Labor, Automation, and Refusal

Marxism has, and had for a quite a long time, a problem with the question of work. This is not to say that Marxism can be confused with the insistence of its antagonist, capitalism, over the relations of labor and production – nowhere in Marx’s own writings do we find the glorification of work elevated to the despotic cult of personality, as we currently see from policies recommended by the left and the right, from the popular media, from psychiatric practice and prison ‘reform’ programs, and even from the worker his or herself. One would have had to wait until the Soviet Union’s bureaucracy was cemented in place for work to become a machine-like force, subsumed in the highly-regimented activities of daily life. It must be pointed out, however, that this bureaucratic governance only reached its full realization after Lenin’s New Economy Policy, when the floodgates of market activity, Fordist production, and Taylorist conditioning became state policy. As the liberal social scientists of the 1940s and 50s accurately observed, there were more things in common between the Soviet and American systems than either was willing to admit.

Despite these historical developments, in his diagnosing of the dynamics of domination and exploitation existing in the relations between the industrial proletariat and bourgeoisie, Marx borrows from capitalism the idea of work as the essence of the human. His revolution is one where the relations of production undergo a radical re-organization; labor – and production itself – meanwhile go unchallenged and positioned as a neutrality. While he avoids admitting it, the Communist revolution appears as the shattering of the bourgeoisie’s power over the proletariat through the positioning of the proletariat’s power over itself – or, in other words, the self-mastery of the working class in regards to productive output. Perhaps this problem stems from Marx’s own historical materialism: for the stages of socialism and communism to take place, capitalism must be fully developed and its effects dispersed through the whole of the social. The regulation of the social body in accordance with labor and production becomes the mover of history itself, because it is here that class antagonism is founded. One has to ask that if Marxist theory is read through to its conclusions, to what extent does the proletariat even exist in a realm separate from the classes that dominate it. Marx famously described the ruling class as a “band of warring brothers”, bound together by the value extracted from production, but with each competing for their own self-interest and gain. Could it not be that the proletariat itself could be yet another faction in this conflict, with the Marxist interpretation of communism acting as the rallying cry for their specific sets of interests?


Such could be the fate of worker self-management, so prominent both inside and outside of Marxist tendencies. Even the worker’s council promoted by the insurrectionist contingencies finds its reduction in the proliferation of employee-owned companies and co-operatives that operate without contradiction on the capitalist market. While coming close to solving the problem of surplus value extraction, these forms do little to change the actual conditions of labor – and at times even make more demands on the body of the worker. As Stevphen Shukaitis writes, drawing in part from his own experience working in a worker self-managed record label, worker self-management actualizes the experience of living outside capitalist restraints on production, compensation, and organization of daily life; left to his or her own devices, the lessening of management of the worker’s time and body transform labor into social labor. At the same time, however, there are certain ambiguities at play, particularly in the context of the post-Fordist capitalism dominant in the affluent ‘core’ regions of the global economy – at which point does social labor break with the new logic of capitalism, which demands as much from leisure time, play, and social interaction as it does from the bodies toiling in industrialized production? “At its worst [worker self-management] becomes little more than the self-organization and management of one’s own misery and exploitation, gladly taken on and exalted as a positive thing.”[1] This should indicate that beyond the relations of production, a truly liberatory politics must take work itself as a target of attack.


The continual rise of automated production technology further complicates these questions. On one hand, it presents a fundamental contradiction whose plaguing of capitalism will only become increasingly more visible in the coming years: as technology diminishes the role of human labor in production, how will the consumption necessary for capitalist growth continue? How will capitalism respond in order to keep its self-reproduction progressing? On the other hand, it presents immense difficulties for any potential worker self-management organizations and anti-capitalist politics alike. With the disappearance (or at least large-scale reorganization) of labor, is the idea of worker self-management even relevant at this stage? Can full automation even take place outside the monopoly? Automation and mass production run together, for it is the value extracted from consuming mass production that meets the demands of the heavy investment required for the technology. In that case, are the largely automated systems that produce the big box stores like Walmart the ‘face of utopia’ rising up before us, as Frederic Jameson insists?[2] If they aren’t, we run into the problems and costs of developing automated technology on a smaller scale – with or without capitalist economics dictating its protocols. If they are, the task becomes formulating the problem of organizing labor relations, distribution of goods, and forms of compensation. In other words, regardless of the approach taken, grappling with automation mean re-approaching the concept of revolution from the ground up.

