Thinking about Luddism in the 21st century

I’ve recently been reading Gavin Mueller’s Breaking Things at Work, a short but ambitious book that begins with a recap of the history of the Luddite movement and then uses this as a base from which to launch into a genealogy of luddite tendencies, tensions and tactics that can be found weaved into the history of labour struggle. Mueller is explicit about wanting to provide an antidote to the often poorly thought out Fully Automated Luxury Communism genre of thought that has been fashionable in recent years. I’m not convinced that it entirely achieves this, perhaps instead reaching the slightly lower bar of a refreshing palette cleanser after endless courses of FALC, but I found plenty of value in it nonetheless.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Taylorism in which Mueller includes a 1913 quote from a New Jersey silk mill worker which made me cackle:

“I never heard of this thing called sabotage before MR. Boyd spoke about it on the platform. I know once in a while when I want a half-day off and they won’t give it to me I slip the belt off the machine so it won’t run and I get my half day. I don’t know whether you call that sabotage, but that’s what I do.”

This is from Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers’ Industrial Efficiency, published in 1917 when sabotage was being discussed as a new tactic of labour militancy, in which she argues that in reality workers already regularly practiced sabotage but without referring to it as such. Sabotage for Flynn is any withdrawal of efficiency by the worker and this is definition helped me see the value of experimenting with a Luddite lens when thinking about the terrain of labour struggle. Flynn also offers the below quote from another worker:

“I was in the strike of the dyers eleven years ago and we lost. We went back to work and we had these scabs that had broken our strike working side by side with us. We were pretty sore. So whenever they were supposed to be mixing green we saw to it that they put in red, or when they were supposed to be mixing blue we saw to it that they put in green. And soon they realized that scabbing was a very unprofitable business. And the next strike we had, they lined up with us. I don’t know whether you call that sabotage, but it works.”

A key theme of the history Mueller lays out is the conflict between the astute analysis of rank and file workers who often rightly recognised that automation is not simply a means to achieve greater productivity but a process by which control over the production process can be snatched from them, and union leaderships who ignored this understanding and embraced automation as a utopian vision. These leaderships then often limited their agitation and demands to matters of wages etc even as new technologies made work itself an increasingly miserable affair.

Reading about this trend aligned nicely with thoughts left in my head from my (incomplete) reading of Mike Davis’ Prisoners of the American Dream last year in which Davis provides a painstakingly detailed account of the US labour movement whilst attempting to answer the question of, essentially, ‘why didn’t it follow Europe’s path?’. One of his central observations for me was that American workers in the in the 19th and 20th centuries experienced a particularly intense kind of humiliating tyranny at the hands of supervisors in their places of work that their European counterparts largely didn’t share. It was for this reason that whilst European militancy was more likely to focus on the ‘hard’, quantifiable demands about the outcome of work – wages, sick pay, holiday pay etc – first in the sights of American militancy was often ‘soft’ demands, about the nature of work  – protection from abuse (verbal or physical) at the hands of the factory foreman, limits on work that was excessively miserable to perform and the right to be treated with minimum standards of respect.

I hadn’t previously given much thought to how control over one’s work (the pace, the methods used, the ways in which you cooperate with your fellow workers) is something to be valued in and of itself even within the confines of the wage relation’s generalised alienation. It now seems obvious to me however that American workers, historically having been the first to experience Taylorism and the ways in which it systematically stripped this control from them, would have been more inclined to make demands about the nature of their work rather than simply their remuneration for it. It occurs to me that if the relentless pace of life’s reassembly at the hands of technology in the present is to be greeted by any meaningful response from the left, it must be a response that reasserts the right of workers to have a measure of control over their work.

Elsewhere, as the book approached the present, there was an obligatory mention of supermarket self-service checkouts as a familiar and transparent example of automation. I found it slightly distasteful that this was exclusively approached from the angle of customers who objected to the work of scanning items having been outsourced to them, rather than any exploration of what it meant to work in a supermarket alongside these machines. This perspective was stitched into a theme that presented automating technologies as forcing you to perform someone else’s job – citing an interviewed software developer who asked “Why am I doing HR’s job?” in response to having to log his own absence on a digital HR system. This struck me as on the wrong side of the debate that plays out regularly wherever David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is cited – do you object to having to do the work because you think it shouldn’t have to be done, or because you think it just shouldn’t have to be done by you?

To return to the self-service checkout for a second, every time I see them lazily deployed as an example of technological progress within whatever view I’m amused by the implication that they emerged as a sudden and isolated change in the nature of retail work that popped into existence out of nowhere in the late noughties. Anyone with any familiarity with the history of retail knows that technology has long been persistently restructuring the nature of work within it, albeit often out of view of the customer. That the advent of electronic point of sale systems features so rarely in popular writing on automation says a lot in my view about the backgrounds of those doing this writing.

