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.

What’s sabotage?

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.

Machinery was a lot easier to break in the Luddites’ day. A good axe would do the job.

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.

It’s all just a little bit of history repeating

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.

US soldiers picking up where the British left off 80 years earlier

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.

T’was the golden age of sugared water

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.

A gaggle of experts

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:

Unlikely political philosophers

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

12 thoughts on “Sabotage”

  1. Simon – what you’re describing sounds, on one level, like a progressive dematerialising: from direct brute physical force to strategic manipulation of physical resources to manipulation of thought & perception; sort of a parallel (if not quite concurrent) to the dematerialising of money: from heavy gold & silver, to convenient tokens you can hold, to disembodied digital currency that can be made from a distance to magically disappear, so it can’t really be owned (one of the many means of Sabotage 3.0). 🙂

  2. Shane – exactly. This is actually what Spengler talked about. According to him, Faustian civilisation has always been about the dematerialised but it took us many centuries to finally throw off the old Greek and Roman ways with their focus on the material world. In my opinion, this is one thing he got wrong even though his analysis pointed the right way. He seemed to think (if I remember correctly) that we’d see a return to military power in the form of Caesarism. Actually, I’d say we’re heading to the logical endpoint of Faustian civilisation i.e. totalitarianism. We’re already there pretty much.

  3. Hi Simon,

    Ah, a quiet evening and week, at last! 🙂

    I must say that any essay which has the Beastie Boys, and do I also detect a nod to the Chemical Brothers in there, is totally cool with me!

    A very thoughtful analysis. I’ve wondered about this issue for quite a while now, but my thoughts had not been quite so clear. It’s funny when you read about a protest regarding a genuine issue of concern, and somehow the label 5G gets chucked in, with all that baggage. Like, say what? 5G is pretty good from what I’m experiencing, although the modem is expensive. I heard a really interesting perspective that anyone labelling someone as a conspirator, is actually a conspiracy theorist themselves. My head begins to spin thinking about the double-talk with this stuff, but I’m guessing that may be the point of it all.

    The core problem as far as I comprehend things, is that to even use these sorts of techniques suggests that the group playing these cards may actually be holding a very weak hand. That’s a worry, because not everyone is stupid, and other countries can read the media, compare the reports to the facts on the ground and know. That’s a huge problem and wouldn’t even be difficult to do. But I also have a hunch that the longer the techniques are applied, the more people switch off to the noise. What do you reckon about that?

    Fascinating stuff as usual.



  4. Chris – interestingly, that’s what Timothy Mitchell (author of Carbon Democracy) said too i.e. the British and Americans couldn’t exert control using the military like the ancient Romans did. Mostly, that’s just because of the scale of the problem. You can’t control the whole globe via military power. So, they had to revert to sabotage. Is that ‘weak’? Maybe. But it’s worked pretty well for a long time now. I think it’s precisely because people think of tyranny as military force that when there is no military force they assume there is no tyranny. But we have a tyranny of the mind, which is arguably a worse kind of tyranny.

  5. Hi Simon,

    I agree with you, the results have been pretty good so far, and for a very long time. However, all policies no matter how good, are subject to diminishing returns. I’d be curious as to your opinion in this matter, but I have a hunch that as the energy availability and/or wealth per capita declines, it may end up being harder for these sorts of controls to remain effective. I don’t really know.

    We get the government and media that we deserve. As far as I can understand the political process in this country, it kind of looks like it may have been professionally captured. It wasn’t too many decades ago that politicians came from all walks of life, nowadays I don’t believe this to be true.

    It is a tyranny of the mind, but do we even have national conversations any more?



  6. Chris – agree. The strange part of the situation is that pretty much everybody is agreed that the status quo cannot continue and yet there is not a single idea going around about what can replace it. Of course, that’s the just the mainstream discourse. Behind the scenes things are being done to replace it with something. That’s where the tyranny part comes in.

  7. Hi Simon,

    Yeah, that’s my thinking with this too. Just because the wider discussion isn’t being had in the public sphere, does not suggest that the discussions are not being had. Look at the impending natural gas supply shortages in Vic. New installations of gas appliances are suddenly banned, although I believe repairs and replacement of existing appliances continue. Someone, or some group, made that decision, then served it up to the public as a fait accompli. I tend to believe that it is a good example as to how decline will play out, and there will be winners and losers from every single turn in the road. Yet, I reckon it’s a weak hand, because nobody wants to alert the public to the larger issue of energy decline, so it gets sold as a solid move against ‘climate change’, which is exhibiting as a very abstract anxiety in many people that I speak with. It’s all very odd, and as the problems build, so does the fear button get pushed all that little bit harder.