If past events have taught us anything, it’s that the outcome of sweeping changes in the techno-economic paradigm[3] rarely turn out in the anticipated way. In the 1960s, when the government and its military imperatives beginning to close their some twenty-odd year run subsidizing automation technology, social scientists like Daniel Bell and Zbigniew Brzezinski were foreseeing massive changes in world order: the “post-industrial society” and the “technotronic era” would be a time in which technology would help realize Marshall McLuhan’s projected “global village”. From the Marxist perspective, Ernest Mandel wrote of a coming revolution in computers, robots, and the like that would effectively put an end to capitalism. Later, futurists like Alvin Toffler took Mandel’s ideas and argued the opposite – capitalism would continue to exist and in fact become eternal, but it wouldn’t look much like the corporatism of the robber baron era or the bureaucratic state capitalism of the Fordist-Keynesian welfare state. The failure of each of these thinkers, ranging from the left to the right, is the failure to have properly anticipated the way capitalism would reorganize itself when the revolution got underway across the 1970s. Instead of leading to automated factories, computers and enhanced logistical techniques led to the relocation of labor to the developing world while also moving finance capital to the forefront. Far from releasing the human from the bondage of labor, technology was used to increase labor – from the violence of sweatshop economics to the ‘office anywhere’ ethos of white collar labor to the increasing precarious service sector, temp, and flex-time labor models for those without access to blue collar positions.


MI Touring Nike's Factories

Thus the insight provided by the left accelerationists is spot on: capitalism exerts a drag on technological development that holds back the possibilities inherent to it. As much as technology cuts at the roots of capitalism, these fissures and cracks are either diverted (such as the reorganization of labor on a global scale) or business models adapt themselves to the turbulence (such as the rise of music streaming platforms like Spotify, an example of the response to the ‘crisis of value’ generated by digital sharing platforms). Each successive adaptation ensures the continues the necessity of labor: new production techniques pump out consumer goods, luxury items, novelties, and commoditized culture that serves at once to monetize leisure time more and more, requiring by extension the priority of labor as a means of subsistence. Writing in 1947, Paul Romano argued that the semi-skilled worker (that is, the laborer situated in the semi-automated Fordist environment) had forgotten how to play, as the demands of the factory and its production means had become the center of his world.[4] Today, in the overdeveloped world, one could say that this is true, while also being paradoxically married to its opposite – play is everywhere, but nowhere is it playful.

There is no reason to assume that automation – full or semi – will offer any escape from labor, even if the liberation from work is intimately bound to machines that decrease the need for labor. There is also no reason to expect that the left, in its current form, can begin addressing the problem. The labor union, for example, has consistently maintained a hardline on those who argue against work – as opposed to being the institutional expression of working class power, the union choses to operate mid-way between the rank-and-file and the management, offering only moderate concessions in exchange for capitulation to production. The modern union has acted, then, as a parasite on class antagonism, much like how capitalism itself acts as a parasite on production itself. When it comes to the issue of automation, their positions have been even more vexing. For a brief moment in the 1950s, the conservative AFL-CIO and the more left leaning UAW spoke out against automation, charging that the elimination of jobs was preventing the surplus of production from being absorbed. The fight for worker effectively became the fight for a capitalism itself – but within a few years the UAW shifted positions, officially embracing automation with offers to provide its membership with job retraining and job retention based on shop floor seniority.