Back to Breaking Things at Work – though it’s difficult throughout the core of the book to keep track of what argument exactly Mueller is making about Luddism’s value to the reader in the present, in the conclusion he asserts that the left should put forth a decelerationist politics – one committed to slowing the pace of change and undermining capitalist technological progress – based on an understanding that technology is at all times political rather than neutral. This politics would value the Luddism and its tactics as an emergency brake, in Walter Benjamin’s sense, a sorely needed obstacle to the reconfiguration of our lives by the bulldozer of capitalist technological progress.

I’ve a lot of time for this argument, although so far remain a way short of convinced by it, and so I was disappointed that the book didn’t offer much on the topic of what an energised Luddite movement in the most common workplaces of the global north in the 21st century might look like. Discussion of the present was confined to only the second half of the ‘High-Tech Luddism’ chapter and apart from the few pages concerned with the idea of doing someone else’s job was largely focussed on examples of resistance in Silicon Valley or the most obvious examples of resistance to Silicon Valley technologies in our own lives, e.g. boycotts of social media platforms.

As someone who often experiences their day-to-day work as a loop in which I develop my own technological solutions to automate the work required to maintain previous automation (or fauxtomation), I was desperate for something to help me structure my thoughts about being an active participant in, nay contributor to, capitalist technology’s dominating effect on my life. I suspect this sense of being both the automated and the automater is one shared by many workers in the 21st century’s economy, unlike the workers of the 20th century’s economy who were more likely to simply be on the receiving end of an automation done to them, and so it was a shame that the book did little to explore this dynamic.

Nonetheless Mueller manages to fit a whirlwind tour of Luddism’s history, its position within core Marxist debates and its continued relevance in the here and now in a little under 150 pages, without doubt a serious accomplishment.

Personal finance

Reflections on my personal finance obsession

I’ve maintained a budget spreadsheet since the age of 16. I created my first shortly after starting a part-time job during my A Levels and since then have been tracking my personal finances with greater and greater intensity. This spreadsheet has taken a number of forms over the years as both the things to be managed in my finances and the way in which I’ve conceptualised my finances have changed. Throughout my time as a teenager, a student, a full-time worker, a student again and a full-time worker again I referred to and updated the spreadsheet typically several times a week, rarely less than once a week and as far as I can recall never less than once a fortnight.

It’s certainly not unique to closely budget and in my circle I’d say it’s become more common in recent years, although perhaps this is just a reflection of my circle ageing with me. For those who previously saw the benefit but lacked the motivation or time to budget there’s been a proliferation of apps and digital services designed to make the exercise as effortless as possible, either as a standalone tool or built as part of day-to-day financial services such as Monzo, Revolut etc. For those meanwhile who didn’t previously see the benefit of budgeting there’s been an explosion in online communities relating to personal finance (the ukpersonalfinance subreddit being where I tend to lurk) that often in odd ways occupies the same space as fitness social media influencers – that is, offering the idea of intense effort in one area of your life as a solution to whatever particular powerlessness you feel elsewhere in your life, couched in meaningless motivational bullshit and billionaire idolisation. That this latter trend is increasingly coopted by hustlers trying to sell worthless forex courses or ‘signals’, using uncontroversial personal finance education as a gateway, has also undeniably contributed to making the practice of intense budgeting more common.

Let’s also acknowledge that for many, more so than ever after decades of austerity, falling wages and housing crises, tight budgeting is a necessity to survive. It’s a cliché at this point to talk through some example of boomers buying a house at the age of 20 for a few years’ salary and filling it with a family that could be supported on the husband’s wage alone but it is true that older segments of the population, speaking in terms of generational identity rather any specific one of the millions of constituent varying experiences, have never experienced the need to track one’s finances closely to even be able to dream of a future in which you are more comfortable than you are in the present.

My particular form of obsession with personal finance goes beyond what most people would consider ‘budgeting’ to refer to however and I think I can claim that I spend more time thinking and working on my personal finances than anyone else I know irl. Seeing the journey of my girlfriend who when I met her did fairly limited budgeting and after spending lockdown with me had become more invested in the practice but stabilised far short of my obsession (at what is without doubt a more healthy level of interest), I’ve started to think more about why this has become such a oversized component of my personality.

