On January 20-21, the Duke University Program in Literature will be hosting the Marxism and New Media conference. I will be presenting a paper titled “Is Anonymous a New Form of Luddism?” which argues that while on a superficial level nothing seems more remote than a movement of machine-breakers and a network of hackers, in actual fact the two have many things in common. What follows is the abstract of the paper.

Operation Luddite
While Luddism is commonly associated with a technophobic attitude, historians of the labor movement agree that the English Luddites did not reject technology as such, but the introduction of new labor-saving machines in the textile industry. Further, recent historiography has shown how by taking their name from a fictional eponymous leader, the Luddites invented a sophisticated rhetorical strategy aimed at empowering different segments of the English working class.

This paper draws from this nuanced reading of Luddism to discover analogies and differences between the hacker network Anonymous and the Luddite movement. Three important analogies are first considered: 1) If Luddism emerged at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, Anonymous appears in the early stages of informational capitalism, that is, both movements can be read as a self-organized response of specific sectors of the working class to a radical restructuring of the relations of production; 2) Both the Luddites and the Anonymous subjectivity express themselves by means of a collective pseudonym—what I call an “improper name”—whose symbolic power is appropriated by various groups and individuals to advance a diversified set of demands; 3) Both Anonymous and the Luddites direct their attacks against a specific kind of machines and technologies.

Building from the third point I expand on the differences between Anonymous and the Luddites. Here I combine Marxist theory and cybernetic theory to root the difference between Luddism and Anonymous in a fundamental operational difference between industrial machines and cybernetic machines. While in the industrial factory information is employed vertically to control the worker’s productivity and convert living labor into exchange value and dead labor, in the information society information flows rhizomatically as “the relation between human and machine is based on internal, mutual communication, and no longer on usage or action.” (Deleuze and Guattari, 458). As Deleuze and Guattari point out, the body of the factory worker is subjected to a machine that is extrinsic to it whereas the cybernetic worker is enslaved to a machine of which he/she has become one of its components. From this angle, it is no accident that Anonymous’ attacks are not directed against the network in which the cyber-worker is integrated, but against governmental and corporate attempts to enclose, monitor, and privatize it.

Yet, if we consider that the accumulation and control of (sensitive) information is fundamental to the contemporary accumulation of capital, we can see how Anonymous’ cyber-attacks can be also read as an attack on the new technical composition of capital emerging from the Information Revolution in the same way as the Luddite destruction of industrial machinery was an attack on the new technical composition of capital emerging from the Industrial Revolution. In an age in which every Internet user is de facto (an unpaid) cyber-worker, Anonymous expresses the organized power of these users to reclaim unrestrained access to information—thereby threatening the artificial scarcities through which capital segments the workforce and valorizes itself.

2 Responses to “Is Anonymous a New Form of Luddism?”

  1. David King says:

    This is an interesting, but in the end, unconvincing attempt to identify Anonymous as inheritors of the Luddite mantle. For my own views on related issues you might look at luddites200blog.org.uk.

    The argument seems to hang on Deleuze and Guattari’s claim that we are all cyber workers now, simply by virtue of using computers and the Internet. This claim is overblown and reductionist in a rather typical poststructuralist way. It relies on a fetishism of information in such phrases as ‘information Society’. The fact that I exchange information with my computer does not make me just part of the network. There is still, thankfully, a fundamental distinction between the worker and the machine: the former still has at least some agency and can think, she can follow my advice and get off her computer and onto the streets. Politically, such statements serve to disempower resistance by telling us that we are in a closed system from which we cannot escape. They are little better than Frederick Taylor’s remark that, ‘In the past the man was first, in the future the System must be first’.

    There is, however, a sense in which you are right that the reason why Anonymous does not attack the system itself is because they are part of the system. It is simply that they are not really working class, and they have a big stake as technical experts in the computer systems that they are so good at manipulating. Gaining mastery over some technology has always been a key route for young working class people to escape into the bourgeoisie, and this explains why hackers so often end up as computer security consultants for corporations, once they have got over their phase of youthful rebellion. As a non-computer-geek, I find ‘hacktivism’ to be exclusionary and techno-elitist and to have little interest in the Commonality that the Luddites were defending. Saying that we’re all cyber-workers now ignores the huge differences in class power between data-inputters, programmers and hackers, and those who own servers and computer corporations. When call centre staff start smashing their computers, then I will call them Luddites. The Luddite attacks were highly organised and targeted according to a real unity derived from their class interest: theirs was a real anti-capitalist struggle. By contrast Anonymous seems to have no common set of values, other than that of bourgeois liberal ‘freedom’ of information, and its political strategy consequently seems to collapse into ‘play’ and ‘entertainment’.

    Finally, a couple of questions. Firstly, what is the point of the silly poster, which colludes in the ideological myth that Luddism is about, ‘going back to the past’? Secondly, I would be interested in the research on the Luddites’ rhetorical strategy, can you give me a reference?

    David King

  2. Kevin says:

    I would be interested in reading this paper. Could you let me know where I could get a copy?

    Thanks.

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