Liberation from work cannot be reduced to the amplification of possible technologies; what it entails is an explicitly political project, bound up in sets of imaginal coordinates that must be immanent to everyday life. The technological, the political, the social, and the individual are already spheres bound together under the rubric of capitalist civilization, and the sacrifices that it demands from quarter. It can only be contested by taking these specific forces a parts of a whole into consideration. In 1958 the Situationist artist Asger Jorn observed that while capitalism is founded on the artificial maintenance of scarcity, automation directly challenges this notion. Yet the results of automation are rendered in two stark possibilities – if capitalism continues unabated, man could very well become the slave of automation, living in the modular dreamworld of fully-commoditized leisure time. If capitalism is shackled off, however, automation could be mastered by man, and used to enrich everyday lives in ways unforeseen. Jorn’s understanding of automation that if it isn’t to become the inevitability of the capitalist system, it must be used strategically, as a weapon, against capitalism itself.[5] Jorn’s comrade Raoul Vaneigem is even more to the point:

The blossoming of technology has given rise to a supertechnology of synthesis, one which could prove as important as the social community that first technical synthesis of all, founded at the dawn of time. Perhaps more important still; for if cybernetics was taken from its masters, it might be able to free human groups from labour and from social alienation. This was precisely the project of Charles Fourier in an age when utopia was still possible.[6]

One of the utopian socialists, Fourier saw the universe as being governed by a complex order of passions. The high regimentation of industrial civilization prohibited the realization of these passions, obstructing the flourishing a truly cooperative society to flourish. We should note, however, that Fourier’s utopia looks radically different from the worker’s state or work self-management that socialism would come to rally behind. In a series of writings, he describes a world where neither “hunger nor touch” go unrealized[7] – Fourier’s future appears in the vein of the carnivalesque, where work dissolves into festivals that allow desire, not sacrifice, to move to the forefront. Just as the latter Situationists would attack the commodity form as the exploitative middle-man in the realization of desire, Fourier dispenses with the commodity altogether. Without work, time opens up, and without the demand of consumption, leisure time becomes something else entirely.

“The transformation of labor into pleasure is the central idea in Fourier’s giant socialist utopia,” wrote Marcuse, providing similar insight as Vaneigem. “Fourier insists that this transformation requires a complete change in the social institutions…”[8] Despite his common association with forms of techno-pessimism, a close reading of Marcuse’s texts reveals a critique of science and technology rooted in the organization of these forces under what he called the ‘advanced industrial civilization’. Far from rejecting the positives possibilities in technology, he emphasizes the transformation of the institutions that put manage technology for the sake of capitalism. Following in a vein similar to Jorn, he writes in Eros and Civilization that capitalism imposes labor due to its regime of scarcity: – the “excuse of scarcity” had “justified institutional repression since its inception.”[9] “…mechanization and standardization,” by contrast, if separated from “the domain of the great corporations,” contains the promise of a “potential liberation” from toil and the capitalization of ‘free time’.[10]



How might a world where mechanization exists separate from the corporation look, and how would it operate? This is the fundamental question facing the left when considering both automation and the refusal of work. His references to “mechanization and standardization” implies the continuation of a society centered on mass production techniques and presumably centralized structures of distribution – both of which become questionable positions in an age when these very things are driving forces of global climate change. Without fully addressing this disjunction, Marcuse rigorously attacks the progressive ideology that posits man’s domination over nature. At odds with both the state capitalism of the United States and the state socialism of the Soviet Union, Marcuse’s perspective can perhaps be pieced together by looking the primary influences on his theories of technology. Reconstructing this genealogy, when situated in light of current technological development, could very well give us a picture of a revolutionary technological platform.

The perspectives on automation offered in Eros and Civilization predate the text, and can be found in Marcuse’s first English essay – “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology”, published in 1941. He notes that technological progressivism – that is, the tendency towards mechanization and standardization in a free enterprise environment – “tends to the concentration of economic power” in the large scale firm; this centralization in turn produces a contradiction whereby the “new tools, processes and products” attain the level of hegemony through mass production, effectively eliminating the individual subject that is presumably the primary agent of free market exchange.[11] “Under the impact of this apparatus, individualistic rationality has been transformed into a technological rationality… This rationality establishes standards of judgement and fosters attitudes which makes men ready to accept and even to introcept the dictates of the apparatus.”