It’s still not a question that I have a satisfying answer to. There’s an element of class for sure – something about how I’ve processed my own journey from growing up cripplingly poor in a council flat to earning a good salary in a culturally middle class profession and owning the flat I live in. I’m determined to not lose the security that I’ve secured in recent years and I doubt I’ll ever lose the particular anxiety that sits at the back of my head known only to those who have experienced poverty. There are however countless people who have experienced equivalent or more dramatic changes in class status that track their finances no more closely than the average person and I’m not even convinced that those with less money in their past or present are those more likely to be intensely into personal finance – often it is those with so much money that it’s hard to imagine any realistic risk to their standard of living that fill personal finance message boards. The precarity in my own life has subsided after all and yet the hours I dedicate to my finances have not. Whilst class is definitely part of why I have this obsession it cannot then be the only part and it is so far from a common feature of particular class identities that I wouldn’t even flirt with the idea that class is a reliable indicator of personal finance interest.

Looking elsewhere, there’s clearly something in the fact that I’m a data analyst by profession. I spend all day working with data or, these days, doing the peculiar intangible meta-work of middle management with people that work with data. On balance though I’d guess that data analysts are not much more likely to apply data-heavy approaches to their personal lives than anyone else and I know more than a few data analysts who refuse to even look at their bank balance, so this explanation similarly feels unsatisfying by itself.

Relatedly, as we’ll go onto, I’ve often used personal finance as a pet project in which I can develop new skills. Rarely a weekend goes by that I won’t dedicate a few hours to sitting in an armchair coding and personal finance is a naturally data-rich playground that offers all sorts of opportunities for experimenting with building things. Perhaps this too is a component of the explanation, although I know plenty of hobby-coders that spend their time on far more interesting projects so there’s little here that destined me to invest my leisure time in calculating my exact net worth.

The explanation must be some combination of all of the above and – to add a final element – a belief in a particular principle that I’ve acquired somewhere along the way that the key to securing long-term material improvements in your standard of living is careful, persistent and detail-focused attention on making incremental progress rather than pursuing big bang solutions. This isn’t a belief I’m necessarily comfortable with, nor one that I wouldn’t jettison given interrogation on the matter, for whilst it is in some senses a sensible semi-truism it is in others deeply ideological and not something that sits easily with my politics. It nonetheless structures my thoughts at a level only partially perceivable to me and likely predisposes me toward obsessive personal finance tracking.

So what does my obsession actually look like? For a long time it was the aforementioned spreadsheet, its complexity ever escalating. That was until 2019 when, finding that I could no longer contort an unwieldy mess of over-engineered Excel tabs into achieving what I now wanted, I began work on developing my own web application to manage my finances. A few months later I had a prototype system with some limited functionality and had learned enough from the development process to know where I had messed everything up, so started again from the ground up. When the first lockdown landed in 2020 I suddenly had a lot more time to dedicate to personal projects and after a surge in development completed a first adequate version of what I now call Smlkjns Finance. Hours of incremental further development (and a frontend redesign) followed in Lockdowns 2 and 3 until we arrived at the present, where I’ve recently realised that I now never look at the previously adored spreadsheet, it having been made entirely redundant by the new app.

Smlkjns Finance is hosted on a remote server I rent for this and a number of other purposes so that it’s available to me from my phone wherever I have signal. Its frontend is built largely in PHP and runs on a MariaDB database, with some overnight backend jobs performed by some Python scripts. The frontend uses the Google Charts API where plots or other visualisations are needed. I maintain a production environment and a development environment so that I don’t risk knocking the app out of action when I want to work on some new functionality and it’s currently around 7,000 lines of code in total.

I input every transaction of any kind into the app and through a mixture of statement export features from some banks and painstaking data entry from others it contains a record of every transaction across every account I’ve had since 2014, with monthly account balances extracted from old budget spreadsheets providing further data back to 2010. There’s currently approx. 8,500 transactions in the database all together and each has a variety of metadata attached to it.

An example of a transaction record

Every transaction is assigned to a budget and every budget is a weekly instance of a specific ‘budget group’, e.g. Groceries.

An example of a budget currently in progress

The years of data available for each budget group provides a means for the app to project likely final totals for a budget at the end of its week – using an algorithm I first wrote in hundreds of lines of PHP and that I’ve since refined into far fewer lines and is now executed entirely in SQL.

With a record of every transaction in the past and a projection for every budget in the future the app can then calculate a balance for any given account on any given date.

A daily account balance report for my current account throughout January 2021

With this available for every account the app can therefore also calculate my total net worth for any given date and it’s this that is essentially the culmination of it all.

Net worth reported monthly from January 2010 to December 2021

In the above, the green/blue line represents total net worth (green is the past, blue is a forecast of the future), whilst the dark grey line represents total liquid capital and the light grey line represents total liquid and semi-liquid investments.

On the topic of investments, I’ve been experimenting with investing in funds since around September 2020 and so have also built functionality to help me track and manage this.

