Some years ago I worked for a company that was a market entrant taking on an all-but-monopolistic existing company in a large Australian commercial sector (I’m deliberately keeping the terms vague here to protect the guilty). The company I worked for was mostly run by experienced people from the industry in question. I didn’t know much about the industry but their business strategy seemed ambitious bordering on delusional (not an uncommon thing when IT is involved).
Nevertheless, the monopolist opponent seemed genuinely worried to have a new competitor in the market. They took various actions in response. Some of those actions involved breaking the law. Commercial collusion is illegal in Australia, but that didn’t stop the monopolist from trying to convince other players in the market not to do business with the company I was working for.
The monopolist company knew very well that what they were doing was against the law. They were counting on the fact that lawyers are expensive and court cases take years to resolve. They gambled that the company I was working for would go broke before the legal case was heard. They were right. The company did go broke, not just because of the legal bill, but because it turned out that the management really was criminally incompetent. Two years after I left, I saw a news article that the shareholders were suing the board of directors. I wasn’t surprised.
So, here we have two companies. Both companies broke the law and yet, as far as I know, no managers or directors from either company ever went to court let alone to jail. Companies get sued, individual managers rarely do. Such stories are very common in business. I’ve heard from several people I know who run small businesses that this kind of thing happens all the time. Many people apparently consider it normal “business strategy”.
What name should we give to this practice which is a combination of deceit, fraud and collusion. I propose to call it sabotage. When we define sabotage in this way, we can see that it is everywhere in the modern world and not just in business. Sabotage is the water we swim in and like the proverbial fish we don’t even see it.
As far as I know, the classic account of sabotage was written by the economist Thorstein Veblen. I haven’t actually read Veblen, so it may be that I’m going to repeat much of his analysis here. However, Veblen died in 1929 and I believe he was primarily concerned with the sabotage dynamic that existed in the era of robber baron capitalism, what I called Imperialism 1.0 in a recent post. In this post, I’d like to extend the concept and explore how sabotage has manifested in Imperialism 2.0 and now in the era of 3.0.
The word sabotage comes from the French meaning “wooden shoe” and apparently had something to do with either throwing wooden shoes into the gears of machines or maybe just dragging your feet at work. In any case, the original meaning of the word was one of physical destruction of machinery in the context of industrial capitalism. The Luddites were an early example. Later, sabotage would become a core tactic of the union movement in their battle against the robber barons.
For most of what I’m calling Imperialism 1.0, sabotage consisted of brute force material damage. But around the time of WW1, it started to become more esoteric and expanded into we might more generally call malicious mischief. Mischief has the connotation of subterfuge and secrecy. Somebody punching you in the face is not mischief. Somebody white-anting your reputation or deviously turning people against you is mischief. Sabotage went from being a punch in the face during Imperialism 1.0 to being malicious mischief during 2.0. In these days of Imperialism 3.0, we’ve gone beyond mischief and into outright psychological warfare. More on that later.
The reason we associate sabotage with workers and not capitalists is because the capitalists owned the newspapers and were able to impose their narrative on the situation. As Thorstein Veblen pointed out, capitalists were always involved in more subtle forms of sabotage. Capitalists sabotaged entire markets in their favour. They did so in order to combat the problem of oversupply which threatened to drive down prices and reduce profits. Capitalists took measures to cut supply and drive up the price to increase their profits. Those measures were taken against both workers and business rivals.
Corporate sabotage is completely taken for granted in our culture. Where is the line between “healthy business competition” and “corporate sabotage”? Nobody knows and corporate interests do their level best to ensure that the issue is never discussed in the media. That’s why white collar crime goes virtually unpunished. None of the rich men north of Richmond went to jail for their roles in the GFC, for example.
It’s worth noting that sabotage has become pervasive in direct proportion as society has grown more complex. Therefore, it’s practice is not limited to business contexts.
Consider modern warfare. Napoleon was the first to come up with the idea of supply lines for armies. This enabled him to create enormous armies that could be fed and supplied from a distance. That allowed him to project power much further but it also opened up a weakness. One way to take out an army was to cut the supply lines. Because supply lines were connected to the general wealth of a country, another way to fight the enemy was to sabotage his entire economy.
This meant that even geopolitics tended towards subterfuge and intrigue. In the old days, two armies would assemble on a field and knock the stuffing out of each other until one surrendered. It was very much like a boxing match and there were fixed rules that both sides agreed to. Because there were rules, it was also clear who “won”.
