One Piece at a Time

by | 4 Nov 2015

On work, theft and the age of automation through a reading of Johnny Cash’s classic song

Johnny Cash’s One Piece at a Time is a song about how he makes his own dream Cadillac by smuggling out all the parts from the factory over twenty years. It’s essentially about stealing from work but that’s not how it’s meant to be understood. As the lyrics go,

I’ve never considered myself a thief
But GM wouldn’t miss just one little piece
Especially if I strung it out over several years.

Asides from the quandary about who the car once built really belongs to, the song is about the two things, work and theft. These two have always gone together but in the digital age the relationship needs an urgent update. The culture of thievin’ through work has everything to do with power and status. Cash’s song isn’t about the endemic theft high up the power chain disguised by smart accounting and managing the books. The song is about how the have-nots steal unnoticed at work. And not just the stealing of things. There is also the stealing of resources and time, using the workplace to do ‘other’ stuff on the quiet. That even has an official name, la perruque, thanks to the French scholar Michel de Certeau. De Certeau can be a difficult writer but he puts the case for la perruque beautifully as

the worker’s own work disguised as work for his [sic] employer. It differs from pilfering in that nothing of material value is stolen. It differs from absenteeism in that the worker is officially on the job … The worker who indulges in la perruque actually diverts time (not goods, since he uses only scraps) from the factory for work that is free, creative, and precisely not directed toward profit. In the very place where the machine he must serve reigns supreme, he cunningly takes pleasure in finding a way to create gratuitous products whose sole purpose is to signify his own capabilities through his work and to confirm his solidarity with other workers or his family. (The Practice of Everyday Life [1984])

With petty theft and la perruque what matters is not so much the stealing but capacity to steal. As of necessity the stealing is furtive but the solidarity is with a common experience — the stealing back of a sense of self when labour is reduced to mere commodity.

Cash was a political animal. He wore black on behalf of ‘the prisoner who has long paid for his crime’, on behalf of the poor and hungry, and for those who died in war needlessly. For all his antiwar sentiments there is nothing overt in One Piece at a Time about class struggle; even in the Midwest none would lay the communist tag on him.

But whilst One Piece at a Time is not about modern labour struggles it goes beyond that to the very nature of work itself and its moral codes. By declaring ‘I’ve never considered myself a thief’, Cash is laying claim to ideas about work killed off by capitalism and technology, whereby one could take and make things for free without having to steal. Taking and making for free as a way of life and a means of production comes from the values of the working Commons – from the time when commoners’ lives were divided between work for the feudal lord and work in the Commons. It was subsistence work, means of work that produced no surplus. With the Industrial Revolution, such means of livelihood disappeared to be replaced by new ideas about work, work extracted from all its entanglements as a free commodity in the marketplace.

Witnessing this process at first hand in the early 19th century deeply influenced a young Karl Marx in his native Moselle region of the Rhineland. Marx published as many as five articles in the Rheinische Zeitung about the changing laws concerning ‘theft’ of wood as the new age brought sweeping changes. Rights of the commoners once classed as customary rights progressively became indeterminate rights and then turned into private rights. In effect the entire framework on which the idea of rights stood moved ground to make possible the new realities of work now symbolised by the ‘job’.

Today the Motown factory that Cash sings about is a relic of history whilst the factory job he had is itself the subject of radical change. The Detroit motor plant of the 1970s bears little resemblance to the 21st century version where robot workers outnumber humans. Cars roll off the assembly line barely touched by human hands. Information technology has created a new kind of efficiency so that the humans are now being freed — if not in ways that they would anticipate. Freed from the regimentation that came with industrialisation and its working week. Beyond the car plant we are told that more than a third of the jobs of today are likely to be ‘automated’ within a couple of decades. The BBC even ran a survey inviting us to check if a robot will take your job. Bit by bit, the machine is stealing the work created in its self image.

As that cycle of inevitability unfolds, the message paradoxically is to ‘stay calm and carry on’ working. But  it’s barely a secret that as automation and information technology advance, the return on our ‘own’ work produces widening income inequality. Austerity becomes a growth industry. And it’s getting hard to correlate the realities of our working conditions with the new terminologies of work. The zero hour contracts. Workplaces turning into ‘fulfilment centres’ where the daily routine of going to and leaving work is more like airport security. In short, workplace technology has become synonymous with monitoring and surveillance.

Why the technology of work is on this pathway has a lot to do with the doublebind it’s caught in beneath the deluge of projections about a future free of work and automated abundance. The doublebind is in reconciling that with why today’s work patterns are sustained through reinforcing the work ethic using every means of technology. It’s an openly conflictual bind trapped by inherited prescriptions of what we work for whilst denying its corollary, what we take for free. To get out of it, to get to a ‘work free’ future that involves us means realigning the moral codes between them.

The difficulty is that the juggernaut of technology’s momentum gives no space for self reflection. It hurtles through us. Its motto is Adapt or die. Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee in Why Workers Are Losing the War Against Machines  give us some scenarios with the reality check that ‘there is no economic law that says that everyone, or even most people, automatically benefit from technological progress’. Quoting the economist Gregory Clarke, they draw a comparison with

a type of employee at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution whose job and livelihood largely vanished in the early twentieth century. This was the horse. … There was always a wage at which all these horses could have remained employed. But that wage was so low that it did not pay for their feed.

