The history of sabotage is the history of capitalism unmaking itself
And if linesmen make connections,
can’t you make dis-connections?
—Guy Bowman to telephone company workers,
The Syndicalist, 1913
All the same, the study can surprise, throwing off whiffs of something stranger, especially in its passing accounts of startling technical inversions, like the Polish anti-Nazi partisans who converted fire extinguishers into flamethrowers. And toward the end of the book, while dryly enumerating his “lessons learned,” Douthit inadvertently stumbles onto one of the crucial logics of sabotage, far beyond the dynamited train lines and sharpened bamboo that occupy most of the text:
5. History does not point to an effective countermeasure to sabotage.
The intended meaning is plain enough: the history of human warfare is largely one of the success of fighting dirty, of how regiments, special forces, civilians, guerrillas, and insurgents simply can’t be stopped when they ignore the parameters that might delineate war from daily life. Still, there’s another sense to this “lesson.” That is countermeasure, which has a precise meaning in military operations: the measures deployed to break the bond between a weapon and its target
We might also see camouflage in these terms, especially in its dazzle forms, where something doesn’t pretend to be absent from the scene but instead becomes a stain in the visual field, a floating migraine that can never get properly locked onto. As Jared Sexton and Steve Martinot put it, in the context of how media spectacles of police violence occlude the “banality of police murder as standard operating procedure,”
Spectacle is a form of camouflage. It does not conceal anything; it simply renders it unrecognisable. One looks at it and does not see it. … Camouflage is a relationship between the one dissimulating their appearance and the one who is fooled, who looks and cannot see.
The key point is that that dissimulating countermeasures don’t conceal from perception in general. They only make something invisible to the structure of recognition operative for what tries to locate and abolish the target. That “banality of police murder,” for instance, is not unrecognizable as such. It is amply known and lived. It is unrecognizable for a liberal mode of recognition, however nominally progressive, that can only see anti-black violence as an exceptional event, rather than a constitutive ground of American society.
Countermeasures are the inside of seeing, markers of and deviations within the fact that sight is already targeting, even before it pairs with a weapon
ONE of the reasons why “history does not point to an effective countermeasure to sabotage” is because the history of sabotage is itself a history of countermeasure. Sabotage weaves a minor and inconstant arc through the surveillance, management, and design of human activity and its inhuman sites and interfaces. Counter to Douthit’s specifically martial sense, we might consider sabotage, at the most abstract level, as the deployment of a technique, or activation of a capacity, at odds with the apparatus, system, or order within which it is situated and for which it was developed. Incompatible with a model of cleanly delineated means and ends, sabotage takes procedures as always in potential excess to plans—that is, to structures that, first, articulate the link between a projected possibility and what actually gets produced and, second, establish conditions for what will be visible, how it will count, and what will support it. Less abstractly, sabotage also means putting vinegar on the loom, doubt in the smile, glass in the motor, milk in the bearings, shit on the spikes, sand in the soup, and worms in the code. Being too thorough and too careless, tightening just a hair too much and too little, having seriously, oh my God, no idea how this could have happened—and having no one able to prove it otherwise.
And yet sabotage is more than all these instances, which overly stress a kind of volition, an active principle that puts the focus on a saboteur. Because what distinguishes sabotage above all isn’t any sense or principle of deviance, especially given that such operations have no inherent “politics,” available across the political spectrum and to companies and corporations themselves. Rather, it’s what Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the IWW organizer and most interesting theorist of sabotage to date, called in 1916 the “fine thread of deviation”: the impossibly small difference between exceptional failures and business as usual, connected by the fact that the very same properties and tendencies enable either outcome. If we are to think of sabotage as a process that negates productivity, it’s a negation that can’t be disentangled from the structures of productivity itself.
So what I mean by sabotage differs greatly from Douthit’s sense. His is best understood as the result of a quite particular transformation of the concept that occurred over the early 20th century, furthered by attempts by left-wing parties to cancel its spread and by states to jail its advocates. That crackdown was itself the attempt to shift sabotage away from working within that contested territory of negation which never steps out into the open. Driven by largely successful attempts to criminalize and denounce it, the meaning of sabotage moved towards instead marking the literal and material destruction, especially of machinery, goods, and infrastructure, of what otherwise works fine.