Fast forward to the Ukraine War which, although very real for those doing the fighting on the front lines, is part of a larger campaign of sabotage by the West against Russia. There were sanctions on Russia for years before the fighting started as well as various other diplomatic and corporate shenanigans designed to weaken the country economically and politically.
As a result, it is not clear what it would even mean for either side to “win” the Ukraine War since nobody even knows what the rules are and the outcome depends on second and third order effects that cannot be known.
This brings us to the use of sabotage in geopolitics and specifically the sabotage of entire nation states.
In Imperialism 1.0, sabotage was mostly about brute force tactics of workers smashing machines and capitalists smashing workers. The discovery of the strike, and particularly the general strike (I believe 1912 in Britain was the first general strike of all workers) represented a new kind of sabotage. Workers could now shutdown the whole economy and therefore sabotage could be conducted against the entire nation state (the German Revolution of 1918-19 that ended the monarchy in that country also began with a mutiny/strike). This kind of sabotage was real political power in the hands of workers who used it to get the state to give them what they wanted.
How did the state respond? Here we see a crucial development. Because the workers had a big numerical advantage, the state couldn’t take them out physically. It turned to the more subtle tactics that we have called malicious mischief. This included using the media to character assassinate the leaders of the union movement. Later on, it also involved the use of the security services.
MI5 in Britain was set up to counter German spies during WW1. After the war, it was turned against domestic opponents including union leaders. This is the exact same development we have seen with the CIA and FBI in the USA. More recently, the US went from fighting a “war on terror” externally to labelling its own citizens as domestic terrorists and setting the security services on them. Sometimes history doesn’t just rhyme, it repeats.
In 1920, Britain had one million soldiers in what is now Iraq trying to get control of the oil fields. That’s the old-fashioned way of doing things, very much in keeping with Imperialism 1.0. They were forced to withdraw largely due to pressure by the union movement and so they had to come up with another way to control the oil. This marks the transition to Imperialism 2.0. Britain and the US could not control the oil-producing regions by military force. What they did instead was to turn to sabotage (malicious mischief).
From the end of WW2 until the second gulf war, the US and Britain (with a bit of help from France) sabotaged entire regions of the Middle East. This was all done in order to control the oil markets. The Middle East could produce oil cheaper than the United States and this threatened to undermine the US dollar’s status as global reserve currency. Geopolitics became identical with the old-school capitalist practice of sabotaging markets to extract economic rents and the new school practice of malicious mischief against political opponents.
There was also the problem of the workers. Even in the Middle East, there were numerous attempts to unionise to try and improve pay and conditions for workers. The British and the American operatives had plenty of experience in sabotaging union movements and they put their knowledge to good use. The failure of the workers movements eventually gave rise to populist Arab nationalist movements. These too were sabotaged in the usual fashion of controlling the media and flows of money. Sometimes, the sabotage escalated into assassinations and military coups, but these were all handled clandestinely and therefore fall into our definition of malicious mischief.
Zooming out, we can see that Imperialism 1.0 was the time of old school sabotage; workers and capitalist operatives fighting in the streets. The nation states of Europe also sabotaged each other leading to the world wars. After the wars, the nations of the West were united behind pax Americana. This was the period of Imperialism 2.0. Western nations no longer sabotaged each other. Instead, the West as a unit sabotaged the oil-producing nations of the Middle East. This was done at the ground level against oil workers and union leaders, at the commercial level by oil companies and at the political level against Arab nationalist leaders.
This method “worked” for several decades. Eventually, however, the oil-producing nations got control of their oil and their countries. That’s ultimately why the US had to revert to old-fashioned military invasion with the Gulf Wars and Afghanistan.
That brings us to Imperialism 3.0 beginning, not coincidentally, around the time of the first Gulf War. Where is the sabotage now? Well, it’s everywhere. But one of the newer developments is that the imperialists are now targeting the nations of the West, in particular the old Anglo countries.
Imperialism 2.0 was built around the nation states aligned to pax Americana. But that system was only made possible by controlling the oil markets which supplied constantly increasing amounts of energy for consumer capitalism. Western citizens had been gradually turned into the consumers whose job was to be the demand side of the market. The workers unions in western nations were able to bargain for continually higher wages because the oil was still flowing and higher wages equalled higher consumption which meant that demand balanced supply and everybody was happy. It was fun while it lasted, but those days are over.
