Sabotage: a spanner in the works - Robert Young

AN OPERATOR at the computer centre of a large insurance and banking conglomerate was worried about his job and fed the computer a sub-routine with his pay number. It was only to come into effect if his name was included in the redundancy calculations. The worst happened. He was made redundant and the computer told to calculate his severance pay. The sub-routine instantly clicked into action and the machine instantly erased its entire memory bank.

When most of us think about the struggles between capital and workers the images that come to mind are of strikes — pickets, meetings, shop stewards, Jones or Scanlon or Murray on the box, spokespeople from the CBI, wages, differentials, layoffs, work-ins, lock-outs. On the other hand, sabotage conjures up bomb-throwers or slant-eyed or jack-booted men listening to careless talk and then blowing up a factory.

But between downing tools and dramatic destruction of the means of production lies the labour process itself. In the course of daily work the workers hold the line against capital's unremitting efforts to gain greater control over the process of production and to extract more and more surplus labour from them. Automation, de-skilling, speed-up, piece rates, productivity deals and measured day work are all aimed at reducing the cost per unit of output, especially the cost of labour power. As Marx put it, 'capital can only get more out of the worker by increasing the intensity of labour'.

In its most general sense, sabotage is ’resistance at the point of production to managerial attempts to increase the productivity of labour and the rate of exploitation. In this book, the first to be published in England on the subject, the emphasis is on the dialectical interaction between the initiatives of managements and the responses of workers, with most examples being drawn from British labour history since the l9th century, though with some reference to American and Soviet experience.’ Much of the material was developed and revised in the author's classes with miners, engineers and foundry workers.

This is a book about the history of, and rationale for, not doing your best — for the deliberate withdrawal of industrial efficiency by workers. It's 'Saturday Night and Sunday Morning's' answer to 'I'm All Right Jack' and traces the workers' sustained reply to the history of the degradation of work as told in a complementary book, Braverman's Labour and Monopoly Capital. The latter reports capital's initiatives in de-skilling and automation in the 20th century, though without a word about the role of struggle — the other moment in the dialectic of industrial history.

Sabotage is given a very wide definition: anything that thwarts capital's intentions, or, 'any obstruction of the regular conduct of industry'.

The book traces the background to scientific management in l9th century work discipline and productivity before World War I, the development of F. W. Taylor's system of ’scientific’ analysis of job tasks and its importation into Britain; the wartime compromises in male skill prerogatives, including dilution and advances made by women in factory work followed by 'the war after the war' of industrial struggle, the General Strike and the depression. In the period between the wars, Brown discusses newer and more subtle forms of managerial control, along with Soviet adoption of American Taylorist methods and Stakhanovist self-exploitation. In the final section he examines the period 1939-76: World War II; productivity, restrictive practices and piecework in the 1950s and 60s. He concludes with case studies of productivity deals in the coal industry and recent struggles in the auto industry, including the introduction of measured day work at Leylands — issues which underlie our daily news. There is no other book of the same scope; it is well written and immensely informative.

The modern conception of sabotage grew out of Syndicalist and Wobbly agitation in the late l9th and early 20th centuries in France and the US, but one of the founding incidents was in a Glasgow dock strike in 1889. Blacklegs had weakened the strikers and nearly exhausted the union's funds. When the Dockers went back at the old rate, their leader advised them to give ’value for value’ or ’ca'canny’ — to work in the incompetent way the blacklegs had, dropping half the loads (though there was no need to fall into the water as they had done). It wasn't long before the employers begged them to work normally and granted the rise they had refused during the strike. The strategy developed as an alternative to the strike, for example, in this 1896 advice in the Seamen's Chronicle: ’There will be no strike — not a bit of it! Men will remain peacefully at work, but they will hurry up or ease down according to the pay received.' From these beginnings there grew a whole armoury of weapons, from applying the rules with exaggerated care so that work to rule be comes sabotage in reverse, to ’soldiering’, slowdown, ’goldbricking’, voluntary restriction of output, and restrictive practices.

Of course, all this looks quite irrational and wilfully stupid to capital. One of Brown's aims is to lay bare its good sense. He concludes that various forms of restriction of output ’are as radical and as effective in diminishing the level and the rate of surplus value expropriated from the worker as the superficially more dramatic form of machine breaking.’ What the employers call restrictive practices, workers call ’protective practices — things done by workers to produce some protection against the insecurity inherent in the employment relationship under industrial capitalism.’ For the managers sabotage is a social problem. but for the ’saboteurs’ work and the relations of production are the problem. Sabotage is part of the solution.

One of the earliest advocates of sabotage Emile Pouget, said: ’Sabotage is to the social war what guerrilla warfare is in national wars: it flows from the same feelings, responds to the same necessities and has identical consequences in workers' minds. . . it has the happy result of developing the spirit of initiative, of accustoming the working class to self-activity, and of stimulating combativity.’

Geoff Brown's argument ends with that quotation. I want the book to carry on from there and to deal with three more issues. The first is the large-scale movements and structures of capital — the epochal forces within which these struggles occur. His analysis is at the level of management, without addressing itself, even in passing, to the development and vicissitudes of the era of monopoly capital, the larger context of struggle. Nor does he assess the role of the leadership which capital is supposed to have successfully bought off — the so-called 'labour aristocracy'. At the other extreme from these abstract issues, the exposition would have been improved by a more textured, evocative presentation of particular struggles and techniques. The presentation is usually at one remove from direct events in the labour process (this is less true in the last chapter). Finally, and most important, it would have been helpful if he had placed this account in the context of current debates on subversive strategies.

The convenient packaging of the debate on alternative approaches to struggle occurred after Brown's book went to press. Two contributions are the CSE pamphlet No. I on The Labour Process and Class Strategies, Zerowork Political Materials I and the first issue of Capital and Class, containing the Brighton Labour Process Croup's essay on ’The Capitalist Labour Process’

Are we to interpret sabotage in all its forms as a defensive tactic in the face of capital's initiatives, or should we reconsider our conception of revolutionary struggle? At the economic level, all the techniques of sabotage increase necessary labour time for making products at the expense of ’surplus labour’ and therefore profits.

It is argued that instead of exhorting the industrial working class to conform to a model generated by a vanguard we should look more closely at how workers in industry — and in the rest of their lives — struggle in day-by-day and minute-by-minute ways, 24 hours a day, to lead more worthwhile lives under capitalism and to make capital pay for their roles in production and reproduction. From this perspective it is not relevant to say it's all very nice, but to ask is it progressive? The distinction between defensive and offensive strategies disappears.

The struggle aims to cut the link between income and work by seeking more and more money for less and less work. Zerowork calls this a ’unity of demand’ rather than an ’organisational unity’. The demand is for a higher income regardless of productivity, and this is seen as the ’leading edge of working class political strategy’.

This review appeared in The Leveller: The New Radical Examiner No. 5, April/May 1977, p. 21
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May 23 2014 18:27


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