Here Marcuse reveals the key influence on his technological thought: Lewis Mumford, historian and philosopher of technology. As with Marcuse, Mumford has been accused of technophobia due to his relentless critiques of modern, large-scale industrial organizations, which labels of “megamachines”. What these critics often fail to mention is that Mumford can be counted as a member of the left-wing of the Technocracy movement, which rose to prominence in the United States during the 1930s. Following the writings of Thorstein Veblen, a proto-accelerationist economist who viewed technology, if properly managed by a ‘Soviet of engineers’, as something that could bring the realization of affluence and leisure to the whole of society. The Technocrats, readily adopting this perspective, proposed that a hierarchy of scientists and engineers, not the proletariat, could overthrow capitalism; several of them – Howard Scott and Henry Gantt, in particular, fully endorsed the Taylorist techniques of scientific management being popularized in managerial discourse. Such as the right-wing of the Technocrats: technology, like the Marxist understanding of socialism, moves in a determinist fashion and would eventually overcome capitalism through a managerial revolution. So influential was this concept that it provided the framing for the Cold War liberalism of James Burnham, Daniel Bell, and Walt Rostow.[12] Mumford’s left-wing technocracy, by contrast, combatted this tendency through an attack on the concept of technological determinism. The megamachine had prevailed, but only because of the steps taken – and ultimately attributable to class power – in the midst of periods of sweeping techno-economic reorganization.

Mumford divides human history into three distinct epochs: the ecotechnic (the Middle Ages), the paleotechnic (the Industrial Revolution) and the neotechnic (modern day, arguably encompassing both the “second” and “third” industrial revolutions posed by Mandel). Each successive epoch corresponds to a certain techno-economic paradigm, defined by Mumford as “technics” – the conjoining of technology and the rationality governing their deployment in the realm of the social. The ecotechnic era saw the proliferation of skilled craftsmen and the guild systems, developments such as crop rotation, the advent of the printing press, and cheap glass-making techniques; with exceptions, of course, many of technologies found their application outside the confines of the capitalism market. Noting the relaxed attitude towards labor, Mumford poses that individuals in the ecotechnic civilization pursued a “greater intensification of life: color, perfume, images, music, sexual ecstasy, as well as daring exploits in arms and thought and exploration.”[13]


The transition from the ecotechnic to the paleotechnic followed first in the footsteps of the mechanical clock, allowing the regimentation of time and the regulation of bodies in accordance with its linear movement, and then the steam engine as the motor of production. This precipitated the drive towards centralization and monopoly: due its construction as large, unwieldy structures and the investments required for its implementation, the large-scale factory, with its fairly quick pace of productive output, was tailored perfectly for the steam engine. Writes Mumford,

Moved by a desire to earn every possible sum on their investments, the textile manufacturers lengthened the working day… Since the steam engine requires constant care on the part of the stoker and the engineer, steam power was more efficient in large units than smaller ones: instead of a score of small units, working when required, one large engine was kept in constant motion… Great size, forced by the nature of the steam engine, became in turn a symbol of efficiency. The industrial leaders not only accepted concentration and magnitude as a fact of operation, conditioned by the steam engine: they came to believe in it by itself, as a mark of progress. With the big steam engine, the big factory, the big bonanza farm, the big blast furnace, efficiency was supposed to exist in direct ratio to size.[14]



In the neotechnic phase, the supremacy of the steam engine becomes supplanted with the electrical motor. This development posed, through the operations of the new machine itself, the means to reverse the monopolization tendency; far smaller and flexible, it challenged the lay-out of the factory itself, and opened up the possibility of decreasing laboring hours. Mumford goes a far to insist that the semi-automation prevalent in the neotechnic era could trigger “a resumption of the lines of development of the original ecotechnic revolution, following the paleotechnic revolution.”[15] This, however, was not to be the case. The centralization of the steam engine in the factory had been compounded by the demands of the newly-minted capitalist class and the state; the introduction of electricity and the electrical motor fully in the same path. The paleotechnic mode had unleashed mass productive processes, which were in turn accelerated by the neotechnic, with the spread of electricity being leveraged by large firms and the state and the electrical motor soon finding its application as enhancements to the factory, as was the case of the Fordist automobile factory. The neotechnic revolution, in other words, was a deferred opportunity for a decentralized industry that could have broken with the logic of progressivism, technical rationality, and productivist efficiency.



