prisoner free. In April 1812 two men in womens’ clothes, claiming to be General Ludd’s wives, led a Luddite crowd in an attack on a Stockport factory owner’s house and his machines. Riots spread to Middleton and Bolton. The army moved in; they hanged eight Luddites in Lancaster and four in Chester. Many more were transported to Australia.

But Luddite rioting had by then moved to Yorkshire, where croppers started attacking the new shearing machines in Huddersfield. The chairman for the Suppression of Outrages was shot dead. The army arrested 64 people: 17 were hanged in York. There was widespread public sympathy for the Luddites, and there were frequent Luddite outbreaks in the years following. General Ludd. AKA. Ned Ludd, their mythical leader, survived thanks to widespread public sympathy and the ability of the Luddites to melt into the landscape.

Fast forward to the end of the twentieth century. No mere steam looms in Stockport or Manchester; just lots of office blocks. British corporate employees have been familiar with the computer for thirty years or so, but its impact on employment really took off during the Thatcher years of the 1980s. We are now familiar with the way the computer supposedly saves time, and was supposed to save paper, ends up monopolising our time while continuing to print out increasing quantities of the ever-popular hard copy. We are aware of the way this contradiction fits into a context in which employees are expected to work harder for longer hours, generally on a fixed term contract, encountering as a result higher levels of stress due to increased competitiveness and job insecurity. If you resist in this kind of environment, the supposed 'liberation’ of a phenomenon widely believed to be a modem-day miracle, the Internet, is very little more than a mirage. They pay you to work, not surf.

Perhaps smashing our computers is tempting at times. This writer has seen people doing it for real, and not as a theatrical ad. But after you’ve smashed it, what then? It is the purpose of this article to suggest that the sudden act of destruction does nothing more than vent spleen, when circumstances demand a long-term course of action on. Computers can be seen as a symbol of oppression, but it’s a fact that too many employees are only too grateful for what work they get, to the extent that they cannot actively defend themselves as a class against the machinations of macho management systems. The use of a masculine/feminine binary opposite is deliberate here. In the last ten years it has become increasingly evident that corporate employees have been "feminised" as a result of their employers portraying and perceiving themselves as "masculine". Office-based workers especially find themselves in a similar situation to that of battered wives; serially abused by their deeply disturbed male dominators, but incapable of resisting and, very often, still loyal, pretending to the outside world that everything is fine and that the partnership is still intact. Okay, he over-reacts sometimes, but…

Perhaps it’s not too late to point out that owing an employer loyalty under the contract system is not only unnecessary, but also harmful to the worker. Employers will only grant or extend a contract if they want to, so there is never any harm in feeling that you don’t owe them anything. Employers believe in a free market, a non-existent ideal for the furtherance of which workers can be hired and fired at will. Employees are therefore free to betray employers and leave, to work for rival employers. The "free market" of the 1990s, however, is one in which individual workers compete against one another as isolated units, very much in the manner feminist post-modernist critics such as Angela McRobbie have described readers of teenage magazines for girls being encouraged to compete for the mythical "ideal man".

Whether you like it or not, the free market system dictates that one is, or is destined to be, one’s own business. Blithe idealists of the new technology foresee in the very near future an era of networking from home, the workforce on-line, and the need for expensive office developments in city centre sites completely done away with. This optimistic propaganda should be exposed for the lie that it is: an image in the distorting mirror placed against what in actual fact is happening: the colonisation of more and more of our time by tightly regulated. "lean, fit" industrial operations, for the sake of which workers are required to jump through an increasing number of hoops.

Workers in offices, hoping to survive the vicissitudes of management strategy as it switches from "diversification" to "core competency", and the recent (apparent) move away from "downsizing", are still having their home life, private time, dream life and sleep disturbed by work, as the first industrial workers did two hundred years ago. Working from home is a romantic myth for the feminised, alienated, victimised worker.

Feminisation and masculinisation in the office reflect power relations, of course, and feminised workers needn’t remain victims. Once the realisation is made that loyalty can be disposed with, workers might just be able to act together again. It’s important however to distinguish traditional unionised action from a procedure which is relevant to today’s "downsized" environment. Once a workforce is uncertain and off-guard, not united but still loyal to the corporate employer, union membership drops.

Management, however, stays on top despite the fact that managers themselves are not necessarily immune to downsizing and job cuts. Management survives because in its macho way it "embraces" whatever unthinkable version of the future it sees fit to believe in; it is rather like the way married men have affairs with their secretaries - they convince themselves they can regulate their sexual urges, they know that what they’re doing could have devastating effects, but they can’t help it. Divorce, remarriage. This year, therefore, we have American economist and management guru Stephen Roach announcing he was wrong about his former advocacy of downsizing - U.S. firms, he now believes, need people.

Counter-propaganda can disturb the ease with which employers assume the masculine position, and one idea which may prove fruitful is to attack the source of employers’ own propaganda by issuing doctored, detourned editions of company internal newsletters and trade magazines. While care must be taken to avoid detection in the making and distribution of such material, it is the sabotage of the idea of dominance and free marketeering, rather than the macho destruction of symbols of power in the form of computers, that will pave the way towards change.

Technology is hypnotic, such is its symbolic influence. Early modernists paid homage to the mystique of mass production and extermination. The First World War consummated a marriage between the visionary world glimpsed by modem artists like the Futurists, and the bureaucratic machinery of imperial European power. Technology continued to dominate the modem imagination after that war obliterated the imperial powers and the Futurists. The potential of technology still influences the way we perceive the world, to the extent that if we write about the "hyperreal", where the borderline between representation and reality breaks down, and meaning breeds with meaning, technical innovation acts like plankton for the nutrition of copulating signs. Technology stimulates the simulacrum.

TV and news media have always depended on the "pull" of a fast evolving technology, emphasising speed, authority, and sex appeal. The feminisation of the external viewer, or watcher, or consumer, is the inevitable result.

Technology promotes a sexualisation of work relations between management and workers, because consumerisation most importantly also affects knowledge. Access to technology depends on whether you understand it: vast sectors of the population don’t and, under present conditions, never will. Education has become a commodity you "buy into". Therefore, whatever the macho manoeuvrings of management systems, worker-consumers are woefully unaware oft he abuses being committed to them. They believe they are privileged because they have benefited from education and are employed (for now). They have the technology, but aren’t necessarily aware of the fact that the technology has them. They are convinced they are living in an era in which "metanarratives’ are dead, meanwhile manager-males only survive by seizing on whatever comes along as the latest "miniature metanarrative" - an all-embracing philosophy of deliverance and emancipation which is also totally ditchable when the bounds of believability start to break.

A strategy needs to be adopted which is capable of questioning by whatever means available all belief systems, all technology must be used to this end. Male and female divisions within the simulacrum harnessing consumerism, work, and living, must be exposed as a grand fiction, and made subject for discussion and sabotage.

Originally appeared in Manchester Area Psychogeographic 4, June 1996.

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