On capitalist and worker sabotage in environmental struggle.
Sabotage! the word conjures images of damage and destruction. In his chapter “On the Nature and Uses of Sabotage,” anarchic sociologist Thorstein Veblen notes that the sinister meaning attributed to sabotage, which predominates American usage, appears and solidifies due to the interests and actions of news media and media figures who have sought to discredit the use of sabotage by organized workers (Veblen 1921, 4). The initial meaning of sabotage derives from the French term for a wooden shoe—the sabot. That initial usage is often said to refer to practices of foot dragging or shambling which such shoes might be expected to contribute to.
In some cases, the connection of sabotage with the sabot refers to practices of the early opposition to mechanization, as in the Luddites, in which the wooden shoe is placed in the moving gears or parts of the machinery as means to grind the gears of production, literally, to a halt.
Thus sabotage refers largely to processes and practices of obstruction, grinding down, slowing, slackening, or inefficiency that might impede, interfere with, or halt industrial production. The regular meaning of the word is perhaps best expressed in the phrase used by the Industrial Workers of the World—the conscientious withdrawal of efficiency. Much of everyday sabotage consists of misdirection, malingering, confusion, etc. (Veblen 1921, 4). Delay, hindrance, friction, obstruction.
The notion of sabotage first gained widespread use among the organized working class in France in certain syndicats (unions) and referred largely to passive resistance tactics (Veblen 1921, 5). It spread as part of radical democratic union movements and syndicalism. This is sabotage against exploitation and oppression, against the injuries done to the working class and their communities (social and natural). The notion of sabotage as destruction, incendiarism, damage, emerges, according to Veblen, in the US, through the efforts of capital and its spokespeople in media and law enforcement.
For Veblen, sabotage is never to be condemned out of hand, as such (in the manner of mass media and security agencies). Veblen suggests that there is nothing immoral about the habitual use of sabotage in industry. Rather these acts are regular parts of “the ordinary conduct of industry under the existing system” (Veblen 1921, 6). And he further suggests that they are “necessarily so” (Veblen 1921, 6). Many forms of sabotage are recognized as “indispensible to the common good” and sanctioned by statute and common law as well as be “public conscience” (Veblen 1921, 7).
And the contemporary forces of the state mobilizing in support of extreme energy and extractives realizes the potency and promise of sabotage in opposing these developments perhaps even more than do the environmental movements (which still cling in large part to deliberative hopes for reform). A security document recently revealed, thanks to an access to information request, of Canada’s federal police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), shows the centrality of the state’s concern with sabotage. In their “Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment” the RCMP notes both the effectiveness of sabotage halting extractive projects and, perhaps as importantly, in building solidarity and support for opposition to extractives projects. There is something for identifying tactically those things that give our opponents greatest cause for anxiety—particularly as it is expressed in those moments in which, thinking they are only speaking to themselves, they speak honestly their fears.
Yet Veblen notes that sabotage is a regular feature of capitalist production regimes. Rival business concerns regularly deploy sabotage. It is also the case that both sides in disputes over wages or conditions of work turn to sabotage, not only the workers as is often suggested. Despite the stated concern with sabotage by the working class, environmentalists, and indigenous activists referred to repeatedly in the RCMP document, and elsewhere in the corporate media and government proclamations, the agents of criminalization and pacification never admit of or address sabotage by capital, which is much more impactful and destructive of the needs of common folks and our commons.
[Credit: Martino Fine Books.]
Along with syndicalist sabotage, there is also, though less remarked upon or named, capitalistic sabotage. It refers similarly to practices of delay, obstruction, withdrawal, friction, etc. which make up a regular and ordinary feature of business strategy. It is typically used by employers to defeat workers, secure wages and prices, or gain advantage on business competition. This is, properly understood, a form of industrial management or strategy (Veblen 1921, 5). Rarely if ever is this capitalistic sabotage, and its everyday, regular nature in capitalism remarked upon, analyzed or, (certainly not) condemned in mass media reports or National Security documents. Strikes are a form of sabotage—a particular type. So too are lockouts. And these latter are more typical than commonly assumed.
In terms of capitalist sabotage, Veblen notes that capital has made habitual recourse to sabotage in restructuring outputs to maintain profit at levels desirable to themselves. Without sabotage of industrial plant and supply of workers, it is unlikely that prices could be maintained at a profitable level (that business would deem desirable). Unemployment and restructuring of plant and workers keep production short of capacity and control outputs in a way to favor capital. And this is, simply, sabotage, as Veblen notes.