Total gain on investments reported by day since September 2020

I can’t definitively say that having all this available to me makes me any happier, although time spent developing it is a profound means of relaxation for me. I claim, when pushed, that it helps me make more informed decisions but it’s difficult to think of any decision I would need to make where a few hours with a spreadsheet wouldn’t be able to tell me what I needed to know. So I’m still not sure why I do this. I’m not planning to stop though.


Note: I’ve tried to cover up any actual numbers in the screenshots in this post but if I’ve missed some somewhere or you’re the clever sort who can deduce what some of the numbers might be from context then lucky you.

Student loans

20/21: Student loan repayments in context

With not long left of the 20/21 tax year but seemingly plenty left of the ongoing global situation I’ve gotten round this weekend to an update to this and this post, putting undergraduate student loan repayments together with income tax and national insurance to demonstrate the impact of loans on final take home pay.

In previous years I used PHP and Google Charts but this year I rebuilt the work in Python using Matplotlib.

The code to recreate this chart, including for the 19/20 tax year, can be downloaded here.

Further Education

Principal’s Pay at Further Education Colleges

The pay of vice chancellors at UK universities often makes it into the news and it’s fairly easy to lookup how much your local VC is earning, with it typically published in a university’s annual report. The same cannot be said of further education colleges who very rarely offer any transparency when it comes to the pay of their principals and senior managers, despite it often rivalling that of universities. Data on principal’s pay is however collected by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and published here, buried in CSVs with over 400 columns that frustratingly often change format between years.

I’ve pulled this data into a small tool that allows you to rank colleges by the pay of their principals. Explore the data here.

The latest data available concerns the 2018-2019 academic year. Ranked by total remuneration, the top 5 are:

Number 1: Cliff Hall at Birmingham Metropolitan College – £322,000
number 2: Paul Phillips at weston college – £318,000
number 3: Gary Headland at lincoln college – £277,000
number 4: Liz Bromley at NCG – £274,000
number 5: John thronhill at LTE Group – £257,000

Total remuneration is the sum of the below:

  • Principal’s salary
  • Principal’s performance related pay & bonus
  • Principal’s Other emoluments including benefits in kind
  • Principal’s pension contributions

Oslo – December 2019


Chester – August 2019


Split & Hvar – July 2019

Split – with a cloud
Split – with Sammi
Hvar – from above
Hvar – waiting for the boat

London – July 2019

Regent’s Park. Photo credit: Chloe Thomson

Pembrokeshire – July 2019

Cardigan – our cabin
Struggling with the fire
Poppet Sands
Photo credit: David Franklin

Birmingham – June 2019

As views from a Premier Inn room go, not too bad

Dartmoor – June 2019


Bath – May 2019

Student loans

Updated: Student loan payments in context

New tax year, new numbers. This post provided a comparison of total tax rates (comprised of income tax, national insurance contributions and undergraduate student loan repayments) for tax years 2017/18 and 2018/19. The chart below is updated to show how things now stand for tax year 2019/20.

19/20 Tax Year

Click here to see the full-size (interactive-ish) graph.


Cologne – NYE 2018


Taunton – November 2018

Student loans

Student loan repayments in context

With the government currently mulling over various changes to student finance I thought it would be a worthwhile exercise to map out how student loan repayments work in context. Repayments currently operate like a tax – graduates have 9% of everything they earn above their repayment threshold taken from their paycheck. Graduates’ repayment thresholds are determined by whether they began their studies pre-2012 (the ‘Plan 1’ regime) or post-2012 (the ‘Plan 2 regime’), whilst the thresholds themselves are raised to account for inflation annually for Plan 1 and when the government feels like it for Plan 2.

This makes it sensible to view student loan repayments alongside the other key taxes, i.e. national insurance and income tax, as you’d expect workers to be more concerned with their final takehome pay than what balance sheets their tax has been split between.

With that in mind I’ve put together a graph showing the different relationships between gross and takehome pay for workers depending on whether they have an outstanding student loan and if so under what regime.

17/18 Tax Year

Click here to see the full-size (interactive-ish) graph.

The repayment thresholds for both Plan 1 and Plan 2 are changing this coming April:

2017/18 2018/19
Plan 1 £17,775 £18,330
Plan 2 £21,000 £25,000

The income tax and national insurance thresholds will also be changing in the new tax year, so with these all put together we can see how the graph will look in April.

18/19 Tax Year

Click here to see the full-size (interactive-ish) graph.

Note: The maths for these graphs is done in PHP and I originally wrote the code that they use to form part of some money/budgeting tools I was building for myself. Being slightly obsessed with personal financial planning I wanted to know exactly how my takehome pay would change in the new tax year and thought others might too.

Further note: All of this ignores pension contributions. I don’t do pensions.