Having spent decades sabotaging nationalist uprisings in the Middle East, the imperialists are now trying to sabotage nationalist uprisings in the West. That’s what the Trump drama is all about. This is the direct result of the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s and 90s. Those reforms were sold to the public on the propaganda line of “free markets” which was a line that had been used extensively during the cold war.
Imperialism 2.0 was built on domestic propaganda that said we in the West had “free markets” and free economies. That was true to some extent. But our free markets were predicated on a completely unfree global oil market. Only by rigging the market for oil could domestic markets be “free”. That worked only as long as the sabotage against the oil-producing nations of the Middle East worked.
Now that domestic markets in the West are increasingly being rigged by monopolist corporations, the right side of politics in the West claims that the solution is to return to “free markets”. That might have been true in Imperialism 2.0 because we controlled the oil. It’s not going to work in Imperialism 3.0 because control of the oil is slipping at the same time that we’ve almost certainly hit peak oil. It might still be true that free markets could be made to work. But that is not the agenda that is being followed i.e. the agenda of Imperialism 3.0.
Either way, the old paradigm is finished and that’s the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. We don’t want to talk about it because then we would have to talk about politics; real politics; not the hysterical nonsense that counts as political discussion these days which is, in fact, nothing more than the sabotage of the public square to prevent real political discourse from taking place.
In Imperialism 3.0, we have exactly the same problem we’ve always had. It’s always been a problem of managing markets. Markets need to be thought of as commons and commons need to be managed. The democratic tradition says that management is in the hands of the public through elected representatives. That became true for a short time during Imperialism 1.0 because the workers learned to sabotage the capitalists as much as capitalists sabotaged the workers. But that didn’t stop the Great Depression from happening.
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, we handed over management of the markets to the “experts”. Meanwhile, the real power, literally and metaphorically, shifted to oil and therefore to the Middle East. Real politics was conducted far away in other countries that the average western citizen never heard about except as a snippet at the tail end of the 6 o’clock news. Such and such a foreign leader was overthrown in a “military coup”. Here’s Tom with the weather.
The result is that there has been no real politics in western nations for many decades. The neoliberal agenda of the 90s was sold to the public as being about “free markets”. In fact, it involved a fundamental change of paradigm as national governments ceded economic sovereignty to Imperialism 3.0. The whole thing was a big, fat lie and it took a couple of decades for the consequences of the lie to manifest politically in Trump. It’s the same pattern that happened in the Arab countries as the sabotage against oil workers eventually led to nationalist uprisings. Once again, “external” politics ends up manifesting internally.
It’s fair to say that much of the public in western nations is finally now waking up from their consumerist slumber to realise that the “experts” have assigned them a new role that nobody voted for or even knew about. Imperialism 3.0 involved turning China into the world’s factory by dismantling the manufacturing sector in the West, thereby reducing whatever (real) power the unions still had. Westerners were still allocated the role of consumers but even that is now on very shaky ground.
Ultimately, this is all a political question that will require there to once again be real politics in western nations. Those aligned to Imperialism 3.0 are doing everything they can to prevent real politics from happening. They are doing it by sabotaging on all fronts at the same time.
This includes geopolitically. There are no unions or labour movement in China, so no need to sabotage at that level. The Chinese government holds all the power. Can they be sabotaged? How might you sabotage the Chinese government? Secret viral laboratories, perhaps?
Sabotage has come a long way. From the old-school smashing of machines, to organised rebellion, corporate sabotage and geopolitical sabotage. Nowadays we have what can only be called psychological sabotage. The “system” will now sabotage your entire concept of reality in order to perpetuate its own power. We live in a society now where sabotage is so ubiquitous that nobody even knows how to identify it. Everybody is so busy sabotaging everybody else that basic agreement about what is real no longer exists.
As the old saying goes – it takes an order of magnitude more effort to refute bullshit than to generate it in the first place. As a result, public discourse is easy to sabotage; at least for a little while.
It was the Beastie Boys of all bands who summed up the situation perfectly in their 1994 song Sabotage:
I can’t stand it, I know you planned it
I’ma set it straight, this Watergate
I can’t stand rocking when I’m in here
‘Cause your crystal ball ain’t so crystal clear
So while you sit back and wonder why
I got this fkn thorn in my side
Oh my god, it’s a mirage
I’m telling y’all, it’s sabotage