Capital regularly makes use of various forms of sabotage to control productive capacity. This is done for purposes ranging from limiting supply to keep prices at profitable levels to interfering with workplace organizing or to discipline workers. The emergencies of war are not exceptional in capitalism, apart from degrees of magnitude, but are the types of things that are regular and continued features of the ordinary course of business as usual (Veblen 1921, 13).
As Veblen suggests, the requirements of profitable business will in no way tolerate full production (according to capacity or need) (Veblen 1921, 8). The rate and volume of production are adjusted to needs of the market, rather than to the productive capacities of available resources, labor, or equipment or the actual needs of a given community for goods or services. According to Veblen, then, a “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency” is the starting point for wisdom in all industrial enterprise (Veblen 1921, 9). Volume of output is regulated in highly productive systems with a view to what will bring the largest net return in price (Veblen 1921, 8).
Sabotage is used to avoid crises of “overproduction” (production beyond what the market can bear at prices deemed sufficiently profitable by capital). For Veblen, continued profitability hinges day to day on a “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency” by owners of industry (Veblen 1921, 8). Industry is controlled for capital’s own uses and this always means a profitable price, as Veblen suggests. Habitual unemployment of physical plant and workers (in whole or in part) is an indispensible condition in societies organized on the price system (Veblen 1921, 8). This speaks potently to the manufacture of scarcity—the phony character of scarcity—within capitalist social arrangements(see Shantz 2003).
For Veblen, “the only means of keeping up prices is a conscientious withdrawal of efficiency in the staple industries on which the community depends for a supply of the necessaries of life” (Veblen1921, 12). Even as people are in desperate need of various goods and services that idle plants and labor are capable of providing, the wheels will not turn in their favor. As Veblen notes:
But for reasons of business expediency it is impossible to let these idle plants and idle workmen to go to work — that is to say for reasons of insufficient profit to the business men interested, or in other words, for the reasons of insufficient income to the vested interests which control the staple industries and so regulate the output of product. The traffic will not bear so large a production of goods as the community needs for current consumption, because it is considered doubtful whether so large a supply could be sold at prices that would yield a reasonable profit on the investment — or rather on the capitalization; that is to say, it is considered doubtful whether an increased production, such as to employ more workmen and supply the goods needed by the community, would result in an increased net aggregate income for the vested interests which control these industries. A reasonable profit always means, in effect, the largest obtainable profit. (Veblen 1921, 10–11)
The outcome of capitalist sabotage is crisis and distress for common folks. We are made to do without the regular necessities of life. As Veblen states:
So much so that the prevailing state of distress rises in many places to an altogether unwholesome pitch of privation, for want of the necessary food, clothing, shelter, and fuel. Yet in all these countries the staple industries are slowing down. There is an ever increasing withdrawal of efficiency. The industrial plant is increasingly running idle or half idle, running increasingly short of its productive capacity. (Veblen 1921, 10)
Yet this everyday capitalist sabotage is rarely remarked upon. As Veblen suggests: “Writers and speakers who dilate on the meritorious exploits of the nation’s business men will not commonly allude to this voluminous running administration of sabotage, this conscientious withdrawal of efficiency, that goes into their ordinary day’s work” (Veblen 1921, 9).
Nor will the police and security agencies, like the RCMP, who are also actually part of that running administration of sabotage.
The dual character of sabotage under capitalism
The decisions of business leaders to control and regulate rates of volume and output are always made from the perspective of their interests. That is, they are made with a view to the greatest achievable profit, not with a view to the needs of the general population—certainly not to the needs of the working class. As Veblen suggests: “Price is of the essence of the case, whereas livelihood is not” (Veblen 1921, 13). Such is the dualism of categories within capitalist economies.
Writers in the autonomist Marxist tradition, notably Mario Tronti, Antonio Negri, Harry Cleaver, emphasize the dual character of concepts under capitalism. This is part of the dialectical character of capitalist development and the class struggle. Where surplus value means profit and development for capital, it can only mean exploitation and dependency for the working class.
So too with sabotage. The dual nature of sabotage is rarely properly understood as both a regular feature of capitalist development (and the price system) and of community or class self defense.
Capital must balance their most crass interests with profit with a level of popular satisfaction required to fend off protest and dissent. As Veblen suggests: “For the good of business it is necessary to curtail production of the means of life on pain of unprofitable prices, at the same time that the increasing need of all sorts of the necessaries of life must be met in some passable fashion, on pain of such popular disturbances as will always come of popular distress when it passes the limit of tolerance.” (Veblen 1921, 12)
Of course, when it comes to intolerance by the working class, capital has always got the cops to rely on. And this is the concern motivating the growing surveillance of environmentalists, resource sector workers, and indigenous communities alike. As Veblen notes:
Present indications would seem to say that their choice will fall out according to ancient habit that they will be likely to hold fast by an undiminished free income or for the vested interests at the possible cost of any popular discontent that may be in prospect — and then, with the help of the courts and the military arm, presently make reasonable terms with any popular discontent that may arise. (Veblen 1921, 13)
This is the basic, bedrock, criminology of class society.