The burgeoning numbers of today’s low waged, zero-hour workers surviving below the cost of living draw a parallel. But it ends there as unlike horses, we humans can think, organise, and if push comes to shove, we can resist. And therein lies further reason for the forms of technology that have enveloped us. It’s not a digression to note how the growth of the tech sector and the information society has quietly coincided with the growth of the business of mass incarceration. According to the American Civil Rights Association, the US prison population rose by a staggering 408% between 1978 to 2014.

It’s worth returning again to the onset of the last age of labour saving machines through the forms of work that arose and the forms of work that disappeared. The upheavals they produced Peter Linebaugh describes in  Stop, Thief! The Commons, Enclosures, and Resistance (Oakland, PM Press 2014). A brief extract on the very same Rhineland of Karl Marx mentioned above will help us to reflect on our own times through the passage of revolutions and working conditions between then and now. We get a picture of what they wrought on those whose work was no longer needed by the new machine age:

The emigration of German peasants and handicraft workers doubled between 1820 and 1840. Between 1830 and 1840 it actually tripled as on average forty thousand German speaking emigrants a year jammed the main ports of embarkation (Bremen and Le Havre) awaiting passage. The areas with the most intense emigration were the forest regions of the upper Rhine. A lucrative business existed in Mainz for the factors who organized the shipping of the peasants of the Odenwald and the Moselle across the Atlantic to Texas and Tennessee. Pauperization records are no less indicative of active state control of the relative surplus population than they are of the magnitude of the problem. Arrests for mendicity increased between 1841 and 1842 in Franconia, the Palatinate, and Lower Bavaria by 30 to 50 percent. In the 1830s one in four people in Cologne were on some form of charitable or public relief.

What we draw out of this is that technology’s promises always apply selectively. Knowing that we can stay calm and carry on working but we also need to do other things. That means writing a get-out clause from the structures of rights and wrongs that were built up at huge social cost through dismantling the codes of commons to create the social factory and the modern work ethic. If that were possible, rather than increasing securitisation, we would have an entirely different dynamic to technology’s evolution along with the emergence of a different social relations of work. It’s another pathway for technology as the means to self-create the idea of work for a future of automation. It involves nuanced distinctions in a finite world about ways of making a living rather than blanket projections of a work-free future and abundance in terms of consumption which will only extrapolate our current imbalances into the future.

Which brings us to the significance of Cash’s song for our times through that illicit relationship between work and theft. It’s about releasing the ghost of lost rights. It’s about outing taboos openly.

It might be far fetched at any latter-day Walmart warehouse or Amazon fulfilment centre but how we reinstitute these rights in the greater context rather than repress them using technology will determine the nature of the next upheaval we are to experience. Just as the legal machinery moved at the start of the machine age to redefine our rights and usher in the new work of the Industrial age, the same needs to happen again for work in the age of automation. Then that old relationship between working and thieving will have a mighty big say. In that sense Cash’s ‘psychobilly Cadillac’ is of far greater use to our thinking today about technology’s progress than the very latest driver-less car.

Siraj Izhar is a London based social activist & artist. Recent writings include articles in the New Left Project (on the riots of 2011), Occupied Times of London, Low Impact, the Hermeneutic Circular (on activism and RD Laing). He blogs occasionally at


  1. Are you happy for work to be automated if the factories are owned by everybody? And how do you see that working? Co-ops? State-owned? I’ve had this argument before – somebody says something like: wouldn’t it be great if there was a giant satellite in orbit, beaming back all our energy in the form of solar power / if we could start to mine asteroids so that we don’t need to mine on earth? No it wouldn’t – all our energy and mineral resources would then be owned by Exxon-Mobil / Rio Tinto et al, instead of by us.

  2. In response I guess it’s worth saying out that ownership of the factory isn’t the subject of the article e.g. on the difference if the working and thieving is at Selfridges or John Lewis (employee owned) – to compare similar entities.
    And it would nice to hear from an English Johnny Cash at a 70s Leyland car plant (publicly owned) stealing a ‘psychobilly Rover’. But then the song might sound like something out of Brumbeat….
    One Piece at a Time is about forms of work – manual, automated, part automated, whatever permutation we can conjecture – and rights of work. Why the moral codes between them need updating by reminding ourselves of rights we have lost.

    • I think I might have missed something crucial. Why would anyone steal from a business they owned?

      • Possibly the best way to answer such self posed questions would be to research the subject – certainly De Certeau, Bourdieu, Linebaugh, E.P. Thompson and ample more. But there are no shorthand answers to be gained within a comments section and it is not the immediate focus here. This article has its scope and narrative. But there will be ample writing on the subject. It’s certainly a complex historical field.

      • I think the point might be that they wouldn’t. The work lost by automation might however be handled differently. Shorter work weeks with the same salary, or re-training employees to service the robots of the assembly line would be considered in lieu of terminating jobs of fellow owners.


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