As for its earlier form, it remains constant, in at least two senses. First, acts of what can be clearly labelled sabotage, like Foxconn interns reducing PS4s to very expensive flashlights, still happen as recurrently as forms of counterproductivity often excised from consideration as “political,” from informal birth strikes to the slave in Natchez
Second, the official demonization of sabotage, pushed across the board from Supreme Courts to Communist Party leaders to cops to unions, has been present from the start, making it arguably one of the century’s most disavowed political concepts. It has been decried as sneaky, unfair, individualist, unproductive, wasteful, and chaotic, a cowardly shadow of collectivity. But there’s been no greater attack on it than from the political organizations that nominally represented those who often carried out acts of sabotage, with parties and groups of a socialist bent most consistently finding the act both morally and strategically abhorrent.
For them, sabotage was either a weapon that “belongs in the arsenal of anarchism” (James P. Cannon) or some version of drunken sailor or broken sextant that would help run “the Labour Movement to disaster on the rocks of Anarchism” (George Harvey). For others, it was “born of the want of sound knowledge and strong organization.”
None of this is incidental. Sabotage contravenes some of the fundamental suppositions that underpin what has been meant by political, across a wide spectrum. In particular, it cuts against a base insistence on being present. According to those lines of thought, sabotage’s unrepresentable modes of shadowy, deferred, and distributed agency could only ever have been cheating, a petty turbulence with no strategic end. Yet even in its denunciation, sabotage constitutes a key lens onto the last two centuries, revealing the tight metapolitical strictures—i.e. what was allowed to even count as political in the first place—that underwrote even allegedly radical currents and their complicity with long waves of colonization, accumulation, and management. And it’s no accident that the term emerges onto record in late 19th century France, because sabotage doesn’t designate something that humans have done all along, even if forms of invisible resistance have. What sabotage names is specific and internal to capitalism as a lived historical form, able neither to be cheered nor expunged.
• • •
I have not given you a rigidly defined thesis on sabotage because sabotage is in the process of making.
—Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
AS for the term itself, most accounts make two things clear. First, it was not invented by anyone in particular, instead already circulating as slang; and second, it was derived from the sabot, the wooden clog made from a single piece of wood that leads to the most widely-held origin for the word, that of throwing the shoe in the gears. But that origin is false. A hyper-visible refusal of work and image of destruction is far closer to frame-breaking in the early nineteenth century than what slowly became known as sabotage.
Up to fifteen years ago the term sabotage was nothing but a slang word, not meaning “to make wooden shoes” as it may be imagined but in a figurative way. To work clumsily as if by sabot blows.
The situation thickens, too, when we join this association of trollishly pounding away with a clog-hammer to those who actually wore the sabots in such settings, the recently proletarianized farm workers who didn’t have leather shoes—the marker of having transitioned to urban living and relative security—and hence clattered around in sabots as they badly performed work to which they weren’t yet accustomed. Across the various definitions
One of the key departure points for advocating sabotage, rather than just doing it, came from Glasgow dockworkers in 1889. On the back of a sailor’s and fireman’s union strike, the recently-formed National Union of Dock Labourers joined in the strike in June, including the Glaswegian workers managing the significant port. Immediately, we can detect a fracture within the traditional image of sabotage as a form of unskilled industrial destruction, as this primary instance for how people theorized it is not easily replaceable work on the assembly line. It was based instead in a node of circulation, a port that formed a chokepoint in the transition between production, distribution, and consumption. Moreover, it was specifically skilled work. This became amply clear when to break the strike, they were replaced by scabs from around the United Kingdom with no prior history of dockwork, pulled especially from farms—the saboted, one could say. As expected, the scabs worked badly, dropping crates, breaking wine barrels—so badly, in fact, that one fell into the sea while wheeling cargo across a plank and drowned.
Upon losing the strike, the workers were not only told to get back to it but also snarkily “advised in the organs of the shipowners ‘to take a few lessons in political economy…’?” They responded quite literally, writing a remarkable text framing their decision to sabotage:
Having mastered all the mysteries of the doctrine of value and the distinction between “value” and “price,” we were made familiar with the multitudinous forms of orthodox adulteration from jerry buildings and coffin ships to watered milk and shoddy clothes. With only one exception we found the all-prevailing practice to be this, that the “QUALITY” of each commodity, where it be a dwelling-house, a suit of clothes, or a Sunday’s dinner, is regulated according to the price which the purchaser is willing to pay — the one exception being labour.
And so, rather than asserting that labor deserves to be special, celebrated or honored, they decide instead that, “there is no escape [from this structure] except to adopt the situation and apply to it the commonsense commercial rule which provides a commodity in accordance with the price.” That is, to offer a commodity—labor—whose quality has been adjusted to fit its price, its productivity adulterated with feigned clumsiness, the work carefully degraded into an image of un-skill.
