Tech workers against imperialism

Protests from within the tech industry are resisting different nodes of the same system of imperial violence.

During the last few months, we have seen unprecedented levels of unrest within the tech industry from fellow disgruntled workers who are opposed to technologies that their own companies are developing. Google workers protested against AI tech for drones, and other military contracts. Microsoft and Salesforce workers protested against contracts with ICE and border patrol. Amazon workers protested against the development of tech for domestic policing and surveillance. (See this PDF for a zine created by TWC that has compiled information on some of the major #TechWontBuildIt protests).

What is striking is that all of these protests are targeted at different points of the same general system of state violence. Military interventions abroad, the incarceration and mass deportations of migrants, and the surveillance and policing of domestic populations are all different expressions of what we can call the armed wing of US imperialism. Recognizing this fact is key in increasing the coordination and effectiveness of the efforts by all the different groups of workers and activists who are resisting this violent system.

Circuits of Violence

Little needs to be said about the nature of US foreign policy — which includes the use of drones for surveillance, targeted assassinations, and general air-strike capability — and its malignant impacts on the world. The invasion and occupation of Iraq and the subsequent spread of war, economic crisis, sectarianism, and terrorism across the Middle East and North Africa speaks for itself. The last two decades (if not the entirety of the post-WW2 era) have demonstrated, beyond all reasonable doubt, how US foreign policy revolves entirely around the narrow interests of its own political and economic elites, rather than any concern around issues of democracy and human rights. Today, this drive is reaching new grotesque depths, as the US military engine provides critical assistance to the Saudi-lead war in Yemen, which is threatening some 14 million people with death by starvation.

But it’s important to connect US military aggression with issues of migration and border security. The imperial violence that has devastated the Middle East in recent years has also devastated Central America, particularly in the 1980s, when the US government spent billions propping up repressive dictatorships and oligarchies in the region against left-wing guerrillas and progressive social movements. The destruction that swept the region during that era continues to reverberate to the present day. It is not a coincidence that around 50% of the undocumented migrants that are swept into the US immigration detention system — a process facilitated by the surveillance, data processing, and business process technologies developed by the tech industry — are refugees from Central America, fleeing levels of gang violence that rivals Middle Eastern warzones.

In fact, the gangs that have been terrorizing Central America during the last decade or so were born in the US, forged on Los Angeles streets and in Californian prisons, and then unceremoniously dumped back into a chaotic post-war region through mass deportations. They were a product of not only the brutal civil wars of the 1980s that forced hundreds of thousands to flee to the US, but also of America’s system of mass incarceration, which was ramping into high gear at the same time as Central America’s civil wars. American policing and its prison system — designed more around brutalizing and containing working-class communities of color than around any sense of healing or restorative justice or re-integration — proved to be extremely effective in turning troubled refugee youth into hardened, organized killers.

The example of Central America in the last few decades is perhaps the best example of how militarism, borders, and policing are all part of a continuum of repression, that rip apart entire societies in repeating cycles of violence. But we must also understand how the various institutions of US imperialism themselves consciously blur the boundaries between their respective areas of operations. Consider the 24-year reign of Joe Arpaio as Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, during which day-to-day policing was synonymous with targeting local Latinx people — racialized as potential undocumented migrants — with harassment, abuse, and brutality. Or how the CIA helped the NYPD place local Muslim communities under a full-scale surveillance state as part of a domestic front for the War on Terror. Or how the NSA’s mass surveillance programs were originally built up and tested during the US occupation of Iraq. And of course, for cases specific to the tech industry, perhaps no company so perfectly illustrates the continuity between military interventions, border security, and domestic policing than Palantir, which has lucrative surveillance and analytics contracts with the US Army, ICE, and the LAPD (among many others). The various agencies and departments of the American empire comprise an interconnected system that is constantly circulating knowledge, practices, and tools. What was implemented to control rebellious populations abroad inevitably circulates back to help control rebellious populations at home.

And these circuits of control are not restricted to where US military and political power reign supreme — they overlap with other states’ interests as well. Consider the sprawling and intrusive systems of surveillance, policing, and censorship that have been built out in China, with the help of US tech companies — a dynamic that is sparking a new round of unrest at Google, which is looking to follow this trend. This case demonstrates the complexity of imperialism; two countries that are politically at odds, and see one another as rival empires, are nonetheless deeply entangled not only in terms of their economies, but in the technologies and tactics they use to maintain order and elite interests. Selling surveillance and policing tech is a case of the tech industry, consciously or unconsciously, looking out for its own interests. China remains the global center of electronics production, and keeping the workers in this segment of tech’s supply chain under control and productive is of vital importance to US tech companies — especially given the incredible level of rebelliousness among Chinese workers.

What’s Next?

Understanding the deeply interconnected nature of imperialism can help us come to terms with the global and transnational stakes of what might otherwise look like localized struggles. Opposing a global system of repression, and the supply chains of technology that sustain it, can feel like an incredibly daunting task. But just as the various institutions of imperialism are intertwined, so too are the fates of those impacted. Building on the fact that so many of our struggles are connected is necessary to build a broad-based and mass movement against imperialism.

There are several ways that the current movement can be further developed. The first and most important task is, of course, to continue to build worker power in the tech industry. We need to continue to engage in critical discussions with our coworkers about everything from basic workplace conditions to the ethical dimensions of how our labor is used, and the fact that by acting collectively, we can assert our own power in the workplace as rank-and-file workers. Managers and executives can blather on forever about ethical principles and human rights, but unless workers have the confidence and organization to challenge the traditional decision-making hierarchy of capitalism, corporations will always prioritize their bottom line, regardless of the human cost (case-in-point: the immediate results of the Google walkout). Indeed, corporate leadership at Microsoft and Amazon are digging in their heels on the issue of providing technologies to the US military.

A second task is for restive workers to forge more connections with the organizers and activists who are on the front-lines of resisting empire. Perhaps Google workers can connect more with movements among Afghan and Yemeni people, and Salesforce workers with immigrant activists, and so on. This can help strengthen tactics like public protests, and circulate knowledge between groups that may not otherwise communicate. Building these cross-community ties should be coupled with further research and investigation into the full scope of how the tech industry is integrated with law enforcement, border security, and military forces. After all, this year’s tech worker protests are only scratching at the surface of a relationship that has existed since the very beginning of both the tech industry and the military-industrial complex.

Ultimately, we must spread the idea and practice of actually shutting down the supply chains of imperialism, rather than simply asking for reforms from managers, politicians, and bureaucrats, who will inevitably have their own agendas. True worker power isn’t delegating the task of changing society to elites, but doing it ourselves. This should also be tied to a more ambitious program of imagining and implementing new plans for technological development that actually serves human needs, rather than the needs of warmongers and arms dealers. We ought to study and seek to bring back the Lucas Plan, a mass effort by workers in the 1970s at an English defense company — everybody from secretaries to engineers — to come up with a production and distribution plan that would not be based on arms production, but would still incorporate the skill-sets and interests of workers.

We have momentous and grueling tasks ahead of us. But through organizing, solidarity and collective action, we can build a better world — a world of peace and prosperity, instead of violence — for ourselves, our communities, and our planet.