Varieties of Sabotage

Today’s New York Times: DNAInfo and Gothamist Are Shut Down after Vote to Unionize

Thorstein Veblen, The Engineers and the Price System:

“Sabotage” is a derivative of “sabot,” which is French for a wooden shoe. It means going slow, with a dragging, clumsy movement, such as that manner of footgear may be expected to bring on. So it has come to describe any manoeuvre of slowing-down, inefficiency, bungling, obstruction. … Manoeuvres of restriction, delay, and hindrance have a large share in the ordinary conduct of business; but it is only lately that this ordinary line of business strategy has come to be recognized as being substantially of the same nature as the ordinary tactics of the syndicalists. …But all this strategy of delay, restriction, hindrance, and defeat is manifestly of the same character, and should conveniently be called by the same name, whether it is carried on by business men or by workmen; so that it is no longer unusual now to find workmen speaking of “capitalistic sabotage” as freely as the employers and the newspapers speak of syndicalist sabotage. As the word is now used, and as it is properly used, it describes a certain system of industrial strategy or management, whether it is employed by one or another. What it describes is a resort to peaceable or surreptitious restriction, delay, withdrawal, or obstruction.

Sabotage commonly works within the law, although it may often be within the letter rather than the spirit of the law. It is used to secure some special advantage or preference, usually of a businesslike sort. It commonly has to do with something in the nature of a vested right, which one or another of the parties in the case aims to secure or defend, or to defeat or diminish; some preferential right or special advantage in respect of income or privilege, something in the way of a vested interest. Workmen have resorted to such measures to secure improved conditions of work, or increased wages, or shorter hours, or to maintain their habitual standards, to all of which they have claimed to have some sort of a vested right. Any strike is of the nature of sabotage, of course. Indeed, a strike is a typical species of sabotage. … So also, of course, a lockout is another typical species of sabotage. That the lockout is employed by the employers against the employees does not change the fact that it is a means of defending a vested right by delay, withdrawal, defeat, and obstruction of the work to be done.

By virtue of his ownership the owner-employer has a vested right to do as he will with his own property, to deal or not to deal with any person that offers, to withhold or withdraw any part or all of his industrial equipment and natural resources from active use for the time being, to run on half time or to shut down his plant and to lock out all those persons for whom he has no present use on his own premises. There is no question that the lockout is altogether a legitimate manoeuvre. It may even be meritorious, and it is frequently considered to be meritorious when its use helps to maintain sound conditions in business—that is to say profitable conditions—as frequently happens. … It should not be difficult to show that the common welfare in any community which is organized on the price system cannot be maintained without a salutary use of sabotage — that it to say, such habitual recourse to delay and obstruction of industry…

All this is matter of course, and notorious. But it is not a topic on which one prefers to dwell. 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. One prefers to dwell on those exceptional, sporadic, and spectacular episodes in business where business men have now and again successfully gone out of the safe and sane highway of conservative business enterprise … by increasing the productive capacity of the industrial system …

It is for these business men to manage the country’s industry, of course, and therefore to regulate the rate and volume of output; and also of course any regulation of the output by them will be made with a view to the needs of business; that is to say, with a view to the largest obtainable net profit, not with a view to the physical needs of these peoples who have come through the war and have made the world safe for the business of the vested interests. Should the business men in charge, by any chance aberration, stray from this straight and narrow path of business integrity, and allow the community’s needs unduly to influence their management of the community’s industry, they would presently find themselves discredited and would probably face insolvency. Their only salvation is a conscientious withdrawal of efficiency.


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