One could easily pose that the introduction of cybernetic technology, computers, and automation processes could have provided yet another such opportunity, but it was cultivated in the fusion of big business and government, at the time grappling with the demands of the Second World War. As David Noble shows, much of the developments in automation were being carried out by the US Air Force, where it understood in terms of both military command-and-control protocols and Taylorist scientific management.[16] Insofar as industry began adapting these techniques after the war, it was predominantly the firms who were vital to the “war economy” of the Cold War that made the most of them. By the 1960s, the Kennedy administration was tasking US top managers, labor leaders, and government bureaucrats with studying automation from the national level, focusing on the macro-level of economics and the effects and possibilities of the technology in the context of the large firm.

Marcuse speaks of this late neotechnic era as a ‘welfare-warfare state’ (a term later popularized by libertarian economist Murray Rothbard[17]) – a system of governance where the functions of big industry, the military, and society function in syncopation under a common machinic ideology. Under mass production, the firm effectively becomes a planner, needing to ensure that the surplus output in met with proper demand in the consumer market. Through conditioning apparatuses such as advertising, demand arises not from any organic need but through manipulation: generating an artificial setting for society and ensuring the labor necessary for the engagement with this new everyday terrain. Industrial society effectively closes the horizon of possibility, with every problem being confronted with answers on these terms. We have to consider the possibility that the idea that liberation, or even the meeting of human needs, can only take place through large-scale feats is only a reflection of this ideology, and not the possibility of escape from it.

Contrary to the consciousness of industrial civilization, Mumford poses that “no working ideal for machine production can be based solely on the gospel of work.”[18] Nor can it be contingent on an ever-escalating demand for higher levels of consumption: what should be pursued is “the ideal goal of a completely mechanized and automatized system of power production: the elimination of work: the universal achievement of leisure.”[19] For Marcuse, this means a political program that generates new technologies and technical relations between people and nature, the invention of which “would be the catastrophe of the established direction, not merely the quantitative evolution of the prevailing (scientific and technological) rationality but rather its catastrophic transformation, the emergence of a new idea of Reason, theoretical and practical.”[20]


Today, we’re witnessing the birth of new technologies and technics that could pose just such a challenge. From digital file sharing platforms to desktop manufacturing machines, from retooled printers that print computer circuits to open source toolkits, from neighborhood wireless meshworks to permaculture, from community-led transformations of urban space to new commons, there is a rise of potential spaces and practices that will allow people, on both individual and collective levels, to evade the machinery of capitalist production and consumption. Outside this complex, the hegemony of work is shattered: autonomous production, without the requirements of heavy capital investments and markets of scale to operate, the regulation of the body to the patterns of the output can wither away. We can witness the end of work without recourse to the level of the ‘megamachine’. This is not a given, of course: there lies the distinct possibility of autonomous production being deployed in service of the mythic atomist individual, in a realization of laissez-faire capitalism’s long-kept dream, as evidenced by the protests and sit-ins against the Maker Faire in Rome for its “business approach” and “contradiction of the philosophy of sharing and cooperation that originated such initiatives” Or it could lend itself to the already-existing structures of civilization; the Science and Technology Institute, managed by the US government’s Institute of Defense Analysis with funding from the National Science Foundation, proposes that corporations begin issuing “design toolkits” for personal manufacturers. Such toolkits would be used in lieu of market research, with the personal manufacturers adding their input on products in development for mass market release. It would “enable a company to peer into the heart of customer preferences.”[21]

In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels present a vision of communist society fully subsumed in what Mumford called the paleotechnic era: full centralization of industrial production, agriculture, and banking in the form of the monopoly. As evidenced by the path chosen by the Soviet Union, revolution appeared as the proletariat simply supplanting the bourgeoisie with all the technical systems intact. After the Paris Commune, the two were quick to admit that their ideas were already antiquated. “..the working class cannot,” Marx wrote, “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”[22] Even without a Paris Commune on the horizon, the same holds true today. For the emergent technics to be put to full use for the project of emancipation (as opposed to servicing the coming technics of capitalism’s next techno-economic paradigm), they must be connected to what Marcuse called the “Great Refusal.” This is an explosion of forceful opposition to all institutions and practices that ensure the continuation of domination and exploitation – a negative upswell from below. From one perspective, the Great Refusal is the revolutionary burst of the marginalized, all those who have been denied access to the means of subsistence that industrial civilization grants. From another, Marcuse paints it as the actualization of art in the everyday: it is art that forms rationality that moves against technological rationality, embodying the possibilities of a world beyond this one. And finally, the Great Refusal is a technological revolution, calling on all resources that break the necessity of labor itself.