The turn is striking, in the context of the overriding tendencies of late nineteenth-century labor movements particularly and the grounding frameworks of class struggle politics more generally. Because in both regards, one of the near constants was to avoid denouncing work itself, especially skilled waged work around which one could organize by trade and collectively bargain. For the tradition of the labor movement, the capacity to work
The Glasgow action threatens to upend this image of work as one’s innate quality and source of pride by taking the adulterated as its point of reference. To protect your status as a skilled worker, you must act like nothing separates that work, and hence you, from any other shit commodity made to participate in the circulation of capital. You must act the scab
This dissimulation of a work-centered identity forms one key strand of what, in the next century, made sabotage so unacceptable to political organizations whose members nevertheless kept “accidentally” blowing it. Another equally crucial strand can be seen in their political economy “lesson” itself, which moves from reading scab labor in terms of a fairly valued commodity (good pay, good work; bad pay, bad work, or, “you cutta da pay, we cutta da shob,” or, as Gurley Flynn puts it, “an unfair day’s work for an unfair day’s wage”) to start identifying with those adulterated and fraudulent commodities themselves: “If employers of labour or purchasers of goods refuse to pay for the genuine article they must be content with veneer and shoddy.” It’s a key turn, in that it opens a possibility both of beginning from an experience of work that most people have—a hell of degradation, boredom, and coercion, with greater and lesser degrees of explicit violence backing this—and of shifting an understanding of capitalism away from the centrality of the wage, and officially waged sites of production, to an interchange amongst a coordinated yet often incoherent circuit marked by failure, waste, fragility, and breakdown.
The Wobbly rhetoric that will pick up on these European threads continues this line of thought in the U.S. Consider the “Jersey Justice” pamphlet from 1913 on the Patterson silk mill strike:
Every worker who is a cog in the great modern machine of mill, factory, mine, workshop or railroad knows from his daily experience just what all this means. Any worker knows that the entire factory can be thrown into confusion at any minute if even one of the necessary cogs is thrown out of gear.
So if the waged worker deserves pride of place in this schema, it isn’t because they are unique, a human vitally yearning to be delivered from the machinic confines. No, it’s because as a “cog,” and hence totally subsumed into this “great modern machine,” they have a cog’s-eye view of the process from within. They know how to throw it into confusion because they know which other cogs are necessary, which are most subject to amplifying their failure without being immediately detected. And as the history of sabotage shows, from care work to cooking to data entry to plumbing, this isn’t knowledge abstracted from its site. It’s the mark of an intimate and highly practical understanding of a system and its abstractions, the awareness that comes, often literally, from handling and grasping, cleaning and traversing, and having to attend to all the small errors, frictions, lags, and glitches in a system envisioned to function smoothly, if not automatically.
The possible consequences of this kind of comparison are significant, even as they get continually shoved to the side in favor of a politics based around a model that joins the military (open engagement), the civic (public representation), and the theatrical (experience delineated into those who act and those who watch). In particular, such comparisons suggest that the total process of capitalist rationalization—in transportation, reproduction, manufacturing, war, service, friendship, and lived spaces alike—does more than seek to neutralize the dissent, frustration, and rage of those whose lives are transformed by it. It also opens up capacities for explosive disruption through an unprecedented interchange between those “cogs,” newly situated in circulatory networks that streamlined the translation between money and commodities yet also introduced a unique fragility available for exploit, a “tight coupling” (Charles Perrow) by which failure at one point precipitates failure
Possible, but soon to be legally punishable: from French anti-strike law in 1912 to the 1919 Criminal Syndicalism Law of California, the 1910s would see sabotage enter written law under the guise of purely physical damage to the already made and owned. In so doing, a fundamental disruption of time (i.e. the arrangement of materials, living persons definitely included, toward a production of time as value-producing) was collapsed into a clear destruction of property. And that collapse was itself to quite literally become law by the mid-’20s, when the Supreme Court ruled on the case of William Burns, an IWW member arrested in 1923. Burns was convicted on the basis of having Wobbly propaganda on him and urging the disruption of logging in Yosemite, not by destroying anything per se but by the “loading of a ship in such a way that it took a list to port or starboard and therefore had to limp back to port.”
• • •
a clean factory is not receptive to fire
but a dirty one
make sure it starts to burn only after
you have walked away
—Ida Börjel, Miximum Ca’ Canny The Sabotage Manuals you cutta da pay, we cutta da shob
The main application of the idea from roughly the 1920s to the 1960s, although continuing to carry this sense still today, was martial, both within decolonization struggles and interstate wars, where it comes to name covert attacks on transport, communication, supply lines, and other infrastructural elements that contribute to the occupation or war effort of a state or army, even if “not used in an aggressive way” (Douthit) at the time of attack. But even this farcical attempt to imagine war as open, declared, and putatively symmetrical combat, to which sabotage would be the unfair exception of attacking without being seen or targeting a territory’s non-“aggressive” systems, ultimately serves to suggest the opposite: that no clean line of distinction can be drawn between war and capitalism in the first place.
