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.
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.