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Smash the Computers!

A new film charts the brief rise and disappearance of the French direct action group CLODO, a collective of IT workers who believed that computerisation was being used as a tool of capital.

Still from Machines in Flames (2022), dir. Thomas Dekeyser, and Andrew Culp.

On 28 January 1983, fifteen kilograms of dynamite exploded at a data processing plant in suburban Toulouse. There were no casualties, but the blast caused thirty million francs of damage to government computers. Local authorities warned that vehicle registration processes would be disrupted as a result. The culprits celebrated. ‘The brain drain continues,’ announced the Committee for Liquidation or Subversion of Computers (CLODO) in a cheerful communique. ‘Last night, at more than 6,000 metres per second, a fractions of the state’s memories dissipated into the air.’ Registers for terrorism, criminal offences, stolen objects, and migrant workers had been destroyed, said the group, concluding: ‘We will be treated as followers of Gaddafi and Carlos (the Jackal)… Let’s say it once and for all: the end justified the means.’

Explosions were not uncommon in southern Europe during a surge of anticapitalist violence in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But CLODO were more playful than Action Directe or the Red Brigades, says Thomas Dekeyser, co-director—with fellow academic Andrew Culp—of Machines in Flames, a new documentary about their exploits. CLODO sent interviews of themselves to magazines and compelled newspapers to reprint the messages they left at crime scenes. They did not anchor themselves in theory. Unlike other radical militant groups of the time and place, their attacks never killed anyone.

The group identified as IT workers who had been radicalised by the growth of computing and its role in facilitating violence at home and abroad from the Vietnam War to police surveillance and the drudgery of office work. CLODO distinguished themselves from loom-smashing Luddites concerned with technology taking human jobs, rejecting ‘primitivism’ and asserting ‘the computer is only a tool’. But they saw computers as ‘the preferred tool of the dominant…used to exploit, to file, to control, to repress.’

CLODO struck at least a dozen targets between 1979 and 1983. They burned and bombed the offices of computer companies such as Philipps Data Systems and CII-Honeywell-Bull. Members destroyed a branch of US electronics company Sperry-Univac following the 1983 invasion of Grenada and left a statement in graffiti: ‘Reagan attacks Grenada. Sperry multinational is complicit.’ Another me

ssage after a raid on the University of Sciences in Toulouse before a cybernetics symposium read: ‘Scientist swine. No to capitalist data processing.’

Still from Machines in Flames (2022), dir. Thomas Dekeyser, and Andrew Culp.

After setting fire to a National Cash Register building in December 1983, the group vanished without a trace. None of its members were ever identified, and no further communiques were issued. Despite becoming an object of fascination to the public and local media, CLODO remained shrouded in mystery. Was there more to their agenda than smashing computers? How were they able to remain incognito? And why did their reign of terror suddenly stop?

Dekeyser believes the care taken to avoid civilian casualties served the movement well as this made them a lesser concern for the authorities. ‘The police stated quite clearly that (CLODO’s attacks) were terrible but it was up to the computer companies to better secure themselves,’ he says. ‘This was not an assault on the public, this was an attack on the property of these corporations.’ Culp adds that while other exponents of ‘propaganda of the deed’ were happy for their names and faces to be known in the hope of inspiring others, CLODO did not share such vanguardist tendencies and remained discreet.

Dekeyser suggests that the computers would eventually have got their revenge if the spree had continued. The advance of surveillance technologies CLODO was bent on destroying, such as location-based tracking devices, would have made it harder for them to cover their tracks. They might also have exhausted their repertoire after an intense series of attacks against ambitious targets and wished to avoid repeating themselves.

The filmmakers believe the collective would have been in dialogue with other radicals of the time and place, and perhaps involved in attacks on police stations and a campaign against a nuclear plant being built outside Toulouse. But they were wary of revealing too much about their subjects who had gone to such lengths to maintain secrecy. The film’s voiceover frets that their pursuit of CLODO was too similar to a police investigation. Dekeyser and Culp took the approach that ‘knowing CLODO would involve becoming CLODO,’ which required loitering outside Toulouse office blocks at night, delving into associations between computer companies and the military, and perceiving machines with new, hostile eyes.

The result is a highly unorthodox film that consciously displays its internal wiring throughout. Viewers see the filmmakers’ screens as they watch Youtube videos, open editing software, and input search terms. The film is regularly interrupted by glitches and error messages. Ominous music plays when it is paused. The voiceover assumes CLODO would have disapproved of forcing people to interact with computers to watch the film, and considers implanting it with a virus that would destroy the hard drive it is hosted on. ‘Every time the film glitches or does something confusing is a moment where we invite the audience to think,’ says Culp. ‘We wanted to defamiliarise people, to make them think about the devices they are using.’

Still from Machines in Flames (2022), dir. Thomas Dekeyser, and Andrew Culp.

The all-conquering march of computers into so many aspects of everyday life suggests that CLODO failed in their mission to free us from the ‘ghetto of programs and organisational platforms.’ But the directors make a case for their impact and legacy. In the short-term, computer companies were forced to relocate from city centres into fortified complexes in remote locations, reflecting a discourse that had shifted to recognise their collusion in state violence and oppression.

CLODO may also have inspired their many successors. In 1984, the United Freedom Front bombed the New York offices of IBM citing their collusion with South Africa’s apartheid regime. Last May, the Volcano Group shut down Elon Musk’s Tesla factory in Berlin by burning six power cables. A few months later, anarchists sabotaged an autonomous driving test track in Hamburg. ‘The fight against the state and capitalism and domination remains analogue manual work,’ said the perpetrators. Culp suggests there is a through line connecting CLODO’s attacks with latter-day disruption of big tech from throwing rocks at the Google bus in San Francisco to shutting down Amazon distribution centres.

There remains the tantalising possibility that having escaped capture, CLODO members could yet break cover or even revitalise their mission. Perhaps they already have. Towards the end of the film a contact in Toulouse sends the filmmakers a report about a suspicious fire at a local technology centre that had baffled investigators, with a note: ‘CLODO lives on :)’.