Living Workers, Dead Wages

by Luke Evans


“And, it must be confessed, that although the adoption of the enlarged machinery, in that state of our commerce which the country once boasted, might have been beneficial to the master without being detrimental to the servant; yet, in the present situation of our manufactures, rotting in warehouses without a prospect of exportation, with the demand for work and workmen equally diminished, frames of this construction tend materially to aggravate the distresses and discontents of the disappointed sufferers”

Lord Byron, Speech to the House of Lords, 1812

In 1812, Lord George Gordon Byron, the poet and celebrity, spoke in the House of Lords expressing strong sympathies for the Luddite insurgency. The Luddites were working class rebels, employed in the textile industry, who took to smashing the new forms of machine that were replacing their skilled work. Byron spoke to the rebellion placing it as a product of the immiserating poverty resulting from these new machines creating unemployment.

In the Summer of 1816, Lord Byron met with Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (later known as Mary Shelley) and Claire Claremont for a holiday on the lakes in Geneva, Switzerland. During their late night revelries, Byron challenged his compatriots to create a ghost story. This challenge inspired Mary Shelley to develop the ideas that would lead to the story we know as ‘Frankenstein’. The story of ‘Frankenstein’ involves the promethean arrogance of a young scientist who stitches the body parts of the dead together in order to prove he had worked out how to bring the dead back to life. The creature he creates enters into life frightened and disfigured, haunting the scientist, as it encounters violence and fear coming from the world that it merely wants to find meaning in. The machinery of reanimation created the undead creature that comes to embody the destructive revenge of natural justice. The scientist’s offspring becomes his downfall.

Byron himself fathered a child with Anna Isabella Milbanke. Augusta Ada Lovelace was born on the 10th December 1815. Milbanke, angered with Byron’s unpleasant behaviour, encouraged Lovelace’s interest in mathematics and logic. Lovelace describes her approach as ‘poetical science’. She formed an important friendship with Charles Babbage, who had designed an early automated calculating machine called the ‘Difference Engine’. Lovelace designed an algorithm for a later device, the Analytical Engine, which is understood as being the first ever example of what we now call a ‘computer program’.

Our lives today are governed by algorithms. Inhuman mathematical mechanisms for calculating the economic price of various stocks, the precise geography of undecided swing voters, and your personal tastes turned into adverts whenever you choose to look for things on the internet. Human lives transformed into measurable data that can be labelled with a money cost. Even our moods, our feelings, have become objects of calculation. The owners of Facebook use their ability to access the details of our personal and social lives to see how they can manipulate our moods, making us happy or sad. It has also been revealed that this manipulation could decide the results of an election.

Just this week, both Labour and the Conservative party have united around the ‘Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Bill’. This bill forces internet service providers to retain our online information for up to 12 months, so that the state can monitor our online behaviour. This law changes UK law after a European Court of Justice ruling undermined previous legislation. This represents the continuing managerialism of the elite in Parliament who want nothing more than to treat us like information, as numbers, rather than as human beings.

Capitalism relies on inventing new and more complex forms of machinery that in turn simplify and degrade the lives of those who work for the elite. The processes of making or serving the system

“mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hated toil; they estrange from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they distort the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut of capital”

Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, 1867

Our working lives have become dominated by the regulating power of the elites. The machines of the elite replace our skills and expertise with automatic movements. We become the servants of this machine. As the elites try to destroy our talents by increasing the monotony of our working lives. The managers of our workplaces try to find ways to rate our skills by setting up what are called ‘Key Performance Indicators’ (KPIs). KPIs are supposed to measure how well workers do their jobs. They are not only used to decide if a worker in a factory is making enough iPods or Topshop skirts, but are also used to measure how well a teacher is teaching. The machine creates the idea that we should be working harder, faster and better. This in turn reinforces the opinions of the elites that neglects and devalues the importance of our work for enriching the lives of our fellow human beings. As they try to get us to work harder, they treat us like the spare parts that Frankenstein hacked up and stitched together.

Since 2010, wages for UK workers have dropped at a greater rate than they have since 1964. For many young workers, they only know the reality of falling incomes and the fear of poverty. Since the 1980s the privatisation of the UK housing market through the selling of council housing stock has created a situation where young people are finding it impossible to afford decent, liveable housing. Buying a home is increasingly becoming the preserve of the rich.

There are signs of hope. On Thursday 10th July, over a million public sector workers took coordinated strike action. After over 4 years of effective pay cuts, and growing levels of in-work poverty, we are seeing a mass strike aimed at challenging our collective impoverishment. This has coincided with a growing campaign around the struggle of the Ritzy cinema workers in Brixton. The Ritzy strikers have come to symbolise something like the politics of the moment. Young, zero-hour contract workers, organising collectively and refusing to back down when management make a pay rise offer that doesn’t meet their demand for the living wage.

The battle is between the creative and collective aspirations of our side, and the controlling mathematics of the elite. When workers strike for better pay, it isn’t just about being able to afford to pay the rent or buy the weekly food shopping. It is about the idea that work should be a dignified experience, where our basic humanity as well as our capacity to do things is given the space to flourish. Workers who strike do not do so because they are only hungry for money, they do so because they want to be able to choose to work doing a job that feels like it is valued by society at large. The lack of freedom from the fear of poverty creates anger at the injustice of a system where the rich are continuing to get richer, while we are all getting poorer.

This anger can become the powerless ranting of an alienated individual on the internet, spied on by GCHQ or the NSA looking out for the warning signs of terrorism. Or, this anger can be organised, it can be put into motion. Much like the dismembered parts of Frankenstein’s monster were transformed into a living, breathing, feeling creature, when we organise in our workplaces and communities we go from being the dead data of the ruling elite to the living breathing embodiment of something better. In those moments, the elite will not be able to control or constrain us, but will be frightened of being the elite. As the creature born of cadavers and circuits said to his creator Frankenstein:

“Yet mine shall not be the submission of abject slavery. I will revenge my injuries: if I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear; and chiefly towards you my archenemy, because my creator, do I swear inextinguishable hatred. Have a care: I will work at your destruction…”


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