Toward the end of the World War II, when victory began to look more likely, French partisans confronted a dilemma. If they did not sabotage the roads, wires, tunnels, transmitters, and so on that made up the French transport and communication networks, those could still be used by the Nazis and the Vichy government. If they did sabotage these, they would damage the capacity for French industry, let alone daily life as usual, to redevelop after the war. That polyvalence returns with a vengeance because the materials are the same, both part of normal state functioning and exceptional elements used to sustain a war effort. And so, especially in the contexts of decolonization, martial sabotage reveals how everything is potentially, if not functionally, in the service of a ruling power, whether embodied or abstract. Everything that is functional is complicit, and we can’t separate landscape from “threatscape,”
A second zone where sabotage becomes a key concept, starting around the sixties, is the increasing importance of human resource management (itself marking a shift away from “personnel management”). Part of the importance of sabotage in that discourse unsurprisingly surrounds concerns over efficiency and boredom, given that “changing the time on the punch clock, or pulling the fire alarm may add just the right level of excitement to an otherwise boring day.”
Immediately, we can see how sabotage is the name for this very friction, because it stands at the fulcrum of deskilling (reduced to mere executant) yet intimate knowledge of materials and a system that, precisely insofar as it is nominally automated, can appear as the source of failure itself.
Passage is from “Modern Capitalism and Revolution,” in Political and Social Writings, Volume 2, 1955-1960: From the Workers’ Struggle Against Bureaucracy to Revolution in the Age of Modern Capitalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 259.
In extending productivity measures to the person as a whole, whereby the self becomes a site of work not only for the labor of self-reproduction but also a project and product to be optimized, biometrically tuned, and circulated as image, the idea of sabotage receives its final twist: that of “self-sabotage,” a buzzword stalking the blasted earth of self-help rhetoric. As in, “3 Steps to Stop Sabotaging Yourself”:”Do you have a talent for self-sabotage? (Sure, you’re on a diet, but another doughnut won’t kill you, right?)”
In each site, sabotage helps identify both their specific failures—as well as possibilities for disruption—and their fundamental incompleteness as a frame for describing what really happens and how people navigate it, all the way out from that story of pride in one’s work to an image of war as a clarity of division to the prospect of the self as frictionless gyre of value. Sabotage helps to keep marking the incompleteness of those narratives, because even if capital works in large part by opening up a functional analogy between discrete things that allows for the potential exchange of all with all, people get caught in its crossfire at profoundly different levels of abjection, levels that unsurprisingly have so much to do with both constructions of race and gender and long geopolitical histories.
It’s not surprising in this regard how if one side of “self-sabotage” fits easily with hot yoga and motivation seminars for maximizing the entrepreneurial spirit within, the other is linked both to bodily shame (“another donut”) and to racial subjection, especially visible in American anti-blackness and its emphasis on counterproductivity. For instance, when a narrative tries to locate rates of incarceration, “achievement” levels, and poverty as a problem of “victimology” that can be worked on as a project, it becomes framed as a problem of “Self-Sabotage in Black America,” as in the title of John McWhorter’s conservative screed.
This is hardly new. Sabotage has always marked that indistinct line between refusal and degradation, between forms of what gets hailed as politics and what stays outside the limits of visibility that allow that designation. In many ways, we could invert a story of sabotage, taking the cue of its shift away from the factory to locate it equally in forms of veiled countermeasure and attention that responded to fundamentally different situations. One might begin, for instance, with what Simone Browne calls the “dark sousveillance” of resistance to slavery, which “speaks not only to observing those in authority (the slave patroller or the plantation overseer, for instance) but also to the use of a keen and experiential insight of plantation surveillance in order to resist it.”
Still, in order to grasp how sabotage has designated a tendency always in excess of the sites and identities of waged work, and hence could only be vehemently policed, it’s worth seeing how it threatened to undermine them from the start. For this, there is still no text sharper than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn’s Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Worker’s Industrial Efficiency, written in 1916
Like many of the texts of these years, part of its force lies in showing how sabotage is not just present
He advised the dyers to go into the dye houses and to use certain chemicals in the dyeing of the silk that would tend to make that silk unweavable. That sounded very terrible in the newspapers and very terrible in the court of law. But what neither the newspapers nor the courts of law have taken any cognizance of is that these chemicals are being used already in the dyeing of the silk.