    The sort of risk I see brewing from this is strategy is: what if a problem is encountered which cannot be solved. By keeping the public largely oblivious to the many issues which need addressing, if that sort of situation is reached, then I reckon there will be backlash, or at least an epic tantrum. ‘Why didn’t you warn us’, they may well say. I’ve heard those claims made.

    And the other risk is that people, or groups with wealth and influence seeking self-interest, may in fact try to capture the process (which happens), thus producing even stranger outcomes. A very wealthy person recently made some outrageous comments in the media, and who knows what goes on behind the scenes as a consequence. The increasing cost of living is a very volatile subject. Probably keeping some policy makers up late at night.



  8. Chris – it’s a tough one. On the one hand, you can understand why the government can’t tell the truth. If they come out and say that we’re running out of things then people will start panic buying. On the other hand, once you allow lying to be normalised then all kinds of bad actors can lie to pursue their own agenda. As far as I can tell, most countries are in an economic mutually-assured-destruction scenario which is why it won’t be in anybody’s interest to try and crash the system. That’s probably the main thing holding everything together right now.

  9. I find it interesting the paradigms and philosophical strands in regards the whole management strategy behind what governments like Australia and the west are doing. As you say Simon, you can understand why they wouldn’t tell the truth regarding resources depletion, but I then question why I understand it that way.

    I think it’s because I can step into the managerial attitude that is being used there in which the government takes on that controlling role for the ‘greater good’. Parents do the same thing with children all the time. But is it that or just naked self interest on the part of the higher ups? This is where the weirdness of the west comes to the fore because why do the higher ups ‘care’ so much about the fate of the world, the future etc (this is openly religious)? Why is their such an implicit childish relationship between the elites and everyone else?

    This relates to the tyranny of the mind you talk about which Spengler thought was the most repulsive thing about the west.

  10. I prefer to engage in “technotage.” Sabotage of technology. E-scooters and e-bikes left parked in bike lanes — where I’m riding! — and footpaths bother me. They are activated by QR codes. It would seem that if someone had a black Sharpie marker, and they put a few dots in that QR square, it would render the e-noyance (sic) inoperable. Not that I ever did that! Until someone from the company came along with an alcohol pad to remove the black ink. Meanwhile, potential riders (who’d get in my way on the paths) would be frustrated and cursing the e-ride companies. It’s less vandalistic and better for the environment than pushing the thing into the Yarra. Which I NEVER did with the O-bikes, although I would sometimes turn them upside down and place them on top of stuff in what I hoped to be a picturesque fashion. Yes, I took pictures.

    When civilisation starts to break down, one important aspect of technotage will be disabling the surveillance cameras that are everywhere. I hope that street artists get enough of a political consciousness to start using their climbing and spray-painting abilities to black out The Man’s Panopticon. Or one could bash them during widespread power failures, which are going to be coming this summer.

    As for the Beastie song, there’s a microbrewery in Kensington named Bonehead Brewing that puts GREAT labels on its beers. One is based on that song; the beer is named “Sabotage” and it’s got garish orange graphics showing the scene where the Boys are riding in the cop car. An unopened can of that has a prominent place in my “beeramyd” at home, and I peeled the label off another (which I did drink) and stuck it on my refrigerator door.

  11. Simon – so what’s the logical endpoint look like, materially speaking? Owning nothing but being happy? A transhumanist eternity in the matrix? Minds, such as they are, merged in a digital simulation controlled by mega-rich rich nerds w/ mind-numbingly boring fantasies? If tyranny is the air we breathe…

  12. Skip – referring to the government as a “parent” is a very common metaphor once you learn to spot it. I’ve heard several standup comedians, including Dave Chappelle, make jokes on the presumption that the government is our parent and needs to lie to us because we “can’t handle the truth”. The Americans refer to the “founding fathers”. In Macbeth there is a line that Macduff says when they find Duncan dead – “Your royal father’s murdered”. This metaphor goes very deep in the culture.

    Bukko – yeah, the “bladerunners” in London are leading the way on that score. You get the impression that western governments have almost been daring the public to rebel for some time now. I guess a tax on driving your car through your own neighbourhood was one step too far. Hopefully a bit of communal sabotage will encourage people to come together to actually build things too. Maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

    Shane – that’s the sales pitch. Isn’t it strange that pretty much the only people dreaming of a different future are the nutters at the WEF who apparently think every dystopian sci-fi novel is a guide book. We shouldn’t underestimate that a lot of people think that future would be a good one too. Makes sense if it really is in the DNA of Faustian culture.

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