“Nothing indicates that it will be a good end,” Marcuse notes.[23] But it does indicate that we once again take the idea of revolution seriously.

[1] Stevphen Shukaitis Imaginal Machines: Autonomy and Self-Organization in the Revolution of Everyday Life Autonomedia, 2009, pg. 218

[2] Describing the company’s high degree of automation in production and supply chain management, as well as its effect on prices through its centralized, anti-market structure Jameson writes that “the Walmart celebrated by [Thomas] Friedman becomes the very anticipatory prototype of some new form of socialism for which the reproach of centralization now proves historically misplaced and irrelevant.” Frederic Jameson Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions Verso, 2007, pg. 153, note 22.

[3] Carlotta Perez defines the “techno-economic paradigm” as “a function of the rhythm of diffusion of the revolutionary products, technologies and infrastructures. At first the impact is localized and minor, with time it is widespread and all-encompassing. The changes occur in the economy and in the territory, in behaviours and in ideas. The paradigm and its new common sense criteria become ingrained and act as inductors and filters for the pursuit of technical, organisational and strategic innovations as well as for business and consumer decisions. The process is self-reinforced as the further propagation and adoption of the new technologies confirm in practice the wisdom of the shared principles.” See Carlota Perez “Technological Revolutions and Techno-Economic Paradigms” Working Papers in Technology Governance and Economic Dynamics No. 20, January, 2009, The Other Canon Foundation, pg. 15 For a divergent, Marxist take on these forces, see Ernest Mandel Long Waves of Capitalist Development: A Marxist Perspective Verso, 1995

[4] Paul Romano and Ria Stone The American Worker Facing Reality, 1969, pg. 6

[5] See Asger Jorn “The Situationists and Automation” Internationale Situationniste No. 1, 1958,

[6] Raoul Vaneigem The Revolution of Everyday Life Rebel Press, 2006, pg. 84

[7] For the way Fourier’s erotic utopia influenced both the refusal preached by the Surrealists and the revolutionary poetics of Vaneigem, see McKenzie Wark The Spectacle of Disintegration: Situationist Passage Out of the 20th Century Verso, 2013, pgs. 49-83

[8] Herbert Marcuse Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry Into Freud Vintage Books, 1962, pg. 217

[9] Ibid, pg. 84

[10] Ibid, pgs. 90-91

[11] Herbert Marcuse “Some Social Implications of Modern Technology” in Andrew Arato and Eike Gebhart (eds.) The Essential Frankfurt School Reader, Continuum Publishing Company, 1982, pg. 141

[12] For an excellent history and analysis of Cold War liberalism and its unique form of techno-determinism, the reader is referred to Richard Barbrook Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to the Global Village Pluto Press, 2007

[13] Lewis Mumford Technics and Civilization, Routledge, Kegan & Paul, 1934, pg. 149

[14] Ibid, pg. 224

[15] Ibid, pg. 212

[16] David F. Noble Forces of Production: A Social History of Automation Oxford University Press, 1984

[17] See Murray Rothbard “The Great Society: A Libertarian Critique”

[18] Mumford Technics and Civilization, pg. 379

[19] Ibid, pg. 279

[20] Herbert Marcuse One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society Beacon Press, 1964, pg. 228

[21] Hod Lipson and Melba Kurman Factory @ Home: The Emerging Economy of Personal Fabrication US Office of Science and Technology Policy, 2010 pg. 57

[22] Karl Marx “The Paris Commune” May, 1871

[23] Marcuse One Dimensional Man, pg. 257


taken from here

 Foto: Bernhard Weber
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