What Boyd urged was a practice already in play called “dynamiting,” which consists of adding metal compounds to the silk so as to sell the same weight of fabric with less of the expensive material. His suggested sabotage marked only a slight tuning of the process, one that could be hidden in plain view, given that it involved no grand gestures and no external elements to finish ruining the material and make it unsellable.
But even this tactic of full ruination is not unique to rebellion. In a surprising passage of inversion, Flynn describes the experience of buying silk to make a dress, hanging it in a wardrobe, and taking it out later only to discover that it is not silk but “old tin cans and zinc and lead and things of that sort.” The adulteration—the capitalist sabotage—uses the delayed visibility of circulation to pass unremarked and hide its effects through distribution out into the world, just like the cop cars that, a week after leaving the factory, shudder themselves to pieces, with no one around to blame for the initially loosened bolts. It is in this way that sabotage marks what she calls that “fine thread of deviation,”
The saboteur may have to reverse his thinking, and he should be told this in so many words … Once he is encouraged to think backwards about himself and the objects of his everyday life, the saboteur will see many opportunities in his immediate environment which cannot possibly be seen from a distance.
What it entirely misses is that such a capacity to be “backwards” resides in those systems and objects as already social, and that this doesn’t need to be told “in so many words”: it is amply evident to those who view it from within rather than from above. These reversals are the product of an intimate, almost bifocal thinking that sees both the tiny detail and the huge circuit enfolding it and uses this torqued perspective to anticipate the eventual consequences, suggesting a counterwork that knows how and when to stay in the shadows.
What’s striking about this is how much it refuses a politics of either exodus (the return to some lost human community and/or nature), separation (autonomy as class that can stand apart from the systems it is embedded in and fight from there), or representation (the negotiation of competing interests on the basis of displacement into single individuals or councils to stand in for many)—the three options that arguably constitute the majority of political thought, including of a radical bent. Instead, sabotage tends to suggest a form of inflection, one that sees the ground of its daily activity as a diachronic map and tremendous reserve of materials, aspects, and properties constantly contested and open to inversions. It suggests, in part, that we begin to treat that ground—the lived terrain of capitalism—as itself an enormous inhuman and self-drafting design project, both seemingly made for and by us, however viciously, and yet driven by principles and tendencies that can be assigned to no one, to no plan of action or authored project of accumulation.
To sabotage, then, means to let the negation vanish into that design, in a dissimulating mimicry of normal function that only shows itself as noise, turbulence, and a creeping sense that something is going on here
My last point, though, is that this isn’t a general condition about subjects and objects, an ontology oriented towards whatever predicate. It’s a historically specific complex that marks the parameters of how we engage and navigate each other and our spaces, and it’s based on the analogical interchange between the built and the born, the technical and the organic, and the abstract and concrete that forms one of capital’s most striking tendencies. What the idea of sabotage did, long before any talk of the anthropocene, was insist that this is the terrain we’re operating on, whether or not we would prefer it otherwise, and that this intimacy with its conditions of production opens up distinct chances for disturbing the social and physical structures upholding, perpetuating, and policing it.
In many ways, the increasing inability to discern between static objects and objects of surveillance, measurement, and feedback—i.e. the internet of things—suggests how familiar sabotage’s suspicious blurring of the intentional and the accidental will become, and we might well reread sabotage in this light, treating it as a prehistory of hacking. If we do, we still should keep in mind how its center never lay in the literally mechanical exploit itself, like a lathe ready to be dulled, but in the way that, as Silvia Federici puts it, “the human body and not the steam engine, and not even the clock, was the first machine developed by capitalism.”
In that CIA manual, we read how
anyone can break up a showing of an enemy propaganda film by putting two or three dozen large moths in a paper bag. Take the bag to the movies with you, put it on the floor in an empty section of the theater as you go in and leave it open. The moths will fly out and climb into the projector beam, so that the film will be obscured by fluttering shadows.
No matter its wretched source, it’s a telling emblem for the dense field of visibility, exploit, and stoppage where sabotage operates. Because in this case, the film gets obscured and halted by yoking together a set of otherwise functional properties: a projected film uses shadows to form shapes, and a projection requires light strong enough to cast the shadows forward over the heads of a crowd. As for the moths, it draws on their infamous phototactic tendency—to be drawn to light—and on a biotechnical glitch that itself speaks of a historical passage. The still-predominant theory of that phototaxis is “something of an evolutionary short circuit