And the state is regularly deployed more directly on behalf of capitalist sabotage. Veblen suggests that capitalist sabotage is, in fact, best administered “on a comprehensive plan and by a central authority” (Veblen 1921, 13). This is because, though industrial enterprises are part of an interlocking system, the specific business concerns tend to work piecemeal and at cross purposes for the system.
As Veblen argues: “Even a reasonable amount of collusion among the interested business concerns will not by itself suffice to carry on that comprehensive moving equilibrium of sabotage that is required to preserve the business community from recurrent collapse or stagnation, or to bring the nation’s traffic in line with the general needs of the vested interests.” (Veblen 1921, 14)
When the national government oversees the health of the business interests, the lawmakers and administration have some share in administering the sabotage necessary to secure business aims. Lowered inefficiency and wastefulness of resources are effected through means such as subsidies that more fully utilize material equipment, and labor (but not in a particularly efficient manner) (Veblen 1921, 14). Sabotage, restraint, hindrance, for capital, reflects a measure of power—to control flows of capital for the benefit of capital. Sabotage by the working class represents something of an opposite nature—the loss of control by capital. It signifies an incapacity for regulating flows for the benefit of capital.
The government displays sabotage against means of disseminating opinion and information openly. Administrations work to see that the traffic in public discussion is not allowed to reach its full capacity. As Veblen suggests an “unguarded dissemination of information and opinions or an unduly frank canvassing of the relevant facts” will be said to handicap the work of the administration (Veblen 1921, 17). Further, the “sabotage on undesirable information and opinions” is neither novel nor democratic (Veblen 1921, 17). The government sabotage of discourse includes what Veblen calls “elaborate misinformation” (Veblen 1921, 18). This, as much as anything is what is contained in internal security state documents such as the laughably distorted “Critical Infrastructure Intelligence Assessment” report produced by the RCMP.
It is in this sense that one might inquire whether the mainstream anti-extractives and anti-pipelines movements represent a form of “sabotage by publicity” which seeks to counter the capitalist sabotage of opinion and information. For the mainstream movements it is hoped the pipelines will be stopped once the capitalist sabotage of information is circumvented and a critical mass of people hear and learn about the dangers of extractives and pipelines, or politicians are publicly shamed into backing away from their close relationships with developers.
However, in my view stopping these mega-projects will require much more than arguments. Oil companies and their government facilitators will not be distracted by argument, nor will they be discouraged by public shaming (they have no shame). There is, to be realistic and honest, no hope for even growing waves of public opposition to persuade, through information or argumentation, positive changes in policy or practice in the manner supposed and desired within movements clinging to liberal democratic mythology.
Oil companies will repeatedly seek to go another way and develop alternative routes. Will the publicity campaigns of the mainstream movements be able to maintain their efforts to match this capacity of industry and government, given the massive outlay of resources and energies required? Publicity is, in spite of the Internet and social media, difficult to sustain over multiple sites of struggle in any impactful and durable way.
One might well ask what it might look like to ally publicity and sabotage politics. Will publicity be wielded in a manner to enhance saboteurial acts or to legitimize sabotage within broader public discussions, and among broader sections of the public? There is without question a necessity for sabotage to be adequately contextualized, indeed, grounded in broader community contexts and understandings. Part of this understanding requires a proper analysis of the dual character of sabotage—theirs and ours—under capitalism and the role of the state in administering capitalist sabotage (and putting down saboteurial tendencies within the working class, indigenous communities, and environmental activists alike).
 Shantz, Jeff. 2003. “Scarcity and the Emergence of Fundamentalist Ecology.” Critique of Anthropology. 23(2): 144–154.
 Veblen, Thorstein. 1921. The Engineers and the Price System. Kitchener, Ontario: Batoche Books.
[Thank you Jeff for this contribution.]
The writer is a community organizer, rank-and-file union activist and anarchist. He has contributed articles to Anarchy, Social Anarchism, Green Anarchy, Earth First! Journal, and Northeastern Anarchist. His books include Constructive Anarchy: Building Infrastructures of Resistance, Active Anarchy: Political Practice in Contemporary Movements and Against All Authority: Anarchism and the Literary Imagination. He is also editor of the online journal Radical Criminology. His website is http://jeffshantz.ca
Re-published from Philosophers for Change, philosophersforchange.org, under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.